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Friday, December 31, 2010

"Redeeming the Tongue"

[Excerpted from Maurice Robert's "Redeeming the Tongue" from his book, "The Thought of God".]

"When the Christian comes to the end of his pilgrimage, one sin he will regret is his idle speech. It is assumed that no true believer allows himself to go on in outward sins such as drunkenness, theft or immorality. It is assumed, too, that the believer is concerned to put a stop to all inward sins, not least to sinful thoughts. But there is reason to believe that our sins of speech are specially in need of correction.

Our sins of thought bring us much shame inwardly; but our sins of speech expose us to shame in the eyes of others. Our sinful words are our sinful thoughts verbalized. They are audibly broadcast. They reflect the corruption within us as in a mirror. They do harm to ourselves and they do harm to others. Our folly, formerly known only to ourselves, is now apparent to all men. It is to be feared, therefore, that we do not read God's Word on this subject with anything like the attention it deserves. 'The heart of fools proclaims foolishness.' 'A fool's lips enter into contention.' 'A foolish woman is clamorous.' 'A fool's mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snares of his soul.' 'A fool utters all his mind.' What shame a good man feels when he spoils his testimony by speaking foolishly! Scripture says: 'Dead flies cause the ointment of the perfumer to send forth a stinking savor: so does a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.'

There is another reason, too, why we might look back in sorrow at our misuse of the tongue and therefore keep a more careful watch of it in the future. The tone of a Christian's conversation gives us a fair idea of how sanctified he is. 'By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned," said Christ. The meaning must surely be that words betray the true character of every man. They reveal the state of the heart.

Was it not our Savior and Judge himself who warned us: 'I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment'? Similarly, the apostle Paul issues this sober command to us: 'Let no corrupt/worthless communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearer.' There is a twofold duty placed before us in these words: to refrain from careless and unprofitable talk and to study to build one another up by well-chosen, soul-fattening conversation.

There is a special blessing attached to godly and spiritual conversation. To this Malachi alludes in his prophecy: 'Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name.' What a promise! If Christians today were seriously to practice the pattern of this verse, how much more of God's presence we should enjoy! Then let us study to edify one another. Those who do so will discover that even the Almighty himself gives ear."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winter Doldrums Book Club

The Ladies winter book club will begin late January/early February. This time we'll be considering the issue of sanctification, the believer's personal holiness. God commands His people to be holy, reflecting His own holiness. "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." (1Peter 1:14-16) What exactly does that look like in our lives? Nancy Leigh DeMoss has written a brief, but thought provoking book on the subject, entitled, "Holiness: The Heart God Purifies". 

Concerning the book, John Piper wrote, "When our pastoral team reads a book by Nancy Leigh DeMoss, we listen. We are riveted. We are convicted. When you taste the pleasantness of painful and precious truth, you want more. I thank God for the heart-awakening, holiness-advancing, Christ-exalting ministry of Nancy Leigh DeMoss."

Let me know if you intend to join us, and  if you'd like me to order a copy for you ($9.60 hardcover). You may do so by commenting below, on facebook, by email or in person. "If you're longing for a deeper connection with God, you must first answer His call to holiness." Won't you join us?
[Order Deadline: January 16th]

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Challenge Is On...

Sometimes people have the idea that it's too late for them to seriously study God's Word. I've recently been amazed to see what a difference even a short period of consistent time spent in Scripture can make. Less than a year ago Colin started reading/listening through the Bible. He reads every morning and listens to CDs as he drives. In that short amount of time I've been amazed to hear him begin to apply Scripture to life and base decisions upon it. He's already developing an eternal perspective, referring to passages from memory and making insightful observations. In less than a year!

I've also been challenged by reading the biographies of believers who were imprisoned for their faith for long periods of time. Their ability to recall Scripture is what gave them a lifeline to hold onto. I'm ashamed to say I would not be able to do the same without a Bible in hand. We memorize so many isolated, unrelated and often out of context verses... but have no significant passages in context we can bring quickly to mind.

So I'm presenting you with a challenge. Sixteen weeks. That's all. In sixteen weeks (by Easter) you can have memorized the entire Book of Philippians. Accomplish that and see what a difference it makes in your spiritual walk! The blog over at Gospel Coalition has broken Philippians down into 16 weeks, with about 7 verses a week to learn. That means it has to become a daily habit. They say it takes just 3 weeks to create a habit... think what an opportunity this is! To help people out they offer a .pdf with weekly verses that can be pasted onto 5x7 index cards and fastened with a ring... or pasted into a Cahier moleskine book, available at Borders or directly from the moleskine website at 3 for $6.95 (plus shipping). Send me an email or make a comment below and I'll send you a copy of the .pdf to print out. I'm going to give it a try. I think I'll find it will become easier once I get into the swing of it. What a great book to know and be able to bring to mind at will! Think what a difference it would make in your life and in the lives of those you minister to! Give it a try!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Few Surprises in Cleveland!

I thought I would share a few significant antiquities from the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As I descended the stairs to the antiquities area, I was shocked to discover a full sized bronze statue from Classical Greece staring at me. Greek bronzes are extremely rare. Most of our knowledge concerning them comes from their more recent Roman copies. (The Romans loved Greek culture!)  The only original bronzes I have ever seen were those discovered in a sunken ship off the coast of Greece and placed on display in a small museum in Piraeus, the port of Athens. And here was one in the collection at Cleveland! It's called "Apollo Sauroktonos (Lizard Slayer)" and depicts a youthful Apollo, holding an arrow, about to stab a lizard climbing the tree he's leaning against. The tree & arrow are gone. Other than that the statue is in wonderful condition. It's attributed to Praxiteles himself (400-330 BC). The eyes are made of stone. It's even more unusual for the eyes to be intact. The viewer has a vivid idea of how this statue actually appeared to the Greeks in the 4th century BC! This is a real treasure!

In the Ancient Near East collection I was also surprised to find a few other treasures. There are a number of ancient stone figures from the Greek Cyclades islands dating to c.3000 BC that seem almost modern in their simplicity of line & feature (see example on left). They're referred to as "Cycladic" art and I've only seen examples which came from this group of Greek islands in the Aegean. [The Benaki Museum in Athens has an excellent collection.] Well, it appears that Cleveland has one of similar style from the same time period which was found not in the Cyclades islands, but in Western Anatolia (modern Turkey)! No mythology has yet been found to go with these statues, but I suspect they were cultic in nature, probably representing a fertility goddess. The one in Cleveland is not identical to the Cyladic examples, but very close in style! (See Cleveland's "Star Gazer" on right.) One difference is that the head looks up in the Cleveland statue. The Cycladic statues usually have a straight-forward gaze. It's easy to imagine trade and exchange of ideas and culture between the Greek islands & Anatolia, even in 3000 BC. This truly fascinated me.

