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Week 42 Devotional Blog (October 15-21)

Day 1

2 Samuel 10

It's important to note that David's heart is in the right place. He was trying to honor the king of Ammon, and to comfort his son. The first insight I get from looking at Nahash's advisors and how they influenced his response and what would unfold from there, is just the insecurity and fears which define us so much and end up destroying us. Nahash had a friend and ally in David and Israel. But in his suspiciousness of David's true motive, he starts a fight he can't really finish. And it's obvious that he can't finish it because he hired the Syrians in a desperate attempt to combat Israel's military prowess.

I just wonder how many of our relationships, how many of my relationships, have been destroyed or at least damaged by own skepticism and insecurities. In my fears of being exploited or taken advantage of or of being betrayed, I can unwittingly create the conflict which I wrongly assumed existed.

I guess I'm looking at Nahash and thinking that probably through this whole conflict he never even thought that he was wrong in his original assessment, that David was out to get him. His own fear provoked an aggressive response where none was needed, but all that unfolded from there, on the surface, would legitimize his original reaction... at least I suspect.

I've seen this in my life and in so many others, in interpersonal conflict where distrust predisposes us toward defensiveness and combativeness which is actually uncalled for and unnecessary. But because our acts of aggression often precipitate a like response from the other, it seems to confirm our distrust. This is a sad game that goes on in both subtle ways but also in catastrophic ways.

I'm just considering this morning my own heart and invite you to as well... To ask God for wisdom and discernment about unhealthy forms of distrust in your life. Are there relationships which deserve your trust, but because of other experiences and woundedness, you withhold trust from people who deserve it? Have you perhaps fallen into the trap of confirmation bias, interpreting others actions through the lens of what you assumed in the first place, or what you have created yourself?

Day 2

2 Samuel 11

This chapter is such a cautionary tale. This changed David's life and legacy forever. There is deep personal anguish caused by David's sin and far reaching effects of that sin in how it causes wreckage for so many people. In some significant ways, all of Israel, because David was their king, suffers the collateral damage of his own "private" sin. I will write a separate blog related to the pattern we see and how we might fight the temptations of sexual sin in our own lives and in our own sex obsessed culture. For the purposes of here, in the devotional sense, there is one thing that just haunts me here...

I can live my whole life with conviction and courage, following after God, striving to labor for him, and bear fruit for him... I can love Jesus, love his people, walk with integrity, pursue holiness and maturity, work diligently and excellently, enjoy God's blessing and favor and grace... I can make wise decision after wise decision and build my life on the strength of wisdom and discernemnt and understanding... and regardless of all that... even 20, 30, 40, 50 years of such wisdom, I AM ALWAYS A COUPLE MINUTES AND SPLIT SECOND DECISIONS from ruining my life, my marriage, my family, my ministry and my testimony.

There are any number of areas in which we can make a series of small decisions or lose our way just for a few moments, will cost us everything. But our sexual impulses are particularly vulnerable to this kind of lapse in judgement. We cannot ever go to sleep on the pursuit of sexual purity because the world, the flesh and the Devil are fiercely set against us, and the temptations and urges toward immorality can come seemingly out of nowhere. If we are not on on alert always... ever vigilant and diligent in guarding our hearts and minds and bodies from the enticing, powerful, persistent and sinful impulses to gratify the flesh, we are very likely to follow David down this path of destruction.

Don't be a fool and think you are beyond this, no matter what your history of uprightness and purity may be. We are all susceptible to this area of sin... men and women alike. We must actively distance ourselves from the temptations that are coming for us... we must "flee sexual immorality," not hope we don't fall into it. This is a great misnomer... that we fall into sexual sin. We don't. We make choices every day, many times a day often, that move us in the direction of holiness or of fleshliness.

  • What choices are you making today? and in what direction are they moving you? (think interactions, internet activity, entertainment choices, thoughts, etc.)

  • How are you pursuing purity and fidelity?

Day 3

2 Samuel 12:1-15

Stories are incredibly powerful. I was talking with someone the other night, and we were discussing movies and he mentioned one I'd never seen before and he said you have to see that movie. When I asked why, he went on to tell me that God used a single line from that movie to change his whole life. There was a profound impact on him personally which originated from a movie. I love that.

Stories are so powerful in awakening our imaginations, connecting our emotions to real life experiences, and even in communicating truths which we don't have words to articulate. Stories draw us out and reveal things within. I love movies and tv and good books that move me and leave me wrestling with new thoughts, considerations, ideas and feelings. And this is what Nathan, in his prophetic brilliance uses to confront and expose David, as well as to appeal to his conscience. Jesus uses stories in similar ways.

