There’s a popular saying in traditional, institutional religious circles that says, "you can’t put God in a box." It’s especially popular in evangelical circles. And like many of the other things you hear coming from the religious crowd, there’s sometimes even an element of half-truth in it.
Recently, as I was responding to the email of a reader on the website, that phrase came up. When it did, the silent, indistinguishable voice of the Lord said, "and those who put themselves in a box can never know Me." As is usually the case when something like this happens, I have to stop and think about it for a little while, sometimes for a long while. But if I stick with it eventually the Holy Spirit helps me understand what He’s talking about. There are several boxes people put themselves into that almost guarantee they’ll never know God, unless of course they recognize what they’re doing and work their way out of it (Philippians 2:12-13). Let me explain what I mean.
The religious and non-religious alike have their boxes. How many millions of people are there in this world that have put themselves in boxes made up of cold, dead formalism? They’re proud of their denominational history and the monuments they’ve built to themselves. They protect their meaningless forms and rituals and somehow find comfort and security in preserving the past. There’s no personal, present reality of God in their lives, only tradition, a useless, sentimental reverence for those who have gone on before them and a blind loyalty to the institution. The concept of knowing God in an individual, personal way is unknown to them.
Then there’s the more conservative crowd that claims to follow the Scriptures, instead of the traditions of men. They pretend to apply the proper rules of language and interpretation to the Word so they can come up with their own version of a blueprint that must be followed to find God. They call it "God’s Simple Plan of Salvation", "The Four Spiritual Laws" or the like to present their particular message designed to explain salvation (deliverance) in quick, easy and palatable terms. They don’t like to admit it, but they, too, are slaves to their traditions and traditional thought.
And still, there’s no reality in God because, for the most part they’re convinced from their lack of experience that people can’t experience God any more. The pursuit of God becomes a mind game and a relationship with Him a pretense. Their "signs and wonders" cousins want to believe they can experience God on their own terms and so they chase charlatans all over the country trying to catch a glimpse of the supernatural, but sadly their experience is based on their own, wrong concept of God and the doctrines of demons.
The non-religious have their own little box, it’s made of personal opinions and feelings. They place themselves above God and put the emphasis on what they think and how they feel. What God requires or what He says isn’t important or worth knowing in their view. Maybe there’s a God, or maybe not. What do you think? If there is a God, what’s he like? And whatever you think God is like, then that’s who God is to you. It’s just so much gobbledygook and pseudo-intellectual double talk. Many times the non-religious smarty-pants concludes there must not be a God because of all the suffering and violence he sees in the world. If God really exists surely He would fix everything like they think it should be. Still, there’s no reality.
Then, there’s another group that have themselves in a box that’s just as deadly as any I’ve yet mentioned. This is the group that may be pursuing God and that may be looking for truth, but have themselves placed squarely in the box of self-preservation and materialism. They sincerely want to know God, but unknowingly have put themselves into a box that is clearly defined by the cares of this life, the desires of the flesh and the ways of this world.
Now, before I define this box, I need to backtrack a little and remind you of why I’m writing this. My last paper was entitled "Walking With God". In it I detailed for you the statement Peter makes in II Peter 2:19-22 about dogs returning to eat their vomit and pigs going back to wallow in the mud. Peter explains that this proverb (taken from Proverbs 26:11) pictures those who have begun to learn how to escape the pollutions of the world, but they were never able to overcome their nature, so they eventually got pulled back in. He also makes the observation that they would have been better off to never know the truth, than to have known it and then turn away from it. And as I pointed out in the paper, the reason for this is that when you know truth, but it doesn’t work for you, where do you go from there?
Then, I promised to write a paper on "Avoiding the Dogs and Hogs Disease". The key to not being pulled back into the world (avoiding the dogs and hogs disease) is to understand what Jesus says about self-preservation and materialism. And now is as good a time as any to mention that I put self-preservation and materialism together for the simple fact that Jesus doesn’t make a distinction between the two. That will be clear as we look at what He says. You also may have noticed that this paper is titled "Avoiding the Dogs and Hogs Disease – Part 2", indicating Part 3 can’t be far behind. When I write Part 3, it will be subtitled "Oh No! He’s Going to Talk About Giving!"
As I said in the last paper, if I talk about giving, some are going to think it sounds self-serving. And if I would have tried to teach this several years ago, it could very well have been self-serving. And the Lord knew that. I’ve had to learn to be obedient and live the life He’s called me to. And part of that is to learn to live with financial pressure. So He restrained me and made me wait until I could teach this with integrity. The issue of giving is essential for every believer. God establishes in the Old Testament and reinforces in the New Testament that giving is a continual test designed to give us the opportunity to make His ownership of our lives and possessions a reality. Again, as in other areas of our pursuit of God, it’s not enough to understand a principle; God will insist on the reality of it. And, as much as some will want to argue the point, the fact remains: our desire to protect ourselves and our stuff and our drive to get more stuff is probably the biggest hindrance to our spiritual growth.
