The ABCs of Christianity

Why is it children have such a clear understanding of Christianity, but as we grow older, confusion seems to set in? I imagine it is natural since the experiences of life cause us to ask questions regarding our faith. Listening to others discuss their religious views forces us to examine our own faith, and we can get bogged down as we try to make our faith more rational. However, when life draws to a close, we go back to the basics and receive them in faith.

I recall one day being in a hospital room with a dear saint from our church as she was dying. Her children and their spouses were by her bedside. One of the relatives was a prominent theologian with a doctorate in theology from Harvard. He had studied, written, and lectured in many parts of the world.

As I conducted the devotion for this dying woman, I chose the words of our text today, the very basic of the Gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” I then assured the dying woman that Christ had died for her sins, and since she in faith had received Him as her Savior, she would soon be with Jesus in His heavenly kingdom.

When I had finished my prayer, the astute theologian said, “Thank you very much. This is all we have to hang on to in the closing moments of our lives.”

Isn’t that true, friend? And so, as we find ourselves in the middle of the Lenten season, we center our thoughts on the heart of the Christian message. I have called it, The ABCs of the Faith, and the text is found in John 3:16, 17.

Point A of our ABCs tells us that God loves us. This statement is unique to the Christian faith, for other religions present an angry god who must be appeased or one will suffer his damning effects. While it is true that we have a God of righteousness Ð and the Old Testament as well as the New Testament can refer to His anger. However, He has provided a way out for us. In love we have an escape from that anger.

We might question His love once in a while, especially when things go wrong. We may have our questions and our doubts, and we may even get angry about everything that has happened. However, our thoughts and emotions do not alter the fact that God loves us. He created us in His image, which means we have a mind with which we can think, a will with which we can make a decision, and a soul that is eternal. No other part of God’s creation has these attributes. We are the crowning work of His creation.

Now notice this: God so loved the world . . . His love is not just for those of a particular race or for those with a great deal of wealth. God loves the world. He loves people of all races. He loves the brilliant and the illiterate, the rich and the poor. He loves those of us who have been raised in western civilization and are used to all the good things that make life so much easier, but he also loves those who live in the areas of life where there are not these blessings. He loves them and wants them to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So the A part of these basics is that God loves the world. It is a basic message. You’ve heard it many times, but in the Lenten season, we need to hear it again: God loves the world.

The B part: God loves us so much that it moved Him to act. He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, into this world to die for us.

Why was His death necessary? When Adam and Eve first turned their back on God, sin entered the world. That sin brings us separation from God. Unless that sin is taken away, we cannot be in a living relationship with God. In His righteousness, God cannot wink at sin. He cannot condone it. However, He can forgive it. Through repentance and faith, He is anxious and willing to forgive it. There is a tremendous difference between condoning sin and forgiving sin.

How is He going to do it? Going back to the basics, He sent into this world his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who takes all of our sins upon Himself. Through His death, our sins were nailed to the cross. Payment has been made. God the Father accepts this payment as satisfaction for His righteousness.

Listen to these Bible passages, which describe Christ’s work.

“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone stray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6.)

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24).

“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (I John 1:7).

So you see, God so loved us that it caused Him to act. And the action was the giving of His Son into this world to die for you and for me.

Now let’s go to the C part. “. . . that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The temptation here is to take that first part of that great verse Ð for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son Ð and stop there. But there is another part to that verse. While God offers His love to the world, we have to receive Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some, however, believe that by accepting what God has given to us in Jesus Christ, we contribute to our salvation. Therefore salvation is not by grace alone through faith, but it is God and us working together.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our salvation is completely founded in Jesus Christ Ð 100%. You and I can do nothing. He offers this gift to us and then empowers us to receive Christ and live for him. Wouldn’t you like to receive Him?

The opposite is what is known as a subtle universalism. I have encountered two kinds of universalism. One is the idea that everybody is saved. When I was growing up, a group in our town was known as Universalists. They believed everybody was going to go to heaven. It was a marvelous thought. The pastor would send everyone to heaven at a funeral, even if the deceased person openly denied faith in Christ. It was a heartwarming thing to hear, but it was not biblically true, for outside of Jesus Christ there is no forgiveness of sin.

The other kind of universalism is called Christo Universalism. It says that God sent Jesus Christ into the world as a payment for the sins of the world. Because Jesus has died in our place, all our sins are taken care of.

This is the second part of the ABCs of the Christian faith. We have a right to say no to the faith. However, we also can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to say yes. This is the second part Ð whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

If this were true, what would be the purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ today? There would be no need for people to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, for it would be automatic. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us free will to accept or reject Him. He cries out for us to come to Him, for outside of Him there is no forgiveness of sin. He empowers us to receive Him and makes it all possible.

