Life in Focus

Where following Jesus and Every Day Life Intersect


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Responding to Evil and Violence

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Driving on a recent road trip, I couldn’t help noticing the many flags flying at half-mast in different towns we passed along the way. In the past few months it’s been hard to keep track of the numerous tragedies that have occurred in our nation and world. The senseless acts of violence and terrorism we’ve seen in places like Orlando, Dallas, Nice and Berlin have left us shocked and saddened. I can hardly fathom one awful situation before another is reported.

Processing these events can be overwhelming. Sometimes I want to turn off the news or walk away from the article I’m reading. When we haven’t been personally affected, it’s tempting not to think about the latest set of ugly circumstances, isn’t it? Sometimes our emotions become dulled from overexposure. It becomes too draining to keep hearing about another random shooting or terrorist attack. We can feel helpless and hopeless.   Seemingly, there is little we can we do. How can we change things in a world that seems increasingly violent and hateful with each passing month?

Wanting to answer this question for myself, I turned to the best source of wisdom I know: the Bible. As usual, the answers I found were clear, but not easy. Here are a few things we can do in the face of evil and violence:

Pray for Our Enemies

Jesus’ teaching on this topic isn’t easy to practice, but it is truth we need to apply to our lives: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45, NIV)

When tragedies occur, we’re often prompted to pray for the victims and their families. What doesn’t come naturally is praying for the people who caused them. What would happen if instead of hating the evildoers and wanting vengeance, we prayed for God’s sovereignty and justice to prevail? How about praying that our enemies would be confronted with God’s power and authority and would have no choice but to submit to him? Or praying for their hearts to be softened and their souls to be saved? How about asking God to root the evil out of them and to replace it with his grace and love instead?

Repay Evil with Good

Our natural tendency when we’ve been wronged is to want to retaliate against the one who has hurt us. Yet Scripture urges us to resist this inclination and to surprise our enemies with kindness they don’t deserve:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21, NIV)

A commentary I consulted explains, “By feeding [our enemies] and giving them water to drink, believers heap up burning embers on their heads. This figure seems to mean that the enemy will blush with shame or remorse at such unexpected kindness.” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, page 1220)

We can’t always do this with perpetrators of evil and violence in the wider world, but we can practice it on a smaller scale in our personal lives. When someone wrongs you, try responding with an act of kindness and see what happens. (If the Bible says it’s a good idea, it’s probably worth trying).

Take Personal Responsibility to Promote Good

 Followers of Jesus are called to live in a way that honors God and blesses others. Our behaviors and attitudes impact our spheres of influence for better or for worse. The interactions we have with others can make them feel bitter and hateful or loved and valued. Let’s commit to being people who make our little corners of the world positive and encouraging. Here are a few ways we can do that:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:29-32, NIV)

Put simply, biting sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness and gossip do not bring peace into our surroundings. We impact the world around us by what we say and how we treat others. Think about how your actions and attitudes make others feel. Pray and ask God to remove the hurtful ones and to replace them with qualities that build others up. Pray that he increases the positive things you are already doing and saying.

Let’s strive to show a world bent on violence, hate and revenge that doing things God’s way is a better option. The darker the world becomes, the more opportunity we have to let the light of Christ’s love shine through us.

Christy Nockels’ song “By Our Love” urges believers to show the world God’s love. Click on the link and let the words inspire you today.

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Confident and Unashamed- What Love Is, Week 3

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And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.  1 John 2:28 (NIV)

 Writing to the disciples of Jesus, the apostle John speaks tenderly, reminding them how much their Father in heaven lavishes his love upon them. He calls them “children of God” and gives them clear explanations for how their lives can reflect this profound truth. John writes passionately to believers that were being thrown into confusion by false teaching and ungodly influences in their culture. It doesn’t sound all that different from our current times.

In the verses spanning from 1 John 2:28 to 3:38, John lays out three clear explanations for children of God to understand how they can remain confident and unashamed in their faith. Applying John’s teaching would enable them to stand firm in the truth of God’s love. It will do the same for us as we contend with today’s culture.

Dealing with Sin

John repeats the same topic several times in this chapter: No one who lives in Christ keeps on sinning. Obviously we don’t become permanently sinless after we confess our sin and accept Jesus into our lives. But, as Kelly Minter puts it, we are “free of the dominant power of sin…our not sinning is not about how much harder we try. It’s about our relationship with our Father and His Son.” (What Love Is p. 89)

Just flipping through channels on TV, popular magazines, websites and books, it’s clear that our world celebrates sin and promotes self-gratification above all else. We’re rarely called to consider the consequences of our choices on others or ourselves. And we’re certainly not encouraged to think about how they affect our faith journeys.

