An Undivided Heart

A healthy human heart, biologically speaking, is divided into 4 chambers. Each chamber has a specific purpose – either pumping or receiving blood – essential to the function of the heart. These physical divisions are necessary and good.

image via ddpavumba/freedigitalphotos.net
image via ddpavumba/freedigitalphotos.net

This is what came to mind yesterday when I read Psalm 86:11, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”

An undivided heart… that’s just not natural. Physically or spiritually.

Just as healthy babies are born with hearts literally divided, so they are born with hearts figuratively divided. The spiritual divisions go something like this: three chambers devoted to self – self-preservation, self-gratification, and self-actualization – and one chamber that knows it was meant for something more than self – divine longings one can’t quite put his finger on (Romans 1:20).

The heart is divided. What will that baby – who turns into a child, who turns into a teen, who turns into a young adult, who turns into an old adult (is that PC – old adult?) – pursue? Protection? Pleasure? Purpose? God?

All choices in life revolve around this question. And from the day we are born, our spirits wrestle to put our energy into the “right” thing at the “right” time. (I use quotations because most of the time we determine what is “right” through our fickle emotional filters rather than some concrete source of truth. “Right” is transient to most people, so the term really loses all meaning… I digress.)

Unfortunately, once we become believers, the parts of our divided hearts don’t supernaturally morph into one truly right chamber. We’re still sinners. Accepting Jesus doesn’t change that. So we continue to contend with our “divided heart syndrome” (Romans 7:19), which is what the Psalmist speaks to.

It’s clear David is struggling with the age-old battle between allegiance to self and allegiance to God (Romans 7:22-23). David – the man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) – still had times when he was drawn toward self, and, necessarily, away from the Lord. David recognized that his temptation to follow after his own passions, as opposed to God’s passions, needed correcting.

So he prayed.

Good thinking there.

David recognized his inability to will himself into having an undivided heart 100% committed to the Lord. No matter how great his intentions may have been, David couldn’t conjure up complete devotion to God on a consistent basis, much less a constant basis, which is what the Lord both requires (Exodus 20:3) and deserves (Revelation 4:11). David knew that degree of commitment couldn’t come from within.

So he asked the Lord to provide it, “…give me an undivided heart…”

And we’re right there with David, too. We don’t have it in us to unfalteringly follow the Lord. Good thing we don’t have to have it in us; He has it in Him. And He’d love to give it to us. Let’s ask Him for it and see what happens.

(For a musical expression of this concept, check out “Two Hands” by Jars of Clay.)

What, Exactly, is His Grace Sufficient For?

One of the go-to verses for Christians in pain is 2 Corinthians 12:9. In it God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Of course, the context is important. So bare with me while I rehash that for us.

Corinth was a city of wealth, commerce, and depravity. Sexual immorality was rampant, with prostitution being part of idol worship. Apparently, the Corinthians had a hard time separating themselves from these cultural practices. Paul tried, somewhat in vain it seems, to encourage Corinthian believers to higher standards – godly standards. Second Corinthians was actually his third letter (at least) to the group, after several lengthy personal visits to try to steer the church in the ways of the Lord. To put it mildly, Paul was frustrated and desperately wanted these believers to desire to be the Church – those called out of the world and into the Kingdom.

In chapters 10 and 11, Paul felt the need to answer a question the Corinthians seemed to be asking themselves – why should we listen to Paul?  Paul acknowledged their grumbling, reporting his awareness that “…some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing,'” (2 Corinthians 10:10). The Corinthians were feeling a bit rebellious, and they weren’t afraid to say it… when Paul wasn’t around.

Paul did his best to respond calmly the rest of chapter 10 and the first half of chapter 11, but he eventually decided sarcasm and mockery were the way to go. (Have I mentioned I love him?) He was infuriated the Corinthians were choosing to elevate false apostles’ teaching above the true Gospel he had introduced to them (2 Corinthians 11:5-6).

While defending himself, though, he didn’t want to give the impression the Corinthians should listen to him because there was something special about him. It was important they realized it was not Paul he wanted them to submit to but Christ in Paul. Paul told the story about his infamous thorn to illustrate his humanity and frailty and to emphasize only the existence of an all-powerful God could explain how a man with such a restrictive condition could be so successful.

Within this context, Paul recounted how he asked God to take away his thorn three times (2 Corinthians 12:8). And God had responded this way, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The first part of the sentence intrigues me. “My grace is sufficient for you.” What does that even mean? We Christians are quick to quote it to someone in need, but have we really nailed down what’s going on here? I haven’t.