And finally, I was thrilled to discover finds from an "old friend". Mystery writer Agatha Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, was an eminent British archaeologist. She accompanied him on digs in the Near East just before and after WWII and wrote about the experience in one of my favorite books, Come, Tell Me How You Live. It's a wonderful read and gives a fascinating depiction of the Near East in that time period. Mallowan is well known for his discovery of a number of small ivory carvings he found in a well in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud (modern Iraq). Since they were detached from the furniture where they originally appeared, it's probable they were part of the loot taken by an Assyrian king from some Near Eastern palace. [They are carved in a Phoenician (modern Lebanon) style.] They had been tossed into the well, perhaps  during a subsequent attack of Assyrian Nimrud, and there they remained until discovered by Mallowan. A number are on display at the British Museum and others can be seen in the National Museum in Iraq. Good news, friends... some of them can also be viewed at the Cleveland Museum of Art! I walked around a corner and came upon an entire display case of them! Breathtaking and so unexpected. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the ones from Cleveland, but here are a few examples found in other museums. This is a peek into the Ancient Near Eastern world we read about in the Old Testament!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

You Be Holy Because I Am Holy

With Winter Doldrums Ladies' Book Club approaching after the holidays, I'm reading through a number of books on the importance of personal holiness in the life of a follower of Christ. I have not yet decided on the "perfect" book for us to read, but thought I would share a few quotes from what I have read so far, in order to whet your appetite. God calls His people to be holy because He is holy.

From Holiness by J.C. Ryle:
Surely that man must be in an unhealthy state of soul who can think of all that Jesus suffered, and yet cling to those sins for which that suffering was undergone. It was sin that wove the crown of thorns; it was sin that pierced our Lord's hands and feet and side; it was sin that brought Him to Gethsemane and Calvary, to the cross and to the grave. Cold must our hearts be if we do not hate sin and labour to get rid of it...

From Holiness by Nancy Leigh DeMoss:
God's goal in saving you was not just to make your few years on planet Earth easier or more enjoyable. He had an eternal end in view. His intent was to make you holy, as He is holy, that you might perfectly glorify Him, that you might bring Him pleasure, and that you might enjoy intimate fellowship with Him for all eternity.

The apostle Paul reminds us that God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him." (Ephesians 1:4)

Your holiness is not secondary to whatever other goals you may have for your life - it is God's supreme purpose for your life. It is something He desired, planned, and made provision for before He even created the world...

"Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." (1 John 3:3) When I consider my created purpose and my ultimate destiny ... I am inspired to be intentional about pursuing holiness, in anticipation of that glorious day when I will finally be holy through and through.

Do you share His goal for your life? What are you living for? From the time you put your feet on the floor in the morning till you pillow your head at night, are you consciously cooperating with Him and pursuing His eternal purpose to make you holy?"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How Do You Read Your Bible?

C.S. Lewis analyzes the difference between 'contemplation' and 'enjoyment' in his essay, "Meditation in a Toolshed":

I was standing today in the dark toolshed.  The sun was shining outside and
through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam.  From where I stood that beam of light, with specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place.  Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes.  Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam.  Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, ninety-odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences."

Read those two paragraphs one more time, slowly.  Philosopher Samuel Alexander called 'looking at the beam' Contemplation (abstract, external, impersonal, uninvolved knowledge) and 'looking along the beam' Enjoyment (participatory, inhabited, personal, committed knowledge).  That got me thinking about the different steps I take when studying the Bible.  Both Contemplation and Enjoyment are, I think, essential to understanding and living out God's Word.  I've often wondered why my appetite for the Bible is increasingly voracious.  For many, spending time in the Word is either a chore they would prefer to skip or a Christian discipline they'd like to accomplish quickly so they can get on to the 'more important' things in life.  There is no enjoyment involved.  I've been considering that HOW we read the Bible may affect our desire for it.

Obviously there is a spiritual element involved.  The Holy Spirit indwelling a believer naturally longs for God's Word.  But I think the human element also affects the process.  Rereading Lewis' essay led me to consider that there are three different levels of reading. Borrowing a little from Alexander, I'd like to identify them as: Fact Finding, Contemplation and Enjoyment

Fact Finding is probably the most common approach.  It involves straight reading.  For example, last week I read Ephesians, Chapter 1.  After my first read through I was mostly struck by the number of prepositional phrases and the length of Paul's sentences.  There was some understanding, of course, but mostly I found it confusing.  Many stop at this level and go on to read Chapter 2.  In a week's time if you asked them what they read, they couldn't tell you.  If you asked them what they learned about God, they couldn't tell you.  If you asked them how it changed their lives, they couldn't tell you.

Contemplation is the next level.  I reread the chapter several times and began searching for the "specks of dust".  Reading it on e-sword made it possible to easily highlight significant phrases and words.  I noticed how many times "in Christ" is used.  Then I noticed the vast number of things God has done to and for the believer, and highlighted those in a different color, compiling the list onto a Word document.  Finally, I translated and made an analytical chart of the chapter, which led me to an ever increasing depth of understanding of what Paul was saying and HOW he was saying it.  I realized he was purposely building prepositional phrase upon prepositional phrase to give the readers a sense of the  abundance of blessings they possess through spiritual union with Christ Jesus.  Paul used multiple phrases so the reader would be "weighed down" by the riches they possess in Christ!

Enjoyment was the final stage.  Now that I had a grasp of what Paul was saying and an idea of how he was expressing it, I was ready to "step into the sunbeam" and let it flood over me, allowing it to become personal, committed knowledge.  Being able to see the "green leaves" of truth I had previously been blind to, and even more importantly, seeing "the sun", i.e. God Himself, more clearly!  Thanks to the previous two levels of reading, I was now able to slowly read through Ephesians, Chapter 1 and be overwhelmed by the work of God through Christ Jesus on my behalf and understand the depth of my riches in Christ.  I could bask in the "sunbeam", soaking it up, allowing it to give my life richness and the eternal perspective it needed.

All three levels are vital in Bible study.  They build upon each other.  Don't be satisfied with Fact Finding, nor stop at Contemplation, nor try to skip ahead to Enjoyment.  I encourage you to incorporate all three into your study of Scripture.  I think you'll be amazed at the difference it makes!

[My thanks to Michael Ward's book, Planet Narnia, for inspiring my thinking by reprinting Lewis' essay.]

Monday, September 13, 2010

Teaching Your Children to Deal with Crisis & Fear

I'd like to share a post from a "Guest Blogger". Anna Thorburn & her family attend Christ Community Church with my daughter, Beth. In response to a family crisis in July when her self-employed husband was seriously injured, she wrote the following letter to their five children to help teach them a biblical approach to crisis & fear. This is a wonderful example of what parenting as a Christian looks like. I'm sure she would welcome your prayers for her family. I pray her letter will help you & your family face the difficulties in life in a manner that honors our Lord. [I have shortened it considerably, hoping more will take the time to read it. Please send me a note if you'd like a copy of the entire letter.]


Encouragement from 2 Chronicles 20: 
“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You.”

My Dear Children,

A few weeks ago, Gary Brothers shared some encouragement from 2 Chronicles 20. Since that day, I have been “unpacking” this section of Scripture. The Lord is using it mightily to encourage me as I review God’s character demonstrated throughout this passage, as well as King Jehoshaphat’s example as he responds to his situation. I write out my notes here for you, hoping it will give you some guidance and encouragement, too!

King Jehoshaphat learned that swarms of evil armies were about to attack Judah. He was afraid  so

1) “He set his face to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”(2Chron.20:3)

He flew into action, but it was an action of faith! He positioned himself for seeking. He must have felt he needed direction. He sought the Lord, who is the only One who can give it. In getting into the “seeking-position,” he proclaimed a fast, not only for himself, but for the whole nation. We will seek God together.. .we will fast together. Seeking God was a deliberate action. In this case, it involved self-denial & assembly of all those involved. Judah was being attacked, Judah fasted, Judah sought God… with Jehoshaphat at the helm. There are times that we must do this as a family [and as a local assembly]!

