A Gentle Answer

Can you imagine apologizing for your Christian faith or behavior? I don’t mean saying “I’m sorry” when you speak or act as a Christian should. I mean did you ever have a chance to defend or explain your lifestyle as a Christian or your way of thinking?

Defending or explaining Christian thinking and acting is referred to as Christian Apologetics. It’s what Paul did in Athens and elsewhere. It’s what Peter had in mind when he urged us to be ready to give a gentle and respectful answer when folks ask us about our faith and practice as believers (1 Peter 3:15). 

First-century Christians had many opportunities to explain their Christian behavior—what they did (or didn’t do) or believed. Do you think that this coming year you and I may have some similar opportunities? Do you think we might want and need to give gentle and respectful answers for our faith as we talk with family members, other Christians, neighbors, and folks the Spirit brings to us? We may have the opportunity to answer folks like these:

  • Folks turned off by the church, seeing themselves as spiritual but not religious. 
  • People who are intolerant of Christian standards and ethics and think Christians are bigots.
  • Those whose life-style is at cross-purposes with scripture.
  • Hopeless, desperate, floundering people searching for a purpose in life.
  • Christian friends and family members who need encouragement and help in being faithful and growing in the Lord.

How do we answer these folks? Will we gently and respectfully answer anger-filled accusations? Will we represent God’s love and mercy as well as His moral standards and justice? Will we serve others instead of demanding our own way?

Here are some thoughts on how to defend gently and respectfully.

  • We begin by listening. We respect others by hearing them out. We listen as they tell us about their life experiences. This is more than a casual conversation. We give friends, co-workers, family members as much time as possible, listening to sorrows, questions, joys.
  • When we have earned the right to speak by our listening, we refuse to use our words as clubs. Words can inflame, enrage or calm. We listen to and answer individuals, not members of this “tribe” or that, folks who do this or that. Respectful answers do not abuse the hearer or force them into a corner.
  • Are our answers faithful to scripture’s revelation of God’s character, His authority and willingness to forgive the unforgiveable through Jesus’ sacrifice? Too many of us have our own set of Ten Commandments (or twenty or fifty “thou shalt not” demands). 
  • Are we encouraging “apologetic” conversations by our behavior as well as our words? Are we willing to let the hearers into our lives, to drive with us, to watch us in times of stress? 

Many confusing spiritualities are whirling around us. Pagan, humanistic, Christian, atheistic, African, Asian, Islamic, Jewish  spiritualities and more claim to be the best answer to humankind’s need for more than we see, more than we are. We are called to answer that need with the message of Christ, to answer gently and respectfully.

Growing in Grace

Grace is NOT a Blue-eyed Blonde is the title of a book by a Christian counselor. But we knew that already. Indeed, many of us have heard grace defined as either God’s unmerited favor or, using the acronym GRACE, as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.”

“Grace” is a familiar word in Christian circles and beyond. The great hymn “Amazing Grace” is well-known to both church folks and many who are not church folks. To many without any relationship to God, the hymn expresses a longing for something more, something this world cannot provide. To those in Christ, the hymn celebrates God’s kindness and mercy throughout life and beyond, a kindness that declares us innocent before God. By grace and because of grace we are saved through faith, gifted by God with that salvation.

Is there, though, a side of grace that goes beyond that moment when we come to faith and God pronounces us “not guilty”?

Toward the end of his second letter, Peter urged his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 NASB). Unpacking that a little, Peter is urging us to “grow in the grace given by our Lord and Savior and grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” I understand the idea of growing in knowledge of Christ by our experience of Him. But, what does Peter mean by growing in grace?

If we ask Paul to help us understand Peter, we can begin to see two sides of grace. In Romans 5:2, Paul referred to “the grace in which we stand.” Paul was writing about believers position before God. We are justified. We don’t ever become more justified or less. We are innocent in Christ because of His sacrifice and we will always be. 

Paul referred to another side of grace when he quoted Jesus’ words to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul had prayed three times that his “thorn in the flesh” would leave him. Jesus’ answer was that His grace would be enough for Paul to endure. In fact, the greatness of Jesus’ power would be seen through Paul’s weakness. In a sense, then, Paul would grow in his experience of the Lord’s grace as the Apostle carried out his tasks despite his difficulties.

Paul understood this truth already, that God extends more grace when believers are stepping forward. Earlier when Paul assured his readers that as they gave more, even out of their relative poverty, God would make His grace abound. God’s grace would be sufficient in all things (2 Cor. 9:8).
Now back to Peter’s urging, that we grow in the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. How do we grow in that active, powerful, dynamic grace? We grow as we learn by experience to trust God more. The more we trust Him, the more room there is in our lives for God to “grace” us. The less we depend on Him, the less room we have in our lives for God to work. In practical terms, if we are able to live relying upon our reasoning power, our abilities, our resources, or the gifts God has given in the past, where is there room for God to “grace” us?