It is very interesting to notice that following that great verse is this: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” And so He sends out disciples to tell the story of Jesus Christ. That is the mission of the Church. It is also the mission of the Christian Crusaders radio program. That mission is to proclaim the gospel and say to every person who listens, God loves you, and He died for you, and He wants you in His kingdom. It is the core of the Christian faith. The ABCs.

And that is where we started this message, and it’s where we end. It is where we begin as children in our Sunday schools learning the great message about Jesus loving us and dying for us, and singing songs like “Jesus loves me this I know.” That is where we begin and then walk through life with all kinds of temptations that cause us to question that faith. But then, when death draws near and we lie upon death’s bed with our family there to hold our hand, we hear them remind us, “Dad (Mom), for God so loved the world that He gave His Son for you. Now rest in peace. He’ll soon take you home.”

This message is so profound, the greatest mind cannot penetrate its depths, yet it is so simple, a little child and a dying person can grasp its meaning.

Meet Jesus: The Obedient Son

Mark describes a powerful and intense scene in today’s text. We get a glimpse into the mind and the emotions of Jesus as we observe Him preparing Himself for His own crucifixion on the cross. We see His inner suffering and anguish but we also see something else that is meant to make our hearts glad. So let’s take a look at the story.

It’s Thursday evening. Jesus has already celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples and served the Last Supper. Judas has run off to betray Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. Jesus has taken His disciples to a garden called Gethsemane. Something is about to happen. You can feel it in the air. The moment for which He entered this world is at hand. The die is cast. The cruel cross is only a few hours away.

Jesus needed some time alone with His disciples and His heavenly Father to prepare for the events to come. So He leaves most of the disciples in one section of the garden taking only Peter, James, and John to keep watch and pray while He went off to pray. We’re told that He’s very distressed and agitated. He didn’t want to die, especially not on a cross. We see Him agonizing over the hours that He knew lay ahead for Him. He tells Peter, James, and John that He’s grieved, overwhelmed even unto death with sorrow.

Perhaps Jesus didn’t fully understand why this had to happen. He only knew this was God’s will for him. We don’t know. It is a picture of great inner turmoil. Jesus threw Himself on the ground and prayed, “Abba, Father, for You all things are possible. Remove this cup from me.” Jesus was talking about the cup of suffering. Some say it is the cup of God’s wrath, but that is not correct.

Then Jesus said an amazing thing: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He submitted to the will of His Father. He was obedient.

Jesus’ words shouldn’t surprise us, for Jesus had been consistently obedient to God all the way through His life. He told John the Baptist that His baptism was to fulfill all righteousness. We witness Him not giving in to Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. We also see Him not giving in to the temptation to avoid the cross when Peter told Him,

Lord, you don’t have to do that. We see Jesus again and again not giving in to temptation to do things His way instead of His Father’s way. It’s like that passage in Hebrews 4:15: “We do not have a high priest Jesus who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are Ð yet without sin.”

Jesus was obedient. In John 4:34, He said to His disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and complete his work.” And now, in today’s passage, “Not my will, but yours be done,” even though it meant the worst sort of suffering.

How could Jesus pray like that? Well notice He addressed God in the prayer: “Abba, Father.” That one word makes all the difference. He was not submitting to a God who makes cynical sport of men, but to His loving Father whom He trusted with His entire being. A God who promised resurrection and ultimate victory.

Notice, then, how the passage ends. The Son acts obediently. He doesn’t just talk obediently, He acts obediently as He bravely faces those who have come to arrest Him. He could have run, but instead He faces them. Jesus is the obedient Son in all of this.

So we have to ask, what does Mark (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) want us to see in this touching scene? Mark is painting a word picture of Jesus as the perfect, obedient son. That is important for us to know and understand because we are not obedient sons and daughters. Scripture tells us, “All of us of sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in our thoughts, our words, and our actions” (Rom. 3:23). We think of sin sometimes as only the major sins, but it’s much more than that. It’s our thought life. It’s the words we say, the things we do, and the things we don’t do.

To give you an illustration of how serious a matter this is, let’s say that I could get myself down to committing only three sins a day, such as three bad thoughts, that displease God. Well, I read somewhere that we have at least 10,000 thoughts a day, and a lot of them are not good. If I lived to be 80, I would have more than 80,000 infractions against me as I stand before my righteous judge. I’d deserve to have the book thrown at me, wouldn’t I? Therefore, not one of us can stand on our own resume before our holy God who hates sin and demands perfect obedience and righteousness.

Max Lucado writes in one of his books, “All of us occasionally do what’s right. A few predominately do what is right, but do any of us always do what is right? According to Paul, we don’t. There is none righteous. No, not one. Some may beg to differ. I’m not perfect, Max, but I’m better than most folks. I’ve led a good life. I don’t break the rules; I don’t break hearts. I help people. I like people. Compared to others, I think I could say I’m a righteous person.