Let’s get back to the issue at hand, self-preservation and materialism. The first passage I want to look at is Matthew 19:16-26, Jesus’ encounter with the rich, young ruler. Since this is going to turn out to be a longer paper than I had hoped, instead of quoting the complete passage, I’ll just give you the pertinent points.
Verse 16 starts with this statement from the young man, "What inherently good deed must I do to possess eternal life?" Now, Jesus knew this guy was in trouble from the get-go. There were two problems with what he asked. The first was that he thought he had the ability to do whatever was required out of the inherent goodness that he already possessed, typical religious delusion. The second was that from his religious perspective he thought he could gain eternal life by a single act. Sounds like my evangelical friends who want to believe they can gain eternal life by reciting some form of sinner’s prayer.
So in verse 17 Jesus begins to answer the young man and set him straight. "Why do you ask Me about the inherently good? There is only One Who is inherently good and that’s God." It may not be clear from the imprecise translation found in most versions, but the young man knew what Jesus meant. "How can you do anything that is inherently good when you have no inherent goodness to draw from?" "If you want eternal life you must continually keep the commandments." Jesus made it clear that He understood what the young man was relying on – his own self-righteousness based on his ability to keep the commandments. In other words, he was relying on his religion. So Jesus told him that since he had determined his course (to follow the rules), he had to stick with it, continually and perfectly.
This was right down the young man’s alley. He was comfortable, confident and ready to continue, no doubt thinking to himself "this is going to be easy, this guy’s not so tough, bring it on, I’m ready to rock and roll!" So he asked Jesus, "Which ones?" To which Jesus answered in verses 18 and 19, this one, this one, this one and that one (it’s not really important which ones). Then in verse 20 with his confidence still building the young man answered Jesus saying, "I’ve done all that since I was old enough to understand it, what else can I do?"
Then Jesus, sensing the young man was about as inflated with self-confident expectation as he could possibly get, burst his bubble with this statement. "If you want to be perfect, the first thing you’ll have to do is go and sell everything you have and give the money to the poor and reserve for yourself riches in heaven. Then come back and learn how to follow My example." (In Mark 10:21 you find the addition of "take up your cross" to this statement, making it even more devastating.)
Here, the word translated "perfect" above is teleios and is used to illustrate the absolute, inherent perfection of God (Matthew 5:48b) or the relative perfection of man (as in the verse above), depending on the context. In other words, God’s perfection is absolute, a static, unchanging state; but man’s perfection is relative, based on his continued obedience to what God requires. In His statement, Jesus uses a play on words to let the young man know that there is not simply one thing he can do to be in right standing with God, but many things are necessary. He also lets him know they are not easy, happy-go-lucky, religious-oriented things, but difficult, serious, life affecting things. Jesus doesn’t let him down easy by telling him what he wanted to hear. Instead, He hits him right between the eyes with truth to see which way he falls. And he falls quickly. Verse 22 tells us that as soon as the young man heard this he became distressed and walked away, no doubt on his way to the doctor to get a prescription for Prozac.
I pointed this out in a previous paper; the rich, young ruler is an example of the best the world has to offer. He also illustrates the fact that the best the world has to offer can’t even do this first thing required by God, much less the many things that are sure to follow. This brings me to the point I want to make from this passage, which is, we all need to understand if given the same limited understanding of truth, put in the same situation and given the same circumstances with the same requirement, we’d make the same decision the rich, young ruler made. Scary, huh.
Jesus knew this guy was firmly settled in the box of self-preservation and materialism, so He hit him right where it hurt. And I don’t think for a minute that the rich, young ruler didn’t understand materialism wasn’t his only problem. It wasn’t a simple case of not wanting to give up his stuff (and I’m not trying to minimize that, all of us have fantasized about having more money and stuff than we know what to do with, and if we did, we wouldn’t want to lose it), but he understood from what Jesus said there would be more sacrifices and even some suffering thrown in for good measure and he couldn’t handle that. Like many today, what Jesus was saying just didn’t fit this young man’s religious concept of God.
And now the application has to follow. God knows where we are as well. And so He hits us all in the soft spot to see if we’re willing to be obedient, experience what He wants us to experience, learn what He wants us to learn and then submit to it and be changed. Remember that insignificant little detail called the purpose of God? He wants to change us from what we are into Who He is, to conform us into the image of His Son. The problem is that we’re all settled so far down into the box of self-preservation and materialism that when He hits us most of the time we’re so busy looking for a way out we don’t even recognize it.
All we see is a problem to be solved by exercising one of the many options we’ve created for ourselves to protect the comfort and security of our lives in this world. We’re so spiritually ignorant that we don’t see it as an opportunity to be obedient and experience God. Instead, we see it as a sacrifice to evade, a discomfort to avoid or an obstacle to go around. We don’t recognize it as a spiritual issue. We acknowledge the truth of what Jesus says about letting Him be the Lord of our lives and about suffering and sacrifice, but when He tries to be Lord in reality or when we’re faced with the opportunity to experience suffering or sacrifice, our flesh takes over and we start looking at our options. Like it or not, there’s a pack of hungry dogs and a herd of smelly hogs lurking inside all of us.
