Finish Strong

Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.

Judges 15:20

When people think of the biblical character Samson they usually focus on his strength and the fact that he was seduced by Delilah. Growing up in church, I heard over and over again the story of the end of Samson’s life–how Delilah deceived him into revealing the source of his strength and how that led to his demise.

But did you know that he led Israel for 20 years? Did you know that Samson’s story in the book of Judges stretches from chapter 13 through chapter 16. Samson’s life got four chapters of the Bible but usually only the last one is taught.

Did you know that the angel of the Lord showed up to Samson’s mom in the same way that He did to Gideon? Did you know that Samson’s mom had to commit to a Nazarite vow while she was pregnant with Samson even before Samson committed to it in his own life?

Did you know that Samson was married to a Philistine girl long before Delilah entered the picture? Yet, the girl’s father ended up giving her away to another man while Samson was gone on one of his exploits. To do this in that day (even in our own) was a total betrayal of trust.

Think about how many times Samson must have fought for and rescued the Israelites from the oppression of the Philistines in twenty years. Two decades of being an instrument of the Lord to save and deliver the people of God is no small thing. Yet, so many of us only remember the last few months of his life.

I believe this is a good warning for those of us following Jesus with our life and especially for those in full-time ministry. Finishing well is such an important thing in God’s Kingdom. People won’t remember the twenty years of faithful ministry. They’ll only remember the big mistake that brought you down. We’ve seen this truth play out with more than one famous minister that we respected.

The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians about how the Israelites rebelled against God in the desert and then gives them a warning:

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

Paul reminds us:

1) If you feel strong against temptation, don’t get arrogant but stay humble. God’s grace is what empowers you to walk in holiness.

2) The enemy doesn’t have new tricks; his temptations with you will be the same that he’s used against others.

3) God is faithful. If you are following Jesus, He’ll help you navigate temptation.

4) The Holy Spirit will show you a way out and a way through. You’re never alone when facing temptation.

Paul knew how important it was to finish the race strong. We aren’t given permission to peter out at the end of our ministry or at the end of our life. God’s expectation is that we will run the race of life hard all the way through the finish line. We are never to let up and never get complacent.

To the leaders in the church of Ephesus Paul articulates the vision he has for his own life and a vision we should capture for our own:

 I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me…

Acts 20:24

How can you make sure you finish strong?

Open Doors

But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them.

…So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai…

…Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? 

…The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face?Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies

Joshua 7:1, 4, 6-7, 10-12

This is a truth that still applies today but so few understand. Sin in our lives is an open door for the enemy to attack us. If we choose to live in sin, we choose to be a piñata for Satan as he steals, kills and destroys (John 10:10).

One person in Israel’s army kept treasures for themselves. Then Israel went up against an enemy that should have been no match for them, and yet they lost. The Lord was not with them. The sin had separated the people from God.

In response to their defeat, they cried out to the Lord as if to say, “Why did this happen to us? How could you let this happen to us God?” Sound familiar?

God immediately corrects their assumption. The people were grieving and mourning as if they were victims. God tells Joshua, “Stand up!” They were not victims. They invited this defeat because of their own sin. God did not do this to them. Their enemy did this to them because they hadn’t yet dealt with the sin in their camp. While they were on their face grieving as victims they should have been on their face repenting of their own sin.

This applies to our lives in so many ways. We often think that if there is sin in one part of our lives, it will only affect that part of our life. Wrong. Sin in one part of our life gives the enemy access to other parts of our life, and He may bring destruction in other parts of our life that have little to do with our sin (just as the men in Israel’s army who died had little to do with Achan’s sin).

We also tend to blame God when bad things happen instead of recognizing that it was the enemy at work. God did not defeat Israel’s army, their enemy did. And the distance created between Israel and God was not something God created. It was the sin of Israel that separated the people from God’s presence.

So often we grieve as victims when we should be on our face in repentance. Self-pity has become a national past-time in America, but self-pity is demonic. It turns the focus and the blame on others and on God instead of allowing the light of conviction to shine on our own hearts.

