Posted in Bible Studies, Other Things

I Hate the Prosperity Gospel

Hate is a strong word. I rarely use it. When I do use it, I make it clear that I do not use it in jest, or without reason. When I say I hate something, I mean I abhor it, I detest it, and I wish it were not in existence.

Therefore, saying that I hate the prosperity gospel, I still feel I am putting it mildly. Frankly, I wish it would disappear never to deceive another Christian again.

What is the prosperity gospel?

Without giving you a long, drawn-out definition, I will make it simple: the prosperity gospel convinces Christians that God wants them to be wealthy, that he does not want his children to suffer, and that he wants them to enjoy every moment of this life, because he promised he would bless those who have faith enough to believe he would do just that.

In effect, the prosperity gospel does more than hurt Christian growth. The prosperity gospel attempts to deceive us into believing that with enough faith, we will inherit the blessings promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and by extension, the nation of Israel in this lifetime, which is simply not true.

What is worse is that Christian ministries throughout North America are now exporting this health and wealth gospel to poorer nations, such as Africa, and walking away with millions of dollars in donations for what in reality is a lie.

Problems with the prosperity gospel

Several inherent problems exist with the prosperity gospel that Christians ought to understand:

1. The prosperity gospel negates Christ’s sacrifice.

Jesus sacrificed his life in order to reconcile us with God (Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 10:14). Up until Christ’s death, there was a need for a blood offering as a means to approach God’s throne (Exodus 30:10). Without that sin offering, which typically came in the form of an animal sacrifice performed by a representative of the Levitical priesthood (Leviticus 4:1-7), no one could request an audience with God directly.

All that changed once Jesus died on the cross. No longer do we need to worry about our sins getting in the way of our relationship with God. Instead, we have Jesus, who bore the penalty of our sins, who now acts on our behalf as intercessor, drawing us nearer to God in a communion based on repentance and forgiveness (1 Timothy 2:5-6). In turn, God refers to us as sons, of whom the creation is eagerly waiting for the revealing of our inheritance (Romans 8:18-19).

The prosperity gospel throws that all aside for the temporary hope of gaining riches now. Christ’s shed blood is meaningless in the context of our desire to petition God to grant wishes, as if he were some kind of genie. God is only there to serve, and if he does not give us what we want, then we did not ask him with enough faith, which cheapens what Jesus did for us because there would be no need for redemption if all we are looking for is a comfortable life without sickness.

2. The prosperity gospel does not recognize Christian suffering.

When God began working with Job, one of the richest men of the Old Testament (Job 1:1-3, 8), he began doing so by allowing Job to lose everything (verses 13-19). God not only used Satan to permit Job’s suffering (verse 12), but he also used Job’s sense of loss to act as a contributing factor to bring about his repentance. Job came to realize just how awesome and wonderful God is, such that he accepted God’s greatness regardless if he understood, or not, why God did what he did (Job 42:1-6).

Contrast this example with how the prosperity gospel interprets scripture.

The prosperity gospel renders Job’s suffering as an example of the doubling-up principle detailed in Exodus, “If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double” (Exodus 22:7 ESV throughout). In Job’s case, the thief was Satan; and since Satan took all that Job had, Job’s compensation would be double his loss (Job 42:10).

Saying it another way, Job’s suffering had nothing to do with repentance, but had everything to do with claiming a reward from a long-forgotten civil statute enacted in ancient Israel to discourage thievery.

A couple of things are wrong with this thinking. First, when Job went through everything he did, the nation of Israel did not exist, therefore, the thievery statute, being part of the Law of Moses, did not exist. Second, and more importantly, it would be presumptuous to assume God’s intention when he allows people to suffer. It would be even a bigger mistake for others to deny that God allows suffering.

In the New Testament, Jesus spoke many times about this life’s riches and the futility of trying to accumulate wealth (Luke 12:15-21). He even made it clear that the rich would have a hard time entering the kingdom of God, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24). In all that Jesus said, he guaranteed one thing: his followers would suffer for his name’s sake (John 15:20) and his apostles confirmed this understanding (1 Peter 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:12). He did not promise material wealth, but actually encouraged followers to sell everything to give to the poor (Matthew 19:21).

3. The prosperity gospel blames poverty on a lack of faith.

People are poor because they want to be poor. In essence, that is the prosperity gospel message.

We do not have because we do not ask. If we asked, we would have and we would not have any reason to disbelieve God’s promises made to Abraham. Of course, this reasoning does not take into account what the apostle Paul said:

“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16)

People become sick and stay sick because they lack faith in God to heal them. After all, did not Jesus say, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (Mark 5:34)? Yet when someone dies of cancer, is it because of a lack of faith that he or she died, or was it that God allowed it to happen for a greater purpose?

