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Jan 31, 2011

Finding Our Identity in Christ

Last summer I went through a very tough time emotionally. I felt lost and without purpose and I was overcome with doubt about what to do with situations in my life. I took some time alone outdoors to think and pray. I sought professional counsel and I kept a prayer journal to really analyze what was going on in my heart.

Eventually God gave me some helpful insights and I reached a place of relative peace with where my life had come. One of the most helpful, but surprising, realizations I reached had to do with my sense of identity. It dawned on me that a big part of my sadness and sense of being lost was the simple fact that no one called me Dad anymore.

My sons no longer speak to me. Even when my oldest son finally called me to tell me that he was moving away, he made a very intentional point to only call me by my first name, no longer calling me Dad. Maybe this seems like a trivial thing. Who cares what people call you? After all, I am still a father whether anyone calls me that or not. I still have responsibility for my sons and nothing will ever change my feelings for them as my own children. And thankfully, I’m even blessed with the opportunity and joy of being a father figure to my step-daughter, so I still get to fill the role of a father in my daily life with her. But she already has a dad, so quite appropriately, she doesn't call me Dad either.

But for someone who spent fifteen years hearing every day, “Hey Dad, watch this,” or “catch Dad,” or “I love you Dad,” no longer hearing that term of endearment is devastating to me. I never knew how much that simple three-letter word meant to me until I stopped hearing it.
I never realized what a sense of purpose and identity that title, and the acknowledgment of being a dad, meant to me until it was gone.

Taking a step outside of myself now, to look at what this could mean to others, I’ve realized how important our assumed identities can be to us. We take our roles and identities for granted until they’re gone. But when life’s circumstances change who we are to others, how do we react?

For a long time, I was a husband. This identified me to others as a married man. A large part of my purpose in life was to be my wife’s faithful, loving husband. When that role was no longer accepted or even acknowledged, I found myself putting all of my purpose and identity into being a good father. This gave me peace, purpose, and joy even in the midst of a dying marriage. But as my sons were pulled from me too and I no longer live everyday as their dad, this left me drifting and searching at times for who I was supposed to be.

We all go through changes in life and who we are to others changes over time. How you react to these changing roles tells a lot about how you see yourself. How did you or will you react when your parents die and you are no longer a son or daughter? Will you lose some of your purpose in life? When your children move out and don’t seem to need you anymore as their parent, will you be searching for your lost identity as so many “empty nesters” do? If you lose your job and one day you’re no longer an engineer or a sales rep or whatever was under your name on your business cards, will you be searching for what to call yourself when you’re introduced? Ever notice how retired military officers, judges, doctors, and others still carry their titles well into retirement? It’s as if they are trying to hold on to the label that so identified them to the rest of the world, and to themselves, for as long as possible.

I hate to say it, but every title we carry in life, every role that defines who we are, is potentially fleeting and temporary. There is only one name for us, one purpose, one identity that is truly eternal and worthy of putting any confidence into, and that is being a disciple of Christ. Every other role and identity for us is subject to change, but being a Christian is the commitment of a lifetime and beyond. This calling and purpose makes anything else we are seem trivial.

This is what I finally realized which gave me peace in the midst of my ongoing trials. I know who God is and I know who I am in him. I came back to this understanding after losing my children and losing some of my identity as a father. Ironically, I first understood this truth on the very first day I became a father.

When my oldest son was born premature and we weren’t sure if he was going to make it, I was immediately faced with the possibility of losing my child (and my role as a father) before my life with him even began. When I went home after the first day I cried my heart out in the shower, asking God to save my newborn son and to give me the chance to raise him and get to know him. But God also gave me the strength to pray through the possibility of losing him. I remember being overwhelmed with the peace of realizing that no matter what happened, God would still be God, and I would still be his. I would still love God no matter what. My son was not mine to have forever, but a precious gift from God to take care of for whatever time he allowed me the privilege.