Once we repent of our sin, the door to the enemy is shut. But so long as we pridefully refuse to admit our sin, that door is wide open. We need to allow the Holy Spirit to shine the spotlight of conviction on our hearts. And when sin is exposed, we need to be ruthless about eliminating it from our life. We need to ask for forgiveness, from God and others, and we need to eradicate that sin in all its forms.

Jesus is the one who recommended a ruthless approach to sin in our life. He said:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Matthew 5:29-30

The apostle Paul said, “do not give the devil a foothold“(Ephesians 4:27).

To be sure, not every hardship we face in life is a result of sin. But we’ll never know the open doors to the enemy in our own life unless we allow the Holy Spirit to show us. Too many Christians walk around looking like Swiss cheese in the spirit rather than a fortress. Too many followers of Jesus are play toys of the enemy because their chronic unrepented sin leaves them open to all manner of attack.

Pray this simple prayer below from Psalm 139 and ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you might be unnecessarily vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. And if He shows you something, repent, ask for forgiveness and eradicated it from your life.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Following the Presence

“When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before…”

Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”

Joshua 3:3-5

The people of God were directed to follow the ark into the Promised Land. The only way to enter into the promises that God has over our life is to follow His Presence. The ark represented the Presence of God. We follow His lead by watching to see where His Presence is and moving in that direction. We have to do this because we’ve never been where God is taking us. We’ve “never been this way before.”

If God seems to be moving in one area of our life, we go with it. We follow it. We pursue it. While they had the ark, we have the Holy Spirit. We have to grow in our ability to sense the movement of the Spirit. When He moves, we move. When He stops and stays, we stop and stay. This is what Paul was trying to describe when he told the Galatians, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit“(Galatians 5:25).

Consecrating our lives to the Lord is a big part of seeing God move in powerful ways. If we want to see God do amazing things among us, we must live lives of surrender, obedience, and holiness. The fire of God is a purifying fire.

I was talking to my oldest son the other day about the difference between following the law and following the Spirit. He asked me if there was a movie rating beyond “R.” I explained that there was NC-17 and pornography, both of which show things that no one should be watching.

He asked me if mommy and I watch rated R movies. I told him that sometimes we do but that, generally, we don’t. I told him that just because we are old enough to watch them doesn’t mean that we should watch them. We are allowed (the law) to watch but that doesn’t mean it would be spiritually or emotionally healthy to do so (the Spirit).

I went on to explain that sometimes following the Spirit means breaking the law (as Jesus did when He broke sabbath law to heal on the sabbath). And sometimes following the Spirit means not doing things that the law allows us to do (like watching movies that feed our mind harmful things).

I explained to my oldest son that sometimes mommy and I have started watching a show on Netflix only to realize that it was too violent or had too much graphic sexual content. So we stopped watching it. It’s not that we weren’t “allowed” to watch it but that it wasn’t feeding our mind and soul things that were helpful, holy, and healthy. Then I paraphrased Paul’s words to the Philippians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

Philippians 4:8

Following the Spirit is about both consecration and direction. We follow the Spirit as He directs us into places in life we’ve never been before. We also follow the Spirit as He consecrates us and makes us holy. Both ways of following the Spirit are exercises in the submission of our will to His. The Christian life is more than a life of following religious principles. It is a life of following a Person.

With You Always

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

These are Jesus’s final words in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells His disciples (and us) that He is with us…always. He is ever-present. He knows us and likes to be with us. He likes to be near to us. His very Spirit dwells within us. He is closer to us than our own skin.

This truth should impact us in a few different ways. It should:

  1. Prompt holiness: There is no such thing as a secret sin. We walk exposed daily before the throne of grace, every heavenly being, and Jesus Himself. There is no hiding. Whatever sin we engage in is fully revealed and exposed.
  2. Destroy shame: It’s important that we not only know that our sin is daily exposed but that Jesus sees it all and still wants to be near to us. Our sin is not bigger than His grace and love. We don’t have to feel shame. We can receive daily the grace and forgiveness we need.
  3. Uproot loneliness: As a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is always with you. This means that the Father and the Son are also always with you according to John 14:10, 20, & 26. You are never alone. You also have at least one angel by your side at all times (Matthew 18:10). In other words, loneliness is a lie.
  4. Foster intimacy: Knowing that Jesus will always be with us should lead us to engage with Him daily. We need to spend time with this One who never leaves us. If He’s always present, we need to pay attention to Him, talk with Him, listen to Him and develop intimacy and friendship with Him.
  5. Repel lies: Jesus called Himself “the Truth”(John 14:6). He called the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Truth”(John 14:17). With such wisdom and knowledge of truth in such close proximity, we should never have to waste our time believing lies. We need only to check in with the Truth and see if what is being whispered in our mind is really true or just a deception of the enemy.

