Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fasting - Another Gut Check

My current sermon series continually provides gut checks for me. As I have stated a few times already, I am quite familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, but in studying it again, and living with it week after week (now 13 weeks with another 8 or 9 to go), the words of Jesus continue to convict me in ways I have not felt in quite some time.

This past Sunday focused on the few verses on fasting from Matthew 6 (vv 16-18). I have fasted – many times. I have done several extended fasts including periods of 40 and 50 days (twice), and others not quite as long. I do not say this to impress anyone because that would go against the very purpose of Jesus message. I reveal this information here because my reward for those fasts was already secured – not from others, but from myself. Not all of my fasts were self-rewarded, but in my zealousness to fast in prior years,  I did so with a partial intent on focusing on God, and a partial intent on seeing if I could do it (thus the 50 days, essentially I gave up food for lent). Why? Not because I was called, but to see if I could. And I can honestly say those two 50-day fasts did not draw me closer to God, as I recall. Now, thankfully, other fasts have brought extreme moments of intimacy with God in addition to a greater trust in His provision. I do not mention those fasts here because my reward with God is secure if I hold them close to my heart, so I simply mention the fact that not all of my fasts have been (partially) selfishly motivated, but some definitely have.

Thus, the words of Jesus spoke directly to me this week. I have always tried to maintain my personal appearance and not allow others to know I was fasting. Of course, with the weight loss that ensues, it is hard to prevent questions, and when you are invited to eat with others, it causes a challenge, but overall, I did well to conceal my fasting each time from most everyone. And while fasting, I studied the concept (such as Isaiah 58), and was frustrated I could not give more to others because  my food bill often increased as I supplemented water with various types of juice (non high-fructose types). I would say I learned a lot about fasting, about myself, and about God, especially on the fasts when my focus was completely upon Him.

Overall, I am thankful for the opportunities when I have fasted. I say that because I now have diabetes and do not know that I can safely fast from food. If God calls me to fast, and I am certain of His call, I still will, but it has been a few years now since that has happened. Nonetheless, I need to be ready to respond if He does call. However, the need for me to find times to be intimate with Him are what is critical. He should not need to ask me to fast, and I should not need to fast, for that to happen. But to fast for an extended period with the potential health hazards does require some assurance (within the context of faith) that He is the one asking it at this point.

If you have not fasted, I would encourage it. Start small – perhaps fasting for lunch. It is more than skipping a meal, it is replacing the meal with a focus on God. Over time, perhaps you will fast for a day or longer. An extended fast certainly has its physical challenges at times, but it has so many blessings along the way that I literally would get to a point I didn’t care if I ate again (other than having a desire to chew something!) So, try it. See where God leads you. I assure you (because of Jesus’ words), if you fast to seek God, you will be satisfied (Matthew 5.6).

As for me, I need to determine how I might now fast in a non-traditional sense. I am certain He has ideas in mind for me, and this past week of study and preparation to preach Jesus’ words has resurfaced the idea in my mind. For now, I have no clear answers, but I am certain that if I truly want to know Him better, some type of fast will lead me where I (should) long to go.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Most Difficult Command?

What might you consider the most difficult command in the Bible? Let’s face it, some commands are easier to keep than others. And that list of easier commands will differ depending upon the person. For instance, and I am only referring to those who believe the Bible should be followed, some may have more of a temptation to lie. Others may have difficulty with coveting. Still others may find it a challenge to honor their parents. And the list could go on. And, this is only three of the Big 10 – the Ten Commandments, and then only at face value. For as Jesus commented on the commands in Matthew 5, He elevated hatred to murder, and lust to adultery and coveting, etc. Thus, presumably, if we use the understanding Jesus provided a person might change which command they find most difficult to keep. And because the Bible is filled with so many commands, and so many are so challenging, a great number of people choose to follow only some, make excuses for ignoring them, or choose to not to follow them at all. GK Chesterton said well, when he coined the following quote.

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” – GK Chesterton

How true that is. But if I step back from myself, and try to picture the greatest challenge of all commands, I think it would come down to loving others. Of course, loving God properly (with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength) is not easy, but if one believes in God, the one will love God, and so the issues is one of degree, not of doing it at all. That is, the challenge is how much (or how well) we love God, not in loving Him, that is the challenge. But loving others is difficult – except, of course, for the people we love. And thus, the real challenge is to love the unlovable, not those whom we find it easy to love.

