Simple Faith: The Priority

I’m not first. I’m not most important. Neither is my wife, nor my kids, nor any others in my family, nor any of my friends. My job isn’t first, though admittedly there was a period in my life that it was. My ministry isn’t my highest priority, either. 

We are surrounded by cliches of worldly wisdom which emphasize all of those things. “You have to take care of yourself first.” “Family is most important.” “We stay together for the kids.” “You have to follow your passion.” “What we’re doing for people is the greatest thing I can do.” I’m sure you can fill in plenty more. If the cliche doesn’t agree with Scripture, it’s wrong.

Let me be clear. All of these are priorities. They are all important. It’s just that none of them belong in first place. This verse, part of Jesus’ last words to His disciples, makes it clear He is first:

Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.   – John 15:20, ESV

We are the servants. Jesus is the Master. Too often we say and promote a message where this relationship is reversed. How we talk about prayer is a good example. We talk about prayer as if God owes us something. God honors His promises, but not because He owes us. He honors them because of who He is. For instance, there is a right way and wrong way to approach Him. There’s plenty of guidance in Scripture as to what those ways are. Yet we talk about “praying about it,” and “God will provide,” and our use of those terms don’t match up with Scripture. Most of the time it’s because we are relegating God to “butler status,” even if that’s not what we meant to do.

You want a strong faith? Then you must have Jesus as the first priority. This will cause conflict. You will lose friends. You will have family members who don’t understand. And you will be expected to sacrifice. I don’t just mean a tithe sacrifice. Time, talent, those relationships, promotions at work, happiness, even life itself. 

Happiness – doesn’t God want us to be happy? No. Scripture doesn’t support that view. God promises us joy, which we find in Him. Joy, in a Biblical sense, is not a synonym for happiness. Joy is lasting, fulfilling, and can sustain us regardless of how we are feeling. Happiness is a feeling. Happiness can be replaced by sorrow in a second. Yet we can still have joy in that sorrow. See how joy is superior? Our goal should be joy, not happiness. That only comes when Jesus is first. If He’s not already, make Him your first priority.

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Having the Courage of Reuben

Have you ever felt like one against many? Did you ever want to stand up but were afraid of what the others might do to you? Reuben, son of Jacob, found himself in just such a position. 

Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father.  – Genesis 37:20-22, ESV

We don’t often talk about Reuben, much less about his actions in these verses. However, Reuben’s actions were absolutely critical here. If Reuben didn’t step up, his brothers would carry through with their intent to kill their brother, Joseph. We know in hindsight that God had a mighty plan through Joseph. That plan would save many people, including Joseph’s own family. Keep that in mind as you think about Reuben’s actions. 

Reuben couldn’t directly oppose his brothers. The fact that he was the oldest wouldn’t have stopped them because they absolutely despised Joseph. Joseph was his father’s unmerited favorite. He was treated differently than the rest of them. Then Joseph had the visions which revealed that Joseph would one day be in a key position of power. Joseph’s telling of those dreams to his brothers incited more hate. 

Reuben understood all that. We are not giving any evidence that he felt any differently than the rest of his brothers in hating Joseph. Yet Reuben realized killing his brother was wrong. However, if he stood up and forbade the act, they might have chosen to kill him, too. If he were dead, no one was going to be there for Joseph. Therefore, Reuben chose a different approach. He proposed a modification to their plans: continue with the rest of the plan, just stash Joseph in a hole and don’t kill him. That was enough. They changed their plans. 

It wasn’t a direct confrontation, but Reuben still put himself at risk. That took great courage. From Reuben we can be inspired to be courageous, too. Maybe we can’t do exactly what we’d like to do. I’m sure, faced with the situation, Reuben would have liked to tell his brothers to back off and see Joseph back to their dad. However, even if we can’t do exactly what we want to do, we can still consider what we can do and take a step of courage and do it. That’s what Reuben did. He offered a modification to the plan, one which gave him a chance to save Joseph later. The brothers accepted and Joseph was saved. 
Look to what you can do. Don’t give up hope. Don’t quit. Be courageous and take what steps you can do. Have courage like Reuben did. We might be surprised at the impact a small act of courage has. Think about what Joseph did. Think about the multitude of people his actions saved. And realize that without Reuben’s courage, it might not have happened like that. 

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Build Altars to God in Your Life

Every time I read about the Patriarchs in Genesis (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), I marvel how these men built altars with which to worship God. These altars were typically built at key moments when God appeared to them or when He provided in a mighty way.

The altars didn’t just provide a platform to worship. They also served as visual reminders to what God had done in the past. In a time of doubt or hardship, these men and those who were of their household need only gaze upon the nearest altar and remember that God had shown up, providing for His people. 