“I used to try that on my mother,” Max writes. “She’d tell me that my room wasn’t clean, and I’d ask her to go with me to my brother’s room. His room was always messier than mine. ÔSee. My room is clean, mom. Just look at his!’ It never worked. She’d walk me down the hall to her room. When it came to tidy rooms, my mother was righteous. Her closet was just right, her bed was just right, her bathroom was, well, just right. Compared to hers, my room was, well, just wrong. She would show me her room and say Ôthat is what I mean by clean!’

“Well, God does the same. He points to Himself and says, “This is what I mean by righteousness.” And the consequences for our lack of righteousness is death, eternal death.

It’s a real predicament. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became one of us to live a life of perfect obedience, to be the obedient Son I could never be. His perfect obedience makes Him the perfect sacrifice for my sin, for the forgiveness that I need. Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Cor. 5:21).

However, there is even more to consider when we think of Jesus as the Obedient Son. His perfect obedience has earned righteousness for you and me. We’re incapable of perfect obedience, but the positive merits of Christ’s righteousness are counted for us. Theologians talk of His perfect obedience being imputed or attributed to me.

I came across an illustration, which I think captures this truth so well. This person writes, “Here’s one way to look at Jesus’ earthly life of obedience to God the Father. Jesus lived approximately 33 years, or 1,057,157,021 seconds. In every second, the average human being’s brain has 100 billion neurons all firing around 200 times per second giving a capacity of 20 million billion firings per second. If we want to know how many conscious decisions Jesus made to obey His Father’s will, multiply 20 million billion by the number of seconds He lived: 1,057,157,021. The equation would look amazing. It would become a very large number. Jesus Christ never made one decision, consciously or unconsciously, in all those innumerable split-seconds that wasn’t completely consistent with loving His Father and His neighbor.”

Jesus’ obedience wasn’t always an outward performance. He always did the right thing, and He always did it for the right reason. During His lifetime of constant, unwavering obedience, from infancy all the way to death, He wove a robe of righteousness sufficient to cover millions and millions and millions of us Ð even you and me.

How does Jesus’ righteousness become mine? By putting my faith in Him. When I trust Him and what He did for me, His righteousness becomes my righteousness, and I am restored in my relationship with God. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “For just as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). Jesus is the perfect obedient Son for your sake and for mine.

You know, every once in a while I’ll find myself in a conversation with someone when God will give me the opportunity to ask that individual, “Have you come to the place in your spiritual life that you know for certain that, if you were to die today, you tould go to heaven?” Then I typically follow that question up with this question: “If you were to stand before God, and He would ask you why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say?” Good questions, aren’t they?

Let me ask you personally, how would you answer these questions? Frequently I’ll hear, “Well, I hope He’ll let me in. I’ve tried to live a good life, you see. I’ve tried to do the right things, to not hurt anybody too much.” What they are saying is they are counting on themselves, their own record of obedience to save them. I point out to them, as I have for you today, that just doesn’t add up. We always fall short. Then I point them to Jesus, the obedient Son, who paid for your sins and mine at the cross and whose resume of perfect obedience is transferred to your account when you place your trust in Him. Isn’t that marvelous? It’s all grace!

Dear friend, whose lifelong record of obedience will you rely on for your standing before God, for your eternal destiny? Ð Jesus Christ’s or your own? I appeal to you this day, on the basis of Scripture, go with Christ. Go with Christ’s record. Trust that obedient Son.

Cultural Toxins

A hunter raised his rifle and took aim at a large bear. When he was about to pull the trigger, the bear spoke in a soft, soothing voice, “Isn’t it better to talk than shoot? What do you want?”

Lowering his rifle, the hunter said, “I want a fur coat.”

“Good,” said the bear. “That’s a negotiable question. I only want a full stomach. So let us discuss the terms of a compromise.”

The two of them sat down to talk, and after a time the bear walked away, alone, into the dense woods. The negotiations had been successful. The bear had a full stomach, and the devoured hunter had his fur coat.

The Apostle Paul appeals to us this day: Don’t end up like that hunter Ð eaten up by the world around you. That’s what he means when he writes, “I appeal to you therefore.”

Whenever we see the word “therefore,” we need to look at what precedes it. In the previous chapters, Paul had been writing about God’s mercies toward his people. He talks of how we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God. However, God in his mercy rescued us by sending his Son Jesus to die as a sacrifice for our sins upon the cross. The godhead raised him up, and all who trust in Jesus have the gift of forgiveness and eternal life.

Paul also tells us that we have a new life and no longer are under the power of sin and the Law. The Holy Spirit helps us walk more closely with God and serve Him better in this world. Then Paul talks about his hopes for his own people Ð the mercies God has shown them, and how he wants them to receive Christ.

After he outlines these mercies in the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul then says, “(Therefore,) I appeal to you. . . .” In Christ we are “therefore” people. We live in response to His grace and mercy. Because God has done these things, therefore, they affect how I live out the rest of my life. We move from belief to behavior. It is how God’s people Ð those who have been saved by grace Ð live.

In the first verse of chapter twelve, Paul says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Give your body, your very self to Him. That is your daily worship. God wants you, through your body, to be an instrument for His cause.

In the second verse, Paul says, “Don’t be conformed to this world.” He’s talking here about our culture, world philosophy. Don’t become molded or stamped to this world. J.B. Philips, in his paraphrase of the New Testament, says it this way: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” The verb is passive. It implies that if you don’t actively and intentionally resist the world, you will be conformed to it. Paul seems to be telling us not to go with the flow of the world around you without thought or intention.

He is talking about the world’s value system. The world values things that may hurt your soul. Some of these values are

¥ Public opinion defines truth; there are no absolutes. What’s good for you is good for you.

¥ Live for the moment and don’t concern yourself with the consequences. Just grab all the fun and gusto you can.

¥ The one with the most toys wins.

¥ We deserve the best money can buy.

These messages are found in books, articles, movies, television programs, web sites, and music. And while some things in this world are beautiful and good for you, others are simply neutral or silly entertainment, but some are poisonous for your soul. Paul is telling us to be careful. Don’t allow yourself to be shaped by the influences of the world. Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

That word transform is an interesting word. It means a metamorphosis, such as when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Something beautiful has happened. God has a vision for you and for me, a metamorphosis or transformation of character and of conduct that is different from the standards of the world. God’s vision for your life is to transform you into the image of Jesus Christ himself.

These two value systems Ð the world’s and God’s will Ð are totally incompatible. Whether we’re thinking about the purpose of life, how to measure greatness, the meaning of life, ambition, honesty, sex, money, community, or relationships, these two sets of standards diverge completely. God is more interested in transforming us for work in the kingdom of God, which He does by the renewing of our minds. To renew means to restore something, bring something back to life and make it useable again.

This renewing that he talks of, is written in the present tense. It is an ongoing process. However, it is also in the passive tense, meaning we can’t change ourselves, only God can do that. It is also in the imperative, meaning we have a responsibility to feed our minds the right stuff. What is the right stuff?

Jesus told us that if we ask for the Holy Spirit, God will gladly give Him to us. The Holy Spirit can change us and sculpt us into something beautiful, filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.

The tool He uses to mold you into that person is the Bible. It is the objective revelation of God’s will for your life. As you immerse yourself in the stories of Jesus, as you look at the faithfulness of God, the Holy Spirit renews your mind so you will be able to discern the will of God. You will know what is good, acceptable, and perfect in God’s eyes. You will know what God had in mind for you. Paul’s appeal here is to intentionally choose what’s best for our spiritual growth. He warns us that cultural norms can stunt our spiritual growth and be a hurdle in our relationship with our heavenly Father.

In The Message version of the Bible, Eugene Peterson translates it this way: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1, 2)

Isn’t that great? God’s vision for you is for you to be different from the world around you. Jesus calls us to be the salt of the earth. He is counting on us to keep it from deteriorating. We are to be the light of the world. The world needs to see the light of the Gospel, God’s grace, through us.

It is important for us to ask ourselves if we look different from the world around us or do we blend into my surroundings like a chameleon blends into his surroundings? It’s important to ask ourselves how much of the culture’s value system is impacting us. Are my interests bringing out the best in me or bringing me down to a lower level of maturity? Take an inventory of your lifestyle. What kind of books and magazine articles are you reading? What kind of movies are you watching? What Web sites are you visiting? Maybe its time to look at these things and ask if they are good for your soul or are they hurting you.

If you would like to develop some guidelines on how to know what is beneficial and what’s not, I suggest these asking these questions first:

1. Are you are being entertained by sin? Is what you are laughing at causing God to weep?

2. Does it draw you closer to God or draw you away from Him? Is it harming your spiritual growth?

3. Does it please your holy God, who is set apart Ð who is described in Scripture as One who cannot stand to look upon human sin but turns away?

4. Would you be comfortable inviting Jesus to sit and watch or listen to this with you?

Never stop using God’s Word. Check whatever you are doing against God’s Word. It is the best mind renewer and strengthener we have on hand. It is truth for our lives. Use the Bible like a compass to navigate your way through life and encounter all sorts of things in your culture.

As I studied this text, I was reminded of a song I learned in Sunday school. It goes like this:

♪Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

For the Father up above

is looking down in love,

So be careful little eyes what you see.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

Oh, be careful little ears what you hear.

For the Father up above

is looking down in love,

So be careful little ears what you hear. ♬

Be careful with your soul. God loves it so much, He gave his Son, Jesus, to die in order to redeem it. You have been purchased with a price. God bless you.

Septic Thoughts

You are truly a miracle. Your body houses the most amazing pumping device in the world. The heart pumps 72 times each minute; 100,000 times each day; 37,000,000 times each year, and 29,700,000,000 times in an average lifespan. It is an absolutely amazing machine!