What, exactly, is God’s grace sufficient for?

I took the verse apart in the Greek last night to try to answer that question, and you’re never going to believe what I found out. What God really means is, “My grace is enough for you.”

If you’re paying attention, you’re realizing I discovered absolutely nothing new. So I took it apart in the English and came up with this.

Grace can mean favor, approval, or blessing, typically unmerited. Enough means occurring in such a quantity as to fully meet a need. So God’s favor and blessing will fully meet our need. The question is begged, our need for what? Some needs? All needs? Specific needs?

Before we can transfer the idea to ourselves, we need to get back in Paul’s shoes to understand the original intent of the Lord.

Paul had some needs.

In the most immediate context, he had a thorn of some sort causing him some agony. God likely would have been intending to communicate His favor was enough to get Paul through that agony. God’s blessing was enough for Paul to live  for a lengthy amount of time in spite of whatever physical, spiritual, or emotional pain he was experiencing.

Zoom out a smidge, and the wider context is that Paul was defending his credibility as an apostle to the Corinthians. In the midst of their doubting his authority to speak on God’s behalf, God tells Paul, “My approval is enough.” The power behind Paul’s ministry resided in God’s approval and favor, not the Corinthians. Nothing else was needed. Even without the Corinthians’ okay, God’s approval was enough for Him to accomplish whatever He willed through Paul.

I’d also like to think the Father-heart of God wanted to remind Paul that He loved Paul. He wanted Paul to feel confident of that love and to find his identity in that love, no matter what others were saying about him. God approved of Paul, even if others didn’t, and knowing that should have fully met Paul’s need to feel secure and valued. 

Step back even farther, and we realize Paul had a nearly impossible task – to take the Gospel to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles also (Acts 13:46). The Jews thought of Paul as a traitor preaching sacrilege and would’ve rather killed him than listen to him try to convince them Jesus was the Messiah they’d been waiting on (Acts 9, 13). The Gentiles didn’t know what to do with Paul. Some were scared of him (Acts 9), some tried to worship him (Acts 14:11), some stoned him (Acts 14:19), some believed his message (Acts 14:20), and some, like the Corinthians, believed Paul initially but got angry when he held them accountable. So when God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you,” the widest application implies God’s favor was all Paul needed to successfully fulfill his life’s calling to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, Eph 3:8).

Back to the original question. For today’s believer, what is God’s grace sufficient for?

God’s grace is sufficient…

1) To survive pain. God’s blessing is enough for us to make it through any kind of physical, spiritual, or emotional pain, no matter how long that pain exists. God’s grace – His favor – is enough, all by itself, to sustain us until He determines that pain should end.

2) To empower us for ministry. God’s Kingdom purposes are accomplished by His endorsement alone, not human approval, ability, or ambition. We all have a ministry, and His grace – His blessing and approval – is enough, all by itself, to make our ministries flourish.

3) To establish our security. We all wonder, to varying degrees, if we are loved, valued, appreciated, accepted, approved of, desired, etc. Too often we look to others to affirm our worth. God’s grace – His approval – is enough, all by itself, to solidify our true worth.

4) To fulfill our life callings. We’re all here for 2 reasons: to know God and to make Him known (Exodus 9:15-16). How we make Him known, and to whom, may vary, but, ultimately, we’re all called to the same thing. And the calling is not for the feint of heart. But, God’s grace – His favor and blessing and approval – is enough, all by itself, to empower us to do what we’re supposed to be doing.

So I guess to put it succinctly (1100+ words later), God’s grace is sufficient for everything.

Get Comfortable

Last Sunday our pastor talked about the Holy Spirit as a Comforter. Matt used the illustration of our children having comfort objects – blankets, stuffed animals, etc. – they can’t get to sleep without. For whatever reason, these raggedy objects calm our children in times of stress. So should the Holy Spirit for believers.

As I mulled this object lesson over (no pun intended, but then it happened, and I could have erased it, but I think it’s kind of clever, so I didn’t, so I guess I am intending it?) it occurred to me I don’t utilize the Spirit in this way. I look to Him to direct me in truth, for advice, for assurance of salvation, but I’ve never considered Him a comforter, necessarily. I don’t go to Him to be soothed.