The prosperity gospel answers this question by hinging its entire theology on faith. With enough faith, God will bless us Christians with health, wealth and happiness. If we hope for whatever we ask, we will receive it; and if we do not receive it, we did not hope for it enough.

The problem with this type of thinking is that we make what we hope for our goal instead of asking God what his will is for us (Matthew 6:33). In fact, God’s will soon takes a backseat to our desires, which could run contrary to what he wants (James 4:2-3). For this reason, many Christians wonder why God allows things to happen the way they do, rather than trusting God’s ability to resolve things according to his will.

There is nothing wrong with having faith, so long as we do not mistake it for materialistic faith, which leads nowhere other than against God’s plan.

4. The prosperity gospel guarantees a payback for anything Christians give.

Imagine investing $100 and receiving $10,000 back. That is what the prosperity gospel will have us believe. Whatever money we give will come back to us a hundredfold: “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life'” (Mark 10:29-30).

Other than the apostle John, historical evidence suggests all the apostles died by the hands of persecutors. What happened to their reward? Whatever became of their hundreds of houses they owned?

The prosperity gospel twists the meaning of these verses to suit an invalid premise: if we Christians give, we will receive a hundredfold reward now in the form of money and property. But, that is not what it says. Jesus is talking about prosperity in relationships and families. Jesus explains this at the beginning of the book of Mark:

“And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.’ And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’.” (Mark 3:31-35)

As regarding to the mention of houses and lands, these verses are referring to families, much like how other parts of scripture refer to families by a patriarch’s name; such as the House of David (1 Samuel 20:16; 2 Samuel 3:1), the House of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4; 1 Kings 12:21), and the House of Jacob and Israel (Jeremiah 3:18; Hebrews 8:10).

And should there be any confusion as to what Jesus was preaching, we need to read Mark 10:29-30 in context with the other verses surrounding the passage, starting from verse 17 all the way to verse 31. Jesus was saying that for the rich and wealthy, it would be difficult, almost impossible, for them to enter the kingdom of God, “And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” (verse 23). Before that, he made it even clearer to a rich, young man what his stance was regarding riches, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’” (verse 21).

Other proponents of the prosperity gospel camp turn to the Old Testament to convince Christians to give generously: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need” (Malachi 3:10).

Again, should what Malachi say apply to Christians today, it does not refer to blessings now, although we may receive blessings but it may have more to do with God’s spontaneous generosity than with the verses written in Malachi (Matthew 6:3-4).

God wants generous and cheerful givers (2 Corinthians 9:7). He does not want Christians giving with the expectation of getting something back in return (Proverbs 11:7). He does not want to limit us to give only a tithe, or rather, 10% of our increase either. Everything is his (Psalm 24:1). He wants to see just how much of what he gives to us do we dare keep.

What is the true gospel?

Jesus came as God in the flesh (John 1:1-3, 14), lived, died, and rose from the dead. He sits at the right hand of the father (Romans 8:34), waiting for the time when he will return as a conquering king (Hebrews 10:12-13). During his time on earth, Jesus taught about loving God and loving others more than himself (Mark 12:28-31; John 15:13). He healed the sick (Mark 1:34), taught forgiveness (Matthew 6:14) and instituted the Lord’s Supper as a memorial of his death and resurrection (Luke 22:17-20).

Jesus willingly gave his life on the cross (Matthew 26:39), to save from the penalty of sin, which is death (Romans 6:23), all those who believe in him (John 3:17-18).

Everyone who believes now has salvation through Christ’s sacrifice (John 3:16).

This is the true gospel.

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

God Allows Suffering

Over the weekend, my friends and I participated in a lively discussion about God’s role in a person’s suffering. My friends were of the mindset that God does not allow suffering. Considering all that my son has gone through these past few months with his health, and the automobile accident my wife experienced, I was of a differing opinion.

I expressed that suffering for a Christian is necessary and even welcomed, as it is God’s way to build faith within a person. God did not promise we would not go through trials in this lifetime. On the contrary, he promised that we would (John 15:20). And they would be fiery trials, the kind that molds us into his image and binds us to his spirit (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

The scripture I brought up was that of Job. Now Job, he was a righteous man, and there was a day that the sons of God came before God to give a report of their doings. Among them was Satan. God asked, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV throughout).

God loved Job, but at the same time, he wanted to test Job to see if his righteousness was true and not self-serving. He could have chosen to do that any number of ways. In this case, God was going to use Satan to bring calamity upon Job.

That does not sound right, does it? How could God do that to someone he loves?

Yet Satan, not knowing it was God’s plan all along, said to God, “Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (v. 10-11).

And so God said, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (v. 12).

In other words, God allowed Satan to touch Job’s life, destroy his property and kill his family, but he could not physically touch Job himself. It was not until later in the book that we find out that God eventually allowed Satan to affect Job’s health also.

