Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Danger and Legalism of Unnecessary Sacrifices

Legalism can be so subtle.

We think of obvious types of legalism - the false gospel of works-based salvation Paul challenges in Galatians, the added rules of the Pharisees that burdened the people in Jesus' day. Recognizing those extremes is really not difficult when we have a working knowledge of the New Testament.

It's the subtle legalism that trips up so many of us. The idea that we can make God love us less or more. The pride that creeps in when we think we have something figured out that others are missing. The "ideal _______ (man, woman, marriage, child, pastor, church, etc.)" that goes beyond Biblical parameters to apply personal preferences. And ... unnecessary sacrifices.

This one took me a long time to see. I heard a pastor years ago say "Don't make any unnecessary sacrifices". I took it as an encouragement, but as I've grown in the Lord and in the understanding of His Word I realize how much wisdom is in that sentence. Unnecessary sacrifices can be dangerous and often have a root of legalism.

Of course, God asks us to bring spiritual sacrifices. The sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15), doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:16), sacrificial giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), offering our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2), and even being willing to die for the sake of the call (Philippians 2:17) -- all these are right and good sacrifices for the Christian.

But unnecessary sacrifices? Those can be downright dangerous. Consider the example of Saul, when he asked his men to fast during a major battle: 
Now the men of Israel were pressed to exhaustion that day, because Saul had placed them under an oath, saying, "Let a curse fall on anyone who eats before evening--before I have full revenge on my enemies." So no one ate anything all day, even though they had all found honeycomb on the ground in the forest. They didn't dare touch the honey because they all feared the oath they had taken. But Jonathan had not heard his father's command, and he dipped the end of his stick into a piece of honeycomb and ate the honey. After he had eaten it, he felt refreshed. But one of the men saw him and said, "Your father made the army take a strict oath that anyone who eats food today will be cursed. That is why everyone is weary and faint." "My father has made trouble for us all!" Jonathan exclaimed. "A command like that only hurts us. See how refreshed I am now that I have eaten this little bit of honey. If the men had been allowed to eat freely from the food they found among our enemies, think how many more Philistines we could have killed!" They chased and killed the Philistines all day from Micmash to Aijalon, growing more and more faint. (1 Samuel 14:24-31 NLT)
By this point in the narrative we know that Saul acts irrationally. His request for an unnecessary fast - an act intended to be a sacrificing of food in order to draw close to God - put his soldiers at risk. God still gave them victory, but they were weaker than they had to be. Jonathan's strength is a direct contrast after he feasted on the honey God provided. Saul's example gives one factor that leads to unnecessary sacrifices - a false idea that we can earn God's favor by an extreme act of devotion.This is a key sign of legalism.

Another reason for unnecessary sacrifices is a lack of desire to do what God asks. Sometimes we simply just don't want to do what He's clearly said. A sacrifice of our own choosing, however hard, seems easier.
What can we bring to the LORD? What kind of offerings should we give him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves?Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8 NLT)

Sometimes unnecessary sacrifices are motivated by selfishness - trying to impress God while really pleasing ourselves.
'We have fasted before you!' they say. 'Why aren't you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don't even notice it!' "I will tell you why!" I respond. "It's because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD? No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. (Isaiah 58:3-7 NLT)
All of these unnecessary sacrifices - and many others - have a dangerous root of legalism.

So how can we know our sacrifices are genuine spiritual sacrifices? As we learn to walk with the Lord and hear His voice we will know when He is calling us to a hard thing. I see four principles in Scripture that help me recognize His call instead of my own subtle legalism:

1) The sacrifice is Biblical.This should be obvious but it can't be overstated: Make sure that what you think you are being asked to sacrifice is a Biblical request. One of the ways legalism creeps in is to ask for sacrifices that are outside the lines of Scripture. This is, frankly, spiritually abusive. For example, God doesn't ask you to sacrifice your marriage for the sake of ministry. He might ask you to give up some time you had planned to spend with your spouse or something similar (you should always seek for unity in such a decision), but He won't ask you to leave your spouse to have more time for ministry. Immerse yourself in the Word and sit under sound teaching, and you'll have good sense of Biblical parameters for sacrifices.

