Paul's Ponderings

Thoughts about following Jesus

Tag: Relationship with God (page 1 of 5)

Covenants are Important

CovenantsOne important reality that we need to remember when we read the Bible is that we live in a different culture than the culture it was originally written in. Bible translators do their best to produce a translation that captures the original intent while making it understandable to us, but we still need to do the work of understanding the original context of Scripture. This will help us grasp the full message God has for us in His Word.

An important concept that we need to understand is the concept of covenant. The theme of covenant runs through the entire Bible. Since we live in a society is based on contracts rather than covenants it can be difficult to understand exactly what a covenant is.

The man who taught me about the importance of covenants, Chuck McCoy (one of my professors in college), wrote this; “In the ancient Middle East and Biblical world, a ‘covenant’ was a solemn, blood-sealed agreement between parties that both establishes and regulates a relationship between them and is made binding by an oath.”

There are three important implications of covenants that I want to identify:

  1. Covenants demonstrate that the God of the Bible (YHWH) is different from the gods of the pagans. People imagined the pagan gods to be fickle, cruel, mean, and unreliable. They could not be trusted, for they were really nothing more than super humans using people as pawns in their sadistic games. YHWH, the covenant making God of the Bible, is different. He could be  trusted and He had a desire for people to succeed and become the people He created them to be. Think about that reality for a moment. When we have a covenant relationship with God He has a great desire for us to up hold our end of the covenant! We don’t have to be fearful that God is looking for a reason to punish us, rather, we can go boldly to our Father in Heaven and ask for the wisdom, the strength, and the support we need to live the life He created us to live. Ultimately, knowing that we are in a covenant relationship with God means we can trust God to help us along the way.
  2. Covenants provide the  expectations God has for people. A crucial element of  covenants are the terms or the expectations of the covenant. In essence the 10 Commandments are the basic terms of the covenant God established with Israel. The terms of the New Covenant, established by Jesus, are written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, but are summed up in the commands to love God and love people. These expectations help us understand what it means to be faithful. In a culture that equates faith with belief we need the parameters of faithfulness defined for us. I don’t remain faithful to God because I maintain my belief that He exists and that Jesus died for the sins of the world. My faithfulness to God is demonstrated by keeping the terms of the covenant He made with His people. Just as Jesus remained faithful to God through obedience to His will, we remain faithful to God through our obedience.
  3. Covenants allow us to be confident in our relationship with God.  I am confident in my relationship to my wife because of the commitment we made to each other. The same is true with our covenant relationship with God. He has made a commitment to us, and demonstrated that commitment through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The covenant we have with God declares that our redemption, our place in His kingdom, is not the result of our behavior, but the result of His grace. God is the one that took the initiative to save us, He has promised to provide for our needs, and He has declared that He will forgive our sins. Our salvation is secure because of the covenant God established with us.

Covenants are not incidental to our theology, they are the very foundation of Christian theology. We worship a covenant making God, and those covenants give us confidence and security.

Yes, we have a personal relationship with God, but that personal relationship is based on covenant. I think the more we understand about covenants, especially the New Covenant God established through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the more confident and hopeful we will be in our relationship with Him.

Being Truly Religious

Being ReligiousDo you consider yourself to be a religious person?

I know I do, in spite of the fact that I am told that Christianity is a “relationship not a religion.”

Religion is not a bad thing. Religion is the system of practices that guide people in worship and grow in their knowledge of God. In other words, religion is how we have a relationship with God.

We are not to avoid religion, but the religious spirit. This is what Jesus condemned in the religious leaders of his day. These leaders put a greater emphasis on following the regulations and rituals of their religion than truly having faith in God.

The basic handbook of our religion is the Bible. In the Bible we discover certain rituals that were handed down by God. This is especially true with Judaism. The books of Exodus and Leviticus contain the rules and regulations of how Israel was to relate to God. A person cannot help but notice as they read through these books that God was very specific on how things should be done.

As Christians we know there are two very important rituals that are to be part of lives: Communion and baptism. While many of the old Jewish rituals and feasts we laid aside after the death and resurrection of Jesus, these two rituals were commanded by Jesus for his followers to observe.

Some of these rituals that make up religion are the result of tradition and are the product of human ideas of what should be done in order to relate to God. They have little or no Scriptural base, but they are accepted because that is how things have been done, and people have found value in them.

These things include observing Christmas and Easter, two Christian holidays that are not mentioned in Scripture. They also include church buildings, the order of our worship services, and the liturgy that we used.

Besides helping us relate to God, religion has another purpose for our lives. That purpose is to help us change.

I can’t speak for other religions, but the purpose of Christianity isn’t just about having a relationship with God, but it is also about helping us become the people God created us to be. In other words, our religion is to be a catalyst for life change.

Read what James had to say about religion:

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you (James 1:26-27; NLT).

James spent much of the first chapter of his book talking about how trials, God’s wisdom, and God’s Word are needed to help us become the people God created us to be, because sin has corrupted us. What James points out in these two verses is the truth that going through the motions of religion, doing the rituals and the traditions, is not the same thing as changing. If we can’t learn self-control, if we can’t have compassion for the needy, and if we cannot remain pure in this sinful world than our religion is worthless.

