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Posts Tagged ‘Bible Study’

Some lessons in life can only be learned by personal experience. Others can tell you about them, teach you them, help you study to be prepared for them and even explain them.  However, the only way for a person to learn to ride a bike is to one day get on it and try to ride it.  The only way a person is going to learn to drive a car is actually get behind the wheel of one and take it around town.  Nothing prepares one for these lessons but personal experience.

Sometimes it is that way with our spiritual journeys too. There are some things about our relationship with the Creator that can only be learned by personal engagement and interaction.  We will never learn them vicariously through someone else’s experiences.  No Bible study or theological lesson can fully prepare us or help us appreciate certain aspects of the journey unless we experience them for ourselves.

One of the benefits of certain renewal movements within the Church has been an emphasis upon personal experience. While it should never trump Scriptural revelation, there is something certainly powerful about personal revelation into the nature and character of God.  After all, someone can go on all they want about the power and beauty of standing on a mountain peak.  But personally standing there and experiencing the exhilaration is something quite different all together.

Some of us have to trust the pictures, stories, and experiences shared by others. On the other hand, some of us get to experience it for ourselves.  We become a part of sharing the story.

I grew up with a Christian religious background that cherished personal experiences with God. It was one thing to have personal knowledge of God.  Our sect took, and continues to take in most circles, great pride in personal experiences.  So, it has been no surprise to me when God in certain seasons of my life has “showed up” in ways that surprised and delighted me.

In my early spiritual formation, I attended a Bible College in Kirkland, Washington, now called Northwest University, after High School. There I shaped and honed spiritual disciplines that still guide me today.  Aside from the general education courses and Bible or theology courses, the opportunity to discover my own spiritual stride for my journey greatly informed my future.

The Winter quarter of my freshman year, I learned from the College’s financial aide office that I would not be allowed to return for the Spring quarter because of my outstanding bills. I owed more than $1,200.  I would need to pay that balance before I could continue to attend.

At the time, I was working at an Exxon gas station in Totem Lake, Washington. The owners were two brothers who were really nice.  They were not Christians but nevertheless hired guys from the Bible College because we all were honest and had a good work ethic.  I appreciated the job, but it just was not enough to keep ahead of my school bills.  I was going to have to inform them that I would have to quit my job as well as school and return home to where my parents lived near Sea-Tac.

The school had given me notice at mid-quarter, so I figured I had a couple of weeks ‘to see what would happen.’ I am not sure what I was expecting would happen, but I have always tried to keep an optimistic outlook.  So, I continued classes determined that I would at least finish that quarter.  If worse came to worse, then I would find work from home and possibly come back for the Fall quarter.

In the mean time, I had started the practice of scheduling one of my class-time slots on my schedule for a time of prayer and reflection in the Men’s Dorm Prayer Chapel. I found it helped me keep a regular schedule for prayer.  I also found the quiet time in the Chapel refreshing.  So, during this time, I added my dilemma about school, paying my school bill and what to do about my job to my list of prayer needs.

As the quarter wound down, my prayer times grew a little more desperate. I may have been the uncertainty of my future, but I found myself praying more intense and intentional prayers.  After all, I needed direction.  I needed answers.  I needed help!

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010

Fall Colors in the Mountains, Roslyn, Washington, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It finally came to the point where I needed to do the right thing by my employers and give them my “two weeks notice.” This is a kindness of employees to employers that allows them time to find another employee to replace them and so not disrupt the work place.  I planned on giving notice on a Friday.  At the beginning of the week, on a Monday morning in the Men’s Dormitory Prayer Chapel, I offered God another chance to throw out a rope and rescue me.  Otherwise, I was determined to see it as a closed door.  I was even strongly considering not coming back to college.  I was second guessing everything.

I was perhaps exhausted from struggling with the whole situation in my mind. The stress of the unknown and uncertain weighed heavily down upon me like a 110 lb. sack of sand.  It was in this state that I dumped everything upon the prayer bench in the prayer chapel.  I had no answers, no direction, and seemingly no help.

After expending all my words and thoughts, I fell silent. The room echoed my silence back to me.  My head rested on the prayer bench as I sat upon the floor with my eyes closed tight.

