Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Snap Judgments are Often Misjudgments

I was working in the meeting room of my favorite coffee shop when a middle-aged woman walked in.  She looked around, I smiled at her, and she quickly left again.  

"Strange," I thought.  "Maybe she's just looking for someone, although it seemed like she wanted to come in.  I'm the only one in here, and there's plenty of room."  I shook it off and refocused on my computer screen.

A couple moments later, she re-entered the room and stood across the room from me, right in my line of sight.  She was intently focused on what appeared to be a smart phone.  When she briefly looked up, I smiled at her again, and greeted her.  She said nothing and quickly returned her attention to her phone.

At this point I started to become a little frustrated.  I'm not used to people acting quite so rudely.  I noticed she had a big Bible with her, which she had placed on one of the tables nearby.  I asked her if she was getting ready for a Bible study of some kind.  She waved her hand dismissively, said nothing, and stared back at her cell phone.  

Now I became more frustrated.  I tried to overlook her rude behavior, but I began to think about packing up and leaving the coffee shop.  It was suddenly a little uncomfortable there, and I was no longer concentrating successfully on my work.

As I began to gather my things, stewing a little bit at this woman who was still standing there and ignoring me, another lady carrying a Bible walked into the room and sat down at a table next to where the first woman stood.  The two of them did not speak to each other, and barely acknowledged each other at all.  "This is a really strange group," I thought.  "I'm just going to make a quiet exit."

As I finished packing, one more lady walked into the room and began "speaking" to the other two ladies in sign language.  Suddenly everything became clear.

Once again I realized how often our snap judgments about people are made without all of the facts, and thus they are almost always misjudgments.  We might see a man with a scowl on his face and think he's angry; in truth he may simply be mentally working through a tough issue.  We might greet a friend passing by and then feel dissed when they rush past without acknowledging our greeting; we don't realize they are racing to some time-critical thing, unaware of anyone else around them.  I read of one couple that left a church because their pastor didn't speak to them one morning; upon discussing this with him many months later, he recalled that this event happened the Sunday morning he had the flu, and he was racing to the bathroom because he was about to vomit.    

We have all made snap judgments about people or situations, only later to find out the facts--as well as the errors of our snap judgments. 

Judging someone's motives is perhaps the greatest way we err.  For example, we might see someone do something we don't understand, and then we make assumptions about the motive that person might have had.  In my own experience, when I have done this, I have been wrong probably 95% of the time.

James 1:19-20 says this: "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires."  When we rush down the path of judgment and then even anger, we are not living the righteous life that God expects of His people.  Better would be to pause and mentally shower every person around us with grace.  

After all, I know how gracious God has been with me!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Danger of Being Impatient with God's Timing

We read of two specific failures of King Saul that led him to fall outside of God's blessing.  One is recorded in 1 Samuel 13.  Saul is facing an angry Philistine army, and his own soldiers are so scared that they are hiding in caves, rocks, tombs, and cisterns (13:6).  Saul is encamped in Gilgal, and has called for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to the Lord.  

Then we read these words in verses 8-14:
[Saul] waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel.  But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him.  So Saul said, "Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings."  And he offered the burnt offering.  As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came.  And Saul went out to meet him and greet him.  Samuel said, "What have you done?"  And Saul said, "When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.'  So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering."  And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly.  You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you.  For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.  But now your kingdom shall not continue.  The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart...because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you."

Saul grew impatient with God's timing, and took matters into his own hands.  His intentions may have been okay--he wanted to offer sacrifices to the Lord, time was getting short, and the prophet didn't come on time.  But only a prophet/priest is authorized to offer sacrifices; that is not the place of the king.  Saul should have waited, and trusted the Lord during the wait.

Rushing God's timing, offering a sacrifice by his own hand, turned out to be one of two sins that cost Saul his crown (the other is recorded in 1 Samuel 15).  The consequence seems harsh, but whenever one of God's appointed leaders disobeys Him, it's a big deal.

As I read this, I think of the times I have grown impatient with God's timing.  Several times I have been tempted to rush headlong into whatever course of action I thought was best, before I patiently waited for God's direction.  I have successfully fought this temptation many times, but I have also failed at times and gotten ahead of the Lord's perfect plan AND perfect timing.  

A good friend once told me that when we seek the Lord's will, He will always show us.  So the only way we can mess things up is to rush into something.  That is good advice which I have passed along to many others over the years.

Yes, we have to beware of the opposite extreme as well.  Sometimes we can wait too long and delay obeying the Lord after He has spoken, and in these cases we just need to get up immediately and go where He has led.  

