Growing In Godliness Blog
A Season of Healing
By Wyatt Taylor
This Sunday, as the elders have announced, we will end most pandemic protocols and assemble for worship as a full congregation for the first time in 15 months.
I'm grateful that the elders took the precautions they did and that the congregation has weathered this time as well as it has. I very much appreciate the elders' judgment and the good work done by so many to facilitate our church life in a time of pandemic.
But while tools like live-streaming were blessings, and separate services were necessary for a time, I don't believe anyone has dared claim these arrangements are superior to, or even on par with, the traditional gathering of the church in the same place at the same time.
After all, God does not call us to join a virtual church, but a local church.
The last 15 months have been a trying time for the church. The pandemic lockdowns and precautions forced upon us a separation and an isolation that disrupted the common rhythms of church life, and this took a heavy toll on our relationships and bonds. As a society, and as a church, we labored to overcome the separation. We had “drive-by” parties and “quaran-teams” and “bubbles” and countless Zoom gatherings. But it was not the same. To say that our congregation has endured the pandemic relatively well is not to say that there has been no negative impact. And though the physical distance that has separated us for these 15 months may be gone on Sunday, the emotional and spiritual distance will not automatically disappear along with it.
Our isolation has taken its toll on our bonds of fellowship. Amid the pandemic, we had to navigate a slate of cultural controversies using social media tools that drive our outrage and division. We've seen pitched debates over the pandemic and pandemic precautions, racism and policing, and a heated presidential campaign. In times past we may have had these debates in-person around a table, a setting that more readily lends itself to resolving conflict. But in this time of isolation, we too often relied on online interactions that fed misunderstanding, hasty judgments, suspicion, cynicism, and distrust. I know I did, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels some alienation has developed between myself and other brethren.
Now, I believe it is critical that Christians discuss these topics and that it will not do for us to throw up our hands at the first sign of disagreement, accepting an equivalence between both sides in the name of peace rather than doing the hard work of engaging, discerning, and making a judgment about truth. But I would suggest we ought to be doing this together, with our bond in Christ at the front of our minds.
In every relationship, people disagree and get frustrated with one another. Especially in marriages. My wife and I aren't the type to have vocal arguments. Instead, when we get angry with one another, we tend to do something maybe even worse - we withdraw. We say nothing and retreat into a kind of Cold War. In a marriage book we studied some years ago, this kind of phenomenon was likened to building a wall between the spouses. We build a wall between us, brick by brick, with every little disagreement or disappointment that goes unaddressed. Until, over time, we can no longer even see one another. Understanding this tendency has helped us to counteract it. And we do so by confronting our feelings and sharing them in a healthy way. We strive to keep the lines of communication open, to not let a single brick be laid between us.
Brethren, we don't have to look far among the brotherhood to see the walls that have been built in the last year. It is time to bring them down.
- Behind them we may just find folks suffering in isolation, in need of burden bearers and fellow soldiers to lift them up.
- We may find folks who have gotten a little too comfortable in isolation, in need of a reminder of the joys of brotherhood.
- We’ll surely find difficult conversations and the need for forgiveness.
We may feel safe behind the walls we've built, justified in having built them, not sure we're ready to re-engage and deal with the messiness of community. It won't be easy to bring the walls down, and we might be fooled by the lack of open conflict into thinking we have nothing to worry about. But we must not mistake the quiet for genuine peace.
We all long for peace, and God has called us to be at peace as a church. Yet this never happens by accident, peace is made by peacemakers who employ the meekness of wisdom.
- James 3:13-18: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."
We must carefully examine our attitudes toward one another, put away the bitterness that may have built up, and soften our hearts toward our brethren, esteeming them above ourselves.
- Ephesians 4:31-32: "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you."
- Philippians 2:1-4: "Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
- Colossians 3:12-14: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”
As I’ve reflected on the last 15 months and the meaning of our coming back together, I believe the lesson is simple: we need one another. As sojourners and exiles in a world that does not believe, God's people must walk together.
I want to spend these coming months re-building bonds that may have weakened through neglect and separation, breaking down walls and healing wounds I may have caused, practicing hospitality to get to know brethren at a deeper level, and taking opportunities to be of service and encouragement to my brethren. I want to widen my circle. I realized during the pandemic that there were far too many brethren whom I know of, but hardly know well. I want to correct this, and I ask everyone to take up this challenge.