There was nothing. Nothing came to mind.  No brilliant idea.  No flash of inspiration.

Suddenly, I heard a voice speak audibly, “You’ll be here next quarter.”

I opened my eyes started and looked around because I thought that I was alone.  There was no one in the room with me.  Yet, the voice was clear and unmistakable.  I blinked in the dimly lit room.

The words bounced around in my head:You’ll be here next quarter.”  With those words, an unexplained settledness sent upon me.  A certainty about my future filled my heart.  Someway, somehow, I knew without a shadow of any doubt that I would most definitely be at school next quarter.  I took the words only I heard and the feeling only I felt as a gift from God.

I got up and went to get ready for my next class. I had to go to my room to gather a couple of books.  When I entered my room, my roommate was there.  Do I tell him what I just experienced?

As if on cue he asked, “Hey, have you figured out what you’re going to do for next quarter?”

Shaken, I replied, “I’m not sure yet.  Why?”

He looked a little anxious, “Well, I may have another roommate lined up.  That’s all.  If you’re not going to be here that is.”

With as determined a look as I could give him I said emphatically, “I will be here next quarter.  You can count on it.”

You are?” he looked surprised.  “How do you know?”

God told me,” I said and turned and left the room.  I didn’t want to chance seeing him laugh at me.  We were at a Bible College to learn about God, after all, not actually believe God.

As the week continued, I held on to that experience in the Men’s Dorm Chapel. It became an anchor.  However, the question of what to do with my job at the Exxon station came to a conclusion that Friday.  Friday came and I still had no way to pay for school.  The settled assurance that I was still going to be in school next quarter had not left me.  I came to my own conclusion that however God provided for me to be there it was not going to be through the brothers who owned the Exxon gas station.

As soon as I got to the station that Friday afternoon, I called one of the brothers aside and explained my problem. I told him that I really appreciated the job and really like working there.  However, since I was not going to be able to continue at school, I was going to have to move back home with my parents.  Therefore, I would have to quit my job.  He still had two weeks before finals and I would have to move out.

Working with college students, I am certain that both of those brothers had heard the same story over and over before. He thanked me for letting him know.  He said he liked my work and was going to miss me.

He shook my hand and said, “I’ll let my brother know.  If you know anyone who wants a job, let them know to come and talk to us.”  And with that, we went our separate ways doing our own jobs at the station.

Later that day, he and his brother announced that they were going to catch dinner and would be back. They had a back-log of cars to work on and wanted to use part of the evening to catch up.  I busied myself with pumping gas for customers and repairing tires.  Soon they returned.

As I was walking through one of the bays, the brother I approached earlier in the day came up to me and handed out an envelope.

My brother and I were talking over dinner and decided we wanted to help you pay for college.  We’ve never done this,” he explained.  “But he and I just felt we needed to do this for you.”

I was dumbfounded.  “You guys don’t have to do that.  If I can’t pay back college, how am I going to pay you guys back?”

You don’t worry about that,” he said.  “Whatever you are able to pay, you pay back.  We’ll take care of the rest.”

I was humbled by their generosity.  “Thank you so much,” I offered.

Well,” he muttered half to himself as much as to me, “we do expect you to stick around and work with us.  And don’t tell the other guys.  We don’t want anyone to start thinking that we are a charity or college loan fund.”  He smiled and winked at me.

I understand,” I said.  “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.  Thanks.

When I got back to my dormitory room late that night, I took the envelope out and opened it. The check that was written out to me was enough to settle my past school bill as well as get me well on the way paying for the next quarter’s tuition and books.  It dawned upon me that I never told them how much I owed on my bill.

I sat on the side of my bed amazed that God would not only personally give me reassurance about where my future lie, but that he would also use to non-Christian employers to help meet the need. It all defies explanation.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But most certainly divinely ordered ones.  I still think of those two brothers often and pray for them.