2) He prayed
     a. He reminds God of their relationship (2Chron.20:6)

     b. He reviews God’s power and might  (2Chron.20:6)

     c. He reminds God of His faithfulness on their behalf in His past actions  (2Chron.20:7-12)

     d. He expresses his own powerlessness & keeps his eyes on God. (2Chron.20:12)

         This is my heart cry today. I don’t know how to fix things and I am incapable of even thinking them
         through at times. (Psalm 34: 5)

     e. He states his resolution: “We will stand.”(2Chron.20:13)
         He is not assuming that God will prevent the affliction from coming upon him. It rests in God’s
         hands. They don’t know! Jehoshaphat IS, however, confident in the fact that God will hear
         them & save them. He is telling God that no matter what, they will stand and cry out to Him
         in whatever affliction comes. He knows that God will hear them and save them in whatever form He

3) “all Judah stood before the Lord with their little ones, their wives & their children.”

I love this!!! They could have been home, right? What good could their wives & little ones do, standing before the Lord as an assembly? Babies need feeding, changing, naps. Little ones make noise & could be disturbing. Wives have work to do. Perhaps they could have been packing for an escape! But no, they were there, as they had been so many times before in Scripture… all of Judah assembled together, with their wives & their children. We sometimes need to seek God as an assembly, as a church & as a family. Imagine what it would be like to watch your parents & all the people from the oldest to the youngest seeking God together and then falling on their faces in worship!


“And the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahaziel…in the midst of the assembly.” He gives the message from God to them: “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours, but God’s.”(2Chron.20:14-15)

God tells them what to do: don’t be afraid or dismayed, and go out against them... but they will not need to fight. They are to hold their position and stand and wait to see the salvation of the Lord on their behalf. He says He will be with them. What a comfort!  Even when we are fighting, the battle is the Lord’s and the strength to fight is from the Lord. The outcome is God’s.

5) A Response of Worship (2Chron.20:18-19)

Jehoshaphat bows himself low and all of Judah followed his example. They fell down and worshiped God after receiving this message! Then they stood up and praised God with a “very loud voice!”

Sometimes when God has answered my prayer, I go about my business, happy for the resolution of my problem. This is just terrible! We must praise and worship God in humility and in gratitude. They hadn’t even been rescued yet. They were praising God after hearing He would be with them and would fight for them. We know that God is with us and fighting on our behalf today because of Christ’s death and resurrection. This should make us worship and praise Him continually!

6) A Response of Obedience “They rose early in the morning and went out…” (2Chron.20:20-21)

When they went out, Jehoshaphat exhorted them, reminded them some more: “Hear me… Believe in the Lord your God, and you will be established; believe His prophets, and you will succeed!” Then—this is amazing—he appointed those who would sing and praise the Lord to go ahead of the army.

7) God heard their praise and acted.  “And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord sent an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah.”  (2Chron.20:22)

8) A Response of Thankfulness (2Chron.20:23-24, 26-28)

Their enemies destroyed one another! Judah spent three days taking the spoil, but then…
on the fourth day, they assembled AGAIN to bless the Lord… and then they returned to Jerusalem in joy and rejoicing, coming into the house of God w/great music to the Lord. They did not forget to worship and praise God for what He had done, even after the threat was gone and peace had returned.

9) God Was Glorified (2Chron.20:29)

The effect these events had upon all who heard about it was that they feared the Lord. When God delivers His people, those around take notice. We become part of the story of God glorifying His name on the earth—for which He is worthy—when He has triumphed over our enemies. Sometimes our enemies are difficult circumstances or persecution. Sometimes our enemy is within our own hearts. When God triumphs and the battle is won, the effect is obvious and God’s glory cannot be denied.

[Thank you, Anna...]

Monday, August 30, 2010

Week 8: The Screwtape Letters - Persevering to the End

"To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]  

In Letter 29 we discover the patient's hometown will soon fall victim to German bombing.  Wanting to take advantage of the fear this will engender, Screwtape contemplates several possible directions  Wormwood might take.  On the one hand, fear could lead the patient into courage, which in turn might lead to pride.  But it's also possible courage might give the Enemy [i.e. God] a foothold in his life.

On the other hand, cowardice, with its potential for hatred, might prove fruitful. "Hatred," he writes, "is ... often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear ... And hatred is also a great anodyne for shame."  But it's admittedly a tricky endeavor, since cowardice is not a vice most men take pride in.  There is also the danger that cowardice might "produce real self-knowledge and self-loathing with consequent repentance and humility."

Screwtape then suggests a third approach. "Precautions have a tendency to increase fear."  He advises, "Get his mind off the simple rule ('I've got to stay here and do so-and-so') into a series of imaginary life lines."  Properly developed this might even lead into superstition.  "Keep him feeling that he has something, other than the Enemy and courage the enemy supplies, to fall back on...".  Having been born and raised in New England, I can identify with that sin!  Often my first thought is to self-sufficiently deal with a problem using my own wits, proceeding under my own power.  It can be so easy to spend all my time on the path of "what if?" and how easily that can degenerate into superstition! With age,  I've learned to keep my eyes on the Lord and off the "what ifs" and instead, to pray and  line up MY will with God's purposes.  I keep moving forward, but I do so with the understanding that God can work in amazing ways above and beyond anything I can imagine, should He choose to do so!  I try not to "second guess" how God will deal with a problem.  Instead, I bring it before His throne and trust in His goodness and power.  I also struggle to not "set time-tables" within which I expect God to work.  Focusing on my dependence and God's sovereignty gives me a completely different outlook on difficulties and trials!  The Psalmists understood this, which is why I think we find such comfort and direction there...

I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; 
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old. 
I will meditate on all Your work And muse on Your deeds. 
Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God? 
You are the God who works wonders ... [Psalm 77:11-14] 

Letter 30 The patient proves to have been quite faithful during the first air strikes, much to Wormwood's chagrin.  "He has been very frightened and thinks himself a great coward and therefore feels no pride; but he has done everything his duty demanded and perhaps a bit more." That's not the outcome Screwtape had hoped for!  He does hold out hope that the patient's fatigue might be successfully manipulated, though fatigue has also been known to "produce extreme gentleness, and quiet of mind, and even something like vision."  Screwtape finds "moderate fatigue is a better soil for peevishness than absolute exhaustion... It is not fatigue... that produces the anger, but unexpected demands on a man already tired.  Whatever men expect they soon come to think they have a right to: the sense of disappointment can, with very little skill... be turned into a sense of injury."

Colin recently asked if I could remember our first experience with air conditioning. It occurred during our honeymoon, which was spent at my Aunt and Uncle's home in Newport News, Virginia in early August.  Neither of us had grown up with air conditioning in homes, cars or stores.  We recalled sleeping outside and on porches as children, because of the oppressive heat on the second stories of our homes.  At the time neither of us thought it unusual to be hot, listless and uncomfortable during the summer months.  Now, having experienced air conditioned cars and buildings as the "norm", it would seem burdensome for us to be without them!  "Whatever men expect they soon come to think they have a right to."

