What Does it Really Mean to be Defrauded of our “Prize” (Colossians 2:18)?


You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? Galatians 5:7 NASB  

The Bible is filled with intriguing little passages that act as hooks to pull us in and get us thinking more deeply. I came across one the other day in the book of Colossians: 

Take care that no one keeps defrauding you of your prize by delighting in humility and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind- Colossians 2:18 NASB

The words that got my attention were “defrauding” and “prize”. The apostle Paul seems to be presupposing two realities every serious Christian ought to consider.  

First—is the whole notion of “a prize”. The Apostle obviously believed there is a prize Christians can earn. He also believed we should actively and even aggressively go after and protect those prizes (1st Corinthians 9:24, Philippians 3:14). Second—there seems to be a way Christians can be cheated, deceived or swindled (defrauded) out of their prizes. 

So: 

What is the prize? 

What does it mean to be “defrauded” of the prize? 

How exactly does this defrauding take place? 

The prize itself is not much of a mystery. The prize discussed in Colossians 2:18, 1st Corinthians 9:24 and Philippians 3:14 are clearly the eternal reward believers in Jesus receive for a living a faithful life. Jesus and the Apostle Paul both spoke at length about the whole notion of believers obtaining rewards (prizes). According to Jesus Christians will be rewarded for all manner of things. Including, but not limited to: loving their enemies, faith, goodness, kindness, authenticity, personal sacrifice, financial sacrifice and personal faithfulness to and confidence in God. Apparently, these eternal rewards are multiplied any time we continue to keep the faith, behave righteously and point others to Jesus in the face of personal suffering, hardship and persecution (Matthew 6:1-8, Matthew 10:42, Matthew 16:27, Luke 6:22-23, Luke 6:35, 1st Corinthians 3:8-9, Ephesians 6:7-8, Colossians 3:23-25, Hebrews 10:35, 2nd John 1:8).  

Because there is a prize at the end of the Christian life that we can earn or lose out on. It only makes sense for us to figure out what things are most likely to cause us to lose out on the prize. No one in their right mind wants to lose out on a prize. Seriously.

For the record:

God is not a tyrant looking for an excuse to rip blessing and eternal reward out of the hands of those who have worked hard for Him (Hebrews 6:9-11). God is good and He wants to give His children good gifts (Luke 11:13, Ephesians 4:8, Romans 11:29).  

That being said,

 When we allow sin, hardship or disappointment in God to cause us to become disobedient or to send us off on a spiritual tangent we stop earning the reward we had been earning. Furthermore, there are those who become so disillusioned with God for the above-mentioned reasons they literally stop serving Him. When we stop serving God out of anger, hurt or anything else we have automatically been defrauded of our prize. We will go to heaven but that’s it. There won’t be any “well done good and faithful servant” stuff to look forward to when we get there (Matthew 25:14-21, 1st Corinthians 3:14-15).  Knowing this is not a cause for despair or fear but rather a reminder to act wisely in all areas of life and faith.  

The three most common reasons for being defrauded of our prize are:

Hurt and anger-

Getting hurt or becoming angry (even if the anger is directed at God) does not automatically cause us to be defrauded of anything. God does not penalize people for suffering personal hurt or pain. He’s not a jerk. However, hurt and anger that develops into bitterness or unforgiveness can lead us into all sorts of spiritual trouble (Hebrews 12:15, Acts 8:22-23, Matthew 6:14-15). Bitterness is a poison that literally defiles us as people and makes us spiritually unfit for good works (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 2:8-10, Philippians 2:13). Once we are unfit for doing good we are spiritually done in (Matthew 5:13, 1st Corinthians 3:14-15).

Bad Theology-

Theology matters, but not because God punishes us for holding the wrong views. It matters because wrong beliefs or wrong thinking about God and life always lead to wrong behavior (Matthew 15:18-20). This is what Paul was warning the Colossians about in Colossians Chapter two. The Colossian Christians were in danger of buying into wrong beliefs that would inevitably lead them into sin and away from God (Colossians 2:4-19, Galatians 5:7).

Disappointment in God- 

In a fallen world it’s easy to become disappointed in God when we feel He hasn’t given us what we wanted most, or He didn’t stop someone from mistreating us in some way (Matthew 13:40-42, John 5:28-29). If those feelings are not worked through the bitterness that develops will rob us of our belief in God’s goodness (Hebrews 11:6). When we lose faith in the goodness of God, we are not far off from being defrauded of the reward we would have had. 

Sometimes Christians feel skeezy for looking forward to eternal reward. 

They shouldn’t. God clearly wants to reward His children for their faithfulness. He promises the rewards we earn will be worth all the effort it takes to keep from being defrauded out of them (Revelation 22:12).  

What Does it Mean to “Fear the Lord” and why Does it Matter?

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love- Psalm 147:10-11 NIV

There was a time in the not so distant past when all Christians and even most non-Christians agreed God was so unique, superior and different from humans that He should be honored, respected and regarded with a healthy dose of trepidation.  As a result, most Christians did their level best to do what the Bible said. Some were so intent on obeying God’s commands they wandered into legalism and created a whole bunch of crazy-town rules around God’s commands to ensure no one broke a single one of God’s directives. 

  That is called legalism.  

Legalism is terrible. Legalism inevitably leads to a cranky judgmental attitude, mean-spiritedness and pride.  Legalism has never made anyone more like Jesus.

Period. 

That being said, the one good thing that can be said about legalism is at its core legalism understands we can and do offend God with our spiritual flippancy and lack of attention to the things of God (Hebrews 2:1-3).

However.