But why is it difficult to love some and not others? And why is it difficult at times to love even those we usually love? The answers to these questions are different, but one of the biggest considerations in whether or not we love someone is if we can/will forgive them. Therefore, I will argue that although love might be most difficult overall, our ability to forgive is almost equal and plays a distinct role in our capacity to love just as our love for others is a critical aspect in our ability to forgive.

So, to love is to forgive and to forgive is to love. The reason forgiveness is difficult is because it is only necessary when we have been caused some type of pain. It is easy to love someone when no problems exist, but when conflict arises, love is tested. That conflict could be the result of any type – physical, emotional, spiritual, etc. and the pain that results can then lead to anger and bitterness over time or can be resolved by forgiving the other person and loving them regardless of the issue.

In my sermon this week, I preached on Matthew 6.12, 14-15 where Jesus taught His disciples to pray to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” and then expanded on the thought by saying that when we forgive others, God forgives us and likewise if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. These are strong statements, but they go to show how important the concept of forgiveness is. Essentially, what Jesus is saying if we understand what God has done for us, how can we not forgive others?

Forgiveness is not easy, and thus it is often lacking in our relationships. We might say we forgive someone, but then have mixed feelings every time that person comes near. To forgive is not to forget, but it is to not hold anything against another person. (I encourage you to see my sermon blog for more on this as I do not wish to repeat it here.) But the fact that we are human and have been hurt by another human is why the concept of forgiveness is so difficult. And yet, we desire to be forgiven when we make mistakes toward others, so we should follow the maxim of “Do unto others” let alone forgiving because we desire God to forgive us.

The beauty of forgiving others is the freedom that we find ourselves. As we forgive, we allow the bitterness and anger to be released, and we are the ones who are freed from bondage, not the other party. This week, I encourage you to find that freedom as difficult as it may be. Consider the person(s) who have wronged you and the pain you have been caused. Don’t excuse their behavior, but forgive them. I know what some may think. “But Andy, you do not know what they have done.” You are right, I do not, but God does. And He is willing to forgive them, so you should be too. More importantly, He will forgive you if you take the step of forgiving that person (those persons). Because remember, you have likely asked God to forgive your debts as you forgive your debtors.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Truly learning to live by the Bible can be broken into three distinct aspects. Reading the Bible exposes us to the contents. Studying the Bible brings understanding of its principles. And applying the principles helps transform us into the people God has designed us to be. Far too many people are content with reading (or hearing content) and not moving to true understanding. For these individuals, any attempts to apply what they have read/heard is often abandoned when resistance is met or they often focus on applying minor details rather than major principles. Those who move to studying the Bible may have a better understanding, but the danger is that by knowing more one must develop a stronger fortitude to withstand the challenges that will come. Regardless, the Bible is not meant to be a book of entertainment; rather, it is to encourage, exhort, or even inspire us (for all kinds of reasons and in all kinds of ways)  to apply the principles to our lives.

For the last couple of months, I have been preaching a series from Matthew 5-7 (the Sermon on the Mount). Like many long-term Christians, I have read this sermon many times, studied parts of it multiple times, reviewed all of it a few times, etc. But like many who have read certain parts of the Bible many times, sometimes as I read, or even study, I do not take sufficient time to dig deep enough into the meaning and then rush off to another task without giving myself enough time to properly apply what I have learned. As I mentioned in the post a few weeks ago, being a teacher or preacher adds an measure of accountability (see James 3.1; to view the prior post, click here). As a person who espouses Kingdom-first for our church and in other conversations, I am paying particular attention to what I am reading, studying, and teaching in expectation that I will not just preach what Jesus preached, but will better live out what He preached (and how He lived).

So, this past Sunday’s message was on praying righteously (Matthew 6.5-8, and the Disciples’ Prayer – vv. 9-13). These verses should be convicting in themselves. Before giving the model prayer to the disciples, He mentions not praying “empty phrases” (ESV) or “vain repetitions” (KJV). In other words, don’t just say your prayers, and don’t simply repeat the Lord’s Prayer (or Disciples’ Prayer as I call it – we have no record of Jesus praying it, just telling the disciples how to pray – Matthew 6, Luke 11). We should be intentional in praying to God (and not simply for ourselves) and in what we pray. After the prayer, Jesus then elaborates on our need to show forgiveness to others as part of our being forgiven by God. Again, all of that is, or could be, convicting for myself or any number of people. But...