If you are a follower of Jesus, He is with you…always.

How does the knowledge of this reality impact your daily life?

Unclean Heart

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Matthew 15:17-20

The Pharisees had the wrong understanding of what made a person “unclean.” They were hung up on traditions made by men that tried to keep people ritually clean through external purity. One of those traditions was to wash hands before eating so that the “uncleanness” from any Gentile item, dead or unclean animal that was touched in the marketplace would be washed away and not contaminate the food that was about to be eaten.

But Jesus clarifies to His own disciples that “cleanness” isn’t about what goes into one’s stomach, but what comes out of one’s heart. And one of the easiest ways to determine what is in our own hearts is to listen to what we say and how we say it.

It’s easy enough to flex our religious muscles and makes sure we sound holy around certain people. But when we are pressed in life, what comes out of our mouth then?

When we squeeze an orange, we expect orange juice to come out. When we press an olive, we expect olive oil to come out. What a peculiar sight it would be to squeeze a lemon and have motor oil come out. How strange it would be to press a cluster of grapes and have corrosive bleach leak out.

Yet, what Jesus is saying is that this is how we discover the broken places in our own hearts. This is exactly what happens to us. Evil thoughts come from the heart. Murderous rage comes from the heart. The roaming eye of adultery comes from the heart. The need to find acceptance and love by giving away our body to many different people through sexual immorality comes from the heart. The compulsion to take what is not ours comes from the heart. The tendency to lie, deceive, gossip, and slander comes from the heart. Harsh and critical words come from the heart.

When a Christian is pressed or squeezed by life circumstances, we should expect the fruit of the Spirit to come leaking out: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we get pressed by life and something else comes out of our heart, we need to see it like a warning light on the dashboard of our life. Something is broken in the deep places of our soul. Something in our heart needs healing.

So, what comes out of your mouth when life squeezes you? Pay attention to anything unclean that comes up. Use it as a diagnostic tool to understand that this is a place in your heart that needs healing. Our damaging and destructive words, our foul language, our bitter gossip and biting criticism are all products of a heart that needs healed by the love of God.

Attack from Both Sides

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:18-19

Do not be surprised if our culture, which is so heavily influenced by the kingdom of darkness, attacks people trying to follow Jesus from both sides. This has always been the strategy of the enemy. This is the strategy we see the enemy employ against Jesus and John the Baptist.

The culture of Jesus’s day found a way to be offended by both John the Baptist, living in the strictest holiness, and Jesus, living in the freedom of grace. John’s holiness was seen as demonic and Jesus’s freedom was seen as sinful.

Our culture is currently following the same strategy of the enemy. Recently it was reported that some politicians were trying to follow the “Billy Graham rule.” This rule is basically a commitment by a man not to be alone with a woman who is not his wife, especially in private settings, as it could lead to accusations of impropriety or actual impropriety. There has been a lot of exposure of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the highest levels of society recently, so this Billy Graham rule seems like a healthy safeguard.

Yet, in response to this desire to honor women and honor their wives, these men were attacked for being sexist. So we have a situation where if a politician is seen being alone with another women who is not his wife, he’s easily attacked with claims of impropriety. Yet, if he tries to safeguard against those accusations, he gets attacked as sexist. If they live in the freedom of grace, they’ll be attacked as morally corrupt. If they hold to a high standard of holiness, they’re called sexists. The “attack from both sides” strategy has been around since Jesus and continues to be alive and well today.

I remember encountering an adolescent version of this in high school. I told my friends that I didn’t want to “hook up” with a particularly attractive girl that was interested in me. As a high school boy, turning down sex with a beautiful girl a year older than you was a radical stand. Yet, because I was striving to live a life of holiness, my classmates who couldn’t understand my stance began to accuse me of being gay.

