All or Nothing

snake skin“Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:3-6, NIV).

In my college Adolescent Psychology class, I was introduced to a concept called “All or Nothing Thinking”. This is the perception that young people often have that causes them to think in extremes (ie., something is either totally good or completely bad). An example of “All or Nothing Thinking” might be a teenager thinking one moment that he is the most popular kid in school, but, after an argument with a classmate, concluding that he has no friends at all. “All or Nothing Thinking” may seem innocent enough, but its consequences can be quite severe, even deadly. But here’s the truth. This kind of thinking doesn’t occur among adolescents only. Rather, it can influence people even into adulthood.

When I think about the above story concerning the Apostle Paul and his encounter with the islanders of Malta, I’m reminded of my lessons in “All or Nothing Thinking”. An unlucky Paul is bitten by a poisonous snake, leading the islanders to the conclusion that Paul is facing some sort of justice as a murderer. But, when Paul doesn’t keel-over dead, the same group of people determines that he must be a god. Talk about extremes in thinking! One moment has these islanders identifying Paul as the prime suspect in a murder, and, in the next moment, they are ready to fall down and worship him!

Jesus had a similar experience as he entered Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. The people cheered and praised him. They celebrated and waved palm branches. They hailed him as a king. Just a few days later, however, many of these same individuals would be yelling for Jesus to be crucified as a criminal. That is thinking in extremes. That is “All or Nothing Thinking”.

Sometimes our spiritual lives take on the characteristic of “All or Nothing Thinking”. We want God to be a certain way, to act in a manner of our own choosing. We attempt to define the Divine with human language, to neatly confine God to our own understanding. And, when we are unable do these things, we might just conclude that God does not exist at all. Or, we demand from God everything our hearts desire, but do nothing in response to his kindness. We seek all the benefits of his amazing grace all the while avoiding the true cost of discipleship. “All or Nothing Thinking” makes a real mess of our spiritual lives.

But God is full of grace and has already dealt with the problem of our “All or Nothing Thinking”. He gave his all, his everything in his only Son, Jesus who died on a cross to take away all our sins. Paul wrote these words: “…Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, NIV). In other words, God became nothing on Earth to gain for us everything in Heaven.

Abundance

flowers purple with sunrise

“Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25, NIV).

If the life of Jesus could be described in one word, that word might be “abundance”. It was Jesus who stated, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV). When we look at the life that Jesus lived and the life he offered others, we quickly see that he personified the type of life that truly is the very best life.

Consider the countless miracles that Jesus performed during his lifetime on Earth. Jesus, while at a wedding, changed water into wine, and not just ordinary wine, but the very best tasting wine. Another time Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and fed more than five-thousand people. From the Sea of Galilee, Jesus provided the disciples with not one, but two miraculous catches of fish even when it seemed like the “fish just weren’t biting”. Jesus gave life to a dead man, sight to a man born blind, freedom from the demon-possessed, and the ability to leap to a man who previously could not walk.

And the really cool thing is that Jesus continues to give abundant life to all who ask. To the fearful and anxious, he gives fearlessness and serenity. To those who are conflicted, he offers a peace “…which transcends all understanding…” (Philippians 4:7, NIV). He gives hope and encouragement where there is neither. Jesus is a father to the orphan, and “…a friend of sinners…” (Matthew 11:19, NIV).

We have a Savior who gives abundantly. May we live the lives he has called us to live.

Remember

pen on black

In simpler times, before the invention of palm pilots, cell phones, and other more advanced technology, a young boy like me would write important information on the palm of his hand. Paper notepads were in existence, of course, but were far too cumbersome for the typical pre-adolescent male to carry around. So, with pen in tow, I would scribble down a phone number, a name, or a few grocery items my mom had asked me to pick-up at the store, cryptically inscribing the necessary information on my non-writing hand. After a couple of days, the inked information would be all but vanished due to some prescribed washing and hitting of baseballs. This voided space would then be available for the next vitally important message I would need to pen.

In the Bible Book of Isaiah, God tells his chosen people of Israel, that although they are held captive in Babylon, “ ‘…I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…’ ” (Isaiah 49:15-16, NIV).

God’s Word to the Israelites in Old Testament times is the same message he shares with us today. God remembers and delivers each of us from our own captivity to sin and Satan. He will never forget his promises to us or his plans for us. Just imagine your name written on the hands of the Savior! Look closely. It’s somewhere close to the scars, the nail-pierced wounds that bought your salvation. God will not forget you. He loves you and died to deliver you. Remember that. Write it down. And believe it.

