“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1, NIV). This simple statement provides an amazing foundation for the Bible. Just break it down and you’ll see what I mean. First, it addresses the notion of time by saying, “In the beginning”. It doesn’t try to quantify time or define it in a linear sense. It doesn’t apply assumptions to a geological aging process and come up with a number. It doesn’t say that God began with time or even that time has any particular relevance to God. It merely states that our heaven and earth had a beginning, and that God preceded them in existence. I’m sure early man would lay outside at night gazing up at the stars, or think while walking the world around him, “what started this? Where did all this come from?” Genesis 1 addresses those questions with profound simplicity. Second, it says, “In the beginning, God”. It makes a logical assumption about God, His place in the universe, and the nature of eternity. It presupposes God. Some scientists object to this because it was not observable, but I would submit to you that those same scientists are also basing many of their conclusions about origin on assumptions as well. To me, “In the beginning, matter”; or “In the beginning, gases were floating in the cosmos” is no more scientific than “In the beginning, GOD.” The notion of God existing in the beginning is every bit as logical and rational as any of those other things. Also, read that verse again and think about its perspective; it is talking about OUR beginning, not God’s. He was already in existence. There is no assumptive logic or attempt to try to explain where He came from. In our quest for logical, scientific answers to everything, God makes every bit as much (and perhaps more) intellectual sense as Random Elements affected by Random Chance. Third, Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” The writer of Genesis (Moses) knew that man did not create heaven and earth. Scientists today have confirmed this is true. Man can build some pretty nifty stuff out of created elements; he has yet to accomplish ‘creatio ex nihilo’ (creation out of nothing). But God designed, and God created. Walk out tonight and look up at the stars. Hold a baby. Look at a flower. Reflect upon the fact that you alone, of all the animals, have spiritual inclinations and moral obligations. All of those things make sense when you put them in context right after the sentence, “In the beginning, God created”. Placing the world of physical things into a spiritual context changes everything. It means that there is a God of order and intelligence, and that we are made in His image, with the ability for spiritual as well as physical sight. As you appreciate the heavens and as you walk the earth, remember who you came from.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 12:8-10, NIV) Paul’s love chapter in Romans 12 actually goes about halfway into Romans 13. The first seven verses exhort Christians to respect authority and to obey those in authority over them, because love is not rebellious or selfish. He encourages us to “give everyone what you owe them”, whether it be financial, social, or spiritual. (Taxes, revenue, respect, honor…) Who do you owe something to? Paul says we are to live as if we have a “continuing debt of love to one another.” Think for a moment about the people in your life; who are you indebted to? Is there anyone to whom you owe a heart-felt ‘thank you’, an apology, or a kind word? Is there anyone to whom you should express respect or honor? What is keeping you from completing that transaction? Paul then draws his logical progression of thought to a close with an important conclusion about love: it is debt-free. The law is based upon debt. When you break the law, you owe a penalty for what you did. It is only by paying the penalty that you can atone for your transgression and obtain pardon. The fundamental problem with sin and selfishness on a cosmic scale is that we accumulate more debt than we can repay, and God’s righteousness requires payment for justice to be served. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) Love paid the debt, and Paul says the only way to keep from incurring further debt is to live in love. Once again he echoes the teachings of Jesus (how did he know so much about what Jesus taught without a printing press or even the internet?), who said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-39) Love fulfills the law in several ways. It offers payment for the penalty of the law; it offers freedom in the presence of the law; and it prevents our falling further under the power of the law. It’s not money or stuff that enables you to live debt-free, it’s only love. Go do something loving today. Send a word of encouragement. Mend an old fence. Say that ‘thank you’ to someone that you somehow forgot to say. Give a hug. Or just get down on your knees and remember who you were most indebted to, and who paid the debt.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:1-7, NIV) This is a pretty controversial passage, isn’t it? Paul’s words would not be very popular today, I’m afraid. On one hand, some would say that THEIR president didn’t get elected, so they don’t have to respect the current officeholder. They might even use their freedom of speech to express negativity in personal attacks and mean-spirited rants. They might even be Christians, who throw stones while the world watches to see how well we love our enemies. On the other, there are people who fight representatives of law enforcement at every step, who refuse to offer them cooperation or respect. They lie to them, make it incredibly difficult to do their job, hurl obscenities at them, and in extreme cases, target them for violence. And then they wonder why those representatives lose their composure or overreact. Paul’s counsel is pretty simple: Offer Respect. Treat governing authorities as if God elected them. Don’t rebel against them. All of Paul’s advice goes against our grain; we are indignant at such antiquated advice. It raises hard questions. Should we follow along like sheep even when governing authorities are evil? What if a law enforcement official steps over the line? Can’t we fight back? Politically, do we not have the right to protest, to express our opposition to incumbents? I don’t think that Paul is telling us we have no political rights, no freedoms, or that followers of Christ can’t express themselves. But he does say a couple of important things: One, Obey the law and respect authorities as you would respect the Lord. I see a huge lack of respect in our society, and it seems like it’s getting worse every day. Respecting and honoring our fellow citizens might change our dialog and our opportunities to find solutions. Disagree but don’t be disagreeable. Treat others the way you would wish to be treated. Two, Paul says that if you don’t break the law, you have nothing to fear. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.” This doesn’t account for every single situation, and statistically you are FAR more likely to be wrongfully detained or questioned in America if you are a young male with darker skin. But Paul’s advice to EVERY young man, regardless of color, is simple: Do what is right. Wouldn’t life be simpler if you never gave anyone a reason to detain or arrest you? Three, give each other (whether government officials or not) honor and respect. If all human transactions in our country were conducted with honor and respect, what would change? Would checking out at the store be different? How about driving? What would change on social media? On your newsfeed? In our politics? Today’s verse probably has something for everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, or political party: if you are being selfish, mean-spirited, a victim, a self-righteous judge, or a disrespectful thug, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. Start doing it right. Yeah, you.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21, NIV) As Paul illustrates what love looks like, he paints on the canvas of human relationships. There are a few subtle points in this passage that are important. A loving person, Paul says, does not repay evil for evil. As he encourages us all to live at peace with those around us, he agrees with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? ” (Matthew 5:44, 46 NIV). We are not to seek vengeance when we are wronged, and we can achieve justice by leaving things in God’s hands. Peace is impossible where people seek vengeance. Gandhi reiterated this when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Paul encourages us to “leave room for God’s wrath”. This is a striking statement in the middle of a chapter about love, and one of the subtle points that are important in this passage. God’s wrath is a fierce and righteous thing. It is never capricious or frivolous, but always just and appropriate. We can depend on it. It addresses wrongs and ultimately (rightly) punishes those who harden their hearts. In C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the great lion is portrayed as loving and kind. But the characters who know him are filled with respect, and even somewhat afraid of him. He is civil and majestic, but fearsome and dangerous. When they describe him they always say, “Oh he’s not a TAME lion”. God’s wrath is something pure, far above our petty motives and selfish ways. Romans 12 says we should allow HIM to administer perfect justice instead of attempting to straighten things out ourselves. SO what does that look like for you? I drive a LOT in traffic (in my job, on vacation, traveling, whatever) and I am a fairly assertive driver on a road filled with timid, distracted, or just plain selfish people. Of course I myself am a GOOD driver. As a result I tend to be critical of other drivers, and even offer commentary on their lack of skill, concentration, and judgment. My entire family has noticed this through the years, and it is an area of my Christian walk where I have often been less than loving. As I have gotten older, I’ve made some progress behind the wheel, and have at least become a bit less outwardly demonstrative toward the distracted drivers around me (which means: I don’t purposely cut them off, make unnecessary hand signals, or run them off the road) but I haven’t really lived in peace while driving. I am trying to apply Romans 12 to my driving, so I can exemplify a different attitude in the car. (Some days good, some days still not so good…) I’m not sure that letting someone merge when it’s not their turn will “heap burning coals” upon them, but I could at least offer good in response to evil and trust God to provide justice. I’m making a commitment here to try to be a more charitable and peaceful driver. SO… what’s YOUR application of Romans 12? What keeps you from living at peace with others? What frustrates you about your enemies? Get out there and overcome evil with good. God says He will take care of the rest.
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” (Romans 12: 12-16, NIV) Paul started this “love chapter” by exhorting us to be living sacrifices, and to follow Christ’s selfless example. Love, he says, is a great motivator. (Think about some of the things you have done because of love—whether foolish things to pursue romantic love or acts of service inspired by unselfish love—we have all acted differently at some point because of love’s motivational pull. Here are two very different examples: The summer I was 14 I was on the aquatics staff at YMCA Camp Flaming Arrow in Kerrville, Texas. Hoping to meet girls, I put “HI THERE” with adhesive tape on my chest for about a week. When I removed the tape, my tan lines said HI THERE all by themselves for at least a couple of weeks. (Yeah it’s a dumb thing, but I was 14 and it did actually help break the ice with local girls a couple of times…) A few years later, I was on staff at the Navigators’ Eagle Lake Boys’ Camp in Colorado Springs. At the end of the summer, I donated a big portion of my salary to the camp (which, my Dad pointed out, was supposed to be my spending money at college that fall; when he had to replace it, it actually meant that HE had given the money to Eagle Lake. Sorry, Daddy.) Both of those actions were motivated by love in one form or another—one foolish, and one sublime—but both were done in hopes of having a different outcome than would have been achieved by standing pat. What are you doing differently today because of love? What outcome are you hoping for? Paul says here that love will help us overcome adverse circumstances. It enables us to view the world differently: to be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer. I have to say I am ashamed at how often I am NOT patient in affliction or faithful in prayer. How about you? Love inspires generosity towards others, and it even helps us act differently towards those with whom we disagree. Do you bless those who persecute you, or do you curse them? If we are living sacrifices, Paul says, we will be empathetic and live in harmony with others. Burt Bacharach’s1965 pop song said, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love”… How true. There is too much division in our world and in our culture, and not enough blessing. Paul said a living sacrifice is not selfish or stuck up or conceited, but understands that all of us need love, and that it comes (at least partially) through us, to us. Be loving today. Make the same decision tomorrow.
