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How Dry I Am! How Dry . . .

“Dude! I don’t I feel God’s presence? Maybe He has left me!” You’d be surprised at how often these thoughts or questions come up! Perhaps you’ve wondered or asked them yourself. It’s OK. Let’s talk about why we think we need to ‘feel’ the presence of God.

Our creator designed us to bear His image.

“Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . . God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

Do you know that He and the One we know as Jesus felt emotion (and, logically, still do)?

God: “Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.” (Psalm 103:13)

Jesus: “Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him . . .” (Mark 10:21); “When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” (Luke 7:13)

We are imagers of God. He operates by free will; so do we (with good or bad consequences!). He feels; we feel. So God understands our emotions. The downside is that we can mistake feeling for Spirit and go into a tailspin when we don’t ‘feel’ Him. The truth is that, although our interaction with God can produce human feelings, the Spirit of God isn’t an emotion. He is either with us or not, regardless of what we feel. Old Covenant Elijah and David exemplify this reality.

God was with Elijah, as evidenced by His destruction of pagan priests and an animal sacrifice (1 Kings 18:20-40). He was probably on top of the world! Yet, he had a complete reversal when running from King Ahab soon afterward. Elijah was so depressed that he wished to die. He didn’t ‘feel’ the presence of God. However, he learned that God had not left Him as revealed in a ‘gentle wind’ (1 Kings 19:11-13).

David? Within the first 100 Psalms, you’ll discover quickly that David’s emotions were up one minute, down the next. He knew that God was his foundation (e.g., Psalm 18), but, later, he cries, “Where are you?!?” (as in Psalm 13).

And then there’s my dear wife, who felt like she was in a ‘spiritual desert’ for several years. Once she realized that God had been with her all the time and was waiting for her to do her job of introducing His Kingdom to others in work, play, and life, her outlook changed, and she’s been fine ever since.

In summary, our emotions (or lack thereof!) may keep us from remembering that God gives His Spirit to His own; feelings are ours. Next week, we’ll take a deep dive into Jesus’ washings in the upper room as we contrast born-again forgiveness and continued forgiveness.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Just Breathe!

Close your eyes. Breathe in for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. Breath out for four seconds. Hold for four seconds. As I understand, this is one way that folks like Navy Seals and military snipers stay calm under highly stressful situations. Breathing to stay calm can help you too. When? Whenever you begin to feel stressed, angry, or anxious. And calming down instead of reacting is good for your body and mind and relational and spiritual health. The last two areas will be our focus today, even though all four areas touch our relationship with God and Christian maturity. In the process, I’ll offer some tips for healthy conflict resolution.

In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus explained that we must not allow anger to manifest in slander or physical harm. The text also tells us to correct any wrong we’ve done against other people. In other words: resolve conflicts and reverse sinful actions against others. Open confrontation helps keep little misunderstandings or minor infractions from becoming gaping wounds that may never heal. Healthy confrontation to resolve conflicts can also reduce the likelihood of practicing anti-God behavior against others, which will earn a spiritual death sentence and exclusion from God’s Kingdom (Revelation 22:14-15; Galatians 5:19-23).

Here’s an example of how this can work: Breathe in. 1-2-3-4. Hold 1-2-3-4. Breathe out. 1-2-3-4. Hold. 1-2-3-4. “Excuse me: I need to let you know that accusing me of stealing without proof hurt. Next time, please talk to me first.” And then breathe. Or “Your hateful comments and gossip tear down and don’t build up. Let’s talk.” Breathe . . . Now, the other person may not be receptive or may react negatively. You can’t control that. The point is that we must do our best to calmly but firmly address issues to help ensure that minor conflicts don’t get out of control and result in sin (rebellion against God’s ways). Is there anything else you can do to reduce tensions and not sin? Sure!

Besides the breathing I mentioned, you can remove yourself from a toxic situation to avoid reacting out of anger. If that’s not possible, remain calm and do your best not to react to keep from sinning. Allow reconciliation to work. Here’s what Jesus said about this in Matthew 5:39: “. . . whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” And Paul reminded the Ephesian church not to sin out of anger and retain healthy relationships by “not letting the sun go down on your anger.” (4:26).