My response to accusations of being gay was that I didn’t believe homosexuality was God’s design for human sexuality. I told them that I had nothing against a person who is gay, but I disagreed with a lifestyle where one chooses to engage in same-sex sexual activity. This also didn’t fit their paradigm of understanding. They didn’t know what to do with me. So then I started to receive accusations of being homophobic.

Can you see the “attack from both sides” strategy? One minute I am being accused of being gay and the next I’m being accused of being homophobic. This often happens when you try to live a biblical standard of holiness. A life of following Jesus doesn’t make sense to the world. It doesn’t fit all of their neat little judgmental categories. They don’t know which condemning box to put you in. But they did this with Jesus and John the Baptist, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens to us.

I fought for and advocated for women in the strongest way possible as I helped to create and launch a nonprofit that addresses human trafficking in the Baltimore area. I stood side-by-side with women who were some of the most progressive, feminist activists I’ve ever met. And as a staunch Pro-Life advocate, I continue to fight for women and their well-being but in a way that is foreign to most of my colleagues in the human trafficking world. I don’t fit into a nice neat category. This is true of most Christians, which is why the strategy of the enemy is often to attack from both sides.

The desire to stop being attacked from both sides often draws Christians into error and compromise. It’s a powerful temptation to want to be liked and thought of as compassionate and insightful by at least one side of the cultural battle. So some Christians begin to compromise truth in order to win favor with one side or the other. But that is not where Jesus stands.

Have you experienced the “attack from both sides” strategy of the enemy in your own life? If so, you’re in good company.

The LGBTQ issue

I was praying while mowing my lawn the other day. I was frustrated that so many people think the biblical stance against same-sex relationships is about bigotry instead of holiness. So I asked the Lord a question and was surprised at His answer (and that He answered so clearly).

In my heart I said to the Lord, “Why do so many people in our culture think the biblical prohibition against same-sex romantic relationships is about bigotry, hatred, and homophobia instead of what it really is–a submission to the biblical sexual ethic…the way God designed human sexuality to operate?”

Those of you who pray know that these sorts of conversations in our heart and mind with the Lord happen instantaneously at the speed of thought. I didn’t actually articulate each of those words in my mind, but instead asked the question all at once.

Though I did ask God this question, I did not expect an answer right then. I was almost asking it rhetorically to the Lord, expressing my frustration with the unfair characterization of those like me who want to maintain God’s design and purposes for human sexuality. It is frustrating to always be so unfairly characterized as a bigot and a homophobe just because I want to adhere to God’s holiness through a biblical sexual ethic.

Within seconds, I heard the voice of the Lord speak to my heart (not audibly, but not exactly “still, small voice” either). He said, “People think that way because for many people holiness is just an excuse to cover their bigotry. They weren’t concerned with holiness when it came to adultery, abuse, pornography and promiscuity. For many people, they say it is about the Bible, but it is really about their homophobia.”

I was shocked! I stopped the mower. I stood still and said out loud, “Oh my goodness.” The Lord gave me a glimpse of what He saw in the Church, what He saw in the hearts of so many conservatives who claim to champion a biblical sexual ethic. Wow!

For some, standing against same-sex romantic relationship IS about God’s word, His sexual ethic, and His design for human sexuality. But for so many, the Bible has been used as a cover–an excuse–to prop up their bigotry. If it hadn’t been the voice of the Lord, I would have assumed this was just another progressive evangelical or mainline Protestant attempt to avoid dealing with immorality by launching accusations of “hate” against conservatives. But this wasn’t that. This was the Lord, heart-broken over the heart condition of His Bride.

It reminds me of how the Pro-Life movement didn’t gain much traction in our country until it proved that it loved the mother and the adopted child as much as the unborn child. The more the movement loves everyone involved, the more credibility its message has. I’m thinking the same thing is happening with the LGBTQ conversation. So long as the secret heart motivation behind standing against same-sex romantic relationships is homophobia and not holiness, we can expect a similar outcome. Yet if the heart-posture of the Church will change, maybe the LGBTQ community will begin to realize they can change too.

Change is possible…for all of us! https://changedmovement.com