January 30, 2013

Identity: Restoring the Image of God Part 2

Last summer, Lori, Bri, and I were given the opportunity of a lifetime; to vacation in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. The catch was that we had to do so in a 24 foot RV. It is actually larger than it sounds, but still rather close quarters. I assumed by the end of our vacation that Bri would be the only child of a widowed parent and one of us would be buried somewhere in the Yellowstone forest.

I figured I had a fighting chance considering I had been camping and new how to get around quickly in a wooded area...but as they say, “Hell hath no fury...” so it was probably not going to work out in my favor.

Besides I really wanted to see a bear and Lori knew all she had to do was wait for me to do something stupid!

So, we started packing for this vacation. Having very limited space and a small enclosed quarters meant packing for two weeks was a challenge. Many things that felt essential didn’t make the cut because we didn’t have the room. We had to cut so many things out, and there was very little room to add anything.

Whenever the church starts talking about spiritual growth and how to grow, we often talk about things that we need to add to our lives...prayer, bible reading, bible study, small groups, serving, church attendance...there are a million things the church can add to an already overloaded schedule. These things are very good and very useful. In fact, next week we are going to look at some of the classic spiritual disciplines that should be part of a Christian’s life.

If you are like most people your schedules are packed! We are each given 24 hours in a day, no more no less...and yet some people seem better able to get more done than others.

In case you were wondering...The Average American spends:
7.6 hours sleeping
8.8 hours working or in work related activity
2.5 hours in leisure
1.1 hours doing household chores
1.1 hours eating
1.2 hours caring for others
1.7 hours doing various other things: Personal Care, Bathroom time, Purchasing stuff, waiting on hold for customer care...stuff like that.

And don’t forget the average household has a television on for more than 5 hours per day, and about an 1.5 hours on Facebook...all those minutes and notification checks add up!

We are busy people! So when we start about adding a devotional time and time with God it can sound like one more thing in a busy schedule. For today, though, I want us to look at how to add absolutely nothing to our schedule, and still grow spiritually.

The past few weeks, as we have worked our way through this message series on Identity, we have looked at what it means to be made in the Image of God. Genesis 1-2 tells us every human being is profoundly valuable simply because we have been made in the Image of God. Genesis 3 tells us that even though we retain part of that Image it is broken because of sin...Adam and Eve’s first sin and our continued participation in sin.

Last week we started talking about what it takes for that Image to be restored in our lives. It rests on Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for our salvation. Because of His death we are able to live in the power of Jesus resurrection through the Holy Spirit.

The Foundation that undergirds our growth into Christlikeness is the Holy Spirit working in our lives leading us through the cycle of Conviction... Confession... Repentance... Forgiveness. The Holy Spirit will point out a sin we need to remove from our life or something we have omitted and need to add (conviction)...we come to a place where we genuinely recognize that we have committed a wrong or left something undone and we confess that to God and sometimes to others... then we turn from our wrong doing (repentance)... Turning often has to be done over and over, from the same thing, throughout our lives...but Forgiveness is always the ultimate goal.

God will often be working on several areas at the same time. So while you may be at the conviction stage for one area of your life...you are on the repentance stage for another area...and the forgiveness stage for a different area. And this process will repeat itself over and over.

There is an old saying that still goes around the church...

God loves us where we are...But He love us to much to leave us there.

It is the Lord’s purpose to develop a Christlike character in each one us; to grow us and mature us.

Proverbs 17:3. “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart”.  In much the same way a metallurgist uses the refining process to smelt the impurities out of gold, silver, and iron...the Lord will test our hearts and our characters repeatedly throughout our lives in order to remove the impurities from our character.

You see...

God uses the entirety of our lives to develop our character...

So often we think of spiritual growth as something outside or in addition to “normal” life. But God is an active and interested and personal god. He works in our our world which gives all human experience a religious dimension. He is encountered in every experience of our life. Because our character is developed in each and every choice we make...All the Interruptions, hassles, trials, struggles, challenges, and problems....the good times...each and every choice we make...they are all opportunities God gives us to grow in our discipleship.

There are two key Scripture passages that remind us of this approach:

Romans 5:1-4
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
James 1:2-5
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
In both of these passage, we are reminded that there is a process, and that through this process, God’s desire is to develop a Christlike character. The authors are writing to congregations that are facing some tough challenges...even physical suffering and martyrdom.

So it sounds strange to say with James, “Consider it pure joy...whenever you face trials of many kinds...” The challenge is to change our perspective...to see that God is using and redeeming even our toughest struggles to develop us in Christlikeness...