But today we are going to talk about our amazing brains. Each day the average brains sends and receives more messages than all the telephone systems in the world will send or receive in the next 50 years. If you could unravel all the tiny fibers that make up the average human brain, they would stretch approximately to the moon and back. Some estimate we have more than 70,000 thoughts a day.

Someone once said, “A man is not what he thinks he is, but what he thinks, he is. As you think, so you are.” What an amazing thing it is to be able to think! Scripture tells us we are created in the image of God, which means that we are eternal (we have a will with which we can make decisions), and we have a mind with which we can think.

Most of life’s battles are won or lost in the mind. The battle between flesh and spirit Ð our earthly and heavenly desires Ð is most frequently fought in the mind. Thinking is really important. As the old saying goes, it’s the thought that counts.

Sometimes, though, we can get caught up in, what a friend of mine refers to as, stinkin thinkin. We get contaminated thoughts in our heads, and they can be a big stumbling block to us spiritually. Those thoughts can turn us sour and sicken our souls. They can create feelings of worthlessness, resentment, self-pity, over indulgence, self-centeredness, and self-protectiveness in us that can shrivel our souls, distort our perspective, and make us unhealthy within. Our thoughts can affect our attitudes, emotions, actions, and our words. Our old enemy, Satan, wants to distort our thinking and derail our life with God. So we examine some of the toxic thoughts that can enter our lives.

First of all, we have negative thoughts. Those are the fatalistic, cynical, sarcastic, hopeless types of thinking. Then there are fearful thoughts. They usually begin with What if? “What if my resources run out? What if my health goes sour? What if my kids get in trouble?

We also have fearful and discontented thoughts that begin with, “I wish,” or “If only.” I wish I had more money, more talent, what that person has. If only God had made me this way, then my life would be so much better. And then there are critical thoughts when we are filled with judgmental thoughts of others.

We need to ask ourselves where those kinds of negative thoughts enter our lives. Do you find them in your past as you consider an old wound or a regret, or are they part of your future as you plan ahead? Do your relationships, your job, or your daily responsibilities cause them? Do changes in your health, appearance, finances, to do list, or life in general stir up corrupt and negative thoughts within us?

The next question to ask is how do we rid ourselves of these unhealthy thoughts that can be harmful to our souls? St. Paul has an answer for us. As a follower of Jesus Christ, he had every reason to be a negative thinker. He spent more time in jail, being ridiculed, getting beaten up and thrown out of towns, and wrestling with ornery congregations than anyone has ever gone through. Stinkin thinkin could easily have been at work in his life.

Paul had friends who were having some crises, and they were not getting along with one another. So Paul wrote them a letter, which is found in today’s text, and in it he tells them to, first of all, have a security system in place. What’s that mean? He says, “. . . and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds . . .” It is like a security guard protecting us from within. The peace of God is our guard.

How does that happen? Each day we need to spend time in prayer with our Heavenly Father. In that prayer time, we begin in worship and adoration by focusing on how faithful God is, how powerful, majestic, and wise he is. And we need to remember that God is much bigger than any of our problems.

Paul uses the word supplication, meaning we are to express our needs and ask for God’s guidance and wisdom to know what steps He wants us to take. Draw near to me and show me the way.

Then Paul talks about praying with thanksgiving “as you make your requests known to God.” Thank God for allowing you to approach His throne of grace and loving you. Thank Him for His past faithfulness and blessings. Thank Him for caring for you even more than you care about yourself. Then the peace of God, which passes all understand-ing, will guard your heart and mind.

After telling us that we first need a security system, he tells us to be careful with our diet. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We are to focus on things that are true, commendable, and excellent. He’s talking about holy, spotless, and uncorrupted morality. We are to test our thoughts. “Whatever is pleasing” Ð Is this pleasant? “Whatever is commendable” Ð Does it meet high standards? “Whatever is excellent” Ð Is it virtuous, good, and correct behavior that makes up good character? “Whatever is worthy of praise” Ð Is it so highly regarded that you would recommend it? Paul tells us to fill our minds with these kinds of things.

What have you been feeding your mind lately? What kind of diet is your mind on? Paul, says to think on good things

These words also describe Scripture. We need to saturate our lives with the Word of God, mediate on it, and let it wash over our minds. It can do amazing things with our souls through our thinking.

So how do we go about being washed with the Word of God? First of all, before you even begin to read, pray expectantly that God will come and speak to you. Next, check your attitude. Are you ready to surrender to what the Word has to tell you? Are you ready to obey it and be changed by it? Then, remember to slow down just a bit. Read it like a person reads a love letter at the height of romance Ð drink it in. Try to figure out what’s being said to you. If you are reading a narrative, like one of the Gospels, use some sanctified imagination and ask some questions. I wonder what it was like, for instance, when those five loaves became enough to feed 5,000. Read it over and over again, and read it out loud. It’s amazing what difference it can make when you read scripture out loud to yourself! Then mediate on one thought for the day. Find the main idea being expressed and carry it with you through the day. It’s called mediation. Scripture tells us in the book of Psalms, “Blessed is the one who meditates on the Word of the Lord. He’s like a tree planted by streams of living water.”

