Psalm 1 – Choose Real Happiness

The truly happy person
    doesn’t follow wicked advice,
    doesn’t stand on the road of sinners,
    and doesn’t sit with the disrespectful.
Instead of doing those things,
    these persons love the Lord’s Instruction,
    and they recite God’s Instruction day and night!
They are like a tree replanted by streams of water,
    which bears fruit at just the right time
    and whose leaves don’t fade.
        Whatever they do succeeds
.

That’s not true for the wicked!
    They are like dust that the wind blows away.
And that’s why the wicked will have no standing in the court of justice—
    neither will sinners
    in the assembly of the righteous.
The Lord is intimately acquainted
    with the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked is destroyed. (Common English Bible)

True happiness happens when we conform to disciplines of a good life and eschew practices that go against the grain of goodness. That statement might be a bit difficult to accept. Frankly, it is for me, and I wrote it.

You see, I’m not much of a conformity sort of guy. I like creatively doing my own thing, man. Bucking the system and questioning the rules is just something I do. Conformity tends to have a negative connotation with me – like a group of unthinking lemmings running off a cliff to their death.

Yet, the truth is that, although there is a wide range of creative choices we have for most everything, we as humans best function and discover happiness when we are in sync with our Creator. So, we can choose to ignore our foundational human hard-wiring, or we can live into it as the unique individuals we are.

Those two ways of shaping our lives are the path of the righteous and the path of the wicked. The way of the righteous leads to human flourishing, relational connection, and a vast spiritual life. Alternatively, the way of the wicked leads to human degeneration, disconnection from others, and spiritual death. It is to be out of sync with who we are as people.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer of the sixteenth-century, Martin Luther, framed the two opposing ways as the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross of Christ is G-d’s attack on human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. It is the narrow road of grace.

A theology of glory is seeking to be radically independent – to rely primarily, perhaps even exclusively, on our own laurels and personal way of doing things. Although these might appear to be outwardly fine, they feed and water themselves from a wicked stream, devoid of grace.

Whenever we place our complete trust in self and forsake faith in something or someone outside of ourselves, it is a highway to the grave.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works and to do good so that others will observe our goodness, rather than doing them out of the good soil of being planted in ancient and wise instruction.

Embracing tried and true practices of righteousness; delighting in G-d’s law; meditating on sound instruction; privately pouring over the large body of wisdom we have available to us; and diligently seeking to put it all into action is the way of good people who shall surely realize human happiness. They will yield gracious fruit. They will know blessing.

Joyful are people of integrity,
    who follow the instructions of the Lord.
Joyful are those who obey his laws
    and search for him with all their hearts.

Psalm 119:1-2, NLT

Serving only to be seen; seeking public accolades and personal recognition as a sole motivator; and disrespecting others to prop up individual respect is the way of the wicked. They don’t bother to consult the ancient ways of happiness. Instead, they pridefully believe they know what is best.

“You’re like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it’s all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh. People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” (Matthew 23:27-28, MSG)

Abundance, generosity, gentleness, and grace marks the righteous because G-d is abundantly gracious and generous. Jesus is the gentle shepherd who mercifully and lovingly leads anxious sheep to the quiet pastures of settled happiness. Indeed, the Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Only looking out for number one, stinginess, withholding good, hoarding, and angry criticism identifies the wicked. They have judgment in their future because they add no value to the great needs of humanity. Unhappiness is their lot.

We have choices. We can choose conformity to established patterns of godly instruction and happiness – or we can choose to rely solely on our own ingenuity and/or brawn to eke out a morsel of satisfaction.

Choose wisely, my friends.

O Holy Wisdom, direct us on your path. Make us worthy of your teachings and open our hearts to accept your embrace, that we may serve you in peace and grace. Amen.

Psalm 11 – Fight, Flight, or Faith

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The Lord is my fortress!
    Don’t say to me,
    “Escape like a bird
    to the mountains!”
You tell me, “Watch out!
Those evil people
    have put
    their arrows on their bows,
and they are standing
in the shadows,
    aiming at good people.
What can an honest person do
    when everything crumbles?”

The Lord is sitting
in his sacred temple
    on his throne in heaven.
He knows everything we do
    because he sees us all.
The Lord tests honest people,
but despises those
    who are cruel
    and love violence.
He will send fiery coals
and flaming sulfur
    down on the wicked,
and they will drink nothing
    but a scorching wind.

The Lord always does right
    and wants justice done.
    Everyone who does right
    will see his face. (Contemporary English Version)

Part of the human condition is that we will eventually take the brunt of someone’s poison darts. And it’s scary. In our state of fear, and sometimes panic, will we fight, flight, or faith?