However, as we grow in our relationship with God and understand the life he calls us to live, we’re drawn toward him and away from sin. Sin no longer entices us the same way because we know it’s going to hurt God and us. And when we do slip into sin, we’re quick to confess it because we know God will forgive us and we want to restore our relationship with him.

Don’t be Led Astray

John makes a point to say, “Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” (1 John 3:7, NIV) He admonishes us to look at the lifestyles and choices of the people that we trust for wisdom and advice.

There are countless places we go for these things: family, friends, magazines, blogs, websites, books, and personalities on TV, to name a few. It’s crucial that we consider the sources we’re allowing to influence us and that we ensure they hold to the same biblical truths we do. It’s not uncommon for followers of Jesus to embrace views in popular culture without a second thought, never realizing they are contrary to God’s Word.

Before reading articles, logging onto blogs or watching favorite shows, think about the messages you consistently receive from them. Compelling plots and interesting characters can get us hooked on books or shows that are shaping our views in ways that don’t honor God.  And just because a person looks appealing or speaks with authority doesn’t make their opinion worth adopting. Stop and think about how their words and actions measure up with the gospel. If they’re out of sync, you might be opening yourself up to being led astray.  Once you recognize the discrepancy, you can decide if they are still worth your time or if you would be better off without them.

 Love One Another

In the last portion of the chapter, John moves on to explain that loving one another is a powerful witness to our relationship with God. Over and over John tells us that we should love one another, regardless of whether we’re treated well or not. He says, “let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:18, NIV)

I’m amazed by how often in our culture we’re encouraged to withhold forgiveness, hold grudges, seek revenge and let our negative emotions dictate our actions and attitudes. Some of today’s most popular songs and shows regularly espouse messages of hate. It seems that being angry and vengeful equates with being powerful in today’s culture. God’s Word tells us nothing could be further from the truth.

 Tying All Three Together

I used to have a favorite magazine that I only bought on vacations. I thought it was harmless looking at pictures of famous people, catching up on the “scoop” in their lives and learning about the latest trends. However, once I had kids, I realized that I was exposing them and myself to lifestyles and ideas that were totally contrary to God’s ways. What seemed like a “guilty pleasure” was subtly influencing me. The magazine celebrated people who were confident and unashamed of their poor choices, desensitizing me to sins so prevalent in popular culture. At the same time, it was causing me to view the lives of the people in the pictures and articles as fodder for gossip.   I didn’t see them as real people loved by God, I was only interested in the entertainment their colorful lives provided for me. As the Holy Spirit worked in my life, the magazine not only lost its appeal, it sickened me. The allure was gone.

Dealing with sin, avoiding being led astray and loving others aren’t the source of our salvation, but evidence that we follow the one true God. Following John’s advice makes us confident and unashamed in God’s presence and provides light and hope for a world wallowing in darkness.

Click on the link and be reminded of theses tremendous truths by listening to “Children of God” by Third Day.

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Live Like You Believe It- What Love Is Week 1

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Reading through the opening chapter of First John makes my mind dart from one topic to the next. I sense John’s urgency as he writes, his passion for his readers to embrace a relationship with Jesus and to let their lives reflect the difference knowing Him makes. John’s approach is direct not because he is harsh, but because he cares too much to risk having someone miss the point.

He starts by emphasizing that he knew Jesus personally saying, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3 NIV)

The word “fellowship” comes from the Greek word “koinonia.” It includes both a spiritual and a practical component. Those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection are united in the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father. Put simply, they have a personal relationship with God. And this means they also have a relationship with others who are connected with God. “Perhaps the clearest theological use of koinonia [fellowship] is in 1 John 1:3-6, where we read that when we walk in the light truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ and that this relation of grace has profound implications for daily living. For if we say that we have fellowship with God and walk in darkness, we lie! Here the basic meaning of ‘fellowship’ is a real and practical sharing in eternal life with the Father and the Son.” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

In essence, when we are walking closely with God, we connect easily with others who are doing the same, whether we’ve known them for years or are meeting them for the first time. I had the privilege of seeing this dynamic recently as I gathered with a group of women for a special lunch. All of us were believers, but some had never met.   Despite this, the talk around the table was rich and deep. An outside observer would have thought we’d all been close friends for years. The reason for this was our common love for and relationship with Jesus. Through many encounters like this one, I’ve learned it doesn’t take long for the Holy Spirit living in me to recognize himself in someone else I meet.   True fellowship flows naturally when people connected with God engage with one another.