May this be a time of breaking down walls. May these next months be a season of healing, of repairing the bonds of fellowship that have frayed, of drawing one another out of isolation and into a community of grace where we will "stir one another up to love and good works". May the spirit of grace and forgiveness be mighty among us and overcome the cynicism and anger that may have prevailed. May the disagreements of the last 15 months recede into the past and unity in our love for God and desire to serve Him be elevated.
As we once again assemble in full, let us not forget the loss we felt in separation. And let us celebrate the beauty and joy of our coming together, which is but a foretaste of the joy we will one day share when gathered in heaven around the throne of God.
Discipline and Holiness
By Austin Shearer
“Do you understand why I am punishing you?” I can still hear those words ringing in my ears. I heard them often enough growing up. Usually, I had done something wrong at the beginning of the day, and my mom valiantly took on the task of correcting me. I did not appreciate it then, but mom would send me to my room for thirty minutes so that she could prepare to teach me why what I had done was wrong, why I needed to be punished, and how it really was for my own good. I appreciate it now. Now years later, the time spent to help me understand my faults, and the consequences of those faults, has helped me to begin grasping a deep truth; God wants us to share in His holiness.
In (Heb. 12:7-11), the writer makes the point that God, “disciplines us for our good.” When we sin against him, the consequences of those actions are designed to propel us forward into deeper devotion, and deeper service to Him. It is interesting, however, that the writer clarifies what he means by, “for our good.” He goes on to say, “that we may share in His holiness.” There is a purpose to God’s discipline. It isn’t disciple just because God likes to tell us we are wrong and to punish us, rather, it is God creating a people who share His holiness. Perhaps this is a point we are to learn from the old law, and the sacrifices that were to be perfect and without blemish. God wanted His people to display His image of holiness throughout the world.
It is mind boggling, that God wants us to share in His holiness. After all, we are all sinners, we have all failed to attain to the perfect holiness of God. I am confident that most Christians have faced moments of doubt and discouragement, because we are called to a higher standard, and we have not lived up to that standard. I am also confident, however, that we can find joy in knowing that God’s discipline, for our failure, is His love, and deep desire to share His holiness with us.
With that astonishing realization, perhaps, when we face the discipline of God, we will have a different view. Perhaps we will understand the words, “Do you understand why I am punishing you,” a little bit better, and we can answer, “Yes, that I might share in Your holiness.”
The Cross and Me
By: Olivia Shearer
The story of the cross is familiar to Christians. Sometimes this familiarity with the text keeps us from seeing how cruel this event was. I remember a few years back watching The Passion of The Christ (2004) and being overwhelmed by that palatable hatred that surrounded the figure of Jesus. A man the Jews had praised and honored days before was now the center of mocking, shame, and unimaginable pain. I couldn’t fathom hating anyone that much, let alone someone who hadn’t personally done anything to me, but recently I realized that my actions toward God when I sin aren’t so different from the actions of the people who put Christ to death. When you look deeper at the crucifixion story and our own past or perhaps present mentalities toward God the resemblance is unsettling. The cross and the actions taken there are the physical symbol of my sin and what it does to God.
Let’s start early on in the garden. Even before the pain and destruction of the cross I can see similarities between what I do and what Jesus’ disciples did in the garden. In Luke 22:27-48 we see Judas come and kiss Jesus on the cheek. Jesus immediately sees through this supposed friendly act, and God still sees through our acts of supposed friendliness. Are we so different from Judas when we sit in a pew singing and praising God all the while knowing that when we return home or when the next day comes, we plan on sinning? Not all sin is premeditated, but when it is and we pretend like that sin isn’t on our hearts and minds are we any better than Judas kissing the son of God and delivering him over to the Pharisees. Even if we aren’t deliberately betraying Jesus, if we know a
trial or temptation is about to arise in our lives, but we refuse to prepare for it are we any better than the disciples in verse 45 of Luke 22 who Jesus finds sleeping when he asked them to pray. I wish I could say this was the only resemblance I saw, but my similarities and I suspect many others’ similarities with the people and events of the crucifixion don’t end there.
Matthew 26:56 tells us that the disciples fled and abandoned Jesus. I think this is exactly what we do when we sin. We have a friend in Jesus, a companion, a rock, a guide, and a hope, but when we sin, we abandon all of that. We run to another refuge whether that be ourself, riches, or other people, we abandon Christ. We leave him alone as the world looks on and questions and ridicules him (often because of our sinful behaviors while calling ourselves his representatives on earth). We leave him without our support. I think Jesus stands there hurt by our betrayal knowing he will be okay because he has God, but worried for our souls and our next decisions.