Last of all, memorize it. Psalm 119 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you.” How important is it to memorize God’s Word? One of my seminary professors made us memorize in our Psalms class. “You never know,” he said, “when you will be ministering to someone, you’ve forgotten your Bible, and you need something to offer that person.”

Likewise we need something to feed our souls along the way, especially when those old thought patterns might be eating away at us, making us miserable. If you are feeling alone, memorize Matthew 28, “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.” If you are feeling unlovable, memorize II Corinthians 5, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old is gone the new has come.” If you are feeling overwhelmed, memorize Philippians 4, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If you are struggling with the way you look, memorize Psalm 139, “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Carry those passages with you and hide them in your heart. You will be amazed how they can carry you.

God is concerned with your thought life. He wants you to have a healthy soul. Take care of your thoughts. Feed your mind the good stuff. Set up a security system for yourself, and saturate yourself with the Word of God.

Radioactive Relationship

As parents, we want our children to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. So we are often concerned about the company they keep. And when they make new friends, we typically ask questions about them. We may even throw in a bit of wisdom, such as one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel or birds of a feather flock together. It is true what Scripture says: bad company can corrupt good character. People around us can be either a blessing or a difficult challenge.

I am very thankful for the healthy people who have come into my life. These individuals inspire, encourage, and build me up. However, we can also find ourselves in contact with people who are more toxic or radioactive. Instead of being positive, these people have a tendency to be very negative. They will tear down anything and complain about all kinds of things. They will even tear you down, tempt you to do bad things, or manipulate you. They can do a real number on your soul.

Craig Groeshel, in his book Soul Detox, writes, “The people closest to you, hands down, are your greatest spiritual asset or your worst spiritual curse. Those with whom you spend the most time can propel you closer to God, serving Him faithfully and pleasing Him in all you do. Or toxic tag alongs can corrupt your good intentions and rob you of the blessings God wants to give to you!”

We can find healthy people and toxic people in our lives. So, exactly who are these toxic individuals?

Well, the first ones that come to mind are the chronic critics. They thrive on trash talk, gossip, negativity, and criticism. They pick at everything, including you. They can say some hurtful things.

Then we find the controller. This is an overbearing person who has to have things their way. They want to control you and the situation. They manipulate in a variety of ways, and can make you feel like you are losing your very identity to them.

We also have the tempter. This person encourages you to do things you know you should not do. It could be the friend who invites you out drinking after work even though he knows you have a history of problems with drinking. “It’ll be great. The whole staff’s going. Join us. It’ll be good team building.” Or the young girl who is being told by her boyfriend, “I think we’ve been together long enough now to take this to the next step. You love me, don’t you? It’ll be fun and will bring our relationship to a new level.” These individuals have the power, not so much to wreck you but, to influence you and do some nasty things to your soul.

So, the question is, How do we guard our souls around people such as these and stay healthy? I’m glad you asked!

In his book, “In His Steps,” Charles Sheldon’s main character decided the best way to live as a follower of Jesus was to always be asking the question, “What would Jesus do?” That question also seems to be fitting as we talk about how to handle toxic people.

Jesus spent quite a few months training his disciples, and he wowed them with miracles and by teaching with great authority and strength. He was an amazing person to them, and they were beginning to realize the sincerity of His ministry. Jesus took them off to Caesarea Philippi for a little retreat time and then asked, “Who do people say I am?”

Peter and some of the others said, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Finally, Jesus asked the all-important question, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” (This is also the all-important eternal question for each one of us, and our eternity hangs on how we answer that question.)

Peter immediately spoke up. “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Then Jesus affirmed Peter by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:13-18).

But while Peter was basking in this affirmation, Jesus changed the conversation a bit and shocked His disciples. His words, taken from our text, horrified Peter, and so Peter rebuked Jesus. We can look at Peter’s response in three ways.

He is perhaps the chronic critic who says, “You’re wrong Jesus! You should know better than that. Messiahs don’t talk like that. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. You are out of your mind.”

Or perhaps he is the overbearing Peter who is trying to control the situation. “We don’t want you to talk like that, Jesus. Don’t go there. We don’t want to follow that kind of person. You should be the Messiah we want you to be.”

And then finally, we could also hear the voice of the temper. “Jesus, you don’t have to do this. There’s another way around this.” (It’s interesting to note that in the early part of Matthew, Jesus heard this same message from Satan in the wilderness. Three times he tried to tempt Jesus to take a shortcut. Do it the easy way to get a following in this world. Each time Jesus said no. Could it be that, as Peter spoke here, Jesus saw it as a danger signal? He was under attack.)