I didn’t lose my son that first week. Thankfully, he grew up to be a strong healthy boy, and later, even a big brother to my other precious son. I’ve had many happy years to enjoy being their dad, to teach them and play with them, to provide and care for them, and to share with them my love of the God who gave them to me. I pray every day for these broken relationships to be healed and for my sons to come back to their father. But until that day comes, I take peace and comfort in knowing that I am still and always will be God’s son. I have my identity and purpose in knowing who I am in Christ, in whatever he calls me to do, for as long as he would have me do it.
“In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” - Ephesians 1:5-6

Jan 25, 2011

Showing Restraint With Strength

(Dedicated to my son Colin, who turns 17 today)

One of my proudest moments as a father came when my oldest son had to use his martial arts training to defend himself. An older boy was giving him a hard time at the playground and eventually grabbed my son around the neck with both hands. At this point my son was about ten or eleven and had been taking karate with me for a few years. We both learned a self-defense move to counter just such an attack. As my son was being choked by the larger boy, he quickly stepped into his memorized self-defense move and broke the bully’s grip from around his neck. However, what impressed me was not just what he did to free himself, but what he DID NOT do next.

You see, the move we had learned had both defensive and offensive elements to it. The first part broke the attacker’s grip and knocked their hands away. But the next two steps after breaking free were supposed to break the attacker’s nose then finish with a two-hand strike to the attacker’s chest. We had practiced this move hundreds of times so that it became instinct. But we were also taught an equally important concept which my son also remembered. Our karate instructor always emphasized, especially to the kids, the idea of force appropriate to the situation. He explained the difference between life threatening situations (like a girl getting raped or a kid getting pulled into a van) versus situations not quite so serious, like a bully on the playground. I also reinforced this idea of self-control and restraint with both of my sons so that they only used what they were taught at the appropriate times and in a controlled manner.

My son read the situation just right because as soon as he broke free of the other boy’s hands, he simply stepped back, took a defensive position, and told the other kid to leave him alone. But, thankfully, he refrained from breaking the other boy’s nose and ribs, even though I’m sure he could have. And thankfully, the other boy got the point that my son wasn’t going to put up with being pushed around.

What impressed me about how my son handled himself was how he understood his abilities, but quickly assessed what was required to meet the situation and showed restraint from going too far. He used only the minimum force necessary to protect himself and chose not to abuse his power to hurt another person. In doing so, he reinforced to me a lesson men should bear in mind as we deal with others.

Godly men need to show restraint in how we deal with others.  Yes, I encourage Christian men to be bold and strong, to stand up to others for what is right. I’ve encouraged my brothers to be appropriately firm with our children and even our wives when necessary. But as Spiderman learned, with great power comes great responsibility.

Most men have natural God given traits which can make us somewhat intimidating to our children and even our wives if we don’t show restraint. As Christians we’re all called to loving exhortation and sometimes even rebuke for a wayward brother or sister. If we manage employees at work, we hold their livelihood in our hands so that they and their families depend on our fair treatment. Church leaders have power in exercising their authority and oversight. In these and other situations, men must show appropriate restraint in how we execute our responsibilities and in how we deal with others.

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Prov 15:1

“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” 1 Peter 3:7

“Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Col 3:21

“Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.” 1 Tim 3:2-4

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Gal 5:22

Men, we need to be ready to take on any challenge God puts before us. We need to prepare and train for spiritual warfare in our lives. Our wives and children need to see us as strong, confident, leaders in our homes. And our churches need men willing to lead with principle and courage. But men, we also need to control ourselves, being aware of our potential, and only use what is necessary for a given situation.

Jan 11, 2011

Should Christians Work Out?

It’s that time of year again. The gyms and bike paths are full of well intentioned, newly motivated, would-be athletes. Everyone has started their New Year’s resolutions or are at least trying to shed the extra pounds picked up from all the holiday meals and endless desserts. But you know what they say about good intentions?