But what if God placed me somewhere where air conditioning didn't exist ... would I murmur and complain and demand my "rights"?  How many other areas might affect us this way?  How did you feel not having Internet access during last winter's ice storm?  What if you didn't have a cell phone and couldn't text your friends?  What if you suddenly had only one car in your family?  What if you lost your good health?  "Whatever men expect they soon come to think they have a right to."

Letter 31 brings a sudden end to Screwtape & Wormwood's correspondence.  Wormwood has lost the battle for his patient's soul. The man has been killed by a German bomb ... his faith persevering to the end!  Death of the body was able, at last, to clear his senses to reality.  Screwtape writes to Wormwood, "There was a sudden clearing of his eyes... as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer.  Just think (and let that be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter [skin sore], as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment."

Ever since I first became aware of the inevitability of my own death when my cerebral aneurysm was discovered in my early 30's, I've often meditated upon what it will be like when this body with its attached sin nature is at last detached from my spirit and soul ... the REAL me.  How we cling to these bodies, yet how glad we shall be to be free of them someday!  It's also amazing to think about the clarity of sight that will afford, compared to the limited vision we now have!  That's why I am so very thankful to have God's revelation to make me aware of all the things I cannot currently fathom on my own!  How encouraging those truths are when I am engulfed in difficulties, pain or trials!  How wonderfully comforting that I am able to look beyond my own perceptions and emotions and place my trust in the One who sees it all, knows it all, and controls it all!

This ends our study of "The Screwtape Letters".  I trust you have found the book to be a challenge and encouragement to your own Christian walk.  I pray that you no longer view the vagaries of daily life in quite the same way you did before reading Lewis' classic work.  My prayer for all of us is that we would always seek God first, that we would be quick to trust Him and that we would respond to His providential care with love, obedience, patience and thankfulness. To God be the glory!

[I have purchased the Focus on the Family radio drama based upon the book. If you would like to borrow it after you've finished reading, please let me know.]

[Week #1]

Monday, August 23, 2010

Week 7: The Screwtape Letters - Deepening Roots

"...we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty... But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will."

Letter 25  When I consider the demand for novelty in our own time, two particular areas come to mind - academia and the publishing world.  Seeking to discover a new interpretation or unique translation becomes particularly dangerous when applied to God's Word.  Consumers are often attracted to book titles with words such as "new," "revealed" or "secret" on the cover.  When it comes to biblical scholarship, however, these works usually end up being straight out heresy or minority opinions well refuted years ago!

Rather than evaluating a subject from a broad range of knowledge, readers often form opinions based upon one author's take on an issue.  All opinions are not equally valid, of course, but discernment is becoming a lost art.  We're too easily influenced by the skills of a talented author, a dynamic college professor, a favorite talk radio personality or the latest movement in Christianity.  We don't work at having a cohesive system of thought, content instead to settle on a favorite hobby horse.  Without realizing it, we can come to embrace a post-modern world view that all opinions are equally valid because truth cannot be known.  Discussions degenerate into arguing opinions rather than evaluating biblical fact.  Scripture is a cohesive, unified whole.  God is making a particular point in every passage.  It is our duty as believers to develop the necessary skills to rightly understand His point.  When it comes to Scripture, the inspired author's intended meaning is all that counts.  Unique interpretations, the application of modern cultural meaning to ancient writings, an evolutionary point of view concerning the "development" of Hebrew religion from pagan religions, forcing verses out of their context in order to make a point,  and proof-texting to back up predetermined belief are potholes we need to watch out for.  Lewis rightly warns that false assumptions in these areas result in false practices.

We should also be cautious when we read a Christian book that gets us so excited about one particular facet of Christianity that we direct our focus too narrowly and no longer value all the other facets of Christianity.  Absolutely KEY to having a balanced Christian life is knowing God's complete revealed Word so well that we're not more susceptible to human logic and reason that to a correct understanding of Scripture as written.

In Letter 26, Screwtape suggests "substituting the negative unselfishness for the Enemy's [i.e. God's] positive Charity [i.e. selfless love]."  That way demons can "teach a man to surrender benefits, not that others may be happy in having them, but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them."  The outer actions may look the same, but the inner heart motivations they stem from are entirely different.  God, of course, discerns the true intents of the heart.  One brings Him glory, the other does not.

I gleaned three things from this letter.  First, bad habits can accrue in a relationship and it's important to recognize them when they occur.  I've learned there is always hope when God is involved!  He can change people and replace those bad habits with Christ-like ones.  Second, carrying grudges is lethal to any relationship!  I remind myself that God loved me while I was yet a sinner [Romans 5:8].  Rereading Matthew 18 helps get everything back into the right perspective!  And third, self-righteousness and obstinacy don't glorify God.  Stubbornly holding onto our sin or acts stemming from wrong motivations doesn't please God, nor help us to become more like our Savior.  Repeated study of the life of Christ in the gospels is vital to having a God-honoring perspective.  It supplies me with reminders when I need them the most!

Letter 27 deals primarily with prayer.  It's not always easy for us to get beyond our human, logical way of thinking about biblical revelation.  It's not that God's Word is illogical; I think it just takes time for us to know His Word well enough to get a cohesive picture ... and it will always be an incomplete one this side of eternity.  I recall trying to wrap my mind around biblical truths as I became aware of them as a new believer, trying to understand why an omniscient God chooses to be affected by the prayers of His people or why an omnipotent God chooses to use feeble men to bring about His program.  I can't honestly tell you I have it completely wrapped up ... but I do know Scripture well enough to know it's true.  God wants us to pray, acknowledging our dependence upon Him, and He wants us to serve Him with a willing heart to bring about His purposes.

One proof of the God-inspired authorship of Scripture is its presentation of truths that can be hard for us to comprehend.  Men don't naturally think this way!  There are so many seeming dichotomies presented. It can be hard for us to fathom how both can be true, but it's actually a pattern seen throughout God's Word.  We are naturally creatures of "either/or", not "both/and".  Concepts such as sovereignty AND free will, assurance AND perseverance, knowledge AND love, Jesus' deity AND humanity, and so many other biblical concepts are not natural to man's way of thinking.  We tend to think only one is possible, that such things are mutually exclusive, while God's Word clearly teaches both are true and are better viewed as two sides of the same coin.

Letter 28 summarizes the patient's perseverance in the faith thus far.  He has spiritually matured in his walk with the Lord, trusting Him more, relying on Him more, knowing Him more fully and thereby becoming better able to resist the attacks of Satan's forces.  Screwtape informs Wormwood, "He has escaped the worldly friends with whom you tried to entangle him; he has 'fallen in love' with a very Christian woman and is temporarily immune from your attacks on his chastity; and the various methods of corrupting his spiritual life which we have been trying are so far unsuccessful."

Now Screwtape suggests direct attacks to undermine his perseverance.  The patient has started out faithfully, but will he persevere to the end?  "The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it all - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition."  On the other hand, prosperity can also provide temptations for falling away. "Prosperity knits a man to the World.  He feels that he is 'finding his place in it', while really it is finding its place in him.  His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home on earth, which is just what we want."