Legalism is not the biggest problem in the church today. These days, most people (even many professing Christians) tend to see God as just a slightly better, smarter and more evolved version of themselves. They believe God just really digs them no matter what they do or don’t do. This mindset causes people to view God as a non-judgy buddy or a benevolent gift-giver rather than as a holy, perfect, sinless being, who is entirely unlike us. A being who dwells in unapproachable light (1st Timothy 6:15-16, 1st Samuel 2:2, Psalm 99:9, Daniel 2:21-22, Revelation 4:8)

Fear of the Lord is old school and obsolete.  

This is a problem because when Christians lose their fear of the Lord they become dismissive about holiness and complacent in their faith. Spiritual complacency metastasizes into a cancer that negatively impacts every aspect of our lives. It impacts how we handle sin and how we treat people. It affects how we witness and the way we approach God (Proverbs 1:7, Deuteronomy 10:12, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, Revelation 14:7, Revelation 19:5). 

Our view of God colors our view of everything.  

When someone sees God as a friendly Santa Claus in the sky sin just doesn’t seem like that big a deal (Genesis 6:5-6, 1st John 3:8). A soft stance on sin starts us down a moral spiral.  All of a sudden taking advantage of others and treating people made in the image of God with contempt doesn’t seem like a problem (Leviticus 19:13-15, Leviticus 25:17). When our view of God is gets off-center men can start to believe it’s okay to mistreat their wives, pornography feels like a perfectly reasonable way to meet legitimate sexual needs and adultery becomes accepted. When the problems with sin are minimized exploitation becomes the new normal and gender becomes a choice we get to make rather than the will of God for our lives (1st Timothy 3:1-5, 1st Thessalonians 4:3-8, Malachi 2:14-16, Genesis 1:27). When Christians lose their fear of God telling others about Jesus feels pointless because God’s warnings concerning hell are tough to take seriously (Matthew 5:22-28, Luke 12:25, 2nd Peter 4:4-22). When our view of God is skewed greed feels like sound financial planning and church attendance becomes about having our needs met rather than giving glory to the one who made us. None of this is good or life-giving. 

So.

It’s mission-critical Christians get the whole fearing the Lord thing one-hundred-percent right. Truth-be-told, for Christians the fear of the Lord is not a cowering, panicky, menacing terror that prevents us from approaching God and having a loving relationship with Him. 

This was once true. 

Prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus the thought of approaching God was fearsome and scary and rightly so.  Things tended to fall apart anytime sinful humans approached God in a flippant or haphazard kind of a way (Exodus 19, 1st Samuel 6:19, 1st Kings 19:13, Hebrews 12:18-21). People literally died. It was terrifying. 

However. 

All that has changed.  Thanks to Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, when God sees a Christian He sees the holiness and perfection of Jesus rather than the individual’s intrinsic sinfulness. Practically speaking, this means followers of Jesus can approach God with boldness and expect to experience love, grace, forgiveness, comfort and even relationship in His presence (Psalm 25:14, Hebrews 4:16, 1st John 3:2)

Fear of the Lord is less about being fearful of God and more about an accurate perspective on the greatness, holiness and majesty of God. When we fear God we understand what our relationship is to God (Psalm 96:4, 1stChronicles 29:11, Ezekiel 36:23, Isaiah 55:9). When we get all that right fear of displeasing God causes us to go out of our way to obey God. Fearing God means believing two things with all our heart: 

  1. God is who He says He is.  
  2. God will do what He says he will do. 

People who fear God believe God sees everything. They read what God says about Himself in the Bible and believe those things are true and to be taken very literally. They know deep in their hearts that nothing in this world—including the inner workings of the human heart are hidden from God’s sight (Hebrews 4:13). They understand that God is merciful and they know He richly blesses every act of obedience and faith. They also understand God punishes deliberate disobedience. Fearing the Lord is understanding God is compassionate, merciful and good but in the words of C.S. Lewis—He is not safe.

The What Series- The Super Critical “What” of Frequent Self Checks


Examine
 yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? 2nd Corinthians 13:5 NIV

Christianity is not a faith based on a bunch of rules we follow to get God to like us (Matthew 22:37-40). 

Consequently,

There are grey areas in Christianity.

Although, the term “grey area” is not found anywhere in the Bible. Instead, the apostle Paul tells us that all things are permissible (meaning things not forbidden in Scripture). Nonetheless, many of those “permissible” things are not beneficial to our souls or supportive to our growth (1st Corinthians 10:23-33, 1stCorinthians 6:12). 

This basically means there are things Christians can do that we should be really careful about doing (if we do them at all). A classic example would be alcohol use. It is not sinful to use alcohol. However, there are numerous warnings concerning alcohol that should cause all Christians who use alcohol to put some serious guardrails around its use (Proverbs 23:21, Proverbs 20:1, Romans 13:13, Ephesians 5:18) 

Conversely.

There are a lot of things Christians don’t have to do—things not commanded in Scripture that we ought to at least consider making a regular practice of doing, simply because those things help us grow.  

Handling the grey areas of the faith well is all about practicing wisdom. It’s about having the foresight to seek the Lord for direction and going above and beyond to do life His way (Proverbs 3:5-6). We don’t do these things in a legalistic attempt to earn God’s love. We cannot earn something that’s already been freely given (John 3:16). Instead, we choose to live honorably as a way of saying “thank you” for what we have graciously been given (Ephesians 4:1).

One thing Christians are not commanded do, that we should probably consider doing is what I call a “personal self-check”. The apostle Paul calls self-checks: self-examination (2nd Corinthians 13:5). 

Self-checks are one of the “what’s” of the faith. 