When I’ve sinned and sometimes before I’ve sinned, I find that I put God on trial just as the Pharisees did. I come with a motive and agenda already in mind just as the council in Mark 14:55 sis. I come without an open mind and open his word searching for something that will make what I want to do or what I’ve already done okay. I pull scriptures out of context and twist words just as the Pharisees pulled together false witnesses and took Jesus words out of context. I question God and ask him if he really has my best interest at heart, and when I find that God is innocent, I recreate my memories and point out times when I couldn’t see his design for my life or when I felt that he was being unfair, and then I question his deity by sinning and putting myself in a spot of higher prominence and authority.
After I’ve effectively won my case, with the loaded jury in my own mind, I mock his deity further with my sin. I sin and effectively spit on him and his blessings. I thrust a crown of thrones on his head and throw a purple robe over his beaten body like the soldiers in Mark 15:18 and tell him he’s not the king of anything in my life. I make myself a king. I sin and I strike his back and leave pain behind as I use his own love for me against him.
After I’ve mocked and beaten my savior, I hand him the weight of accusations, hatred, pride, and rebellion and say carry it, just as the Jews handed Jesus his cross. Then I try to nail him down to those accusations to keep myself from seeing how I’ve failed and what I’ve become. Meanwhile my fellow Christians stand by and see my life of sin and the pain it causes God just as Mary saw her son hanging on a cross in John 19:25, but I am unmoved by their pain for God and for me.
Then I wait. I watch as my savior struggles under the pressure of my sins, my pride, and my willful ignorance. Christ sits there interceding for me asking God to forgive me and the others who have nailed him there, but one spot in which I differ from the Jews is that unlike the people in Luke 23:34, I do know what I’ve done. I knew it was wrong, but I don’t want to face it.
Then God allows me to have my way. He delivers my world into darkness as his son take his last breath and my world is split into two. It is only there in my darkest moments when I’ve hit rock bottom that I turn back to him and like the centurion in Mark 15:39 declare him to be the innocent Son of God.
It’s frightening to see the parallels between the story of the crucifixion and my own life. Something that once seemed unfathomably evil, now seems all too familiar, and I feel a bit like David in 2 Samuel12:7 as Nathan tells him “You are the Man!” Not all of our sins follow this exact course, but I do find that almost all sins have some variation or combination of the events above in them. I think this calls us all to evaluate our attitudes towards the Jews of Jesus’ day (who may be more like us than we like to admit), towards God when we sin, and towards the deity and sovereignty of God which we call into question anytime we sin.
Ready To Listen
By David Norfleet
For anyone that has been in a relationship for very long, you know it is easier to stick your foot in your mouth than to take it out. We often or frequently need help with how to communicate with others effectively. James does so by providing inspired instruction that will help in those situations. He wrote in James 1:19, “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.” If we would heed this instruction it would help in all our inter-personal relationships, but especially our relationship with God. And that seems to be James’ primary application as he points to the word of God in James 1:21, “…in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
So, what does it means to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” with respect to God’s word?
To be quick to hear points to an eagerness to learn and a willingness to accept the things God has to say to us. We want instruction. We want counsel. We want wisdom from heaven. We need help. This idea is more of a disposition than an action, and it begins with humility – a recognition that we don’t have all the answers, but God does. Peter wrote in I Peter 2:2, “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.” Jesus knew of the importance of this quality in His followers so He wrote in Mark 4:24, “Take heed what you hear.”
How does being slow to speak relate to a reception of God’s word? It is generally true when you're talking or even thinking about what to say you are not listening. There is proven value in speaking less and listening more (Proverbs 10:19; 17:28), but it is critical when attending to God. In this text being slow to speak may actually mean “slowness to start speaking,” and have specific reference to ill-considered reactions to what God has said. How will we ever receive God’s instruction if we do all the talking or if we thoughtlessly react to justify ourselves, negate Scripture’s demands, or explain the Bible away? Our attitude needs to reflect the words of Samuel, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:9-10)
What do you do when God’s word steps on your toes? Maybe you’re reading it, or hearing it preached. It says something that you don’t like, because it confronts the way you think or live. Do you get angry and defensive, thinking, “What right does that preacher have to say that? How dare he tell me how to live!” Do you have these “flash-reactions” when your conscience is pricked? That is why it is so important to be slow to anger, as an angry spirit is not a teachable spirit. As James would write, “…the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)
Popular author Francis Chan stated, “Whenever I read the Bible and come across something that I disagree with, I have to assume I am wrong.” He understands that the word of God and our reception of it is vital as it reveals, reproves, corrects, trains, revives us, directs us, keeps us from sin, and reveals God to us (Ephesians 3:1-4; II Timothy 3:16; Psalm 119:50, 105; Psalm 19). It is no wonder the psalmist would write, “I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for your commandments.” (Psalm 119:131) If we could only get out of our own way God wants to transform us through His word, James tries to help us with that by reminding us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ ” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 2).