From what I see, God is in control not only of Job’s suffering, but also of Satan’s ability to hurt Job. Saying it another way, God allowed Job to suffer.

God has reasons people suffer. For Job, he had to see how self-righteous he was before God blessed him with double his possessions and family. However, the one person who suffered the most in this world, and whom God allowed that suffering to take place, was Christ Jesus. For a moment in time, God had to let events play out while Jesus suffered the humiliation of a criminal, whipped until his flesh hung from his bone, nailed to a tree until he gasped for every ounce of life, and died to the pleasure of the Romans who crucified him.

But, and this was God’s plan all along, Jesus rose from the dead, took his seat at the right hand of the father (Eph. 1:20), and through him, believing in him, Christians have salvation (Acts 4:11-12).

No one on this planet can convince me that God does not allow people to suffer. It is unbiblical and a lie. What is not a lie is that all the apostles except for John died awful deaths, persecuted for believing in Jesus, so that their faith in God may strengthen those who come after them.

We, Christians, are those who come after them.

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

There Is Hope

I would like to take a few minutes to talk about something that has been a weight on my heart for quite some time. Many of you may want to skim through this post to get to the point, but I know that if you read every word and listen to what I have to say, God will truly bless you.

This year has been good to me. I found God again, I returned to church, and I have a whole new set of people of whom I now count as my friends. I have learned all about forgiveness, love and joy beyond that which is superficial. I am also able to worship God with arms spread wide toward the heavens, much as I have read David had done countless occasions when he praised God.

Consequently, I have also made changes in my life that I could not have made had I not received the Holy Spirit earlier this fall to help me with my daily walk with the most high God.

Now, it may seem obvious that I would want to talk about how God has changed my life, given how I used to write about horror and all its variations, however, at this time, I do not feel God is leading me to do that. I am sure there will be a period in my life when I will have the opportunity to talk all about my change from being self-centered to thinking about others. I just feel now is not that time.

Therefore, if I am not going to talk about what is on everyone’s mind, why even write this post at all?

A Calling from God

With the Holy Spirit leading me, I believe God has a plan for each person reading this post today. He has never been shy to reveal to me what his intentions are concerning my life. Somehow, I believe, some of you need to hear these words. Perhaps he is also revealing to you through me your calling to reach out to him for comfort.

I know life is hard. Life is tough—especially now. For some of you, Christmas is a dark time of year. The lights mask the loneliness you feel when everyone is telling you that you ought to be joyful. Yet, how can you feel joy if nothing exists in your heart but emptiness? Yes, the gifts are aplenty, the food is delicious, and the company you entertain during the holidays may make it seem as if you lead a fulfilling life. Still, the emptiness remains.

Conversely, some of you may not even have enough money to purchase the simple necessities, let alone a gift for someone. Your families may also be broken, which makes getting together a chore, rather than a delight.

I am here to tell you there is hope (Eph. 1:11-12).

God Comforts the Brokenhearted

God is love (1 John 4:16). He is here for those who are looking for comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4). He is here to heal the brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). He is here never to let you go. He really, really does love you, in spite of it all. You may feel that you have done the worst thing in the world, but if you come before God and sincerely confess your wrongs, he will forgive you (Acts 2:38). He always does. All he wants is to have a relationship with you.

Forget about not feeling worthy. Forget about the guilt. Allow God to give you wings so that you can fly (Isa. 40:31). Allow his light to flood the darkness and provide you the freedom to escape your troubles (John 8:12).

There is no other God than he (Deut. 4:35). He created the heavens and the earth (Isaiah 42:5). He set the earth on its foundations (Job 38:4-6) and separated the day from the night (Gen. 1:5). He made everything under the sun (Isaiah 44:24) and breathed life into our lungs (Gen. 2:7). He is the awesome God. And his life lives in every one of us who believes (John 3:16). His mercy is just and his righteousness endures forever (Ps. 111:2-3).

In the good and the bad, all glory goes to God.

Somehow, and you know who you are, you needed to hear this.

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

The Bible: Cover to Cover

When I set out to read the bible from cover to cover last year, I did not know I would be in for a few surprises.

For instance, I had no idea that Job lived before Abraham, in spite of the fact that the Book of Job is located several hundred pages after Genesis. In addition, it was a revelation to me that after the flood, God declared that all animals would fear humans (Gen. 9:2 ESV throughout). And the thought that an honorable man such as Jabez, whose name meant “man of sorrow” or “borne out of pain”, had two verses written about him to demonstrate God’s blessings over his life (1 Chr. 4:9-10), left me wondering what else in the bible have I yet to discover?