2) The sacrifice is given freely and willingly. 2 Corinthian 9:7 tells us: "Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." While the immediate context speaks of financial giving, the passage applies the Old Testament principle of freewill offerings to the church. Money, time, fasting, our favorite shirt -- whatever we sacrifice should be given freely and willingly. 1 Peter 5:2 even goes so far as to apply this to church leaders! "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, watching over them--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve;"

So what about times God clearly calls you to sacrifice something that you struggle to hold on to? You know this sacrifice lines up with Scripture, and you know when God's asking something of you - but you are struggling with the 'freely and willingly' part.
Maybe you've heard it said that "God loves a cheerful giver but He'll take it from a grouch." I don't see that concept in Scripture. Sure, a "grouch" can hand over a sacrifice, but God looks on the heart. I've faced a few of those situations in my life (who hasn't) and here's what I've learned: The answer to get me to the point of "freely and willingly" is the same as anything in Scripture -- look to Jesus. Keep my eyes on Him, and ask the Holy Spirit to help me. As Christians we already know the power of God to change hearts, to make dead men live. If He can do that, then He can make unwilling hearts willing. Before giving the sacrifice, I take it to God and ask Him to change my heart, to bring it in line with His. Often I don't get the "feeling" until the moment I put my hand to the step of committing to the sacrifice (sending that email, writing that check, etc.) -- but inevitably, when God is behind a sacrifice, before it's actually made He makes me willing. I just have to seek Him more sometimes than others. :) 

3) The sacrifice is prompted by faith. 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says, "May God fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith." This is great encouragement for those times we aren't sure if something is a direct call from God or the good act of a Godward believer. Any good purpose -- and any sacrifice -- should be prompted by faith. This is crucial, because faith-prompted acts are not based on guilt ("I should do this") or manipulation ("You should do this"). They're not driven by fear or pride or selfishness. Instead. they are full of faith from the beginning. 

4) The sacrifice is motivated by Christ's love. Paul wrote to Corinth: "If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died." (2 Corinthians 5:13-14). Everything that Paul did was motivated by the love of Christ. The word "compels" literally means "controls" or "held together with restraints". It's used of prisoners being arrested and cattle being squeezed into a location to receive medication. Paul is essentially teaching us by His example that the only thing that should press any sacrifice or act of faith upon us is the love of Christ. The biggest danger of legalism is that it gives someone or something else a level of control over us that belongs only to Christ.

So there you have it - 3 examples of the danger and legalism of unnecessary sacrifices, and four Biblical guidelines for discerning the difference. May God give you grace for everything He calls you to do, and may He direct your hearts into God's love and Christ's perseverance when things get tough (2 Thessalonians 3:5).  

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bible 101, Question 5: Getting started: Approaches to reading the Bible

So far in this series we have established that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that the Bibles we hold in our hands are accurate texts of the words God inspired, that the differences in translations should not trouble us, and that the Bible should have a place of priority in the life of a believer. If you're with me this far, I assume you are ready to get started, or restarted, making the Bible prominent in your life.

But how? Where do you begin? You might have heard the old joke about the man who had a random approach to reading the Bible. The story is told here:
The first verse he happened to turn to was Matthew 27:5 which says Judas "went and hanged himself." Since he was not sure how this verse applied to himself, he flipped to another passage and the Bible fell open to Luke 10:37: "Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise." The man was quite upset and he did not know how he could ever obey that, so he decided to turn to one more place. Again he opened the Bible at random and to his horror his finger fell upon John 13:27: "Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly."
It's easy to see the pitfalls of that method! So what's a Christian to do instead? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I've included some approaches to the Bible that I personally have found helpful over the years. I hope one or more of them works for you!

Reading through the Bible
My personal opinion is that every Christian benefits enormously by consistently working on a Bible read-through. It's the only way to be exposed to all of Scripture on a consistent basis, and God never fails to teach me something new every time I go through. There are so many ways to do this. Many Christians do a "through the Bible in a year plan"; your church might have a guideline for that. My grandfather's plan was two chapters of Old Testament and one of New Testament every day. Chronological Bibles set up daily readings across several books so you don't flip back and forth.

Personal confession: I've read through the Bible 6 times, working on 7th, but I've never read through the Bible in a year. I'm so task-oriented that I get focused on "checking off my list" and the words zip past me. Instead, I read a chapter a day, or occasionally two because when I'm in Psalms I typically continue in my other reading as well. It takes me 3 years to read the 1189 chapters of the Old and New Testaments; if I didn't double up on Psalms it would take about 3 1/4 years.

Each time I read through the Bible I try to use a different translation, or one I haven't used in a while. This gives a different "flavor" to the familiar words and forces me to slow down and pay more attention. I also keep notes of what God teaches me in each chapter. Some read-throughs I have challenged myself to focus on different things: Chronology of event, Attributes of God, Jesus in the text, and my personal favorite challenge was a personal application from every chapter of the Bible. Boy, was that fun in Chronicles and Leviticus! I still remember one lesson from the detailed description of priest sacrificial offering requirements: "Ministry is messy."