Re-creation

tree flowers blooming

Jesus’ first miracle occurred long before he healed the sick, turned water into wine, and took a leisurely stroll upon the Sea of Galilee. It occurred “…in the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1, NIV), at Creation, when time as we know it began. Jesus was present, playing his part in the creative process. All the tools of an artist were at his disposal, his masterpiece soon to be unveiled. And then, the Divine Artist would step back from his work, take in the majesty of it all, and claim that “…it was good” (Genesis 1:25, NIV).

God had created light and darkness, bodies of water and land, plants and animals, but none of these things modeled the heart of their Creator. So, God formed, from the dust of the newly made ground, the body of a man. And, into this still lifeless form, God breathed life. Then from the body of the man, God created a woman.

It wasn’t long before sin and Satan slithered in and took their toll upon what God had formed. The ones created in the very image of God fell from grace, the consequences of sin forced upon them by their disobedience.

But there was a second miracle in the works. God had devised a plan of re-creation, a method in which to redeem fallen mankind. The same God who was there in the beginning, Jesus, would revisit his Creation, this time taking the form of a man. He would live a sinless life, die a sacrificial death, and rise just as he had promised. Re-creation would be accomplished. Redemption would be complete.

Death’s Sting

wasp on flower

“ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57, NIV).

I remember an incident in college that, in my mind, reinforced an important truth. Parked in the driveway in front of the house of my future in-laws, my soon-to-be wife, Sarah and I noticed that a wasp had flown into my car. While I’d like to say that I acted in a brave and chivalrous manner and extracted the pesky wasp from the car, I must confess that I was pretty content to let it buzz around, trapped in the rear window. Luckily for me, my future father-in-law rushed to action and, armed with only a cloth gardening glove, crushed the wasp and removed it from my car. I was a little embarrassed that he was the greater man that day, but was also quite relieved that I hadn’t faced the prospect of being stung.

The Apostle Paul spoke of the “…sting of death…” (1 Corinthians 15:56, NIV) and the victory we have through Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:57). I’ve seen first-hand the hurt that death brings to families and friends of loved ones who have passed-on. Still, our hope and assurance as Christians is that God has dealt directly with the pain that comes from sin. Jesus was loving and man enough to step in and take the real sting of death in his body as he died on a Roman cross, and, while death still hurts, its consequences have been crushed. “…thanks be to God!” (1 Corinthians 15:57, NIV).

Sleep and Dream

moonI remember when my daughter was three years old. Each night I would tuck her small frame into bed and we would share a brief conversation. I would ask her softly, “Where do you want to meet in our dreams tonight?” She would contemplate the question and then offer her answer. Sometimes the place of our midnight meeting would be Grandma’s house. Other times it would be the amusement park or the playground, in outer space or some far away land. With a yawn and a twinkle in her eye, with excitement in her heart and wonder in her spirit, my little girl would close her eyes in restful sleep, awakening to the adventure held in her dreams.

The truth is that bedtime was sometimes difficult for my daughter. There were fears found in the darkness of night, noises that frightened, and shadows that looked like monsters. That is why I had designed our bedtime ritual, an attempt to help my child go to sleep. I liked to imagine that, in her dreams, she was chasing butterflies, flying high on a swing, touching rainbows, and exploring distant lands, all while holding my hand and smiling.

The Apostle Paul wrote about those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Going to sleep was a metaphor employed by Paul to describe death. The moment our eyes close in death, we are awakened to new life in eternity. Death has no power over us and we have no need to fear it. In the words of Isaiah, death has lost its sting. So, relax. Dream on. And rest in Jesus.

Delight

tree and stream“Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:1-3).

I tend to focus a lot on grace, and rightly so. It’s God’s grace found in Jesus by which we are saved from our inability to keep God’s righteous commands. God’s Law can never save. Only the Gospel can do that. Still, the Law has value for our lives of faith.

In the passage above, the Psalmist states that he “delights” in the Law of God. I find this choice of words interesting. The Psalmist doesn’t say that he “tolerates” God’s commands, or even that he “appreciates” them greatly. Rather, he states that he “delights” in God’s Law.

So, how does one get to the point where he delights in God’s Law? First, I think, he must understand the Gospel, the good news message that Jesus died for sinners, even for him. Only when the threat of the Law has been eliminated through the sinless life and sacrificial death of the Savior, can an individual truly experience the delight of God’s commands.

Second, in order to delight in the Law of God, a person must realize that God is actually for him and not against him. Once an individual believes that God looks upon him with favor, and that God’s commands are meant to give him the best life possible, he is free to live in accordance with them.

Finally, a person finds his delight in God’s Law when he remains connected to its source, the Heavenly Father. Like a tree that is planted by a stream, he must be rooted in and sustained by God’s holy Word. Only then will he produce the sweet fruit of good works.

May we find our delight in God’s Law. And may we trust even more in his grace.