Solomon, his failed experiment with wisdom having been recounted, now tells of a similarly empty attempt to find contentment in pleasure. From the discipline of careful thought he turns first to a passionate pursuit of the sensual. He pours himself into every activity pleasing to the senses, bombarding himself with delights of the flesh. If he could not think his way to life’s purpose perhaps he could experience his way to it. But even before he relates the details of his new research he declares its results—complete and utter madness. It accomplished absolutely nothing.
“I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives” (v. 3). It strikes us as strange that the Preacher should begin intentionally to experiment with “folly” but this is likely a word used in retrospect. The Hebrew verb from which its original is formed usually indicates moral and spiritual stupidity rather than just intellectual foolishness (1 Samuel 13:13; 2 Samuel 24:10), thus, “the wickedness of folly” (7:25).
Solomon speaks specifically here of gratifying himself with wine. Does he mean to refer to drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29, 30; 31:4, 5) or simply to the delights of good and nourishing but non-intoxicating food (Ecclesiastes 9:7, 8)? And is the folly here in immoral excesses or in trying to turn otherwise innocent pleasures (delectable food, pleasing clothing, lovely music, 2:8b) into the whole purpose of life? The Preacher seems very intent on telling us that his experiment with pleasure never led him to mindless excess (“while guiding my heart with wisdom”). Perhaps, practically, it does not matter. Whether one dives headfirst into pleasure or tastes its delights with respectable prudence, neither will bring any ultimate satisfaction. The former may cause more momentary havoc but both will end in emptiness of heart.
This is an important warning for a generation intent on living in a continuous party, entertaining itself into stupefaction. All too soon the endless banqueting grows stale and the laughter dies or becomes hollow (7:6). The pursuit of pleasure is necessarily flawed by its essential selfishness and devaluation of others. It becomes increasingly addictive increasingly unsatisfying. This is not to disparage innocent fun but building our lives on it is to mindlessly and endlessly relive some sophomoric stage of life.
Solomon refers later in this section (v. 8b) to another sensual delight to which he gave himself, “the delights of the sons of men”(NKJ) or as it may be better translated “the pleasures of men—many concubines” (NAS). This may be a case of understatement for the king actually had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). One wonders how in his relatively short lifetime he ever managed to hold even a brief conversation with each of them! His proverbs suggest that they must have given him as much pain as pleasure (Proverbs 21:9, 19; 27:15) and they became the primary reason for his apostasy from God (1 Kings 11:4). Marriage is truly a blessing from God (9:9) but not even a wonderful marriage can bear the load of being life’s ultimate purpose! It is evident in this age of serial polygamy that some are still seeking to find transcendent happiness in marriage, running from one partner to the next. None of them will ever approach the level of Solomon’s experiment and like him they too will fail. We ought to be wise enough to learn from the other fellow’s experience.
But not all pleasure is sensual. “I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them” (2:4, 5). Failing to find life’s meaning in physical gratifications Solomon turns to more substantial and useful pleasures, the creating of great palaces and delightful gardens, the multiplication of great herds and flocks and the accumulation of great wealth. The purpose of all this frenetic building was to somehow bring a sense of fulfillment and peace and compared to his plunge into sensuality it was certainly a step up. Solomon did find pleasure in the midst of his work (2:10) but when it was done and he reflected on its ultimate significance he concluded that it, too, was meaningless (2:11).
Solomon with his virtually limitless resources had restricted himself from no desired pleasure or pursuit (2:10) and it worked to make him surpassingly great among men (2:9). Yet for all his achievements he concluded with an emptiness perhaps even greater than that with which he began. It was destined to fail from the beginning because he was searching in the wrong places and always for the wrong reason—for himself(2:4–6, 8). Life is not made of pleasures and palaces.
 Earnhart, P. (1999). Mining the Scriptures: Of Pleasures and Palaces. Christianity Magazine, 16(3/4), 35.