We know it was the Father’s purpose to perfect His Son through suffering (Hebrews 2:10), that Jesus is the example of suffering we are to follow (I Peter 2:21) and that we must share in His suffering if we expect to share in His glory (Romans 8:17). But when the opportunity to suffer comes, we scurry around looking for a way out, not even stopping to consider the possibility that it might be the Father’s purpose. Do we have to suffer or not? Is sacrifice a part of the deal or not? Did Jesus mean what he said or not? Maybe He was just kidding. (Maybe I’m just kidding.) If we don’t learn to submit to it now, then when will we? This is a good time to remind you of the passage I used in the last paper from Hebrews 12:16-17 that tells us Esau knew the truth and NEVER learned!
Jesus continually proved His determination not to resort to self-preservation. This is a shorter passage, so I’ll quote it for you. I don’t want you to miss what Jesus is saying or what He is modeling. This is Matthew 16:21-26.
21. From that time on Jesus began to tell His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things at the hands of the religious leaders there, be killed and then on the third day be raised up out of death.
22. Then Peter took Him aside privately and began to rebuke Him, saying, No Lord, this must not happen to You!
23. But Jesus turned from Peter and said, Get out of My way, Satan! You don’t understand what God requires; you understand only what men want.
24. Then Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone wants to follow Me, he must learn to disregard what he wants, embrace suffering and follow My example.
25. Whoever is determined to preserve their comfort and security here on earth will destroy the life that is to come; but whoever is willing to give up their comfort and security now for My sake will find everlasting life.
26. What good does it do if a man gains everything this world has to offer, if he loses his eternal life in My kingdom? Could he possibly gain enough to buy his way into My kingdom?
Jesus understood the purpose of the Father. And He knew the ways of God. To Him, suffering and self-sacrifice was something to be embraced, not avoided. He wasn’t into self-preservation; He was determined to see the will of the Father accomplished. We’re mostly into self-preservation and give only lip service to the purpose of God. Then we wonder why nothing is happening in our lives. We try to identify what God may be doing, but it’s mostly meaningless and empty, religious at best. We’ve learned to avoid what God is trying to do, and when faced with the unavoidable our fear, frustration, disappointment, pain and insecurity often blind us to what He’s trying to do. At the first sign of trouble, we let out the dogs, go back to our vomit and so we miss Him.
I don’t want to labor the point, but let me show you another passage. This is John 12:23-28.
23. Then Jesus answered them, saying, The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
24. I’m telling you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains unchanged. But if it dies, it will produce a rich harvest.
25. Anyone who is determined to preserve his life in this world will destroy it, but anyone who loves his life less (in comparison to the purposes of God) will preserve it for eternity.
26. And if anyone is determined to serve Me, he must continue to follow My example (in living to God and dying to this world), so that whatever they see Me do, that is what they will do as well. If anyone serves Me in this way, the Father will esteem him highly.
27. And now My soul is in distress, but what will I say? Father save Me from this agony that I must face? I cannot. It is the purpose of the Father that has brought Me to this time.
28. Instead, I’ll say, Father, glorify yourself. Then a voice came out of heaven saying, I have glorified it already and will glorify it again.
Of course the point Jesus makes here is crystal clear. We have to be willing to die to self and to the ways of the world, and this death is necessary to produce the rich bounty of God’s purpose in our lives (verse 24). Those who choose to indulge in self-preservation are in the process of destroying their lives, but those who establish the priority of God’s purpose over and above their own comfort and security will preserve their life for an eternity (verse 25). Then those who are determined to follow His example will learn to embrace the suffering and sacrifice involved and the Father will value those who do (verse 26).
Then in verses 27 and 28 Jesus models what He wants us to learn. When the pressure comes and the stress sets in, do we say, "Father, save me from this? I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go through this." Or do we learn to say, "Father, I trust you and I trust Your purpose." Is our first instinct to start reviewing our options? Yes, probably it is. But then are we willing to hold the dogs and hogs in check? The fundamental question is this: are we going to submit to God or not (and every created being in the spirit realm, including all those loyal to the Sovereign God of the Universe, and those who rebelled against Him are curious and watching to see what we do, and I guarantee you, the rebellious have more to cheer about than the loyal).
OK. Jesus is our example. He rejected self-preservation and opted for obedience. How do we learn to do the same? Here’s another long passage, so we’ll take it a verse at a time and just hit the high points again. This is Luke 14:26-35.