On a different note, you may occasionally feel ‘spiritually dry’—that God has left you or that you’re not performing some spiritual purpose. So, let’s go there next week!

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

White Robes & Green Thumbs

What do white robes and green thumbs have to do with each other? Lots! In our Christian faith, you must have both to grow and persevere until the rescue (salvation) that will come when Christ returns (1Peter 1:3-5). Allow me to explain.

White robes imply a setting apart (holiness) from worldly things for the things of God. And the things for which we’re to be set apart are purity and good works and spiritual growth and maturity.

“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” —Ephesians 2:10.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that belief without productive faith will buy ‘fire insurance!’ Jesus said that would result in destruction (John 15:2-6). James confirmed that knowledge without action is dead (James 2:14-26). But righteousness (abiding by God’s standard) and holiness will earn a white robe and rescue at the end of this world and an eternity with God:

“After these things, I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands … And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” —Revelation 7:9-14.

White robes are good. But where does the ‘green thumb’ fit in? Well, living by God’s standard and doing good works out of faith don’t come naturally. They happen because of a change of heart (mind) and spiritual maturity. We must decide to receive the wisdom of God and learn how to grow it and put it to work. Jesus explained this in a parable about spiritual soil (Matthew 13:1-9 (parable) and 18-23 (explanation)).

Briefly, the parable showcases four kinds of people as an analogy of sowing and soil. The first is on no ground, the person who doesn’t understand the things of God and rejects them. The second is rocky soil: receiving wisdom but being unproductive. The third is thorny ground, representing the worrisome and greedy, intentionally and selfishly unfruitful. The fourth is good soil: the person who receives the good news of God’s Kingdom and matures accordingly. The green thumb in good soil earns a white robe.

Do you have a ‘white robe?’ Well, it depends on your soil and willingness to receive truth and grow in it. What kind of soil are you? Let me know if you need some fertilizer! I realized too late that I was to address healthy conflict resolution and dealing with anger last week. So, let’s go there next week.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Change of Heart, Change of Mind

What do you think of when you hear or read the word “heart?” I guess that feelings come to mind. Perhaps an afterthought is “my heart hurts” or “you have my heart” or “it warms my heart.” That’s fine. After all, we’re emotional creatures. But what about a change of heart—especially that transformation God desires of us? And how does ancient Christianity primarily view the ‘heart’ anyway?

You’ll find that heart, mind, and intent are very closely related and can be synonymous in the Bible. For instance, “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Acts 8:22)

An intent to do something is to have a heart, or mind, for action. We behave accordingly when our mind (heart) is set on a course of action or thing. The pure heart (mind) will see God (Matthew 5:8). On the other hand, the heart (mind or intent) is closely related to what we pursue. It could be things like money, love, stuff, sports, etc. (Matthew 6:21). So, why is the word ‘heart’ (Greek cardia) often used to represent our thoughts or intentions? It is the core of our being and where everything we do begins:

“But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” (Matthew 15:18-19)

Those who God knows have a heart (mind) for Him and have devoted all to Him: “. . . if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes . . .” (Romans 19:9-10), And we are of one mind (Acts 4:32).

Yet, some intend to continue rebellion against God; it won’t end well: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5)

Finally, a right mind (heart) makes possible a deep and lasting understanding of God’s Kingdom: “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.” Luke 8:15)

It’s nearly springtime. So, let’s continue to talk about soil and seed and growing spiritual stuff next week in “White Robes & Green Thumbs.”

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Vengeance is God’s Alone!

My cat is pretty funny … and vindictive! She insists on having the last ‘word.’ If she has just been scolded, she’ll likely hide behind a corner and lash out as the discipliner walks by. Or she may whelp a disapproving “meeooowwwuuuuuhhhh.” I’m not sure I want to know what she’s saying at that moment! Anyway, she reminds me that we’re often aggressive toward other people—even inside the church.