Anyway... there's so much I could elaborate on here, but what's primary in my heart that God is incredibly merciful to David, considering the gravity of his sin. But even with God's love for David, his forgiveness of David, and hisgrace and mercy toward David, there are still enormous consequences which David suffers and those around him and under his leadership. God can and does forgive every sin repented of and every repentant sinner... He may even remove the greatest consequence sin that is death and separation from him.b But God almost never removes all the consequences of sin.

With real divine grace and forgiveness extended to David, he must still walk out the long term pain and suffering which his sin has caused and created. And true repentance accepts those consequences and remains humbly repentant in the face of those consequences. Beloved, our sins are real and their effects are real. And while God is good and gracious and merciful and forgiving, he will not shield us from all the consequences of which our sin brings upon us. Mature, humble and repentant people take responsibility for sin, and it's consequences without being entitled to anything better or embittered by the self-inflicted pain.

Day 4

2 Samuel 12:16-31

This is such a personally challenging text for me. David begins to experience the real pain and consequences of his sin. Things get very dark for him. But there is this retained conviction of the goodness of the Lord and his predisposition toward grace. David continues to cry out to God for mercy and grace because he knows that’s at the core of who God is. So even though he knows he’s guilty and takes full responsibility he is still banking on the possibility that God may relent from calamity and suffering on him.

This is challenging to me personally because whenever I experience pain or consequences for my own sin, I still tend to question God’s grace and mercy and his fundamental goodness. I tend to start crying out to him for his kindness and lifting of the consequences because I resolved to the suffering I’ve brought on myself or the suffering that seems inevitable. When I feel the effects of sin, and it doesn’t need to be my own, I tend to just resign myself to what’s coming. I stop believing at a certain point that God’s heart is full of love and grace toward me and others… that he’s abounding in steadfast love is core theological conviction of mine, but it is a functionally distant reality.

My habit is to see sin in me or others, anticipate it’s logical conclusion, resign myself to that future and try to figure out to bear up under it… I have to wonder today, am I even a Christian. What kind of Christian does not impulsively and instinctively consider God’s involvement a real factor… and a game changing one at that. For all of David’s failure here, and it’s severe, I’m amazed at his faith and God consciousness… the discipline and correction of the Lord has not diluted his sense of the compassion of the Lord one drop. He’s unwaveringly convinced of God’s inherent kindness even in the face of severe consequences. In fact, he seems to see the severity of the consequences as still grace from God, because he deserved worse.

I wonder if all these things aren’t marks of true repentance. It seems that repentance of sin and turning toward God necessitates that we don’t scorn or resent the Lord’s discipline but we receive it as a severe mercy that is for our good and which comes from his goodness. Even as David hopes in the mercy of God and believes in his grace, he doesn’t experience it in the form of God lifting the consequences of sin. So his hope is unfulfilled, yet he accepts the judgements of the Lord, and responsibility for his sin, and he persists in worship. That’s crazy.

In moments like that I want to escape, not worship. But David worshipped his way into this mess, allowing the momentary worth of physical pleasure to overtake him, and now he’s worshipping his way out of this mess, allowing the glory and grace of God to capture his heart again. And God was yet gracious again, giving David another son on whom the Lord’s affections were set and through whom his covenant with David would be fulfilled.

Day 5

2 Samuel 13:1-22

This is just a terrible story of what is far too commonly experienced by women throughout history… the exploitation, abuse and predatory treatment of evil men. And there is no other way to categorize it. The sexual abuse and mistreatment of women is despicable and wicked. It’s inhuman. And before we think, as men, that we are innocent of this, let’s at least take the time to consider the culture we live in. Rape is evil. Molestation is evil. Sexual assault and harassment of every kind is evil.

Much is being made about this even this last week with the Hollywood scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and the dozens of women coming forward alleging sexual assault by him and other powerful people throughout the film industry. Not to be overlooked is the fact that we voted in a President who is known to have sexually assaulted women, and largely on the strength of support from the evangelical Christian community. Statistics say that 1 in 3 women will be sexually abused by the time they’re 18 years old. That seems high to some of us. But I would tell you, anecdotally, that as a pastor, these numbers seem to bear out.

This kind of behavior is normal in the world of political elites in Washington and cultural elites in Hollywood. These two centers of power sadly and stupidly have major influence on the shaping of our values, ethics and morality as a nation. Is it any surprise that sexual violence, then, is more normative than anyone wants to admit. 70% of men are regular viewers of pornography. Sex trafficking is a global crisis. These are industries making massive profit off the sexual exploitation of women, which only happens because there is a market for the product. These are consumer driven problems.