But as for me, my greater problem is patiently waiting for the Lord's timing.  I understand Saul's impatience and his fall into sin in this passage.  In our culture we are not good at waiting, which is why we have microwave meals, instant messages/text messages, and so many other things that require little time or patience.  (Have you ever gotten frustrated when a friend didn't text you back within fifteen seconds?)  

In contrast, with the Lord, we often need to wait a bit longer than we think we "should."  David waited years between being anointed king and actually sitting on the throne.  Moses waited decades between God's call and the time he actually confronted Pharaoh to free the Israelites.  Sarai, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, and many others waited excruciatingly long for children.  But...oh, the blessings of doing things God's way!  God is always at work on behalf of His people, when we patiently wait for Him.  

If you, like me, have trouble waiting on the Lord, take time to read and meditate on these most excellent scriptures:
Psalm 25:4-5
Psalm 27:14
Psalm 37:7-9
Psalm 40:1-3
Psalm 62:1-2, 5-7
Isaiah 64:4
Psalm 104:27-28
Psalm 130:5-6
Isaiah 30:18
Isaiah 40:28-31

As we wait on the Lord, we will know His greatest blessings in our lives.  The waiting place is a good place to be, because we know the Lord has a most perfect and wonderful plan for each of us as His children.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Cross I Have to Bear

From time to time I hear people say, "This is just the cross I have to bear."  They usually say it with a pained expression on their face, as they refer to a trial or emotional pain they suffer.

I have to be honest: I don't like this saying at all.  Here are three main reasons.

First, for us as Christians, the cross is a symbol not of our suffering, but of our freedom and joy.  Yes, the cross brought intense pain to our Savior on our behalf.  But as we look back at the cross of Jesus, we should be filled with gratitude and humility.  We don't want to limit the cross in our minds as being something ugly or terrible, because there is so much joy and hope in what our Savior did for us.  

Second, we don't want to put ourselves in the place of Christ, acting as a martyr under some kind of instrument of suffering.  Christ bore our penalty through His suffering; He took the punishment for our sin.  While we are to "Take up [our] cross daily and follow [Christ]" (Luke 9:23), this is not a cross of suffering, but a conscious choice to identify ourselves with Jesus' suffering in our place.  Again we see that the cross is to be a source of joy and peace, not of our personal suffering.

Third, why do we feel like we need to bear our own burdens, anyway?  Jesus invited us to cast our burdens on Him.  Matthew 11:28-30 say, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."  

Dear brother or sister in Christ, let's walk through life in joy and victory, casting our burdens on the Lord, and looking to the cross with gratitude and hope.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Sting of Legalism

"Hey, you," said a man behind me this morning.  I figured he could not be talking to me, so I kept going.  "Hey you," he gruffly repeated more loudly.  I turned around.  "Didn't you read the sign?"  He gestured to a sign with a rule he thought I had not followed.  In fact, I had followed it closely, but he had not noticed.  I explained that he was mistaken, shook my head in disbelief, and turned away to continue what I had begun to do.

This grumpy man was not a person in authority.  He was just a fellow man working out at the YMCA.  He didn't know me, and I didn't know him.  

As I moved on, in my fleshly responses, I was imagining conversations with him in which I confronted him for any rules at the YMCA that he might not be following to the letter.  It wasn't a holy response, and God has forgiven me for that.

But after that, I found myself just feeling...well...guilty.  I didn't feel guilty for what I had thought about him, but for the rule he had originally "confronted" me about.  Perhaps I had not done it (but in truth I had).  Perhaps I had done it incorrectly somehow (but in truth I had not).  Perhaps I just hadn't done it well enough (but in truth I had).  Even an hour later I was still rattled about that brief interaction.

I realized I had been stung (again) by legalism.  There was a rule, and in this case it was a very good rule.  But the part of legalism that stung me today was the harsh, critical (perhaps well-meaning, though it didn't feel like it) person looking over my shoulder to see if I had followed it correctly.  

And even though I had followed the rule (and I am generally a rule-follower), I began to feel guilty after the criticism that had been leveled against me.  That's one of the ways legalism hurts people.  Even if we follow all the rules, there's the possibility that we might not have followed them well enough, or quickly enough, or otherwise done them "the right way" in the eyes of observers.  

If we give in to this legalistic kind of thinking, especially in our spiritual lives, it will undo us.  Dear Christian, legalism has no place in our churches, nor in our relationship with the Lord.