People who should know better gossip against others and retaliate in litigation (think about the Corinthians I wrote about last week!). They often throw hurtful speech or punches despite the order to be kind, patient, and loving. Vengeance flies even though we’re commanded to turn the other cheek to give reconciliation a chance and be quicker to listen than speak.

“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20)

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39)

These are some active ways we can be aggressive to God’s creation. There are others too.

My cat is aggressive in her retaliation. But sometimes, she’s passive in her attacks, withdrawing her affection or displaying ‘attitude’ in non-verbal or covert unkindness. We often do the same to each other. There’s the gossiper who will whisper unpleasantries or the ugly truth disguised in “Christian love.” I’ve heard these things spoken aloud in prayers to avoid the accusations of gossip. Some people, like my cat, will withhold their affections or stop helping in passive retaliation. And there’s the congregant who will selectively clap for one worship music artist while refraining when the person they dislike offers their gift. Aggressions like those I’ve mentioned are ungodly and hurtful, whether active or passive. So, who does have the right to be the aggressor?

Only God has the authority to issue vengeance, retribution, or judgment:

“For we know Him who said, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.’ And again, ‘THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.’” (Hebrews 10:30)

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

Whether victim or aggressor, some of you may be frustrated at what I’ve written. So, join me next week to explore healthy conflict resolution and dealing with anger.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

That’s Heavy, Man!

“Ron! Why do you write about such serious stuff? Just remind us that Jesus loves us no matter what and then tell a cute story or write something funny!” Indeed, my topics are often serious or deep. Why? I sometimes address a specific need or balance our lopsided Christianity that usually tells only half the story. Yes, Jesus loves us no matter what we’ve done or where we are. But we’re not meant to stay there! According to King Solomon, there’s nothing new under the sun. And the need to respond to current issues or provide guidance dates to the earliest days of the New Covenant.

New Testament (Covenant) letter writers usually addressed a particular audience to inform or solve a problem. They would often provide balance in a Christianity warped by heresies or immoralities of the day. Take Paul, for instance. He wrote to the Church in Rome to steer a predominantly Jewish congregation from focusing on religious format or works. Sure, God had predestined the nation of Israel to carry out His plan of salvation (Romans 8:18-30 – similarly, see Ephesians 1:4-6, 11). Its people—especially those who entered the Christian faith—probably felt special and believed that adherence to the Jewish religious Law was still necessary for the New Covenant. However, a focus on works negated the unmerited gift of life offered through Jesus.

The Corinthian Church was another recipient of Paul’s written guidance and correction. These believers, mostly Greek, often engaged in things like sexual immoralities (e.g., 1Corinthians 5:1-13 and 6:12-20). Many filed lawsuits against each other. Still, others practiced gluttony and self-centeredness and rebelled against customs like how women should respond in church or keep their hair. Why did he write against violating local traditions? Because the violations caused problems in the culture and could make God’s Kingdom unattractive to the locals. Paul’s letters addressed those issues (and more) to correct bad behavior and provide a clearer view of a righteous walk of faith. What about today?

We still misbehave toward one another, abuse our bodies, and neglect spiritual formation believing all the while, selfishly, that God has a unique plan for each of us and that He works all things for our personal good. The practices are unrighteous, and the beliefs are gross misunderstandings of Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28 taken out of context. Yes, God Has a plan and has invited us to join Him in it, but it’s His plan for all, not personal spiritual elevation.

So, I write to you to offer balance and guidance and partner with you to practice your faith according to God’s good pleasure. I promise to lighten it up where I can! What’s next? Let’s learn how not to be aggressive—even passively aggressive—in “Vengeance is God’s, not ours—even in church!”

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Ask Away!

Once upon a time, I didn’t study (or regularly read!) my Bible. I didn’t ask questions. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what to ask or why. I believed that I just needed to believe in Jesus with no other relational or growth requirements. And no one challenged my resulting lack of faith, which, as it turns out, must be based on wisdom about God. So, my faith was blind and shallow. Then, the dam broke one day, and the floodwaters of grief, joy, and passion rushed in. “What happened?” you ask. Good question! Let your inquiry be the first of many to come.