“We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” (Romans 12:6-8, NIV) Gifts, says Paul, are given to each of us according to grace. Not the “tear open the wrapping paper” kind of gifts, and not necessarily the “this is your gift, for only you to enjoy” kind of gifts, but the “I am giving this to you so that you can give it to others” kind of gift. Our flesh loves to celebrate giftedness itself, and we make much of talented musicians and athletes; Grace loves to make gifts useful by humbling them in service to others. Right after Paul says that we are all part of the body of Christ, and we all belong to each other, he exhorts us to utilize what we have been given on behalf of others. He presents this as an “if-then” kind of process, which really has two steps. First, determine what your gift is. Paul declares that we all have different gifts, given to us spiritually “according to the grace given to each of us.” There are gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4, and they are all focused on “others”, not on “Me”. In context, he is saying that these gifts are bestowed on each believer as part of the body of Christ in order to serve the other members of the body. And here in Romans Paul basically says, “If you have been given a gift, then use it.” So ask yourself the question: what have I been gifted with? A spiritual gift is not necessarily a talent (although it could be related), and not necessarily something you are accomplished at; it is really more a quality that other believers see in you even when you don’t always see it in yourself. If you aren’t sure, pray about it, and then ask some fellow believers close to you what they feel your gift(s) might be. You might be surprised by the answers you get. Secondly, whatever gift you have been given, USE IT. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.“ Being motivated by grace puts a whole different spin on receiving a gift: Open it. Use it. Give it away.
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:3-5, NIV) Do you know anybody who thinks more highly of themselves than they ought to? Are they fun to be around? That’s the opposite of love. Here in the (other) love chapter, Paul declares that the result of love is not looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but it is a life seasoned with humility and honest reflection. A life of faith does not abandon rational self-evaluation. On the contrary, it encourages us to look at ourselves honestly, and to see ourselves the way God sees us. On one hand, that’s a bit intimidating. God sees my inward failings, my secret sins, my selfishness, and my insecurity. If I think of myself the way God does, then I should be frustrated over my limitations and sad about all my failures, right? Wrong! Because if I truly look at myself through the lens of Grace, then I see my redeemed self the way God sees me, unblemished and full of potential, ready to be made into who He created me to be! I have been given a place in the family, and a role as part of the body of Christ. No one is born in a vacuum; every one of us is designed for relationship, to be part of a bigger team.
If I am willing to take MY story and subjugate it to HIS story, then I will find meaning and fulfillment in my role. Further, Paul says that in the body of Christ we ALL have different roles, and that “each member belongs to all the others.” Anyone who has ever participated in a team activity knows how this works: you make the extra pass, take on extra duty to support a teammate, lay down the sacrifice bunt, take a meal over during stressful times, watch the kids, make the key block, contribute your creativity to someone else’s presentation… There’s an old saying that it’s amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit. I’ve been privileged to be on that kind of team several times in my life, and it is absolutely true. If you are not seeing the results in your life that you’d like to see, ask yourself two questions: What team(s) are you on? And, Who do you belong to?