I also take a break from my read through every Holy Week (Palm Sunday through Easter) to read the Passion Week accounts in my Harmony of the Gospels. On Palm Sunday I read the Palm Sunday events; Monday the Monday events; and so forth. It focuses my attention on that week in a way nothing else does.

Devotionals are short readings, often from Bible teachers or pastors (but not always), typically arranged in some sort of thematic fashion. Devotionals can be a helpful tool in establishing a daily quiet time, and provide a great resource for those whose time is truly limited (moms of toddlers come to mind!). Devotionals are most helpful when used in conjunction with the recommended reading for each day. If there is not a suggested reading, then reading the chapter from which the devotional passage is taken is a helpful tool.

Personally, I find devotionals of most value as a supplement to my Bible reading and study. My husband and I read a daily devotional together at breakfast, after we have each had our quiet times. It often reinforces what God is speaking to each of us individually.

In-Depth Study
By "in-depth study" I don't mean a particular method, but any intentional, systematic study of a portion of God's word. This can be an inductive study of a book; a topical study; a character study; and much more. There is a wealth of options for guided in-depth Bible studies, some with video and audio components plus a workbook; others with workbooks alone. I have done many such studies and typically always have one going that I do each day in addition to my Bible read-through. If you choose to do an in-depth study, I recommend that you talk to your pastor or Bible teacher at church for suggestions to start with. Then, as you continue you can branch out to other authors. At some point you will encounter teachings that might be different from what your pastor teaches. I would encourage you to talk to him about those differences. You will find that in the vast majority of cases the differences are on non-essential aspects of the faith.

Another way to do an in-depth study is to learn how to study the Bible inductively on your own. I'll go into more details on Biblical interpretation in the next post, but for now I will just recommend Kay Arthur's "How to Study Your Bible" as a starting point. The companion "Inductive Study Bible" has been an invaluable resource for me for almost 20 years; my notes fill its pages and I've learned so many things through my own studies.
Memorizing Scripture
I wasn't raised on Scripture memory. I tucked away John 3:16 and Psalm 23, and that was about it, until I started doing in-depth Bible study. One study challenged me to memorize a verse a week. Other verses stuck in my mind simply from continual contact with them in the course of a week's study. A few years ago, though, God prompted me to become more intentional about Scripture memory. I memorized some longer passages and an entire chapter (Isaiah 58). It was after memorizing the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) that I was hooked. I find that I learn so much from the repetition. As I consider the verse for the purpose of memorization, I understand the meaning more. Remember, our books were initially read aloud, so reading or memorizing out loud gives a cadence that we often miss in reading silently. Now I am always working on some significant chunk of memory work.

There are as many ways to memorize as there are learners. I'm a tactile-kinesthetic learner. I have to take notes to remember anything from a sermon; I have to write things down; etc. The way that translates to my scripture memory is that I write out the verses on spiral note cards, then learn them while walking our dog (I joke that she knows more scripture than any dog alive!). I review them while driving, swimming, anything that involves movement. I review them when falling asleep, usually not getting very far but often waking up during the night and picking up the next verse. The passage really becomes part of me in a unique way.

So there you go - four different approaches to being in the Word. Each of these are part of my life on a daily or almost daily basis. As you begin or continue your journey in God's Word, I hope that my experience can help you grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bible 101, Question 4: Why is the Bible important?

Once we have established the authenticity and inspiration of Scripture, and determine the best translation for our purposes, often we still need motivation to make Scripture prominent in our lives. Let's face it: It takes time to read the Bible, listen to a sermon, work on a study. Why is it important that we carve out some of our valuable time to spend in the word of God? Here are 10 answers, straight from Scripture. I pray they will encourage you to press forward in your Bible reading and study. (All passages English Standard Version.)

The Bible is God's means to guide us through life.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)

The Bible gives us hope as we learn from the lives of others.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:14)

The Bible is living and active, and reveals what is really in our hearts.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The word of God is at work in believers.
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.(1 Thessalonians 2:13)

The word of God tells us about Jesus.
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me (John 5:39)

God's word is essential for true life.
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63).

God promises that His word always accomplishes His purpose.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

God's word has a sanctifying effect in our lives.
I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. (Psalm 119:11)

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.(2 Peter 1:3-4)

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.(John 17:17)

God's words keep us free of shame and full of joy.
Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.(Psalm 119:6)

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11)

The word of God will outlast anything on this earth.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.(Isaiah 40:8)