Decades ago, a friend challenged my faith by bringing to light my lack of understanding about the end of the world and Jesus’ return … or anything else biblical, for that matter. He was right. But I decided to become ‘found’ by devoting myself and all I am to God and vowing to learn about His ways and teach others what I discovered. I learned during the process that we must challenge what we’re taught in church—especially where good biblical knowledge is lacking, or wrong, or things just don’t make sense. I suggest that discovering the source of church traditions is a great way to start. There are many excellent reasons to question these things.

First, blind faith can lead to spiritual death. On the other hand, asking questions can make us wiser and aid our discipleship. And a healthy fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Why else would we go through the effort??

“Give instruction to a wise man and he will be still wiser, teach a righteous man and he will increase his learning. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:9-10)

Second, our inquiries can hold Christian preachers and teachers, who God holds to a higher standard (e.g., James 3:1), accountable. Your questioning can help them focus. We learn of one group, applauded for doing this:

“The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17:10-12)

Finally, others are probably wondering the same things you are. Your questions and correct answers can benefit many others too. In summary, wisdom about God and spiritual transformation is a matter of life and death. Questioning what you hear and asking new questions can aid wisdom, provide accountability, and benefit others. What’s next? I’ll explain why so many of my topics seem serious or hard-hitting in “That’s Heavy, Man!”

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

Jesus Said What??

We love to read or hear that Jesus loves us. We love to read or hear that Jesus forgives us. Forgiveness by others, including God, can be music to our soul. But Jesus and others like Peter, James, and Paul also told us stuff we may not be so eager to receive. However, heeding them is a matter of life and death. Here are but a few of the lifesaving tips:

  • Honor God and be charitable to others (Matthew 22:36-40). We are to honor God with our bodies and by good works born of faith (Matthew 5:16; Ephesians 2:10; 1Timothy 6:18) … period.
  • Introduce God’s Kingdom everywhere by word and deed (Matthew 5:13-16). If the Spirit of God is within us, we will have no choice but behave that way (produce fruit). Godly behavior presents God’s Kingdom to people; arrogant, ungodly, self-centered, or self-righteous behavior makes the Kingdom unattractive and often unattainable.
  • Be and make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20; Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 5:11-14; 2Timothy 3:14-17). As with honoring God and loving people, this is non-negotiable!
  • Count the cost of being a disciple, which anticipates appropriate responses to God and provides consequences, both good and bad, like any other relationship (Luke 14:25-33).
  • Forgive to be forgiven (Matthew 6:12-15; Colossians 3:12-13). We must give back what we’ve been freely given.
  • There will be trouble in life (John 16:33; 1Peter 4:12-19; Psalm 34:19; James 1:2-4 & 12; Romans 5:3-5 and 12:9-21).
  • But stand firm through that trouble to grow stronger and wiser and be saved from coming judgment (Matthew 10:22 and 24:13; Romans 5:3-4; Hebrews 3:14; 2Timothy 2:12).
  • Be productive in the Kingdom of God . . . or else. (Matthew 25:41-46; John 15:1-8).
  • Choose to stay (abide) in the relationship with God (John chapter 15). He seeks active, fruitful partners in a reciprocal relationship. Persevere and live!

So, according to Jesus and others, we’re to enter a relationship with God through Jesus and stay. And as we remain, we are disciples who make them as well. Finally, we must be productive by honoring God with all we have and are and love other people. Otherwise, we’re of no use to God. The good news is that He gives His Spirit to help us do all the things I just mentioned and be successful in our spiritual growth and obedience. What do we have to look forward to if we remain in a fruitful relationship with God? His peace and rest now, and rescue from judgment at the end of this world.

What’s next? Let’s understand better why we’re to challenge what we see or hear—especially where God is concerned—in next week’s article, “Ask Away!!”