The average boy looks at porn for the first time around 10-11 years old. By 12-13 they have unfettered access to pornography in their pockets, for both their private and public viewing pleasure. Studies show that pornography nurtures violence toward women, abuse of women, sexual exploitation of women and the general dehumanizing of women.

This is not a problem isolated to the ancient world or to any other sphere spanning time or geography. This is an enormous problem in our nation, in our communities, in our neighborhoods, and quite possibly in our homes. We have to be willing to look at our own lives and examine in what ways we may contribute to a culture of exploitation and sexual abuse. And more importantly, we must be willing to renounce any such participation. It’s not enough to be personally innocent… we must be proactively protective of the vulnerable, and aggressively unsafe for predators.

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Week 41 Devotional Blog (October 8-14)

I skipped 2 weeks of the blog here while spending time away with Betsy and our two girls in Hawaii. I spent a third week playing catch up from the 2 weeks away and I'm back in the blogging saddle as of today. We're in Week 41 of 2017 and picking up our reading plan there which you can access below. Sorry if my time off through you off in any way. I'm excited to get back into the rhythm of bible reading and journaling here.

Day 1

2 Samuel 6:16-23

Well we're diving back in here to an interesting text that requires some thoughtful engagement. At it's core this is passage is about the presence of the Lord, and therefore the blessing of the Lord, returning to Israel through the recovery of the Ark of the Covenant. What we in these verses are two different responses to the presence of God reflected in two different approaches to worship.

Obviously, this is a significant event worthy of celebration and David enters into that in a full hearted freedom. As King of Israel, he knew more than anyone how essential the presence and power of God was to their flourishing as a people. Therefore, David danced before the Lord in worship, while his wife, Michal, looked on in embarrassment. I wonder which of these you tend toward...

SELF-FORGETFULNESS

David's personality is one of emotional expressiveness. David is utterly overwhelmed by the joy and relief and expectation that comes with God's renewed presence among them. There is personal excitement for David, but also the scaled joy of knowing the larger ramifications. He is overcome with gatitude toward God and belief that His presence changes everything. David loses sight of himself because he is fixated on the glory of God, the power of God and the faithfulness of God that have reinvigorated him with hope and anticipation.

Some of us encounter the presence of God and are undone by it. Depending on personality, maybe it takes expressions of dancing and leaping like David. Maybe you close your eyes and lift your hands, or kneel quietly and focus reverantially on the Lord's goodness. Whatever outward expression our response of worship takes is not super important. It's that in the presence of God we become hyper focused on God. Beholding the glory of Christ distracts us from the smallness of our own lives and releases us from the pettiness of our own egos, if only for a few moments.

For some of us, we no longer care what we look like or sound like, or how others may be perceiving us. We just get lost in the infinite perfections of Jesus, and our whole person gets gripped by the glories and grace of God.

SELF-PREOCCUPATION

On the other hand, v. 16 says that Michal, "despised him in her heart." Her resentment of him and his expression of worship was not surface level... it was deep. And she gives voice to that when he returns home, sarcastically pointing out how undignified and foolish he looked. There is no indication that David was naked in a public worship setting, but that his wife felt he was dressed down... that appeared and acted in manner not befitting a king.

This was the daughter of Saul as the text reminds us. She's grown up in royalty. She has been conditioned to value propriety and decorum and to always be mindful of appearances. Now she's married to the new king, and rather than handling himself in a regal and refined manor, he loses his sense of "appropriateness".

Some of us encounter the Lord's presence and retain self-consciousness. We don't want to appear out of control or too deeply affected and so we keep managing appearances. We're worried that others may be looking or watching and defining us by some uncharacteristic and embarrassing behavior. We're afraid that we'll look stupid or foolish and be made fun of or thought little of. We can't get fully excited about God's presence because we're too concerned with managing people's perceptions.

God's presence and power provoke a response from us. The question is whether it will provoke self-forgetfulness in light of His surpassing worth, or self-preoccupation in light of our inflated thoughts of us which diminish his infinite worth.

Day 2

2 Samuel 7:1-17

This is ultimate reality in a nutshell. The presence of the Lord giving us rest on all sides from our surrounding enemies. Life is filled with anxiety, tension, stress and striving. We labor to survive, defend, pretend, protect ourselves and those we care about from all manor of attacks and assaults. We grapple for peace, internally and externally. We’re grope for understanding of things within us and all around us. We grind for success and progress personally, relationally and vocationally. We grasp after fulfillment and pleasure and a sense of meaning and purpose. The world, the flesh and the devil constantly creating new temptations, trials and tests…

Jesus invades that space. He comes to live and dwell among us. To fulfill the impossible demands of God’s law and to defeat the law of sin and death. He is brutally killed, victoriously raised, gloriously ascended, and powerfully revealed as Savior, Lord, Christ and King by the Holy Spirit who bears witness to his supremacy so that we might believe and receive new life… a life of rest on all sides, from all our surrounding enemies. As Augustine said, “our hearts will be restless until they find rest in you.”

