Identity and Freedom

Paul has a very interesting way of framing the idea of freedom. He talks about it a lot but specifically in Romans Romans 6:18-20. This is just verse 148 but you should go read the whole thingDo you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In the Roman world where Paul lived if you were a slave, you had no personality. There was even a special phrase for this idea: Servus non habet personam. A slave had no past, no future, no property of their own, no family name, and no personhood. They were just property. It was possible to buy your freedom but that was typically not until you were old enough to not be of any value to your master. Some were treated better than others but they were still slaves. If you were a slave, you wanted freedom but generally, there was little to no hope of obtaining it. You were personless property. You did not belong to yourself. That is the idea behind the meaning of what Paul talks about when he talks about being a slave.

With that in mind, we can add in that Paul says we are either in Christ or in Adam. It’s a clear either-or scenario.  There is no in-between we are either in Christ (sometimes called Spirit) or we are in Adam (sometimes called the flesh). You cannot be in both. This is important because Paul is framing an argument throughout all of his writing that says we exist as slaves one way or the other. The question is who the master is. What is unique is that Paul says we get to choose our master. Now by default, the master is sin or flesh.

Before Christ we were slaves to sin, we were slaves to our sin nature. We belonged to it. Sin was not something that we did as much as it was part of who we were. It owned us. We had no identity outside of it. Some of us embraced that more than others but true to the reality of the situation we all belonged to sin. Our natural default position was self-focused. Being controlled by sin means you are free from the requirements of righteousness. You belong to one master and do not need to listen to the other.

After you come to Christ the whole thing changes. We move from this position of self-focused to Christ and Spirit focused. We transition from one master to another. It’s like the old Bob Dylan song Gotta Serve Somebody says “yes Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody, Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody” and yes I just quoted Bob Dylan while talking about the Bible. You don’t get a choice in whether or not you serve but you do get to choose whom you serve.

When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior, we chose to serve Him, that’s the Lord part of the equation. We now not only have the power to stop being self-focused, but we have new requirements for service. Before when we served the sin nature the requirements were to do what feels good. Do what you want. Lookout for you. Now we are bound to the requirements of righteousness. That means we are outward and upward focused. We are called to seek the kingdom of God and let Him rule and reign in our lives here and now. We are called to walk as Jesus walked. We are called to love the Lord God with all of being and love one another.

The amazing thing is that as slaves of righteousness we are also adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High. We are no longer just slaves and servants but children who are promised an inheritance. We get something we did not have before. We get a future.  We get personhood. With the change in masters comes a change in identity. This is an amazing and glorious thing. We went from slaves with nothing to servants who are adopted by God. But that is not cause for bragging. On the contrary that is a call to surrender. In Philippians 2:6, speaking of Christ, Paul writes that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to used to His own advantage. Instead Jesus, fully understanding who He was laid down His rights and served.

That is our call. We are called to now understand our rights and lay them down. We say, yes, I am a child of God, and yes, I will one day see heaven but until then I have work to do. We place ourselves under the authority of Christ and do like He did. We submit ourselves and find our identity in God just as Christ did. We do not use our freedom for our own good but seek ways to serve and love one another. When we do this, we can rejoice that we truly know who we are.

We need to understand our identity and when we do, we can go out and do the things of God and for God without fear and with less hurt because we know who we are. We can move from a position of being a child and serving as obedient slaves and servants.

Just a thought,

Mike

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Looking for the right reward

Daniel 3:16-18 The Message (MSG)

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar, “Your threat means nothing to us. If you throw us in the fire, the God we serve can rescue us from your roaring furnace and anything else you might cook up, O king. But even if he doesn’t, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference, O king. We still wouldn’t serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up.”

One of the amazing things about the Bible is that there is more there than is at first visible. This is one of the reasons we can read the Bible so many times and find something new each time. One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Augustine who said, “The Bible is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.” What that means is there are layers of depth in the Word of God. It has surface meanings and deeper meanings. It has what was said to the original audience and then it has things that can be applied to our situation today. It stands the test of time and breaths live into every new generation.

I was rereading the verses above recently and it struck me that there is a larger principle at work. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego they made a choice to follow God regardless of the consequences. They said no matter what the cost we will not bow down and serve false gods. But the larger principle is that when you are doing what you know is right and what God would have you do there are obstacles. This is partly because life just has obstacles.