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

A McDonaldized Christianity

My doctoral dissertation addressed the sobering and declining state of Western Christianity. It explored how to motivate churchgoers to ‘get off their butts’ and become the disciples and disciple-makers they are to be. The journey led me to some interesting places, ideologically speaking. I discovered and wrote this about the consumeristic nature of much of the Church in the West: “The packaging of goods and spiritualities meant to appeal to consumers of religious experiences has been compared to McDonald’s processes. The product is a Happy Meal spirituality.” Churches can become “just one more dispenser of Happy Meals.” Now, this may not necessarily apply to your church, but I encourage you to read on and reflect.

According to author John Drane, the McDonaldized experience and church produce nominal believers. The format is appealing but empty, entertaining and spiritually tasty, but non-nutritious. John MacArthur says this about a possible contributor to the religious consumerism of faux Christians: “Provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment. Give them freedom, tolerance, and anonymity. Always be positive and benevolent. If you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Don’t be preachy or authoritative. Above all, keep everyone entertained.” Spiritual laziness is undoubtedly one side effect of this tendency.

A pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all McDonaldized approach to Christianity enables passivity. A person or team entertains a passive audience. Perhaps another person preaches at the same spectators. And the anonymity of which John MacArthur wrote, something of a Happy Meal toy, allows people to ‘slip out the back’ or avoid being held accountable for the lack of discipleship and spiritual growth. There’s another serious flaw in the McDonaldization process where it occurs in our Christianity: the loss of spiritual diversity and maturity.

Communities are born of shared values and traditions, and they are meant to meet the needs of their members. Christian communities were (and are) no exception—especially in the early days after Jesus’ ascension. Each person was required to help meet the physical needs of the Christian group (in other words, work!). They were also expected to contribute to spiritual formation, unity, and maturity based on God-given spiritual gifts and disciple-making abilities (Ephesians 4:11-16). But this kind of collective behavior must be tailored to the group’s specific needs; a pre-packaged McDonaldized Christianity that focuses on format over content and context just won’t do! It leaves little room for spiritual formation, active participation (versus passive observation), or movement by God’s Spirit.

Perhaps it’s time for a different kind of Christian diet—one that tastes good but is also spiritually nutritious. Maybe then we’ll get our butts out of the pews and behave like people who know about God AND who God knows (1Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:8-9). What’s next? Let’s uncover some of Jesus’ most excellent and applicable sayings in “Jesus Said What??” in next week’s article.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley

“I Am” or “I Will Be”??

You may have heard God referred to as “The Great I AM.” In fact, Exodus 3:14 states that God is “I AM WHO I AM” in most if not all Bibles. But did God really call Himself the “I AM” in the original language as if He needed to prove His existence? Or did the Hebrew phrase mean something else? Let’s see.

About 500 years after God formed a covenant with Abram, Moses encountered God. He asked about His name in Exodus 3:13-14: “Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM;” and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

The ancient Hebrew language in Exodus 3:13-14 refers to God as Ehyeh:  “And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.’” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”

The Hebrew word Ehyeh was understood, and, I believe, is best translated as, “I WILL BE—not “I AM.” Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh should be understood as “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.” There’s evidence showing that early Church Fathers wrote it this way. This rendering is also present in the first modern English translation of the Bible (Myles Coverdale, 1535).

Now, I realize we’re told that God is the ‘Great I Am.’ But this translation may not follow the intended meaning of the Hebrew text. And, it implies that God needs to convince people that He exists. The rendering of “I WILL BE” makes much more sense when we remember that God is a God of action, of kept promises. For instance, He will be a provider (Matthew 6:26), be a shepherd (Psalm 23), and be a healer (Exodus 15:26). Here are two other examples:

“And I will bring them back and they will live in the midst of Jerusalem; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God in truth and righteousness.” (Zechariah 8:8)

“FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD: I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS, AND I WILL WRITE THEM ON THEIR HEARTS. AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.” (Hebrews 8:10)

God will indeed be yours if you will be His! Reach out to take the next step! So, what will we dive into next week? We’ll explore our deadly consumeristic “McDonalds” Christianity.

Blessings and peace,

Dr. Ron Braley