In verse 26 Jesus talks about priorities. "If anyone decides to follow Me but does not love his own father and mother less than he loves Me, and likewise his wife and children and brothers and sisters, even his own life, then he cannot be My disciple." The word "hate" is found in most translations, and that’s a little strong, even for Jesus. The original text gives us miseo, "to love less", used here to illustrate priority. Jesus addresses two things here: human relationships and self-preservation or self-determination. We cannot successfully follow Him if other people in our lives are more important to us, in which case they will always become a distraction. Early on in my decision to know the reality of God and follow Him, He tested me in this regard. "What if your wife rejects what you’re doing? Will you still follow Me alone?" I had to say, yes, I will. "What if your children think you’re crazy? If they reject you, will you still follow Me?" I said, yes.
Then he bore down deeper into my soul. Down into the depths of the box I was in, where all the dogs and hogs were lying in wait. He started meddling in my affairs. It got personal! "What if I tell you what you can and cannot do with your life, will you still pursue Me?" The answer was still yes. I was desperate, sick to death of religion. "What if I tell you that you can’t go out and get a job, that you have to live by the Gospel and that you will have to learn to trust in Me instead of in your own strength or in the strength of others? Can you do that?" Maybe. I think so. I don’t know. "What if I tell you it’s going to require sacrifice on your part, but you can’t let anyone know. No matter how the pressure builds, no long face, no whining. Will you keep your eyes on Me and not panic?" I’ll try, but I’ve got to tell you I’ve never done it before. Now I’m looking back, trying to remember what was so bad about religion.
"What if the people who know you and are waiting for you to fail think you’re being irresponsible or just plain stupid, will you still follow Me and be obedient to what I’ve told you?" Lord, you know my heart. I want to. "What if they stop supporting you and contribute to the pressure you’re under. Will you still obey Me? Will you still love them and treat them the same as those who continue to support you?" Only You know, Lord. "What if you realize one day that out of the few families I’ve given you and who listen to you and look to you for spiritual guidance, over half of them no longer materially support what you’re doing. Will you still trust Me?" Well Lord, it’s coming up on 4 years now. You’ve taught me a lot. It hasn’t particularly been fun, but it’s been good. Hell, I wouldn’t trade places with anyone I know.
Oops. I got a little sidetracked there. But, hey, that’s at least some of my reality. We’re still looking at verse 26. Another thing to notice is the word "disciple". We’ve already seen it earlier in John 12:26 where I translated it "follow My example". The reason being that the word mathetes describes one who learns and then practices what he is taught, thus emulating his teacher not in words but actions. It’s different than being a student who learns, then regurgitates the facts in a simple intellectual response. The point being that Jesus emphasizes the fact that if we’re going to learn to follow His example and do what He did, then we’ll have to put things in their proper priority. Knowing the will of the Father and being obedient to that was His first priority; personal comfort, human relationships and acceptance were somewhere way down the list (Matthew 8:20, 12:46-50 and 26:3,4).
Jesus expands this concept of being a disciple in verse 27. "Whoever is not willing to endure suffering and follow Me cannot be My disciple." The original text has "bear his cross" where bastazo is translated "bear" in most translations. It’s used figuratively here and means, "to endure". As I’ve said many times before, enduring suffering (our cross) is part of the deal. In religious, evangelical circles discipleship is a teaching program designed to indoctrinate new converts into a particular belief system. In spiritual reality discipleship is learning to reject self-preservation and face suffering head-on in order to conform to the example of Jesus. The word "endure" is similar to other words used by Jesus and others to illustrate the on-going nature of the process of deliverance. Perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness, patience and others all point to the requirement of the disciple to endure suffering with courage, trust, strength and the determination to not quit.
Let me take another little detour and show you what I mean. James 1:2-4 is a great example of this.
"Brothers, let it be an occasion for rejoicing when you find yourself in the midst of trials and testing. Be assured, the testing will establish the reality of your experiences with God and will produce in you the ability to endure with determination and confidence. Then let that determination carry you along (as you encounter more testing) to this eventual result, that you would be complete (in God’s purpose), lacking nothing."
Now, if you’ve read this passage in another translation, you probably have some questions. I’ll see if I can answer some of them for you. First, in verse 2 the word usually translated "temptations" is peirasmos and means, a test or trial for the specific purpose of proving something. Then in verse 3 James continues that thought with the phrase "the trying of your faith". "Trying" is dokimion and means, to prove. What does prove mean? It means, "to establish the reality of a thing". What reality is James talking about? The reality of our faith (pistis), that’s what. Is faith what our denominational, doctrinal "statement of faith" teaches us? No. Faith is active and is defined by our real experiences with God.
So, what do we have so far? "Be glad when you encounter trials and testing because they have a purpose in God, which is to give you the opportunity to establish the reality of your experiences with Him." Then James tells us what is produced in us as we establish this reality. It’s patience. Patience is not the ability to tolerate people you don’t like. The word is hupomone and comes from hupo, under, and meno, to abide, and illustrates the ability to endure the stress and pressure of trials and testing without losing your determination or enthusiasm for pursuing God. Those with true patience don’t get discouraged and quit. There’s more technical language stuff in verse 4 consistent with what James is expressing here. But, basically he says that it’s the quality of patience that then carries us on through more trials and testing to eventually allow us to be complete in God’s purpose.
