What Do You Worship?

The question is “what” do you worship – not “who” do you worship. I am quoting from a book I recently read while on a three week retreat in the north of my province….

And, please note my definition of idolatry. Idolatry is taking something — anything — and making it more important than it should be in our lives.

A friend of mine who visited a remote, impoverished village in India told me a story. He saw a woman sacrificing a chicken as an act of worship to her god. My friend was shocked to see such blatant, modern-day idolatry. After striking up a conversation with the woman, he was impressed with her. She was well-spoken, kind, and educated.

When he learned that she had visited New York City three years earlier, he asked what she thought of America. She explained that she hated it. She had never seen more idolatry anywhere in her entire life. When my friend pressed her, she described three areas of idolatry that she saw.

First, she said, not so gently, the Americans worship their stomachs. Her eyes wide as she talked, this woman from a simple village described the massive stores overstocked with food to sell to people who had already had too much to eat. Evidently this woman was offended by people who are overweight when so many people in her village go hungry. 

Second, she described how Americans worship television. From her perspective, they design their homes around the television. It takes the most prominent place in the most important room, and the furniture is arranged not for talking to people but for watching television. It was almost too much for her to comprehend that some people even allow a television in their bedroom — of all places!

Finally, she said the worst form of idolatry was in the relationship people have with their phones. She was deeply offended that people use them while driving. Even worse was that no one (at least in her experience) could have a full conversation without reading something on their phone.

Kind of gives new meaning to American idol, doesn’t it. My friend didn’t try to disagree with the Indian woman. He knew he couldn’t. Everything she said was true. And she hadn’t even scratched the surface. 

Without getting into our obsessions with food and media, I’m simply raising the question about what we worship when we click. You are probably not putting a statute of a turtle ahead of God, and you probably aren’t a star-worshipper, but is your obsession with your phone gearing out of hand?

Some of us can honestly answer no. We are already using technology with good boundaries. We control it. It doesn’t control us. We might have a healthy view of social media and how we interact with it. If so, I’m thankful, and you should be too!

Yet I know many well-intentioned followers of Jesus who are being seduced, sucked into, and consumed by the virtual world. They think, “I just want to help my business.” Or, “This will give more exposure to my ministry.” Or, “I just love staying in touch with so many friends and family members.” 

As I read this and then took a long walk to think about it I had mixed feelings and several distinct reactions. I was pleased that for several years now I have set boundaries on my iPhone. It turns on at 9:00a. Before that is my time with the Lord, in prayer, reading and studying the Bible. It turns itself off at 10:00p so that I have an uninterrupted 90 minutes to read before heading to bed. I work so many hours in front of the computer screen in my office (9:00a to 1:00p) with emails and texts and then shut it down and go about other things – appointments, meeting with non-believers, and time in my study writing a book I am currently working on.

But I did realize that I needed to put up better boundaries regarding how much time I “waste” watching television some evenings. I realize there are more productive things I can do. But, after a normal day and early evening I am tired and want to simply relax and not have to think. But, that is simply a rationalization and an excuse. So, I have been changing my evening routine and putting my time and limited energy to better use. Establishing boundaries. No longer spending more time binge-watching than I do with the Lord in any given day.

Idolatry is still very much alive in the world today … no matter where you live or what language you speak. And, with all the technology now available idolatry has become an acceptable aspect of life. It is time to reclaim the precious time the Lord given to us each day. 

Remember: Idolatry is taking something — anything — and making it more important than it should be in our lives.

Let us be equipped for the coming days

An apostolic perspective from Raffi Shahverdyan – apostolic leader living in Armenia and ministering worldwide.

Let us be equipped for the coming days

Scripture gives us many examples of good administration.  Our Lord calls the Church both to pray, equip itself for times of crisis, and to minister to those who are in need.

1 – You have something to do today

“I sought for a man among them to build the wall and stand in the breach in my presence on behalf of the land so that it won’t be destroyed, but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22:30, ISV).

God relies on you.  There is no such thing as a retired leader.  That is, if you were ever called to be a leader, then you are called to be a leader now also.  Even if you’ve never been a leader before, you can start being one right now. Along the way, you’ll discover aspects of your own personality that you never thought you had.

“When will all of this end?” -This is the question that all of us ask in difficult times, but let’s just change the question and begin to pray like this: “God, what should I do?  How can I serve you in this situation?  How can I be effective with the gifts that You have given me?

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many people” (Mark 10:45, ISV).

