Affliction is the Seed of Joy

That affliction and joy can co-exist, that one can result in the other, is one of the beautiful paradoxical realities of the Christian life.

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit…”

1 Thessalonians 1:6-7

For people living in a culture of rampant ungodliness, following Jesus is more likely to bring affliction than applause. That much is as true in our own day as it was in Paul’s, as it has been for much of recorded history. But for the follower of Jesus, affliction is the seed of joy.

That affliction and joy can co-exist, that one can result in the other, is one of the beautiful paradoxical realities of the Christian life. So much effort is spent avoiding affliction, and yet the writers of scripture remind us repeatedly that affliction cannot be avoided. What’s more, we are told that affliction is an instrument of sanctification.

Suffering well is a sign of steadfast faith and serves as a vibrant witness to those looking on. If we believe that affliction is an instrument of sanctification, we will cease our efforts to always avoid it and begin instead to rejoice in it, believing the promise that God really does work all things for good.

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Jordan B. Peterson on The Natural Descent of Dishonest Dealings

We all know that we sometimes say less than we should in order to keep the peace and not make things awkward, but we should give that strategy a second thought the next time we are tempted to employ it. The stakes are much higher than we can imagine.

Among the most helpful chapters in Jordan Peterson’s 2018 book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” is a chapter entitled “TELL THE TRUTH—OR, AT LEAST, DON’T LIE”. Peterson offers much that is helpful in understanding some of the bigger themes of scripture – in this case, the nature and importance of truth-telling.

In his first letter to the Thessalonian church, Paul writes: “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts… Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others…” (1 Thes. 2:4,6) Paul’s primary concern is not to please people with words, but to speak the truth to them.

Proper Offences

Living in the presence of people whom you have offended with words is a taxing circumstance, and if we have given offence unnecessarily, we should repent. But if it is a situation in which the truth of the gospel is in conflict with the spirit of the age, we should not hesitate to speak the truth – even if it offends.

Pleasing people with our words and receiving glory from them is a temptation we all face. The lure of approval and acceptance is an enticement to compromise, to speak a little less than the truth, or to betray the truth altogether. The consequences of such actions are grave, as explained by Peterson: “When the lies get big enough, the whole world spoils. But if you look close enough, the biggest of lies is composed of smaller lies, and those are composed of still smaller lies—and the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts.” (Kindle Loc. 4353-4354)

If the Truth Sets Us Free…

If it is a fact that the truth sets free those who are in bondage to error – as Jesus clearly taught – it is no act of love to withhold the truth from anyone. Boldness, of course, must not crowd out compassion, but a faulty conception of compassion has too often murdered truthfulness.

And not only is this avoidance of truth detrimental to others but there is also a personal impact: “If you betray yourself, if you say untrue things, if you act out a lie, you weaken your character. If you have a weak character, then adversity will mow you down when it appears, as it will, inevitably. You will hide, but there will be no place left to hide. And then you will find yourself doing terrible things.”(Kindle Loc. 4072-4074)

The Solution?

The solution, again, in Peterson’s words is this: “If your life is not what it could be, try telling the truth. If you cling desperately to an ideology, or wallow in nihilism, try telling the truth. If you feel weak and rejected, and desperate, and confused, try telling the truth.”(Kindle Loc 4389-4391)

We might get sidetracked here on the question Pilate so succinctly uttered: “What is truth?” Although massively important, that is not the point at this moment. We all know that we sometimes say less than we should in order to keep the peace and not make things awkward, but we should give that strategy a second thought the next time we are tempted to employ it. The stakes are much higher than we can imagine.

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The Sin of Trusting in Politics For Salvation

The motive behind many of the cruel critiques of political leaders does not seem to be the securing of a more peaceful and quiet life. It seems to run more along the lines of securing political power and then retaining that power going forward. This is a very wrong turn. To be involved in politics, of course, is no sin, but to trust in politics for salvation certainly is.

God is always at work in human affairs for the good of his people and the glory of his name. This should inspire our confidence when we face the tough circumstances of the present and those yet to come. It is up to us to trust him, seek him, and act according to what he has revealed to us about his will.