There are two quick warnings.

  1. Saying that God works in and through a difficult struggle is not the same as saying He causes the difficulty and struggle to happen to us. We may struggle with God allowing something to happen, but it is certainly not the same as God causing it to happen. This has led many to repeatedly ask, “What have I done?” Stuff happens in life. Human existence is tough from birth till death. We are no more special than the next guy...but God is working and using these situations in our lives to develop character...if we let him.

  2. Joy is not happiness. The Apostle Paul termed it as having “glory” in our suffering. There are some trials and struggles and difficulties we have to face that we should NEVER say we are happy about...Joy, however, is something much deeper. It is knowing with certainty that God is at work even in the darkest of situation...that gives us joy. It is Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

We may not understand what God is doing or how He is working in a particular situation...But God is at work. And he works in each and every situation and trial and struggle and challenge and good thing we face.

God uses everyday life situations to point areas of weakness in our character, places where we have allowed sin to creep into our lives, practices and qualities we have omitted from our lives, and places where we have really grown. Our lives fit regularly in the cycle.

When we pray for God to give us patience...He doesn’t zap us with patience...No, because he knows that simply giving us patience does not help us understand what it means to be patient. So, he places us in situations where we need to consciously develop our patience muscles.

When God wants us to develop a character of truth-telling...He will place us in situations where it would be far easier to lie than to tell the truth. So we consciously develop the muscles of our truth-telling character.

He regularly places us in relationships that challenge our ability to love others...the coworker...the family member...the inlaws...the spouse...the other person at church...these are relationships where we are challenged to see God’s hand at work shaping and molding us into people who more effectively reflect His character.

The purpose is get our outward life to reflect our inward life...and all of it reflect Christ.

Our outward life is always a reflection of our inward life. The good and the bad...the virtues we have nurtured and developed and the sins we hide and cover up will eventually show up and shine through!

Jesus reminded us of this in Luke 6:43-45,
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
Proverbs 4:23, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

This is why our everyday life is so important. Because character is the sum total of all that we say and think and do...we cannot base it one action...but our actions over time demonstrate the reality of what God is doing in our heart.

As our co-workers, our families, and our friends watch us...there are some who will expect perfection...they are idiots...but for the most part people are looking at the sum total of all our lives, and the reality of God’s presence at work in your life is clearly seen in how you hand the day-to-day trials and struggles and hardships.

The real questions we have to ask is are we aware of it and do we take advantage of it...

Each and every person alive faces challenges and struggles in life...the question is whether they break us or make us stronger.

If it interesting that James places verse 5 right next to his writing about the role of struggles in our lives. We often disconnect James 1:5 from its context of learning through our sufferings. It says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

If we are challenged by a struggle or difficulty in our life, James says, “Pray for wisdom! Pray for God to give you insight!”

So often we would rather whine and complain about the struggles we are going through...we get stuck in the pain of the situation...Some people would rather be known as wounded and let everyone else know about their pain and struggles. But our challenge is to allow God to heal and grow us through the pain and struggles.

So how are you handling to critique of a co-worker or boss? Are you looking for the truth in the comments, standing up under the wrongness of it with, learning to appropriately handle the situation, allowing it to shape your character, or are you complaining about it and allowing it to rob you of an opportunity to grow?

When you are stuck in a long line...are you complaining and looking to jump lines (like me) or are you allowing it to develop some much needed patience in your life?

When temptation hits with that same sin again and again...do we allow God to develop perseverance and do we learn to resist and turn away or do you give in and making it easier to give in the next time?

God uses the situations we face to mold and shape and transform our character to be more like Christ.

One of the great Christian classics in spiritual reading is a book called Practicing the Presence by Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was a monk who realized what it meant to believe God was active and involved in every aspect of life...and He wanted to be aware of God’s presence in every part of his day.

Brother Lawrence says, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?”

This is not an easy task. Brother Lawrence continues, “As often as I could, I placed myself as a worshiper before him, fixing my mind upon his holy presence, recalling it when I found it wandering from him. This proved to be an exercise frequently painful, yet I persisted through all difficulties.”

So while he was at work baking bread, changing clothes, working in the garden...whatever it was Brother Lawrence practiced recognizing the presence of God in everything!

Our challenge is to see God at work in the everyday, mundane things...as well as the trials and struggles. We often feel pressured to add all kinds of stuff to our schedules, and there are things we need to add to help us grow, but we should never miss that God is at work in the stuff already going on in our lives.

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