Defined by Jesus

IMG_2137 (2)Last night we returned from a weekend retreat at Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters with the youth group.  For the second year, we traveled to Andrews, North Carolina and made fun memories with our students, enjoyed a break from routine, and most importantly, spent hours sitting under the teaching of God’s Word.

In six sessions, Brody Holloway and Spencer Davis covered the life of Joseph and demonstrated how it points us to Jesus while highlighting relevant applications.  To say the teaching was powerful would be an understatement, and I know our students would agree.  Of all the points Brody and Spencer made, there was one theme throughout the weekend that resonated most with me.

The theme was captured succinctly by Brody when he said, “Because of the blood of Jesus, you don’t have to be controlled or defined by what someone else has done to you or the pain they’ve caused you.”  If you’re familiar with Joseph’s story, you probably understand his point immediately.  Joseph was favored by his father, sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused by his master’s wife, wrongfully imprisoned because of that accusation, and forgotten in prison by a man he watched go free.  And yet Joseph is remembered for forgiving his brothers, displaying integrity toward his master, relying on God in prison, and using his powerful position to help others.

If anyone had an excuse to feel bad for himself, it was Joseph.  Instead, his understanding of the sovereignty of God eliminated any hint of a victim mentality.  For example, after revealing his identity to his formerly-estranged brothers, Joseph said, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).  You remember what these guys did to Joseph, right?  But after all he’d endured, Joseph was able to spot the sovereignty of God weaving its way through his story – even the most painful chapters.

Another example of Joseph’s perspective comes from the final chapter of Genesis.  After his father’s death, Joseph reassured his fearful brothers that he didn’t intend on getting revenge.  With remarkable confidence in God’s character, Joseph explained, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).

I mentioned earlier that Joseph’s story points us to Jesus.  As exemplary as Joseph was, he wasn’t perfect.  Although God used him to help save lives, Joseph himself needed saving.  The death and resurrection of Jesus are the paramount “Genesis 50:20” events of history.  Jesus, the only Son of His Father, was rejected by His own people, falsely accused by jealous religious leaders, wrongfully condemned because of that accusation, and put to death by those He came to save.

Reflecting on these world-changing occurrences, the apostle Paul made the statement, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).  Like Joseph, Paul understood that he couldn’t live as one defined by his past.  While Joseph and Paul were both shaped, in part, by their experiences, they chose to be neither controlled nor defined by them.

As followers of Christ, we are no longer defined by the sins we’ve committed, by the hurt we’ve experienced, by the circumstances we face, or even by the victories we’ve won; we are defined by the authoritative Word and finished work of Christ.  What He says about us and what He’s done for us are, along with the Holy Spirit, the decisive witnesses in the futile cases Satan makes against us (Romans 8:34).  Your story may seem long on tragedy like Joseph’s or full of regret like Paul’s, but the empty tomb assures us that our God always gets the last word.

You Can Bank on It

flourishing-treeI’m not sure what comes to mind when you consider the meaning of a blessed life.  Some probably envision material prosperity; perhaps others imagine ease and comfort.  Defining the blessed life requires examining the whole Bible’s teaching on the subject, but Jeremiah 17 is a helpful piece of the puzzle.  Two contrasting images in this chapter highlight the differences between the cursed man and the blessed man.  In these agricultural similes, trust is identified as the root issue, becoming the catalyst in determining the course of both lives.

Jeremiah 17:5 reads, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord.”  Describing something different than a healthy trust of others and personal trustworthiness, this verse condemns not a trust of others, but a trust in others or even oneself.  The cursed man’s cursedness is the natural outworking of his banking on people to be and do what only God is and does.

Verse 6 enumerates the consequences of the cursed man’s misplaced trust: “He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come.  He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”  When we place our God-sized longings on another person’s back, he or she will be crushed, and we will begin to shrivel.  No individual has the resources you and I ultimately need to survive – let alone thrive – in this world.

A much different picture is painted in verses 7 and 8 which say, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.  He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

As opposed to the inevitable withering experienced when we trust in man, the person whose confidence is in the Lord flourishes.  Like a tree rooted deeply in fertile soil, he is stable and secure.  Withstanding the heat is evidence of his having been planted in the nourishing ground of God’s faithfulness.

According to Jeremiah 17, the one who places the whole weight of his confidence in God is blessed in experiencing His complete trustworthiness and utter sufficiency in every season.  Knowing our God can easily shoulder the weight of our desperate dependence is one of life’s most rewarding jackpots.  No matter what, we can face today fully convinced that God is worth trusting.  In fact, we can bank everything on it.

Image Rights: Be Blessed Today.

A Safe Place

refugeA couple of months ago, I played a game similar to hide-and-seek with our youth group.  I remember picking out the perfect hiding spot and listening with an increasing sense of safety as the seekers passed by repeatedly, oblivious to my presence.  During games like this, it’s typical to feel a rush of adrenaline because there’s an element of risk involved.  Your hiding place might not be so great, and you could get caught.  But – as was the case in my most recent experience – the better your hiding place, the greater your sense of security.

If you’re like me, your hiding isn’t limited to the occasional youth group game.  In life we all have a propensity to seek security somewhere.  When you and I attempt to find our security in ourselves – our abilities, our relationships, our experiences – we become the very opposite thing altogether: insecure.  We live in constant fear of being exposed as weak, inadequate, or incompetent.  The twist of insecurity is that it’s really just pride at a masquerade.