Fight, Flight, or Freeze by Qieer Wang

If you have ever received a nasty email based on half-truths and accusations; stood dumbfounded as someone hurled misinformation and criticism at you; and/or experienced the victimization that comes from slanderous and gossiping tongues, then the psalmist knows exactly how you feel. 

Cobbling together a hasty email response, full of anger and vitriol, only sucks us into the person’s evil ways. Metaphorically punching someone in the face for their slap to your face is how the demonic realm handles offenses. Fighting back with an equal or greater force is diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

Then, there is the response of taking flight from the nastiness. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if good people are always getting swallowed whole by unjust words and behaviors directed squarely at them. And it doesn’t help when the downers among us stroll along and give us their unhelpful fatalism about how there is nothing we can do and how nothing will ever change.

To be the target of evil speech or malevolent actions is, at the least, unsettling, and, at worst, can bring years of struggle, depression, and inability to serve. Yet, there is someone who sees it all, and that someone will address the wrong. We have an option beyond fighting back in anger or fleeing altogether in fear. We can trust God.

“Pray, and let God do the worrying.”

Martin Luther

The Lord sits aloft, overseeing all, and knows everything humanity does and says. God always does right and wants justice done. Everyone who shares a divine sense of what is right and just will see God’s face. God will act because the Lord abhors and despises those who are cruel and enjoy violence.

It’s not a good idea to get on God’s bad side. The way to flare God’s anger is by possessing an acerbic tongue; relishing in verbal violence; and, having no remorse about any of it. Because God loves people, God hates evil. The righteous are to take solace in the truth that God really does see the harm done and is in a position to do something about it. Like the psalmist, we seek the Lord. The Lord fights our battles.

Whenever we are harassed and the ungodly give us a hard time, the psalmist isn’t just offering some nice religious platitudes such as, “Just let go and let God,” “Everything works for the good of those who love God,” or “It’s okay, you’ll be in heave someday.”

In another context, maybe those statements are helpful. But being in the teeth of the wicked, all is not okay. As much as some folks try to sanitize an evil situation with rainbows and butterflies, the evil is real, and it’s there. The truth is that everything is not okay. The earth is filled with violence, malevolence, oppression, injustice, and systemic evil. The psalmist knows this, all too well.

Humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day. Throw all your anxiety onto him because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:6-7, CEB)

Today’s psalm is reminding and assuring us that the Lord is aware of what’s going on and will most certainly do something about it. God will act to punish the wicked and deliver the Lord’s people. There may not be peace this present moment, yet it will not always be this way. We shall behold the face of the Lord.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

Corrie Ten Boom

The Lord is a righteous judge. Justice is the foundation of God’s throne. God sees the entire spectrum of humanity and can make a right assessment of people’s thoughts, intents, words, and actions. We, however, cannot. Therefore, it is most necessary for us to put our trust in a Divine Being who cares about right and wrong and has the power to act with justice.

Whenever we are hemmed-in through the schemes of diabolical persons and are powerless, there is always the choice to trust in the Lord. In the hands of God rest the outcome of every life on earth. And it will be a just and right rendering.

Trust in the Lord and do good. Seek peace and pursue it. We might struggle mightily on both the inside and outside – our hard circumstance might not change immediately – yet God is the One who will vindicate the just person when the time is right.

You are never alone. May the Lord be with you always.

God of justice, look at the state of your servant and act on my behalf. Do not let evil prevail. Thwart the ungodly so that they can no longer do any harm. Amen.

Ephesians 6:10-20 – Spiritual Combat

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So, pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. (New Living Translation)

When I think of the Apostle Paul, I think of a guy who had a bucket load of boldness, who did not sidestep tough situations, but who fearlessly stepped into the world with the good news of God’s grace in Christ. 

Maybe Paul was that way because of prayer and the prayers of God’s people. Maybe what stands in the way of people knowing Jesus and believers maturing in faith is a profound lack of intense, consistent, and sustained prayer. Maybe too many of God’s people have been duped by the enemy of our souls to retreat in a bubble of fear, unable to effectively engage God’s big world with confidence.

Paul told the Ephesian Church what kind of practical and vital obligations were needed to put aside fear and flourish as Christians….

Be strong in the Lord because we are in an invisible war.

There is an unseen world all around us. We serve an invisible God, and we have an invisible enemy. Satan and all his wicked spirits exist. They are organized for war with methodical schemes and strategies designed to blunt our spiritual development and the expansion of God’s benevolent kingdom. The enemy seeks to render us ineffective in our walk with Christ, unproductive for God, and all knotted up inside in a broken mess so that we are weak, not strong.

