Growth Takes Time

It’s always nice to see a familiar passage of Scripture with a fresh perspective.  This happened for me recently when my small group was discussing Galatians 5.  At the end of this chapter, Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” with “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:19-23).

Until now, I have always focused on the primary distinction Paul makes as captured in the final word of each phrase – flesh vs. Spirit.  While Paul’s emphasis is on distinguishing our natural tendencies from the characteristics the Holy Spirit produces in believers, my eyes were opened to another helpful dimension of the comparison when someone in the group commented, “Fruit takes a long time to grow.”

It took a minute to sink in, but I understood her point eventually – and it is profound.  The list of “works” identifies common attitudes and actions which characterize who we are apart from Christ.  In other words, we were all born with the capacity – in and of ourselves – to “gratify the desires of the flesh” in whatever form those impulses are manifested (5:16).

Those who have a relationship with God by faith, on the other hand, have the Holy Spirit living inside of them.  Part of His task is producing in them “fruit” – godly character – that accompanies authentic faith and glorifies God instead of self.

Although the lists prove that both sinfulness and godliness can be displayed in a variety of ways, there is a noteworthy principle implicit in the word “fruit” and explicit in a cursory comparison of the items.  While the “works” certainly attest to underlying tendencies and orientations of the heart, many of them can be achieved almost immediately.  The Spirit-produced alternatives, though, are developed over time and become increasingly characteristic of the Christian the longer the Spirit works.

In this context, the comment “fruit takes a long time to grow” has at least two implications.  First, fruit is sweetest when it’s most fully developed.  Making kind or faithful choices, for example, is the starting point, not the finish line.  Kindness and faithfulness are the result of a Spirit-empowered pattern of kind and faithful decisions.  Second and most important, the Spirit is like a wise and patient farmer who does the dirty work today so the harvest can be enjoyed in due season.  He’s taking His time for a reason, cultivating something that gets better with age.  Like one of my former professors often said, “God grows things, and He’s not in a hurry.”

The lady in my small group was right.  In contrast to the instant gratification promised by the “works of the flesh”, fruit does take a long time to grow.  Like an apple seed which eventually matures into the real thing, the Holy Spirit is in the process of making us who we are destined to be (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 1:6).  One day the fruit of His work in our lives will be in full bloom, and He will get all the glory.

Run, Run as Fast as You Can

joseph_resistBy now you’ve probably heard about (or seen) the photos of Kim Kardashian that were released last week.  To be honest, I choose not to keep up with the Kardashians, and I was out of the loop on the latest saga until one of the pictures appeared in my Twitter feed unsolicited.  Before long, I saw it on Facebook and a few more times on Twitter.

The internet erupted with countless articles, blog posts, tweets, and the like about body image and the objectification of women.  Although these topics are worthy of consideration and conversation, when I first saw the picture, I wasn’t thinking about either of them.  Instead, I was thinking about my husband, my dad, my brothers, my pastor, and my male friends.

Most of the men I know go to great lengths to keep their eyes off of images like the ones strewn carelessly across social media last week.  As much as I wanted to be upset with the media for once again publicizing the private, I remembered that this kind of thing isn’t isolated to 21st century American culture.

Genesis 39 recounts the story of Joseph who, after being sold into slavery by his jealous older brothers, rose to power in Egypt because the Lord brought success to everything he did.  Joseph became the right-hand man to a prominent Egyptian official named Potiphar.  Everyone took notice of Joseph – even Potiphar’s wife.  Apparently she attempted to seduce Joseph “day after day”, but he refused without exception (Genesis 39:10).  Eventually fed up with the rejection, she grabbed his clothes in an attempt to get what she wanted.  Rather than cave under the pressure, Joseph took off running, leaving his cloak in her hands.  Potiphar’s wife then used Joseph’s decency against him, insisting that he tried to take advantage of her.  While the wrongful accusation unfairly cost Joseph his job, his reputation, and his freedom, he maintained his integrity.