When I feel uneasy, insecure, or unsafe, I don’t typically turn to the Holy Spirit for comfort. I turn to friends. I turn to people I know will speak truth and encouragement to me. I turn to people I love and who I am confident love me, and my spirit is soothed by their presence. They are my comforters.

Uh-oh. As soon as I had that thought, I knew it was a problem.

In the most black and white way, I commit idolatry when I look for comfort from someone other than the Comforter. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to stabilize me in times of trouble, and I’ve been looking to people who are not God to do that for me instead. Whoops.

In a less intense way, I’ve been foolish to look to people to do imperfectly what the Holy Spirit wants to do perfectly for me. I have tremendous people in my life who love me very well and support me in all kinds of life-giving ways. But they are limited. There are times they aren’t available to talk. There are times they don’t quite understand my true heart. There are times they inadvertently fail to comfort me because they don’t always know what I need.

Not so with the Spirit. He is ALWAYS with me. Day or night. And He perfectly understands exactly what I need when I need it. And He gives me the very best comfort possible because He can’t not.

And I pass Him up regularly in exchange for the comfort of my human relationships.

Am I nuts? I feel like maybe I’ve been a little nuts in that decision… like maybe that hasn’t been the best choice, to neglect to seek comfort from the Comforter.

The good news is God is eager to show me grace. I confessed the sinfulness of my ignorant choices to pursue others instead of Him when I am in need of some comfort, and He gladly forgave me and invited me into deeper awareness of the Holy Spirit’s constant presence in my life. He’s begun to show me the blessing of being aware of Him as a constant, instant soothing object.

And I bet my friends are glad about that – takes some pressure off them.  

In Acts 9:31, Luke tells us the Church “walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (ESV). May that be true of us as we grow in Him.

Rules

The hardest part of being a Christian for me is I don’t get to make up the rules.  I’m not in charge.  I’m not running this gig and calling the shots.  I don’t get to cross out verses in the Bible I don’t like and still be a true follower of Christ.

That’s hard to deal with.  We humans like to control to “ensure” our security, our success, and to boost our pride.  (I use quotes because we can’t ensure anything by being controlling.  But the illusion makes us feel better.)

Paul speaks to this in 2 Timothy.  He says, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus…Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus…if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules,” (2 Timothy 2:1,3,5).

“Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus…”  Be confident that He empowers us, out of His grace, to do what He’s called us to do.  Among other things, He’s called us to endure hardship in the manner He prescribes –  with love, faith, and righteousness.  No easy task, but He will empower us to be successful.

“Compete according to the rules.”  Sports have rules.  If you use your hands in soccer, you are penalized.  You cannot win if you don’t abide by this rule.  If you break the rule incidentally, the other team gets the ball, and you try to obey the rule going forward.  In this case, you remain in the game, in the contest, eligible for the win.

But if you break the rule on purpose, you are penalized more severely.  The other team gets the ball, and you either get a warning card or an ejection card, depending on where you were on the field when you purposefully handed the ball.  If you intentionally use your hands again, you will be ejected, removed from the field permanently.  You can no longer win the game.

So it is in the Christian life.  There are rules – God-mandated rules – we all must abide by or suffer the consequences.  When we inadvertently break a rule, we are met with grace and love and gently corrected.  We still experience the natural consequences of our disobedience, but we aren’t disqualified from winning.

On the contrary, when we purposefully break God’s rules, repeatedly telling Him we don’t like His rules and will not adhere to them, we are met with grace and love and unpleasant discipline.  (The simple fact that we aren’t smited for our obstinance proves His grace and love).  In addition to natural consequences, we experience supernartural consequences – a hardening of our hearts toward God and a separation from His perfect will.  We become disqualified from winning.

It’s essential to note that “winning” is not “being saved”.  Paul already knows Timothy is saved in these verses.  This passage is for those who already have eternal salvation guaranteed by having accepted the blood sacrifice of Jesus.

Rather, “winning” is living in harmony with God, hitting on all cylinders in your walk.  It’s not easy to do.  Living by His rules is hard.  But when we do, we can win.  We can feel and, more importantly, be lit up by the Holy Spirit, harnessing the full power of Him to accomplish our specific Kingdom work God has prepared in advance for us to do (Acts 1:8; Ephesians 2:10).

When you are ejected from a soccer match, you can’t return to that match.  You cannot win that game.  But you will get another chance another day to play in a new game with a fresh opporunity to win.

And, praise God, so it is with Him.  When we’ve boldly defied Him, rebelling against His system of rules with every anarchic urge in our souls – when we’ve lost – He gives us another chance.  His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

We can win today….if we play by His rules.