Life is just hard sometimes. Sometimes life is hard because we are dumb and make dumb choices. We sin, we make mistakes, we get it wrong. Sometimes life is hard because we make it hard. Other times life is hard because we live in a broken and fallen world. As Christians, we believe that the kingdom of God has come but we live in this tension of the now and not yet reality of the kingdom. We live in a tension of belonging to the kingdom of God and being Christ’s ambassadors but being here on earth. That is hard and causes tension.

This is also partly because sometimes doing God’s will is hard. Doing God’s will is hard sometimes because we might not like it. We find that Paul’s words ring true when he says, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” So sometimes the difficulty comes in obeying despite ourselves. We like to blame the devil but sometimes we are own worst enemy. However, there is a real enemy and he has many servants. So sometimes life is hard because there is opposition to serving God. Whether it be people or spiritual forces there are things that come against us. We must understand this, and we must acknowledge that this a reality.

In the end, we have options in the face of that adversity. We can shrink back and surrender, or we can stand and say, “my God will rescue me, but even if He doesn’t, I will still serve Him.” Our faith must be strong enough to say I will serve God and He will rescue me. I trust completely God in this situation to come to my aide and deliver me. We must look past the circumstance and the situation and move forward in faith when we know we are obeying God’s will. We also have to be willing to admit that we are not God and if He does not come in the way we want, we have to be secure enough in Him to still serve. Service to God cannot be about the reward or the deliverance. Yes, He is a God who rewards and delivers but God told Abraham that He (God) was Abrahams great and mighty reward. God, Himself is the ultimate reward and goal. In the end, this means our service and faith must be grounded in God Himself and not our desires or wants.

Just a thought,

Mike

Expert Status…

I have heard that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert. That is a lot of hours. To put it into perspective if you wanted to become an expert at guitar or piano and played for 4 hours every day it would take 2,500 days to be an expert. That is almost 7 years to reach expert status. That is no breaks, no sick days, and no vacations. 4 hours every day for almost 7 years. That also does not take into account everything you need to learn to practice the new stuff. Things like reading up on new chords, scales, or whatever. Obviously, I am not an expert (I cannot even play). But I think we get the picture. Expert status takes a drive, dedication, determination, and time. It does not happen overnight. But why am I talking about becoming an expert at playing an instrument? I am not, I just wanted to put the idea in perspective.

I do want to talk about becoming expert Christians. More specifically what it means for you to be an expert in your walk with Christ. I say your walk because each one of us should be striving for expert status in our walk with Christ. We should be the foremost leading expert (besides God Himself) on all things pertaining to our walk with Christ. If we use the 10,000-hour rule as a guide we can add in the things we are actually doing to practice our walk and see when we can expect to reach expert status.

My initial thought was “I always have the Holy Spirit in me so subtract sleep and divide.” WOW, that was simple – 588 days or 1.6 years. But then I found a problem. I don’t remember being an expert in my walk with Christ all those years ago. In fact, I am still learning things.

The Bible is not silent on this 2 Corinthians 8:7, for example, says that we should “excel in everything—faith, speech, knowledge.” So it seems clear that we cannot become an expert just by existing as Christians. That would be nice but it does not seem to actually work. Well, maybe it makes a good hypocrite but that’s another story…

Instead, I want to offer three categories that I think we need to practice to help reach expert status. Also, I am going to keep the bad/good news for the end.

First up is obedience because I think a lot of the things we are supposed to practice fall into the obedience category. Giving, for example, is about obedience. Serving is another item that deals with obedience. Come to think of it the Bible is so insistent on obedience that it says that obedience is better than sacrifice. It also Jesus was obedient to the point of death. Obedience is like John says “walking as He (Jesus) walked.” That means obedience is pretty high up on the list of things to practice. So how much obedience do we need to do to reach our 10,000 hours? My guess is roughly 10,000 hours. Yeah, I don’t think we can split this one up. Sorry, it is a one for one ratio on obedience. So let’s make the math simple and say that overall each obedient act counts as one hour because some are longer and some much shorter. We only need 10,000 acts of obedience. That’s really not too bad. If we do one obedient act a day we can become experts in 27 years. But there is a problem.