The only way religion has any effect on us, this is also true for trials and God’s Word, is if we first commit ourselves to being faithful. Faith, our choice to commit and trust God, is what makes the difference. Without faith religion is just empty rituals and traditions. Without faith the trials and tragedies of life serve no purpose. Without faith God’s wisdom, which is found in His Word, is nothing more than a nice way to live.

Faith, our trust in God, is what makes all the difference. God cannot change our lives, cannot restore us to true life, until we trust Him. So in the end it isn’t about being a religious person, but it is about being a faithful person.

Two questions we have to consider are: Who am I faithful to? Will I trust Him with my life?

If the answers aren’t Jesus and yes, our religion just might be worthless.

A Deeper Relationship

Like all relationships, our relationship with God is strengthened through experience. The shared experiences that we have with friends and family provide memories and creates a bond that is essential to long lasting relationships.

Our shared experiences with God will look different, but that doesn’t mean they are any less valuable. We are able to experience God in our lives as we live in obedience to His Word.

The reason many American Christians are frustrated with their relationship with God has little to do with their passion for ministry, their commitment to worship, or their love for God. Rather, the problem lies in their obedience. If you are not willing to obey God then you will miss out on God working in and through your life. In short, you will not experience God in your life.

We see this truth in action in Matthew 19:16-30. This passage is the story of the rich young ruler.

I think the rich young man is one person American Christians can identify with in Scripture . One of the things we have in common is wealth. I recently saw a statistic that stated that a person who made $25,000 a year was in the top 10% of the richest people in the world. Since the average income for a person in the United States is a little more than $26,000, means many Christians in the United States are wealthy when compared to the rest of the world.

Another thing we have in common is morality. Many American Christians, especially conservatives, are concerned with morality. This rich young man was a moral person. When he told Jesus that he has kept the law, he wasn’t saying that he had kept it perfectly, rather, he was saying that he made sure to take care of his sin through offering the correct sacrifice. Christians in the United States are moral people, and we are deeply grieved by the sin in our lives and in the world around us. This causes us to seeking God’s forgiveness on a regular basis.

The young man, who seemed to be on the right path, came to Jesus with a question: How can I have eternal life?

In spite of his morality and wealth, when he had examined his life and the young man noticed that something was missing. He longed to be part of God’s Kingdom, and he went to the one person he thought had the answer: Jesus

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22; NLT)

The young man came to Jesus with what seemed to be a sincere question. The problem was not the question, but his desire to hear a certain type of answer. This might be reading too much into the text, but I believe he came looking to add something to his life. He was looking for the right sacrifice to make, the right prayer to pray, or the right spiritual discipline to do. He was not prepared to radically change his life.

Jesus challenged the an to step out in faith and to give up his identity. To sell his possessions and give his wealth to the poor was risky. In a world of extreme poverty, the young man had security. Who was he if he didn’t have his wealth?

The young man knew by refusing to follow Jesus in obedience meant he was giving up something important. Matthew tells us that he left Jesus sad. He knew something was missing in his life, but that craving was not stronger than his desire for security and comfort. In the end he missed out on developing a deeper relationship with God through the experience of God’s daily provision for his life.

Many Christians would like a deeper relationship with God, to be able to experience eternal life, the life that Jesus has for them to live. They have been faithful in their church attendance, they are a part of a small group, they have gone on a short term mission trip, and they give generously. The issue is that God still seems distant to them. Could it be that the reason God feels distant to them is because there is an issue in their life where they are not obeying God?

Jesus asks us to be baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We walk away frustrated because that is a “work” and a relationship with God is built on “faith”.

Jesus asks us to spend time with the elderly couple next door. We cry out to God for His presence, but we are too busy to walk next door because we have more urgent things to do.

Jesus asks us to simplify our lives. We put it off because there is too much clutter in our lives to deal with right now. We tell ourselves that we will do it later, when things slow down.

What has Jesus asked you to do, but you have failed to do it? Could this be the reason there seems to be something missing in your relationship with God?

The reason men like Abraham, Moses, and David had amazing relationships with God was because of their obedience. True obedience is always an act of faith and love. When we trust God we will obey Him, because we know He wants the best for us. When we obey we demonstrate our love for God, because we know He will not ask us to do something that will harm our relationship with Him.

This is what James wrote about the connection of obedience and faith:

“Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was declared right with God because of what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, he was trusting God so much that he was willing to do whatever God told him to do. His faith was made complete by what he did—by his actions.” (James 2:21-22; NLT)

Abraham was willing to follow God even at the cost of his son Isaac. What are you willing to sacrifice in order to have relationship with God?

Spiritual disciplines are essential to our relationship with God, but they are not enough. A relationship with God is developed through our obedience, as we step out in faith and experience God’s presence in our lives. This means we need to be willing to sacrifice the good in our lives so we can have God’s best.

The Way of Obedience

The WayIf life is the quest to become the people God created us to be, then how do we know which way to travel?