Now, I could have studied many Scriptures on God’s provision; even memorized many of them. I could also have read many personal experiences of others about how God provided for them.  None of that could or would have the impact upon my life in the same way as God surprising me by speaking to me in a chapel, reassuring me in my heart and then working out the details in the most surprising way.  It has helped to keep my eyes open to other ways God wants to surprise me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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There is a need today for just plain common sense.  Here is some sage wisdom from an old farmer who has been around the barnyard a few times:

* Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.
* Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.
* Words that soak into your ears are whispered…not yelled.
* Meanness don’t jes’ happen overnight.
* It don’t take a very big person to carry a grudge.
* Every path has a few puddles.
* When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
* Most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna’ happen anyway.
* Don’t interfere with somethin’ that ain’t botherin’ you none.
* If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.
* Sometimes you get, and sometimes you get got.
* The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror every mornin’.
* Always drink upstream from the herd.
* Good judgment comes from experience, and a ‘lotta that comes from bad judgment.
* Lettin’ the cat outta’ the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back in.
* If you get to thinkin’ you’re a person of some influence, try orderin’ somebody else’s dog around.

Such simple proverbs boil life down to simple, memorable truths.  Isn’t it amazing that much of life’s problems have simple solutions?  Unfortunately, our sinful human nature’s propensity is to complicate life.  I am sure that it is the work of the devil to make life more burdensome and complicated.  It does not have to be.  Our heavenly Father did not design life to run in the ‘fast and furious’ mode.

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003

Pink Flower, Washington State Capitol Grounds, 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Jesus described life in his kingdom as “blessed/happy,” “fully free,” “abundant life,” and “abiding.”  Does that sound like your life?  If not, it may be time to re-focus.  Can you boil what is important down to a few simple things?  Jesus did and made it simple for us.

First, he said, “Abide in me.  Apart from me you can do nothing.” All life comes from him.  In his teaching of the vine in John 15, Jesus plainly and pointedly teaches us where our life must find its source.  How are you connected to him – the vine – through personal prayer, Bible reading, fellowship with other saints, serving others and worship?

There is no substitute for prioritizing our life around him and the way his life flows to and through us.  Your journey as a disciple of the Lord Jesus begins with your own desire and initiative to ‘connect’ your life with his life.  No one can do that for you.

The distractions of life brought about by our self-pleasing desires (think ‘lusts’) and goals (think ‘pride’) do more to rob us of living fully in the kingdom of God now than anything else.  We try to either pay off the past or store up for an uncertain future.

Does this bring us any real peace or satisfaction? No.  There is always something more.  Standing opposite these distractions, Jesus is calling us to tarry with him right now.  He is calling us into his rest, peace, joy, and abundant life.

Second, he said, “Follow me.  I will make you fishers of men.” Witnessing and bearing our testimony about Jesus is not as much a duty or a formula as it is a natural result of following Jesus.  If you ‘abide in the vine,’ you will bear fruit.

Showing and telling Jesus to the world will be a natural product of our lives as we learn to follow/abide in Jesus.  Abiding is in the promise to the disciples in Acts 1:8, because when they ‘wait in Jerusalem’ they would ‘receive power to be witnesses’ of Jesus.  See the connection?  Jesus promises to make us witnesses – “I will make you” – who bear testimony to his work and work.

As we focus upon the ultimate goal of knowing Jesus intimately through prayer, bible study, serving, sharing, and worship, the natural byproduct will be making Jesus known to the people around us in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.  In this way, we will ‘fish’ for people who are seeking God.  Notice that the key word is “fish” and not “catch.”

One thing I have learned over the years is that there is a reason why people call it fishing and not catching!  Some days I don’t catch anything – or don’t even have a nibble!  Those are discouraging days.

Similarly, as “fishers of men and women” our concern is not with the catching but with the fishing. The Holy Spirit is the Great Catcher of men’s and women’s hearts and souls.  Only he can draw a person to the Father, convict of sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come, and sanctify a person’s heart.

Our duty is to be the lure, the net, the hook to attract lost people.  The only way to be such is to focus on the ultimate goal of being with Jesus.  Isn’t that so much easier?  Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?  Sounds like just plain common sense to me.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, J.r (2010)

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Beyond Our Inabilities

In a day and age where sports stars loom larger than life, it is hard to settle for being average.  It is painful being below average in anything!  How can you compare with the likes of a Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Williams, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, or Tiger Woods?  It would seem that the world doesn’t have a place for your average ‘Joe’ or ‘Josephine’.