The wisdom contained in God’s word is sufficient; we need no new revelation. We need no new instructions, especially when so much of what has already been commanded is not obeyed. What is needed instead is for us to return again and again to the timeless wisdom of Scripture, which is as relevant to us today as it was to those to whom it was originally written.

Praying For Politicians

Here is something he reveals in 1 Tim. 2:1-2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

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It is difficult to pray without hypocrisy for those whom you curse outside of your prayer time. Love, the Apostle Paul tells us, is the supreme virtue. Yet over these last years, while much truth has been spoken, too rarely has it been spoken in love. This has been especially evident in the overheated responses to the actions of leaders in politics and religion. As we go forward, we must commit firmly to the biblical principle that critique is in bounds, but cruelty is not. 

Disrespecting The Authorities

In Canada, it often seems we are a little bit proud of how disrespectful we are of our governing authorities. This is certainly not the example of God’s servants in scripture, and so I think our attitudes about our relationship with and behaviour towards those who govern us could use a few corrections.

I have been guilty of this disrespect on occasion as well, and I have had to reshape my thinking and behaviour. The help we need in this area of our lives is found in Scripture. The words of Scripture and the examples of the stories we find there clearly expose many of us who think we have a license to speak and act disrespectfully to those who govern us. (Especially if they belong to a party with the wrong colour election sign, right?)

God’s Ambassadors

In 2 Cor. 5:20 we are called God’s ambassadors. We should act in ways befitting an ambassador. This means that we represent the one in ultimate authority in front of those who wield his delegated authority. And when we find we must speak up against something the governing authorities are doing, we do so as God’s representatives and we do so out of concern for God’s glory and for their souls.

The motive behind many of the cruel critiques of political leaders does not seem to be the securing of a more peaceful and quiet life. It seems to run more along the lines of securing political power and then retaining that power going forward. This is a very wrong turn. To be involved in politics, of course, is no sin, but to trust in politics for salvation certainly is.

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COVID Has Made Us Weary, But We Should Still Be Doing Good

If you are in a season that feels barren and fruitless, take heart – over time, if we are persistent in our pursuit of God and obedient to his will and plan, we will bear fruit. Now might be a time when you are being pruned and watered and weathered so that your fruit will be both sweeter and more abundant when the appointed season comes. 

“As for you, brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing good.”

2 Thessalonians 3:13

Seldom in the world’s history has the entirety of humankind been subjected to such mind-numbing and soul-crushing stress and chaos that has led to such persistent weariness. During this time, on days when I’m feeling down, it’s easy to look for the fruits of my efforts and wonder if I’ve accomplished anything at all. On those weary days, progress seems painfully slow and tangible “results” seem like a barren field on a foggy morning. This is quite opposite of what we desire, isn’t it? 

We would all love for our efforts to result in immediate, visible, tangible fruit, but fruit is a fitting metaphor, and it is no accident that this metaphor is employed frequently in Scripture. As Psalm 1 points out, the blessed person is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season

How the Wicked and the Righteous Grow

In Psalm 92 we see a clear contrast between the wicked and the righteous. In v7 we learn that “though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever,” while in v12 we see that “the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar” that still bears fruit in old age and is ever full of sap and green (v14). 

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The wicked have their day in the sun, their flash in the pan, their proverbial “15 minutes of fame.” They sprout like grass, which grows rapidly but provides little value and fades away just as quickly as it appeared. Although these people are often among the most prominent in the world and seem to be successful by worldly standards (we might even envy them sometimes), in the end, such people are doomed to destruction.

The righteous, however, are like palm or cedar trees. Palm trees take about five years to grow a trunk and another 15 years to produce coconuts, but they can live for hundreds of years. They represent slow growth and much fruit, just the opposite of grass.

Cedars are evergreen trees that can grow to over 150 ft and live up to 300 years. They are known for their alluring scent and have an ornamental quality because of their beauty. Cedar is also used for guitar tops and is known for its warm tone. Cedar trees represent beauty, warmth, and an inviting aroma. We might think of this aroma as “the fragrance of life” that is mentioned in 2 Cor. 2:16.

