Worthless pursuits


I’ve been thinking about ‘internet idolatry’ lately and Proverbs 28:19 speaks well to this:

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
(Proverbs 28:19)

Obviously I do not consider all internet use to be a worthless pursuit or this blog would not exist! What is wasting time for me could be part of your job. The mass of information out there is not the problem, the real issue is how we interact with all that internet content. Most of us know only too well the ways in which our use of the internet can amount to a complete waste of time.

So, is your use of the internet using up time that you should be using for other things? This could be more productive use of study time, or at school, or at work or even your personal time. I would also expand the ‘productive use of time’ to include the work of walking faithfully in Christ. The ‘plenty of poverty‘ of Proverbs 28:19 does not only mean a lack of money. Mark 8:36-37 and Revelation 3:17 show that we can have lots of stuff yet have an impoverished soul and a tenuous relationship with Christ.

It is easy enough to stay off YouTube and Facebook at work when your paycheck depends upon it. What about at home when it would be better for your soul to be reading your Bible or (heaven forbid!) praying? Or the time I spend catching up on blog feeds and email when my wife and children would like to relate to me rather than the lid of my laptop?

We reap what we sow. If we follow worthless pursuits we will reap rottenness. If we work on the health of our souls in Christ we will reap eternal life.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8 ESV)

Are there any worthless pursuits (internet-based or otherwise) in your life that you should replace with something of more lasting benefit?

The laser-guided Word

I’m generally not enthusiastic about daily devotionals, the idea of someone else’s predigested thoughts on a scripture passage as a substitute for getting it straight from the source doesn’t appeal to me (yes, I do see the irony!).

However, last night while trying to rouse myself from a somnolent state on the sofa to actually go to bed, I flipped through a freebie devotional that had turned up in the mail. Since it was for next month I couldn’t even look up the devo of the day so was just randomly browsing.

The intriguing thing is that despite disagreeing with the emphasis given by the author of the devotional, God convicted me through the scripture passages included in several readings. This is a reminder of the power of God’s Word and that whereas what I write is just words on a page, the words of God are living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

It is not hard to understand why this is so, nobody knows me as well as God does — even my own heart deceives me (1 Corinthians 2:10-11, Jeremiah 17:9). As I read pages of words God knows better than me where I need reproof or rebuke (2 Timothy 3:16, and 2 Tim 4:2), so out of perhaps thousands of words He can easily sharpen my attention upon the 10 or so of His that are appropriate to effect His purposes in me (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Blog envy

Even if you think blogs are boring, this guy has some good stuff to say about covetousness:

Trevin Wax talking about covetousness in blogging at the 2010 Band of Bloggers meeting at the T4G conference. (The internet is breaking! Here is the text of what Trevin Wax said)

Covetousness is desiring something beyond what God has given me. At its core such desire is a challenge to God’s sovereign control over my life. I am saying that I think I know better than Him what is best for me to have. So I make an idol of whatever I covet and proudly challenge God all in one desirous moment.

The very scary thing about such a situation is that it is so similar to how our arch-enemy, Satan, fell (Isaiah 14:13). It is also exactly how Adam fell (Genesis 3:6). In both cases they were cast out of God’s presence and so too will I be if I nurture a covetous heart.

Is Jesus interesting enough?

Jared Wilson at Band of Bloggers

The Band of Bloggers is a group of Christian folks who write blogs and get together for a workshop every second year at the Together for the Gospel conferences. Jared Wilson comments in this short video about maintaining integrity between the life we live online and the life we live in the real world. He also makes to bold statement that having an online identity, or a ministry, online which has no foundation in the real world would make us a fake.

His key point is that we need to blog about the gospel, not about how to make the gospel central, but simply to write about Jesus, who He is, what He is to us. I was very encouraged by this because that is the focus I try to maintain on this blog (see True, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy).

Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator of the universe – if He cannot blow our minds with His glory and newness and innovation and sheer brilliance then we really do have stony hearts. I can understand that people who are not Christians cannot see the appeal in Christ, but for Christians to miss it and prefer the gadgets, glamour and glitz of the world is a symptom of serious sickness in our hearts.

Are we a fruitless vine?

Yesterday morning I read Jeremiah 8:8-13, which describes how the teachers of Judah had twisted and distorted God’s word to serve their own purposes. In Jeremiah 8:13 God finds no fruit on His vine (Israel) and so it is cast onto the scrap heap (John 15:1-7). Given that I preach in church and write a blog which claims to be about God’s Word, I take passages such as this seriously.

Later in the day I listened to Al Mohler’s message ‘How Does It Happen?‘ from the 2010 T4G conference last week in which he talks about how church leaders can slide into preaching ‘a different gospel’ which is not really the gospel at all. It is scary to consider how some brilliant people have reasoned themselves out of faith in Christ and trusting in the Bible as God’s revealed Word (see Galatians 1:6-7).

Also yesterday, I left a comment on a blog with the question that has been on my heart a lot lately; Why is the church dying in the western world?

I think the question is answered by what God caused me to interact with during the day — Paul exhorted Timothy to continue in what he had learned and firmly believed, the Scriptures that are able to make us wise for salvation through Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:14-17). If I want to be one who builds the Church up rather than tearing it down I also need to do my best to be a worker who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

Real faith, terrifyingly fragile

Sermon delivered on Sunday 18 April, 2010

The book of Romans was written to a church comprising both Gentile and Jewish believers. In the opening chapters of this book Paul addresses these two groups in such a way as to point out why they both need the salvation that is by faith in Christ, and why it is that nothing aside from faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation.

Romans 2:17-29 (The Message)
If you’re brought up Jewish, don’t assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you’re an insider to God’s revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! I have a special word of caution for you who are sure that you have it all together yourselves and, because you know God’s revealed Word inside and out, feel qualified to guide others through their blind alleys and dark nights and confused emotions to God. While you are guiding others, who is going to guide you? I’m quite serious. While preaching “Don’t steal!” are you going to rob people blind? Who would suspect you? The same with adultery. The same with idolatry. You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, “It’s because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God,” shows it’s an old problem that isn’t going to go away.

Circumcision, the surgical ritual that marks you as a Jew, is great if you live in accord with God’s law. But if you don’t, it’s worse than not being circumcised. The reverse is also true: The uncircumcised who keep God’s ways are as good as the circumcised—in fact, better. Better to keep God’s law uncircumcised than break it circumcised. Don’t you see: It’s not the cut of a knife that makes a Jew. You become a Jew by who you are. It’s the mark of God on your heart, not of a knife on your skin, that makes a Jew. And recognition comes from God, not legalistic critics.

In a nutshell, this passage is destroying the argument that Jews would put forward that they are exempt from judgement because they have the inheritance from Abraham and the Law and prophets. Apparently it was a common belief among Jews that they would not come under judgement because of their being God’s chosen people (which I find staggering even with my limited knowledge of Jewish history!).

First Paul attacks their trust in the law, claiming that they are breaking the law and so bringing God’s name into disrepute. He uses a series of questions focusing on the second, seventh and eighth commandments of the Decalogue. It seems that he is not so much trying to prove guilt for specific sins (in which case he would likely have used specific examples, there were probably plenty), but that he is simply showing that contrary to the ‘doers of the law’ described in Romans 2:13-15, it was usual for Jews to rely on possessing the law as exempting them from judgement. His reference to the secrets of men in Romans 2:16 implies that all Jews will know secretly that they do not fully keep the law.

Paul then moves on to address the sign of the old covenant – circumcision. This was the sign given to Abraham to show that he would be exceedingly fruitful, would be the father of many nations and that Abraham and his offspring would inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:6-10). Any Israelite male who was not circumcised was to be cut off from the inheritance of God’s people.

Because it was the sign of the covenant, and because it was performed at eight days of age (Genesis 17:12), every boy born into a Jewish family was automatically circumcised. It was effectively a personal membership badge for God’s chosen people.

Consider what Paul has been saying about the state of the heart in Romans 2:15 and then what he says in verse 29:

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:29 ESV)

Romans 2:28-29 is actually terrible news for any law-abiding Jew because what Paul is describing, namely the heart condition of a true Jew, is impossible to attain. Whereas a mark in the flesh of a Jewish male is an easy thing if your parents were Jewish and followed the accepted ritual when you were 8 days old.

So we have a warning that the outward sign of the covenant is worthless if the people of God are not keeping the commandments of God form a pure heart. What counts before God is a heart intent upon obeying Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). With man this is impossible (Matthew 19:26).

Obviously we have already read ahead in the book enough to know that God has made the impossible possible – He has provided a Way through whom we can gain access to God and has made us new, as is stated in Galatians 6:15:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

This new creation is what was promised 600 years earlier by Ezekiel:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27 ESV)

This is what we have experienced through the new birth made possible by faith in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, our hearts transformed and God has put His Spirit within us as to help us and as a guarantee of the redemption to come (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Yet, I find that I still sin! Despite God’s Holy Spirit within me and a new heart, I struggle with weakness and sin every day. I read verses such as Romans 6:11:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

And realize that I fall way short of living consistently out of a heart devoted to Christ, I am much more like the man in Romans 7:18-20:

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

At times like this I find myself feeling weak and needing help to remind me of my standing in Christ, my promise to follow Him with all my heart, and the need to die to my old nature. Something like a sign in my body would perhaps help as a constant reminder to walk in holiness before God would it not?