Of course, most of these fitness converts will be missing in action again by Valentine’s Day, leaving the weight rooms and racquetball courts to the hard-core, year round exercise fanatics. It’s these folks who cut me off in the traffic circle every day on my way home, racing to get to the gym before all the bench presses and elliptical trainers are taken. It must have been one of these zealots who I saw in the weight room the last time I was at the gym.

At first glance, I didn’t know what this guy was doing. Trying not to focus on others while they’re working out, all I saw was what looked like a guy praying to a steel tower. Only after I stopped my curls and took a closer look did I see that he was pulling on a rope doing an exercise called a cable crunch.

 But the visual of someone praying before the exercise machine stuck in my head as a metaphor for how some can take working out too far, making it an idol and a self-obsession. On the other hand, from this picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger it might appear that enough cable crunches could eventually lead to a Mr. Universe title, action movie roles, and maybe even the Governor’s Mansion in California!

We live in a very materialistic and carnal culture. The media and advertising assault us constantly with images of bodies most of us will never have. We’re inundated with countless diet and exercise programs promising quick results, yet for most of us, the battle to keep off the weight and stay healthy becomes a constant struggle, only getting more difficult as we age.

So what’s a Christian to do? Is there a Biblical way to approach exercise and fitness? Once again, as with most things in life, the key is balance. There are valid, biblical reasons to keep our bodies fit, but of course, we can go too far, even to the point of sin depending on our motives and priorities.

First, bodily exercise is not only permitted in the Bible, but recommended and endorsed for the sake of self-discipline, such as in 1 Cor 9. But God puts bodily exercise in its rightful place, secondary to spiritual discipline. In 1 Timothy 4:8, we are told that “bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.” Therefore, it’s fine to keep our bodies in shape, for service in this world, but even more important to keep our souls healthy, as we’ll need them both in this world and for all eternity.

So, speaking of motivations, see if these lists help you check your reasons for working out to keep things in balance. Or if you don’t currently work out, perhaps you’ll find motivation to join the rest of the exercise rookies and prodigals back in the gym this week.

5 good reasons to exercise:
  1. To keep yourself healthy (as a good steward of the amazing resource God gave you to use and maintain)
  2. To discipline yourself, fight off sloth, and bring your bodily desires into subjection (1 Cor 9:24-27)
  3. To stay physically attractive to your spouse
  4. To be prepared for anything God calls you to do
  5. To set an example for your children

 5 not-so-good reasons to exercise:
  1.  To attract (other) women (1 Cor 6:13)
  2.  To brag or lord it over others
  3.  To worship yourself
  4.  To compete with the world and it’s standards
  5.  When working out gets in the way of more worthy pursuits
 Just remember as you “work out” your body, don’t neglect your soul. As we’re told in Phil 2:12-13, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Jan 7, 2011

An Example of Sanctification in Action

This is a story of two men you may know.

The first man was enthusiastic, well intentioned, and bold but often lacked insight and faith. He publically denied knowing Christ. He was so brash and impulsive that he once attacked and severely injured someone with a deadly weapon. Even after coming to know the Lord, on one occasion he was so scared and had such a crisis of faith that he almost died. Later after entering ministry he fell into theological error and had to be privately and even publically corrected by another church leader.

The second man, however, became a major figure in his church. He preached such powerful sermons that even one of his earliest messages led to three thousand conversions in one day. He wrote theological masterpieces still studied in the church to this day. A martyr of the first order, after being arrested for his preaching and sentenced to death by the dictatorial government, he insisted on being crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner which his Lord died.

These two men, of course, are both the apostle Peter. Perhaps more than any other figure in the Bible we see Peter as an example of the transforming work of sanctification in a man’s life. Peter was one of Christ’s three closest and most trusted friends and disciples. Along with Paul, Peter ascended to one of the two most influential leaders of the early Christian church. He was the official apostle to his fellow Jews. He preached the very first Christian sermon after Pentecost. He was called The Rock long before Dwayne Johnson ever took the nickname.