Depression conquers some people. It isolates them, and they become passive, but you must not be found amongst them. You must defeat depression and stand strong in the Lord by faith.

Don’t sit still.  Keep calm. Don’t slow down, don’t waste your time, but do something for God’s Kingdom and His people. Just one word of encouragement from you can change a person’s life. The Angel of the Lord once said to a very frightened Gideon: “The LORD is with you, you valiant warrior!” (Judges 6:12, ISV).

2 – Communication: the biggest need of the Church in these days

Someone needs you!

The Church is a body, whose parts are intimately connected to each other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12).

The Lord has said: 

“Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, ISV).

Moreover, the Scriptures command us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (see Hebrews 10:25).

While anti-Christian systems like communism and Islam forbid believers to assemble together by closing churches, today’s pandemic is an unseen enemy that is also working to prevent us from assembling ourselves together.  To meet the challenge, we ought to start thinking creatively about how we can communicate with one another, whilst still aiming to respect our governments’ health regulations.

To that end, we can communicate using these methods:

A – Managing all the projects of the church through the internet.  Download appropriate social networking apps on your devices such as WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook, Telegram, Signal, etc. Those of us who are tech-savvy need to help those who are new to technology and/or new to using these kinds of apps.  

B – Making phone calls (for those who don’t have an internet connection).

C – Communicating through printed literature and written letters.

D – Outside gatherings of small groups (maximum 5 people).

3 – Form and activate cell groups by using the internet

“I tell you that you are Peter, and it is on this rock that I will build my congregation, and the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18, ISV)

In other words, start a small Church.

Let us not be overwhelmed by this crisis, but let us find ways of communicating and building relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Church. Let’s not wait for “someone else” in the Church to do something.  Rather, let us be the ones who take initiative by the Word and Spirit of God – and act on it.

A – Take part in the group in which you are already a member.  Don’t stand alone.  You can join or form a group of intercessors, a youth group, a missionary group, a group from Sunday school, a home church group, etc. 

B – If communication has stopped for a while, don’t wait for someone else to start it back again.  Instead, you be the one to get things going again. Send invitations out and start new groups.

C – Make a new group with 5-10 members and have communication with each other via the internet once a week.

D – You can start with a few members and then add new members as you go. Seek out and make contact with those who are isolated and/or don’t have any means of communication.

E – Aim to have a mixture of ages – men and women, boys and girls, from different backgrounds, so as to keep the group both dynamic and persistent. You can start a conversation with some of your friends, and then your group may grow organically from there. 

F – The aim of the group can first be to establish communication.  Once you have a base of people connected, you will be able to add programs such as praying, preaching, teaching, and group Bible readings.

G – You can request study and ministry themes from the Church’s secretary or create them by yourself as you study various parts of the Bible.

H –For those who don’t have an internet connection, you can give them print outs of different Biblical lessons and themes.

I – You can meet with the members of your group in open areas.  For now, this should be done with a limited number of people and with, of course, masks and proper social distancing measures in place.

J – Find and invite those especially to whom reaching out is difficult.  Those who have, for whatever reason, been left out of the normal means and methods of communication ought to be a special focus of our efforts. Make new groups and don’t get complacent with existing ones.

K –Talk to your pastor about your activities and be open and ready to receive direction, input, and advice.

L – Our main purpose is to feed and build the Church; to aid and arm God’s children to build His Kingdom and preach His Message.  Implementing measures to increase our communication and fellowship by whatever means available will not only help maintain the health of the Church, but it may also serve as an effective method of increasing evangelism and stimulating discipleship.

“…I kept them safe in your name which you have given to me: I took care of them and not one of them has come to destruction…” (John 17:12, BBE).

4 – Common means of communication and their potentials

Zoom – This is currently the most common app for video-calls.  It has the capacity to host large numbers of participants. A video-call up to 40 minutes is free.  After this expires, however, the connection may be reestablished to begin another 40 minute session.

Skype – You can have up to 50-minutes of video-calling, and it also gives other options not mentioned here.

Messenger – You can make hold a video-call with 8 members. There is an option to have a video-call with 50 members, but it is not available in Armenia yet.

Facebook / Instagram – Here you can share your messages with one another, individually or in groups.

Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram – These means of communication give you the opportunity to send large voice-recordings.  You can record and send your messages via these apps. You can communicate individually or create group-chats.  

