Hardships Bring Blessings

Let’s imagine that you want to know more about the Christian faith. You share your wish with a close Christian friend and ask him for help. He does a fine job of sharing the basics of the Christian faith and gives you a Bible. “Read a chapter in the Gospel of Matthew each day, and then we will talk about it in a few days,” he tells you.

On the fifth day, you read these words: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

At your first meeting with the seeker he asks, “What is it all about? The Bible says you are blessed if you are poor in spirit, mourn and are meek. This is not the world that I come from, and I am not so sure that, if this is a picture of the Christian faith, I want to learn any more about it.”

I am convinced that, while the Beatitudes are one of the most read portions of the Bible, few people have a clue regarding their meaning. They are filled with meaning, but they call for much thought and study to learn what Jesus is saying.

During the next few weeks I am going to preach a series of sermons on the Beatitudes. We will not answer all of the questions that these words of our Lord raise, nor will we exhaust their meaning. However, it is my prayer that, at the end of the study we will have a deeper understanding of the Christian life. My help will come from Dallas Willard’s book, “The Divine Conspiracy.” Dr. Willard has some fresh insights into these statements that should bring us a blessing.

Here is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

To understand these words, we must realize the setting where Jesus is speaking. He has been healing the sick. These people had come from far and near with various diseases: pain, demon possession, seizures, paralysis. They were rich and poor, leaders in society and followers, ordinary folks and celebrities. Difficult times come to all people. None escape.

The audience hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. In today’s world, they go to the local clinics. If they found no help there, and they were financially able, they went to some of the world’s greatest medical centers: Massachusetts General Hospital, the Cleveland Heart Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and others located in their part of the nation. They went with cancer, heart problems, neurological diseases, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, paralysis, and many other afflictions. They had spent a fortune, but there was no cure. The best news some of them could hear was, “We’ll keep you comfortable, but the end is near.”

The father of three children received this message. He looked at his wife and asked, “What will we do?” Only forty years old with so many responsibilities.

These are some of the people who could be described as poor in spirit. Their hearts are heavy. How can Jesus call them blessed? Are not the people who are healthy and on an exciting vacation blessed?

These people have one great blessing that they had not thought much about until there was no other place to go: they were members of the church. Most Sunday mornings they attended worship and heard many sermons on God’s grace. They heard the invitation Jesus gave, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But all of this was for some other day, until now that day had come. They needed help, so they made an appointment to visit with their pastor.

There the pastor reminded them that Jesus was a real person who wanted to live in their lives. When the pastor asked if they had a personal relationship with God, they said, “No. We believe in God, but a personal relationship would mean that we live in an intimate relationship with him. Such a relationship we do not have.”

That day the couple asked Christ to come into their lives. They returned to their home and began reading the Bible and praying individually and as a family. God answered their prayers. He was comforting them. Mature Christian friends surrounded them with their love. They became convinced that, whether there was physical healing or not, everything was alright. God was strengthening them, and they were in his hands.

These are the blessed. Had it not been for their illness, they might have walked through life with a very impersonal relationship with God. He did not send the affliction. This was a result of living in a broken world brought on by the fall, which brought sin into the world and illness and death as a result of sin. However, when the trials of life come, God uses them to get our attention and bring us to him. Isn’t that life’s greatest blessing when we rest in our Father’s arms?

William Barclay said it well: “The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joy. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition can take away the fickle joy the world can give. But the Christian has the sense and untouchable joy that comes from walking forever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ. The greatness of the Beatitudes is they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty. They are not even golden promises of some distant glory. They are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away. Jesus is helping us see that there is something good about being poor in spirit. Our condition reveals that Christ is our only answer.

Life Is Shaped By Our Choices

Those who are committed to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord live in a personal relationship with him. However, that does not mean they are not surrounded with temptation. William Barclay said it well, “Christianity never took the threat out of life. Satan confronts us with the temptation of turning our backs on God.” The simple fact is that our lives are determined by the choices we make.