Conversely, we don’t experience deep fellowship with people who have a façade of faith, but no substance behind it. John describes them as people who “claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness” (1 John 1:6a, NIV). John doesn’t mince words– he says people doing this “Do not live out the truth.” (1 John 1:6b, NIV) This reminds me of the years I spent volunteering with the high school group at my church. I could always tell how the girls in my small group were doing spiritually by how closely they wanted to connect with me. Those who rode the fence between faith and worldliness often remained at a distance from me, no matter how much I lovingly pursued them. They were lying to themselves, believing they could live by worldly and godly standards simultaneously. They wanted the warmth and reassurance of the light, but were lured by the lies lurking in the darkness. As long as they remained divided, true fellowship couldn’t happen.

John continues his teaching in the next section by explaining the importance of being honest about our sins. Again, not mincing words he says, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8, NIV) As our world continues to eliminate moral standards, the line between right and wrong is slowly being erased. Our culture has moved from excusing sin to embracing it and calling it good.  When we determine our own versions of right and wrong, then we can convince ourselves that there is no such thing as sin. And if sin no longer exists, nothing is off-limits. Ultimately, this mentality eliminates the need for Jesus, the one who gave his life to forgive our sins.

For Christians, it is vitally important to recognize sin in our lives and to confess it. This means we need to study God’s Word consistently so that we can know the standards he calls us to maintain. We do this not because we want to follow a list of rules, but because we love God and don’t want anything to impede our fellowship with him or with others. Admitting our sins is an act of humility that honors God and reminds us how much we need him. When we ask for forgiveness it reminds us that we’re not perfect and that we need to show God’s grace to others. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)  Doing this deepens fellowship with God and with other believers.

I’d sum up John’s teaching in this passage by saying that if we claim to know Jesus and to walk in the light, it will be evident in our lives. We’ll have meaningful relationships with fellow believers and we’ll have a deep love for God and the truth of His Word. We will admit that we are sinners, humbly confess sin and seek forgiveness regularly. Doing these things enables us to live with authenticity and to invite others to do the same.

Jeremy Camp’s song “Christ in Me” describes the tension between getting stuck in the dark of worldliness versus embracing the light of Christ. Click on the link and make it your prayer as you listen.

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Godly Sorrow- Women of the Word Part 8

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It was a brisk fall evening when the sport utility vehicle sped down our street, careened around an unexpected curve, lost control and mowed down our neighbors’ mailbox. Despite flattening the sturdy wooden post, it was going fast enough to plow through our front hedge and hit our parked SUV, spinning it backwards before slamming it into the corner of our house. The speeding car finally came to a stop on our front lawn. Despite the sturdiness of the vehicle, its front end was a crumpled mass of metal. The sixteen-year-old driver emerged from the mangled car without a scratch. He had been racing his buddies down our street and misjudged the turn in the dark.

As the teenage boys sat on the curb waiting for the driver’s parents and the police, they discussed the incident with great enthusiasm, seeming to revel in the excitement of having totaled not one, but two, eight passenger vehicles. Although this incident happened many years ago, I’ll never forget the behavior of the driver and his friends. At the time of the accident, my own boys were only six and four. I can remember making them study the smashed cars carefully so that they’d remember it when they were old enough to drive (one of them now is).

A few minutes after the accident, the driver’s father arrived on the scene. We exchanged insurance information and he muttered, “I’m sorry this happened.” He never had his son look us in the eye and apologize. The boy didn’t return the next day to help clean up the mess in our yard or to replace our neighbor’s mailbox. I’m not sure if he learned any valuable lessons from that incident, but I know my boys did.

I was reminded of that accident this week as I studied the concept of repentance and godly sorrow. These aren’t very popular topics in today’s culture. It seems we’ve become a society averse to accepting responsibility for our mistakes, let alone labeling them as sin and seeking forgiveness. We shift blame whenever possible. Or even worse, we try to rationalize why the wrong things we’re doing are actually justified.  Many in our culture want to excuse or even condone sinful behavior altogether.

No one likes to admit they’re wrong, but for those who call themselves followers of Jesus, this needs to be something we do regularly. When we humble ourselves, admit our sins and seek God’s forgiveness, He offers it freely. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV) Here’s the catch: we can’t be forgiven if we don’t acknowledge our sin.

King David provides a great example of one who tried to avoid responsibility for his sins.  You might remember when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, got her pregnant and then tried to avoid the the truth by ensuring her husband would be killed in battle (see 1 Samuel 11 & 12 for the story). When the prophet Nathan confronted him, he finally admitted his sin and sought forgiveness, prompting him to write Psalm 51.

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17, NIV)

David finally accepted responsibility for his actions and admitted he was broken by his sin. He acknowledged that what he had done was wrong. He approached God with humility and sorrow over his grievous behavior. And God forgave him.

We see a similar theme of the “contrite heart” in the apostle Paul’s writing:

“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV)

Godly sorrow involves repenting–literally and figuratively turning away from our sins and going a different direction.   It is sorrow over the wickedness of our sins. It expresses grief, understanding the hurt we cause our heavenly Father when we engage in sin. Coming to God with a contrite heart enables us to experience the tremendous grace and forgiveness He offers us through the blood of Jesus.