Every believer wants to someday hear the Master say to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant."  Yet we don't always think about the perseverance necessary to reach that point.  It's always good to evaluate our prayer life, our hunger for God's Word, our willingness to identify sin and our quickness to repent of it, our love for the brethren, our joy in the Lord and our priorities in life.  There is no "coasting" involved in perseverance!

[Week #1; Week #8]

Monday, August 16, 2010

Week 6: The Screwtape Letters - Adjusting Focus

"Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury.  And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied.  The more claims on life, therefore ... the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered."

Letter 21 deals with our having a sense of "ownership" of things, such as time.  Most of you have probably heard me tell about the watershed moment I experienced several years ago while reading the Missions to the Military magazine from the Hammons.  There was an interview with a young man who had just found out he was being deployed to Eastern Europe.  [This was before the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts, a time when military men did not expect to be deployed into hostile areas.]  I think the young man was only around 20, but his response to this unexpected interruption in his life showed great spiritual maturity.  He said, "I can't wait to see what God has planned for me!"  That's when it hit me ... he wasn't complaining that this was an interruption in his current service for God ... he wasn't agonizing over whether or not serving in Eastern Europe was God's will for his life ... he saw every step of his life being controlled by God.  He just kept walking faithfully and expectantly.  He was a willing, alert tool ready to serve wherever and whenever God might choose.  What a lesson to learn!  Living my life this way means seeing the opportunities God places in my path, instead of rushing on to the next thing on my 'to do" list.  That telephone call in the middle of lesson prep isn't an interruption, it's an opportunity to use God's Word to comfort or exhort someone.  My husband needing me to show him how to do something on his computer isn't an interruption, it's an opportunity to demonstrate my love for him. My child's rebellious sin isn't a frustrating, maddening interruption to getting my housework done, it's an opportunity to teach him or her godly truth.  My "late" arrival at the grocery store isn't an interruption to my schedule, it's an opportunity to witness Christ to a lady I "happen to bump into" who needed someone to talk to.  Overhearing a conversation in the library while reading a book isn't an interruption, it's an opportunity to teach the Bible to two young women who have lots of questions and very little knowledge.  What a difference it makes when you look at life that way!

In Letter 22, we see Screwtape and Wormwood's relationship deteriorating further as they jockey for position, with Screwtape suffering a rather humorous "meltdown" at the end of the letter.  Wormwood's patient is slowly growing in spiritual maturity and is now in love with a committed Christan woman.  Screwtape does not take the news well!  It's interesting that he speaks of her home as having a "deadly odour" which rubs off onto others.  A family walking closely to the Lord, living out their faith in their relationships with each other positively affects all who come into contact with them.  There's a God-honoring goal for you home ... and mine!

" will be quite impossible to remove spirituality from his life.  Very well, then; we must corrupt it."  Screwtape to Wormwood

Letter 23 reveals a change in strategy.  If Wormwood can't turn the patient away from worshiping Jesus, then he suggests changing the "Jesus" he worships into something other than what Scripture reveals Him to be.  This strategy is certainly alive and well today!  If you've never heard of The Jesus Seminar, read the following excerpt from wikipedia.  I think it's good to be aware of movements like this so that we don't misunderstand when we hear people talking about the "historical Jesus".   They're not merely referring to the fact that Jesus existed in history, they are applying human reason to the Scriptural portrayal of Jesus, voting on what they think is true and what they think is false, rather than accepting Scriptural revelation as written.

          The Jesus Seminar is a group of about 150 individuals, including laymen and scholars...
             The Seminar uses colored beads to decide their collective view of the historicity of the
          deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth...

          The seminar's reconstruction of the historical Jesus portrays him as an itinerant Hellenistic 
          Jewish sage who preached a "social gospel" in startling parables and aphorisms.  An 
          iconoclast, Jesus broke with established Jewish theological dogmas and social conventions
          both in his teachings and behaviors, often by turning common-sense ideas upside down, 
          confounding the expectations of his audience... the fellows argue that the authentic words 
          of Jesus indicate that he preached a sapiential eschatology, which encourages all of God's
          children to repair the world.

So, in their view, Jesus died to "repair the world".  That certainly is not the message of Scripture! It's true that Christians have historically had a significant moral impact in the world, that has been a secondary side effect, not the primary focus of the gospel.

Letter 24 targets the danger of novice believers developing spiritual pride.  "It is always the novice who exaggerates... the young scholar is pedantic."  In his interactions with his girlfriend and her family, who are further along in their Christian walk than he, Screwtape writes, "He has no notion how much in him is forgiven because they are charitable and made the best of it because he is now one of the family.  He does not dream how much of his conversation, how many of his opinions, are recognized by them all as mere echoes of their own."  Reading that brought a blush to my face as I recalled what I was like as a new believer in our weekly Bible study.  It's a good reminder of the importance of patience when interacting with new believers, particularly opinionated ones!

For someone new to the faith, I'm not sure the sudden contrast between being with believers and being with the world can be maneuvered through quickly and easily.  There's a time of adjustment as a new believer begins applying his new world view.  At first the contrast between the saved and the lost seems overwhelming.  He may find himself frustrated with the actions and opinions of unbelievers, and feel safely cocooned among his Christian family.  Christian radio often exacerbates the problem of "us" and "them".  But as time goes by, you realize it is unjust to expect Christian behavior from the those who do not possess the Holy Spirit.  At that point I think you begin to see the lost as God does and you look for opportunities to reach them with the gospel, instead of condemn them for their unbelief.  It's a process most of us went through, may in fact be going through right now.  Eventually you become solid enough in your Biblical understanding that you respond with compassion instead of anger, and you have a great desire to teach God's truth and help people realize their great need and Christ's provision.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Week 5: The Screwtape Letters - Controlling Appetites

The next group of letters focus upon the danger of allowing our senses to rule us.  In Letter 17, Lewis expands the common understanding of "gluttony" to include the "gluttony of Delicacy," exemplified by the attitude of the patient's mother, whose over attention to the precise satisfaction of her food preferences leads her into "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern."  21st Century America has turned this sin into a marketing tool!  Do any of you remember when coffee was ordered one of two ways: either "black" or "regular"?  I marvel at times listening to people give their coffee orders!  There's nothing inherently wrong with having food preferences, of course, but problems do arise when the satisfaction of personal preferences begin to rule us, leaving us dissatisfied with anything less than our exact personal specifications.  We have become a nation of complainers.  We've come to expect everything and everyone should meet our personal requirements ... our coffee, our food, our spouse, our job, our church.  We have each become gods of our own little world, demanding that our personal preferences become the standard for all, without thinking through how impossible that would be to attain!  Our "belly" comes to dominate our life.  Screwtape calls it "the 'All-I-want' state of mind."

Letter 18 addresses sexual appetites.  Screwtape gives a nod to the success poets and novelists have achieved in redefining "love" and thereby eroding the sanctity of marriage "by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually short-lived, experience which they call 'being in love' is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding."  [Remember this was written in the early 1940's!]  He also comments how the label "love" tends to be applied to any infatuation and used "to excuse a man from all the guilt, and to protect him from all the consequences, of marrying a heathen, a fool, or a wanton."  People are easily swayed by emotion, sometimes to their own detriment.  In counseling sessions I've often heard sin justified by emotion, as if we had no control over our emotions and expected to be ruled by them, rather than by God's revelation.