This is the message St. Paul sent to the Galatians when he wrote the closing verses of his book. “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked. A man reaps whatever he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction. The one who sows to please the Spirit, from that Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

The first reading of this verse can appear to be negative and a warning of something bad that is going to happen. However, a more careful reading can present us with a positive challenge and a great future. It not only speaks to our eternal destiny, but to our lives as lived out on this earth.

Our eternal destiny is determined by whether or not we have received Christ as Savior. Christ paid the full price for our sins. We make no contribution to our salvation. We can receive Him only because the Holy Spirit has empowered us to do so. But there comes a time when our wills play a part. This is the teaching of Scripture. Here are three passages that speak to the human’s responsibility to make a decision for Christ:

For as many as received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with hm and he with me (Revelation 3:20).

Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

The evangelical plea of the Scriptures is this: Your eternal destiny depends on your choice.

A few weeks ago Billy Graham was interviewed by the press. One of their questions was, Are you afraid to die? Billy, with a chuckle, replied, “Why, of course not. In fact, I am looking forward to it, because when I die, I will be in the presence of the Lord, and that will be wonderful. Christ has died for my sins and has completely forgiven me. It is because of Christ that I know I am saved. It has nothing to do with what I might have done as an evangelist. I have received Him as my Savior and Lord, and I received the gift of salvation. “

This was Paul’s plea to the people of Galatia. Receive Him as your Savior, and when you have received Christ, don’t ever leave him.

But the quality of life we have here on this earth is also determined by what we do with Jesus. We make many wrong choices, and if we come in repentance and faith, Christ has promised to forgive us. The point is that God will forgive, but He will not be mocked. This truth is demonstrated daily. As we sow, negatively or positively, so we will reap.

I think of the young professional who had a great future before him and his family. He had been well trained in one of the leading universities of this nation. There was a job awaiting him with a prestigious firm, and he was doing well until one day he made a bad decision. He became involved with drugs, which over a period of time made him a helpless addict. When his wife divorced him and his company fired him, he took his life. He had a fried brain. A person reaps what he sows.

As the newlyweds recessed from the altar, I often stood wondering what their future as husband and wife would be. Let Christ direct their life together, and they had great years before them. Ignore His Word in their home and church, and they could be in that 50% who would be among the divorcees and their children grouped with millions of children who are living in single-parent homes. It is both a warning and a challenge. They have to choose.

“My daughter never had a chance,” a mother told me. “She was an unwed mother at age sixteen.”

It was difficult to disagree with the mother when I said, “Your daughter had a chance. She came from a loving home. You are good parents. She sat in my confirmation class when we discussed the sixth commandment: Thou shall not commit adultery. We left no stone unturned. We talked about how this commandment could be broken. We discussed what was happening among teenagers and the parties they had in their homes when parents were out of town for the weekend.” She made a choice, and it was a bad one. It was not just one time, but many times that she had sexual intercourse with her boyfriend, and soon a child was on the way.

Now she could make another choice. That would be to repent of her sin (and it was a sin, not just a mistake). If she would place her faith in Christ, He would forgive her. Then she could begin to live for the Savior, and while the mark of her sin would always be there, she could become a great witness for God’s grace and what He has done for her.

Nothing new, is it? A person reaps what he sows. Look around in your church on a Sunday morning and see how hundreds of people have taken this counsel seriously and are living exciting lives with Christ as their Lord. They are worshiping as a family. Many of their friends are members of the congregation with similar interests in life. Dad and mom are considered important employees where they work because of their faithfulness and work ethic. They are a fun family, not because they are better than others, but because they have made a decision to let God’s Word be their governing authority and they experience His presence with them each day. They believe you reap what you sow.

Either culture or Jesus Christ will shape our lives. The choice is ours.

The Shared Life

The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Then it goes on to say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Living in a personal relationship with Jesus changes a person’s life. The old has passed away; the new has come. One of these changed in the Christian’s life is that he is willing to share his life with others.

Listen to these words of St. Paul: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of God” (Galatians 6:2). To share our lives does not come naturally. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

Do you remember how your parents had to remind you in your early years to share with other? Our Heavenly Father has to remind us that a part of the Christian life is sharing our lives with others.