The names of our invisible enemy in Scripture tells us the kind of diabolical and methodical work he is doing to snare us: 

  • Satan (the adversary who opposes us)
  • Lucifer (the shining one who comes looking like the light but only delivers darkness)
  • Beelzebub (lord of the flies, who is a false god promising protection and help apart from God)
  • Belial (the evil one, who seeks to have us engage in sin instead of righteousness)
  • Tempter (offering alternative plans to the will of God)
  • Accuser (the false judge, using criticism to bully people into shameful submission)
  • Prince of this world (the architect behind all systemic evil)
  • Devil (the diabolical one who engages in spiritual guerilla warfare against God’s people)

The unseen wicked spirits of this dark world pull out whatever technique they can to turn us from knowing who we are in Christ and how we are to really live. They seek to distract us from our mission, to keep us busy fighting among ourselves, so that we will put our ultimate confidence in anything or anyone but Christ.

Put on the armor of God and prepare for spiritual battle.

Satan is a defeated foe. The nails that crucified the Lord Jesus, and the power of God that raised him from the dead, ensured Satan’s doom.

Although we stand in the victory of the Lord Jesus, the world, the flesh, and the devil still dog us at every turn. So, we must discover and dislodge every threat to our spiritual growth and the mission of the church to step into the world with the gospel of grace. 

Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us. The picture is not one of the church being defensive and only responding to threats, but of a church pushing forward and storming the gates. 

The promise we have is that we can engage the enemy to the point of hell itself – and will not be burned by demonic enemy fire. Therefore, we are not to hunker down in self-protective foxholes; we are to engage the enemy with our spiritual armor on.

  • Put on the belt of truth. We need to combat the demonic lies. The truth will set us free. Lies will place us in bondage. Shame will keep us in the dark shadows. We are to embrace Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that we belong to God. We are not to fight demonic fire with fire. Instead, we fight Satan with the waters of baptism, remembering who we are in Christ. Just as the wicked witch of the west was killed with water, so we are to fling our baptismal water in the face of the enemy and watch him melt away.
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness. It protects our heart as we push forward and engage the enemy. Satan is aiming for our hearts, so it is vital that they are well-guarded. Our hearts belong to God. Before we chose God, God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4).         
  • Put on the gospel shoes of peace. Satan and his minions are trying to cause chaos, unrest, and division.  We are to be ready for his methods through embracing God’s peace and harmony with others. We are to use our shoes, both for digging in and standing firm, and stepping forward into situations as peace-makers. Those who ready themselves with the gospel of peace live differently, openly, with grace and integrity.

Take up your spiritual weapons and do battle.

Whereas the spiritual armor is protective, giving us a solid defensive posture, our spiritual weapons help us to go on the offense and walk into the struggle.

  • Take up the shield of faith. Extinguish all the nasty flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman phalanx was a rectangular military formation where the army took their shields and connected them together for protection and the ability to push forward, engaging the enemy. This tactic helped the Romans to conquer most of the known world of the time. It was based not on individual ability but on the strength of the entire army working together. The devil seeks to divide and conquer. Yet, there is strength in numbers, that is, as long as we work together!  Linking our shields together through unity, fellowship, and encouragement is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the battle.
  • Take up the helmet of salvation. Active transformation through the renewing of our minds enables us to avoid retreating and going back to old sinful patterns of thinking. We need mindfulness, not mindlessness, aware of who we are in Christ and actively occupying our thoughts with God’s Word.
  • Take up sword of the Spirit. This is the word of God. The written word is to be the spoken word. Our primary offensive weapon in the battle against the evil one is God’s Word. It needs to be read, memorized, meditated upon, learned, talked about, and, used by speaking it aloud.

Be alert and pray.

Prayer is to undergird everything we do. The early church was effective and successful through prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).  The early apostles re-arranged their busy schedules so that they could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Believers in Jesus pray.

Whenever prayer takes a back seat to everything else, believers end up fighting the wrong battles with the result of a lot of friendly fire where people get spiritually and emotionally hurt. Our battle is not with flesh and blood human beings; it is with Satan and his wicked spirits. Fight them, not each other!

Conclusion

The spiritual forces we are up against are wicked, evil, cunning and do not observe any kind of Geneva Convention rules when it comes to war. They are out for blood. Therefore, we must be ready and put on our spiritual armor, take up our spiritual weapons, and move forward with the word of God and prayer. This present darkness requires that we be at our best. Our very lives depend on it.

Matthew 5:8 – Blessed Are the Pure in Heart

“Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.” (NIV)

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” (MSG)

“What bliss you experience when your heart is pure. For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God.(TPT)

“A pure heart means a single heart, a heart in which only one desire lives: love.”