I’ve won a handful of times in my life.  Victory is sweet and well worth any perceived loss we experience along the way.

 

Repentance Without Remorse?

I’ve spent the last week or so asking God to convict me about something so I could repent and then begin to repair what I’ve broken through my sinning.

While I was freely admitting in my mind that my action had been sin, I didn’t feel bad about it.  I wasn’t sorry.  I felt justified.

Satan used this lack of contrition to paralyze me.  He fed me heaping spoonfuls of this lie: if you don’t feel sorry, you aren’t sorry, and you can’t apologize or rectify the situation unless you feel sorry.

I agreed with Satan, and I felt stuck.  After all, I couldn’t will myself to feel bad for what I’d done.  Even if I wanted to feel totally broken up about it, I couldn’t make myself feel that way.

And then it occurred to me…  what if I don’t have to feel bad in order to repent?

My initial reaction was, “Well, if I don’t feel sorry, then my repentance would be insincere, worthless…”

But as I considered this idea a little longer, I began to wonder if that was really true. I wondered how often feelings of contrition were tied to repentance in the Bible…

The Greek word behind repent means to change one’s mind for the better, and, except in one case, was always used in the New Testament in regards to sin (Vine’s).  Feelings of contrition are inherent within the definition, but must they be in order for someone to turn from what they know is sin and pursue righteousness?

In its most basic form, repent means to choose to do something better.  Whether you feel like it or not.  Whether you feel bad about what you did to begin with or not.

If this is true, we are no longer paralyzed when we don’t feel remorse over sin.  We can still repent.  We can choose to act in a better manner next time.  We can move forward, toward righteousness, thwarting Satan’s plan to immobilize us in our pursuit of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong, feelings of contrition would definitely help motivate us to resist temptations, and I think praying for the Holy Spirit to convict us emotionally over our sin is a worthy pursuit (John 16:7-8).  (In fact, if we aren’t desiring to feel broken over sin, we have even bigger problems (Ephesians 4:17-32).)

But when the feelings of remorse just aren’t coming, we don’t have to sit and wait for them.  We can pray for them to come, and we can choose to turn from our sinful choices and pursue better choices.

“I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” Acts 26:20

Telling God No

Peter.  God love him.

He is the disciple that I relate to most.  From the excessive pride, swearing he’ll never deny Christ, to letting his emotions dictate his actions, cutting off that guy’s ear who came to arrest Jesus, Peter is a relatable dude.

After Christ’s resurrection, Peter maintains his uncanny ability to fail in his faith.

In Acts 10 Peter has a vision from the Lord.  He was praying one afternoon, and “He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air.  Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat,'” (Acts 10:11-13).

Peter realizes something supernatural is happening right now.  The text says he is in a trance.  He knows he isn’t asleep, and he is aware that it is the Lord speaking to him.  I think he is caught off guard by this experience. He probably wasn’t planning on encountering the Lord quite like this when he started praying.

And Peter’s gut-reaction to the Lord’s command to eat is telling of where Peter’s heart was.

“‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean,'” (Acts 10:14).

image via en.over-blog.com

PETER TELLS GOD NO!

This is preposterous, is it not?!

And, yet, you and I do the same thing all the time.

The Lord is telling Peter to do something outside of his comfort zone, outside of his religious practices, outside of his preconceived notions of what it means to be His follower.

When Peter was faced with making an on-the-spot decision – obey the Lord or obey the Law – Peter’s true heart shows his loyalty is to religion.

To be fair, Peter was caught off guard.  Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.  Let’s give him grace!  Surely, if he had taken the time to really think things through before responding to the Lord, he would have chosen to obey God.  Surely, his refusal to eat was merely his flesh talking, not a true representation of this disciple’s heart….

Except the Lord gives Peter two more chances.  TWO.  MORE.  In addition to the first chance.  And Peter still doesn’t obey.

“The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’  This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven,” (Acts 10:15-16).

Peter doesn’t eat.  Not the first time, not the second time, not the third time.  He tells God no.

I wonder what would have happened if Peter had eaten?  What blessing – what experience – did he miss out on by refusing the Lord?

What are we missing out on by telling God no in our own lives?  If you’re tired of wondering, find out.  Walk forth in obedience, even if what He’s asking you to do sounds crazy – is crazy – and defies all your preconceived ideas of the Christian life.

Let’s find out what we’ve been missing.