But before that Peter also had a few embarrassing missteps and even one or two colossal failures. Only as God transformed and sanctified Peter did he become the spiritual giant who led the first century church. Peter gives me hope as a fallible, often impulsive man myself, who has made plenty of mistakes in my life. Even though I groan every time I read about Peter denying Christ (Three times, even after Jesus told him he would!), I still take comfort to know how mightily God used him after his repentance and forgiveness. Even though I snicker sometimes when I read how Peter would sometimes miss the point of Jesus’ teaching or go off half-cocked, I’m also encouraged to see that God seems more than willing to take enthusiastic men like that and steer them in the right direction.

Peter at times was presumptuous, slow to comprehend, cowardly, timid, arrogant, lacking faith, and even blasphemous. And what man isn’t all of these at some time in his life? So far, he sounds a lot like me. But by the time God was done with him, after pouring out his Holy Spirit on him, after teaching him and illuminating truth in his heart and mind, and after progressively and continually sanctifying him, Peter became someone willing and able to do great things for God. This same Peter became bold, courageous, teachable, insightful, immovable, faithful, self-sacrificing, and a true leader of his people and of his church. This Peter sounds more like a man I can only hope and strive to be.

So how did Peter transform from such a typical, flawed man into such an effective and bold leader of the church? The early Jewish leaders were wondering the same thing after they arrested Peter and John for preaching of Christ. After hearing Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit", answer their charges, they reached this conclusion in Acts 4:13;
"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
That’s the key for any of us who hope to be used by God; to be with Jesus. Only through spending time with Jesus will we ever reach the potential God has in mind for us. Only through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will we ever be transformed into faithful and effective servants of God. Only by dedicating our lives to glorifying the Father will we ever hope to share in his glory. Let Peter be an example of the power of God’s sanctification in our lives.

Jan 6, 2011

Why Do We Only Live to 120?

Do you know the final age of the oldest person in modern history? I was reading an article recently about the death of another super-centenarian, or someone who has lived past the age of 110, and I was curious just how old any modern person has lived. The answer: 122 ½ years, by a French woman who finally died in 1997. So I guess red wine, bread, and cheese can’t be that bad for your health.

Other than this exceptional record breaking lady, the next oldest confirmed lifespans are all 120 years or less. This made me wonder why, even with all of our modern advances in medicine, health, and safety, do we still live no more than 120 years? Turns out, the most likely answer is simply because God said so.

Sure enough, in Genesis 6:3, “the LORD said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’" There it is, right there in the Bible. Now to be fair, there are two views of how to interpret this verse. Some read this as God prophesying that he would destroy the world with the flood within 120 years of making this statement. Others take this more universally to mean that, eventually, man’s lifespan would be limited to 120 years. A third possibility (which I prefer) is that the verse could have both meanings and be fulfilled both in an immediate sense, when the world was flooded and most men on earth were destroyed, and also in an eventual but permanent sense, as human lifespans were reduced, eventually becoming limited to 120 years or less.

In doing a little review of the Old Testament, I found it interesting that we don’t just have to rely on Wikipedia to confirm that people only live to 120. No, we can see this come to pass in the scriptural record itself where we can read how God’s decree immediately began to be fulfilled and within just several generations became the rule for all of mankind.

We read in Genesis that Adam lived 930 years. Methuselah is the oldest recorded human in the Bible as he lived to a ripe old age of 969! Genesis 5 records several lifespans in the 900s, including many men who didn’t even become fathers until they reached the suitably mature and responsible ages of at least 65 to well over 100. Can you imagine the experience of living for nearly a full millennium?

By chapter 6 of Genesis, man’s sin nature was already grieving God’s heart. In verses 5-6 we read, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” This not only caused God to flood the world, but afterwards to limit the lengths of our natural lives. This was not the first time our lives were limited either, as in the Fall we lost our immortality and were cursed to bodily death. But it seems that God found that giving us 900 or more years to do evil in the world was still too much, so he limited our earthly lives to 120 years in order to contain the extent and impact of our depravity and destruction.