In this particular text, Paul talks about the burdened. Who are these people?

All of us, from time to time, carry our burdens. That is just a part of living. However, there are times when these burdens are heavier than at other times. This is when we need help. Even Jesus had times when he wanted others with him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, His soul was heavy, and he asked Peter, James, and John to be with him (Matthew 26:38). “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” When He returned and found them sleeping, Jesus said, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?”

Whom might we know that is burdened?

The person who has just been convicted of driving an automobile while drunk. The notices appear in the newspaper. This is the same woman who has to face her friends at work and in her social life. But it is not only the embarrassment of her behavior but facing the fact that drunkenness is sin. This burden is too much to carry alone, and who can help better than one who knows the Lord Jesus and this woman?

The divorcee often carries a real burden. What has he done to himself, his wife, and children? Try as hard as he may to show his innocence, the man knows that no one is innocent. Where did the marriage go wrong? This, and many other questions, torment his soul. He needs a good Christian friend who can help him in his relationship with Christ. But you say, “My husband feels no guild about our failure in marriage.” Then he really needs help.

Then there is the person who is an active church person and is charged with a felony. This type of news is what the press is anxious to print. It sells newspapers and advertisements. And learning of the news, how we freely share it with other. Can we imagine how these people who know right from wrong must have felt before his actions were discovered? All I know is that these people need a friend who can point them back to Christ.

Then there are those who mourn the loss of a loved one. There was that long illness, and then he died. For a few days after the funeral, there were many people around, and there were a lot of details to care for before the children returned to their homes. But now it has been two months since her husband died, and no one comes. The phone doesn’t ring. This person needs a burden-bearer just to be with her and remind the widow that, with Christ, life will begin again.

What can we do? God’s Word tells us to go to them. Jesus gives us many examples of how he reached out to those whose hearts were heavy. The Pharisees accused Him of eating with sinners. How did He answer their accusations? “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

“But,” you reply, “I am not Jesus. I would not know what to say to this hurting person. I am not trained in psychology, and I do not know my Bible that well.”

It might be an asset that you wouldn’t know what to say. The person does not need someone to preach to him or her. Just sit down and listen. Why not let them do the talking for a change? And if they sense that you are sincerely listening to them, they will do the talking. A relationship will be built between you and the hurting person, and the agenda will be written.

Watch your attitude. Don’t go as a self-righteous person. Paul gives good advice on this point when he writes, “Watch yourself. You also may be tempted.” Martin Luther has a good word for us. “A brother ought to comfort his brother who has fallen with a meek and loving spirit.”

Don’t condone what the person has done. He or she wants you to be real. This is no time to play games. God cannot condone sin, but he can forgive it, and there is a lot of difference between the two.

This leads us to the question, how are we doing in the church when it comes to bearing the burdens of others? My answer would be, both bad and good.

I called a church one Saturday to learn the hours of their worship services. This was the recorded message I received: “Our office hours are from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, and until noon on Saturday. If you will leave your name and telephone number, we will return your phone call during our regular office hours.”

“Wow!” I thought. “What if this was really an emergency? What if I was on my way to commit suicide? That would not be the church for me.” I was glad I didn’t even find out the worship service hours. This was a business and not a church who might have heard God’s message Ð bear one another’s burdens Ð but would do the bearing at convenient hours.

On the other side of the picture, I believe there are many good things happening in the church that are lifting many burdens. Here are some of them:

Small Group Ministries. These groups of ten people who gather regularly to study God’s Word and pray are helpful. Here you build relationships that will be strong enough to share what is on your mind and bothering your soul. It is here you can find comfort and be comforted. My advice to you is to join one.

Stephen’s Ministry. It is an excellent program that will give you some hints as to how you can help another person as the man or woman’s brother or sister in Christ. I was visiting an aged member one day when there was a wrap on the door. It was the Stephen’s minister who had come for her weekly visit. I accepted their invitation to stay for a few minutes to see how this worked. First, they had coffee. Then they played a game of scrabble. Then they had their devotion. What a ministry!