SMS – This is the simplest means of communication, which is available on almost any kind of phone.  SMS messaging also allows you to correspond individually or in groups. Depending on the kind of phone that a given user has, you may be able to share voice recordings as well.  I would also like to utilize online Bibles and Bible apps, as well as implementing other methods for encouraging the reading and sharing of Bible verses.  Examples of some popular apps are YouVersion, Biblestone, and My Bible.  Most of these apps allow users to not only access, but download and synchronize information across multiple devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, etc.) so that everyone can read and share God’s Word effectively and conveniently.

God bless you all.

With love, Raffi Shahverdyan.

The Tradition Keepers – Part Three

We are called to “guard our hearts” and no set of official commandments from the Lord or man-made rules from religious authorities will enable us to do that. The commands and the rules help us to have right behaviour and provide a standard to live by or, at least, live up to. But, all of that is on the outside and the heart is an inside issue. But, please note once again, that the inside “heart issues” are really the source of the outside behaviours. An understanding that seems to be have been lost in the Church and in the lives of believers today.

Jesus’ words inspired by the Holy Spirit stated … “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-20).

There are four primary enemies of the heart — four life-blocking agents that become lodged in the heart, poisoning our relationships, our faith, and our character. We could spend days discussing these. But let’s just list them so that you are aware of what they are. These four damage the heart and result in the  ungodly behaviours contained in Jesus astonishing comments. These four enemies of the heart are what we need to be guarding against. They are: Guilt, Anger, Greed, and Jealousy. As I said – the topic of a book in itself.

So how do we “guard” or protect the heart? Again, the topic for a whole book. But, I would suggest the root of “guarding your heart” is to first give your whole heart to the Lord. When we are truly born again we encounter Jesus as more than Saviour from our sins. He is more than our friend. He is more than our new “crisis management expert.” He is Lord. And, we need to make Him Lord. This means selling out totally to Him. Recognizing that He purchased us back from the devil by His death on the Cross of Calvary. He owns us. And we are no longer our own. As Paul writes, “it is no longer I that lives, but Christ who lives His life through me.” This selling out and truly understanding that Jesus is Lord —and personally accepting Jesus as YOUR Lord — is the starting point of being transformed, receiving a new heart, and beginning a new life “in Christ” as a ‘new creature.’

Then, He helps us to guard our new heart. His Spirit living in us helps us to deal with the issues that have wounded our heart before we met Jesus and brings healing and freedom. As He does that, we work at truly knowing how to love the Lord God with “all your heart.” The more junk and baggage that we allow the Spirit to deal with the more of our heart is free to worship, serve, and love God. 

As this process continues (and it is a process or journey) we would do well to read through the New Testament (take a fresh copy and a different version so that you are free to see it with new eyes) and note the references to heart and, in particular, the need to guard it. For example, Luke 12:15 states (Jesus speaking): “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” As you read with fresh eyes and ears — heart eyes and ears — you will note an abundance of verses such as this one. Don’t just jot them down. Pray about them. Meditate on them. Think about them. Think about how they apply to you right now, right where you are. Deal with what the Lord reveals to you. This will free the heart up and heal the woundedness thus allowing you to truly love Him with your whole heart. 

So, it is not a matter of rules and more rules. It isn’t even a matter of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, and fasting (which can be just more rules and more tradition). These are all things that are on the outside and they do not defile you. Often we fall back into the “religious rut” and do our praying for an hour, reading three chapters of the Bible every day, and so on. Don’t be a tradition keeper. These things are just tools to help us in our journey and often we have turned them into rules. It is what is in your heart that is the real issue right now. Not all the external structure and routines that we fall back onto most times. Don’t become one of The Tradition Keepers.

As you move forward in this you will note that you are experiencing more and more freedom and feeling more spiritually alive and alert than ever before. That is great. So great. But, don’t let your guard down as there is so much more to experience. So, “guard your heart” and aim for the goal of loving the Lord your God with ALL your (healed and set free) heart.

The Tradition Keepers – Part Two

As I mentioned last time – the implications of Jesus’ words are huge and life-changing. You see, our tendency is to monitor our behaviour while pretty much ignoring our hearts. After all, how do you monitor your heart? Keeping an eye on your behaviour is easy. Besides, I have lots of help with that. I can’t get too far off base in my behaviour without somebody drawing it to my attention. But my heart? That seems a bit more complicated.

But if the items on Jesus’ list emanate from the heart (Matthew 15:19-20), then clearly we need a new monitoring strategy. After all, if we knew how to monitor our hearts, if we knew how to deal with trouble at its source, then perhaps we would see a marked improvement in our behaviour. Makes you wonder why no one ever taught us to do this.

Jesus wasn’t the first to point out the importance of the heart. Nearly a thousand years earlier, Solomon echoed Jesus’ concern when he wrote, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NASB). Here we are actually commanded to “watch over” or guard our hearts. The heart is the source.

Somehow, what’s in our hearts, good or bad, is eventually translated into words and deeds. That’s a bit crazy, I know. Especially since it’s so hard to know what’s going on in there. For example, when we hear or see something and suddenly we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we think, That really touched my heart. But we’re always surprised when it happens, aren’t we? Why? Perhaps because we’re so out of touch with our hearts. On the flip side, we’ve all seen and heard things that should have affected us emotionally , and … nothing. No response. And we wonder, What’s wrong with me? Why was everyone else impacted and I just stood there unmoved? Perhaps we have even been accused of being ‘hardhearted’ or having ‘a heart of stone.’ If you’re a guy, you may have even taken pride in the fact that your heart’s not easily moved. But is that a good thing? And is that even true?

The heart is such a mystery. In fact, one prophet asked of the heart, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Good question. The implication is, nobody. With which I really concur. And even if we do understand it, we certainly can’t control it — which is all the more reason we need to learn to monitor it. Like the seismic activity of a dormant volcano, what you don’t know can hurt you. If you’ve suffered the consequences from anything on Jesus’ from-the-heart list, you know that to be a fact.

Suddenly someone files for divorce.

Suddenly a kid’s grades drop and his attitude changes.

Suddenly a harmless pastime becomes a destructive habit.

Out of nowhere devastating words pierce the soul of an unsuspecting loved one.

We’ve all seen it, felt it, even caused it. Just as Jesus predicted, what originates in the secret place won’t always remain a secret. Eventually it finds its way into our homes, offices, and neighbourhoods.

Okay, so we’re all volcanoes waiting to erupt. Now what? How do we combat something we can’t even see? How do we guard — or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, guard against — our hearts? How do we monitor what’s going on in that secret place that has the potential to go public at any moment?

I’m glad you asked! 

Next time…

The Tradition Keepers – Part One

My parents had a set of rules by which we, as a family, lived. They were based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Sort of rules that help us to apply the rules. Some were well known and referenced often. Other were somewhat unspoken but recognized and upheld nonetheless. 

Mt parents were not the first to establish a secondary rule to keep someone from breaking a primary rule. Thousands of years ago certain religious leaders were making careers out of it. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, more than five hundred rules had been added to the laws handed down to Moses by God Himself. This ever-growing body of regulations was called “the Tradition of the Elders.” Its sole purpose was to prevent the Jewish population from accidentally breaking one of the original commandments. For example, the Law of Moses forbade commerce on the Sabbath; so they added a clause that forbade the handling of money on the Sabbath, thereby ensuring that no one would violate the original Sabbath law. Over time, the religious leaders had assigned to these traditions a status equal to the Law of Moses.

To the continued chagrin of the Pharisees and Sadducees – the self-appointed guardians of “the Traditions” – Jesus paid very little attention to their traditions. While He and His disciples observed the Mosaic Code, Jesus seemed to go out of His way to violate the man-made laws of the Jewish hierarchy. The religious authorities would often point to these infractions as evidence of His blatant disregard for the Law, thereby refuting His claim to be a spokesman for God.

Matthew records once such incident. Interestingly, the rule that got Jesus into hot water on this occasion was a rule we had around our house when I was growing up. He forgot — well, I guess Jesus never forgot anything. He decided not to wash His hands before He ate. And His disciples followed suit. This was troublesome to the Pharisees, just like it was to my mom.

According to the Tradition of the Elders, everybody was suppose to wash from the tips of their fingers all the way down to the elbows before partaking (there’s a neat church word) of food. Persnickety as it may seem, the Tradition of the Elders went to great lengths to explain how one should wash his hands before eating. Beyond basic hygiene, this rule was designated to keep people from accidentally becoming ceremonially unclean — that is, to keep a person from unintentionally putting the wrong thing, or something that had touched a wrong thing, into his or her body.

But washing your hands before a meal wasn’t required by the Law of Moses. Sure, it’s a good idea, but the rabbis had made it a standard for righteousness. Over time this rule had taken on the same significance in the Jewish community as the original laws handed down at Mount Sinai.