The wonderful thing we find in a relationship with God, and confirmed in the Bible, is that God does use the average person.  In fact, God uses people in spite of any weaknesses or inabilities.  The Bible story seems to tell us that God delights in using the average, ordinary person to do extraordinary things in his creation and kingdom.

Throughout the Bible we find stories about God interacting with people who have all sorts of inadequacies.  Moses stuttered too much to be a spokesperson.  Caleb was too old to go off to battle.  David was too young to be a national leader.  Elijah suffered depression.  Josiah, made king as a child, was much too young and inexperienced to start a national spiritual revival and renewal.  Peter was too compulsive and hotheaded to be a pastor-leader.  Mark was a quitter and Paul had anger issues.

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009

Lone Tree In Fall Colors, Howard Amon Park, Fall 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Another great example of this is found in the story of Gideon (Judges 6 and 7).  He is someone that God used to deliver Israel from the nation of Midian.  Midian had overrun Israel and sent her people into hiding in the mountains.  They stole crops and cattle, leaving nothing for the Israelites.  Finally, Israel seeks God’s help.  He sends them Gideon.

Gideon is much too timid to be an army general.  He simply lacks the skill set required for such an adventure.  Not only that, but he seems to be somewhat of a doubter.  He is definitely not “a man of faith and power for the hour” that is for sure.  Gideon confronts the Lord with a series of troubling questions:  Why has this happened to us?  Where are all the miracles we were told about as kids?  Why has the Lord abandoned us?  (In other words, where is God when evil is present?)

Gideon’s story teaches us that God is not bound or limited by human misunderstanding or mysteries.  He is not thrown off course by what is humanly unexplainable.  Only God has the capacity to understand everything.  Nothing is a mystery to Him.  Plus, he is not put off by us because of our doubts and lack of faith.  The Lord God seems to have enough confidence in his own power and ability to accomplish whatever he wills.  He’s just looking for a little cooperation, which, indeed, will require a little faith and action on our part.

The Lord tells Gideon to “go in the strength you have.” Since Gideon was real unsure this was a mission he could accomplish, the Lord also told him, “I am sending you.”  God always uses what we have available, which is usually not much.  At the same time, he is not limited by the lack of our abilities, strength, skills or experiences.  He promises to make up the difference with what he has, which are resources way beyond ours.

Gideon’s response is a lot like Moses’ at the burning bush.  It is a barrage of reasons why this plan will not work.  Gideon’s poor self image has taught him that he is powerless and helpless.  His family is on the bottom of the social scale in the tribe of Mannasseh.  Not only that, he is the least of the family, the last born, the smallest.  Plus, he has been living in a nation that has been socialized to expect to be beaten down and on the run.

This is an amazing story that has a principle repeated over and over in the Bible.  It is a story that tells us that God is not bound by the weaknesses we were born with.  Your parents, home life, siblings, birth order, gangs, school, or neighborhood does not limit God’s ability to work in your life.  He is bigger than your genetic or environmental makeup.  He is all-sufficient in himself.  While he does not need us to accomplish anything, he has chosen in his sovereignty to partner with his creation to fulfill his purposes and plans.  So, he is just looking to you and me for a little faith and cooperation.

So, you don’t need to be a superstar.  Average or below average, it doesn’t matter.  God can use you beyond your inability.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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I have come to believe that the most powerful spiritual transformations usually do not take place on Sunday mornings between 10:30 am and 12:00 pm.  Do not get me wrong.  I believe public worship is important.  I think it is powerful when God’s people gather to worship the Lord and hear his Word proclaimed.  I abide by the biblical injunction to “not forsake the gathering of yourselves together.”

Nevertheless, it is not always that brief period of time devoted to Sunday worship services that always dramatically changes us.  If we are honest with ourselves, most of us wouldn’t know what to do if God really did “rend the heavens and come down.”  When God’s Spirit does work in someone’s life during that time, we are pleasantly surprised.  I have often joked that the modern American Evangelical has changed the old hymn from “I Need Thee Every Hour” to “I Need Thee One Hour.”  Perhaps we are missing something.