God wants us to do self-checks because frequent self-checks lead to self-awareness. Self-awareness protects us from falling into patterns of behavior that eventually lead to sin. Without frequent self-checks we run the risk of having “a Nebuchadnezzar moment” where we are warned about our sin but refuse to see our sin or refuse to own our sin despite God’s warning and ample time to repent. Anytime we willfully choose the Nebuchadnezzar route, we receive all the possible consequences of our sin rather than God’s mercy (Romans 1:24-32). The full penalty is always a world of hurt for us and the people closest to us (Daniel 4:4-24).

Sigh. 

A self-check is just a series of questions we ask are ourselves on a regular basis. My personal self-check questions are all designed to keep me on the straight and narrow by forcing me to think about my life holistically rather than in just pieces and parts.  

They are as follows:

Am I in the faith?

Being in the faith is about more than praying a sinner’s prayer “once a upon a time”. It’s also about more than church attendance. One can attend church and even lead a church and still be very much outside the faith (Matthew 7:22-24). When we are “in the faith” we seek God on a daily basis, we actively seek to disentangle ourselves from sinful attitudes and behaviors. Being in the faith means going out of our way to shore up the weak areas in our spiritual lives. Lastly, those in the faith make church and friendships with other believers a priority (Hebrews 10:25, James 5:16, 1st John 1:7, 2nd John 1:5). 

What do my relationships look like?  

The state of our closest relationships is oftentimes an indicator of our spiritual health. If our life is strewn with relationships that have been damaged or broken due to our willful sin, selfishness, rudeness or lying. We have a problem that needs immediate attention or our Nebuchadnezzar moment may be right around the corner (Proverbs 11:3, Hebrews 12:14, 1st Peter 2:17, Ephesians 5:21-22, Ephesians 5:25-28, Ephesians 6:4).

Am I walking in integrity? 

The best and most basic definition of integrity is being the same person all the time. People with integrity are not chameleons who adapt to fit into whatever situation they happen find themselves in (Proverbs 10:9). Integrity is closely linked to fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). If we truly believe God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Then we will do our level best to stay within the lines He has drawn for us. If we don’t we won’t.  

Is there any area of my life I’m hiding from God or other people?  

If there is a part of our life we feel we need to keep on the down-low we most definitely have a problem that requires our immediate attention. Openness and honesty are the hallmarks of a holy, God-fearing people (Romans 13:12). 

What does my thought life look like? 

Our thoughts determine our actions and our actions determine the course of our life (Matthew 15:18-20, Mark 7:20-22, Ephesians 2:3, Hebrews 3:1). Therefore, every Christian ought to pay attention to what types of thoughts routinely flit through their head. If we frequently think mean, lustful, judgy, angry or greedy thoughts we need to spend some time asking the Lord what’s at the root of these attitudes. Then we need ask God to reorder our thoughts and give us the mind of Christ (1st Corinthians 2:16, Romans 15:5-6).

The “what” of daily spiritual self-checks are absolutely critical to our spiritual health in our broken sin-sick world. Self-checks keep our hearts soft towards God, our relationships with other people healthy and our lives free from the spiritual and moral drift that does us in (Hebrews 2:1)

The What Series- The How and Why of Walking in Truth

It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it- 3rd John 1:3 NIV

There has been a debate raging in Christianity for over five-hundred-years. 

The debate is all about what Christianity is all about. 

There are those who argue passionately that Christianity is all about BEING rather than DOING Galatians 2:17-21, Ephesians 2:8-9, Acts 16:31, John 10:28). The be-ers believe Christianity is more about identity than action or activity. They argue that once a person is in Christ (saved by grace through faith) that’s it, they’re done. There’s nothing left to do. This group believes attempts at “doing” are a waste of time and may even create an unhealthy pride in our “Christian achievements”.

Conversely: 

Modern-day doers also all agree Christians are saved by faith. To my knowledge there are no mainstream Christians openly promoting an “earn your own salvation” theology. 

That said.

 The doers feel sanctification (becoming holy) is more of a process than an event. Therefore, they believe Christians should do things that mold us into the image of Jesus. The doers believe if a person doesn’t want to “do Christian things” then their salvation probably isn’t the real deal (Philippians 2:12, Hebrews 6:1-11, 2nd Peter 1:5-9, Colossians 3).  The doers believe faith without works is a form of fire insurance which may or may not be operative when it’s time to cash in the policy (Matthew 7:22-23, James 2:14-19)

This is one of those rare situations where everyone is sort of right. We are saved by faith. No one earns their way to heaven. Jesus did the work for us. Any attempts on our part to earn our salvation are an offense to God because when we insist on earning our own way we are, in effect, rejecting God, His verdict that we can’t do it without Him and His generous offer of a free gift of salvation all at the same time (Isaiah 64:6, Ephesians 2:1-9)

Yikes. 

  In that sense salvation is a one and done. However, Christianity is, at its core, a long process of transformation and growth that prepares us for whatever it is God has planned for us in eternity (Ephesians 2:10, John 8:12, Romans 12:2, 2nd Corinthians 3:18). Spiritual growth and transformation will not happen without some effort on our part (Ephesians 4:20-32, Colossians 3, 2nd Peter 1:5-10, 2nd Peter 3:14).  

This means there really are things God wants us to do. 

These things are “the what’s of the faith”. The “what’s” aren’t about getting saved— they’re about becoming like Jesus, so that we can glorify Jesus, represent God well, be a preserving influence in the culture and bring others to faith in Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20) 

One of those “what’s” that is often dismissed as irrelevant in our Christian culture is the what of walking in truth (Psalm 15:2, 1st John 1:5-7, 2nd John 1:1-4, 3rd John 1:2-4). 