But Jesus ignored this rule and didn’t insist that His followers apply it either. Here’s how the whole thing went down as recorded in Matthew 15:1-20 (you can read the whole story ahead if you so which before moving on…)

“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat (verses 1-2).

Clearly these guys needed something to do. Here they are, standing in the presence of a man who heals the sick and calms the seas with His words, and they’re in a tizzy over the fact that He doesn’t wash His hands before meals. 

Jesus answers their question with a question (which He often did).

“And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (verse 3)

He turns it right back around on them. The Pharisees accuse Him of ignoring the rules they’d tacked onto the Law. Jesus in turn accuses them of breaking God’s law in order to keep one of their tacked-on rules. Then before they can respond, He launches into a scathing mini-sermon. He doesn’t hold back. Calls ‘em hypocrites. He accuses them of nullifying the Word of God for the sake of their homemade traditions. It is brutal.

As soon as He finishes with the Pharisees, Jesus turns His attention to the disciples (who were probably busy high-fiving each other over the spectacle of seeing the religious referees beaten at their own game). He picks up on the cleanliness theme the Pharisees have introduced:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? (verse 17)

Now there’s an insight. What enters a person’s mouth will ultimately pass through the body and exit … I doubt anyone wrote that down, except Matthew. But now that He has their undivided attention, Jesus drives home His point.

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (verse 18).

His point? God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes in our mouths as He is about what comes out of our mouth. God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes into our bodies as what comes out of our bodies. This is new territory for the Jews; they were extremely cautious about what they put in their mouths. Now Jesus was saying that God was more offended by what came out than what went in. 

But it was this comment that must have gotten their attention: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” 

The heart? Everything that comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Everything? Did He really mean that? At first glance, I’m inclined to disagree. Surely, not everything that comes out of my mouth originates in the heart?

If you’re like me, there have been plenty of times when you said stuff you didn’t really mean. Again, we’ve covered our mouths and muttered, “I don’t know where that came from!” But apparently, Jesus would respond, “I do. It came from within. It came from your heart.” 

But it gets worse.

Jesus goes on to say that the heart is responsible not only for our words but for our deeds as well.

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (verses 19-20).

Evil thoughts? I thought these originated in my …mind. If Jesus is right — and I’m betting He is — my mind isn’t the source of all my thoughts. It goes deeper than that. My evil thoughts originate in my heart. Take a look at the other items on His list. They are all actions, deeds, and behaviours. And they all come from the heart as well.

The implications of this are huge. More next time….

When You Are Excited About Something

I have written a fair amount recently about the boldness of the early Church. We looked recently at Peter and John, the healing of the lame man, and the resulting boldness of the early Church in the face of religious persecution (Acts 4). I want to revisit that story another time if I may.

The religious leaders confronted by Peter and John’s healing in the Name of Jesus couldn’t deny what happened, and they didn’t know what to do with it. But they did know that it would be a disaster if this kind of thing spread. They said, “To stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.” Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:17-18). 

Notice that these religious leaders wouldn’t even say Jesus’ name; they decided to warn Peter and John not to speak to anyone in “this name.” The other notable point here is that they commanded them not to speak or teach about Jesus. It was understood that such a command from this group carried with it the threat of punishment — imprisonment at the very least. This wasn’t a friendly suggestion: “I’ll let you off with a warning but please don’t speed again.” No, this was a promise of pain if Peter and John keep on talking about Jesus.

But I’m sure you know there was no stopping these guys. “But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to Him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:19-20). Because they believed deeply, they were going to speak boldly. You always speak boldly about what you believe in deeply. Ask any Harley Davidson fan. Hockey fan. Soccer fan. The two words in the Greek translated here as “cannot help” basically mean “it’s not possible.”

The phrase conveys a sense of conviction every bit as firm and powerful as the Jewish leaders’ command. Basically Peter and John said, “You need to understand, you can threaten us, but we’re still speaking. You can beat us, but we’ll speak louder. You can put us to death, but the last words we are going to speak will be the Name of Jesus, because if you’ve seen what we’ve seen and if you’ve heard what we’ve heard, you have just got to tell it. It’s that good! If you saw the people that we were and the people that we are now, if you saw the sins He’s forgiven, you’d have to talk about it. If you saw the miracles we’ve seen, you wouldn’t be able to keep it to yourself.”