 R. Lofton Hudson, Grace is not a Blue -eyed Blond, Word Books, 1972.

The Prophet Who (Almost) Couldn’t Believe

Habakkuk (hu-BACK-uk) didn’t know whether to curse or cry when he saw sin of every kind around him. Injustice, immorality, greed, violence, and fake religion were just part of his nation’s sin. But God’s answer to all this seemed as bad as the sin. God was sending the cruel Chaldeans to take over Judah. Who could believe God would do that to His own people? “I can’t believe that,” Habakkuk thought.

The prophet could hardly believe God would do that, but God did what He said He would do. He brought disaster on Judah that resulted in a long period of captivity in Babylon. Habakkuk could hardly believe, but he faithfully bowed before the Lord. Then he went out to proclaim God’s message, judgment is coming, “ but the righteous one will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4, CSB). Then, sometime later God gave him a prayer as the days of judgment drew near, a prayer the prophet recorded in Habakkuk chapter three.

Habakkuk’s prayer began saying essentially “Lord do it again” (Hab. 3:2). He prayed God would dramatically rescue His people and punish those who conquered them. But this prophet’s message was not simply, “God make things good again.” Habakkuk knew God’s people would experience suffering and trouble, the consequences of their sin. But Habakkuk and all those who believed his message knew, too, beyond God’s judgment on sin, God’s people would again rejoice in the Lord, the God of their salvation. They knew that as God had created the sure, steady tread of a deer climbing the heights, God would give a sure, steady faith to those who lived in trust.

Those of us who recognize the Habakkuk’s message “the just shall live by faith” (KJV) from Paul’s writings connect it with being saved by faith, eternally secured in Christ. Paul taught us well. In Habakkuk’s day, though, eternal life was not the immediate focus of the prophet’s word. As God revealed trouble coming to his nation, Habakkuk understood that those who trusted God’s message would live, survive, endure on the basis of their faith. God had and would plant their feet securely, and they would praise the Lord despite crop failures, famine, and war.

Twenty-first century people of faith are challenged by the faith of this ancient prophet and those who believed his message. We hesitate to see God’s hand in the crises that sweep over the world today. Is this God at work? How do we respond, believe, live? We want to think that better days are ahead, but we cannot see a clear path to a peaceful and secure future for ourselves or others in the world. Do we hunker down and hope for the best? Do we fall into the trap of people who have no faith in God, those who put their faith in technology, science, education, social change, human reasoning to create a more desirable future.

If we look back over the last sixty or seventy years it is evident that believers have tried several ways to turn our nation and others back to God. Some announced these days of difficult are the end times and Jesus is coming back to rescue His own, so get ready, repent. Other Christians determined that godly leaders could use political power as a way to turn our present and future back to God. Instead unbelievers looked at Christians as power-hungry and demanding. In more recent years the church tried a softer, seemingly more relevant way to engage the culture. The church offered God’s way as the path to a better, more rewarding, more fulfilling life. But God seems more interested in changing lives than meeting the world’s definition of “better, more rewarding, more fulfilling”.

We can too easily condemn past strategies, but we still long for a nation that honors God. Is there an answer to today’s ever-growing crises? Habakkuk longed for his people to turn back to God and this was the prophet’s prayerful answer.

Lord do it again. Show Your power to redeem.

Though that redemption waits and the intervening years are difficult, our days are in Your hands

In faith we will lift You up, in trust we will walk secure. For Yours, O Lord, is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.

Homemade Religion

OK, it isn’t the greatest mystery in the world. But, those goods in the store that say “home made,” in whose home were they made? Are stores implying the ingredients for these goods were chosen with loving care then prepared with personal, loving interest, maybe even using an old family recipe? Or do things such as efficiency, packaging, profit margin fit in? Is the consumer really most important? Oddly enough, those questions and more came to mind as I read Isaiah 58 which seemed to feature “home-made religion.” 

Isaiah 58 focuses on two religious practices, important and blessed practices:  fasting and keeping the Sabbath. God’s Old Testament people had practiced these two disciplines for centuries. Keeping the Sabbath was a matter of obedience to the commandments. Fasting was a matter of honoring God by humbling oneself, giving up something good in exchange for something better. Isaiah addressed worshipers who were fasting and keeping the Sabbath, but the prophet’s message was:  God isn’t impressed. One reason He was not impressed was because His “worshipers” were doing their own thing. When they fasted, they fasted to please themselves (Isa. 58:3). On the Sabbath, they were doing whatever they wanted, going their own ways, seeking their own pleasures (Isa. 58:13).