So early in the morning Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel, but the name of the city was Luz at first.  – Genesis 28:18-19, ESV

There are several passages I could have picked, but this one is significant because of what happens later. We see in these verses that Jacob made a makeshift altar. He had seen the angels coming and going to heaven. He was on the run from Esau and hadn’t yet been cheated by Laban. It is where God spoke to Jacob and gave him the same promise given to Jacob’s father and grandfather. It would also be where God would call Jacob to again after he had escaped Laban, reunited with Esau, but then saw personal tragedy and trouble with Dinah’s rape and his boys’ subsequent revenge. 

God said to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”  – Genesis 35:1, ESV

God called Jacob back to Bethel and commanded him to make an altar, a more lasting one this time. Jacob obeyed. Once again God spoke to Jacob of the promise. And Jacob remembered about the first pillar and set up a more lasting one, a pillar of stone. 

In our lives, we need to set up pillars and altars, too. We don’t need physical altars, but certainly some sort of representation or remembrance of what God has done for us. Life isn’t fair and times will be hard, even if they are going well now. After Bethel Rachel would give birth to Benjamin, but would die in childbirth. It would be a hard time for Jacob. We experience similar hard times, often unexpectedly. Altars to God Almighty help us through those times. 

What kind of holy altars to Jesus can you set up? What has He done in your life that you should remember and look back upon? When has God revealed Himself to you, showering you with His love? Take the time and effort to remember, just as the Patriarchs did.

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Walking with God

We make Christianity too hard. We make it about events, programs, building projects, small groups, Sunday school, and a whole host of other things. It’s not that those things shouldn’t exist within Christianity. It’s just that we too often make them the primary things. They should not be. Let me show you why.

As I was doing Bible study, I came across this simple statement:

But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.  – Genesis 6:8, ESV

When I see a statement like this, I ask, “Why?” In this case, why did Noah find favor in the Lord and why didn’t anyone else? This one isn’t hard to figure out as the answer is in the next verse:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.  – Genesis 6:9b

Note that the only action cited is “walked with God.” There’s nothing about how many times he attended worship services or how often he took care of the poor around him. There’s nothing mentioned about how good a father or husband he was. We don’t have any indication of his deeds. Yet Noah was found to be a righteous man, blameless in his generation. There’s something to this walking with God. 

Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. – Genesis 5:24, ESV

Why was Enoch taken? Enoch was taken because he walked with God. None of the others in the line of Adam were said to have this type of relationship. And therefore it’s not surprising that no others were reported to be taken by God. This walking with God isn’t possible if sin is dominating one’s life. For instance:

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  – Genesis 3:8, ESV

Walking with someone regularly speaks to a deep relationship. Walking with God means having a strong relationship with Him. It’s not that those other things I mentioned earlier aren’t important; they are. They are just not as important as our relationship with Jesus Christ. In actuality, all of our efforts in Christendom should come out of our relationship. They should be fruit of that relationship. However, too often we treat them as replacements for spending time with God, instead of seeking to draw closer to Him. 

If Christianity has gotten complicated for you, if it seems like it’s more work and commitments and appointments in an already busy life, look at your walk with Jesus. Is it where it should be? Are you spending time with Him? The Bible and prayer are the traditional ways we get to know Him better. And while one can gain a lot from worship service and Sunday school and small groups and other activities, the best way to get to know someone is one-n-one, which means time alone with our Savior. At the end of the day, our walk with God matters the most. Yes, the Bible directs us to meet together. We are in disobedience if we don’t listen to that. However, meeting together is not to take the place of spending that time with Jesus. Our good works don’t either. There will be plenty at judgment who will describe to our Lord all the things they did in His name. Remember, though, that many of them will be dismissed. Why? Because they never took the time to really know Jesus. Get to know Him. It’s eternally important.

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Face Fear with a View of Eternity

Paul knew he didn’t have much time left. Every previous appeal had failed. He knew he’d be in front of Nero. And he knew that in that short amount of time he’d convey the Gospel message. This wasn’t the way to win his freedom. At least, not his earthly freedom. Paul must have felt some fear. However, he didn’t let it control him. Instead, he wrote this to his son in the faith:

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:6-8, ESV

Paul knew what lay ahead. He had lived his life after conversion with a steadfast devotion to sharing the Gospel. He was called to be the apostle to the Gentiles and he lived it to the fullest. Therefore, he knew what was promised him in eternity. But note that he doesn’t just leave that promise pointing to him. He also points it at everyone who rejoices in Christ’s incarnation. Do you love that Jesus came in the form of a man and took our sins upon Himself? Then you also have a crown of righteousness reserved for you. 

There isn’t anything which can take that away. We can fear for our earthly lives, but we don’t have any reason to fear for our eternal ones or our eternal reward. Those will be delivered by God Himself and no one takes anything away from God. Even with intentional limits on His power and divinity, Jesus could not have been taken at Gethame. The Bible reminds us that He willingly laid His life down. He could have called angels but chose not to do so. He had to go to the Cross if we were to be forgiven and if those crowns of righteousness were to be fitted to our heads. Christ has ascended. Those temporary limits are gone. If His enemies couldn’t best Him during His time on earth, they most certainly cannot best Him now. Nor can they best His children and deprive them of what God has promised.

