Posts Tagged With: devotion

Lent: A Time of Renewal

Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 9 this year, begins the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Many Christians think of Lent as a time of fasting. We may give up a favorite food or hobby. In some churches, people give up eating meat on Fridays during Lent (some churches urge their members to give up meat on Wednesdays as well at this time). However, Lent is not just about fasting. It should not be a season for meaningless ritualized self-denial, but a time when we renew our dedication to Christ. This is a prime time for strengthening our devotion to Christ so that we can walk with him throughout the year.

In the early church, the 40 hours preceding dawn on Easter Sunday were set aside for fasting, to commemorate Jesus’ time in the tomb. This eventually led to the 40-day fast that we now know as Lent. This time period is associated with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, when he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2).

In most Western churches (including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches that observe Lent), the 40 days include only weekdays and Saturdays. Sundays are always considered “feast days” (in celebration of Christ’s resurrection), so fasting is not required on those days.

Easter has traditionally been a prime date for the church to baptize new believers. In earlier centuries, new converts were usually baptized on Easter. Lent served as a time to prepare for baptism, and the Lenten fast was a significant part of that preparation. For mature believers, it is a good opportunity to renew our baptismal vows or reflect on the significance of our new life in Christ. So, even though it focuses on our sinfulness, mortality, and need for a Savior, it should remind us of our new life in Christ and the ways that we are being transformed from glory to glory.

Since the second century, many Christians on Ash Wednesday have received ashes, in the shape of a cross, on their foreheads. This reminds us that we are created from the dust of the earth, and that we will return to dust, since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Ash Wednesday reminds us that we needed a savior to take away the penalty for our sins. Lent reminds us to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we wish to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:34).

It is true that Lent can become a meaningless ritual for some people. Many people give up things that are not important to them. They may give up a food that they enjoy but will probably not miss. For example, I like potato chips…when they are around. However, since I do not buy them too often, I might go weeks without eating any. This would not be a real Lenten fast for me. That might not be as silly as giving up something you do not even like, but it still would not be a genuine fast. There should be some significant sacrifice involved.

On the other hand, we must be careful about legalism in this regard. We are not saved by observing Lent, and Lent does not in and of itself make one Christian better than another. Although Lent can be a powerful way to seek personal revival and renewal in our walk with the Lord, it is not the only way by any means. A Christian who goes on a radical fast during Lent, but neglects his relationship with Christ the rest of the year, is not going to achieve spiritual maturity. Lent is a great time to seek a closer relationship with the Lord, but we must continue to seek that relationship after Easter and throughout the year.

The following are a few suggestions for a meaningful Lent:

First, make your Lenten fast meaningful. Give up a food or activity that will be a real sacrifice. I drink a lot of coffee, so on several occasions I gave that up during Lent. A couch potato might give up watching television for 40 days. Perhaps it will become a permanent lifestyle change. That is not the main goal, though. The goal is to give something up so that we can follow Christ more closely.

A helpful Scripture verse in this regard is Hebrews 12:1-2: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (ESV, emphasis added).

Note that this passage calls us to lay aside both weights and sin. These are two different things. Christians should always be ready to lay aside a sin. If it is a sin (disobedience to a clear command of God, especially spelled out in his Word), we should give it up immediately and permanently. That is not a fast; that is repentance. We should not wait until Ash Wednesday and start again after Easter. However, some things might be a weight on our walk with the Lord, even if they are not necessarily sinful. Many people watch too much television. The nature of the programs may not be bad. They may not be watching vulgar or ungodly programming. But, they might be watching too much television. Television might start to take priority over God and family for them. It is a weight on their walk with Christ. If you have a weight on your relationship with him, maybe Lent would be a good time to see if you can live without that weight, and to find out what your life would be like if you spent that time serving Christ.

If you choose to fast from a particular food, choose something that will be some sort of realistic sacrifice. OK, maybe you know you will fail if you try to give up coffee for Lent. Maybe chocolate or donuts are more realistic goals for you.

If you are healthy enough, maybe you can consider a more strict fast. Perhaps you may decide to abstain from all solid food for a 24-hour period. Or, you can consider giving up eating anything between breakfast and dinner once or twice per week. One option is a “Daniel fast,” named after the prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. While not an absolute “no-food” fast, a Daniel fast involves abstaining from all animal products (no meat or dairy) and sweets, and drinking only water.

I would personally advise against going on a straight 40-day absolute fast without food. Yes, I know Jesus, Moses, and Elijah went on such fasts, but those were unique circumstances. Most of us are not preparing to die for the sins of humanity or begin writing the Bible. Unless you have received a clear word from the Lord that you should go on such a fast, do not do it. Even if you do receive such a word, seek counsel from a mature Christian leader (a pastor, or another mature believer who will have the wisdom to tell you whether or not you are hearing from God) and a health care practitioner.