There are many roads that we can take, but only one is the path of spiritual formation. If we are unwilling to follow this road we will miss out, not only on God, but also the life He created us to live.

Henry Blackaby in the workbook Experiencing God wrote: “God’s commands are designed to guide you to life’s very best. You will not obey Him, however, if you do not believe Him and trust Him. You cannot believe Him if you do not love Him. You cannot love Him unless you know Him.” (p. 63)

The path that leads to becoming the person God created us to be is the way of obedience.

This quest to become the people God created us to be began with our knowledge of who God is. We cannot love, trust, and obey God unless we first know Him. Knowledge is the foundation of faith.

This is the truth that the apostle Paul highlighted when he wrote:

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! (Romans 10:14-15; ESV)

Without a knowledge of God it is impossible to have faith. And what is faith?

This is the definition that I use: Faith is the combination of trust and action. This can only be demonstrated by our obedience. Without obedience there is no living faith.

The great biblical example of faith is Abraham. The Bible tells us that Abraham heard God’s call when he was in the land of Ur. How well did Abraham know God at this point in his life? Many scholars believe that it is likely that Abraham worshiped many gods and that he lacked a knowledge of Yahweh.

Blackaby in Created to be God’s Friend made this point; “To our knowledge, Abram was not seeking God; God was seeking him” (p. 16). In other words the beginning of Abraham’s journey was God’s desire to have a relationship with Him and not in Abraham”s desire to have a relationship.

What does that mean for us? it means that our faith and our spiritual formation in Christ all originate with God, and not with us. But for God’s desire to have any affect on us we need to respond to it. For our knowledge of God to make any difference in our lives, we must act on it.

God’s call to Abraham was enough for Abraham to act on and make that first step of faith towards the Promised Land. From there Abraham’s knowledge of God and his faith grew.

The revelation of God, found primarily in the Bible, provides us with the initial knowledge that we need to trust God and obey Him. As  we continue to trust and obey God with our lives we begin to develop a deeper relationship with Him.

The relationship Abraham had with God at the beginning was not very strong. Abraham knew God well enough to trust God to lead him to the Promised Land, but based on the biblical account we know that there were other areas of Abraham’s life where He did not trust God. Yet over time Abraham learned to trust and love God like few people in history have. At the end of his life Abraham knew God a whole lot better than he did when he first left Ur to follow God into the unknown.

The apostle John talks about the relationship between obedience and a relationship with God:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says I know him but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:3-6; ESV)

The only way to truly know God and thus become the people God created us to be is to obey God. There is no other way that will happen. We can spend time talking about purpose and goals and self-improvement techniques, but if we don’t turn to the Life-Maker we will miss out on life.

Remember we will not begin this quest to become the people God created us to be if we do not have a minimal knowledge of God. If we do not believe God exists we will not seek to know Him better let alone discover the life He created us to live. This quest begins when we act on the small glimpse God has revealed of Himself to us.

Through living this journey and experiencing God along the way we begin to know God better and better. Ultimately our knowledge of God is increased through living a life of obedience, and not just through Bible study and church attendance.

By traveling the road of obedience our faith is made stronger, our relationship with God is deepened, and our understanding of ourselves is improved.

Only as we obey God do we begin to experience Him at work in the world around us. It is this experience which helps us understand the heart of God, and thus brings us a little closer to Him.

Be Alone with God

Alone with God{Matthew 6:5-6; NLT}
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”

A temptation that Christians face is to substitute following Jesus with living a religious life. The reason this is easy to do is because religion feels “spiritual”, and the purpose of religion is to connect us to God. Yet, religion often stunts the spiritual formation of our lives.

One of the ways we will know that we have a problem in our relationship with God is when our “spiritual” life is done entirely in public and for the show of others. We neglect using our private time to connect to God, but we use public moments to appear “spiritual” or “religious” so we can impress people. In my life the people I have wanted to “show off” my “spiritual” life have been my family and a small group of friends. Who has it been for you?

Way back in 1895 a pastor by the name of Andrew Murray wrote:

If you are not willing to sacrifice time to get alone with him, and to give him time every day to work in you, and to keep up the link of connection between you and himself, he cannot give you that blessing of his unbroken fellowship. Jesus Christ asks you to live in close communion with him. Let every heart say: “O, Christ, it is this I long for, it is this I choose.” And he will gladly give it to you. (Humility and Absolute Surrender, emphasis added, p. 157).

I think Andrew Murray hits on one of the common experiences we all have as we follow Jesus: selfishness with our time. The older we get the less time we seem to have, and yet we seem to find the time to watch movies, hang out with friends, go to the mall, or skim through Facebook. What gets sacrificed in the process is our relationship with Christ, and thus our connection to the source of new life that will transform our lives.

The most important choice we can make each and every day is the choice to put aside good things and spend time with God through prayer, reading, worship, and meditation. God longs to give us life, but we must spend time with Him to discover it.

Questions to consider:

  • Why is it important to find time to be alone with God?
  • Has religion become an obstacle in your relationship with God?
  • What are some way you connect with God on a regular basis?
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