Start the Year Well

Let’s face it….our days are numbered.  None of us know precisely how long we have to enjoy – and struggle through – our earthly lives.  We must admit that our lives could potentially end at any moment…even right now (though I hope not, since I’d at least like to think that you’ll finish reading this blog post! :O).

Now, is this a terrible and depressing way to begin my first blog entry of the new year?  Perhaps, but God’s Word tells us that it’s not only appropriate to occasionally think about the inevitable conclusion of our lives – it’s also a REALLY good idea.  Consider, for example, Ecclesiastes 7:2 – “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”   Why would the Lord speak to us through the words of Solomon to tell us such a thing?  Is God trying to tell us that parties, celebrations, or even “fun” in general, are bad things?  I don’t think so.  But, on the other hand, if we ask whether Christians should be constantly pursuing the things that are most fun and enjoyable, and doing all that they can to (as one popular author phrased it) live their “best life now”, my answer would have to be “no”.

While God does bring us countless opportunities to grow in happiness, it should never become our primary purpose in life to pursue such opportunities.  That’s precisely how the non-believers approach life, and we are called to something very different – and, in fact, much better.  As Christians, our primary purpose in life should be to pursue holiness – or “Christ-likeness” – so that we will increasingly look, think, and act like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  By pursuing “fun”, we often only make ourselves happy – and sometimes, depending on what kind of “fun” you’re pursuing, leave a trail of regret and shame behind us.  By pursuing holiness, as God instructs us to do (1 Peter 1:14-16), we become more like our loving Heavenly Father, which makes our lives better, brings God greater glory, and serves as a better witness to other people.

Is growing in holiness “fun”?  In many instances, yes!  Though, not always.  Sometimes growing to be more like Christ forces us to do some very difficult things – such as humbling ourselves and confessing the sins that we’ve committed against others, or forgiving someone who has hurt us deeply and doesn’t really “deserve” our forgiveness, or loving and praising God faithfully even when it feels like our prayers are falling on deaf ears.  Yet, in all of these difficult experiences, God is working in our lives to make us holy – to make us more like Him – and, while it’s not always easy, it always leads to a richer, healthier, and ultimately more satisfying life.  Parties and the temporary pleasures of life can never produce such results.

One of the most extreme examples of suffering and difficulty that we are familiar with is the biblical example of Job.  Job lost almost everything that meant anything to him in a considerably short span of time.  Yet, even in his misery, Job acknowledged that God had a purpose and a plan for his suffering.  Job did not understand why he was suffering so greatly, but he knew that God was still in control and that only He could grant the insight and the resolution to Job’s problems.

In one of Job’s greatest moments of anguish, he wisely inquired of his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).  With this question, Job was not implying that God does evil or sinful things, but rather that God sometimes permits us to experience things that are not easy to take – things that seem “evil” or “unfair” to our finite minds.  Yet, what Job knew from the start – and learned much more clearly as a result of his trials – was that God alone is God and, while we will never fully understand all that He does in our lives, we are always expected to trust and obey Him.  Of course, this is much easier for us to do if we will simply remember that, “…for those who love God all things work together for good…” (Romans 8:28).  Even in our darkest hours of life, God is working things out in ways that will make us the best individuals that we can be (i.e. more and more like Him) and which will bring Him the greatest glory.

So, as we begin another year, let’s “start with the ending” by remembering that God has put us here for only a short time, and – while the things of earth are ultimately fading away – we are created for eternity.  While it might be O.K. to do some things purely for fun every now and then, God has created us for a much higher purpose – namely, growing in holiness – and He wants that to be the central focus of each of our lives.

Unfortunately, we don’t grow to be like Christ automatically; we really have to work at it.  However, we can grow in holiness – and, in some respects, happiness, too – if we will make DAILY acknowledgments of the fact that we are utterly dependent upon God.  So, let’s talk to God in regular times of prayer, listen to God by reading His “love letter” to us, celebrate God by worshiping Him with songs and public praise in church every week, and experience God by doing as He instructs and watching Him work in the lives of others.  God doesn’t waste a single moment or experience of our lives.  Every moment is for His glory – and He brings that to pass most visibly by changing each of us into His likeness.  Let’s invite Him to do that in our lives this year – and let’s grow in anticipation for what He is certain to do – in us and through us – as a result.  May God be glorified in all that we do this year!

Give Thanks for Christmas!

Every November, Christians are reminded of our need to be giving continual thanks to God for all of the blessings that he showers upon us every day of our lives.  Admittedly, we all fall short in expressing gratitude to our loving heavenly Father as he deserves.  God – who (among other things) created us, loves us, forgives us, comforts us, guides us, convicts us, heals us, and blesses us – is worthy of all our praise and thanksgiving, not only for the “good things” that he does for us, but also for simply being who he is.  Where would we be if we didn’t have a loving, merciful, all-knowing God ruling over the world and our lives?  I, for one, can’t even imagine!

Consider briefly some of what God’s Word says to us about our need to be thankful.  Psalm 118:1 proclaims, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.”  Psalm 145:10 addresses God directly, declaring, “All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you.”  Do we bless him, as this passage says?  If not, do we really fit the description of a “saint”, according to Scripture?  In the familiar text of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, Paul exhorts believers to, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (emphasis added).  Finally, Colossians 2:7 reminds Christians that we are to be, “….abounding in thanksgiving.”  Do we really abound in thanksgiving to God?  Sometimes it seems that we are so busy being pleased with our own efforts and abilities that we forget to give God any thanks at all, much less to actually abound in thanksgiving for all that he is, does, and has done for our sake.

As we persist in giving God less praise and thanksgiving than are truly due him, we should allow Luke 17:11-19 to serve as a serious warning to us.  When God does something magnificent in our lives – as he did for the ten lepers who were healed in this biblical account – he expects to receive thanks from us.  Anything less is unsatisfactory to God.  Just as parents like to be thanked from time to time for the multitude of ways that they provide for the needs of their children, so does our Creator appreciate and expect some gratitude from us – and, as terrific as parents can be, God is far more deserving of our thanks!  When we fail to thank God, he notices.  However, when we are faithful to thank God properly (as one of the lepers in this text illustrates), our lives are more richly blessed.

While a true spirit of thanksgiving should last year-round, our annual celebrations each December remind us of the single greatest reason that we have to be thankful – the gift of Jesus!  We are all born “innocent” by worldly standards, but enslaved to sin by God’s standards.  We inherit the sin nature which separates all of humanity from right standing with God, and this can only be remedied by genuine repentance for our sins, and by trusting in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Scripture teaches us that, “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23), and that, “…the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, emphasis added).

Did you catch that?  Salvation is a gift to those who trust in Christ – and the greatest one we will ever have the opportunity to receive!  Do you think that God wants us to receive this gift with proper gratitude and abounding thankfulness?  How foolish it will be if we don’t!  As Hebrews 2:3 inquires, “…how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?”  We dare not refuse this marvelous gift of love, mercy, and forgiveness which is offered to us through the birth and sacrificial death of our savior, Jesus Christ.  And, for those of us who do receive this gift into our lives, we dare not fail to thank the loving heavenly Father who sent his only begotten Son into the world for our sake, nor the glorious Savior who died in our place.  So, as we celebrate Christmas once again, may we all be reminded afresh to keep our focus on Christ above all else, and to offer an ample supply of thanks to the God who loves us so much.