You’ve probably forgotten by now, but we were trying to look at Luke 14:26-35 and had at least made it through verses 26 and 27. In the next 5 verses (28-32) Jesus uses two different illustrations to emphasize the importance of counting the cost of becoming a disciple. The examples themselves aren’t especially important (determining the cost of building a barn and predicting whether your army is strong enough to win a battle), but the principle is important. Knowing the cost and being willing to pay the price is crucial in true discipleship. There are, no doubt, many who are drawn to the idea of following Jesus, but when faced with the reality of the costs involved, they begin to fade back into the world they came out of (Matthew 13:5,6,20,21 and Luke 9:57-62).
Then in verse 33 Jesus re-emphasizes His original point. "So then, any of you who does not put everything he has in its proper place cannot be My disciple." The original uses the word apotassomai, usually translated "forsake". Again, this sounds a little strong for our usage today. Forsake sounds too much like "leave behind" or "give up" (both found in Webster’s), and doesn’t express what Jesus is saying here. The word He uses means "to place in order" and is another reference to having the right priorities. If we love the people and other aspects of our lives less than we love Him, then we’ll place them in their proper order of importance or priority.
So, here we are. Do you want to learn how to reject self-preservation so you can become a true disciple? Jesus tells us how. First, establish the right priorities. Love Him more. Make sure you love everything else less. Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way. Second, count the cost. Know up front it’s going to cost you to be a disciple. Make sure you’re willing to pay the price; otherwise, don’t waste your time. There is a bottom line here. And, all religious pretense aside, it’s pretty well defined. The Father has determined that to be a disciple of the Son suffering and self-sacrifice will be required. Self-preservation is refusing to pay the price. God knows that; we have to know it too.
The last two verses (34-35) of this passage are used to illustrate what I call the mediocre life. You can compare Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50 to what He says here. The mediocre life is one that is lived in self-preservation, protected from the purposes of God. The mediocre life is one that avoids extremes. It doesn’t want to experience the ups and downs of pursuing God; it prefers the self-protected center, the self-determined comfort zone. The mediocre life is the one that looks normal to the world. Jesus sees the mediocre life as flavorless, insipid, flat. And He says it’s worthless, has no purpose and is to be thrown away (like salt that’s lost its flavor).
Please pay attention here (that’s what Jesus means when He says, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" in verse 35). The mediocre life is all about missed opportunity. How can we experience God and see His purpose accomplished in our life if we continually do everything we can to avoid it? How can we experience the strength of God in our lives if we never allow ourselves to be put in a position where we really need it? How can we ever know what it’s like to see God meet our need unless we put ourselves in the place where we actually have one? This is really deep. How can we ever learn to trust God, if we never trust Him? Clearly, Jesus rejected the mediocre life. So did Paul (Philippians 4:10-13). And if that’s not enough, consider the words of Christ recorded by John in Revelation 3:15-17. The mediocre life is neither hot nor cold; it’s lived in the lukewarm center. It has no need. It’s protected and controlled by self-preservation and materialism. And it makes the Lord want to puke! Why? Because it’s a rejection of His plan and purpose.
Now, there’s a problem with this idea of having need in our lives. We have to affirm the fact that need is necessary. If there’s no need, our tendency is to be self-satisfied and when we’re comfortable and secure, we won’t look for God. We don’t need Him. It’s our need that gives God the opportunity to get involved. The problem is this: many times we have to consciously reject our options to actually create the need. Does that sound wrong? If it does, it’s because it goes against our nature. So, what else is new? God tells us that our ways are not His ways. If it’s God, then it must go against our nature. It’s our nature God wants to deliver us from. So if we’re going to avoid the dogs and hogs disease, we have to learn to reject our natural inclinations. We have to learn to reject self-preservation and materialism. We have to say, no, to the dogs and hogs.
Earlier I said Paul had rejected the mediocre life. It then goes without saying; he must have learned to go against his nature. If he did that, he must have experienced times when he consciously rejected his options and experienced need. What is absolutely essential to our understanding is he then had opportunity to experience God in his life.
In II Corinthians 11:23-28 he talks about some of the times in his life of service to Christ that he had obvious need. He was imprisoned; beaten to the point of death with whips and rods; stoned; shipwrecked and spent a night and day adrift in the sea; exposed to danger from the elements, bandits, Jews who wanted to kill him, Gentiles who wanted to kill him, in cities, in the desert, on the sea and pursued by those who pretended to be believers; experienced times of utter destitution; spent sleepless nights watching for those who would harm him; was hungry and thirsty; was forced to fast because he had nothing; was cold, lacking clothing; all the while burdened with the care of other believers, empathizing with their struggles and dealing with the disappointment of their failures.