Walking in truth is critical because God is not only the ultimate decider of truth, He IS truth (Psalm 25:5, Jeremiah 7:28, John 4:24, Romans 2:2). When God’s people don’t walk in truth there is no clear witness of truth in our fallen world. The lack of witness causes Gods presence to be hidden from the world. This makes it difficult for people to find God (Luke 18:27).  It also causes believers and unbelievers to be taken captive by all sorts of strange notions regarding gender, what makes people happy, sexuality, parenting and even the nature of reality (Colossians 2:8). 

It’s kind of where we’re living right now. 

The most basic facet of walking in truth is integrity and honesty (Exodus 20:16). That said, integrity encompasses more than “not lying”. There are at least a million ways to be deceitful, dishonest and/or hypocritical and God hates them all. We can tell out-in-out lies, withhold critical information, make-up stories to feel important and spruce-up a true story to the point it no longer accurately represents reality.

Sigh.

 Being honest and truthful is good (Leviticus 19:11, Colossians 3:9) However, honesty really just the entry-level version of walking in truth that even the average heathen aspires to.

Fully walking in truth is impossible if we don’t know what’s actually true. 

Walking in truth means being firmly rooted in biblical truth. Because God IS truth His word is where we go to get the lowdown on how to live, love and operate successfully in this world (Psalm 119:1-176).  Unfortunately, few Christians actually hold a biblical world view. According to some super depressing research done by Barna Research and Summit Ministries only seventeen percent of American Christians and thirty-seven percent of American Pastors hold to a biblical world view (Hosea 4:6). 

Sigh.

This sad reality means we can’t get all our information about what the Bible says from anyone, even pastors. Christians must read the Bible for themselves (Acts 17:11). We must research the Bible and think about the Bible and pray the Holy Spirit will enlighten our minds and help us to further understand the Bible. We need to get into groups with other believers and open our Bible’s and find out what other Christians think about the Bible.  Then we must apply the truths of the Bible to our lives. 

When we do these things we walk in truth and the truth enables us live righteously, we are protected from Satan’s schemes (Ephesians 4:27, Ephesians 6:11, 1st Peter 5:8) and empowered to live out what’s real and true in world where truth has lost its voice (Isaiah 59:4, Isaiah 59:14)

Why is it so Hard to Hear From God?

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law- Deuteronomy 29:29 NIV 

Okay. I’m going to get really real for just a minute and say the quiet part out loud.

Sometimes God feels distant. Really distant. Like radio silence distant.

This sensation can get emotionally and spiritually messy really quickly because we derive comfort, peace and security from knowing God sees our needs and hears our cries (Psalm 61:1-3, Psalm 28:2). Whether it’s through answered prayer, a Bible passage that speaks to our situation or a still small voice that guides us through the complexities of life, anyone who really loves God wants to hear from God (Psalm 63:1, John 10:27).

This is even more true when the going gets tough and life gets challenging, uncertain or just plain hard and sucky.  Radio silence in these moments is beyond discouraging. It can challenge our belief God is good. (Psalm 13:1-6, Psalm 42:9, Psalm 43:2, Psalm 22:1).  It just gets worse when we feel like we are doing our level best to keep the lines of communication open and still—nothing, zero, nada. That still small voice that guides and directs our steps is painfully quiet. 

Sigh. 

Nothing is gained and much is lost anytime we give into the very human temptation to give up our faith, get angry or place all of the blame on God in these moments, nor should we turn to sin or worldly ways of coping to fill our empty places, dull our pain or relieve our frustration in these seasons.  The best thing we can do when we feel God is far away is to keep our hearts open and use our situation as the jumping off place for some self-examination and perhaps a change of approach. There are a whole bunch of really good reasons why we don’t feel the presence of God or hear His still small voice, some of those are: 

We don’t want to- 

Sometimes we think we want to hear from God but we don’t. Not really—mostly because deep down in our heart-of-hearts we have a niggling little hunch God might just have something to say to us we have zero interest in hearing.  Most of us have been guilty at some point of desperately wanting to hear from God in one area of our lives while we entertain some ugly sin in another area of our lives. Truth-be-told God usually addresses the sin that’s holding back our spiritual growth before He blesses us with a clear direction or a deep sense of spiritual peace (Hebrews 12:1-2). It’s critical we remember no sin is worth stunting our spiritual growth over or shutting down communication with the God of the universe (Matthew 5:30, 1st Corinthians 15:34). It’s just not.   

We do and we don’t like what he says- 

Alas, we are all human, and sadly, one aspect of being human is an inclination towards moments of stupidity, willful blindness and obstinacy. Sometimes we do hear from God and we don’t like what He has to say so we ignore Him (Hebrews 12:25). Typically, what happens in these situations is God wants us to forgive someone we don’t want to forgive (Matthew 6:15, Ephesians 4:31, Hebrews 12:15), or He wants us to repair a relationship that would be personally embarrassing for us to deal with. Other times God wants us to look at our own actions in a situation where we have chosen to lay the blame on the actions or attitude of the other guy. Whatever the case may be, it is always in our best interests to ask God if there is something we’re just not seeing when He feels far off.

We’re just too dang busy-

Okay, so this is a big one, because we have made busyness into badge of honor, an indication of righteousness and a weird little idol. Busyness in none of those things. The Bible is clear, we are least likely to connect with God when we are spinning around in a flurry. Conversely, we are most likely to connect with Him when we slow down and seek Him in a spirit of quiet trust (Isaiah 30:15, Psalm 37:7, Psalm 46:10, Hebrews 4:1). Sometimes all we have to do to reconnect with God is take a day off from our striving and make Him our priority (Jeremiah 29:12-14).

We want to be in charge of how he communicates-

Most of the time God speaks through His word (the Bible) or in a still small voice that leaves an impression on our spirit that we should do or not do something (2nd Peter 1:3., 1st Kings 19:12). God rarely communicates verbally and when He speaks through other people it’s usually just them talking in a wise way that hits home in our situation (Matthew 10:20). It’s fairly rare for a person to get a bold prophetic proclamation that clears up all their confusion concerning a matter. As a general rule we should always look to the “normal ways” God communicates rather than expecting Him to be dramatic in His communication.

All that being said: 

 God is always with us even when we don’t feel His presence, hear His voice or understand what exactly is going on (Joshua 1:5, Psalm 91:3-4, Hebrews 13:5).  He never leaves us or forsakes us. God is always moving us towards the end of being more like Jesus and sometimes the road there is a bumpy one where we feel alone even when we’re not (1st Corinthians 15:49, 2nd Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:10). In those times must remind ourselves that God’s love never fails and He never walks away. 

Even when He’s quiet. 

Spiritual Warfare Series-What’s the Point of a Breastplate of Righteousness?

In keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him- 2nd Peter 3:13-14 NIV

For some reason the whole notion of living a holy and righteous life has fallen on hard times in some Christian circles. I suspect this is due to some confusion over legalism and righteousness. When the two get tangled-up in a person’s mind any appeal to holiness, virtuousness or even just plain old common decency is seen as toxic to our faith journey. This is because many in the church see “being good” as a misguided attempt to earn God’s love and favor rather than simply accepting God’s free gift of mercy and grace. 

Here’s the thing: 

Legalism is bad. Really bad. Legalism is the idea that Christians must “be good” all the time or add good works or the keeping of certain manmade rules to what Jesus did on the cross in order to be saved from their sin and accepted by God. There is no biblical foundation for legalism.  The New Testament is clear: all it really takes to get right with God and spend eternity with Him is faith in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, a repentant heart and nothing else (Genesis 15:6, Acts 13:38-39, Acts 16:31, Romans 3:22, Romans 10:9)

Seriously. It’s that easy. 

However. 

That does not mean holiness and righteous living is somehow an optional pursuit for Christians. Both the Old and New Testaments are littered with commands to “be holy” (Leviticus 11:45, Ephesians 1:4, Hebrews 12:14, 1st Peter 1:15-16). Furthermore, there is ample instruction given in the Bible on how to live a life that pleases God. They all include some sort of command concerning avoiding sin (Romans 12:1- 21, Colossians 3:1-25, Galatians 5:22-26, 2ndPeter 1:3-11). 

The warfare passage in Ephesians six takes the whole idea of righteousness a step further. It teaches that “righteousness” is a critical part of our spiritual armor. The armor of God protects us from the various schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:10-13, 1st Peter 5:8). 

Ephesians 6:15 tells Christians to “stand firm”: 

With the breastplate of righteousness in place.

Putting on the breastplate of righteousness means we make a commitment to choose righteousness and holiness over sin. It does not mean we never make a mistake. It does mean we make every effort to live the way God calls Christians to live (Colossians 3:1-25, Romans 12:1-21, 1st Thessalonians 4:3-9) When we put on the breastplate of righteousness it empowers and safeguards us in three critically important ways:

Righteous living keeps our hearts from being defiled- 

The Bible teaches that the human heart more than just an organ in our bodies. It is the place from which all of our thoughts, feelings and actions flow (Proverbs 4:23, Proverbs 6:18).  A pure heart produces good actions and an impure heart produces bad actions (Matthew 12:34, Matthew 15:18-20). Every. Single. Time. When we choose to sin, it has a polluting effect on our hearts. If we sin willfully for long enough that choice will defile us to the point we are worthless for doing any good for the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:13-16). Choosing to “put on” righteousness daily ensures our hearts will be pure and we will be useful to God. 

Righteousness prevents us from destroying our testimony about Jesus- 

In Revelation 12:11 we are told Christians overcome Satan through the blood of the Lamb (the saving work of Jesus) and the “word of their testimony”. A Christian’s “testimony” is their conversion story. It is the words we use to describe how Jesus took us from death to life. Our changed life lends legitimacy to our conversion story. Without a changed life there is no proof that anything of any spiritual significance happened to us. When Christians live like non-Christians it takes the power out of their conversion story. Conversely, living righteously gives our conversion story power and hope to others that they can be changed too. 

Righteous living is a protection that keeps us from shipwrecking our lives- 

The list of things that can ruin a person’s life is almost endless. A few highlights include such things as: adultery, sexually transmitted diseases, enslavement to pornography, drug addiction, embezzlement, drunk driving charges and credit card debt. All anyone (Christian or not) has to do to avoid all the pitfalls and snares that could possible ruin a person’s life is just to do what the Bible says to do and avoid all the things the Bible says not to do. That’s it. Obedience to God’s commands is a powerfully protective force that keeps us from running our lives into the dirt. 

Here’s the hard and horrible truth about all of this:

We cannot keep up a life of righteousness on our own.  In our own strength we will find ourselves putting on the breastplate of righteousness just for it to fall off a few hours later (metaphorically speaking). We simply cannot “be good” without God’s help. We are just a little too messy in our humanness to pull it off (Isaiah 64:6, Jeremiah 17:9).  The key to putting the armor on and keeping it on is found in seeking the presence of Jesus daily. When we walk in close relationship with Jesus He gives us everything we need to live the way he has called us to live. 

Spiritual Warfare Series- What was Jesus’ Spiritual Weapon of Choice?

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life-John 3:16 NIV

Love is more than a sweet sentiment. 

It is a formidable spiritual weapon. 

It is not an accident (in my opinion) that the “warfare passage” we find in Ephesians 6:10-20 is preceded by two and a half chapters that spell out in detail what love “looks like” and how our faith and love for others ought to work itself out in our churches, marriages, parent-child relationships and workplaces (Ephesians 4:1-6:9). 

Nor is it an accident the “love passage” found in 1st Corinthians 13:1-13 is sandwiched between passages that cover the ins-and-outs of how Christians should do church, worship and use their spiritual gifts. Paul understood probably better than anyone that love only works as a weapon when it impacts every part of our Christian lives. If we don’t get the “love” thing right our spiritual gifts become pointless parlor tricks, our worship never goes further than the ceiling and our churches are powerless to transform the lives of hurting people. 

Love was Jesus’ weapon of choice. 

 Jesus knew everything there was to know about every person He encountered and He still loved each and every one of them deeply and fully (John 3:16). He loved everyone He met in a way they had never been loved before. He did not turn away from the woman caught in adultery (John 8), the demoniac (Mark 5:1-14) or Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:12) or anyone else and for that matter. 

Instead. 

The almighty, all-holy, perfectly clean, absolutely sinless God of the Universe looked the worst humanity had to offer square in the face (literally) and because He was God He saw clearly the ugliness and sin in every person who crossed His path.  He knew exactly how their choices had affected them

And yet:

 He loved them anyway. He loved them by looking beyond their sinful ugliness and the effects of their choices. He met them where they were at and in the process loved them into a state of wholeness and health.  Then He went ahead and did the same thing for the whole human race by dying on the cross to pay the penalty of our sin (Romans 5:8)

Love is critical. It literally has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life. 

Here’s the thing, though. 

 Love alone— or at least the way our culture defines love is actually dangerous (and icky) because it tends to devolve into a grody form of sloppy sentimentalism.   Twenty-first century love is like the drunk girl at the party who gushes sappy sentiment all over everybody but can’t remember any of what she said the next morning. Contemporary love is all about being okay with the worst in people instead of accepting people where they’re at AND helping them to reach new levels of growth, transformation and health. Sloppy sentimentalism feels delightful and appears to be noble but it isn’t really love because it lacks the power to save anyone from anything. 

Sigh.

 Authentic love: the kind of love that defeats the powers of darkness and changes the trajectory of people’s lives is firmly anchored in biblical truth (Colossians 1:13-14). True Christian love is always characterized by a willingness to resist current cultural beliefs that lead people away from God and into bondage to sin. 

It’s the kind of love Jesus had for people. 

When Jesus freed Mary Magdalene and the demoniac from their demon possession he did not encourage either one of them to go back to the choices that got them demon-possessed in the first place—although those choices may have still felt comfortable to them, even after meeting Jesus. Instead He showed them how they could live free from the sinful choices that led them to a life of bondage and despair.  Jesus did not forgive the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and send her back to her latest partner— instead He told her she should “go and sin no more” because that’s what warfare kind of love does. 

Warfare kind of love sets the captives free with equal measures of truth and grace (Isaiah 42:6-9). 

 Jesus would never have been okay with our culture’s contemporary definition of love. He would be disgusted with drug programs that help people to do drugs “safely” rather than free them from the oppression of their drug use. Jesus is undoubtedly appalled at the notion of encouraging someone confused about their gender to transition because transitioning doesn’t deal with the root hurt, pain or sin that led to their confused state in the first place (Jude 23)  

Jesus grieves deeply when Christians choose to love like the world loves because He knows that real love fights for the best heaven and earth have to offer; instead of simply settling for something easy but vastly inferior to what God wants for all people (2nd Timothy 2:3-5).  

Everyone who has been truly touched by the love of Jesus wants to love like He loved: with a warfare kind of love. We love like Jesus loved by living out the Bible’s standard of righteousness, fearlessly telling people the truth in the most loving way possible and sticking with them through the sometimes-long process of finding authentic freedom and growing into the image of Jesus (2nd Corinthians 3:18, Colossians 3:1-25). 

Spiritual Warfare Series- Understanding Satan’s Favorite Schemes

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes- Ephesians 6:10-11 NIV

At some point in their spiritual journey Christians have to face the fact that for followers of Jesus this life will never be all sunshine, daisy chains and good vibes (John 16:33).

This is because we live in a world at war (John 10:10, Job 1:1-22, Luke 22:31, Ephesians 6:10-13, 1st Timothy 1:18-19).  

Christians have a very real enemy who wants to destroy us spiritually, morally and psychologically (1st Peter 5:8). Doing so, takes him a long way towards his ultimate goal of rendering as many Christians as possible ineffective at glorifying God and leading others to Jesus.   

 Thankfully, followers of Jesus sit squarely on the winning side of the war (Revelation 20:10). Nonetheless, ultimate victory does not exempt us from battle in the here and now (Philippians 2:25, 2nd Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:2). The good news is that God has given us every weapon we need to be victorious. Our success is guaranteed if we learn how to use those weapons properly (Ephesians 6:13-18, 2nd Corinthians 10:3). 

One of the most powerful weapons we have in our arsenal is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, Ephesians 6:18). Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our guide (John 15:26). A healthy connection to the Holy Spirit will give us spiritual eyes to see through the schemes and tactics of the enemy (2nd Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 6:11). When we understand our enemy, we are far less likely to become collateral damage in the battle (Hebrews 12:1). 