Lent should not be just a time to give something up. During your fast, find ways to add spiritual disciplines or activities to your life. If you have never set aside a consistent time for daily prayer, Lent is an excellent time to begin. It would also be a good time to join a small-group Bible study.

During the Lenten fast, devote some time to self-examination and reflection. Pray that the Lord would point out to you areas where you need to grow. If he brings a certain sin to the surface (including either a sinful habitual activity, a bad habit, or an attitude that displeases him), bring it before him in repentance and confession. Seek God’s guidance and help to find victory over and deliverance from this problem area.

Whatever you do, remember that Lent is only a small fraction of the year, and it is not the sum total of your spiritual growth. Allow Lent to be a time to develop new, healthier habits and activities which will produce growth in your faith, and continue to put them into practice throughout the year. Let Lent be a time of new beginnings for you.

Categories: Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Unceasing Devotion

In First Thessalonians, Paul wrote to a church that eagerly awaited Christ’s return. The church in Thessalonica had sprung up suddenly when Paul preached there. Persecution arose shortly thereafter, and Paul had to flee to Berea. In spite of persecution, the church grew. The members struggled, enduring hardships and wondering what will happen to the church’s deceased members when Christ returns. They loved the Lord, but they needed reassurance that their faith was not misguided.

Today, our society can create confusion for Christians as well. Legislators pass laws in defiance of God’s edicts, and judges “legislate from the bench” in opposition both to God’s law and our nation’s Constitution. The media depict Christians as a flock of bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics; many of our friends and co-workers are brainwashed to believe these stereotypes. As we await Christ’s second coming, we must be prepared to face whatever challenges may come. Outright persecution may arise. Religious freedom is gradually disappearing, even in America, despite the First Amendment. Our nation’s fountain of prosperity seems to be drying up. We need to learn how to follow the Lord so that we may not falter in hard times. We also need to wait patiently in hope for the return of our Lord.

How shall we live and act as we prepare for Jesus’ second coming? A familiar passage in First Thessalonians 5:16–18i provides some insight:

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

This can look like three separate commandments. However, the passage bears a parallel structure, much like the Hebrew poetry found in the book of Psalms. This parallelism suggests that this passage is one command in three parts. To follow God’s will for us, we must rejoice, pray, and give thanks continually.

These three attitudes work together. When we pray, we give thanks, and such thanksgiving brings us joy. Such joy encourages us to pray some more, increasing our reasons to give thanks. Prayer, thanksgiving, and rejoicing become a cycle.

The most significant message here is that we should continually worship God. The emphasis is on the continual nature of this command. In the original Greek, these three adverbs—”always,” “without ceasing” (or “unceasingly”), and “in all circumstances”—appear before the verbs. Paul emphasizes the continual nature of these actions. This passage does not encourage us to rejoice occasionally, pray periodically, and give thanks on the fourth Thursday in November. We should do these things continually. They should be more than activities: they should be part of our very character.

That can be difficult. It is easy to rejoice when your favorite sports team is winning, your checking account balance keeps growing, and you have a productive day at work. It is not as easy, though, when your favorite sports team is on a prolonged losing streak, your checking account balance approaches $0, and work equals drudgery. If we cannot accomplish God’s will for us in Christ Jesus at these times, though, how will we fare during full-fledged government-sponsored persecution?

Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual fruit grows from spiritual seed. How do we grow joy? By keeping our eyes on spiritual blessings. In Matthew 5:11–12, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Elsewhere, Jesus told his disciples to rejoice, not because of the supernatural power he gave them, but because their names were recorded in heaven (Luke 10:20). Therefore, we grow eternal joy by reminding ourselves of our eternal rewards.

We can get so addicted to this world that we forget about heaven. We may get dangerously comfortable here. If Jesus were to ask our permission to rapture us into heaven tonight, many of us may balk because of all the things we would have to leave behind! “Lord, I need my TV; I never miss an episode of ‘American Idol.'” “You mean to tell me there’s no football in heaven? What am I supposed to do on Sunday afternoon there?” “I’m still making payments on that car! I can’t leave it here!” Perhaps if we truly considered our heavenly treasures, and all that awaits us there, we would not cling so tightly to the things we have here.

Perhaps that is why Christians in some Third World countries receive the word of God with such enthusiasm. They are not enslaved by possessions. They count themselves blessed if they eat enough to stay healthy, own two changes of clothing, and have a roof over their heads (even if that roof is made out of mud or tin). Their only treasure is whatever they are storing up in heaven. They realize just how temporal earthly pleasures are.

Praying without ceasing is central to rejoicing and giving thanks. Unfortunately, it is easy to make excuses to disobey this command. There are times when conscious prayer might hinder us from fulfilling our other duties. As an editor, when I am working on authors’ proofs, I need to concentrate on the pages in front of me. Most of us encounter similar circumstances, where our full attention must be directed to a task at hand. However, this should not become an excuse for spiritual laziness.