David was drawn in to some sense of that reality in 2 Samuel 7. And the ultimate experience of that reality is promised in v. 16, when God promises to David, “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ”

That never diluted, never diminished, never ending peace and rest on all sides from all our surrounding enemies would come through the line of David, through the son of David, Jesus Christ. Solomon was surely a son to David through which the promise of v. 14-16 are kept, but they’re ultimate fulfillment is in Jesus… as the hymn says,

*When fears are stilled

and strivings cease

My comforter, my all in all,

here in the love of Christ I stand

Day 3

2 Samuel 7:18-29

This prayer of David's is just loaded with sound doctrine and rich theological truth. If we were to take this at face value, just these 12 verses have this to say about God...

  • God is Sovereign over our lives... he directs our steps (v. 18)
  • The most surprising and unlikely things God does with our lives, are small for him... his power is far beyond anything we can get our heads around.(v. 19)
  • God knows the future. (v. 19)
  • God speaks and communicates to with his people. (v. 19)
  • God knows us intimately... there is nothing hidden from him. (v. 20)
  • God's mercy and blessing are a gift of grace... that is they are not deserved or earned but according to his own heart and his own promises. (v. 21)
  • God is faithul and dependable. (v. 21)
  • God reveals his grace, and makes it known to his people... that is he discloses his love and his heart to us. (v. 21)
  • God is great! He is above all things and beyond all things. He is transcendant. (v. 22)
  • God is incomparable... there is no other god besides Him. He alone is God. (v. 22)
  • God is a redeemer. (v. 23)
  • He mighty and miraculous and awesome. (v. 23)
  • He displays his glory and upholds his glory and does all things for his glory. (v. 23)
  • He establishes a people according to his own will and for his own pleasure. (v. 24)
  • He is a God who keeps his promises and honors his word. He is utterly truthful. (v. 25)
  • His word and his name and his glory are forever... he is eternal. (v. 25-26)
  • Not only is he eternal, but the life and peace and joy of his people is eternal. (v. 26)
  • We know nothing of ultimate reality apart from God's revelation. (v. 27)
  • Even our courage to pray comes from God and who he has revealed himself to be... we pray to him and believe because he's shown himself trustworthy. (v. 27)
  • God's promises are true and good. (v. 28)
  • What God's word declares determines what is (v. 29)
  • God gladly blesses his people... he delights to graciously extend his favor and honor his word to us. (v. 29)
  • We are SERVANTS of the Lord... we belong to Him... our purpose is to advance His purpose and display His glory. (v. 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29)

This is a pretty good starting point for knowing who God is... I wonder if our thoughts of God and prayers to God reflect the loftiness of David's thoughts of God and his prayer to God.

Maybe today is a good day to pray and declare to the Lord what you believe about him... write it down. It doesn't have to be comprehensive list of what you believe about God, but at least take some time to make an extensive list... Do it for your own sake to calrify your own thoughts of God. You may find just thinking about him helps to bolster and reaffirm your faith. Or maybe this process reveals your thoughts about God are too fuzzy and too small. And you need to read and pray and study and get clearer and loftier and more accurate in your understanding of who God has revealed himself to be.

Day 4

2 Samuel 8

Day 5

2 Samuel 9

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Week 37 Devotional Guide (September 10-16)

Day 1

Acts 23:23-35

Paul is a really vulnerable position here. He as at the mercy of 2 layers of unjust systems... yet he is using them according to his understanding of them in ways that platform the gospel and preserve his own life. Paul is a citizen of heaven first, but he is not ignorant of the laws of the land and his rights as a legal citizen of Rome. This is a great example to us of being culturally engaged and savvy while not being culturally bound. Paul is leveraging laws and jurisdictions and politically driven realities within the different ruling bodies for gospel advancement and personal protection.

This is what Christian presence demands of us in our own society... that we become thoroughly engaged where we are and well educated as to the intricacies and nuances from the different spheres of culture so that we can leverage our place for gospel purposes. Paul is not a doormat for needless and unjust suffering here. And neither should we be. We are biblically faithful in our Christian witness when we expose injustice, stand up against corruption and tyranny, and assert our rights in a winsome way... That's not unchristian at all.