The reading plan I used to accomplish this feat is part of the Olive Tree Bible Study app, which resides on my phone and on my tablet. I simply chose a chronological reading plan that consisted of the English Standard Version (ESV). When I travelled, I read it on my phone, sync’d it with my Olive Tree account, then, when I returned home, I picked it up from where I left off on my tablet. Even today, it makes for a seamless experience.

Choosing to read the bible chronologically has its advantages, too. I gained an incredible amount of insight into historical events when reading about the same story through two different accounts. I did not have to understand why certain things happened the way they did because the context remained the same throughout. The chronological reading plan is especially helpful when working through the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles, as the reign of kings can be quite confusing when studying it in a non-linear fashion.

All history aside, though, my favorite part of the bible is the gospels. In the gospels Jesus talks about how to get along with others (Mat. 5:43-48), how to have a relationship with God (Mat. 6:5-15), and what the ultimate goal for believers should be (Mat. 6:19-21).

And, of course, one of my favorite verses I cling to comes from the gospels:

“Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).

In its basic form, it means that whatever I give is what comes back to me. I can attest that this principle works every single time I use it—and it does not apply to money only.

Anyway, I learned all these things in my first year reading the bible from cover to cover. I am hoping after having read the New International Version (NIV) this year, I will have something more to say about the experience.

In the meantime, I will quote this verse as my last thought for this post: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

The Righteous

“I am worried. I do not know what to do. I have made mistakes and I do not know if those mistakes will come back to shorten my days. The future seems dark, the present seems long, and I do not want to remember what happened in the past, as it makes me think of the wretched life I led.”

Or so I used to think.

When I was unrighteous, my insecurities swelled with boasting—boasting of my talents, boasting of how I lived my life, and boasting of my successes. In reality, I was missing something. I did not know what that something was until I discovered it with new eyes (Acts 9:18 ESV throughout). Even more so, I was not searching for anything. Instead, it appeared as a blip on my spiritual radar that would light up occasionally to tell me it was there, getting closer to the center, and me not doing anything about it.

Only, what I thought was my center was nothing more than sin living in me (Rom. 7:17 NIV).

Over the past several months, I have gone through a transformation. I wrote about this transformation and the things that I have learned in my previous post Forgiveness. In short, I wrote about reconciliation and letting go of grievances in order to move forward to becoming a new person in Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV). I also learned God has played a bigger role in my life more than what I was expecting. I found evidence of a deeper theme running through my years that, although I was not aware of it, came in the form of a realization.

This post is about that realization.

The Verse That Changed My Life

Those unfamiliar with the Holy Bible, the book of Matthew, chapters 5-7 is where Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, teaching his disciples about God’s blessings on the humble and the peacemakers, instructing them on how to overcome anxiety, and encouraging them to set aside treasures in heaven. As God was leading me into a new walk with him (Mic. 6:6-8 NIV), the one scripture that kept appearing everywhere throughout this period came from Jesus sitting on the Mount,

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Mat. 6:33).

Do Not Be Anxious

Learning about the concept of “and all these things will be added to you” required me to not only search, but after having found it, to read the entire passage in context beginning from (Mat. 6:25), “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” The anxiety one feels striving after food, drink and clothing also extends to attaining lodging and all the other necessities this life has to offer. In other words, Jesus says I should not worry about all that. Verse 26 explains why, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” He goes on to explain that Solomon, King of Israel, once the richest and wisest man in the world, could not compare his array of royal garments to the attire with which God clothes the lilies of the field.

When I think about it, there really is no need to hold on to that sinking feeling of uneasiness regarding tomorrow because God has it all figured out today. If he can look after flowers and animals, which are of lesser value than I am, who is to say God will not take care of my needs? Did he not create me out of the dust of the ground, shape me into his image, and breathe into me the breath of life making me into a living soul? Has he not given me dominion over all things under the heavens and in the sea below? Was it not he who forged the universe and everything in it promising it as an inheritance to all who believe in his son for generations to come?

If he could do all that, he can certainly look after my needs and me. Nothing is impossible for God (Mat. 19:26). Jesus even emphasizes this point when he concludes his teaching by stating, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mat. 6:34).

To understand Jesus’ intentions when he came to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God, I had to define what the kingdom of God was. To do that, I dedicated last year to accomplish one of my life goals—to read the bible from cover to cover. I reasoned that if I needed to understand God’s will, I had to understand his word.

Much to my astonishment, I am reading the bible again this year for the shear pleasure of it.

The Kingdom of God

During one of my study sessions, the very first verse I came across regarding God’s kingdom I found in the Lord’s Prayer, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’” (Mat. 6:9-10). Above all things, Jesus wanted God’s kingdom to come on this earth and taught his disciples to desire likewise. And why not? Part of his mission was to proclaim the kingdom of God to the entire world, as described in the gospel of Luke, “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose’” (Luke 4:42-43).