Their choosing for themselves how they would worship is what I call “home-made religion.” It wasn’t developed in the Temple or in the mind of God, it was home-made in their homes and hearts. In a sense, they were following their own “recipe” for godly living. They had looked through the cook book (God’s Word) and had chosen the ingredients they would use and offer to God as worship. Fasting? Yes, but the way they wanted to fast. Sabbath-keeping? Yes, again as they choose for themselves what to do and not to do. Maybe they included tithing, daily prayers, offerings. In each they chose what they would do and how they would do it. They decided for themselves just what worship and service and praying would be pleasing to God and what would not make any difference to Him in the way they lived as the people of God.

Many of us would feel right at home among these worshipers. We are a freedom-loving people who often feel “put upon” when someone says we must do this or that—even if that someone is God. Of course we would not resist God to His face; but, when His Word speaks to us or His ministers imply we are self-serving and not humble, often we resist in our heart. We seem to prefer home-made godliness in which we choose the recipe rather than rely on the Holy Spirit.

We create our home-made religion by developing a view of God that fits with our lifestyle, with what we want God to be—a God who is always willing to help and not be too demanding.

We choose ingredients—elements, practices, doctrines —that are pleasant, fitting in with the “nice” parts of Christian living. We serve God in the way we want, not according to need. We give what we want to give, not according to need or opportunity. We read and study scripture, the parts we enjoy or comfort us, not the parts that convict us of sin or humble us.

We take our home-made religion to church to be with other folks like ourselves, being careful not to expose what we really think or believe. After all, what we believe or think isn’t anyone else’s business is it? But it is God’s business. He is the One who “tastes” our home-made creation.

Isaiah 58 shows God did not like the taste of His people’s fasting and Sabbath-keeping. Are there parts of your life in the Lord that are tasty to you—comfortable, self-serving, self-centered religion—but not to God? 

Trusting God

The chorus of an old hymn begins with “Trust Me, try Me, prove Me says the Lord of Hosts.” The words reflect God’s challenge to His people in Malachi 3:8-10. In those verses God challenges His people to trust Him, bring Him their whole tithe, and to discover that He will bless them abundantly. 

God’s Old Testament people needed money and the things money could supply—and so do we. God knew that and wanted to give those folks a way to demonstrate that they trusted Him. So this devotional isn’t about money or about giving. It’s about trusting God. It’s about how we answer the question, “Do you trust God?” Do we answer with a simple “Yes, I trust God” or do we answer “Yes, I trust God….” Those dots in the answer mean there is something more to come in our answer. For instance, we might answer, either aloud or in our minds, “Yes, I trust God when….” or “Yes, I trust God for….” If so, are we saying we trust God sometimes or for some things?

There are folks who have grown in their trust of God such that the door is wide open for God to act or to speak. They have learned to trust God whatever comes their way. They have learned to rely on God to handle difficult issues. More than that they have learned to look at life, all of life, as coming from God. They know that God’s sovereignty and God’s providential care are not simply doctrines to be believed. For these folks these truths are everyday experiences. But not every believer has come to that point of trust.

Some believers trust God only when they are pushed to a point of need. When crises come they seek God; and, in His mercy and grace, God responds. When the crisis is past, they thank God and move on. When this becomes a pattern, this going to God when they’ve run out of answers or other remedies, they seldom grow toward trusting Him with all of life. Perhaps the problem is, as one writer put it, they have far too much sense for the things they do. By too much sense, the writer meant that even Christians think they have enough worldly “wisdom,” enough experience in life, or enough resources of various kinds so that they can live life themselves. 

How about you and me? Do we have enough sense about how to live life that we don’t go to God until we are really stretched in our everyday lives? Do we have to run out of whatever “fuel” we run on, we turn to God? If we deal with God in this way, He becomes our “God of the gap.” He takes up the slack when we can’t cope. Then, crisis over, need supplied, it’s back to life according to our “sense.”

I am not talking about believing in God. According to polls, the majority of folks around us believe in God. Of course, they may believe God is some shapeless force behind nature or a glorified 911 operator. But, even folks who believe in God as He has revealed in scripture do not necessarily trust Him with all of life. One reason may be that they do not see God as the supreme reality of life. 

Life is full of realities—our relationships, our experiences, our feelings—what we call “the real world.” So where is God in all this? Is God the “most real” among these real things? Is He involved in all them? Is He the ultimate reality? Or does God seem remote or vague? Does He dwell at some distance from you when you live in this real world? 

God’s reality is not simply a fact to be filed away in our minds. Looking, listening for Him, seeking Him in all we do and think and say invites Him to be present, to be real, in our lives. We learn to accept, as did Job, good and adversity from His hand. We learn to follow Him, to enjoy Him. More, God’s reality in our lives changes us. These changes in us are part of the way God prepares us for glory where and when we will know just how real God is.

1 A phrase from James Mays, Interpretation:  Psalms, (Louisville:  John Knox Press, 1994), 86.