Could Paul have avoided all this unpleasantness? He probably could have worked his way around most of it. A smart guy like Paul could have come up with all sorts of options. Why didn’t he? Because, as he stated in Philippians 3:10, his determined purpose was to know God and experience God’s power to change him! And he understood how that worked, so he submitted to it. Paul learned how to go against the self-preservation and materialism that was his nature. He kept the dogs and hogs at bay.
The principle is found in II Corinthians 12:8-10. Paul had asked the Lord several times to meet a need and the Lord said, no. Imagine that. Then He told Paul why He wouldn’t grant the request. This is what He said, and what Paul’s response was to it.
"Three times I asked the Lord about this and begged Him to remove it. Then He said, the opportunity to experience My favor is enough, because My ability to change you is fulfilled in your need. Then I understood and rejoiced in my needs, knowing that the power of Christ was working in me. So now I know the needs, insults, problems and pressures that come from following Christ are necessary, because His power to change only comes when I have need."
In most translations you’ll find the ambiguous term "grace" where charis appears in verse 9 of the original text. I’ll not go into a lot of detail here, except to say that I’ve already explained in the earlier series of papers on grace and faith that when applied to God, grace is not simply undeserved favor, it is our opportunity to access His favor by submitting to His purpose. This passage just happens to be a great example of that, but it’s not one that I had chosen to use before this. The fact is, those who sit around wondering why God isn’t doing anything in their lives (or those who are desperately trying to make something up so others will think God is doing something) need to understand it’s because they’re so busy exercising their options God doesn’t have a chance to get involved. On the other hand, if they’d remember back when God was doing something, then they’d realize it was when they were faced with a need, a problem or some kind of stress. Do you get it? When we exercise our options, we separate ourselves from God’s grace!
The problem most people have, even if they’re seriously pursuing truth, is that they try to balance the truth God is trying to teach them with the life they’ve designed for themselves. And they can’t do it. They’re continually faced with decisions to either pursue the reality that He’s trying to show them or make excuses or look for justifications to chase their own plans and dreams or meet their own needs by exercising their options. Many eventually get exhausted from the conflict and give up. Their flesh (nature) was stronger than their determination to be obedient and experience reality. Of course, none of us coming out of religion were ready for the fact that reality was as difficult as it is. Religion didn’t prepare us for the difficulties involved in denying ourselves, taking up our cross and learning to follow Jesus' example.
In addition, also in verse 9, the word translated "strength" and then "power" in most translations is dunamis and is a reference to the inherent ability God has to change us in accordance with His plan and purpose. The connection that is made and that is so important to our discussion is the fact that this ability to change us is only activated when we submit to Him in our need.
And when you realize what Paul is saying here, it exposes the happy-go-lucky, religious, bless-me crowd for what they are, because he’s saying that he rejoices when he’s in trouble, when he has need, when there’s opposition and pressure. He knows that’s when God is going to show up. And not necessarily to give him what he wants or rescue him from the trouble, but to allow him to experience something that will change him in accordance with God’s plan for his life. When does the religious crowd rejoice? Every time they get what they want. Every time they figure out how to successfully stroke and manipulate the system they've devised. Every time they have the opportunity to display the trappings of worldly success. Let me reiterate. When we exercise our options, we separate ourselves from the opportunity to experience God and His purpose. And when we acknowledge our need to Him, we activate His power to change us.
Let’s go back to the words of Jesus. This is Luke 13:24. "Strive to enter in by the strait gate; many, I’m telling you, will try to enter but they will not be able." The word "strive" is agonizomai from which we get our English "agonize". It means, "to put forth whatever effort is necessary to obtain the prize or reach the goal". "Strait" is stenos, and means, "closed in with obstacles".
The context of Jesus’ statement here is an answer to the question asked Him in verse 23, "Lord, will only a few be delivered?" And the following would be a better representation of His response. "Put forth every effort necessary to force your way through the obstacles that would keep you from entering (into this deliverance); many, I’m telling you, will try to enter but will not be willing to do what they have to do." In other words, Jesus’ answer to the question was, yes, only a few will be delivered!
In Matthew 7:13-14 He expands on this imagery to make much the same point. "Enter through the strait gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are going there. But the gate is strait and the way is narrow that leads to life, and only a few find it." And to understand fully what Jesus is saying here we have to look at the 4 key words in these two verses: strait, narrow, wide and broad. We’ve already defined "strait".
"Narrow" is thlibo and is used to describe something that is pressed down or narrow due to the pressure being exerted upon it. It’s a word that’s used to illustrate pressure and stress. Here, thlibo is a perfect, passive participle, which means, it’s a verbal adjective in which the subject receives action that has been determined in the past but continues in the present – a picture of divine intervention. In other words, God determined in the past that pressure and stress would be necessary in the lives of believers to accomplish His plan of deliverance, so today He brings that pressure and stress to bear on those submitted to His purpose. The strait gate that’s full of obstacles and problems leads to the narrow way that’s full of pressure and stress. The gate (your focus, determination, priorities in life) leads you to the way (your lifestyle that rejects self-preservation and allows you to experience God and be changed). What Jesus says here is, there’s bad news, then there’s bad news. You enter into this life by facing obstacles and problems; this then leads you to a lifestyle characterized by pressure and stress.