Aside from being the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world (John 1:29), Jesus also taught others to seek the kingdom of God. However, he preached his message in such a unique way that the people at that time sought him from all the ends of Judea and Galilee. Only, his method of delivering his message was not for preaching the kingdom of God to everyone but to a select few, “And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:10-12).

As strange as it sounds, Jesus taught in parables not to make things clearer, but to hide the true meaning of God’s kingdom. Odd, is it not? Why would Jesus do that? Why would he want to hide the true meaning of the kingdom of God? Was it not his mission to save everyone from his or her sins?

Surprisingly—for that time—no.

Jesus was the sower planting the seeds, and it was his disciples who would reap the harvest (Luke 10:2), in terms of the new church he was building (Mat. 16:18-19). The book of Acts reveals the actual growth that took place once Jesus had ascended to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit for all those who hungered for the kingdom of God, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).

Over the course of his ministry, Jesus likened the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, yet, once fully grown, provides a shade for which birds can build their nests (Mark 4:30-32). Said differently, Jesus emphasized how his ministry, proclaiming the kingdom of God, which started humbly soon after the arrest of John the Baptist (Mat. 4:12-17), would one day flourish to engulf the entire world, as written in Revelation 22:1-5, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

Being a believer to me means looking forward to the time when God will reign over all things with power and great glory, and his kingdom, of which Jesus proclaimed there would be no end.

Yet, the kingdom of God is only one-half of what I should be seeking.

God’s Righteousness

Getting back to the last part of (Mat. 6:33), where Jesus stated “and all these things will be added to you,” I desired never to worry about food, drink, or clothing ever again. Instead, I concentrated my efforts on God’s will.

His will for me was to seek his kingdom. His will also was for me to seek his righteousness.

Of course, what I did not know was how to define God’s righteousness. In my mind, righteousness had to do with integrity, morality, and walking upright in the face of adversity. However, those were just words according to my own opinion. Anyone, really, could have an opinion as to what God’s righteousness is. What I wanted to know, though, was God’s definition of righteousness. At any time, had he made a clear statement about it? If so, where could I find it? Was it something complicated I could not understand on my own? Or was it as simple as reading a single passage?

Psalms 143:1-2 came to mind, where it talks about God being righteous. However, there is more to it than that. It says, “Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.”

When I first read this, I wondered if I even had a chance to understand God. If no one is righteous, what is it to say that I can seek his righteousness in order for him to bestow me all things? I had to know more. It could not simply end there.

And it does not end there. The apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans as a means to address the necessity for justification through faith due to sin, as he wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16-17).

Paul was saying faith gives life to the righteous. Without faith, the righteous could not understand God because faith reveals God’s righteousness. To put it another way, faith is my lifeblood. Faith is the means by which I will know God. Hebrews 11 demonstrates that throughout the generations great biblical figures have accomplished incredible things, not from anything other than by faith.

Therefore, as Paul stated later in Romans 6:1-11, death does not have dominion over me because I have died to sin and am now alive through faith in Jesus. Verses 12-14 says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

It took me a long time to figure out what Paul meant because I thought through grace I was free to do whatever I wanted, including sinning without penalty. But Paul was not condoning that idea at all. On the contrary, I became aware of sin through the knowledge of the law (Rom. 3:10-20). Without the law, I would not have known what sin was. Additionally, when sin is no longer the chain that holds me in bondage, I am free to act as God’s instrument for righteousness.

Who Are the Righteous?

Throughout these studies, though, the question that kept resurfacing was, “Who are the righteous?” If Psalms 143:2 declares that no one is righteous, and in Romans 3:10, Paul agrees, then why does Jesus say, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mat. 9:13)?

The bible is replete with verses pointing to the righteous as those whom God will show favor.

For instance, Abraham attempted to intercede on Sodom’s behalf asking God if he would punish the righteous along with the wicked for the city’s iniquities (Gen. 18:23). And after Solomon built the temple of the Lord, he presented a prayer of dedication to God expressing his desire for God to condemn the guilty all the while rewarding the righteous according to their righteousness (1 Kings 8:32). And the prophet Isaiah foretold of God’s judgement on Judah and Jerusalem assuring the righteous the protections afforded to them by the Creator of all things (Isa. 3:9-10).

Nevertheless, the question remains: Who are the righteous?

The apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved and whom Jesus gave charge over his mother while hanging on the cross (John 19:26-27), wrote his first epistle to the church in Asia Minor (now Turkey) instructing believers there to remain faithful to the truth. In (1 John 1:5-6), he wrote, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” Later in verse 9, he said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Now, for a long time I had to think through that idea because I had the notion I was unrighteous. I thought my sins would always keep me separated from God. Yet, what John was saying is God will purify me and make me righteous.