Letter 19 continues the theme of love.  The love of God is explored, and misunderstood, by Screwtape and the demons.  Satan's pride and lack of love has blinded him to having a correct understanding of God, who IS love, personifies love, as Scripture tells us.  I've been thinking about how we tend to desire, even demand, that kind of love from others, yet seldom demonstrate that level of love ourselves.  What a dangerous characteristic of the sin nature!  Maybe it's just me, but I find this is something I constantly need to be alert to.  God wants us to be focused on loving, not on "being loved."  Too often we look at verses commanding US to love and twist it around in our minds to demand love from others.  It's a good biblical practice to read those commands and focus on our own walk before God.... Am I being loving?  Is that a loving thing for me to say?  Is that a loving thing for me to do?  Am I exhibiting a loving attitude?  Am I building up or tearing down?  Am I serving others or myself?

There's a commercial on TV that reminds me of the issue of "the ideal woman" raised in Letter 20.  At the beginning you see a woman dressed in clothing from the early 20th Century.  As she walks through the house, she pulls her dress off over her head to reveal the next stage of what was considered stylish dress.  I don't remember what is being sold, but the ads make me realize what a silly thing "fashion" is and how people's idea of beauty changes so frequently over the years.  When I was a child, Marilyn Monroe's voluptuousness was the fashion.  When I became a teenager, Twiggy's boyish, anorexic image became the fashion.  Screwtape writes, "As a result we are more and more directing the disires of men to something which does not exist - making the role of the eye in sexuality more and more important and at the same time making its demands more and more impossible."  If that was true in the early 1940's, how much more unattainable is the "ideal" in the age of the air brush and Photoshop?  Personally, I love candid shots of celebrities ... in their "natural" state most look just like the average person on the street, just skinnier.  I remind myself that it's all smoke and mirrors, that outer beauty fades, but inner beauty grows as you walk obediently with the Lord.  This is certainly an area that needs to be addressed in parenting.  Helping your child develop a godly attitude and focus in life should be a parent's primary goal.  The question that always helps me to get my thoughts back in the right place is, "What matters the most for eternity?"  Those things need to be my priority.

[Week #1; Week #6]

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Week 4: The Screwtape Letters - Strengthening the Inner Man

"The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

In Letter 13, we find the enjoyment of true pleasure has lead to a change of direction in the patient's life, as he turns away from the direction he had started to go with his new friends.  How often people settle for the glittering, but false pleasures of "vanity, bustle, irony and expensive tedium".  I don't think we realize how vulnerable we are to appeals to our vanity.  "Even in things indifferent it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human's own real likings and disliking," advises Screwtape.  Of course, our ultimate pleasure is found in God, yet sadly, how often we're willing to settle for things less satisfying.

We see additional evidence of advancement in the patient's walk in Letter 14.  He has abandoned broad vows of commitment, "lavish promises of perpetual virtue", in favor of daily reliance upon and obedience to God, "daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation".  Wormwood's young man has taken his first steps down the road to humility.  Screwtape suggests two possible courses: either inspire him to have "pride at his own humility" or encourage him to become so introspective about it that he begins to foster self-contempt, which can then "be made the starting point for contempt of other selves, and thus for gloom, cynicism, and cruelty".

Key to developing a proper sense of humility is coming to the realization that we did not create ourselves. Our talents, our abilities and our spiritual gifts were all given to us by God, so how is it possible to be either prideful or dismissive about them?  They were given for a purpose ... that we might love our Creator and glorify Him in all we do.  Which leads me to a rather awkward question:  taking all of that as a "given", how then do we encourage one another in ministry?  Our tendency, I fear, is to praise the gift, the talent, the ability rather than how that gift, talent or ability resulted in our having a better understanding of God and His purposes and motivated us to act accordingly.  We focus on the tool rather than on the Master Craftsman using it.  Personally, I would be encouraged much more if, as a result of my teaching, you said to me, "Now I understand this about God ...." and you began to trust Him more, or if you said, "Now I have a better understanding that God expects me to ...." and you started doing the work of the ministry, than if you told me, "I love how you teach". While I work very hard at trying to teach well, the teaching is only a means to an end.  It's the results that really matter!  Does it result in you knowing God and His word better?  Does it result in you living a life that glorifies Him?  Does it result in you falling in love with Jesus Christ?  THAT would be a true encouragement!

"Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind." [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letter 15 deals with where we tend to place our trust - in what we think we see, in what we hope will happen or in God's governing hand.  As creatures of time, how easily our understanding of events can become skewed.  Since we can't possibly know what tomorrow holds, God desires men would be "continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present - either meditating on [their] eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure."

"[God's] ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity ... washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him.  But [Satan & his minions] want a man hag-ridden by the future - haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth - ready to break [God's] commands in the present if by so doing [it] makes him think he can attain the one or avert the other - dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see ... a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now ..."

While Scripture does not suggest we never plan for the future, we are instructed to do so in light of the knowledge that God is sovereign.  Reflecting upon my own life prior to salvation, it's easy to see how my hopes for happiness and fulfillment were always pinned upon the future.  "I'll be happy ... when I graduate from college ... when I get a job in my field ... when I get married ... when we own a home ... when we have children."  It's important I don't allow that way of thinking to follow me into my Christian life!  I need to check myself and redirect my thoughts whenever I catch myself thinking, "I'll be happy ... when I have financial security ... when my son is in full-time ministry again ... when my friend's cancer is under control ... when everyone in my church loves the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind."  Instead, I need to be asking myself, "Am I  ... walking in obedience  today?  ... being thankful today?  ... communicating with God today?  ... serving God today?  ... loving others today?  ... using my God-given spiritual gifts and talents today?  ... trusting God today?  ... glorifying God today?

Finally, Letter 16 addresses commitment to a local assembly of believers.  This is probably the one area our attitudes are more heavily impacted by our culture than they are by biblical truth and early church practice.  Oftentimes we're not even aware of it.  We don't live in a culture of commitment.  We don't tend to think corporately.  Instead, we tend to see ourselves as the Masters of our Fate.  Invictus is not a Christian poem!

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed...

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I often point out the pronoun "you" in the NT is almost always plural, a corporate "you" written to a local body of believers, not a singular, individualistic "you"!  God has chosen to work through local assemblies in this age and He gifts people according to the needs of that assembly.  His intent is that they would all work together as one body of believers in one assembly, committed to one another and to the work of God. [1 Cor. 12:11-12 Screwtape writes to Wormwood, "Surely you know that if a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that 'suits' him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches ... the search for a 'suitable' church makes the man a critic where [God] wants him to be a pupil."

And over each local body of forgiven sinners, God places pastor-teachers/elders, whom He gives the task of training up the members through the preaching of God's word, in order that those members are able to do the work of the ministry. [Eph. 4:11-12 On their part, local church members are commanded to, "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you." [Hebrews 13:17 The Greek word for "submit" is a descriptive one.  It means "to yield", literally "to place yourself under."  It's related to the verb "be subject" used several times in Eph. 5:21-24, where wives are commanded to place themselves "in submission" to their husbands.  Now that's not natural to our "flesh", nor is it natural in our culture!  God is making a call for full-fledged commitment, because we trust God knows what He is doing!  How often we view things with merely human eyes.  But acting on our purely human view does not lead us into a good place with God.  Numbers 12 should serve as a warning to us!