We should labor for equity and speak out against injustice of all kinds. But how we do this matters. And that we maintain our witness in the midst of that injustice matters. We do our part, and as we see in this situation, God will do what only He can do... which includes his ability to use the arm of even godless governing officials and legal processes to preserve and protect his people and his purposes. So, we humbly do the possible, and then represent him boldly in whatever direction things go. That's what missionaries do... and if you're a Christian, than you are a missionary and called to represent Him in all things and at all times.

  • So what does it look like to leverage your place and position for gospel representation? What does gospel fidelity require of you in in your vocation, location, and social situation? Consider one concrete thing you can do today to explicitly represent Jesus.

Day 2

Acts 24:1-21

There is one word in this whole text that oddly has landed on me today. Paul is on trial for his life. He's been beaten, falsely accused, harshly judged, unjustly imprisoned, publicly ridiculed, and personally attacked all for his devotion to Christ and the gospel in the midst of a religious community to which he once belonged. His life is on the line and with his life, presumably, his ministry is on the line.

Paul is sitting there listening to all these lies and accusations and mischaracterizations, and Acts 23:10 slaps me in the face. Paul responds to these accusations, not aggressively, defiantly, angrily, stubbornly, boldly, or even frustratedly or impatiently. Paul defended himself, not defensively, forcefully or confrontationally. He defended himself cheerfully. That's astonishing to me.

I cringe to think how rarely I would be characterized by cheerfulness, even when things are good. I must confess that even in my upbeat state I'm more often characterized by intensity than cheerfulness. And when I defend myself on something, I'm most assuredly to be characterized by defensivenessness if I'm to be characterized accurately. I'm struck by this thought... that I can legitimately defend myself or even the gospel, without being defensive. And I wonder too, if cheerfulness itself is not it's own defense against accusations.

As the pastor of a church and a parent to 6 children, I have experienced an accusation or two. Oh, how much I long to have a rootedness in Christ and absorption in the Spirit that would empower a cheerful disposition toward those people who think little of me, and toward those words which disparage me. Most days I want to be free from such accusations. Today, Acts 23 has given me a new and greater desire... to be cheerful in the face of such things.

And let me add to this, that I want no part of a frivolous cheerfulness... I want real cheerfulness. I don't want to pretend to be unaffected while my blood boils. I want to be genuinely grounded in the joy of my union with Christ and his more-than-adequate defense of me, so that whatever defense I might offer flows out of a secure standing in the grace of Jesus which defines me.

I'm convinced that my lack of cheerfulness in general is one of the most limiting factors in my effectiveness in ministry. And I'm convinced that a lack of cheerfulness among Christian's is one of the crippling factors in our witness as a whole.

Day 3

Acts 24:22-25:12

There are two separate verses that say very similar things. Felix, the Roman governing official, along with his successor, Festus, are both said to have wanted to "do the Jews a favor." The idea here is that both wanted to be in the good graces of the Pharisees. We aren't told why they wanted this, just that they wanted this. And it's puzzling because they were in authority over the Pharisees and Israel. If anything, you would think the Pharisees would want to do the Roman governor a favor, not the other way way around.

So rather than speculate on the possible reasons or the psychology behind Felix and Festus wanting to please the Pharisees, I just want to acknowledge that that was their desire, and it's something we can all relate to if we're honest. We all want to please different people for different reasons. And we can't always explain why. But something in us deep down wants approval, affirmation, validation, support and the favor of certain people. Sure, some of us are incessant people pleasers... we want everybody to be happy with us. But all of us want certain people to be happy with us. Even those of us wired to not care what people think of us, we care what some people think of us.

Neither Felix nor Festus after him found any evidence against Paul or reason to punish Paul according to any of the charges brought against him. They protected Paul at some level, you could argue. But both left Paul in prison solely to do the Pharisees a solid. That is complete corruption and injustice. And even if we aren't all positioned with official capacity to commit such acts, we are all positioned to treat people equitably and graciously in different arenas. And we are all susceptible to this temptation to treat people unfairly and gracelessly, in the pursuit of someone else's approval. We are all tempted to gain personally and enhance our own standing by the subtle and seemingly harmless treatment of others, which is actually unjust and an assault on their dignity.

Felix and Festus are a vivid example of how we all bend toward exploitation in our relationship to people, whether individuals or groups. And they provide a clear contrast to God's heart toward us and for us.