What truly struck me last week was a particular comment found in the commentary on Matthew from the Intervarsity Press. Craig Keener wrote the following note related to verse 5: “Because prayer promises the hearing of an Advocate more powerful than any other, it goes without saying that those who spend little time in prayer do not in practice believe much in a God who answers prayer;....”(1) Keener continued the paragraph with the basic thought of how foolish (my word, not his) are those who pray for their prestige rather than truly praying to God.

Now, I hope I am not guilty of praying to make a scene. I do not believe I am, but I can recall times in the past I was concerned with what others might think of my prayer. That is not something I think about now. I pray enough or do I “spend little time in prayer” per Keener’s comment? No, I do not. And thus, in His words, I am a functional atheist in the power of God as it relates to my prayer life. I do not dismiss these words as hyperbole. I think Keener is right in general, and has nailed me specifically. To pray righteously begins with praying to God (Matthew 5.5-6) and with intention (Matthew 5.7-8), but it must include a belief AND A FREQUENCY that proves belief in who God is.

Apart from Jesus, I doubt anyone will ever stand before God and say, “I prayed enough during my lifetime.” We cannot change the past, but we can alter our projected future. As I consider what Jesus said about prayer and what Keener wrote about being a functional atheist, I have been convicted. But that is simply the reading and the studying portion of learning. Next, I must apply the principle in order to truly make it stick and become the man God wants me to be. It begins now with one small prayer (to be more faithful in my praying), but if I follow through, I will reap great rewards because I will know my God much more intimately than I do now. And isn’t that the point of a conversation – to know more about one another? He may already know everything about me, but the fact He wants to hear from me, and wants to share Himself with me is a pure reflection of the love that He has for me. And, of course, the same is true for all who believe.

So, how you do respond? I hope you will be like me and choose to pray more, pray longer, and perhaps pray better. But, however your prayer life needs to improve, it can only do so if you do one thing – pray! Again, that is why I intend to do and this post is my public commitment to do so.

(1) (Keener, C. S. (1997). Matthew (Vol. 1, Mt 6:5). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A True Gift

I have expressed many times how much I like teaching the Bible. One of the reasons is seeing God’s truths unfold before my eyes as I prepare a lesson or sermon. Other times, the insights come from reflecting back on what I have taught. For me, this week, the joy has been in seeing how well Matthew 6 truly fits together within the chapter and within Jesus’ overall sermon. I am very familiar with the passage, but God is opening my mind to understand something new and fresh as I study and prepare each week.

Of course, Matthew 6 transitions to Jesus revealing the importance of our attitude in giving, praying, and fasting before challenging the devotion of our hearts later in the chapter. And, of course, the section about giving (verses 1-4) speak of the act of giving money. But as I have said for years, God does not care about your money, He cares about you. You can give all the money in the world, but such an act will not bring you any closer to God or make Him love you any more (or less). When we give money, we give something, but God cares about us as people. If He gets us, then our money will follow, but the inverse is not necessarily true.

This principle is true throughout Jesus’ sermon, but is especially evident in Matthew 6. Jesus is calling for His followers to be righteous (begins in Matthew 5.6, then continues in 5.20, 6.1, etc.). Related to giving, Jesus wants our hearts to be involved when we give money, which is most easily accomplished when we have given ourselves to God. Certainly, the giving of our money shows an appreciation for the gifts God has given us, a proper understanding that we are truly stewards of those gifts, and a trust that God will continue to provide for our needs (the latter portion of Chapter 6). But again, it is not the money or financial resources God wants – it is us.

When we give ourselves to God, we are revealing in a larger way that we appreciate the gifts and talents He has given, showing that we are simply stewards of the body, the time, and other resources we have been given, and show a trust that God will honor us for placing our faith in Him (Hebrews 11.6). Of course, it is far more difficult to give up our thoughts, our dreams, and our purpose (let alone our resources), but it is only difficult because we treat these things as “ours” when ultimately they are His. (The previous sentence is easy to type, but not nearly as easy to live by on a daily basis – at least for me.)

If what I have just said is true, we can truly offer God what is already His. Thus, our money is truly not the most important item to be given. Sure, churches have budgets and ministries need money (we all do) to function. The monetary aspect should not be neglected! However, many people make a financial contribution and consider their work done. This understanding lacks a proper understanding of what God has truly done.