When you’re excited about something, you talk about it. When you see a great movie, you want to tel your friends to go see it. If it is a guy movie, you tell them, “Yeah, and all the trucks blew up before the big shootout It was awesome! You’ve got to see it.” Or if it’s a chick flick and you’re telling your chick-flick-loving friend about it, you say, “You’ve got to see it. It’s just so romantic! He walked in the room and said, ‘Toy had me at hello.’”

If you go to a restaurant and have an incredible meal and amazing service, then you can’t wait to tell others how great your experience was. You want them to go there and enjoy the same kind of experience. When you hear a great new song on the radio, you want your friend or your spouse or kids to hear it.

When you experience something so powerful, so life-changing as the love of God and the gift of Jesus Christ, then you’re compelled (driven) to tell others about it. And no authority on earth can prevent you from speaking bold words of truth for all to hear. We must tell others about Jesus and all that He has done for us and all who repent and turn to Him. 

You speak boldly about what you believe deeply. 

Cultivate the Value of Gratitude – Part Three

Like the apostle Paul. I too had to learn gratitude in all things. Truthfully, I’m not naturally grateful. That is true of many of us. I’, not embarrassed to say it, but I am bent more towards the negative, critical, discontented, and ungrateful side. Because I minister a lot, people give me way more credit than I deserve. 

Years ago I heard a teaching from one of my mentors that totally changed my life. If you know me you would know what I am about to share. He did a teaching called “Content or Discontent, Which Tent Do You Live In?” It changed my life and taught me that I  needed a different perspective. He taught me that I have to choose to be grateful for all the good that I see and not just focus on the issues, faults, and the places I and others could do better. 

I am naturally an early riser. I love the quiet and freshness of early morning before the world wakes up and interrupts my solitude, stillness, and silence. Most morning I wake up on my own long before the alarm goes off. It is simply a backup in case I oversleep. The mornings I don’t naturally wake up and the alarm goes off I can be heard to say “That stupid alarm” as I reach for the snooze button. I have had to train myself to say “Good morning Lord” instead of my natural response to being rudely awakened. 

I often wonder why we call it an “alarm clock.” It is like waking up to an emergency that is causing us alarm. When really we are just getting up to enjoy the gift of another day of life. 

One verse that has helped me build a spirit of gratitude is found in Ecclesiastes 6:9 which states, “Better what the eye sees than the roving of the appetite.” Think about it. Wanting what you have is better than trying to have what you want. It’s better to embrace what God has given us than to whine about what He hasn’t. When you take every good thing and acknowledge it, giving praise to God, it radically changes your perspective.

Turn your blessings into praise as we saw yesterday. Instead of complaining about your older car, you can thank God every day that you have transportation. If your house is always a wreck (and I remember when), you can thank God that you have a family, kids, and toys. If you feel like you’re always busy running from one place to another, you can thank God that you are healthy, needed, and have the ability to live an active, productive life. (I need to remind myself daily of this one). If your house is small, you can thank God that you have a refrigerator, a bed, and running water. Not everyone can take that for granted as we do. If you don’t like your job, wake up every day and remember all of the people who would kill for your job. Then thank God He has provided you with employment. 

Perspective is everything. The right perspective changes everything. When all you can think of is what you want to complain about, you can be pretty miserable and ungrateful. But when you shift your focus, your heart changes. Instead of being poisoned by ingratitude, you’re transformed by gratitude and contentment. 

Content or discontent – which tent are you living in?

Unlike any other virtue, living with gratitude can change the way you experience your life. Let go of longing for what you don’t have, chasing after things that never satisfy you longer than a few minutes. Give God thanks for all that you have. Know that you have everything you need right now. Perhaps no one reminds us of this truth more powerfully than the prophet Isaiah:

Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

(Isaiah 55:1-2)

Cultivate the Value of Gratitude – Part Two

How do you overcome the seeds of ungratefulness that culture has planted in your soul? How do you learn to be grateful in a world that excels at its opposite? How do you overcome the prevailing ethos of entitlement?

I’d like to borrow a line from a Matt Redman song called “Blessed Be Your Name.” In it, he sings to God, “Every blessing you pour out, I’ll turn back to praise.” To cultivate an attitude of gratitude, we should turn everything good in our lives into an opportunity to worship and give God thanks and praise. When we do, we acknowledge the Giver of the gifts. The Bible says in James, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Since anything good we have comes from God, why not give God the credit? 