The gospel reinforces the intrinsic value of every person and the significance of every life. The gospel levels social hierarchy and radically reorients around us around equality and charity. The gospel is so powerful precisely because it perfectly displays the divine design for the use of power, which is to take up the cause of the vulnerable, the marginalized and the oppressed.

We've all been Paul in this scenario. But we've all been Felix and Festus too. This reminds me that I want to consciously fight the impulse to please people of power, status and influence, particularly when it comes to further disgracing and mistreating those who are already more weak and vulnerable.

Day 4

Acts 25:13-27

It's just a remarkable thing when you consider that God has literally set Paul before the most powerful man in the world. Paul is still in chains, but it's as a prisoner that he is sitting before kings and governing officials to proclaim the gospel. We've read previously that everyone in different cities or areas had heard the gospel because of Paul's ministry and the expansion of the church. But God is orchestrating things in such a way as to set Paul before people of incredible power and influence.

I think about where Paul referes to himself as a prisoner for the Lord, or a slave of Christ... I wonder how much these things paint his perspective. Sure, he is a prisoner of the Jews, and the Romans, but he realizes that while he is bound the gospel is being loosed. While he appears on lock down, the grace of Christ is being advanced. And Paul sees God's purposes unfolding despite man's purposes.

Day 5

Acts 26:1-11

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One Way Love

"What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of lovable... Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It hs everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that has nothing to do with weights and meassures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called "gifts"... Grace is one-way love. The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience... Take an inventory of yourself. Watch other people about whose happiness you care. You will see it over and over: one-way love lifts up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life." (Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice, p. 36-37)

We are always in danger of growing callous or cold toward anything with deep meaning which we are exposed to continually or repeatedly. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. But grace is to important an idea... indeed, it's to important a reality to let ourselves harden to it's richness. Grace is to the soul what oxygen is to the body. It is absolutely necessary to the sustaining of life, much less to the flourishing of life. We live on grace. We thrive on grace. We draw energy and hope from grace. We are strengthened by grace. We are healed by grace. Grace imparts meaning. Grace is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Our souls can only breathe in an environment of grace. Anything else contaminates our lives and suffocates us. And here's the problem: while all of us have a need for grace to survive, we are pathologically disposed to withholding grace from one another. We need one-way love. We were designed to operate on that and out of that. But sin has rewired us to function on conditions of reciprocity. We fixate on even handedness. We demand tit for tat.

Love conditioned on the performance of the other, or the assets contributed by the other, or the benefits that come to us from the other is inherently anti-grace. But it seems right to us. We all want grace and know we need grace, but we are determined to fight for and defend gracelessness. We inject toxins into an atmosphere which we know must stay clean for our survival.

That poison comes into our environment through assumptions like, "I deserve better," "they owe me more", "I can't believe they did that", "how dare you think that of me", "I just wanted...", or other seemingly benign thought patterns and beliefs. Subtly, what's happening beneath the surface, is we are breathing in the air of exploitation that sees the other as a means of gain. I don't mean criminal exploitation. I simply mean that there is a predisposition in every one of us that gladly seeks what we want from another with little or no consideration to them. We are naturally relational predators, seeking to have our needs and desires met by others while giving little or no consideration for what they need or may desire.

Oh sure, on the surface, we care and give and contribute ourselves too. But I've noticed in walking with others what I've also noticed in my own heart: that I tend to always think I'm giving more than my share and never quite receiving what I deserve. This is the natural system of weights and measures which we administrate always in our favor internally, if not externally. This is the contaminated air our spiritual lungs breathe in when they're made for the clean air of grace. And we keep inhaling it to our own demise.

We have been covered by grace in such a way that we no longer need to breathe the poison air of guardedness. We no longer need to breathe the toxic air of "getting mine." Jesus has insulated us from that pollution, and he's purified the atmosphere with the grace of his completed work. He gave himself fully to us, without reservation and without reciprocity. He withheld nothing from us and opens his arms wide to us. There is no self-protection in Jesus nor self-preoccuptation. Only self-emptying, one-way love.

If we'll start to breathe in the clean air of the gospel, we may just find the spiritual lung capacity we need to take back the hill of dysfunctional and damaging relationships which have grown out of the soil of gracelessness. We cannot bask in the one-way love of Christ and then continually love others based on their ability to fulfill our subjective requirements of them. Grace necessarily abandons any claims on others to meet my felt needs and expressed desires. Instead, grace reorients us toward the needs and desires of the other with no expectation or requirement of reciprocity from the other.

May the grace of Christ re-oxygenate your soul today so that you are both breathing in and breathing out one-way love.

