May 2012

4 Ways to Overcome Temptation

I heard a great sermon in church last Sunday. The topic was almost as hot as the near record setting temperatures outside. It was on temptation. The message was a real eye opener for me and deeply convicting. But it wasn’t anything the preacher said. It happened that I was an audience of one listening to what the congregation was saying to me as I stood behind the pulpit. Through feedback from six interactive questions I gained some incredible insight into the insidious power of temptation and most effective ways to combat it. When Paul said that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” he wasn’t just talking through his hat. (1 Corinthians 10:13) Nine out of ten people in the room told me that they are presently battling temptations in their lives. And eight out of ten admitted that it is a reoccurring temptation that they have not been able to resist. Seeing those polling results brought home the stark realization that at any given time, most godly people are locked in a spiritual battle against an enemy of their souls.

It really should not be a surprise when we consider that from the very beginning of time a colossal war been waged between the forces of good and evil, righteousness and sin, God and the devil. From Genesis chapter three onward the devil has been scheming up ways to tempt us to eat forbidden fruit and rob us of an intimate relationship with our creator.

But his insidious strategies are not limited only to the lure and captivity of sin. He also is a relentless “accuser of the brethren” who works with might and main to keep those who confess their sin imprisoned in guilt and shame. (Revelation 12:10)

Over half of our congregation this past Sunday said they were still battling guilt and shame for a sin they had confessed and been forgiven. That is a disquieting yet not surprising fact as well. All of us at one time or other has those same struggles and we are not alone. (For more on this see “Dealing with the Stain of Sin”)

Hope that does not disappoint

It is a mystery how God uses suffering in our lives to make us more hopeful. You would think the opposite would happen. But Paul tells us that “suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4 NIV) It’s obvious that suffering can produce perseverance, after all no pain, no gain. And if a person reacts properly to suffering it can also develop character. But what about hope? Ultimately how does suffering produce hope?

Two years ago this week, in the midst of stepping down from my role as a senior pastor and anticipating a new phase of life and livelihood I discovered a lump in my neck. That lump was like a squall appearing on the horizon that turned into a hurricane. It pummeled me for four months with visits to four physicians, two biopsies, a surgery to remove it, the discovery of thyroid cancer, another surgery to remove my thyroid, radioactive iodine treatment and a scar revision surgery.

Coinciding with all this income from a small business we run, which we were relying upon as part of my professional transition, totally disappeared as tornadic winds blew it away for five long months.

It was the perfect storm of trials in the area of career, health and finances. To be honest, I was so deluged by the winds and waves of life it felt like my little boat of faith was sinking and taking any life preserver of hope down with it.

I can vividly recall the sense of devastation as my plans and hope for the next chapter in my life were being swallowed up and the grip of the fear of death was threatening to drown everything I held dear.

The two year anniversary of the advent of the lump has given me pause. Several days ago, as I was contemplating the quality of my life and the depth of my hope before and after the storm, I could not help but give praise to God.

The Bible tells us that Abraham, in the midst of enduring a twenty five year trial, “even when there was no reason to hope, [he] kept hoping, believing that he would become the father of many nations.” (Romans 4:18) Another way of putting it is that “in hope against hope he believed.” This passage of scripture makes an important distinction between two kinds of hope – there is the hope that depends upon man and the hope that depends upon God. It is the difference between natural hope and super natural hope, temporal hope and eternal hope, human hope and God hope.

When the flame of human hope is extinguished as it was for Abraham (and category 4 and 5 storms have a way of doing that) there is an even greater more enduring hope from God that is available to sustain us. It is the kind of hope that is only produced and revealed through suffering.

This hope from God triumphs over despair because it is in God and His faithfulness, and not in ourselves or what we might dream of accomplishing.

That is a difficult and hard lesson to learn but 20/20 hindsight gives us God’s perspective on His hope-filled purposes for trials and suffering. My puny human hope and dreams sank during the perfect storm two years ago, but God supplanted it with His hope and my life is inexplicably better today because of it.

A condition I battled for years, pre thyroid cancer, was depression. It was something, only those closest to me were privy to. Most of the time it was like a dark, discouraging cloud hanging over my head, but there were a few times when it was debilitating.

One of the remarkable hope-filled things for which I praise God on this two year anniversary is that since having my thyroid removed, I have been free from depression. That marks a huge breakthrough in my life and makes all I went through more than worth it.