"What [God] wants of the layman in church is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that it does not appraise - does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting, humble receptivity to any nourishment."

[Week #1; Week #5]

Monday, July 26, 2010

Week 3: The Screwtape Letters - Faith Lived Out

"Religion is all very well up to a point.  A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all." [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letter 9 Over 30 years later I can still recall my concerns after the first blush of salvation had passed.  While I loved learning Scripture and being with God's people, it slowly began to dawn on me that my long held world-views were under attack.  It was one thing to know I had eternal security, but an entirely different issue to apply the things I was learning to my lifestyle and opinions.  I also had unsaved friends and family members who were worried about what was happening to me, fearing I was going "too far" with this religious thing ... had perhaps even gotten myself involved with a cult!  We didn't have our own church building, after all, nor were we connected to any denomination.  That was unheard of in those days.  They, and I, feared I might be getting "carried away".

Screwtape advises Wormwood to "keep knowledge out of his [patient's] mind" and to be careful to "keep him out of the way of experienced Christians" who might direct him to the truths of Scripture.  The core group who started FBC consisted of mostly new believers. God in His grace provided a knowledgeable and patient first pastor to lead us.  Had he been the sort who demanded obedience to a list of Pharisaical behaviors or adherence to a set of doctrines which I had no base of biblical knowledge to evaluate, it's likely I would have walked away, chalking it all up to a "religious phase" I once went through.  Instead, Pastor Loren faithfully taught us God's Word and helped me fall in love with Jesus Christ ... which lead to slow, but steady spiritual growth from the inside out.

From this side of those 30 years, I am astounded that I, or anyone, would even consider it's possible that we could know better than God!  I find myself extremely saddened by those who start out on fire for the Lord, but subsequently remain more enamored with the things of the world or resist biblical truth when confronted with it, slowly losing their ardor for the things of the Lord.  When faced with trials, they are more likely to shake their fist at God in anger than to cast their cares upon Him and trust in His goodness and sovereignty.  At those times it's good to remind myself of my own shaky faith and lack of understanding as a new believer and to recall the patient love shown to me ... a love that consistently confronted me with God's truth, prayed for me during trials and loved me even when I was unlovable.

Are you in love with Christ?  What specific ways can you help other believers "grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ"? [Ephesians 4:16]  How can you expand your own biblical knowledge so that you are prepared to effectively encourage others with Scriptural truths, rather than just vague Christian "catch phrases"?

This week's set of letters deal primarily with the first steps of applying faith to our lives. Letter 10 peers into the area of friendships.  When first saved, it's common to have an overwhelming desire to witness God's truth, what little of it we may possess at that stage, to our unsaved friends.  A point comes, however, when we realize that the influence of our unsaved friends upon us is greater than our influence upon them!  Few of us like to admit our own vulnerability, but God also makes us increasingly aware of our pride, "the sin which so easily entangles us." [Hebrews 12:1]  How easy it is to be attracted to the "rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world" crowd ... especially if they want to include you!  There's a fine line between being IN the world, yet not being OF the world.  Fortunately, that line becomes more substantial as we grow in our knowledge of and obedience to God.  We eventually discover it's much more pleasurable to desire God and we begin to wonder what we ever found so enjoyable about the alternative!  But that's not always so obvious to us in the early stages of our Christian walk.

A believer "must very soon realize that his own faith is in direct opposition to the assumptions on which all the conversation of his friends is based."  If the temptation proves effective, "He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent."  After a time, he will find himself living "two parallel lives ... [acting like] a different man in each of the circles he frequents" ... a classic case of hypocrisy!  The thing about hypocrisy is that it can't be maintained indefinitely.  The human heart will eventually expose itself in actions, creating a "crisis moment" when you must decide which direction to go in... towards God or away from God?

Which leads to Letter 11, dealing with the misuse of humor, a mark of the unsaved.  Screwtape describes ungodly humor as "the all-consoling and ... all-excusing grace of life," finding it "invaluable as a means of destroying shame."  He also commends the particular "value" of flippancy, which turns virtue into a laughing matter.

I've been in Christian company for so long now that I find myself shocked at the coarseness and foulness of what passes for humor among the general populace.  People don't tend to speak this way in my presence, but I catch pieces of it in commercials advertising the nightly offerings of prime time TV!  Most unbelievers, if they've known me for any length of time, are careful to refrain from repeating such jokes in my presence. I do recall an incident from a few years ago when a young guy at a local establishment started to tell me an dirty joke.  His boss, who had known me for years, repeatedly attempted to stop him, letting the young man know I would not be amused.  The young fellow was incredulous that I could possibly find his joke offensive and kept trying to tell it to me, until his boss finally raised his voice and firmly said, "No ... she WON'T think it's funny!"  How many believers, I wonder, who would never repeat such jokes in my presence, have no hesitation watching entire TV programs or movies full of them behind the closed doors of their own homes?  What message is that giving their children?  How is it deadening their love for God?  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your ... mind."  [Mt. 22:37]

Take time to evaluate what you are regularly exposing your mind to.  What do you find humorous?  Do you think God would laugh?

In 2007 Jerry Bridges published a book called, "Respectable Sins" concerning the "small sins" we tend to tolerate in our lives.  Letter 12 reminded me of the inherent danger of these "small" or "respectable" sins.  Whether through a lack of watchfulness (Lewis) or through our desire to place sins on a scale, comparing ourselves with each other instead of with God's holiness (Bridges), unattended sin serves to deaden our spiritual life.  How often do you become aware of sin in your life and dismiss it to a list entitled, "Get To It Some Day"?  Both Lewis and Bridges warn about the ability of "small sins" to increasingly dull our relationship with God and quietly head us off in a direction we never intended to go, ultimately starving us of the richness and power which repentance and obedience could have brought had we only dealt with it.  I've noticed that "small sins" have a way of taking over our hearts if left unattended over long periods of time.  Eventually they come to color our entire walk before God, and any good we might have done for His glory is choked out by the undergrowth of our "small sin".  I look upon them as the "kudzu" in our lives.  If you've ever lived in the south, you know what kudzu is like!  Beth waged battle against it on the hillside in her backyard in West Virginia.  Left unattended, "small sins" act just like kudzu, wreaking havoc and eventually taking over until your life becomes characterized by your "small sin".

"You will say that these are very small sins ... But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [i.e. God].  It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

[Week #1; Week #4]

Monday, July 19, 2010

Week 2: The Screwtape Letters - Developing A Christian Perspective

"One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.  In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Letters 5 & 6 are written in response to the outbreak of WWII, an event bringing premature pleasure to young Wormwood and caution from his more experienced mentor.  Screwtape prefers the advantage of "contented worldliness," where men cocoon themselves inside sand castles to avoid the reality of death.  The tide of war, however, easily smashes through such flimsy defenses by bringing "the continual remembrance of death which war enforces."

The world's way is to avoid the issue of death, preferring to distract men away from the inevitable as an act of kindness.  From God's eternal perspective, however, it is no kindness!  For believers, death and subsequent judgment are motivating forces moving us to tell others of God's grace and provision. To the extent it doesn't do that may be an indication of how much of our culture's world-view has infiltrated our Christian world-view.