After the flood, we see a record of this decree coming to pass. Noah was already 600 when the flood came, but lived another 350 years to reach 950 before his death. But then his descendants’ lifespans immediately began to decrease.

Shem lost 350 years off his father's long life and only lived to 600. Arpachshad lived to 438, Shelah to 433, and Eber to 464. Peleg and Reu only lived to 239, Serug died at 120, and Nahor only saw 148 years on earth.

Abraham lived to 175 and his wife Sarah to 127. Isaac died at age 180 and Jacob only lived 147 years. Joseph, even despite the great Egyptian medical advances at his disposal, still died by 110.

Finally, Moses had a life of exactly 120 years. Perhaps God’s decree limiting our lives was finally fulfilled by the time of Moses. Fast forwarding to another patriarch, we know that King David died at age 70. After that our lifespans have plummeted even lower throughout the ages only coming back up to averages in the 70s in fairly recent times. Still, no matter where or how you live, your days are almost certainly going to be kept to within 120 years, just as God said.

So how does this stroll through Biblical genealogy apply to us today? I believe it shows us a very essential truth about God which would be wise and beneficial to remember.

God’s promises will always be fulfilled, his word will always come true, but in his perfect timing it may take years or even generations to be fully accomplished. Does this mean that God is unreliable or untrustworthy? Of course not! In most cases, God’s “delayed” promises are simply a matter of his grace and long suffering on our account, giving us more time to repent or understand or obey. This grace is awesomely displayed in 2 Peter 3:9:
“The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
I trust God to fulfill all of his promises. I look forward to seeing them realized and to see prayers answered. But I need his daily strength in order to wait patiently on some promises still unfulfilled. These are a few of God’s promises I’m still looking forward to seeing fulfilled someday.

“’Your children hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you. Lift up your eyes and look around; all your children gather and come to you. As surely as I live,’ declares the LORD.” – Isaiah 49:17-18

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” – Phil 3:20-21

“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” – Isaiah 25:8

“’Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’" – Rev 21:3-5

“’Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” – Rev 22:20

So what about you? What promises do you hope to see answered by God? I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to live much past a hundred anyway.  120 years would be more than enough for me, thank you. As Paul wrote in Philippians, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Let your limited life in this world remind you not only of our depravity and need for a savior, but also of God’s faithfulness to all of his promises and decrees.

Jan 1, 2011

“We Serve a God of Second Chances” – Joe Gibbs

I just read a great article on (a NASCAR news site) about the ministry work of Joe Gibbs. If you’re either a football or racing fan, you probably know Coach Gibbs. For those who don’t, Joe Gibbs was the Hall of Fame coach of the Washington Redskins in the NFL and is the current owner of the Joe Gibbs Racing team in NASCAR. As such, he has the unique distinction of having both three Super Bowl victories as well as three NASCAR championships.

But this article, entitled “A Higher Calling: Joe Gibbs is winning more than races in his 'Game Plan For Life’”, we read about his speaking and writing ministry, including his work with prisoners. One particular quote from Coach Gibbs really caught my attention. Gibbs told a large group of prisoners in South Carolina that “we serve a God of second chances.”

For those of us who regret mistakes in our past (and who doesn’t?), this is indeed Good News. God not only forgives us when we repent, but he even gives us second chances to dust ourselves off and try again. Think of all the examples of this in the Bible.

Moses was a murderer and a reluctant leader who argued with God. Sampson failed multiple times before he finally came through in the end. Peter denied Christ three times even after Jesus warned him that he would. Saul persecuted God’s people before he was transformed into Paul through an encounter with Christ. Yet look at what God was able to do through these men after he gave them all second chances.

I appreciate the gospel message that Joe Gibbs is spreading to a hurting world full of fallen sinners. And as one of those sinners, with many regrets from my past, I am thankful to God for forgiveness and second chances. Now it’s up to me to make the most of God’s grace in my life and the new opportunities to serve and glorify him in the future. What about you men? What will you do in this New Year with the second chances God is giving you?