Joseph didn’t go looking for trouble by putting himself in compromising situations.  Instead, he went about his business seeking to honor God and others.  And yet, Potiphar’s wife still came after him.  Joseph’s desire to do the right thing didn’t exempt him from her onslaught; in fact, it may have been his upstanding character that made her intent on his destruction.

As Christians we shouldn’t be surprised when opportunities for sin seem to be around every corner.  Jesus warned us of our enemy’s aggressive strategies when He said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10).  We have an active adversary who is hell-bent on our ruin.  Although we can’t entirely regulate everything that comes across the computer screen or into our lives, we can certainly control how we respond.

Countering Potiphar’s wife’s propositioning, Joseph said, “With me in charge, my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care.  No one is greater in this house than I am.  My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife.  How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:8-10).

Joseph successfully resisted temptation by calling sin “sin” and by acknowledging the detrimental effects it would have in his relationships with God and with Potiphar.

In an increasingly permissive world, we need Joseph’s example as a reminder to label the issues accurately instead of downplaying them as “no big deal” or rationalizing them simply because they are the norm.  By the grace of God, we need to develop a tenacious resolve to obey Him even when it means looking foolish, being misunderstood, or worse.  And, like Joseph, after we’ve identified the attack, sometimes the best thing to do is run.

There’s Something in the Basement

(A little background music to set the mood.  Listen as you read…if you dare!)

When I was in college, I loved watching scary movies.  The thrill kept me coming back for more.  Now that I’m older, the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that I can’t even bring myself to watch a commercial for a horror film, let alone actually sit through a full-length movie.

Perhaps it’s because of my past obsession with scary movies or maybe it’s because we live in a house with an unfinished lower level, but lately I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to know there’s a serial killer in the basement.  More outlandish still is the thought of someone allowing a serial killer to hide out in his basement, naïve enough to believe the unbelievable – he wouldn’t do anything to me.

As far-fetched as it sounds, some of us may be living with serial killers in our basements right now.  Before you grab the baseball bat (or shotgun…let’s be real), let me explain.  The Bible makes clear again and again that sin is destructive and deadly.  Nothing of ultimate good comes from it.  And yet, so many of us notice patterns of sin in our lives and are tempted to shrug it off as “no big deal”.  Sin won’t actually harm me, we reason.

According to God, sin is always a big deal.  And even though the struggle with sin will continue until we get to heaven, it’s how we respond to its presence that makes all the difference.  If a serial killer were to show up at your door – unaware that his picture had been plastered through the news – with a story about needing a warm place to stay for a couple nights, what would you do?  I’m hoping that you’d get rid of him as fast as possible and then call the police immediately.  I’m assuming you wouldn’t invite him in, giving him access to the lives of your spouse and children, all the while convincing yourself that he can’t be that bad.

It’s easy to say we’d never invite danger into our homes, but when sin shows up at our doors, are we aware of the threat?  Do we get rid of sin – anger, bitterness, gossip, jealousy – as fast as possible, acknowledging to God our need for His rescue?  Or do we give it a place in our lives, underestimating our vulnerability to impending attack?

When we let sin have a continued place in our lives, it’s because we aren’t convinced it’s a real enemy.  Our reasoning is based on a false standard – we measure ourselves against those we deem to be worse than us.  In that case, pride, selfishness, and greed don’t look so bad when compared to sins like murder or rape.  But that’s like opening your home to a serial killer and thanking God he isn’t a terrorist.  Both are deadly and both are a threat.

The fact that sin will always be part of our earthly experience doesn’t make it less dangerous, but more so.  It’s always lurking around, waiting for a time to strike.  Like God said to Cain before his anger with his brother Abel escalated into murder, “Sin is crouching at your door.  Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7).

When sin comes knocking next, what will you do?

Vision Problems

Contact_Lenses_Care_tipsIf you wear contacts, you’ve likely been excruciated by an inside-out lens or felt the discomfort of one that’s been slightly torn.  In either of those circumstances, the pain is so immediate and so intense that it must be addressed.  But some of the issues contact-wearers face are less severe, thus more easily ignored.  For example, I’ve never kept an inside-out lens in my eye for more than a moment, but I’ve gone days wearing blurred contacts that were long overdue for a change.