The Long Blessings of Slow Growth

In contrast to the wicked, the righteous grow slowly but they live long and fruitful lives. For such people, what often looks like a season of fruitlessness is actually a season of preparation. If we see a tree as only useful when there is ripe fruit to pick, we might see it as useless at all other times. 

But trees are not useless during seasons when the fruit is not visibly emerging. During times of not bearing fruit, a tree is still being prepared to be fruitful: it is being pruned and watered and weathered, all of which will make the fruit sweeter and more abundant. Even the blessed person is not bearing fruit in all seasons but in the appointed season; there is a cyclical pattern to fruit-bearing. 

If you are in a season that feels barren and fruitless, take heart – over time, if we are persistent in our pursuit of God and obedient to his will and plan, we will bear fruit. Now might be a time when you are being pruned and watered and weathered so that your fruit will be both sweeter and more abundant when the appointed season comes. 

So, as for you, do not grow weary in doing good.

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Sin is Seeking to Destroy You

On any evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, sin takes notice and seeks to distort and destroy. This should cause us to live with greater awareness, not more fear. And this is why we must live in continual repentance and confess our sins often – to God but to each other as well, as we are commanded to do in scripture.

“Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good…”

Romans 7:13

Sin seeks to use what is good in order to deceive and to destroy all that it can in the process. We see this tactic first employed in the biblical account of the fall of mankind. In Genesis 3:1 the serpent asks Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” One of Satan’s main tactics is to parse the commands of God and present us with potential loopholes. We often accept his offer, forsaking the simplicity of God’s commands for convenient complications.

Where Compromise Leads

Through their compromise, Adam and Eve really did become more like God, but not in a desirable way. Consider this: up to that point they knew only good; now they would know evil as well. God already knew what evil was but mankind did not yet have knowledge of it. This knowledge of evil was obtained by participating in evil, which had both immediate and massive downstream consequences. Death was now a possibility and mankind was on track to experience that as well.

Participation in sin does expand our knowledge and awareness, but it makes us aware of realities we consequently wish we’d never known. Once we know these things, we cannot un-know them. And yet in the foolishness of our human pride, we still fall for the same gambit over and over.  We compromise repeatedly as our flesh seizes the opportunity and our minds rationalize the sins we commit. Presented with a convenient mistruth, we are willingly led down a path of compromise.

Sin is Aggressive

In the next chapter of Genesis (4:7) it says that “sin is crouching at the door…” I find this insight into the nature of sin to be helpful. Sin is not only what we seek to do that is contrary to God’s commands, it is also what waits to surprise and tempt and attack us. Sin is an aggressor in addition to being a passive availability.

Sin sees that we are humble and tempts us to be proud of our humility. 

Sin sees that we are compassionate and seeks to lead us to approve of the sins of others. 

Sin sees that we are patient and encourages us to tolerate evil. 

Sin sees that we are obedient and seeks to lead us into bondage to those who would do us harm.

On any evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, sin takes notice and seeks to distort and destroy. 

This should cause us to live with greater awareness, not more fear. And this is why we must live in continual repentance and confess our sins often – to God but to each other as well, as we are commanded to do in scripture. The heart indeed is desperately wicked, and we will need far more than pep talks and self-help books to live lives that are pleasing to God.

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The Deep Lack of Wisdom That COVID Has Revealed

The COVID period has revealed a deep lack of biblical wisdom among those who call themselves Christians. We have not been desperate for God’s wisdom, even while we eagerly consume the many doses of folly that invade our minds via social media. Do not be surprised if you are frustrated and do not know what to think if you have feasted on foolishness while starving yourself of real wisdom. 

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders,

making the best use of the time.”

Colossians 4:5

To walk in wisdom toward outsiders requires us to first seek wisdom from the right source, but too often our words are many while our prayers are few. We crave constant activity and the notoriety that comes along with our publicly visible efforts. We want to be seen and known, and not always with the most virtuous motives.

So we must not apply this command, as I sometimes have, in a way that justifies our burnout-inducing over-busyness. The causes of burnout are many and not all are sinful, but “burning out for Jesus” is not a game plan to be proud of; it is a sin to be repented of. Often the “best use of the time” is to sit and do nothing physically or audibly, to do nothing more than take in God’s word, to ask God questions, and to sit quietly as we wait for answers. He promises to supply wisdom if we ask. 