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Week 36 Devotional Guide (September 3-9)

Day 1

Acts 21:17-36

Paul's Freedom

We actually see, in these verses, Paul embodying some of the themes that are threaded throughout his New Testament letters. Paul emphasized the freedom we've received in Jesus, particularly from the burden of the Law. He stresses salvation by grace alone, through faith, in Christ alone, that this "not the result of works, so that no man may boast." And yet here, he almost betrays these doctrinal distinctives which are so key to Christian theology and an understanding of the biblical gospel. But it's very instructive for us.

Paul's emphasis on freedom is different than our modern American emphasis on freedom. We tend to think of freedom as our individual rights to asserted on our own behalf. Paul sees our freedom as having right which we are empowered to lay down for the good of others. That is a radically different view of freedom. And that's the freedom Paul display here.

He is asked to engage with Jewish religious practices which the gospel has freed him from, and which Paul proclaims as oppressessive, enslaving and anti-gospel. And Paul willingly and humbly does enter into these practices in order to remove barriers to the gospel among the Jewish Christians. Paul does not want to present a stumbling block as he would later write about in the epistles. This is such a good example of how love for his brothers and devotion to the gospel led Paul to do that which he felt free not to do. His focus was the honor and glory of Christ. And what we see here in Acts 21 is Paul didn't just preach or write about that... he lived that.

Paul's Suffering

In the later part, v. 27-36, we see just some of what Paul was willing to suffer on account of the gospel. I just think about our brothers and sisters across the world who suffer like this for identifying with Jesus and proclaiming the gospel. And I think about our own cultural descent and the increasing hostility toward the gospel and Christianity.

We certainly aren't to this point yet, but the insanity of the Jewish leaders, plotting against and violently persecuting Paul for believing and preaching a doctrine counter to their own, is something our culture is moving toward rapidly. For Jews, it was the dogma of Mosaic law. And for us as Christians, we could certainly become consumed with religious conformity to the point of personal cruelty. We must guard against such drift and corruption of the biblical gospel.

But it's our cultural doctrine of tolerance and inclusivism that is reminiscent of the Jewish response here. An ethos of universal acceptance and embrace of all lifetsyles is underneath a hatred and hostility toward Christian conviction on moral matters in general and sexual ethics and identity in particular. To be on the "wrong side" of these issues in todays climate is to subjet oneself to public shaming at the very least. Worse things are coming for God's people in the U.S... it's essential that we are grounded in the grace of God if we are to hold fast to the word of truth against the mounting social pressure to accommodate the culture, and to steadfastly endure with Jesus, whatever the cost.

Day 2

Acts 21:37-22:21

There are lots of little things in this text that I notice... like in v. 38 where the Roman ruler links Paul to the "Assassins in the wilderness," like he's a gang leader or something. This is so common in our culture. So much speculation and rumors linking people to causes and other people and cartonnish portrayal that are aimed to discredit and embarrass people we oppose. I can only imagine the blog articles, tweets and social media posts about Paul in the first century and what they would have said about him. There is a degree of silliness out there that we simply must not participate or get caught up in... Foolish arguments and controversies as Paul would later call them. They're to be avoided now as much as ever.

I appreciate Paul's approach to his own defense too. He speaks the lagnuage of his accusers, and establishes common ground with his accusers, as a precursor to sharing his testimony with his accusers. He even identifies himself with the Jews as one who formerly persecuted and killed Christians. He's not posturing as better than them or even different than them. He's simply saying, "I was just like you... even more zealous than you... but something happened. I encountered someone."

Paul is using his own defense as a defense of the gospel. I love that. You can't shut this guy up. No matter what they do, he's confronting people with the reality of Jesus, crucified and risen. Wherever God gives him an audience, and no matter the context, he's going to bring up Jesus. Nobody has to accept his testimony of Christ, but everybody is going to have to consider his testimony of Christ.

I wonder if Jesus is real enough to you that you can't help but speak of him to others. This isn't about a goal or program or commitment or something we should do... it's about our identity being so bound to Jesus, our hearts being so captured by his glory, and our lives being so tied to his purposes that, like Peter and John in the early part of Acts, "we can't help but speak of what we've seen and heard."

Day 3

Acts 22:22-29

The point at which Paul's Jewish audience stopped listening was the point at which Paul explicitly expanded God's salvation to include the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised. There are all kinds of legal things in play here, and Paul's familiarity with the various laws being enforced or violated by the different governing bodies, and who had what jurisdiction over which aspects of life. I don't want to get bogged down in those things here...