The problem with wearing blurred contacts is that they blur everything else.  Absolutely everything in my line of vision is affected by the lens through which I view it.

Throughout the Bible we learn that Jesus is the lens through which we see and make sense of everything else – life, relationships, eternity, and so much more.  But if we don’t see Him for who He is, we can’t see anything else for what it is.  Although our knowledge of Jesus will always be limited this side of Heaven, seeing Him accurately is the prerequisite to seeing anything else clearly.

An example of this comes from the book of Colossians.  In this letter to a Christian congregation, Paul wanted to address the issue of false teaching.  The believers in Colossae were apparently susceptible to a particular blend of lies packaged as the truth, and Paul realized the magnitude of what was at stake.  Before addressing the specific issue at hand, however, Paul spent a significant portion of the first chapter lifting up Jesus before his audience.  He acknowledged Jesus’ preeminence over creation and the Church – both the “secular” and “sacred” realms of life (Colossians 1:15-20).

At first I was confused by what appeared to be an off-topic – albeit powerful – description of Jesus.  As I read further, though, it started to make sense.  Paul was changing the Colossians’ contact lenses, so to speak.  They needed the truth, and the truth always starts with Jesus.  Unless we fix our eyes on Jesus, our perspective will always be skewed – sometimes slightly and other times more drastically.

If you’re burdened by your circumstances, overwhelmed by your emotions, or strained by your relationships, it might be time to check your vision.  Follow Paul’s precedent by contemplating the person and work of Christ, and see if that doesn’t refine and refresh your perspective, kind of like putting in a new pair of contacts for the very first time.

Image Rights: UAMS.

When Sin Is Ugly, Grace Is Beautiful

Last week, my parents closed on a house that needs quite a bit of renovation.  They saw the potential in the property and have begun the process of making the possibilities a reality.  Over the weekend, David and I got to see the house for the first time and spent a few hours helping complete some of the pressing projects.

I was tasked with cleaning the windows – inside and outside.  This may not seem like a big deal, but the large windows had been plastered with tape and stickers making them an eyesore rather than a focal point.  As I scraped and scrubbed, I noticed myself obsessing over tiny pieces of residue that would’ve gone unnoticed before the initial splash of Windex.  The cleaner the windows got, the more aware I was of each remaining speck of dirt.

Our Christian lives are a lot like those windows.  Apart from Christ, we are a disaster.  We are dirty, yet incapable of cleaning ourselves.  When God saves us, though, He forgives and cleanses us (1 John 1:9).  He begins the process of making us like Jesus – a process that will be complete in Heaven.

Initially, the changes may seem pretty drastic, like wiping a Windex-soaked rag over a dirt-laden window.  Over time, however, we tend to become increasingly aware of the ways in which we still fall short, and it sometimes feels like we’re getting worse.  In reality, though, our sin is contrasting with the cleansing work of God in our lives, becoming more and more out of place, thus more conspicuous.

Part of Christian maturity means that the more God works in our lives, the more aware we will be of the sin that lingers.  Rather than causing despair, the presence of sin should point us to our Savior.  Like Paul wrote near the end of his life, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  As Paul grew in his relationship with God, he became more aware of his sin which caused an increased realization of his need for grace.

When I cleaned the windows on Friday, I had to alternate sides frequently because the greater cleanliness of one side exposed the remaining dirt on the other, and vice versa.  I would have been foolish to think that the windows weren’t getting any cleaner just because the process was time consuming.  In the same way, sanctification – the lifelong process of God, through His Word and His Spirit, making His people more like Jesus – is lengthy and grueling.

Even though we are dangerously prone to be more aware of what’s left to do than what God’s already done, we can be convinced that He is indeed at work.  In those moments when our sin feels all too apparent, grace becomes more than a theological truism; it is our functional hope.  When we’re at our ugliest, grace is at its most beautiful.

The greatness of salvation is appreciated deepest by those who are most aware of the gravity of their sin.  In the famous words of John Newton, author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace”, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”