We underestimate Satan’s craftiness at our own peril. That being said, he is not a particularly inventive creature. As a result, he tends to use the same strategies over and over again. If we learn to recognize those strategies the Bible calls his “schemes” that knowledge will empower us to live every area of our lives victoriously and lead others to faith in Jesus (2nd Corinthians 2:11).  

It’s a win win for team Jesus. 

Satan’s favorite schemes are as follows: 

The twisting of God’s words- 

This is was the very first scheme Satan used against humanity (Genesis 3:1-5). It was so off-the-charts-effective he stuck with it. Satan twists God’s word around in our minds in such a way that we end up doing the exact opposite of what God wants us to do. For example, I know a person who as a teenager was told (correctly) that Jesus said lusting in your heart is a sin (Matthew 5:28). This person concluded that since that temptation was a sin every temptation must be a sin. It seemed logical to them that if every temptation is a sin then they might as well just do the thing they were tempted to do because they were already guilty.  Sadly, the enemy created a lot of heartache for them before a good pastor straightened out their doctrinal errors. This scheme is dealt with most effectively through consistent church attendance and spiritual community. Messy theology is far more likely to be corrected when we habitually fellowship and study with other Christians. 

Discouragement or difficulty anytime we choose a higher level of obedience- 

It would make total sense for obedience to always equal obvious blessings and a trouble-free existence. Alas, that would be a fast track to one-hundred-percent obedience on our part all the time. Satan is categorically not a fan of spiritual growth or obedience. So, one of schemes is to go out of his way to make our lives difficult and complicated anytime we choose obey God fully or pursue Him on a higher level. 

A smooth path when we choose disobedience-

Interestingly enough, periods of rebellion can be some of the easiest, most stress-free times of our Christian life. When we are rebelling against God in any area Satan has nothing to worry about from a spiritual perspective, so he leaves us alone.  Our sinful choices have already rendered us ineffective.  Consequently, Satan will go the extra mile and find ways to make our path smooth in times of rebellion because a smooth path makes us unlikely to self-reflect and reverse course. Constant self-reflection is the key to overcoming this scheme. We should examine ourselves regularly and ask God to reveal any areas of sin  

Our thing- whatever that thing is- 

We all have an underlying or besetting sin that trips us up in life— usually without us even realizing what it is. Satan knows what our thing is even if we don’t and he uses our desire for that thing to trip us up every chance he gets. Our thing might be greed, lust, power, a fear of man or a desire to be in control or whatever. If you have a recurring theme in your life—and most of us do. Ask God to show you the sin at the root of the recurring theme.  There is one. If you figure out what IT is Satan will lose his power over you in that area.  

At least half the battle in spiritual warfare is understanding the tactics of our enemy. The other half is of the battle is trusting God with our lives and making the choice every day to walk closely enough with the Holy Spirit that we SEE those tactics at work so we can do something about them. 

Is it Really Sinful to Judge the Behavior of Others?

 The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them- 1stTimothy 5:24 NIV

If I were to venture a guess, I would say the best known and most quoted Bible verse of all time would have to be Matthew 7:1: “Judge not lest you be judged”.  Bible believing Christians as well as some folks who have never actually cracked a Bible in their lives have the verse memorized and are swift to whip it out anytime they sense the slightest disapproval from anyone concerning anything at all.  

Most have decided it means that the best way to escape God’s wrath (and perhaps even the fires of hell) is to simply never make a moral judgment concerning anything. A lot of people believe “you do you” and “live and let live” is the New Testament solution to escaping trouble with God. 

I don’t think it means what they think it means. 

If evading God’s judgment were as simple as not being judgmental there would have been no reason at all for Jesus to come and sacrifice Himself on our behalf. Instead He could have just wrote STOP BEING SO DANG JUDGY OR YOU’RE GOING TO BE SUPER SORRY in the sky and saved Himself a whole lot of trouble. He didn’t. So, the meaning of His words matters. 

A lot. 

If judging the actions of others is the fast track to our own punitive judgment then we should watch ourselves very carefully in this area. However, if judging actions is not wrong, then maybe, just maybe a tad bit more of the “right” kind of judging will make Christianity more what God intended it to be in the first place (Matthew 5:13-15, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, 1st Peter 2:9, 1st Peter 2:12-15, 2nd Peter 3:11).    

I’m just saying. 

It is fair to assume “judge not, lest you be judged” is not a warning against making moral judgments about behavior.  Jesus was clear: He came to fulfill the law—not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). Most of the Old Testament law (parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) is just a long list of things God says are right and wrong. The rest is basically just a “how to” properly judge when someone breaks the law and what should be done about law breaking.  It would be more than a little odd for God to say “no” to the whole notion of making moral judgments concerning right and wrong behavior after giving His people two and a half books of commands. 

So.

Cultural context is critical when it comes to understanding what the New Testament has to say about any subject.  It’s especially important when talking about judgment in general and judging others in particular. 

Here’s the thing:

First century Jews were some of the judgiest people on earth and they did not stick to judging actions. Mostly they were all about judging whether or not a person was worthy of heaven.

 Jews believed they were special in the sense that they were the only people capable of being completely righteous and worthy of living forever in God’s presence. If someone was not a Jew—they didn’t stand a chance. Further complicating things, most assumed any Jew who did not fully obey the law was a lost cause as well. Religious leaders were all about deciding who obeyed the law “well enough” to be accepted and loved by God. Even the judging of behavior was tainted with judging the worthiness of the person.

Thankfully, for us Jesus set the standard for who gets into heaven. No one is actually “good enough” to get to get right with God on their own (Isaiah 64:6, Luke 18:19, Romans 3:12). We all suck (Romans 3:23). God in His great mercy God chose to make it all about faith in Him so we would at least stand a chance (Luke 7:50, Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 10:39). No one (except God) can really know who has saving faith and who doesn’t. No one except God can judge another person’s worthiness of heaven. 