John brings the message home in 1 John 3:7, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” And to ensure it is God’s righteousness of which he is referring, John explains it clearly this way, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (v. 8-10).

I cannot describe how incredible a truth (1 John 3:7) is. I will repeat it once again, “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.”

Which brings me to the realization I spoke about earlier.

The Wow Moment

Jesus gave his life as a ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). He was perfect in every way, without blemish (1 Pet. 1:18-19). He was righteous. To think I could measure up to Jesus’ stature is unthinkable. Still, the scriptures are clear. If I practice righteousness, I am righteous, as he is righteous—not only I—but also everyone who repents, accepts him as savior, and sins no more.

No other truth comes close to understanding God’s love than for him to have given his only begotten son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for the sins of the many so that I and everyone else can live a true life in righteousness.

And that, dear friends, is a wow moment!

I learned this over the course of several months, but not after a lifetime of doing things the wrong way. I still find it difficult to imagine that I had no clue who God was.

Yet, he was there for me. He never left me. He simply waited—waited for me to catch up while he did a great work (Deut. 11:7).

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

Forgiveness

You know, I have always thought forgiveness was this feeling of reconciliation one receives when one absolves another of an offence. I also thought forgiveness was not possible without an inordinate amount of restoration, or as I would like to call it, works of restitution.

After reading my bible, however, I have found forgiveness in God’s eyes is an entirely different matter. He treats the absolution of sins as his highest form of love. I had to delve deeply into his word in order to understand that when God forgives, he does it without conditions. That unconditional love God shows is so wonderful, so great, so just, that nothing will ever compare to the feeling of knowing he has forgiven me in whole.

A Root of Bitterness

Now, if you have not read any of my previous posts about my past struggle with a root of bitterness I will make it easy by explaining it here. Hebrews 12:15 says, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (ESV throughout).

I have done some gardening in my lifetime. I cannot brag of having attained a green thumb, but I am able to get by. As any gardener knows, when planting flowers, or anything else for that matter, the one thing that keeps popping up to the surface is weeds. I do not like weeds. They are insidious. If I do not remove weeds, they will choke the good plants and cause them to stop growing. Even more so, left unchecked, weeds can kill plants leaving me with nothing to show for all my toil.

Therefore, I take desperate measures when dealing with weeds. I dig deep into the soil looking for the root. If I were to cut the weed from where it breaks ground, it would only grow back. Then I would be there every few days to remove the same weed repeatedly. No. That does not make sense to me. Either I do the job right the first time, or I do not do it at all. Simple. I look for the root, and sometimes it is not an easy thing to eradicate. I can tug at it, but it may also have thorns to prevent me from removing it with my bare hands. In such cases, I use garden gloves for protection, but even then, the gloves may not be enough. I may need the help of various tools to aid with the extraction from the ground. A small shovel works well, as does a tool specifically designed to pluck the root.

It gets better, once I remove the root I then stand in one spot staring at a hole in the ground.

Similarly, a root of bitterness, as described in the book of Hebrews, can spring up and cause all sorts of trouble. The verse describes how that root, if left to grow, will fester and spread, corrupting other people as well. All of a sudden, the original incident that gave birth to bitterness becomes secondary, and every slight becomes an issue.

In Matthew 5:23, Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Why would Jesus want me to leave my gift at the altar, find the person who has a grudge against me and reconcile with them? They are the one with the problem. Why should I be the one to lose face and try to make amends?

The Sermon on the Mount

That attitude of not wanting to help others, Jesus covers in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). In his sermon, Jesus blesses the people and talks about how Christians should become examples for others to follow, likening them to light (Mat. 5:13-16). He also talks about the perils of anger, lust (v. 21-30) and retaliation (v. 38-42). He finishes the chapter admonishing his followers to love their enemies, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (v. 43-45).

Sporting around a root of bitterness will not encourage anyone to love an enemy. Jesus goes on to describe what happens when that root of bitterness spreads, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Mat. 5:46-47). In other words, Jesus is saying I should look to do more than love my friends. I should treat my enemies as I would a brother in Christ.

Jesus ends his teaching on the subject by instilling a goal to his listeners, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).

Attaining Perfection

Perfection for someone ordinary like me is impossible. I fail at things. I do the things I do not want to do (Rom. 7:15). And I am a sinner (Rom. 5:12). How can I be perfect as God is perfect? Impossible.

Yet, despite my own perceptions, it is possible. When the apostle Paul was dealing with pride, he had to overcome a messenger of Satan, whom he referred to as a thorn in the flesh. He pleaded with Jesus three times asking for relief. The story continues, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

If God can make me perfect by his grace, which he gives freely regardless of my weaknesses, then I have nothing to worry about in this life or the next. Paul explains it well in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Filling the Emptiness

Remember the hole left behind after I had pulled the weed by its root in my garden? The emptiness I felt once I realized my life was not worth anything without God’s presence compelled me to kneel before him to ask for his spirit. It was the only way I could move forward from the damage the root of bitterness had caused.