That leaves us with the wide gate and broad way. "Wide" is plateia, and usually describes an open space or square, as in a town square. Here it’s used figuratively to illustrate a focus in life (gate) that has plenty of room to move around, giving one the ability to avoid the obstacles and problems that might come. "Broad" is euruchorus, normally used to describe something spacious. Again, this is figurative, illustrating a lifestyle that keeps all the options available to avoid the pressure and stress.
OK. The whole thing shakes out something like this. If your determination is to face obstacles and problems and endure pressure and stress, you’re one of the few who are on their way to life. If your determination is to try to avoid the obstacles and problems and make sure you have plenty of options to help you evade the pressures and stress, you’re one of the many who are on their way to destruction. Jesus’ advice is to face the obstacles and endure the stress. The wisdom of the world says you’re crazy if you don’t avoid everything you possibly can. Religion isn’t far behind; they’ll tell you that obstacles and pressures in your life are a sure indication you’re weak in faith, a second-class "Christian".
In Matthew 5:39-42 Jesus gives some practical advice on how to experience problems and pressures by refusing to exercise your options. He begins by saying, "Do not resist evil." Too many people, when faced with the word "evil" automatically think "devil" and conjure up visions of a cartoon character in red (is his skin red or is he wearing a red suit, surely he’s not buck naked, is he?), with little horns on his head, a tail with a little pointy thing on the end, a pitchfork in his hand and a sneer on his face. And their concept of the devil is as distorted as their concept of evil. Everything they think is good comes from God; everything they think is bad must come from the devil. Everything that conforms to their standards of morality is good; everything that violates their standards of morality is evil.
Evil has a broader connotation and is not limited to what the devil does or to what we think is bad. In the verse above "evil" is poneros and comes from the root word ponos, which is a word that can describe a variety of unpleasantness, such as pain, sorrow, toil or misery. What is evil may break the rules from man’s perspective (morality), or it may break the rules from God’s perspective (spirituality). It may simply be something that is seen to be harmful, injurious or even disastrous. And its source can be either God or the devil.
But one thing is clear: regardless of how you define it or where it comes from, Jesus says we’re not to resist it, but instead He wants us to learn to surrender to it. And that is exactly what He then sets out to explain in this passage with the following examples. "If someone hits you on the right side of your face, turn and let him hit you on the other side. If someone tries to take your shirt, give him your coat as well. And if someone makes you carry his load one mile, volunteer to carry it two. If someone is begging you to give him something (trying to take advantage of you), give it to him; and if someone wants to borrow from you, let him have what he wants (even if you have no expectation he will ever pay it back). The principle is easy enough to understand on its face, but it’s not at all easy to do. If you read between the lines here and consider some of the things we’ve already discussed, then you’ll understand what Jesus is saying here: if you resist exercising your options to avoid evil, the world will give you many opportunities to experience God.
One of the things I’ve learned about having a real relationship with God is that He insists on us having a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to this world’s evil and open to its scrutiny. He wants to make sure we suffer and make sacrifices in ways that others will notice and conclude are either unnecessary or downright crazy. It’s one of those realities I mention from time to time. This reality is that God expects us to be more concerned about what He thinks than we are about what the world thinks. It’s a point of loyalty, and He’ll make us prove it. And if He doesn’t, you have genuine cause for concern regarding the reality of your relationship with Him.
Now, there’s just one more passage I’d like to look at and I think it provides a good segue into the next paper on giving. This is Matthew 6:19-34, a portion of what is generally called Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
19. And don’t spend all your time trying to accumulate the material things this world has to offer. You think those things make your life secure, but they don’t. And they’re easier to lose than they are to get.
20. Instead, use your time to gather treasures in heaven. There, they’re protected, and you’ll be able to enjoy them through all eternity.
21. You must decide which is more important. You can’t have both. Material things only last as long as you live on this earth. But, spiritual treasures last forever. And this will always be true - the thing you invest your treasure in is the thing you really love the most.
22. If you understand what I’m saying, you’ll know what to do. And you’ll do the right thing.
23. But, if you don’t understand, you’re going to make a serious mistake. The time will come when you’ll realize you’ve made the wrong decision, but it will be too late to do anything about it. You’ll lose all your earthly treasures and have no time left to gather heavenly ones.
24. Don’t think you can do both, you can’t. It’s impossible to pursue God and all the things the world has to offer that make you feel secure. The pursuit of one will cause you avoid or neglect the other.
25. And, if you decide to pursue God, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or whether your clothes are the latest fashion. Because you’ll soon find out there are things much more satisfying than food and more important than clothing.
26. Look at the birds. They’re not worried about all those things. They’re content to just let the Father give them whatever they need. And, since it’s obvious that the Father takes care of the birds, why won’t you trust Him to take care of you? You must know that you’re more important to Him than birds.