Remember, the entitled person feels he or she deserves everything good that they receive, ignoring God’s goodness in the blessings (see yesterday’s blog – Part One). But when they don’t get what they want in life, God then to get the blame. On the other hand, when we turn blessings to praise, we cultivate gratitude. We’re training our hearts to become constantly aware of God’s goodness.

Any blessing we don’t turn back to praise turns into pride. We think we earned it, deserved it, or are worthy of it. That’s pride. And pride breaks God’s heart. Among other things, pride is a God-repellent. He opposes the proud. The good news is that God gives grace to the humble. Just as pride disgusts God, praise delights Him.

The apostle Paul modeled the right attitude better than anyone I know. Paul easily could have fallen victim to material, relational, or circumstantial ungratefulness. He had reason to gripe about all that he’d given up for Christ. He’d surrendered the normal life of marriage and being a dad to spread the Gospel. He’d been beaten, flogged, shipwrecked, stoned, left for dead, and imprisoned.

While in house arrest, instead of blaming God, crying about the injustices, or losing his faith, Paul chose to focus on what he had. In his gratitude, Paul discovered the secret of contentment. This wasn’t a natural response for him, just as it won’t be natural for us. Paul had to learn contentment, gratitude, and praise. He said, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

No matter what life threw his way, Paul learned to be grateful and content. Not on his own but through Christ who gave him strength. 

Once you take inventory of all your blessings, it’s easy to be thankful for what God has given you. But it’s also helpful to think not just of the good things you have but also the bad things that you haven’t experienced. 

In her poem “Otherwise” poet Jane Kenyon reflects on her blessings with gratitude, embracing each moment of life.

I got out of bed

On two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and 

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

Kenyon wrote that poem in 1993, upon learning that her husband, Donald Hall, had cancer. Ironically, it was Kenyon, not Hall, who died a year later after a fierce and swift battle with leukaemia. “Otherwise” came unexpectedly. But Jane Kenyon didn’t miss the blessings of God in each day. She learned the art of gratitude.  

Cultivate the Value of Gratitude – Part One

Have you ever gone to a lot of trouble to do something special for someone, but they barely acknowledge your effort? You planned. You saved. You prepared. You thought of every detail. You made everything just right. You worked like crazy to surprise someone, bless someone, honour someone. And they didn’t say thank you. Of course you didn’t do it to be rewarded, but an acknowledgement would have been nice.

Imagine how God feels when He gives us life, His love, His presence, His blessings, His Son. And we ignore Him, continuing to do our own thing. Or perhaps we’re a bit more gracious and give a polite, token “thanks, God.” We show up for church once or twice a month, if we’re not too tired or don’t have the chance to take a weekend trip out of town. We halfheartedly sing a few songs, listen to the sermon, nodding to acknowledge God before rushing to our favourite restaurant or coffee shop to enjoy our normal life.

I believe that as believers we need to learn and live, embrace and cultivate the life-changing value of gratitude. Difficult at the best of times and especially so in our “entitlement” culture of today. But, as disciples we must focus on and make an effort to cultivate a lifestyle that is consistently grateful for all we have been given by the Lord. Living life with an attitude of gratitude is life-changing.

Gratitude kills pride. Gratitude slays self-sufficiency. Gratitude crushes the spirit of entitlement. When we replace our daily discontentment with whatever in life is bothering us – and simply focus on how much we have to be grateful for, our hearts will slowly change and we will live a life of thanksgiving.

Learning to be grateful to God puts us in a constant awareness of the source of all good things in our lives, always reminding us of our need, which God met through Christ. Rather than demanding that God serve our wishes, gratitude puts us in our rightful place – eternally indebted to the One who gave us life in the first place.

When you dig up the roots of entitlement, gratitude will grow in the good soil of a fertile heart. Gratitude will change how you see your past, acknowledging God’s sovereignty in all things. Gratitude positions you to experience God moment by moment in the present, depending on Him daily. Gratitude places you in a posture of worship, ready to give praise to God for every good thing He will do in your future.

What has God done in your life? What has He given you? What blessings do you take for granted? Your life? Your health? Your friendships? Your job? Your home or apartment? When you pause to really think, I promise you can see God in all things, even in the things you wish had never happened.

I’ve always found it interesting that people ask why bad things happen to them, but they rarely ask why good things happen to them. These attitudes reflect the false belief that we don’t deserve bad but we do deserve good. Remember, all we really deserve is hell. If you’re a Christian, Christ has saved you from the pit of your sin. You’ve been filled with the Spirit of God. You’re adopted into God’s eternal family. Your life is not your own. You were bought with a price – the blood of Jesus shed for you on the cross.