I'm just overwhelmed that the Jews actually were listening to and seemingly considering Paul's testimony until he had the audacity to place Gentiles under the umbrella of redemption. They had a murderous and violent outrage over his suggesting that a salvation they did not believe in was available to and inluded non-Jews.

v. 22 exposes the racism and nationalism that was prominent in first century Israel, as it is among 21st century peoples. This is an evil and dehumanizing instinct that pervades all human societies throughout human history. Some mask it better than others, but we must be aware of this deformity in our own hearts and honest that we too are tempted to diminish the worth of people based on earthly factors. We have an instinct to elevate ourselves above others based on factors such as race, ethnicity, status, success, neighborhood, dress, religion, sexuality, education level, political affiliation, and all manner of other things.

The intrinsic worth and dignity of every person is equal regardless of their standing before God. We are all image bearers of God and our lives have eternal value and earthly significance. Additionally, the scope of redemption and the gospel is as wide as our diversity dares to categorize us. Everyone is within the reach of God's grace. We are all invited to come to Christ, without regard to our past sin or present status or personal stories... we are all welcomed on the same basis: repentance of sin and faith in Christ.

To define anyone outside of the scope of the gospel is to deny the gospel. Period. I think about the language of John's gospel, and how Jesus, over and over again, offers salvation to "anyone" who believes; welcomes "whoever" will come; and promises real life to "everyone" who eats and drinks of him. The gospel is good news for anyone, whoever and everyone, always.

I hope our gospel is big enough to include forgotten people. I hope our gospel offers dignity and deliverance to the most marginalized. I hope the grace we've been given is sufficient for the most morally deficient people in our lives. I hope the grace that we cherish so deeply is the grace that we embody faithfully. If it's not, it's not the gospel and grace of the real Jesus.

Day 4

Acts 22:30-23:11

Paul proves to be quite clever here… it makes me think of Jesus’ urging us to be shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves. Paul simply uses what he knows about the Sanhedrin against them… that there are doctrinal matters that they are greatly divided on and it’s easy to spark that controversy throw them into upheaval. So Paul frames his testimony before the Roman authorities in such a way as to provoke the Jewish council to this infighting described. Luke points out that Paul knew exactly what he was doing and it worked.

An observation I would make here is that we followers of Jesus are too often prone to playing the part of the Pharisees and the Sadducees here. We are too easily distracted from our main objective of declaring and displaying the gospel, and provoked instead to argue with each other about secondary or peripheral matters of doctrine. This emasculates mission and undermines our witness. That’s why Paul consistently calls us out of such foolishness and fruitlessness. Even if you win the dumb argument you’re having you are likely losing your voice, influence or testimony. Winning an argument or making a point is not worth the price of a compromised witness. We can’t sacrifice relational beauty on the altar of doctrinal clarity. The gospel produces a culture where both are taken very seriously.

Sadly, though sometimes unfairly, the Christian community is known more for it’s doctrinal doggedness and despised for our relational laziness. I think we can learn from what Paul incites among the Jews here, and guard against such pettiness and silliness that causes people not to take us or the gospel seriously.

Just notice v. 11 before you move on… “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” God was very much involved and present with Paul. He was speaking to Paul and ministering to Paul. Paul is drawing strength and courage from the reassurance of God’s protection and plan.

That’s a particular promise to Paul in that moment, but what it tells us more generally is that God is near to his people as they suffer for his sake. And he speaks to us and strengthens us as we endure for his purposes. Jesus promised to always be with us, even to the very end of the age, and Paul is a living testimony of His faithfulness to keep that promise and empower him to keep pouring himself out for the glory of God among the Gentiles.

Day 5

Acts 23:12-22

So, with God’s presence and reassurance, Paul is not fearfully wondering what’s next, he’s confidently moving forward in faith. God did not tell Paul anything about how he would get from Jerusalem to Rome, or what factors would play in. God didn’t tell him it would be painless or easy. He simply told him he wasn’t done with Paul yet. And independently of that, God is positioning other people favorably disposed toward Paul… so Paul’s nephew gets clued into what’s going, outs the Jewish leaders, and the Romans get another example of their corruption and backwards administration of justice.

So, God uses the Roman empire that’s adamantly opposed to Christianity, to protect Paul from the Jewish council who also hates Christianity. And at each step along the way, they keep creating a context for Paul to speak of the gospel and represent Christianity to a wider and more influential group of the very people who oppose Christianity. The gospel they want silenced, they keep giving a platform to have proclaimed. This is God displaying his divine power over earthly forces to use even them and his enemies in service to his purposes.

Whatever you fear, grieve or despise about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, I hope you’ll see it as under the sovereign rule of God and trust that sovereign rule to cover both the means and ends of his good purposes for you, his people and his creation.

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