Hospice. Do you have one in your community? These people stay with those who are terminally ill sometimes over a long period of time. What comfort they bring as they share together the promises of Jesus Christ and that He has gone to prepare a heavenly home for all who trust Him. But while they are still here, God’s children will be there to comfort him or her.

Yes, there are millions who are bearing one another’s burdens. However, we will never arrive at where we want to be, so our Heavenly Father says to us today, “Remember, you need to share your life with others.”

Culture Can Be Renewed

St. Paul describes human culture when he writes to the Galatians: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred; discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (19-21).

This has been the cultural pattern of the human race since the fall of humankind. It is not so surprising, for these are the acts of the sinful nature. This is the way people act when they are separated from God.

Throughout its history, parts of the church have been concerned about this type of behavior. In certain times and places we have seen the Spirit of God changed people’s lives. Ministers have denounced sin from the pulpit and called people to repentance. The congregation has brought this same message into its community, and there has been spiritual awakening.

But, because human nature gravitates to godless behavior, the faithful in the church have grown weary and said, “We must take a new look at what we are doing. Maybe we in the church have to give a little, listen to what society is saying and, even if it is contrary to what God has said in his Word, we must interpret Scripture in the light of culture.” To illustrate this point, we refer to whether or not the church should bless same-sex marriages. The Bible clearly teaches that God instituted marriage for a lifelong union between a male and a female. However, our culture says that the marriage of two people of the same sex should be acceptable. Some parts of the church have already begun to bless these unions, and other parts are moving in that direction. This is interpreting the Bible in the light of culture, and it does not build for a more Christlike society.

In this setting, Charles Colson’s book, The Christian in today’s Culture, brings the evangelical wing of the church much encouragement when he writes, “Stand firm on God’s Word. Don’t bow to the demands of a godless society.”

Culture can be renewed.

Scripture is intended to be the basis for all of life.

These words brought me the encouragement I need. Colson is saying nothing new. It is what evangelical Christians have always believed and taught, but it is the encouragement we need to hear in every generation. Luther said much the same in his day when, at the Diet of Worms, he said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to do so goes against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

But, if culture is to be changed, it is only God’s Word that will do it. Culture is not to change the Word; the Word is to change culture. We Christians have the Word that must be applied not only to our personal lives, but to the world in which we live.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old have passed away; behold the new has come.” We become new creations, and God expects us to create a new world around us. It is here that Paul draws the contrast between a culture that follows the sinful nature and one that follows the Spirit.

The fruits of the Spirit are “. . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. Against such there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (5:22-16).

Note a few differences between the cultures of the world and that of the Spirit:

Love Hatred for people

Self control Fits of rage

Faithfulness Sexual immorality

Thankfulness Jealousy

Let’s apply these characteristics to our homes and society’s culture. Our home’s culture exists within the world’s culture. If we have a Christian home, our culture is different from what is practiced in the world. Imagine a family of mom, dad, and three children. All trust Jesus as their Savior. They experience his love, and while they are not perfect, they desire to reveal this love for him in their daily lives. So hatred is foreign in a home where people are taught to love even the unlovable, for all have been created by God.

No family can agree on everything. Our differences can sometimes be quite strong, but in the Christian home we learn to control our anger. How different from the world’s culture that lets the emotions fly no matter who gets hurt. Sensitivity to the feelings of others is not a high priority in our world.

The three children in the family never have to worry about their parents divorcing. When Christ is at the center of the home, the differences never get more than one day old. They take seriously the Bible’s counsel to “let not the sun go down upon their wrath.” This is not the case in half of American homes. When anger continues to smolder and the love between husband and wife is gone, there is one way out Ð divorce Ð and the children are raised in a single-parent home.

The culture in the Christian home places great emphasis on being thankful with what we have. Not so in our world that is always desirous of more.

Our homes mold the people who live within its walls. Love, self-control, faithfulness, and thankfulness produce different kinds of people than those who are raised in an environment of hatred, fits of anger, immorality, and jealousy. In our Christian homes, there is joy and peace that is not known in the world.