Whether Peter was being a critic, a controller, or a tempter, we don’t know. We do know, however, Peter cared about Jesus. From this episode, we can learn there are times when a friend is not a friend, but a useful instrument of Satan instead.

We, too, see examples of a friend not being a friend, spiritually speaking, Perhaps you are feeling guilty about something and share your feelings with a brother or sister in Christ. As you talk about the heartache it is causing you, they respond, “Well, you are too hard on yourself. You’re only human. Take it easy and just forget it.” However, what we really need to hear is this: “You can confess those things, receive forgiveness, and a new start.”

Or perhaps you are struggling with your mortality. It makes you nervous to think that one day you will die, so you share those doubts with a friend in Christ whom you trust. However, that person is less than reassuring about your eternal destiny and serve only as a chisel, chipping away at your faith, by causing doubt.

Jesus’ statement is quite strong. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And then He goes on to set some boundaries: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He sees the danger and calls it what it is Ð Satan trying to derail Him from accomplishing His mission. Jesus wanted no more of this talk from Peter, but instead wanted the disciples to be clear about what they were for and against, what they will and will not tolerate in their relationships.

Sometimes we need to make some healthy boundary statements as Jesus did in this episode. Something like, “I’m not participating in that with you,” or “I’m not going in that direction with you. That could be dangerous for me,” or stepping away from a conversation when it goes toward complaining or trash talk or gossip.

It can be a challenge for us to set boundaries like that and stick with them for a couple of reasons. The first reason is guilt. Perhaps it makes me feel unloving or mean or selfish. But ask yourself this: did Jesus love Peter when He set His boundaries? Absolutely. God has left you as a steward of yourself, and this is being a good steward of what God has given you. Setting those boundaries enhances your ability to serve Christ better and those around you in a more loving manner.

For others, it’s a matter of fear. What if this person abandons me, just walks away and rejects me or hates me? That is a fear we will always have because we so treasure our relationships. It is the way we’re wired.

If those fears are at work in you, God has helps for you and wants you to get connected to those helps. One of them is the power of prayer. It’s in prayer that we call out His name as we seek His wisdom and ask for His courage to stand up for what our boundaries. God will give us the strength and encouragement we need.

If you are afraid of being alone, find a positive Christian community with whom you can network. Make some positive Christian friends who have a mature relationship with Christ. Plug in with them so they can not only help you stand strong and keep you accountable, but also can give you life-giving words when you’re feeling slammed by somebody else.

Finally, I invite you to stand on the promises of Christ our King. Live in His promises. Call upon His name. He is the one who promises, “I am with you always. I will not forsake you. I will not leave you as an orphan. I have plans for you. I am the Good Shepherd. Nothing will snatch you from my hand. You are the light of the world for me and the salt of the earth. Hang in there. I’m counting on you.”

Let those words be your words of life as you face days filled with life-takers instead of life-givers. Jesus loves your soul and He promises He’ll be there for you. Take care of that soul of yours this week.

Scare Pollution

Can you think of a childhood fear you had? When I was a child, I was afraid of my curtains. They were striped, and in the dark when the moonlight shone through them, I actually thought those stripes were snakes coming into my room. Some of our fears as kids are funny when we look back on them now.

Shel Silverstein wrote a wonderful little poem called “What If?” We have many what-ifs if we choose to, and often times as we enter adulthood, we continue to carry those what-ifs with us. What if I lose my job, my finances, or my wife? Will I lose my independence and have to move into assisted living? Will I lose my drivers license? All kinds of worries can keep us up at night.

What about the fear of failure? Nobody wants to feel that they’ve failed at something. That is a big one with me. We’re afraid of getting in over our heads and don’t want to embarrass ourselves, so we resist the urge to take on new challenges.

We also find the fear of rejection. What if people don’t like me? These people tend to be captive to being people pleasers. We want everyone to like us, so we do or say things that we don’t necessarily believe in, but we don’t want to face rejection. This can be spiritually damaging to a person.

What about the fear of the unknown? What is going to happen to me when I die? What if I lose my health and can’t take care of myself? What if my spouse loses their health? We live with a spirit of dread and pessimism with this fearful outlook on life.

Well, the Bible is filled with a lot of “Be not afraids” and “do not fears.” It is important for God to communicate this to his people. He knows a lot of things can cause us to fear. So He tells us to trust Him instead. For instance, we can look into the Old Testament and see Abraham who fears the King of Egypt will kill him to get his wife. So he lies about his relationship with her. Then we find Moses who receives a call from God out of a burning bush to free his people from slavery in Egypt. But Moses is afraid and asks, “What if they don’t listen to me? What if they don’t come. What if the pharaoh won’t give in?” And we find Gideon in the book of Judges who is called by God to save His people from the Midianites. But feeling small and insignificant, he asks God to choose someone else.