Oddly enough, as gentile believers we are at risk of the Galatian error: seeking outward signs of what, by faith, Christ has done in us. It happens in various ways, church buildings are an obvious one, wearing cross pendants is another. There are bumper stickers, T-shirts and WWJD bracelets. On a more subtle level there is the underlined verses, dates, notes and various bits of paper we stuff our bibles with as reminders of significant incidents in our Christian life.

I am NOT saying that any of these are innately wrong, it is just worth being aware of what they can become – a substitute for an ongoing walk of faith in Christ. This would happen if we were to look at the sign of something God had done in the past and trust in that as proof of our salvation rather than trusting in Christ alone right now as the only ground for being justified before God.

As an example, I have something like a very permanent WWJD bracelet on my arm – 13 years ago I got a tattoo in the likeness of a crown of thorns engraved on my right arm as a reminder to myself that I am nothing apart from Christ. At the time that seemed like a good way to remind myself that I am in the world but not of it, and I’m sure the fact that tattoos were becoming increasingly trendy around that time was also a factor! (Which sort of contradicts the idea of not being ‘of the world’ doesn’t it – at age 27 I was just as blinded by the world as I am now.)

So I got the tattoo, and for a few weeks it was a sharp reminder of Christ as it itched on my arm.

What I didn’t realize is that having such a sign in my flesh could also be a lie, my intention was to remind myself that I belong to Christ and so have died to myself and sin, yet I continued to sin. So in the end the mark on my skin actually become a symbol of hypocrisy – what should have been a sign helping me remain faithful to Christ ended up as a testimony to my faithlessness, proving that even within days I was still a sinner who disobeyed God despite an outward statement to the contrary. This is why I don’t tell anyone it is a sign of my faith in Christ or even think of it that way myself anymore. It is just a mark on my skin.

What makes this story even more ludicrous is that four years prior to getting the tattoo I had an experience in which God made me acutely aware of the nature of faith, the ongoing gift that faith is from God.

I was experiencing a very low point in my life, feeling lonely, stressed and depressed. Some elements of the Christian life that I had relied on as essential to my faith had been smashed out from under me and frankly I didn’t really want to be a Christian anymore, the cost seemed too high and what the world had to offer seemed more attractive. The only thing keeping me from throwing my Christian convictions away was fear: if God actually was real then so also was hell and Satan and demons and I was really scared of the idea of all of those.

I distinctly remember praying, or complaining, to God that there was nothing supporting my faith – it looked set to crumble at any moment and I was desperately afraid that it would indeed fail. At that time I received one of the very few immediate and direct answers I have ever gotten from God: It was as though God replied that this is the very nature of faith, simple trust in Christ without any grounds in myself for being able to trust in Him. By nature my faith will always feel terrifyingly fragile because there is nothing in me to merit God’s approval, I am utterly at the mercy of Jesus and come to Him based on His promises, nothing else.

In a sense, the weakness of my faith, my fear that it would be non-existent tomorrow and my pleading with Jesus to not let me fall was proof that it was actually faith in Him. In this small way, I can see what Paul is meaning that “when I am weak, then I am strong” ( 2 Corinthians 12:10). I cannot trust in myself in any way, not even with constant reminders to live a holy life, because my only hope is in Christ. Any ‘outward sign’ will always become a stumbling block because it will draw me to trust in it rather than in Christ alone.

So my challenge to you all is to face your fears and be weak. Let your strengths fade away, discard any crutch that convinces you that, ‘you are a good Christian because…’. Being a good Christian is not worth having, being Christ’s is worth losing all else to gain, as Paul so eloquently states in Philippians:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (Philippians 3:8-9).

God as a jam baron

Perhaps it was the raspberry jam on my toast that caused Jeremiah 6:20 to stick with me this morning.

While waiting for my toast to pop I had glanced at the jar of Woolworths jam I was about to use and noticed ‘Made in Denmark’ proudly displayed on the label. Which got me thinking about distance to markets, carbon footprints and how stupid economics is…

… Oh, and that although we grow plenty of raspberries in New Zealand, we would still have to import sugar from Australia or Fiji to make jam.

Then I read chapter 6 of Jeremiah while eating my toast. With jam on my face and still on my mind I considered the price of sugar (see Jer 6:20). Even though it keeps increasing, it is still cheap for us in this age and no doubt even cheaper if you purchase it by the tonne to manufacture jam.

Imagine me taking a cup of sugar to the jam factory and donating it to them as an act of appreciation for their excellent product. What would they say? Well, once they stopped laughing, would they not tell me that the best way to show my appreciation is to buy and use their jam and tell others how good it is? (Consider Isaiah 55:1-2 and Matthew 28:19-20).