I don’t know what you may be going through. I don’t know what you’re facing. I know that the Bible has plenty of examples of people facing difficult, even life-shattering, situations. Not all of those end well from an earthly perspective. Some scenarios, like Paul’s, end in death. As a result, if our focus is only on earthly things, fear can overwhelm us. However, despite the tragedy and pain we might suffer in this lifetime, our eternal status and reward are preserved. They are protected. If we focus on those things, we can better face our fears. We can even approach death as Paul did, understanding that even in bad situations we can reveal our loving and merciful God to those who observe us. And we can quote the words of Paul as our own, because they will truly describe us.

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Face Fear with Prayer

Fear is powerful. Fear can overwhelm us. It can make us doubt what we believe in the most. It can cause us to question what we’ve done and why we’ve done it. Fear can cause us to wonder if we’ve wasted our lives. Such was the case with John the Baptist. Imprisoned, he wondered if he had lived life appropriately. Unsure, he reached out to Jesus.

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.  – Matthew 11:2-5, ESV

The once godly iconoclast of the wilderness, the one called to preach a message of repentance and forgiveness in preparation for the coming of the Christ, wondered if his life had been worth it. Had he lived up to what he was supposed to? Had he pointed people to the right one, to the correct man who was Christ? That’s what fear can do. It can take someone so formerly strong in the faith and cause him to question everything he did. That’s why John did the only thing he could think to do, he sent messengers to reach out to Jesus.

Note that Jesus didn’t rebuke John’s lack of faith. He didn’t shake His head and deplore how weak John had become. He instead gave the right words to help John deal with his fear. The miracles were proof that John had pointed people to the Christ. Jesus answered John with the encouragement the imprisoned man needed.

When we’re afraid, no matter how powerful that emotion of fear, we always have the option of turning to God in prayer. We can’t send messengers to an earthly person like John did, but then again, we don’t have to involve a middleman. We can simply go to God directly. Jesus understands our fears. He can sympathize with them having come in the form of a man. Therefore, there is no shame, no rebuke, and no punishment to seeking God out when fear threatens to overwhelm us. 

Are you afraid? First, turn to God in prayer. Acknowledge how you feel. Don’t be afraid of a rebuke. If you’re honest with God, as John was, God will respond in a way to help you deal with that fear. There’s no guarantee that He’s going to alleviate you of the situation you’re in. After all, John only left prison upon his death. But God can provide the means for you to overcome that fear. However, you first must turn to Him in prayer.

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Facing Fear Under Our Own Power

Fear is uncomfortable. Because it is uncomfortable, we want to get rid of it. This means when we act, we have a desire to execute on whatever comes to mind first, in hopes that it will get rid of that feeling of fear. As a result, we may choose the wrong path. We may react in a way that is destructive. This is why, for the Christian, Jesus should be the foundation upon which we build our ability to face our fears. As Christians, we should always be turning to Him first. However, as Christians, we’re also sinners. Because we’re sinners, sometimes we don’t do as we ought. Here’s a great example:

And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.  – Genesis 20:2, ESV

It’s easy to pile a lot of scorn on Abraham. After all, he basically offered his own wife on a half-truth for another man to take. He did it to preserve his own life. In this act, Abraham showed no trust in God. How could Abraham do this? Abraham could because he was a sinner, just like you and I are.

But Abraham is also the man who, in relatively old age, left his family and everything he knew and went on a journey with God. He obeyed God even though God didn’t provide a final destination, much less a detailed itinerary. He showed great acts of worship of the Lord God and it is obvious that Abraham had God as a priority in his life. In other words, Abraham could be looked at as among the best of us. Yet still he stumbled. 

In this particular situation, God bailed out Abraham and Sarah. Or more appropriately, God protected Abimelech. God kept Abimelech from sinning because of Abimelech’s faith in God. This indirectly preserved Sarah and kept Abraham from regretting his decision. But just imagine how things would have turned out if Abimelech wasn’t a godly man. Abraham and Sarah both would have regretted the violation of their marriage. And Abimelech and his people would have regretted the punishment delivered upon them because of their leader’s sin.

A potential chain of events like in this example is why Jesus should always be the first place we turn when we feel the tendrils of fear. Fear unchecked causes us to do things we wouldn’t do when we aren’t under its effects. If Abraham wasn’t consumed with fear, would he have made the same choice?  We would hope not. This is why building a strong and active relationship with Jesus is so important. This, coincidentally, is why Bible reading and memorization is crucial, too. The Words of Scripture are weapons against fear. The Holy Spirit can bring those words to our minds so we know that a path we  are heading down because we are afraid is not the correct path to take. 

Don’t rely on your own. When you feel fear, turn to God. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how to start this, through prayer. But before we can get to the point of turning to God first, we must overcome our own desire to react to fear the way we do. We must be willing to be uncomfortable for a time in order to pursue the godly path.

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