Ask For Wisdom

In the men’s Bible study I lead on Thursday nights, we always start by having someone read James 1:5-8, which promises the following:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

After this reading, we pray, asking God with all the desperation we can muster to supply us with wisdom and to make us willing to receive it, learn from it, and then to go and live accordingly. Life is filled with constant challenges and we often feel unprepared. God’s promise to supply wisdom is not a promise made in vain. If we are humble enough to admit that we need wisdom and we ask for it, he will give it to us – generously!

Making the Best Use of the Time

The command to “make the best use of the time” frequently interrupts my days and my thoughts. It is easy to misunderstand this statement as a command to constant busyness, but if we understand it this way we will fail to live as Jesus did. We will not take times of solitude to spend with the Father. We will not rest as often as needed. 

We will flit about, feasting on one bit of information that is presented to us, and then another morsel that is diametrically opposed. Instead of gaining wisdom, we reap confusion. And then we distribute our confusion to others, perpetuating a downward spiral of frustration.

The COVID period has revealed a deep lack of biblical wisdom among those who call themselves Christians. We have not been desperate for God’s wisdom, even while we eagerly consume the many doses of folly that invade our minds via social media. Do not be surprised if you are frustrated and do not know what to think if you have feasted on foolishness while starving yourself of real wisdom. 

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What is the Place of Effort in the Life of a Christian?

People like to make resolutions at this time of the year and these resolutions are often forsaken before the year is half over. But we should resolve daily to do as Paul instructs in this passage: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And we should be ruthless in our discernment, sparing no area of our lives. 

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Colossians 3:1-2

What is the place of effort in the life of a Christian?

We did not and cannot earn salvation by anything that we do or have done. No effort, no striving, no amount of self-improvement will ever make God look down and say “Ah – there is one who has made himself good enough for me to save! If only there were a few more like him!” We did not and cannot earn salvation by anything that we do or have done.

After we believe, after we have been saved and redeemed by God, we are to rest in Christ. In Heb 4:11 it says that we are to “strive to enter that rest.” The work is done and we can’t add to it; salvation is a complete work that we receive.

We rest in this salvation, but in other areas of the Christian life, after we are born again, there is effort involved. In 1 Tim. 4:7 we are told to discipline ourselves. In Phil. 3:14 we’re instructed to strive as an athlete striving to win the prize. In 2 Tim. 2:6: “Make an effort as a farmer who works hard in order to receive some of the reward from the vineyard.” In Eph. 6: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and the powers of this evil age.” And in 1 Cor. 9:27 Paul says “I put my body in subjection so that after preaching to others I myself might not be a cast away.” 

These all make sense when we remember Paul’s words in Phil 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God working in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

Effort Applied

The Christian life is not a life without effort; the Christian life is one of applying effort to all that we are called by God to do. And God will empower us, by his Spirit, to accomplish whatever he commands us to. So, in the end, it is not a striving by human effort that makes the difference, but the complete surrender of obedience that aligns us with God’s will and supplies us with God’s power.

As we live out this new reality, we are instructed to, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” 

If you are hungry, you may find a grocery store, but finding the grocery store won’t solve your hunger. You need to enter, find the food, purchase the food, and eat the food. In the same way, it is not enough to merely know heavenly things; you must set your mind on them, devour them, ingest them. You must be preoccupied with them. True spirituality is not seeking spiritual experiences. It is not the pursuit of an emotional high. Emotions are a response to renewal, not the source of renewal.

True Spirituality

True spirituality is the practice of setting your mind on heavenly things. And setting your mind on heavenly things is the starting point and the accelerator of practical holiness. It is true that “we become what we behold.” We will take on the likeness of that to which we give our attention and affection. If to heavenly things, then holiness will result. If to earthly things, then wickedness and unholiness.

People like to make resolutions at this time of the year and these resolutions are often forsaken before the year is half over. But we should resolve daily to do as Paul instructs in this passage: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” And we should be ruthless in our discernment, sparing no area of our lives. 

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