Church services and the element of surprise

What are some of the most memorable church services you have ever experienced? Matt, our worship pastor, asked all of us that question yesterday during our biweekly creative planning meeting for upcoming Sunday services. It was an instructive question because in stirring up great memories it revealed essential ingredients that make for impacting church services.

As we paused silently to consider the question each of us began to search through our own respective archives of years of doing church. For me it was like pulling out old family albums and paging through them looking for photos that sparked favorite memories from years gone by. In a matter of minutes I came up with a list of over ten very vivid pictures in my mind of services that had a major impact upon me.

These most memorable church services fell into one of four categories. They were times when 1) God’s presence was sudden, unmistakable and so powerful that it overwhelmed everyone simultaneously; 2) I was so convicted by the speaker’s message that I was drawn uncontrollably forward to the altar area to do business with God; 3) A creative or spontaneous element in the service deeply touched me both emotionally and spiritually; 4) Something bizarre happened that was unexpected, unredemptive but unforgettable.

In retrospect, as I think about it now, the one common ingredient that made those church services so memorable was the element of surprise. And in most of the cases the surprise was a function of what happened, being unplanned and spontaneous. Not surprisingly, that is typically how God works. When it comes to the way God does things the maxim “expect the unexpected” is more the rule than the exception. This modus operandi is demonstrated repeatedly throughout both the Old and New Testaments in the way God’s initiated life changing encounters with people. From Abraham to David to Mary to Paul we see God again and again surprising people through His divine intervention.

You too can be a Time Traveler

One of the movie genres I enjoy are films about time travel. The idea of being able to escape the bounds of time has always fascinated me. Ah to be done with attempts at merely managing time. Give me a time machine and I will be the master of time by rewinding it or fast forwarding it at will! No doubt you too have dreamt of being free from the constraints and pressures of time and being able to alter or redeem time.

Time as we all know marches on relentlessly and waits for no man. Someone bemoaning the facts that time flies and it is just a matter of time before time runs out, penned a timely observation. “Time is like a roll of toilet paper, the closer you get to the end the faster it goes.”

The irony of most time travel movies is that the plight of the time traveler is no different than those of us without a time machine. In classic time travel cinema like Back to the Future and its sequels, the time traveler, Marty McFly, finds himself repeatedly caught in a predicament with time running out. You know the drill: as he races against time, it’s just a matter of time before he’ll be out of time, unless he is saved in the nick of time. Where is the time machine when a guy really needs it?

Time is an enigma. It is both a friend and a foe; a blessing and a curse. Time is our most precious possession and yet we seldom treat it that way. What we do with it will determine our destiny and yet we seldom think about it that way. We can redeem time or waste time, buy time or spend time, keep time or do time, bide time or two time, save time or kill time, stretch time or squeeze time, make time or mark time, borrow time or take time.

The passage of time affects everyone differently. Time is slower for the class than for the teacher, and slower for the congregation than the preacher. Time goes faster for those on vacation than for those at work, but slower for the customer than the clerk. It’s also faster for those taking a test than the proctor, but slower for the patient than the doctor.

There is a big difference between telling time and knowing the time. When we tell time, we are simply reciting the position of the hands on the clock. That is chronological or from the Greek, chronos time. But when we know the time, we are recognizing the significance of the time to which the hands point. That is kairos (Gk) time. Kairos time might best be described as a purposeful time in our lives, filtered through God’s loving hands, in which He promises to empower us.

The Secret of Contentment

Have you ever been more in love with the idea of something more than its reality? You probably have. It’s just a different spin on the old familiar “the grass is always greener” theme. You buy that dream item only to suffer from buyer’s remorse and find yourself now dreaming of how wonderful it would be if you didn’t have it.

It is well illustrated by the boat owner’s confession. “The happiest day of my life was when I bought a boat and an even happier day was when I sold it.” I’ve known people like that and I’ve been there myself. One glorious dream I had was to have a backyard swimming pool. After my kids grew up and left home that dream morphed into a nightmare when I finally realized that no one but the birds were using it and it was costing me tons of my time, energy and money to keep it running.

Why is that such a familiar story? An ideal becomes an ordeal and we find ourselves looking for a new deal. The Apostle Paul knew all about the battle for contentment. The chronicle of the unsettling circumstances of his life with its imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks and survival from all manner of dangers is material for a doctoral thesis on contentment. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28) What better person to give us critical insight into dealing with discontent?

Writing more on contentment than any other New Testament writer, Paul reveals three things that can help us be triumphant when our ideal becomes an ordeal.

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