Peter Kreeft

An Impure Scenario

Suppose a young man courts a young woman. They get to know one another, fall in love, and get married. On their wedding day, as they leave the church building and speed away, the young couple reminisce about love and life.

But when the groom begins to speak about a future together, the bride, with a smile on her face says, “Okay, you can pull over now.” The groom, completely smitten with his new bride, does exactly what she asks. The young woman gets out of the car and, blowing a kiss, says, “This was fun. Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

“I don’t think this is funny,” says the groom. “Hey, we had a great time, right!?” the perky bride says. “Yes, responds the groom, “and it will last forever.” “Oh, you are such a darling,” the bride says, and with a wry smile, “but I’ll be in touch.”

“Huh, what!?” the confused groom says. “Yeah, I’ll call. We’ll get together,” says the bride without flinching. The groom, now also feeling heartsick says, “I don’t understand. What’s going on?”

“Dear, I just need my space. It’s not like I don’t care! I have other things to do. Other men to see….”

Yes, a ridiculous and improbable scenario. Yet one which is repeated every day, multiple times a day. For the groom is the Lord God almighty; and the bride is the church….

Purity and God

Purity is a big deal to God. The phrase, “pure in heart,” is Christ’s way of upholding the biblical call to holiness. To be pure is to have no mixed motives, no hidden agendas, and no side job of moonlighting with the world while being an upstanding kingdom citizen during the day. It isn’t letting Jesus court us and marry us, only to have us walk away and do whatever the heck we want. It’s not only impure and unholy. It’s plain wrong and messed up.

Through blessing the pure in heart, Jesus was connecting us to the Old Testament ethic of being holy. The book of Leviticus, rarely the focus of any preacher or parishioner alike, is completely given to the topic of holiness. The detailed laws about daily life, including what to wear and not wear, what to eat and not eat, even who to marry and not marry, were given for a reason.

God wanted the ancient Israelites to have daily reminders that they are a holy people. So, there was to be no mixing of fabrics, no meat and cheese together, no impurities introduced into any part of life. Everything about the Jewish lifestyle was to be holy, set apart to God, reminding the people that God is their husband, committed to them with responsibilities on the part of both. It was called a “covenant.”

Leviticus 19 leaves no stone unturned on the activities of life:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy’….

Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. Do not defraud or rob your neighbor….

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great but judge your neighbor fairly….

Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-13, 15-19, NIV)

Yes, indeed, purity is a big deal to God. The “Holy” Spirit is the Divine Person completely devoted to doing only the will of the Father and Son – never going rogue. The Spirit is the One who effects sanctification, becoming holy, within the life of the believer. Each year we celebrate “Holy” Week, a stretch of days designed to be different than the rest – devoted to journeying with Jesus and not mixing with the fickle crowd who would scream at the end of the week, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Purity and Us

To follow Jesus in true righteousness is to be pure in heart, that is, set apart wholly and completely for him. Purity of heart is a fruit from the trunk of righteousness, which grew up in the soil of God’s grace, with roots of humility and meekness – all watered by the tears of godly mourning.

The pure in heart are those who acknowledge their sin, deal with it, and live with a clear and clean conscience before God and the world. They have an awareness of their wrongs and shortcomings without succumbing to self-criticism because of an equal awareness of God’s grace. They keep short accounts with others concerning what they have done or what they should have done. They are holy. They are sanctified. They are pure in heart.

The pure in heart will see God. They know they cannot make themselves pure, so they keep looking to Jesus for their forgiveness because they hunger for righteousness.

One cannot whitewash a wishy-washy commitment with Jesus and be pure. This blessed Beatitude has to do with our motives and what takes place in our thinking and in our hearts.  What do you think about when your mind slips into neutral?  Is it coveting after things or people, or does thinking go toward what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?  Sometimes we struggle with purity of heart because we are focused not on Jesus, but on our own performance and perfection instead of letting God fill our hungry hearts.

Purity results from true righteousness.  A stalk of corn might look good, but if you shuck it and it’s filled with worms, it isn’t going to be worth much. Legalistic righteousness and empty promises of doing better are concerned to look good, not to mention they are obsessed with performance, perfection, and possessions. 

But the righteousness of God fills our hungry hearts and makes us pure and holy, set apart for divine use and divine purposes. How, then, shall we live? What will we do?

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob. (Psalm 24:1-6, NIV)

The person with integrity shall see God. Those made pure with the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ will someday stand before God at the Last Judgment and there find mercy and acceptance.

So, for now, until that time, we daily have the opportunity to focus on our one true love with loyalty and commitment, enjoying God’s presence continually. Because the Lord will never leave us, nor forsake us, even when we sometimes forsake him.

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.