There’s a securer way to live depicted in Zephaniah 3:12 which says, “But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly.  They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord.”  In simplest terms, Zephaniah’s task as a prophet was to expose the sin of God’s people and call them to turn back to Him in repentance.  In Zephaniah 3:11, we discover that there’s no room for self-sufficient arrogance before God.  Instead, the appropriate response is humility – a sense of need which propels us to look beyond ourselves for comfort, security, and strength.

Much can be said about the differences between pride and humility, but Zephaniah draws out a distinguishing feature that I’d never considered.  Those who know they need God are the ones who run to Him in desperation.  And, in their desperation, they find comfort, security, and strength in who He is – their refuge is in His name.  Those, on the other hand, who are unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge their need will never be desperate enough to look for security outside of themselves, which sounds a lot like pride.  Pride is the result of seeking comfort, security, and strength in who we are – when our refuge is in our names.

Believe it or not, you and I can actually enjoy lasting security in this ever-changing world.  We don’t get there by building walls around our abilities, relationships, and experiences while denying our vulnerable spots.  That’s called pride, and it’s the least secure way to live.  We’re on the path to lasting security when we admit our inabilities, acknowledge the way our sin affects relationships, and identify the limitedness of our experiences.  When we come out from behind those crumbling walls, we’re free to run to a truly secure place.

Acknowledging our need for God, we are comforted, secured, and strengthened by who He is, and we are liberated from defining ourselves by ourselves.  We can breathe a sigh of relief and find our security not in our efforts, but in His perfection; not in our circumstances, but in His character; not in our weakness, but in His strength; not in our limits, but in His abundance; not in our feelings, but in His Word; not in our wavering commitment to Him, but in His unwavering commitment to us.

If you’re looking for security – and I can almost guarantee you are – run to the Lord and cling to who He is.  It’s only as you seek refuge in His name that you’ll be freed from constantly obsessing over yours.

Image Rights: The Tabernacle Church.

Don’t Forget to Remember

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites partook in a variety of God-appointed feasts and celebrations.  It’s easy to get so lost in the details of the celebrations that we lose sight of their purpose – remembrance.  According to the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the feasts were instituted as “regular religious celebrations remembering God’s great acts of salvation in the history of His people” (p. 567).  The Jewish calendar was marked by these regular reminders to remember.

Remembering is an essential part of the Christian life, but all of us are susceptible to “spiritual amnesia” – the tendency to forget who God is and what He has done.  How many times have we experienced God’s provision only to worry ourselves sick during the next time of need?  How many times have we experienced God growing us in an area of weakness only to doubt whether He is willing and able to change us in another area?

Cultivating a good spiritual memory is one of the surest ways to fuel and sustain our faith.  How can we trust God will be faithful today?  By remembering the ways He was faithful yesterday, and by reading His Word to find countless examples of His faithfulness in the past.

The Old Testament judge Samuel was serious about remembering.  On one occasion after the Lord led the Israelites to victory in battle over the Philistines, Samuel set up a monument which he called “Ebenezer” or “stone of help”, and he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  Recalling this historical event, an eighteenth century hymnist penned the words, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’ve come.”

As we near the end of 2014 and look with anticipation to 2015, many of us are making goals and dreaming about the future.  Planning ahead is a great practice, but it’s even more effective in light of what we’ve learned and experienced in the past.  What has God done in your life in 2014?  How has He provided for you?  How has He proven Himself faithful to you?  Remembering the words and works of God will propel you into a faith-filled new year.  So before you pick up a pen to list goals, first try raising an Ebenezer of your own.

Press On

Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord… (Hosea 6:3)

I first remember hearing this verse when I was in college, and it’s one that has stuck with me ever since.  The world is teeming with opportunities to pursue our interests, cultivate our passions, and develop relationships.  When it comes to knowing God, though, we might not think twice before taking a less persistent approach than we would in other areas of life.

When I contemplate the words “press on” in Hosea 6:3, a couple of principles come to mind.

Knowing God requires effort.  In His grace, God has chosen to make Himself knowable, but like any meaningful relationship, a relationship with Him takes work.  We won’t drift into intimacy with Him just like we don’t haphazardly arrive at intimacy with loved ones.  If we want to know Him, we’ll have to spend time cultivating a relationship with Him through His Word, prayer, the Church, and other means.

Knowing God will be met with obstacles.  The words “press on” convey the necessity of perseverance.  It’s no secret we are broken people living in a broken world.  Every day we are bombarded with enticing alternatives to knowing God better.  Sometimes we undervalue the privilege of knowing Him and become lax in accepting His invitation to intimacy.  At other times we recognize the value of knowing Him, but we feel the constraints of our relationship this side of Heaven.

Knowing God is worth the effort it requires.  In my favorite section of Scripture, Paul demonstrates the incomparable value of an intimate relationship with God when he writes, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).  Knowing Jesus is better than the very best things this world has to offer.  Paul essentially says there’s no contest; the scales are always tipped in favor of Jesus.  And not just a little bit.  The value of knowing Him greatly exceeds the value of knowing anyone else or pursuing anything else.  This doesn’t mean we ignore the worth of other things, it just means we appropriately value them by acknowledging the far superior value of knowing Him.

You and I were created to have a relationship with God, but because of sin’s destructive effects, we don’t know Him as fully as was intended.  The day is coming, though, when He will return and we will finally “see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).  Until then, let’s press on to know Him.  There’s nothing more valuable we could do with our time or energy.