I think we are more like the little girl in church listening to her pastor begin his sermon.  “Dear Lord,” the minister began with arms extended toward heaven and a rapturous look on his upturned face,  “without you, we are but dust.”  He would have continued but, at that moment, the very obedient little girl (who was listening) leaned over to her mother and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice for the rest of the congregation to hear, “Mom, what is butt dust?”

The preacher might as well have laughed with the rest of the congregation and closed in prayer.  Anything he said after that would have been forgotten.  He was trumped by an inquisitive little mind caught in a misunderstanding.  Yet, how many times does that happen to us as adults?  When I was a pastor, I cannot count how many times I had people share their thoughts on a sermon I am certain I did not preach but a few minutes earlier.

Yes, public worship is important and the preaching of God’s Word is paramount to being a fully “Bible-believing” church.  Nonetheless, I have seen deeper and longer lasting spiritual change take place in the lives of God’s people when…

  • they obeyed God at work among unbelievers.
  • they sought his presence and wisdom in a quiet moment of personal devotions.
  • they took a risk to step out in faith and serve in Jesus’ name when they were not sure whether they would meet success or failure.
  • they walked with someone else through a tragedy or trying time with prayer and personal presence.
  • they served out of obedience others who could or would never repay their kindness and devotion.
  • they taught, mentored and discipled others who needed help, guidance and instruction in their spiritual journey.

I have seen ‘spiritual giants’ raised up in living rooms and at kitchen tables.  I have seen ‘wise biblical counselors’ grown in small groups.  I have observed ‘strong servant-leaders’ recognized and promoted while they served ‘the least of these’ among us in small classrooms and nurseries.  I have witnessed growth and spiritual maturity take place in individuals who bravely stepped out and served their community in jails, pregnancy centers, food banks, and homeless shelters.  On the other hand, I have yet to see any of these emerge in an individual who just came and occupied a seat for public worship on Sunday mornings.  In fact, as a pastor/spiritual guide, I have been humbled by the work of the Spirit that did not involve me or my input.

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk

Cara on the Cape Alava Trail boardwalk ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Are you longing for spiritual transformation? Do you want to grow in the wisdom and knowledge of the Lord?  Does your heart yearn to learn God’s ways and find favor with him?  Do you find yourself stuck in the same place on your spiritual journey?  Is there a sense in your spirit that what you need to grow spiritually is a spiritual challenge that requires a risk and step of faith?

It might be that you will need to move your Sunday worship from 10:30am to 12:00 pm into other areas of your life.  Live a life of worship at work.  Make his ‘praise glorious’ among a group of friends you can grow with spiritually.  Learn to serve Jesus by serving ‘the least of these’ in the world around you.  Go ahead.  Risk putting yourself in a position where God must show up and work through you.  You may be surprised at where that journey will take you.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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I sometimes wonder if God does not look down from heaven completely befuddled by our misunderstanding of him and what he wants from us.  After all, he has attempted to communicate to us in our own language(s).  He has given us a real-life example through his own son, Jesus.  And we still, somehow, seem to get it all mixed up and wrong.

It is kind of like the pilot who asked a passenger boarding a plane, “Have you ever flown in a small plane before?”  The passenger answered, “No, I have not.”  Wanting to be helpful, the pilot offered, “Well, here is some chewing gum.  It will help to keep your ears from popping.”

After the plane landed, the pilot checked on the passenger, “Did the gum help?”  The passenger said, “Yep, it worked fine.  The only trouble is, I can’t get the gum out of my ears!”

Was the problem lack of communication, the need for more information, or simple misunderstanding? Sometimes, it is “All the Above” when it comes to me and the Lord.  I am often left looking to heaven, shrugging my shoulders, and saying, “I don’t get it.”  Then I have to remember than I am the finite one with the small brain and he is the infinite one with the omniscience.  That is when I act as Job did:  I put my hand over my mouth and shut up.

The two things we learn about the nature of God right from the beginning in Genesis – the book of beginnings – are that God is creative and communicative.  The first words are, “In the beginning God created…”  The next words about God are, “And God spoke…”  This should tell us something about the Lord God.  First, he likes to interact with his creation.  Second, he likes to do it in a myriad of creative ways.