Back in my garden, I filled the hole with dirt, seeded and watered it every day until new growth sprouted to the surface. Likewise, instead of the emptiness left behind, I took to God’s word and seeded the hole with the word of life. I no longer needed to gird on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-20) as my tools to remove the weeds, but this time, I watched as the fruit of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) took root in my heart and spread throughout all my relationships.

Put another way, God, the ultimate gardener (Gen. 2:8-9), replaced that root of bitterness in me with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I counted it a difficult thing to overcome a grudge, however, once I realized God had given his only begotten son as a sacrifice so that he could save me from the wages of sin (John 3:16), I looked upon my enemies not as I had, but with mercy. I gained the understanding through God’s Holy Spirit, that if I wanted God to forgive me of my sins against him, I needed to forgive others their sins against me.

God’s Forgiveness

Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus passes along the template his followers should use when praying to God the Father. I grew up knowing it as The Lord’s Prayer. Others may know it as the Our Father (Mat. 6:9-13). When praying to God, I use it as a prompt for what I want to say. Each verse is specific in intention, as I discovered one night when verse 12 jumped out at me. In it, Jesus says, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

As anyone who has ever had a debt knows, it would be sweet music should a creditor decide to cancel a debt. For one thing, it means that whatever is owing to the creditor is no longer owing. I cannot imagine what it would feel like if someone should knock on my door and say to me that my mortgage is no longer payable.

In like manner, Jesus talks about doing just that, expanding on the idea even further at the end of the prayer, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mat. 6:14-15).

Not only does Jesus make it clear that the Heavenly Father will not forgive those who do not forgive, but he also implies that full responsibility for those debts will fall on the heads of the unforgiving.

I cannot fathom the thought of dying with full knowledge that I could have released others of their debts against me. Moreover, should I have a hard heart, I will also have to worry about judgement being against me in due course, as Paul says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

The Unforgiving Servant

In the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mat. 18:21-35), Jesus talks about forgiveness in its basic form. Peter came up to Jesus and asked him how many times should he forgive his brother—seven times? Jesus answered him saying not seven times, but seventy times seven (v. 21-22). What Jesus meant was not 490 times, but we should always forgive, having mercy for those who have wronged us. He then begins to tell Peter the story of a servant who owed his master 10,000 talents (v. 23-24).

Now, a talent in those days equaled to about 20 years wages for a single laborer. There was no way the servant could ever repay the master all that money in his lifetime. It would have taken the servant 200,000 years in all to wipe the slate clean. Stating it differently, Jesus wanted to emphasize the debt’s value as immeasurable.

Facing the fear of his master’s order to have him, his wife, his children and all that he possessed sold to repay his debt, the servant fell on his knees pleading with his master for forgiveness (v. 25-26).

What happens next astounds me, “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Knowing fully well the servant owed him thousands of years of wages, immeasurable by human standards, the master forgave all of it.

When I think of all the bad I have done in my lifetime, and I think of how God sits on his mercy seat (Heb. 9:5), ready to extend his grace on to me, I humble myself in utter worship in the presence of his glory. For it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

Being Vigilant

But the story of the servant does not end there. Instead of being thankful that his master stayed the order to sell him, his wife, his children and all that he possessed to repay the debt, and instead of waking up every morning knowing his freedom was secure, the servant did something altogether different, “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt” (Mat. 18:28-30).

A denarii was a day’s wage. All the servant had to do was wait 100 days and his fellow servant would have paid him back. He did not wait. He had him thrown in prison.

When God forgives, going forward he expects me to forgive others in the same way. If I do not do that, I would have to deal with his judgement. This is what the servant faced, “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’” (v. 32-34)

Eventually, the master delivered the servant to the jailers, until he paid all of his debt (v. 34). In the New International Version, it is more specific, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Continuing with the English Standard Version, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 35).

By this time, it is apparent that forgiveness has nothing to do with the one who may have perceptually caused the offense, but works by releasing the chains of the one holding the grudge. Once those chains fall under the weight of God’s grace, they become as if they never were. Ephesians 4:31-32 describes the process in a beautiful way, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

My Forgiveness Campaign

I went on a forgiveness campaign of my own recently to reconcile with everyone in my life who I thought perceived me as an enemy. I had to grovel. I had to apologize. And in some cases, I had to open my heart completely in order to show my sincerity and seriousness with wanting to remove any occasion for the devil to lay his hooks into me again (1 Pet. 5:8). The hardest part about the whole thing, though, was the rejection. I realized that not everyone wants reconciliation. I thought it odd, at first. I mean, I did my part by leaving my gift at the altar, but the other person just did not want to hear it. They were content with the way things were.