The problem is it is not just about obedience. There are two other major categories and the next one is discipleship. I thought about maybe putting this one with obedience but Jesus was pretty insistent on this one thing before He ascended back to heaven so I think it should get its own practice hours. Mind you this is not evangelism. You cannot just say well I told 10,000 people so I met my hours. Sorry, wrong answer. Discipleship is taking time to invest in the spiritual formation and maturity of other believers. Discipleship is about being involved in other peoples lives and allowing them to be involved in yours. It is a process and as such, it takes time to complete these hours. So the question – what’s the ratio. Come on Mike how many hours of discipleship do I need to complete to reach expert status? Well, let’s keep this train rolling and say it’s one-to-one. So 10,000 hours or one hour a day or 27 years of discipling others and you have your hours. Again that is no breaks, vacations, or time off. But still, it’s a number.

Lastly, we come to prayer. Prayer is time between you and God. Paul says we should be praying always so there is a good reason to pray. The Bible is full of commands to pray, examples about prayer, stories of God hearing prayers. Jesus even taught the 12 to pray. I would suggest that not only is prayer a big deal it is a progressive act. The more we pray the more we need to pray. The more focused and disciplined our prayers become the more focus and discipline they need to be for us. One of my favorite passages on prayer is when Jesus says that we should keep asking, keep knocking, and keep seeking. I find that very confusing and very exciting. We have to continue to pray. In the beginning, only praying I want prayers is OK. Nothing wrong with that. It is like learning to walk and holding onto the couch or learning to ride a bike with training wheels. It is perfectly OK. But at some point, our prayers need to shift into something deeper. Something more intimate. Our prayer life reflects our spiritual maturity. So can you guess what the ratio is? Go ahead guess… That’s right it’s one-to-one. You might be thinking that this is an easy one right but the problem is the more you pray the more God delights in you and the more He refines you. The more you pray and grow in prayer the deeper your intimacy with Him becomes. The number might as well be 6 billon because the more you pray the more you become dependent on God. Besides, do you feel you have given 10,000 hours of prayer?

In the end, at best we can become experts at what it means for us to be a Christian in 27 years if we practice every single day. No breaks, no vacations, no sick days. This is nearly impossible. Nearly. The joyful thing is that the journey is part of the process. Learning what it means to be obedient, helping others in their walk with Christ, praying and leaning into the Father is the Christian life. That is what it is about. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians that was written towards the end of his life that he had not reached the goal of being fully mature or an expert but that he is pushing forward towards the goal. We keep moving forward and driving towards the end goal of maturity in Christ.

Just a thought,

Mike

Obedience and the Mundane

It seems to me that obedience is found in the mundane and the small things. If we cannot be obedient in the day to day and the little things, then how can we expect to be obedient in the big things? Jesus seems to think so too. In Luke 16:10 He says that whoever is trusted with little can be trusted with much and that makes sense when you think about it. If you cannot handle being obedient with the day to day how can you be trusted with something that requires more of you?

Part of the problem is that daily obedience is hard. Not just because it requires you to keep it up but because there is no applause for daily obedience. I mean we have social media where we can broadcast our obedience, but nobody really cares. You might get some likes, some hearts, maybe a few comments but in reality, it really just doesn’t matter to people. I don’t think it should either and I am just as guilty as anyone else. We want to be seen for our obedience in the mundane and small, but truth be told we should only care that we are being obedient. Not because we want to be trusted with more but so that we are being obedient. If we are only chasing more, we miss something beautiful. We miss the joy of obedience.

There is a joy that comes in mundane obedience because it connects us to the heart of God. When we are obedient to God in the day to day, we get closer to God. When we go about our day doing what is right because it is right, He is present. God tells Abraham that He is Abrahams great and mighty reward. The relationship with God and God Himself is the reward. By being obedient to what God has called us to right now we are looking for Him to be our reward. It’s not glamorous or flashy but it is intimate and that is much better. Sure, we can be open to more. Joseph never stopped wanting to be free, but he was still obedient in the mundane.

Obedience does not mean you pretend either. Be honest with God when you want something different but obedient anyway. If it is hard, tell God it is hard but be obedient anyway. If it scary tell God it is scary, but be obedient anyway. The more you are honest with God the more you draw near to Him and Him to you. Obedience is not about being a mindless zombie but about doing the right thing and drawing close to God when you do it. Mundane obedience is not the most fun you will have but it is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Just a thought,

Mike