Just like the lepers who came to Jesus, you’ve been cleansed. Healed. Transformed. (see: Luke 17: 11-19)  Will you be like most in our society — like the nine who were too busy to say “thank you”? Or will you be different, live gratefully, and return to say thank you to the God who gave you everything that matters?  

Integrity Deficit – Part Three

Let’s look at four serious benefits of living a life of integrity. While there are many more, these are some of my favourites:

1> You’ll walk closely with God.

Think of it like this: If I can clearly impart my family values to my children, and they choose to live their lives according to those principles and values, then obviously, this will increase our harmony with each other. On the other hand, consider what would happen if I clearly shared my important values with my children, and one or more of them decided to go their own way, contrary to what I had taught them. Now, of course, I’ll still love that child, but certainly their choices are going to interfere with our intimacy, our communion, and our ongoing fellowship. Our relationship with God follows a similar dynamic. When you live according to His values, you’ll naturally walk with Him, enjoying His presence daily.

2> You’ll have divine GPS.

Proverbs 11:3 says that “the integrity of the upright guides them.” When you allow integrity to lead you, you don’t have to guess what’s right. Decisions become much easier when they’re based not on what you think you can get away with but on what’s right in God’s eyes. It’s the difference between following your best guesses on how to reach your destination versus using a first-rate GPS that tells you how to proceed every step along the way. We must allow our integrity to guide us.

3> You’ll feel constant peace.

This is the benefit that means the most to me. When I lay my head on my pillow at night, I don’t ever lie there worrying, “Man, I sure hope nobody finds out what I’ve done today.” When you live with integrity, you’re not constantly looking over your shoulder, fearful of getting caught, wondering how long it will be until you’re found out. When you simply do the right thing, you abide in constant peace. There’s no fear, guilt, shame, or regret; just peace.

4> You’ll gain trust, respect, honour, and influence.

If you want to lead and inspire your family and friends, be a person of integrity. If you want great children, be a parent of integrity. If you want influence in the business community, be a person of your word. When you live with integrity, people will follow you and honour you. They’ll listen when you speak. Over time, they’ll even begin to seek out your wisdom and advice. Such is the legacy of integrity.

The benefits of integrity may seem obvious, yet they remain out of reach for many people, including those who should be the best examples — Christians. One of the most common complaints I hear from people outside the church is that Christians are a bunch of hypocrites, clearly a problem since a hypocrite is the opposite of a person of integrity.

Hypokrites, the Greek word that we translate “hypocrite,” means literally “an actor or stage player.” In the tradition of ancient Greek drama, each actor played several different roles. They used a different carved wooden mask for each of the various characters they were playing. Maybe you’ve seen the smiling comic mask alongside the frowning tragic mask used as symbols for the theatre or to represent drama in general. When an actor in ancient Greece needed to switch to a different character, he simply picked up a different mask and held it in front of his face. It was as simple as that.

I think many of us do exactly the same thing. For each social circumstance we find ourselves in, we present ourselves in the best possible light, even if it’s not honest, accurate, or authentic. We calculate who we think someone wants us to be, and then we select the appropriate mask to play that part for them. But it’s only a mask. It’s not who you really are; it’s just who you’re pretending to be.

It may be hard to see it in yourself, but each of us lacks integrity at some point or other. But it seems like we can always justify our pet behaviours, whether it’s by calling them “little white lies” or telling ourselves that we’re protecting the feelings of others. But consider how God looks at our “little quirks.” While Jesus openly welcomed repentant prostitutes, adulterers, and other vile sinners into His Kingdom, He was relentless in condemning hypocrites. Here’s what He says in Matthew 23:25-28:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Jesus exposed them for what they were. He essentially said, “You fakers. You play actors. You have zero integrity. You put on your game face and you look religious. You look nice and righteous on the outside. But inside, your heart us absolutely filthy with sin.”

It doesn’t make any difference if people appear to be righteous. What matters is to be pure on the inside. Woe to you if you lack integrity, full of hypocrisy. We must start with what’s inside us, allowing Christ to transform us, and then our actions will follow suit. Through Christ, we clean the inside of the cup before we move on to the outside. We sacrifice our selfish, deceitful, ego-driven impulses on the altar of truth so that our behaviour reflects God’s righteousness. Integrity starts from the inside out, not the outside in.