These truths about the nature and character of God are born out as we continue through the Scriptures and discover all the people he communicates to and all the different ways in which he does so.  God was always speaking and revealing, whether by audible voice, in quietness, or in dreams.  He used angels, men and women, nature, prophets, priests, and kings.  Once, He even used a jackass to get a wayward prophet’s attention.  Another time, the “writing on the wall” delivered an ominous message to a wicked king.  (I, for one, do not ever ask God for “writing on the wall” because of that example.)

If God is so willing and able to communicate with His children, then we must conclude that the line is broken on our end.  We have the problem and not him.  Could it be that we are just like the people that the Lord sent Isaiah to?  We have “eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear and no understanding.”  Are we deaf and dumb to what God is revealing today?  I often wonder if God is not on the other end of the line saying, “Can you hear me now?  How about now?”  He is always trying to get our attention.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

One of the things I have discovered in studying the Scriptures is that communicating with the Lord God was always his idea.  He initiated the conversation.  He made the invitation.  He stretched out His hand in friendship to us first and not the other way around.  The living God invites us to get to know his ways so that we may find favor with him and be called his friend.  After all, you cannot really call someone a friend that you do not actually spend some time with on a regular basis.

Before he left his disciples, Jesus told them, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).  A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you anyway.  A friend knows your likes and dislikes, your desires, your faults, your weaknesses and your deepest fears.  A friend in a constant – through “thick and thin”.  Our heavenly Father calls us into this kind of relationship.  You can discover and know the heart of God.  You can be his friend!

This can only happen as we take time to become his friend and learn his ways.  For his part, there is always an open invitation for you to become his friend.  One of his repeated promises in the Bible is that as we draw near to him he will draw near to us.  It may be time to take him up on that promise.  He is looking for some good friends.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Cash, check or charge?” The cashier asked after folding items the woman wished to purchase.  As the customer fumbled for her wallet, the cashier noticed a remote control for a television set in the woman’s purse.

Do you always carry your TV remote?” she asked.

No,” the customer replied.  “But my husband refused to come shopping with me, so I figured this was the best way to get even with him.”

I may have just given a bunch of wives a tip by telling that story!  It’s a wonderfully funny story that portrays two sides of our fallen human nature.  There is the side that does not want to be inconvenienced for another person.  Then there is the other side that wants to keep score and get even.  No wonder the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitfully wicked, who can understand it?”  It’s true!

Hidden Spring Near Deschutes River Trail, April 2002

Hidden Spring Near Deschutes River Trail, April 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

We all are born with heart problems. The Bible describes heart problems like “a divided heart,” “a hardened heart,” “a wicked heart,” “a broken heart,” and “a sick heart.”  I know I have struggled with more than one of these conditions in my heart over the years.  It is a constant spiritual battle to maintain a pure heart, an undivided heart, a passionate heart, a righteous heart, an obedient heart, and a whole heart.

One Bible teacher I came across recently talked about the problem of having a “Jonah Heart.” Remember the story of Jonah in the Old Testament?  It is a great story with many lessons for us.  God wanted to send a message to warn a wicked people of impending judgment if they did not repent and turn from their wicked ways.  One would think this would be welcome news for Jonah.  Get used by God to deliver a message!

However, like the rest of us, Jonah has a heart problem. He has a reluctant heart and doesn’t want to be used by God – at least in this way!  He has a disobedient heart and doesn’t want to obey the Lord.  He doesn’t have a compassionate heart for the people (Ninevites) to which God wants to send him to give a prophetic word.  He has a hard heart and must go through terrible circumstances before he will repent and acquiesce to God’s command.  Even after delivering the word of the Lord to the Ninevites and witnessing the Lord’s mercy upon a repentant people, Jonah’s heart is sick with prejudice, bitterness, and hatred.

At times, I have struggled with a “Jonah Heart”.  I get busy with life – even doing religious stuff – and don’t want God to mess up my schedule.  I don’t want him messing with my agenda.  When I know what I want and what I think will make me happy, I don’t want the Lord to tell me what to do – especially if it means moving out of my comfort zone!  Ack!

What this really means is that at these times I want less of God.  Or, at least I want a “lesser god.”  After all, it’s much easier having a god you can polish and shine when you wish, put up on a shelf for everyone to see your piety, and pretend to have speak to you in your hurried moments.  That is a more convenient god.