Sometimes we are like the people of ancient Jerusalem, we attempt to show off to God, going to great lengths to offer Him stuff or church programmes or our best talents when these are truly trivial things to Him. Meanwhile, He is saying, “Why won’t you just do as I told you to?” (John 14:15 and John 15:12).

100 iPod free days

I made a resolution yesterday. I was considering how I use my iPod to fill in odd snippets of time such as waiting for the bus, walking the dogs or doing odd jobs around home, and realized how little time I leave without external input into my thoughts. So I have resolved to go without my iPod for 100 days. I will not carry it with me during this time and will only use it docked to the speakers in our kitchen. This should free my mind to think, pray, memorize and meditate.

This resolution is not because I think iPods/personal MP3 players are bad, I actually think they can be an excellent tool in fighting for faith by choosing listening material which will build you up. I was greatly helped by listening to John Piper’s sermon series on the book of Romans while walking to and from work over the space of a year. However, lately I have been perceiving a distractability and lack of depth to my own thought processes so am looking for constructive ways to address this.

I have chosen 100 days because it is a nice round number, it is long enough to get beyond the ‘novelty factor’ and is hopefully long enough to develop a change in my thinking habits. I am confident that God will fill this time with growth, what I most need is the discipline to focus my mind and heart upon Christ.

Forced to think by lack of a little rubber thingy

I took the dogs for a walk this afternoon, anticipating listening to my iPod while puffing up Signal Hill. However, when I pulled said device from my pocket it was missing one of the little rubber things that make the ‘in-ear’ earbuds fit properly so I could not listen to my music or a podcast.

It seemed a bit pathetic for such minor defect could make a high tech gadget practically useless to me at that moment, but there was not much for it but to walk on with my own thoughts as company rather than those of somebody else being broadcast into my head. So I got some thinking time:

  • I thought about how technology lets us down, like the broken reed that Egypt was to Israel (2 Kings 18:21).
  • I listened to scrunching gravel under my feet.
  • I thought about an update released yesterday for a computer game I like, and about how many hours I have already wasted on that game.
  • I listened to the panting of my dog as he chased the pine cone I was kicking for him.
  • I thought about the book I recently read which claims to show signs that the end of the world is near.
  • I heard the cacophony of thoughts in my head.
  • I thought about friends and thanked God for them.
  • I listened to the faint background of dissatisfaction in my heart.
  • I thought about technology as a tool and realized how absurd it is to let the tool constrain the creativity of its user.
  • I listened to light rain falling on me (and my notebook).
  • I thought about how reliant I have become upon having the words of others spoken to me at the touch of a click wheel.
  • I listened to the wind blowing in the trees (see John 3:8).
  • My heart reveled in its freedom to think it’s own thoughts. I even prayed. I thanked God for taking away my crutch and making me talk to Him.

After all this I made a resolution, which I will tell you about tomorrow!

Why do you work?

For most of us, to ask why we work amounts to a pretty stupid question because the answer is obvious – we work to get paid so we can buy food, clothes, pay for somewhere to live and pay the bills. Very few have so much money that they don’t need to work.

This rather mundane, pragmatic take on work is also biblical; Paul tells us that if anyone is not prepared to work they should not expect to be fed and we are to do honest work to provide for ourselves and our dependents (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, Ephesians 4:28, and 1 Timothy 5:8). We are also called to put a full effort into the work we do, the admonition of Colossians 3:23-24 indicating that half-hearted work efforts and procrastination have been around for a very long time!

I find this pragmatic view of work in the Bible to be a relief in comparison to the currently popular ideals portrayed by ‘career experts’ pushing ideas such as: “A person’s worth is often measured by the career success or failings“. There is often an assumption that you can find a job which is a perfect (or at least near-perfect) match for your skills, experience and personal motivations. Yet for most of us the whole career experience is more like the verb: move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way in a specified direction (i.e., down the dirt track of our lives in the rickety go-kart of our employability!). Very few people have any real ability to actually plan their career, the rest of us take the best job available at the time we are needing one.

In contrast, the Bible teaches that work is ordained by God (Genesis 2:15) and so is a necessary part of life but it has also been tainted with futility by the fall (Genesis 3:17-19, Romans 8:20), meaning that we will always have bad days on the job when nothing goes as we would wish. Certainly there is a lot of choice available in jobs now, but the ideal job for you (or me) simply does not exist because we are sinful and so will bring sinful attitudes or behaviours to our work, and the work itself is subject to the curse of futility so will frustrate us sooner or later.

Therefore, after a crap day at work when you might wonder if you have missed your life’s calling, relax. If you have put in a day’s work and were paid for it this strongly indicates that you are in fact living up to your calling in Christ so far as work goes.