Jesus died for us. Did He have to die? Yes, the way God decreed it. But think about this, if God wanted to purchase our salvation, and if money were the primary currency for the transaction, it would not have been an issue for God to raise the necessary funds. After all, God owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50.10), but the hills belong to Him as well! So, Jesus gave Himself. Jesus was and is the inexpressible gift (2 Corinthians 9.15). Jesus is the true gift that God has given us. Not money, not a house, not a car, nor anything material – the gift was Him in the flesh.

The consideration we must make is that if God’s truest gift to us was personal (not material), then why do we consider our material gifts as significant to God. Again, the act of giving is important, but it is us – the person – that He wants. Each individual that gives himself/herself to God is significant. When we give ourselves to God, we give back to Him all of us – our time, our talents, and our treasure.

So, in learning to give from a perspective of righteousness, give yourself first to God, just as God gave Himself first for you. No truer gift exists. No greater gift is possible. But the choice is up to each one of us to make the decision to truly give as we have been given.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A Hermeneutic of Love

One of the most important principles in hermeneutics (proper interpretation) is to seek to understand what the message originally meant. Although the principles of the Bible are timeless, the actual stories happened to real people and the words were recorded so real people could remember them. The same is true with the various New Testament letters. They were written to real people making up real churches dealing with real problems. And the same is true with the various teachings of the Bible, including Jesus sermon in Matthew 5-7. His teaching was not random; rather, it was very purposeful. He was teaching those who were with Him near the very beginning of His ministry to know what life was like from a Kingdom perspective.

Over the past several weeks, I have been preaching through this magnificent sermon and reflecting on some thoughts here in this blog. The ultimate idea is that Jesus wants His followers to think in terms of “on earth as it is in heaven” and thus is teaching those listening (and now reading) what living in the Kingdom of God is like. In the first part of this sermon, Jesus began by sharing about the blessings of being a true followers (the Beatitudes), then said that true righteousness must be greater than those who parade themselves around as righteous people (the Pharisees), and finally gave His commentary on several commands that had been tainted over the years. Then, at the conclusion of what we call Matthew 5, Jesus said that those listening (“you”) must be perfect because our Father is perfect.

Everything Jesus has said to this point in His sermon has one single theme – love. The first verses point to a God who loves us, and then Jesus turns to how our love for God and others should be lived out in our daily lives. Of course, living in this manner is difficult, but a part of that is due to perspective.

In preaching this series, I have been especially focused on trying to get to how the people listening to Jesus that day may have considered His words. Again, the words were originally said to people living in a context that was 2000 years ago. Certainly, Jesus’ words are timeless, but He said them to the people then, and thus we must realize that He said particular words and used particular examples for a reason. (I often use the analogy of baseball here. If someone were to describe the game of baseball they might talk about hitting a ball with a bat. But the context matters. For instance, telling a similar story 200 years ago would cause the listener to think something very different for bats would only be known as the flying mammal.) Thus, as we begin to understand what the words meant then, we can better relate the words to what they mean now and how we should live accordingly. The challenge is that records of the past are much more difficult to find and so sometimes assumptions must be made.

However, all of the teaching Jesus did in this first part of this sermon (Matthew 5) leads to the unmistakable purpose to love. In fact, the last of the commands Jesus mentions is that we should love even our enemies and we do so because our Father does so. Thus, Jesus ends this portion by saying that we should be perfect because our Father is perfect. Contextually, Jesus is speaking about being perfect in love, not in action. Of course, neither is possible. We have sinned and will continue to do so until we are made complete on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1.6). But our nature can be perfect because Christ’s righteousness becomes our own when we place our faith in Him. Thus, we may not live perfectly, but we may be considered perfect by our Father because of our faith in the Son. As such, we must grow in our capacity to love – even as Jesus showed us what it means to love others, including our enemies.

I am the first to admit that this is not easy. I fail miserably sometimes. But if Jesus said we should do so, then I cannot dismiss my need to do so if I truly want to be a follower. I thank God for giving me a demeanor that is not hateful or spiteful. But to actively love requires intentionality, and sometimes I am not as intentional as I need to be. This series has reminded me that I must focus more on loving in all aspects of my life. As Paul wrote, we may do many things excellently, but if we do not do it with love, then we miss out on the real purpose of life. Jesus knew this. Jesus taught this. Jesus lived this. And we should too.