A biblical understanding of death helps those who have entrusted themselves to Christ to rest in the knowledge of their eternal hope.  Lillias Trotter, missionary to Muslim women in Algeria in the late 19th/early 20th centuries wrote, "Death is the gate of life. ... The Christian life is a process of deliverance out of one world into another." [Parables of the Cross, 1894]  Screwtape acknowledges that the "precise moment of terror, bereavement or physical pain" may result in human reason being "temporarily suspended."  But even in those painful moments, calling out to God results in His defense of the vulnerable.

To what extent has the world's desire to mask death had a negative effect upon your passion to be God's ambassador? [2 Cor. 5:20]  What steps can be taken to draw your focus back to God and eternity?

War also serves as a breeding ground for suspense, anxiety and fear.  God is concerned with your daily moment-by-moment walk of faith in the midst of circumstances, as you demonstrate reliance upon Him and  trust in His goodness and sovereignty.  "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result/work, SO THAT [purpose] you may be perfect/spiritually mature and complete, lacking in nothing." [James 1:2-4]  That is, endurance through trials leads to becoming equipped with every grace and skill God knows you will need to serve Him best!  Tim recently noted that praying for the avoidance of trials is akin to asking God for spiritual immaturity.  In contrast, demons prefer trials would serve to cripple your effectiveness for God by keeping your mind focused upon what MIGHT happen, hoping you will become "focused on the fear itself," instead of on God and His greater purposes.

How does your approach to a trial affect the level of benefit you receive from it?  How is it possible to count trials as "joy", though the trial itself is far from "joyful"?  What can serve to strengthen you during such times?

"All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [i.e. God], are to be encouraged."
[Screwtape, Letter 7]

In Lewis' era the extremes were Pacifism and Patriotism. The human propensity to latch on to a "cause" instead of Christ has not changed.  Perhaps it appeals to our prideful sin nature; we become attracted to the idea of "me and God against the unenlightened."  We begin to believe that we are the only ones who "get it" and instead of fostering unity in our local assembly, we become like the Corinthians who fostered factions and divisions, thereby diminishing their church's effectiveness in the work of God.

God gifts each believer differently [1 Cor. 12:4-7] with the express intention that all will work together as one body comprised of various parts.  Periodically you find a believer who has turned his God-given gift into a "cause".  He naturally gravitates towards others similarly gifted and a "clique" soon forms.  Other believers, gifted differently, become viewed with disdain.  "I and my like-minded fellows get IT ... the rest of my assembly does not."  That kind of thinking should set off alarm bells! That kind of thinking brings disunity and weakens any local body of believers.

How can your God-given gifts and passions be used to build  up your local assembly?  How can unity be promoted?

Finally, Letter 8 deals with "undulation", the emotional ups and downs common to every spiritual walk. Humans, Screwtape informs Wormwood, have "periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness" alternating with periods of "numbness and poverty".  We experience days when we're on fire for the Lord and can easily see His hand at work. Then we have days we can't get out of our own way, prayers hardly reach the ceiling and it feels as if God is very far away.  Being emotional creatures, it can be a challenge to not allow our emotions to shape our knowledge of God or dictate our interaction with Him. Building our faith upon the roller coaster of our emotions is fatal to spiritual growth!

Screwtape, having broader knowledge, recognizes God's desire to help His children mature spiritually, to see them learn and apply insights gained. "It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best."

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. ... By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; FOR he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen."  [Hebrews 11:1, 27]

How does walking by faith and not by emotion or sight affect your approach to the Christian graces [e.g. prayer, worship, studying God's Word, time spent with edifying believers, etc.]?  Where do you turn in Scripture for perspective during "trough" times?

[Week #1; Week #3]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Week 1: The Screwtape Letters - Starting the Walk

"It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds:  in reality our best work is done by keeping things out."  [Screwtape to Wormwood]

Screwtape and Wormwood are first met midway into their correspondence. We quickly note Screwtape's prideful arrogance and sense of superiority in the relationship.  We also realize we're being allowed to witness one battle in a long war.

Letter 1:  Screwtape asserts that the existence of God, whom he calls "the Enemy", is actually quite reasonable to the human mind.  "The heavens declare His righteousness,  And all the people have seen His glory." (Psalm 97:6)   "When Gentiles ... do instinctively the things of the Law... they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness."  (Romans 2:14-15)  Fortunately for the demons, early 1940's English culture is quite adept at drowning out such witness with a "stream of immediate sense experience".  How much further we have traveled down that road by 2010!  You'll not find many today who enjoy spending time in quiet contemplation.  We are so easily distracted away from such soul searching opportunities.  I'm reminded of Obi Wan's "old Jedi mind trick" which worked so effectively on "the weak-minded".  Left unattended, "streams of immediate sense experience" easily drown out "considered reasoning".  Our modern hunger is for "amusement" ... an interesting word.  The "a" at the beginning means "without" and "to muse" means to think, to meditate upon.  "Amusement" literally means an activity "without thinking".  Steep your life in it and you could easily become one of Obi Wan's victims!

As followers of Jesus Christ, how can we build the habit of meditating on the things of God, while resisting the flood of "amusement" around us?  How can we consciously build it into the lives of our children?

Letter 2:  We discover Wormwood's "patient" has become a Christian.  Yet Screwtape does not consider it reason for despair, noting, "All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favor."      Sanctification is a lifelong process, a day-by-day, repeated process of "putting off" unrighteousness, "renewing the mind" with God's revealed truth and "putting on" righteousness, all made possible by God's grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

The most obvious place to attack a new believer is within the church itself.  Screwtape points out the difference between the actual "body of Christ" triumphant through the ages and the "visible church", the assembly we sit among every week.  We say we love God, but often find His people annoying at best and sinful at worst.  How easy it is to perceive and be outraged by sin in others and yet be blind to sin in ourselves. (Mt.7:3) Don't we tend to expect more from others than we do from ourselves?  "If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?"

In our interaction with new believers, how can we best help them start their journey down the road of sanctification?  How do we train our minds off annoyances and onto worship?

Letter 3 deals with the area we probably struggle with most - living out the Christian life in our homes.  If we're impatient, unloving and self-righteous among the brethren, how much easier it is to be that way within the grind of daily living in our homes!  If we're not careful, we begin to routinely assess the actions of others negatively, shining an unflattering light on every phrase and deed, while expecting only the best light be shed on our own words and actions!  We eventually create "an imaginary person", less and less as they truly are.  Screwtape advises, "Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending, and yet having a grievance when offense is taken."

How can you develop an attitude of expecting "the best" of people, instead of expecting "the worst"?  What Scripture speaks to this issue?  What concrete steps can you take this next week to start to train your mind away from self and towards loving others they way God loves you?

Letter 4:  This week's final letter deals with hindrances to powerful prayer.  Screwtape believes the "best thing... is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying alltogther."  Barring that, he encourages he make "an effort to produce a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part," quoting poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who described his own prayers as "merely composing his spirit to love."  Another tactic involves turning "their gaze away from Him towards themselves... trying to produce feelings the action of their own wills".  Equally effective in producing powerless prayer is to have the patient pray to a god created from his own imagination, rather than to the real God who reveals Himself in Scripture.

In what ways have your prayers changed as your knowledge of God has increased?  What have you found  helpful to strengthen your prayer life?

[Week #2]