To that, I cannot do a thing. What is important is I have done my part asking for forgiveness. And to me, that is all that matters. My comfort lies in the knowledge that Jesus also faced rejection when he was walking among us on earth (1 Peter 2:4-8). So, why should it surprise me that even I should bear the burden of rejection?

For this reason, before reaching the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it a point to emphasize a lasting lesson to his followers, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Mat. 7:1-2).

And Lastly…

When it comes down to it, forgiveness is not only about eradicating a root of bitterness and moving on. It also requires vigilance to love an enemy as oneself. I can attest it is not an easy task to do when all there remains of the relationship is sad memories. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, anything is possible. As long as I keep repenting, turning away from wrongdoing, God will blot out my sins (Acts 3:19). He will extend his grace, and Jesus’ sacrifice will not have been for naught (Rom. 6:5-8).

Posted in Bible Studies, My Journey

Psalm 23

In the span of a month, I have memorized Psalm 23, one of King David’s most famous songs dedicated to God. It is something I have wanted to accomplish since returning to church April 10, much like reading the bible cover to cover, which I completed last year. I am rereading the bible again this year, but this time it is the New International Version.

I am not sure what the reaction to this post will be (my 500th), but I am writing it to help others who may have wondered about the meaning of the psalm. Before going on, below is the full text, as presented in the English Standard Version:

Pslam 23

  1. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  2. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.
  3. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
  4. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
  5. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
  6. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The interesting thing about memorizing scripture over a long period is having the luxury to think through the verses and their meaning. I can say without a doubt, each verse has had an impact on my life.

Let me begin with Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

When David wrote this, he knew all about being a shepherd through experience. In his time working out on the field, he had saved his flock from the jaws of a ravenous lion (1 Samuel 17:34-35). For David to compare God to a shepherd was natural for him. He knew all about the life of a shepherd because he had been one before defeating Goliath (1 Samuel 17:36).

Back in February, when I was in the throes of agony, I did not desire anything from God other than relief for the pain in my neck. I would classify it as an upsetting experience. However, it encouraged my belief that nothing really mattered in life other than to be kind to one another and live as peaceable a life as I possibly could. In other words, my want—desire—was nothing in comparison to knowing God was working a miracle in my life. He was my shepherd, and I had no hesitation knowing he was on my side.

Psalm 23:2-3 continues to say, “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

I cannot say how important those verses were when I was going through one of the most distressing periods of my life. I had to let go of certain things in order to let God nudge me in the right direction. Once I had done that, green pastures and still waters presented themselves for me and I finally found peace. It was not by accident. A shepherd knows where he wants to lead his sheep, and God took his time to bring me into the fold of the flock. I resisted, but he was there to lead me in the path of righteousness. It may sound corny, and I would have agreed with you several months ago, but after having lived through it, I am in no way fearful to give him all the glory and honor for my renewed spirit and attitude.

David Changes the Way He Talks About God

Psalm 23:4, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” 

Something I had not noticed before was how David refers to God in a more personal tone. Instead of using pronouns such as him, he uses you. I wondered about that. Why would he do that?

I have had my dark days where I did not see the light. I define dark days as a time when I did not know God, and led a life that went diametrically opposite to what God wanted. Nonetheless, when I did wrong, he made sure I knew about it through his correction in the form of situations that did not work quite the way I had planned. Now, that is not to say his rod and his staff are bad things, because he was purging sin from my heart, and I knew he was not about to abandon me because of my sin. No. If God was using the rod and the staff to tap me back into place along with all the other sheep, then I knew he loved me. All he wanted was for me to be safe. Moreover, yes, that was a comfort.

David felt the same way, and to express the comfort he had with God, he referred to him in the most intimate way he could.

Pslam 23:5 says, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

When memorizing this verse, I learned that God sometimes will not get rid of a problem, but control it, which left me with no other choice than to accept it and move on. Much like a pack of wolves wanting to kill me, he did not get rid of the wolves but he protected me from them instead.

Even more so, I was in the middle of a personal anointing at my church. I had gone up to remove a root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15) from my heart, and I had gone up to ask for forgiveness for the transgressions I had committed to the Lord my god. More than anything, I wanted reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24). Because of this, the minister left my forehead soaked with anointing oil, something I had never experienced before. The event made verse 5 all the more real to me.

God’s Grace

Lastly, Psalm 23:6 states, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I am at the point where I know God has forgiven me and his mercy is now upon my life. I do not have to worry that I am unworthy to receive his grace, because really, he has given me his grace freely without conditions. Nothing I do will earn me salvation (John 3:16). I know that now.

And with that knowledge, I know that when I die I will dwell with God forever.