James 2:12-13 gives us some insight into Jesus words in Matthew 7:12. It says:

So speak, and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment-NASB

Okay, so, the English translation of this verse is awkward and tough to understand.  The Greek, comes closer to saying something like this: You will be judged with liberality, kindness and generosity by God. So, you ought to judge other people’s actions and hearts with the same liberality, kindness and generosity you hope to receive on judgment day.  If you don’t judge others with a measure of grace God will apply the standard you use with others to you. 

Yikes. 

So. Judging the rightness or wrongness of actions or behavior is not a problem. That said, a very big problem arises when we judge the motives or the hearts of people. 

We just don’t have the chops for that.  

It is sometimes critical we make judgments about the rightness and wrongness of actions. However, we must remember the goal of making a judgment about behavior is never to condemn anyone, but ultimately to help and encourage everyone to become a better, godlier version of themselves. 

The mercy we hope to be shown should ALWAYS be the standard of judgment we use on others. 

Period. 

The Seven Churches Series- Sardis the Church of Fakers

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness- Colossians 2:6-7 NIV

There really was no place in the ancient world where it was truly safe to be a Christian. The threat of persecution was a constant issue for believers in Jesus into the fourth century. Even a relatively safe situation for Christians could become categorically unsafe overnight with a sudden change of political power. That being said, there were a few places where it was safer and easier to be a Christian. 

Sardis was one of those places. 

Sardis was a sizable, affluent city located in a lovely valley that nestled up against a mountain range. Due to its remarkably safe setting and its excess of natural resources, life in Sardis was prosperous and stress-free by ancient standards. The residents of Sardis were best known for their tolerant, laissez-faire attitude towards just about everything under the sun. 

 Sardis was infamous for being a party town occupied by overindulged, underachieving, slackers.

Seriously. 

There is little evidence Christians suffered much, if any, serious persecution in Sardis.  Emperor worship was not really an issue and there are (to my knowledge) no records of Christians being martyred in Sardis. The folks in Sardis were too busy having fun to persecute anyone for anything. 

Sardis was filled with messy, lost people who needed the life-changing good news of the gospel. There was little stopping Christians from openly sharing. The Christians there were under no real threat. There was little chance they would be arrested or sent to an arena for talking about Jesus in a city as accommodating and tolerant as Sardis.  

However.

The Christians in Sardis did not use their idyllic situation to reach the lost and do good in their city.   

Sigh.

Jesus’ letters all follow a familiar pattern.  Jesus begins each of the seven letters with a greeting to the “angel” (commonly believed to be the pastor or bishop) of the church.  Jesus follows His greeting with a declarative statement about Himself. Each statement reveals something critical about His power, character and/or the authority He has over the world (Revelation 2:1, Revelation 2:8, Revelation 2:18, Revelation 3:1, Revelation 3:7, Revelation 3:14) In all but two of the letters Jesus follows with some kind and affirming words concerning the church in question. Jesus praises the church’s faith, good deeds, perseverance, and/or their love for one another, etc. Only after praising and affirming the good in their lives does He offer any criticism.

In His letter to Sardis Jesus deviates dramatically from His usual pattern. 

After the greeting and declarative statement, Jesus jumps directly to criticism and it’s objectively, quite harsh. He begins by telling them that although they have a reputation for being spiritually alive and life-giving, He knows the people in the church are dead in all the ways that matter. 

There was a lot of spiritual fakery going down at the First Church of Sardis. However, the church looked awesome from the outside. The sermons in Sardis were probably consistently on-point. The congregants as well as the leaders were very diligent with their spiritual practices. They prayed, they fasted, they had amazing discipleship programs and the people gave money to help the poor and support the church. 

However. 

Ultimately, the people in the church were more concerned with looking holy, good, wise and honest than they were with actually being any of those things. 

Their hearts were far from God and as a result, they cared little for the souls of people in their city. They had chosen the route of looking good rather than being good and their fakeness had them on the verge of spiritual death. Sadly, they didn’t even have the spiritual awareness to recognize the danger they were in (Revelation 3:2). Their only hope was repentance and repentance is nearly impossible when a person has concluded they are just fine the way they are.

Unfortunately, anyone can lack self-awareness.

For this reason alone, Sardis is (in my opinion) the scariest of the seven letters. Jesus’ words underscore the sad reality that a Christian (or group of Christians) can be a hot spiritual mess and not even be vaguely aware of any of their own problems. It is possible for respected Christians and even esteemed Christian leaders be so self-deceived they can be half-way to hell all the while believing they are leading the way to heaven (Matthew 7:13-23, Jeremiah 17:9).

Yikes.

The letter to Sardis is a much-needed reminder that we can fool a lot of humans with our surface-y goodness but we can’t fool Jesus. He sees everything there is to see. Including the state of our hearts (Hebrews 4:13). This is why self-reflection is so critically needed for believers (Psalm 26:2, 2nd Corinthians 13:5). Without a willingness to really look at our lives and examine our hearts on a regular basis we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we are way better than we really are and when we do that we risk losing our saltiness and becoming spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13)

There were a few people in the First Church of Sardis who were the real deal (Revelation 3:4).  These people had remained true to Jesus and genuinely Christian even while being surrounded by spiritual counterfeits. Jesus makes one of His most beautiful promises in all of the letters to those people. He assures them they will be given the honor of walking with Him (experiencing intimate relationship) wearing white (eternally pure and noble) for all of eternity. 

That’s worth staying real for.