It is to the Christian home that God’s Word speaks telling those who are fortunate enough to live in this environment to share their values. They are contagious. People will ask what makes you so different. If they don’t ask, they will wonder what the difference is. God can use your family’s witness to build a new creation. Imagine what differences there could be in our society if the Christian home would make its witness felt.

Remember, culture can be changed, and we can have a part in changing it. Isn’t that exciting and challenging?

Don’t Turn Your Freedom Into License

On this Independence Day weekend, it is right for us to emphasize how blessed we are as Americans to be politically free. We often take this freedom for granted as if someone owes it to us. But let us never forget the price that has been paid in terms of human suffering.

To help me better understand this cost, I need to personalize what some of my friends and relatives have done for me and my family that we might be politically free. I suggest that you do the same.

There was my friend, Charlie Sinclair. As a child, he was one of my heros. World War II came along, and Charles left his wife and five children to become a part of General George Patton’s army. He died in the Battle of the Bulge.

There was Christian Hansen. Chris and I sat beside each other in our confirmation class. He died fighting the Nazis in Italy.

There was Bobby Letsch. I confirmed Bobby, and four years later I buried him at the young age of 19. He was killed in Vietnam.

A few days ago, I visited with my cousin, Charlie Thomas. Charlie was wounded in action aboard the USS Bunker Hill in the Pacific. In our conversation, I asked about his leg that had been hit by enemy fire. He told me that he could not walk any distance, and the pain was often severe at night.

There was my brother-in-law, Verner Carlsen, who was chaplain of the USS Gambier Bay when it was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Verner was in the water with some of the casualties for 48 hours until they were rescued. What a 48 hours of suffering it was in those shark-infested waters!

We cannot take this suffering for granted, and yet we do. On May 8, I checked the deaths of our military people in Iraq. As of that day 1,683 of our service people had died in this war. How many more will die before it is over.?

Take a few minutes this weekend and think of those who were close to you and have died in war. This helps us understand the price of war and that we cannot take our freedom for granted.

And now today we turn to our text and hear Paul speaking about the blessing of our spiritual freedom. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, you are a spiritually free person. You are free from your guilt if you trust Jesus’ words, for it is He who says to us what he once said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son. Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). You can bring your fears to your Heavenly Father, for in the words of the Psalmist, “He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” You can be assured that there awaits for you a heavenly home, for Christ has gone to prepare a place for you.

These are but a few of our blessings that God gives to us. But here again, these blessings do not come to us without Christ paying a terrific price so that all who will receive him as Savior and Lord can live in a personal relationship with God.

But, as there is the temptation to take our political freedom for granted, so too we can easily turn our spiritual freedom into license and live a godless life. I recall one day playing in a foursome golf game. One golfer said to another who was using a lot of profanity, “I don’t appreciate your language.” The guilty man replied, “Oh, I don’t mean anything by it. God is glad to forgive me.” That is misusing your spiritual freedom.

Paul writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather serve one another in love.” J. B. Philips translates that same verse as follows: “Be careful that your freedom does not become an opportunity for your lower nature.”

Don’t turn your freedom into license.

When Christ has captured our hearts, our spiritual freedom will not turn into license, nor will it be misused. William Barclay quotes an unidentified person who said, “Love God and do what you like.” The essence of our religion is a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther writes in the catechism, “Christ has redeemed us that we might be His own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting innocence, blessedness, and righteousness.” Love for God and man is the fruit of our faith.

Then there was the Christian mother who said to her children as they went off to the prom, “Come home after the party is over, and remember whose you are.” When she was questioned if she should not have been a bit more specific when they should be home and what they should not do, she replied, “No, if they love the Lord, and they do, he will take care of that.”

That Christian mother was my wife who, on occasion would say to me when I was misusing my Christian freedom, “Just remember whose you are. Is He pleased with your behavior?”

Friend, it is possible to be politically free and spiritually in bondage.

Thank God for your political freedom, but thank Him even more for your spiritual freedom, which comes only through Christ Jesus, the Lord.