In our churches legalism is a close brother with criticism, and I have personally watched it hurt many churches and even destroy some churches altogether.  Strict adherence to rules alone, coupled with criticism for those who do not follow them properly, sucks the very life out of a church.  Some churches harshly criticize those who fail to follow God's very good rules "the right way," which takes all of the joy out of following Christ.  Other churches add rules and hold them in such high regard that they demean those who don't know and follow them--rules such as "proper" attire, the "right" way to worship, the "correct" Bible translation, etc.  These things have no place in our churches.

In our relationship with the Lord, legalism may take root in our minds as we picture God looking over our shoulder, ready to "zap" us if we don't follow His rules perfectly.  Or we may (wrongly) think that God's love for us is conditional on our obedience to His rules.  (Side note: God's blessings depend on our obedience, but His love is full and complete no matter what.)  We may even think that our entrance to heaven is based on performance, rather than solely on our acceptance of the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.  Dear friends, legalism like this has no place in our lives.  It's not what God has intended for us.

God has indeed given us some rules to follow, rules which provide good boundaries that keep us healthy and ready to receive the blessings He has for us.  When we live within these boundaries, we enjoy the abundant life He intends for us, full of grace and joy.  We obey Him not because of fear of punishment, but because we love Him.  First John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.  And His commandments are not burdensome."  If we reduce these biblical guidelines to nothing more than a hard-and-fast set of rules that we check off as we follow them, then we miss the fullness of joy that the Lord intends for us.

Dear Christian brother or sister, let us live in the grace and the freedom of the Lord, free of legalism.  May we grow in our knowledge of God's grace for us, and then may we exercise that same grace toward one another.

I doubt whether the man that yelled at me today will ever read this blog.  Whether or not you do, please know I am praying that you will find freedom from criticism and learn of the grace of God.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Right in Our Own Eyes

In my annual read through the Bible (October-September), I am now reading through Judges.  A frightening theme throughout the book is how the entire nation of God's people frequently turned away from worshiping and serving the Lord.  The book covers many generations, and throughout that time the people were very fickle in their commitment to the Lord.

There's a descriptive phrase that sticks in my mind, "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

This is a dangerous way to live.  And, if I may be frank, this same phrase describes our American society today.  So many people around us live by what they individually believe to be right, saying truth is relative, and that everyone is right if they just live according to their personal beliefs.  This is the mistake made by the people of Israel.

May I be even more frank?  Sometimes God's own people, purchased by the blood of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, adopt the same "do whatever is right in my own eyes" mentality.

Dear Christian, our personal standards of right and wrong must be established by God's standards, as outlined in His Word.  If we go by the desires of our own hearts, we will be led astray.  Jeremiah 17:9-10 says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds."  In James 1:14-15 we read about where our personal desires can lead us: "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."

What does the Lord specifically say in His Word about a philosophy of doing what is right in our own eyes?  Deuteronomy 12:8 warns: "You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes."  Instead, this passage goes on to say, we are to live differently as God's own chosen people.

Further, the book of Proverbs offers us some clear words.  Proverbs 12:15 says, "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice."  Proverbs 21:2 says, "Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart."

Just look back through the book of Judges (and many other parts of the Bible) and see the practical outworkings of living by "what's right in my own eyes."  We see just about every sin known to man, with horrendous consequences.  Living by this philosophy is never good. 

God's standards of right and wrong are what really matter.  When we stand before Him one day, as every person must do, He will not compare us to our own standards or the standards of others; He will compare us to the holy guidelines He gave us so clearly in His Word.

Dear Christian, let's spend time studying the Word of God and letting THAT determine our sense of right and wrong.  Then let us follow with unwavering obedience in doing what is right.  Nothing less will do.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Thoughts at the New Year

For the last several years I have not watched the television festivities on New Year's Eve.  This year my older two children begged to stay up and watch the Times Square events, and my wife and I relented.  

I remembered why I lost interest in watching the New Year celebrations.  As I watched thousands of people get so excited about the fresh start of the new year, forgetting the troubles of 2010 and looking toward the promises of 2011, I hurt for them.  They looked so eager for a fresh start.  But I know the wonderful truth that I can have a fresh start any day, any time.  I don't need to wait for the turn of the year; I can have a fresh start right now.

First John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."  In Lamentations 3:22-23 we read, "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness."  

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you can have a fresh start any time you want it!  God's forgiveness is freely offered to us (1 John 1:9).  No matter what we've done in the past, we can have a fresh start right now and move forward with new grace from God.  

The Apostle Paul wrote, "But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13b-14).  Let us do this not only at the turn of the year, but every single day!