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV) While it may be that 1 Corinthians 13 is the most-quoted chapter about love, Romans 12 deserves far more attention for being a pretty good “love chapter” on its own. The last few verses offer some explicit applications about what love in action looks like, but the whole chapter is really a pretty good working definition of love. In John 15:13, Jesus said “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Go back to all the things that were said and written about love before Jesus, and you will find a number of different words for love, many descriptions and definitions, and certainly lots ways to express it. But amazingly, Jesus Christ redefined love and set its standard in a singular way that has stood firm for over 2,000 years. In Romans 12, Paul begins with Christ’s definition. (And does anybody besides me ever wonder where Saul, a persecutor of the church, “a Pharisee of the Pharisees”, achieved such harmony with and knowledge of the teachings of Christ, when he didn’t encounter Jesus at all until well after the resurrection and ascension? If you read his work closely, it reflects the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus incredibly well, even though the gospels were probably only just starting to be in circulation when Paul wrote. His conversion and particularly his education about Jesus has to be one of the amazing biographical stories of all time!) And so here Paul begins Romans 12 with an earnest plea for us to lay down our lives as a living sacrifice, repeating the action of the one who gave us that definition and set that standard. Since Jesus did that literally for us, Paul maintains that it is only reasonable for us to give ourselves back to him. Love responds to love, and love begets more love. As a result, Paul says, we will be different than the world, transformed and renewed, and will walk around as living proof of God’s will… The J. B. Phillips translation says, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within”. It infers that we are all being molded, one way or another. We can conform to the world, or we can conform to God. The world says, “Whatever you do is really ok; what’s right for me may not be right for you; get what you can; if you don’t like it, change it, hey, life is short…” God says, “Love. Be redeemed by love, present yourselves back to me in love, be transformed by love, and remember that it’s not so much about your will as it is about MINE. If you trust me, you will discover that I have your best interests at heart, and I will perfect you in ways you never imagined. Others will look at you and say, ‘that must be kinda what God looks like’.” Have you offered God your life lately? Ever wonder what He could do with it if you really gave it to Him?
Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” (Luke 18:1-5, NIV) Luke shares a significantly under-utilized parable about prayer. Do your prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling sometimes? Are you ever doubtful that God answers prayer? This judge is an independent arbiter of justice who doesn’t fear God or regard men’s opinions. In other words, he rules without prejudice, and he is not swayed by religion, politics, or human influence. And yet there is a widow who has brought a case before him persistently, continually reminding the judge that she is expecting an answer. Calvin Coolidge said, ““Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”. In this case, the widow’s persistence won the day because she never gave up. She received justice against her adversary because the judge grew tired of being pestered. And Jesus spoke this parable to illustrate “that men always ought to pray and not lose heart”. Say, when was the last time you petitioned God so relentlessly that He granted your request? And how often do you persevere in prayer with all your heart? I know, me neither. Jesus says we should wear God out by coming before him continually. I know I don’t do that very often. I bet you don’t either. Don’t lose heart. Pray. Pray persistently.
Obviously, you have to start with an idea, and it needs to be compelling enough to attract interest, and written well enough to be readable. Then you translate that idea into paragraphs that are actually part of you, expressing some part of yourself that had lain dormant for years, all the while creating a vulnerability you didn’t even know you had. And as that part of you flows out onto the page, you wonder, “what will people think” and then you realize that you’re not really writing for people, you are following a calling, and you don’t even know why… So you write something, maybe you even write something every day for over a year, and people say, “Oh, that’s good, you should think about publishing.” You are humbled and gratified by people’s compliments, and you are surprised, really, because you’re just a guy (and not even a very holy or righteous guy) writing down stuff about the Bible and trying to apply it. And in your fantasy world you send what you’ve written out to a couple of folks, and they say, “Wow, this is good!” And the next thing you know, you have a book! And you see your name in print and then even in bookstores, and you give free copies to your friends.
In the real world, it’s really different. You send out a sample to literary agents, pretty much all of whom reject your work as not viable (and not over craftsmanship or writing style, just because they don’t do that type of genre, or you are not a celebrity with a built-in audience, their publishers don’t print those kinds of books, or who knows because they don’t even bother to answer.) But one of them (a small miracle, actually!) gives you some advice, and tells you to buy a book about making a book proposal, and how to present yourself to the commercial world of bookselling. So you reboot and come up with a proposal, and realize as you do that your work probably needs an editor, someone to nitpick and format it and tell you all the things you have done wrong. And if you’re lucky you find one who actually likes your work and believes in it gives you direction about how to rewrite and helps it become better than it was. And then you learn that having good work is not enough, you need to have a Brand, you need to have enough followers engaged in your work so that it is commercially viable, so that a publisher has a chance to sell enough copies to justify the cost of printing. Hey, it’s a business, not a calling.
And so I find myself in this process, attempting to improve my work and applying myself to the task of building a following. Since my devotional has really been somewhat of a personal thing, and since I really do think it’s more about God’s Word than about me, I have been somewhat loathe to promote it or myself. I still am. SO–if you have bothered to read this, then I am going to ask you a HUGE favor: help me. I’d like to enroll you as a salesperson for my daily devotional blog, and ask you to like it and share it and tell friends about it. OR, you can just pray and ask the Lord to do what He wants with it. That would be cool, too. I’m going to try to be faithful to the calling, secure in the knowledge that if God wants to use my regular little devotionals to spread His word, He will do it. And if you will read/Like/Share, or just say a quick prayer, I’d appreciate it. God Bless!