The God of the Bible, however, will not be confined to our limits.  He always has a way of breaking out of our preconceived molds and climbing off the shelf where we have so neatly placed him.  He speaks from on high and directs our affairs as He sees fit – and doesn’t always ask our permission!

Therefore, I have determined to root out any residue of a “Jonah Heart” within me.  I’m inviting God to mess up my schedule, interfere with my agenda, and surprise me by moving me out of my comfort zone.  I want more of God, not less.  I want the joy of being used by God to deliver His message to “whosoever will” so that everyone will come to know him and his son, Jesus.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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On June 17, 1966, two black men strode into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, and shot three people to death.  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a celebrated black boxer, and an acquaintance were falsely charged and wrongly convicted of the murders in a highly publicized and racially charged trial.  The fiercely outspoken boxer maintained his claims of innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer.  After serving nineteen years, Carter was finally released.

As a free man, Carter reflected on how he has responded to injustice in his life:  “The question invariably arises, it has before and it will again: ‘Rubin, are you bitter?’  And in answer to that I will say, ‘After all that’s been said and done—the fact that the most productive years of my life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty, have been stolen; the fact that I was deprived of seeing my children grow up—wouldn’t you think I would have a right to be bitter?  Wouldn’t anyone under those circumstances have a right to be bitter?  In fact, it would be very easy to be bitter.  But that has never been my nature, or my lot, to do things the easy way.’”

Carter goes on to say, “If I have learned nothing else in my life, I’ve learned that bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it.  And for me to permit bitterness to control or to infect my life in any way whatsoever would be to allow those who imprisoned me to take even more than the 22 years they’ve already taken.  Now that would make me an accomplice to their crime.”  (James S. Hirsch, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 310)

One of the greatest challenges of living in the world is in the area of forgiveness.  The Bible instructs us to forgive “just as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31).  In fact, the Apostle John says, “whoever hates his brother is in the darkness,” which includes choosing not to forgive someone (1 John 2:11).  The sign that someone is truly God’s child is the love spoken and displayed toward others (1 John 4:12), which includes forgiving the offenses of others against us.  And there is the sticky part.

Jesus made it clear that we would not live in a perfect world.  He plainly told us, “It is impossible that no offenses should come” (Luke 17:1).  He promised that in the last days, “many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another…the love of many will grow cold (Matthew 24:10,13).  The question is; what are we going to do with these offenses when they do come?  For they will surely come, intentional or unintentional.

Cara backpacking out for home

Cara backpacking out for home ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

One of the best books to deal with the subject of offenses and forgiveness is The Bait of Satan by John Bevere.  He correctly points out that “hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained.  In this climate the love of God waxes cold…So an offended Christian is one who takes in life, but because of fear cannot release life.”  Ultimately, this is what leads to strongholds in our lives, which are patterns of thinking and behaving that wall us off from the others and God.

When we lock ourselves away and choose not to allow ourselves to be vulnerable again, we create our own prison.  This is really the message behind the Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21 – 35.  The words of Jesus are a dire threat, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  The sin of taking offense is a serious one for every believer and must be dealt with honestly.

Followers of Christ are called to form pockets of “The Community of the Forgiven” everywhere.  The outward sign of belonging to one is the forgiveness freely shown towards others who need forgiveness and acceptance.  It is no wonder, then, that Jesus included this aspect in the prayer he taught all his disciples to pray: “And forgive us our trespasses [sins – offenses] as [just as – just like – in the same manner as – in the same way as] we forgive those who trespass [sin – offend] us” (Matthew 6:9 – 12).  Then, Jesus ended with the same strict warning, “For if you forgive someone when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14,15).

The unmerciful servant in Matthew 18 was returned to the prison he thought he had escaped to be tortured there “until he should pay back all he owed.”  Unforgiveness only results in our own torture and torment.  The message is clear, if we hold someone’s debt to us against them, our heavenly Father will then require us to pay back all that we owe him.  For his command is clear, “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”  (Matthew 6:33).  To do otherwise would make us, in “Hurricane” Carter’s words, “an accomplice to their crime.”  The most powerful way  to live a life that is free is to forgive in the same way and to the same extent that we have freely been forgiven in Christ.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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