27. And why should you worry about your appearance? The latest fashions don’t make you look any different. Don’t you understand you look the same to your father, regardless of what you’re wearing?
28. So why should you be concerned about clothing? Look at the wildflowers in the fields They don’t worry about such trivial things.
29. And yet, you must agree that even Solomon, when dressed in his finest, never looked as good.
30. Again, the Father can take care of the flowers, and He knows they live for only a short time and then they’re gone. He’s going to take even better care of you. Why can’t you trust Him?
31. So you never need to wonder, What am I going to eat? Or, What am I going to drink? Or, What am I going to wear?
32. Relax! Those are the questions people ask when they don’t know the real God. But your Heavenly Father knows full well that you need all of these things.
33. When you make the Kingdom of God the most important thing in your life, and become a living demonstration of the Father’s way of doing things right; then He will always make sure you have everything you need.
34. And by the way, don’t worry about tomorrow. It will come soon enough. And when it does, it will bring new challenges and opportunities for you to learn to trust your Heavenly Father. But for now, just concentrate on trusting Him to get you through the trouble you’re in today.
Now, I’ll just make a few comments and be done. The basic theme here is to reject self-preservation and materialism and concentrate on trusting God and experiencing Him. Jesus urges us to spend our time gathering heavenly wealth, instead of earthly wealth (verses 19, 20). He makes it clear that the thing we invest our time and energy and money in is, in fact, the thing that is most important to us (verse 21). He tells us if we understand this truth, then we’ll do what we need to do. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of living under the delusion we can do both (verses 22-24). Then He makes the point that those who worry about material things do so because they don’t know the reality of God, they only understand the ways of the world (verses 25-32). Then He talks about priority and the fact that if we make the pursuit of God the most important thing in our life, then the Father will make sure we have what we need (verse 33).
This brings me to His last point in verse 34. I separate it because I want to spend a little more time on this one. From reading some of my other papers, you may or may not be aware of the fact that I don’t write about anything until I have a basic understanding of it that has come out of my own experiences with God and I have taught it to the house churches that I oversee to gauge their reaction to it.
And so I can say with some confidence that when it comes to learning how to reject the ways of the world and how to trust God instead, there’s plenty of worry involved. Of all the things we have to deal with, the most difficult is the nagging thoughts that keep coming into our mind about what God might do or what He might require in the future. This is not an easy message. It runs counter to how we feel, what we want and what the world has taught us. This is frightening and sobering stuff. It’s a message that can paralyze some with fear and cause them to walk away, just like the rich, young ruler.
When God began to plant the beginnings of this message in me several years ago, the reality of it drove me to His presence. I couldn’t sleep. I needed reassurance. I was looking for a glimmer of hope. Every night when it was time to go to bed I looked for a dark, quiet spot where I could be alone with Him. I had begged God to show me truth and when He did it scared the living daylights out of me! And I worried a lot. How was I going to live? What were people going to think? What if God did this or that to me or my family? What horrible things were lurking in the shadows of the future?
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned my mother before; she had a saying for just about everything. I know I’ve used a lot of them in my writing. Here’s one now. When I was worrying about things (mostly "what ifs", you know, the things that aren’t real, but to a good worrier that distinction is blurred) the Lord "let me stew in my own juices" (one of her favorites). I was worried about how I was going to pay the bills next month (not even realizing they were paid this month). I worried about not having medical insurance for my wife and I and what would happen if one of us got really sick (but we weren’t sick and didn’t need anything). And on and on it went. You get the idea. I don’t need to tell you my life story.
And for a long time this went on and it just didn’t seem to change. The Lord just let me stew (do I smell something burning?). Where was God? Why wasn’t He doing anything? What about all those promises about Him knowing what I need? One of my solutions was for him to tell some total stranger to give me a bunch of money so I’d have it sitting in the bank and wouldn’t have to worry about my bills and could afford medical insurance and so on.
Then I began to realize that while I was worrying about everything in the future, God was taking care of me in the present. This is when I learned God is never found in the past, He never hides in the future, He only occupies the present. And the reality of this truth finally got beyond my head and made its way into my spirit, "Don’t worry about tomorrow, it will come soon enough. And when it does, it will bring new challenges and opportunities for you to learn to trust your Heavenly Father. But for now, just concentrate on trusting Him to get you through the trouble you’re in today." And I’ve learned that what we think we see in the future is never real and what we experience in the present is usually not that difficult if we keep our eyes on Him.
And I’m learning that my Heavenly Father knows what I can handle and He knows what I need. I don’t have to worry about the past or concern myself with the future. I get up every day and take it a day at a time. And when trouble comes, I don’t try to avoid it, I surrender to it and trust Him to take me through it. And when I do, it doesn’t seem all that troubling. I haven’t experienced near what Paul did so I can’t say this with the conviction he had, but it’s in my heart and I yearn for the full reality of it in my life.
"I’m ready for anything through Christ Who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)