Conversely, worldly sorrow is self-centered. It is focused on the painful consequences of sin, not on the offense it is to God.   It is sorry the situation happened, but accepts no blame and has no intention of changing. (Sounds like my opening story, doesn’t it?) Worldly sorrow is an apology with words, but with no heart behind it.

It’s easy to get swept up in the attitude of our culture—to want to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing or to explain it away. We receive this message subtly, but constantly.  If we follow Jesus, we must be on our guards lest we get lured into this way of thinking.

When was the last time you came before God with a contrite heart, deeply troubled by the hurt you’d caused Him through your sin? It’s never too late to get down on your knees and humbly ask for forgiveness. God has so much more to offer us than the world does. The first step to discovering that is our humble repentance.

Casting Crowns wrote a song based on David’s words in Psalm 103 that describe how God sees our sins once we confess them. Click on the link and be encouraged by “East to West.”
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Four Keys to Forgiveness – Sermon on the Mount Part 6

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Pulling up to the curb, the bus parked in front of an odd looking building. I was tired and unenthused about yet another stop on a 10-day tour of England. All of the churches and historic sites were starting to blend together as we climbed on and off the bus under the cold, grey skies. I was in college participating in a study abroad program and although I was enjoying the trip, jet lag and being constantly on the move were starting to wear on me. I was tempted to skip this stop and just stay on the bus. Thankfully, I didn’t.

Stepping onto the sidewalk, I was confused by the building that stood before me. One half looked like a 1950’s era cinderblock church, the other half was the shell of a 14th century gothic cathedral. The two didn’t match at all and the cynical part of me assumed someone with poor taste had designed this strange site.

An enthusiastic tour guide welcomed our group of forty students and ushered us inside the newer half of Coventry Cathedral. From the moment he began to speak, I knew this was not going to be another typical tour. The church was filled with objects and symbols with meaningful stories behind them.  Everything in the building had been designed to point visitors to different truths about God, His Word and what it meant to be an authentic follower of Christ.

I could have lingered in that massive building all afternoon contemplating the significance of each symbolic object and space. Still reveling in its beauty, I was not prepared for the most profound part of the tour as the guide led us out of the modern building and into the old gothic cathedral. Although the exterior walls were intact, German bombs had obliterated the roof and interior during World War II.

The tour guide explained that shortly after it was destroyed, the cathedral stonemason discovered that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins and eventually they were placed on the altar amidst the rubble. The words “Father Forgive” were later inscribed on the wall behind the cross.

Seeing the blackened cross and the words behind it brought a lump to my throat. The people of Coventry Cathedral had grasped the magnitude of God’s love when He allowed His son to die on the cross so that the sins of the world could be forgiven. They knew their only option was to offer forgiveness to the very enemies who had destroyed their cathedral.

Their choice to forgive perfectly exemplifies Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15, NIV)

There are some powerful lessons we can learn from the example set by Coventry Cathedral.

Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling.

The morning after the cathedral was bombed on November 14, 1940, the decision was made to rebuild a new cathedral that would lead the people of Coventry away from bitterness and hatred. My guess is that if they had waited until they “felt” like forgiving the Germans, the church would still be in ruins (spiritually and physically).

Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time event.

It took over a decade for the new cathedral to be built. The rebuilding process enabled the people to examine their hearts and create a new building that was a physical manifestation of God’s grace and forgiveness. The new cathedral was built at a perpendicular angle to the original one so that the two buildings form the shape of a cross when viewed from above.

Forgiveness allows God to work in you and others.

The bombing of the cathedral ultimately led the congregation to begin a ministry of peace and reconciliation that continues to provide spiritual and practical support in areas of conflict throughout the world. Forgiving their enemies brought emotional and spiritual healing that freed them to help others on their own journeys of forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology first.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral and to use it as a symbol of God’s forgiveness was made while the war with the Germans raged on. The people of Coventry didn’t wait in defiant pride until restitution was paid. They didn’t demand to have the atrocity committed against them be rectified before they forgave. They chose to forgive and they trusted God to bring justice in His perfect timing.

While Coventry Cathedral provides tangible examples about the keys to forgiveness, the four points I’ve listed come from my personal experiences. I know first hand how hard it is and have spent much time wrestling with God and His Word as I’ve worked through my pain in the process of forgiving others. If forgiveness were easy, we wouldn’t have needed Jesus to die on the cross to make it possible. Because He did that, we have no choice but to follow His example. How could we ever withhold from others the forgiveness that God so freely gives to us?

Click on the link to hear further wisdom on this topic with Matthew West’s song “Forgiveness” and to access other helpful resources.

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