David knew fear for many years out in the wilderness as he ran from King Saul, who was seeking to destroy his life. Later, he also ran from his son Absalom who tried to take over his kingdom. Then there is Elijah who ran in fear for his life from Jezebel. The people of Israel were constantly calling out in fear to God. “Where are you leading us? Where are you taking us? We’re going to starve to death. There’s nothing to eat. There’s nothing to drink.” Again and again they expressed fear toward God.

In the New Testament we find the disciples calling out to Jesus in fear for their lives. “Jesus, we’re drowning, don’t you care?” Even Jesus felt fear in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified for the sins of the world. In the Gospel of Luke it says His anxiety was so great that He literally sweat drios of blood.

Fear can do a real number on our souls. It can choke the life right out of us; stymie our spiritual growth; poison our souls with anxiety, worry, and pessimism; and cause us to give into things that are harmful for us. So how do we find our way out of being afraid and living with fear inside of us?

Well, I’m glad you asked! A story in II Kings 18 & 19 really speaks to us about fear. It is about a fellow named King Hezekiah. He was a great king who did right in the eyes of the Lord. He was obedient and filled with faith toward God. Hezekiah rid the land of all the idols and went to battle to win back some of the land from the Philistines. Scripture records that wherever he went, he prospered. He even dared to stand up again the global bully called Assyria, who was taking over everyone. He vowed not to pay them tribute, but trust God to take care of them. For fourteen years the Assyrians left Jerusalem. However, the new king of Assyria named Sennacherib became angered by King Hezekiah. He took over the cities surrounding Jerusalem with his army and then surrounded Jerusalem itself.

And before he could do anything more, Hezekiah send word of to Sennacherib, “I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me.” Sennacherib demanded 25,000 lbs of gold and silver, which Hezekiah gave to him. He emptied the treasury and stripped the gold off the doors in the temple.

But then, as bullies typically do, Sennacherib decided he wanted more. He sent his emissaries who stood on the Jerusalem walls and basically said this: “People don’t listen to Hezekiah Ð he’s a terrible leader. Don’t trust in the alliance he made with Egypt because we’ve already taken Egypt. They can’t help you. And don’t rely on God; He won’t help you. We’ve captured everybody else around you. So give it up! Your God has turned his back on you and told me to destroy you!”

That kind of threat can be very intimidating. Hezekiah was obviously afraid, for he was about to lose his kingdom, his job, and in all likelihood his head. So the first thing he did was to admit his fear by tearing his clothes. It was a sign of distress amongst the Jewish people in those days. Next he showed himself before the Lord by putting on sackcloth, which was a sign of humbling one’s self before God. (Later on in the New Testament, we read that God will exalt us when we humble ourselves.)

Then Hezekiah went to the house of the Lord to seek the Lord and turn all his fears over to God. Perhaps he remembered a verse from Psalm 34, “I sought the Lord, and he heard my cry and delivered me from all my fears.” Then Hezekiah sent his emissaries to Isaiah, the spokesman for God, to express the weakness, humiliation, disgrace and distress they were experiencing as a country, and to ask Isaiah to pray for them. Isaiah had a word from God for his people. His response was, “Tell your master, ÔThis is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard Ð those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! I am going to put such a spirit in him that when he hears a certain report, he will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.'”

So Hezekiah trusted the Lord, and sent the messengers back to Sennacherib with the message that Jerusalem would not surrender. When King Sennacherib received the news that Hezekiah was not surrendering, he wrote a threatening letter to him saying, “Don’t trust your God. He can’t help you. I’ve defeated all the gods of the world. Your God is no different. Don’t trust him.”

Again Hezekiah went to the house of the Lord. He spread this intimidating, fearful note before the Lord and he prayed, “O Lord, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Give ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God.

“It is true, O Lord, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by men’s hands. Now, O Lord our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O Lord, are God.”

The next day, Isaiah sent a message to Hezekiah from God. He said, “Sennacherib is going down. He is messing with the wrong person, and he is a goner. I will take care of Hezekiah and My people.”

Once again, Hezekiah refused to give in to Sennacherib, and God delivered him from his fears with His Words and His promises. He delivered Hezekiah from Sennacherib and his army. That night an angel of the Lord went out and put to death 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When king Sennacherib awoke and saw the corpses all about him, he ran for his life. Then, awhile later, while he was in his own temple worshiping his God, Nisroch, he was assassinated by two of his own sons with a sword, just a the Lord had said.

We are sometimes filled with fear. However, this story is a wake up call to us that our God is big, He is faithful, and He is in charge. We need to place our fears in His hands. Fear not, for the Lord your God is with you. He cares for you so much that he gave His only begotten Son to die on a cross so that we might have eternal life. Yes, He cares.

I want you to repeat these as you go into your week:

1. My God is big!

2. My God is faithful!

3. My God is in charge!

Take that to the bank and build your life on that.