"We ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled..." ~ II Thes. 2:2 *** "But stir up the gift of God that is within you by the laying on of hands..." ~ II Tim. 1:6

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The Pursuit of Happiness…What Does That Mean?

The beginning of the Declaration of Independence makes an interesting statement.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The writers believed that this was self-evident, meaning that it was completely obvious and didn’t need explanation.  The right to life (a.k.a. to stay alive) and right to liberty (a.k.a. freedom) make perfect sense to us.  But the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” doesn’t have the same meaning to us today as it did to the patriots in 1776.

We live in a world today that is obsessed with the pursuit of happiness.  But it’s not a world that our founding fathers would even recognize.  Today the words “happy” or “happiness” have become watered down, speaking more to a temporary mood or shallow state of being.

But when that sentence was written, the phrase signified a combination of fulfillment, contentment, self-worth, dignity, and community or civic duty.  I love the quote from this article, which sums it up by saying that “happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification”.

So our founding fathers thought that this was a core tenet of humanity, but is the pursuit of happiness a biblical principle as well?

Related:  Comparison & Envy: the Key to Unhappiness

What does the bible say about happiness?

A lot, it turns out.

It’s worth just getting this out of the way to begin with:  pursuing happiness does NOT mean pursuing your own desires at the expense of others, or at odds with God’s way.  It does not say “the pursuit of pleasure”.   And it’s NOT the pursuit of materialism, humanism, and hedonism (II Tim. 3:1-4).  Solomon was clear that pursuing these things was pointless vanity (Eccl. 12), and the bible reiterates this again and again.

Spiritual Leprosy, Part 1: Recognizing the Symptoms

Some years ago, I read a book that had a chapter specifically devoted to pain.  I don’t recall the chapter heading, but if I had to guess, it would be something like, “The Blessing of Pain”.  The premise was essentially that pain was a good thing, because without it the body wouldn’t know that there was a problem, or that there was something that it shouldn’t be doing.

In that chapter, there were a few pages that addressed leprosy, because as it turns out, leprosy is an excellent illustration of why pain can be a blessing.  The disease’s physical ramifications were discussed, along with experiences from leper colonies (yes, they still exist, although they’re a foreign concept to us “first-worlders”) and observations from those in the medical field who have devoted their lives to pursuing a cure.

The observations about this disease frankly left me staring open-mouthed at the book while I mentally connected the physical with the spiritual.  I began to gain an understanding of why the issue of leprosy was addressed in scripture, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Leprosy is a topic that really isn’t on our radar screens.  For the most part, it doesn’t impact any of us.  We all know someone—close to us or not—with a serious disease:  cancer, diabetes, cardiac problems, dementia, etc.  Because of this, we have a sense of the seriousness and impact these have one people’s day-to-day lives.

I don’t personally know anyone with the physical disease of leprosy.  Not one person.  And I doubt that most people do.  That’s why the topic is not on our radar—it isn’t visible in our lives.  But scripture actually gives this disease a fair amount of attention.  In the Bible, we can find the word leprosy in the bible upwards of 40 times, depending on which translation you’re using.  Leviticus 13 and 14 is a major section that deals with this disease, a part of the “cleanliness” laws.  These chapters are somewhat technical and tedious, and because of that are not my favorite section of the Bible to read.  What they essentially cover are the identification of the disease, when to quarantine, and the remediation of the person/clothing/house.

So what are we to get from this?  In recent years I feel that I’m getting a glimmer of why this subject is covered so heavily in God’s word.

“…Written for our example…”

Although Paul made the statement in 1 Corinthians 10 specifically about the exodus from Egypt, we can be sure that this concept of scriptures being “written for our example” applies to the rest of the Old Testament scrolls.  Paul also described the purpose of the Old Testament scrolls, saying, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

So what can we learn about leprosy, and especially how it can apply to us in a spiritual sense?  Well, here’s what I have learned…

The physical impact of leprosy

Let’s start with some of the characteristics of the physical disease.  As we go through these, you’re free to get out ahead and start thinking of the spiritual implications and analogies for what we consider the ecclesia of Christ:

  • Leprosy has a long incubation period.  It can take years, even a decade or two, for symptoms to definitively show up.
  • It’s actually not easily contagious.  It takes close and repeated contact with someone who has untreated leprosy.  Children are more susceptible than adults.
  • Leprosy primarily attacks the nerve endings.  Left unchecked, this will lead to loss of feeling and muscle weakness, leading to atrophy and deterioration.

A New Lump, Purged From Sin

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:7, 10)

In a previous year’s study as the Days of Unleavened Bread drew to a close, we explored how the command is that we must eat unleavened bread for seven days—the focus being on taking in Christ as the Bread of Life, rather than on thinking, even unintentionally, that we can get sin (leavening) out of our lives on our own.

One of the scriptures we really focused on in that study was a key passage where Paul tells the Corinthians:

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you are truly unleavened.  For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity (clearness, purity) and truth” (I Cor. 5:7-8)

The word translated “purge” in this passage means to cleanse thoroughly, with the implication of cleaning or purging out rather than just wiping down.  It’s a very evocative, active word, and I think the King James translators used it very intentionally in this passage and one other (that we’ll get to later).

I hadn’t ever really thought about why and how the word “purge” is used here, but it caught my attention these past Days of Unleavened Bread, and brought to mind a few trains of thought that I wanted to share.

How are we supposed to become a new lump?

You can’t get leaven out of or “deleaven” your leavened bread dough.  The yeast spores so thoroughly permeate every inch of the dough that it’s physically impossible.  You have to start fresh with new dough.  When the Israelites left Egypt, God forced them to completely throw out their old dough starters, with yeast that had built up multiplied over potentially decades.  But He didn’t want them bringing any of that old leaven with them.

We, too, have to start fresh with new dough, metaphorically-speaking.  Paul covered this topic a LOT.  He illustrated it for us when he said, “For I am crucified with Christ:  nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  In a letter to the Corinthians he told them, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (II Cor. 5:17).

When we came to understand the gravity of our former sins, repented, and were baptized, we entered into covenant with God and symbolically died in the watery grave of baptism.  We came out of it as a new being (Rom. 6), free from sin, a new, unleavened lump.  This is our purging, and it continues throughout the rest of our physical lives. 

So let’s explore a couple things related to purging out our old leaven and being purged from sin.  I’ll try not to get *too* graphic, but there are some parallels to our physical experiences that are hard to ignore.  Like I said, they chose the word for a reason 🙂

The Signs of Spiritual Erosion

Be my rock of refuge [strength], a fortress of defense to save me

~ Psalms 31:2

Christ once told His disciples a parable, saying, “He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock” (Luke 6:48-49).

Long-time Christians like to latch on to scriptures like this.  We picture Satan attacking in dramatic ways, provoking equally grand gestures of faith—turning down a job for the Sabbath, telling the truth though it will damage us, staying faithful despite being ostracized at school for being different.  Many of us like to imagine that, if put in a “deny God or die” scenario, we would maintain our faith and face the consequences.  And perhaps we’re right.

But the reality is that many of us won’t face such a drastic situation, and even if we do, it will be once or twice in our lifetimes.  So we think we’ve got it made since we built our house on the rock, a solid foundation that will stand the test of time.  And it’s true, the foundation we build upon is critical to our success.

But what if it’s the rock itself that becomes the problem?

Erosion:  The process by which something is diminished or destroyed by degrees. To eat into, or to eat away by slow destruction of substance, to deteriorate

I once read an article about a famous historical lighthouse at Cape Henlopen, Delaware.  The lighthouse was critical to the Philadelphia shipping industry, and they took excellent care of it for many years.  It weathered storms and hurricanes, providing light and safe passage to the ships coming through.  But it took them decades to realize that the cliff it had been built on—its very foundation—was eroding.  One day, before they could work out a solution for saving it, a storm rolled through and the giant lighthouse fell into the sea.

We are told to build our spiritual house on a rock, and most of us take that admonition very seriously.  There is no doubt that the Rock in question is God the Father and His Son.  There are dozens of verses in the Psalms alone that reference Him this way (e.g. Psalms 31:2, 92:15).  It’s obviously critical that what we build upward and visibly is made of quality materials, and that we build on the solid foundation, the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20; I Cor. 3:11).

But we often forget that the foundation itself has to be maintained over time.  And so what happens is that the daily grinding effects of life—of temptations, worries, pressures, envies, discouragements—these are what wear us down little by little, day by day.  Until one day we, too, crumble and fall.

It’s important to understand that when this happens, it’s not God or His power that has eroded.  That simply isn’t possible.  Rather, it’s Him as our foundation—because we allow it and we don’t maintain it.  We may appear to be weathering the storm, but underneath our foundation is being eaten away, and one day we’ll slide off into the ocean or crumble beneath the weight of what we’ve built.

What is spiritual erosion?

Spiritual erosion is slow, silent, and subtle.  Like physical erosion, it starts imperceptibly, and the daily familiarity of routine keeps us from seeing it in ourselves or even those close to us.  A person will usually keep doing the same things they’ve always done, like keeping the Sabbath, asking people how their week was at church, deleavening the house, and attending the Feast.  Many Christians still attend church long after their faith is gone, because we’re creatures of habit.

What Are Abominations Before the Lord?

Where the study stemmed from

In today’s world of political correctness and permissiveness, the very word “abomination” is something that most people recoil from and completely reject. The industry I work in is very liberal, and I’m often placed in a position of needing to explain and defend my faith as tactfully as possible. Most people can wrap their heads around the fact that I don’t keep Christmas, don’t eat unclean meats, and keep a seventh-day Sabbath. But where their understanding stops is when it comes to homosexuality, because they believe that it’s bigotry or hatred on my part not to accept homosexuality as a completely natural thing.

There is a shaky line I have to walk in explaining that it has nothing to do with hating those people specifically, but that I also don’t get to pick and choose which commandments are valid within the things God says are wrong. I’ve had many people tell me that it was only considered wrong in the Old Testament, but that the New Testament doesn’t mention anything about it and Jesus did away with all that Old Testament hardline nonsense.

But the thing is, we know that Jesus didn’t do away with the Old Testament—only added to it or fulfilled some aspects (such as the need for the Levitical priesthood and physical sacrifices). And so quite some time back, I decided that I needed to do an in-depth study on what God considers abominations, so that I could confidently discuss the topic when asked.

The use of “abomination” in the Bible

It makes sense to start by finding out what things or actions God call an abomination. Interestingly, people often think about this as being mainly a hardline law/Pentateuch thing, and certainly there were a number of occurrences there. But it came as a surprise to me that the highest concentration of the word “abomination” appears to be in the book of Proverbs, in verses concerned with the heart and mind.

The words “abomination” and “abominable” are used over 170 times in the KJV and probably a similar number in the NKJV, though they tend to be used a less frequently in certain modern translations. While there’s only one Greek word translated this way, there are around five different Hebrew words. Three are from the same root word (shequets, shaqats, shiqquts) and mean roughly the same thing—filth, figuratively or literally an idolatrous object, detestable thing. These words are used when speaking of unclean animals, for instance, or often refer to pagan or idolatrous things in a more general sense. Two other words (ba ash and piggul piggul) are only translated abomination once or twice, but more often words like stank, loathsome, and abhor are used when translating them.

The most prominent word translated “abomination” is to ebah to ebah, and signifies that which is disgusting morally, an abhorrence.  It is used not only in the passages we expect (such as those on sexual sins or pagan rituals) but also passages in Proverbs and similar that speak to behaviors God finds detestable.

When You Pray: What’s In Your Closet?

But you, when you pray, enter into thy closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which seeth in secret shall reward you openly (Matt. 6:6)

We can deduce the obvious meaning here, and have heard that repeated over the decades—don’t be showy in prayer, but rather make it a private conversation with your Creator.

That is valid, and you won’t find me in disagreement.  But is there an important message here that we’re missing?

I’m not one to arbitrarily find “deeper meaning” in everything or try to be the smartest person in the room.  But I do think that we maybe need to look below the surface a little more here.

…enter your closet

If you were to spend any time at all looking at archaeological findings in that era of time (1st century CE), you would realize that the concept of a closet, or a separate private room in a multi-room dwelling, was foreign except to the wealthy.  And I don’t think that Jesus Christ spent a lot of time instructing the wealthy, rather His time was spent with the common people.  So how could this teaching connect to their lives?  More importantly, what can we do with this teaching?

The best way I can illustrate this is with a phrase from the last several decades: “…coming out of the closet…”   In today’s age that has a very specific meaning to us, but the phrase also has a more general meaning that should be important to us as we consider the passage in Matthew 6.  This colloquial phrase means exposing a personal character trait that you or I have been keeping secret.  So how should this affect the way we pray?

It is my view that we all have a closet that we keep closed and don’t really want anyone else to get a peek into, including God.  Some of us have a closed door to an inner room and know it, and others have managed to fool themselves into thinking that they don’t—but we all do.  To be honest, we don’t even want to look in there ourselves!   It’s much easier to keep the door closed than to try to clean out the closet.

A conversation with a friend

Again, how should this affect the way we pray?  I’m going to get even more basic here:  what is prayer?

I think we tend to shroud certain “religious” issues with mystique.  Issues like bible study, meditation, worship, and yes, prayer.  The reality is, differences in personalities and experiences make each of us people that learn, muse, demonstrate passion, and talk or communicate in different ways.

Let’s take prayer.  What is it?  I suggest that it is simply engaging in conversation.  Obviously, this is a talk with someone who is far greater than us.  So anything I say here is not to mitigate intercessory prayer, thanksgiving, asking for favors or help, and so on.  But those things don’t facilitate a relationship.  Rather, they take advantage of a relationship.

What Does It Mean to Be ‘Ambassadors for Christ’?

The writers of the New Testament focused on many major themes—becoming like Christ, how to treat each other, how to interact and live in the world, what we shall become. In reading their letters and epistles, we can see that we are to be easily distinguishable from the world around us, yet not withdraw from society and live as hermits. We are to interact and live in the world and yet remain unspotted from it. These instructions can seem contradictory at times, and it can be difficult finding the right line to walk (the ‘narrow’ path, as it may be).

In telling the Philippians not to walk as the world, Paul tells them, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). In other words, we do not claim citizenship of this world, and though we are currently living here, it is only a temporary home.

He then uses an analogy that all his readers would have easily understood, and from which we today can learn a lot. “Now then,” he says, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (II Cor. 5:20). The Greek word here translated “ambassador” is presbueo, which means “to act as a representative”. The Latin equivalent used by the Romans (who were in power at the time) was legatus or “legate” in English, which had several meanings including that of a diplomatic emissary sent on a mission abroad. In most respects, the role of an ambassador or legate in ancient Rome was not all that different from our modern-day ambassadors, and being chosen as one was a great honor.

For us today, being told we are ambassadors for Christ may not fully resonate and provide specific guidelines for living our lives. So it’s worthwhile to examine what the characteristics, responsibilities, and lifestyle of an ambassador should be, and see how we can apply them to our lives today. Obviously, though many ambassadors in today’s world (as with all politicians) use lies and manipulation in their jobs, the principles of a good ambassador remain the same.

What is an ambassador?

Ambassadors are the highest-ranking representatives of their governments abroad, and their primary responsibility is to represent and work towards the best interests of their government or head of state. They are not elected—instead they are chosen by the government or head of state, and it is a huge honor to be chosen as one. We, too, were bestowed with an enormous honor when God called and chose us to follow Him (I Cor. 1:26).

Spiritual strongholds:  laying siege to the “walled city” inside us

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (II Cor. 10:3-6)

As I mentioned in the first post on this topic, this is a verse that I’ve always struggled to make super meaningful in the past.  High things that exalt themselves against God, sure, that makes perfect sense to me.  Even casting down arguments, assuming those are arguments against God’s way and truth, I can wrap my head around.  But strongholds aren’t a concept that is immediately tangible to me.

A while back, though, I did have a little bit of a breakthrough where strongholds are concerned, and what they can represent in our lives as followers of Christ.  These strongholds or “walled cities” can be external—the obstacle in front of us that we see as bigger than God (covered in the previous post)—or they can be internal.  The internal strongholds are where we have built fortresses protecting pieces of our carnal nature from being conquered.  Both types need pulled down.  This part of the study deals with the hostile spiritual strongholds quietly occupying our hearts and minds.

Enemy strongholds in the heart and mind

While the strongholds in front of us are generally easier to see (if still difficult to overcome), spiritual strongholds’ power lies in their ability to fly under the radar.  If you consider yourself a disciple of Christ or a Christian, at some point in your life you decided to turn from your previous life and asked God to put His spirit in you.  You repented and were baptized, and ostensibly gave Him unlimited access to every part of your heart and mind—asking Him to transform your carnal mind into one led by Him.

Every one of us that has gone through this process did so with the complete intention of letting God conquer everything in His path, burn it down, and start from scratch.  But every one of us also—mostly unknowingly—built walls around a few particular areas to fortify them against this process.  We don’t like to admit it, but it’s generally true of every person.  We’re pretty good at identifying and rooting out certain kinds of sins and correcting wrong behaviors.  We can refrain from lying, avoid adultery, keep the Sabbath and holy days, and maybe we even had to quit smoking or stop eating certain meats when we came into the knowledge of God.  But despite all of this, we still have trouble recognizing or acknowledging the spiritual strongholds located within the deepest regions of ourselves.

When an army conquers a land, they must breach and take every single one of the strongholds, because if an enemy-occupied stronghold remains in the land then the native people there can continually attack whenever they sense weakness.  The battle will rage on and peace can never come—the land will never be fully conquered.

What We Can Learn From Haggai About Zeal: Just Do It

“…Not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord”

~Romans 12:11

The book of Haggai is the second-shortest in the Old Testament, and like many of the minor prophet books it’s often skimmed over or overlooked altogether.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t spend much time in these books, simply because I find the contents challenging to relate to.  But at the Feast last year I heard a message given from this book that really resonated with aspects of my life over the past several months.

Written during the Babylonian exile, Haggai’s story tells of a complacent and lethargic people.  Roughly 16 years prior, the Persian ruler Cyrus had granted them leave to return to Israel and rebuild the temple of God.  The people returned to the land filled with excitement and immediately set to building.  But they fairly quickly allowed discouragement and their personal concerns to delay and derail their efforts.

As a result, God had stopped blessing them and allowed significant trials to befall them.  Eventually, He gave Haggai this message for the people:

“Then the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying, ‘Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled [luxurious] houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?’ Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider your ways!  You have sown much, and bring in little; you eat, but do not have enough; you drink, but you are not filled with drink; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes.’  Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Consider your ways!’” (Hag. 1:3-7)

God points out that they had been working on improving their own lives, establishing and beautifying their own homes, but not accomplishing what He had sent them there to do.  Over time they had lost sight of their purpose, and because of their misplaced priorities God had ceased to bless them—all their daily work wasn’t actually accomplishing anything.  It was, as Solomon says, “vanity of vanities” (Eccl. 1:2).

Haggai shows us what happens when we neglect His house and put our own priorities first, and there are some really important warnings for us.  The Israelites were required to build a physical temple for God to dwell in, but the stakes are much higher for God’s people today.

Our commission:  to build His house

Much like He had centuries earlier in Egypt, God plucked the Israelites from subjugation in a foreign land and sent them back to their homeland with a specific directive—to build His house.  Our situation is the same today, except we are building a spiritual temple rather than a physical one.  He called each of us out of the bondage of this world, brought us into covenant with Him, and promised to provide His spirit as a helper.

“Salt of the Earth” – What’s the Significance of Salt?

We’re told to be the “salt of the earth”, but what does that really mean?

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned?” (Matt. 5:13; also Luke 14:34).

I don’t know about you, but this statement has never really fired me up spiritually. I mean, salt?? The stuff that comes in tiny little paper packets at McDonald’s? What about gold or precious gems, something beautiful and special and rare?

In our society, salt is the most mundane of commodities. You can buy a giant canister of it for a dollar and throw it on everything. It’s pretty much impossible to run out of salt, and it never goes bad. When I read a verse like Matthew 5:13, my brain has all these questions about salt but I’ve always just pushed them to the back of my mind and kept going.

Recently the questions have been nagging at me, however, because if Jesus says we’re supposed to be something (or be like something), then we should do our level-best to understand the analogy. So I recently decided to try and get a better context around His statement.

Though today it’s something we totally take for granted, salt has a fascinating history. A precious substance in the ancient world, salt can be credited with building civilization. Since it allowed for preservation of food beyond immediate consumption, it gave people the ability to travel more than a day’s journey away and led to the development of trade.

Throughout the centuries wars were fought over it, trade routes sprung up around it, and at times it was worth more than gold.  In fact, it was often accepted as currency and is where the word salary (literally “salt-money,” or allowance a Roman soldier was given to buy salt) and the expression “he’s worth his salt” come from.

So to put us back in Jesus’s time, salt was very valued and useful, and the people listening to Him would have known this.

A precious, useful material

“Useful and valuable” is a good place to start in terms of describing what a true Christian should be. Salt has myriad properties that make it as useful today as it was in the ancient world. As mentioned above, one of its first uses was as a preservative and purifying agent, to keep food from spoiling or to purify or disinfect something.

While the world will ultimately go down a path of destruction, God’s people are called as examples to preserve themselves and their families from the spiritual and moral decay of society. James tells us that pure and undefiled religion before God is this, “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Purity (both physical and spiritual) is perhaps the key theme underlying all of God’s commandments, and is the crowning achievement of the Bride of Christ, composed of the resurrected firstfruits. Paul says Christ will “present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish”—that is, pure (Eph. 5:27).

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