Are you at least consistent in prayer? Do you pray every day? Do you set aside time for prayer and then stick to it, or do you wait until you have nothing else to do before praying? In the Old Testament, the Israelites were often commanded to offer their first fruits to God. In other words, they sacrificed to him first. Likewise, we should set aside time for prayer as a top priority. If we wait until there is nothing else to do, we will never pray until we are in a crisis.

Perhaps many of our lives are too cluttered. It is difficult to pray while listening to the radio or your IPod. It is even harder to pray while watching television. We need to decide whether prayer or worldly pleasures are more important for us.

Prayer is our spiritual lifeline. We need constant spiritual protection. In First Peter 5:6–9, we read the following:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

Satan prowls as a vicious predator seeking souls to devour. Everything can be flowing smoothly in your life. You can be walking in victory. You might feel like you have finally overcome that addiction or life-controlling sinful habit. Suddenly and unexpectedly, life throws you a major crisis. In the midst of that stress, you are tempted in your weakest area. Maybe that sin, which you thought you had overcome, suddenly crops up as an overwhelming urge. If you have not tapped into the Lord’s power through prayer, you will be at Satan’s mercy until you call on the Lord. By the way—Satan has no mercy.

Remember to give thanks in all circumstances. If we pray continually, thanksgiving will flow. It is hard to thank God in hard times. However, when we recognize that in all things God is working for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28), we can thank him for what he is doing, even if we are not currently comfortable in our circumstances.

Let us take these exhortations to heart. Rejoice always, even when you should feel like crying. Pray without ceasing, especially when you feel like God is ignoring your situation. Give thanks in all circumstances, even if you are not sure what God is doing. You may not see the blessing now, but if you remember that God loves you and is in control of all situations, you can rest confident in the hope that he will produce a good outcome in your circumstances.

Most importantly, remember that God is the One who will sanctify you and declare you blameless. His power strengthens us. His love encourages us. His guidance leads us. His Holy Spirit seals us. He holds us in His hands, and he will not let go of us. We are precious in his sight, so he will preserve us against any trial as we draw closer to him.

iScripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual disciplines, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on the Feast of St. Stephen

It is a little odd that the church calendar has the Feast of St. Stephen on December 26, immediately after Christmas Day. One day, we celebrate the birth of our Savior; it has become THE fun day on the church calendar, especially in terms of how we celebrate it in our society.

The very next day, the church commemorates its first martyr. Talk about contrast: birth, immediately followed by death; shepherds rejoicing in the Good News, followed immediately by religious leaders violently rejecting it.

St. Stephen appears very briefly in the Bible. He is introduced in Acts 6, where he is listed among the first seven deacons of the church. By the end of chapter 7, he is gone: killed by a barrage of stones hurled by an angry mob. This is not the sort of life that we usually celebrate in our society. Modern society would view him as a failure and a loser. In God’s eyes, though, Stephen is a hero of the faith. He is a role model for all believers.

As I read through the account about Stephen, I noticed a few key traits that are ascribed to him:

  • He was “of good repute” (one of the requirements for the office of deacon; Acts 6:3)
  • He was “full of the Spirit.” The Bible actually describes him this way three times (Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55).
  • He was “full of wisdom” (6:3)
  • He was “full of faith” (6:5)
  • He was “full of grace” (6:8 and 7:60)
  • He was “full of power” (6:8); the Bible mentions that he performed “great wonders and signs” among the people. He had the gifting to perform miracles (perhaps healing). It seems as though he had all the skills, gifts, and qualities necessary to be one of the 12 apostles, but not the same office as them.
  • He was a man of incredible boldness. Read Acts 7:1-53 to see how a man should preach the Gospel to an angry crowd. He did not mince words or beat around the bush. He said what people needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

I am especially impressed with three other observations about this man.

First, we see no greater example of him being “full of grace” than his dying words. His last words in this world were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). With his dying breath, he forgave his killers, just as Jesus had done previously.

Second, the Bible mentions, in passing, that “Saul approved of (Stephen’s) execution” (Acts 8:1). As we read further in Acts, we find this man Saul spearheading a persecution program designed to snuff out the church. Saul eventually converted to Christianity, and he is better known to us as St. Paul, writer of nearly half of the New Testament, the apostle to the Gentiles. I cannot help but wonder what impact Stephen’s dying proclamation of forgiveness had on Saul.

Finally, just before he was executed, he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). Just a little observation: Elsewhere, we read that Jesus is seated, not standing, at the right hand of God. I read a devotional that suggests that Jesus sat at the right hand of God, but stood up to welcome Stephen into heaven [Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer (HarperCollins, New York, 2002)].

I admit that I am in no rush to be executed. However, I hope and pray that I can develop more of the character that St. Stephen exhibited. In terms of pages in the Bible, he is a minor character. Yet, his impact is significant. Likewise, even though most of us will never be the subject of an hourlong episode of A&E’s Biography, we can still make a major impact on our community.

Categories: Bible meditations | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: