Living in Fearful Times

I had originally planned to write an optimistic blog about the New Year and how we can make the most out of the blank canvas that we call 2020.

But things have changed. Quickly. Events in the middle east have taken a turn since last Friday that few, if any of us saw coming. More U.S. troops are being deployed. People on both sides are using war language. It is certain that the assassination of Iranian Maj. General Qassem Soleimani has changed what 2020 would have been into something else and that it will not be the final act in this drama being played out in real time.

We are Living in Fearful Times. No one knows where or how this will end – not even the decision makers.

And we don’t know how the events that will certainly play out in 2020 will affect each of our lives. While most of us live far from the Middle East and probably far from any direct impact of retaliatory actions, there is the possibility that our personal worlds will be affected. The times are far from certain.

So how are we to live in uncertain times? How are we to face fearful days?

Without question there are some specific things that each of us can do to prepare our families, and I’m sure that we will soon be inundated with advice telling us how to get ready for Armageddon. Some of the advice will undoubtedly be practical and useful and some will be over the top and simply engender more fear.

But what do we tell our children about these days? What do we tell ourselves? How do we handle an unknown future that appears threatening?

The Bible is clear that as Christians we are not to live in fear (2 Timothy 1:7). So what are we to do?

The answer is not difficult – we are to live in the reality that God is ultimately in control of our world (Isaiah 14:24, 46:10, Daniel 4:35, Luke 12:22-32, Ephesians 1:11). Even though bad things happen – and we have no guarantee that we won’t be affected by them, we are to reaffirm that God is the One in control, not those men who sit with their fingers on the red button.

Beyond that we know that this God who is in control is a God of great mercy (Ephesians 2:4) and that His grace is sufficient for our journey (2 Corinthians 12:9). And so we trust Him (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Even when we don’t understand His ways. Even when we can’t reconcile what’s happening in our world with His mercy and grace. Even when fear grips our hearts. Even then we trust Him.

None of us knows what will happen in 2020 – but He does. And that is enough.

So we live in faith not in fear. That is the choice for all of us – faith or fear.

No matter what happens in this New Year, God does not want you to live in fear. He wants you to trust Him and live in faith.

When you feel fear creeping in, get alone in a quiet place with God and tell Him again that you’re going to trust Him regardless of the chaos around you. And keep telling Him, not because He needs to hear it over and over, but because you need to confess it until your heart believes it.

You can live in peace in a fearful world.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Justice is a Hard Word

Justice. It’s a word that conjures up images of a gaunt faced, steely eyed, black-robed, no nonsense judge handing down the sentence. The criminal got what he deserved. No love lost here. Now we can move on with our lives. Justice was served.

We love it – especially if you are a diehard conservative. After all we are a nation of laws! We love Justice. We want judges who will hand it out according to the letter of the law.

There’s little to no place for mercy in our system.

Until we are the one standing before the Judge.

I have yet to read of anyone, conservative or liberal, asking the judge to give them what they deserved. Most, perhaps all, are hoping for the lightest possible sentence. Hoping for mercy.

To be honest, we only want justice for those we have predetermined are unworthy.

But that includes all of us.

According to the highest court in the universe, we are all unworthy – we are all guilty. There is not one innocent person, not even one (Romans 3:10). All are guilty and have come woefully short of keeping the law of God (Romans 3:23). While I’ve paraphrased those two passages, I don’t think that I’ve violated the meaning. In fact, I think this is exactly what they mean.

Somehow when we’re faced with our own guilt before God the righteous judge, our demand for justice changes into something else. We’re not so conservative now. Truthfully, we hope for a giant helping of liberal mercy.

If we were to get justice we know where we would spend eternity. I’m not talking about heaven.

But God is not only Just, He is also the Justifier (Romans 3:26). In His Justice He deals with our sin. As the Justifier He forgives our sin. And it’s all because of Jesus.

God made it possible for our sin to be assumed by another (1 Peter 3:18) and for anyone who will put their faith in Jesus to stand before him in complete innocence (2 Corinthians 5:21).

His is a hard Justice. But it’s a justice tempered by mercy.

Justice without mercy is cruel. Justice tempered by mercy gives hope.

Thankfully God knows what we struggle to understand. That Justice and Mercy can walk hand in hand.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Amazing (Grace) Mercy How Sweet the Sound

With apologies to John Newton, God’s mercy is as amazing as His grace! Where would we be today without the mercy of God?

Mercy is often associated with pity or compassion and is sometimes translated by those words. Both concepts are certainly part of God’s mercy but it is so much more. It’s more in any way you look at it. It’s more in intensity; it’s more in duration; it’s more in substance; it’s more in quality; it’s more in quantity – it’s just more than we can describe.

Over the years theologians, and others, have offered definitions to explain God’s grace and mercy, but none of their definitions get it completely right. One favorite way to explain grace and mercy is that God’s grace is giving us what we don’t deserve (His love, forgiveness etc) while His mercy is not giving us what we do deserve (judgment). Again, it’s true but there is so much more.

Simply put, and this is admittedly too simplistic, both mercy and grace are aspects of God’s love. Mercy is God’s love given to those who need it the most – the blind man (John 9), the cripple (John 5), the leper (Matthew 8) were all recipients of His mercy.

Grace is different. Grace is God’s love given to those who deserve it the least – people who are not just physically damaged but especially to people who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:8). None of us deserves to be forgiven.

Not perfect definitions but they’ve helped me understand the distinctions a little better.

As much as we talk and sing about God’s grace it is His mercy that stands behind His grace. Grace is motivated by mercy (Ephesians 2:4-5).

Without God’s mercy there would be no salvation. Without His mercy there would be no healing. Without His mercy there would be no forgiveness for our daily sin. Without His mercy there would be no escaping judgment. Without his mercy there would be no hope for eternity.

Without mercy, grace would just not be the same.

Yes, grace is essential and we need to give it the importance it deserves. But so is mercy.

Think what your life would be like without the mercy of God. Think what eternity would be like without the mercy of God.

The old hymn says, O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be. We’re also immensely in debt to mercy.

Thank God for His grace – but also thank Him for His mercy.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Some Thoughts on God’s Mercy

Mercy. There are various ways to define it – especially when you’re talking about God’s mercy. At its core it’s an aspect of the Love of God. Sometimes we equate it with compassion.

I’ve often defined mercy as God’s love given to those who need it the most. While grace is God’s love given to those who don’t deserve it. Not perfect definitions, but helpful in distinguishing these two aspects of God’s love.

Think of the people on whom Jesus had compassion – the blind, the deaf, the destitute, and the dead. People who were desperate; people who, humanly speaking, need God’s love the most.

The ultimate mercy is when God gave His love to sinners in the person of Jesus (John 3:16). Sinners certainly need God’s love the most.

We often pray for God’s mercy – for God to be merciful to us. What we want is for God to change our circumstances. To make our life better.

But how do we know when our prayer is answered? How do we know when God gives us His mercy?

If you’re like most people you equate the reception of His mercy with a change in your life. Life becomes better because God answered your prayer the way you wanted Him to answer it.

But is that a good barometer of God’s mercy?

What if in His omniscience He knew that what you cried out for, what your heart longed for, would not be good for you in the long run? What if His mercy was NOT to give you what you wanted? What if, in His love, He knew that it might even be harmful to you in some way?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He knew would be harmful to you?

Wouldn’t you prefer that God withheld from you something that you wanted but that He didn’t give you because He had something even better for you?

The truth is that you won’t always immediately recognize God’s mercy. Sometimes you’ll see it in hindsight. Sometimes far, far hindsight.

So in the meantime you need to live by faith. Not seeing the evidence but believing in what you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1).

Faith believes that God always acts toward you in ways that are merciful, even when life doesn’t go your way. It believes that God is merciful even when He disciplines you (Hebrews 12:5-6). It believes that God is always merciful. That there is never a time that He does not act in mercy (sometimes we draw a dichotomy between God’s wrath and His mercy – as if when God disciplines us He stops being merciful. That would mean that God would have to stop being God).

What if, as Laura Story has reminded us in her song Blessings (you can listen to it here), that God loves you too much to give you the little things you want instead of the greater things He has for you. What if the trials of life are His mercies in disguise?

Don’t judge God’s mercy based on how He responds to your prayer. He will always respond in love. He is always merciful.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

What is Your Mental Image of God?

When you think about God, what do you see in your mind’s eye? How do you imagine God?

Maybe it’s Michelangelo’s image of God in his Sistine Chapel fresco The Creation of Adam. Perhaps it’s Raphael’s depiction of God in his famous painting Ezekiel’s Vision.

Jesus said that God is spirit, that is, He is not material (John 4:24). However, there are a number of times that the Bible records visual depictions of God (2 Chronicles 18:18, Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1:26, 10:1, Daniel 7:13 and Revelation 4:2). They were given to us so that we could in some way understand who He is.

Unfortunately our view of God is sometimes limited by visual images and that’s as far as we get in our knowledge and understanding of God. That’s not just a limited view of God, it can lead to a false view.

There’s so much more to God that we can know from a visual image.

Another way that people imagine God is based on their life experiences. Often their view of God as Father is colored by their own experience with their earthly father. If their biological father was kind and loving, then they see God as a kind and loving Father. If their earthly father was judgmental and harsh, that’s how they think of God.

Both extremes are unfortunate. If your father was kind and good, God is a thousand times kinder and better. To equate Him with the kindness and love of your earthly father is to sell God short.

If your earthly father was a tyrant, well that’s not God at all.

We have to divorce our image of God from artistic depictions or even from our earthly experiences. God is far different from either. And when we limit our image of God, the God that we see in our minds, to images and experiences we miss the best of God.

Your mental image of God is important because how you think about God will determine how you respond to God, how you pray, how you trust. It will determine your entire relationship.

Our God is the most loving, the most gracious, the most merciful, the most caring, the most concerned of anyone you will ever encounter. He is the most of anything and everything that is good and right and righteous and just.

He loves you more than anyone will ever love you. He loves you more than you deserve to be loved. He loves you more than you will ever understand.

The same can be said for His grace to you, His mercy towards you, His care for you, and His concern for you.

It’s important to have a mental image of God that is reflective of who He is in all of His Goodness.

It will make all of the difference in your relationship. It will make all of the difference in how you respond.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Searching for Mercy

I think that’s a safe title. Strange but safe. Searching for Mercy.

You search for things that you’ve lost. If we’ve lost anything in our society it’s Mercy.

Justice – we have plenty of it. Generosity – we don’t do too badly. Compassion – there’s even some of that around. But Mercy. What’s happened to Mercy?

It’s safe to say that it’s been lost. Viewed as a sign of weakness. Not given to those we think don’t deserve it (get the irony here?).

It’s significant that the place God chose to dwell in Israel – in the Holy of Holies, on the Ark of the Covenant was called the Mercy Seat (Exodus 25). Not the Judgment Seat but the Mercy Seat.

God lives in a place of Mercy.

The Mercy Seat was the place where God would meet and speak to Moses (Exodus 25:22). Not the Judgment Seat but the Mercy Seat.

God communicates from a place of Mercy.

The Mercy Seat was the place where the High Priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement as payment for the sin of Israel (Leviticus 16). Not the Judgment Seat but the Mercy Seat.

God deals with us from a place of Mercy.

Throughout the Bible and especially in the Old Testament – the testament of judgment, of punishment (isn’t that what people say?), we’re reminded that God is a God of Mercy.

  • He’s abundant in Mercy (Numbers 14:18)
  • He shows Mercy to multitudes (Deuteronomy 5:10)
  • His Mercy can never be exhausted (2 Chronicles 7:3)
  • His judgment is tempered by His Mercy (Nehemiah 9:31)
  • His Mercy is great (Nehemiah 13:22)
  • You can Trust in His Mercy (Psalm 13:5)
  • You can Rejoice in His Mercy (Psalm 31:7)
  • His anger is tempered by His Mercy (Psalm 103:8)

It’s easy to forget just how important Mercy is, not just in our theology but in our everyday lives.

We need Mercy. Can you imagine your life without it? Without the Mercy that others have extended to you?

Wow! Where would I be today without the Mercy that so many people have granted me over the years of my life?! I hate to think of it.

Our Worship Teams are learning a new song that they will soon introduce to our church. It’s got a great focus on God’s Mercy.

Mercies Anew
Every morning that breaks There are mercies anew
Every breath that I take Is your faithfulness proved
And at the end of each day When my labors are through
I will sing of Your mercies anew

When I’ve fallen and strayed There were mercies anew
For you sought me in love And my heart you pursued
In the face of my sin Lord, You never withdrew
So I sing of Your mercies anew

Chorus
And Your mercies, they will never end
For ten thousand years they’ll remain
And when this world’s beauty has passed away
Your mercies will be unchanged

And when the storms swirl and rage
There are mercies anew
In affliction and pain
You will carry me through
And at the end of my days
When Your throne fills my view
I will sing of Your mercies anew
I will sing of Your mercies anew.

You can listen to it here.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Keeping Perspective

It’s important to keep life in perspective. In fact, perspective is everything.

This week my Facebook page is filled with the colors of the French flag as people identify with the French people in their hour of suffering. Blue, white, and red are evident in abundance. And that’s as it should be.

However we cannot allow the evil that resulted in such tragedy to dominate our hearts and minds. It’s too easy to throw up our hands in despair or – on the other side, to let anger and even hatred fill our hearts. It’s a matter of perspective.

What should our perspective be in the face of such evil and suffering? Here are a few things that should dominate our thinking.

>We have a God of grace and mercy

Our focus is not to be on evil but on good, and as Jesus reminded us only God is good (Matthew 19:17). That means that He is to be our focus. He is to be the One who dominates our hearts and minds. In a time of suffering, confusion and turmoil we are to see His Grace and His Mercy. He is the One who puts it all into perspective.

>Light dispels darkness

It’s a universal truth. Light will always dispel the darkness. Darkness cannot overcome light – light always overcomes darkness. That’s true in the physical realm and it’s even truer in the spiritual. Whenever a great tragedy happens it seems like we are being engulfed by the darkness. But as long as we carry the light (Matthew 5:14-16) there is hope for those in darkness. Light puts the darkness into perspective.

>Love conquers hate

Someone posted on Facebook this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. As counterintuitive as it seems we are called to love the hater who took so many innocent lives because only love can drive out hatred. We’re not only commanded to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:39) we’re commanded to love those who bomb us and take the lives of our sons and daughters (Matthew 5:43-48). As hard as that is – it’s how Jesus loved us (Romans 5:8). Love puts hatred into perspective.

>Jesus is the answer

It’s tempting to think that bombs and killing are the answer. But they’re not. Humanity has been bombing evil (often a matter of perspective) since anyone can remember. And it’s still here. It just changes form – and names. I’m not suggesting that we should ignore the evil or concede defeat. I’m just saying that force is not the ultimate answer to evil. It will always come back. The ultimate answer is Jesus Christ and that’s where Christians need to focus their time, energy, and resources. Jesus puts the entire world into perspective.

Empathize with the French people. Pray for them. Show your support for them. Mourn those who were lost. But keep it all in perspective.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve