She sat in my office in significant spiritual distress. “I’m not sure I have faith,” she cried. I’m not sure I really believe.” This was a spiritual struggle not unknown to any sincere Christian. These crises of faith come to anyone who deeply cares about God and his or her standing at the final judgment.

The question, however, is a ploy of Satan. Do you really believe? Do you really trust Jesus? Is your faith strong enough? These are his seemingly legitimate questions. That’s what Satan does: he accuses. And he’s good at it. He has a way of finding our weak spot and probing to see where such innuendo and insinuation can weaken our soul and destroy our confidence before God.

Satan knows that we know we will give an account to God. He knows that sincere Christians want to give a good account. He also knows that we have given into his tricks and ploys. His schemes have unfolded around the unsuspecting and innocent in ways that cause us to fall. He has shown us the fruit that is good for food, desirable for wisdom and pleasing to the eye. And we’ve taken it and eaten it. That fruit always hides a sharp barb that we discover only after we’ve tasted its sweetness.

So when Satan accuses, he has a leg to stand on. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us have missed the mark. We’ve all turned aside. We’ve ignored God’s voice and abandoned his ways. If we think otherwise Satan has already blinded our eyes to the essential first step in receiving the benefit of God’s redemptive work. We’ve forfeited the foundation of faith, for we look inward rather than to God for our hope. That’s not faith; that’s idolatry.

The answer to whether our faith is good enough or not, or whether we have saving faith, or any faith at all is to confess, “I have failed God and sinned so greatly that if I am to be saved it will only be by God’s grace.” Notice the intentional wording of that declaration. It’s not about our faith but about God’s grace. Faith looks to God’s grace, never to itself.

Our faith is not perfect. We waver and doubt. Even the first disciples – after Jesus’ resurrection and proof-giving 50 days of post-resurrection appearances – struggled. You doubt this? Take a closer look at Matthew 28:16-17 “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (Emphasis added).

These are the men who are going to turn the world upside down. They would all one day, except for John, die the martyr’s death. They would become the hingepoint of the dramatic opening of countless hearts throughout the world to the Good News of Jesus. They would be imprisoned, tortured, beaten, burned alive, skinned alive, crucified (upside down) and otherwise abused for the sake of the name of Jesus.

This was not a matter of atoning for their own sins. Their distress was not to make up for their earlier doubts. Their distress was because they believed that Jesus’ message and the resurrection was more important than life itself. Their doubts had turned to faith.

Jesus did on occasion challenge the disciples’ faith. “Oh you of little faith,” Jesus laments as he stood in the boat and rebuked the raging sea (Matthew 8:26). “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” he asks, right before feeding the multitude. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” Jesus asks the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:25).

The answer to questions about one’s faith is not to focus on faith, but to look at the One in whom we are to believe. The strength of faith is not the faith, per se, but the object of that faith. Have I sinned? Yes. Do I have doubts? Certainly. Do I have perfect faith? No way. But I have a perfect Savior. I have one who said, “Reach your hand here. See my hands and side” (John 20:27). Do I have perfect faith? No. But I have a Savior who in perfect faith entrusted himself to his Father and has sat down at the right hand of God.

Satan wants us to focus on our faith. Faith focuses not on itself, but on our Savior.

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This combination of artificial and natural flowers was a common sight in Guatemala. September 2018

Peter Wagner was teaching a class at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is somewhat famously known for his teaching on Church Growth, and the roll of signs and wonders in that phenomenon. He even brought John Wimber into our class for one session. Wimber is well known as a strong advocate for the miraculous and dramatic workings of the Holy Spirit. He was, until his death in 1997, a leader in the Charismatic Movement within the Christian Church.

During a break in one of our class sessions I asked for prayer. I was suffering from a severe sinus infection and could barely speak. He had offered to pray for people during the breaks and I was ready to be healed. When I told him my prayer concern, he asked me about my limp. That was such a constant in my life, I wasn’t even aware of it most of the time.

I explained that I had degenerative arthritis in my left hip and that it would lead eventually to a total hip replacement. He said, “I’m more concerned for your hip and leg than your cold.”

“I agree,” I said.

He sat me down and lifted my feet out in front of me, and asked, “Did you know one of your legs is shorter than the other?” When I acknowledged that I did, he called out to the people still in the room, “Anyone want to see the Lord lengthen a leg?”

I was in no position to refuse since he was holding my feet out in front of me. A group of people gathered around. “In the name of Jesus, I command this leg to grow!”

I don’t know how to explain it but I do know that I felt a sensation in my right thigh, and my right leg moved out about an inch. Wimber (who was not there at the time) would say that was an act of faith on Wagner’s part. “You can’t minister in doubt. You have to have faith,” he said on another occasion.

The lengthening of my leg did not prevent further degeneration, and I eventually had my left hip replaced. But his act of faith and prayer for healing was a powerful experience. I felt loved and cared for, and I witnessed the power of God to do incredible things that day.

God gives all Christians faith. “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Some, however, display faith in an extraordinary way. They heal diseases. They cast out demons. They do remarkable feats of faith in ways that create joy and encouragement for others.

Such faith is not an extra measure of salvation. It is not something given only to super Christians (the best of the best of the best). Nor is this extraordinary faith something we achieve because we have worked harder than others to impress God.

I say all this because we sometimes think of the victory of faith as something only dealing with healings, miracles, or super-heroic acts. For most Christians the victory of faith is much simpler, but no less far-reaching.

  • A father takes time to pray with his children before bed because he believes that God hears our prayers and that the kingdom of heaven does indeed belong to little ones. That child grows up to believe in God and honor him his whole life.
  • A high school girl remains sexually pure because she believes her body is a dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and she wants to honor God with her body (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18-21). She goes on to become a mother and Sunday School teacher.
  • A single mom refuses the advances of her boss because she values her integrity more than a potential pay raise. She is able to give a powerful witness to others in her workplace about staying true to yourself.
  • A school teacher offers to pray for a child who is struggling with math because she values the child more than she fears potential repercussions from the school district. That child goes on to be a teacher herself and has a deeply kind heart toward all her students – especially those who struggle with math.
  • An older couple gives a first-fruits portion of their fixed income to the Lord through their offerings at their church, because they believe that God has provided for all their needs and he will not fail them. They inspire others to be generous and the work of the Church is able to go forward.
  • A sinner who has failed to do one or more of these things turns to God in repentance, believing that God is merciful and true to his word to forgive us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:8-9). We are able to encourage others to seek God’s mercy when they fail.
  • A group of men bring their friend to Jesus on a pallet because he cannot walk (cf. Luke 5:17-26). Jesus shows his glory as God in the flesh.
  • A woman touches the hem of Jesus’ garment in hopes that she would be healed…and she is healed (cf. Matthew 9:20-22).
  • A young couple sponsors children through a foreign mission agency because they believe that giving even a cup of water to a little one is an act of kindness to Jesus (Matthew 25:31-46).

The victory of faith is not only those heroic acts of extraordinary faithfulness on the one hand, nor merely holding a true conviction about God in one’s heart on the other hand. The victory of faith is seen when our faith takes on flesh in acts of kindness and love for others.

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Guatemalan Bougainvillia | September 2018

The conquering power that brings the world to its knees is our faith. – 1 John 5:4 The Message)

I’ve experienced it only one time. I vividly recall the occasion and the feelings around it. A woman in the church I was serving was struggling in her marriage. She and her husband were constantly struggling in their marriage. She came to talk with me one afternoon, pouring out her heart to me. We prayed for her and her husband. I had a meeting that afternoon in a town about 40 miles away.

While I was traveling to that meeting, I began praying. “Dear God, I ask you to be with Brenda and Charles. Help them to make up. Help him to see how he is hurting Brenda. Help her to gain a better attitude and more respect for Charles. Thank you, Lord, for doing this! I just sense that good things are happening in their marriage right now. I commend them to you in Jesus’ name!” 

The next day I got a phone call from Brenda. I asked her, “So how are things between you and Charles?” “You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “We’re way better.” “Yes I would,” I said. I was praying for you.

“Abram believed in God, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” – Genesis 12:6

God’s victory over Satan was secured before the foundation of time when he chose his Son to redeem the world, rescuing it from Satan’s clutches. Two events, however, loom large in the salvation saga.

The first takes place in the garden of Gethsemane. Today there are eight ancient olive trees there, near the foot of the Mount of Olives. These date back as far as 900 years ago. Two thousand years ago Jesus went there to pray. There, as Jesus poured out his heart and soul to God sweat fell from his forehead as drops of blood. The condition is known as hematohidrosis, which may be brought on by extreme stress.

Three times Jesus asked that he be spared the death he was about to endure. Three times Jesus ended his prayer, “Not my will, but your will be done.” This is faith in its truest form. Against all odds, with no apparent hope for earthly deliverance, and in the struggle where life and death hangs in the balance, to say, “Thy will be done,” is a profound expression of faith. He is “the source and goal of our faith. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured death on the cross and ignored the disgrace it brought him. Now he holds the honored position—the one next to God the Father on the heavenly throne” (Hebrews 12:3). He is the one who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

When Jesus was on the cross he cried out in agony, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 28:46). This was the moment of Satan’s defeat. When God forsook Jesus, Jesus did not forsake God. Note well: Jesus called God his God. He asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” He still yearned for a deep and loving relationship with his heavenly Father even though his heavenly Father had forsaken him.

This was the moment of Satan’s defeat. Satan may not have known it. But it was the moment of victory. When we suffer, and long for God’s help and it seems far away, faith in God wins the battle. Satan’s goal is to tear you away from God. God’s goal is to bring you ever closer to him.

What does that victory look like? How do we embrace this faith and victory of God. We’ll leave that thought till next time.

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Colorful Old Tires | Guatemala City | September 2018

Three young men were out for the night. One of the three rode in the back seat. The other had already claimed shotgun.” It would be a great night. On many levels, however, it was not. One of the guys had gotten ahold of some marijuana. “Hey you guys! Look what I have! Want to smoke some weed?”

He was too afraid to say what he felt. He was actually scared. He didn’t want to get into trouble. He didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of his friends. He didn’t want to lose his chance to have some fun with his buddies that night. He said nothing. They went to a remote park and the two front-seat mates lit up. “Here you go. This is pretty good stuff.” Their conversation was a bit more colorful than that actually. There were grunts and sighs, groans and sniffs. There were colorful words describing the “stuff.” You get my drift.

Still nothing from rider number 3. Somehow he wasn’t put on the spot. They didn’t force it on him. But after a while his curiosity got the better of him. He asked, “So let me have some.” They obliged. He coughed on the first drag. They laughed at him. He did better on the second try. They all laughed. Satan smiled.

Make no mistake. This was not a first step into the deep chasm of drug addiction. It wasn’t really even a foray that would continue long. It was the essential first element of Satan’s design. It was a matrix of lies woven carefully into a beautiful blanket of blinding deception.

When Satan tempted Eve, it wasn’t only about a fruit that was good for food, desirable for gaining wisdom, and pleasing to the eye. It was the web of lies Satan never even spoke directly – he is a deceptive and slick one!

  • “Did God really say…” The lie: God is unreasonable. He would actually try to curtail your enjoyment and tell you what to do!
  • “You will surely not die.” This was a blatant lie, but the hook had already been set. Rather than God being merely unreasonable, God is lying to you. He’s not told you the truth. 
  • “He knows you will become like him, knowing good and evil.” Not truly like him, but knowing good and evil; innocence lost. The greater lie: God is holding out on you. He is keeping something from you that you really do deserve. 

Rider number 3 never really saw the greater harm of that moment. Satan smiled because he knew he had taken someone’s innocence, and undercut his trust in God and good.

The story is not totally fabricated. I was rider #3. There was a temptation offered; though not exactly that one. Let that suffice. But know this well: any time Satan is able to deceive someone he is delighted. Any time we are led to distrust God, to Satan’s lead rather than seeking God’s ways, he has weakened the hold of faith and severed a thread of love. Add those up over time and – without intervention – he’s won the battle.

Ah yes. Intervention. There is that guilt thing. There are those bad feelings of shame or even a headache, a broken relationship, job loss, or even physical illness. Sometimes God uses the just deserts of our sin to wake us up. Sometimes we do become aware of Satan’s designs and rebuke him to his face. Even that may be painful.

We need never feel bad about doing the right thing – even when it hurts. Sometimes that’s the only way we can reveal Satan’s plans and designs to be what they are: a trap of deception, accusation, hopelessness, despair, godlessness, and death.

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These boys were working on they large decoration for the coming Guatemala Independence Day celebration. September 2018

A colleague recently shared a very troubling story about the boyfriend breakup of his daughter, a high school senior. She had broken her relationship with him, allowed him back into her life, and then broken up again. The young man must be troubled. He causes her embarrassment, and trouble at school by saying unkind and untrue things about her. Worse yet, she reported that he came to her home and was peeking in through the windows there. This is the attack of Satan through this young man – troubled as he certainly is.

A friend of mine is currently battling cancer. He describes the battle as one against a visitation of the devil. He’s in good company. Paul spoke of his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan to torment him. This is also an attack of Satan.

Jesus speaks of the devil as a thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy. It is Satan’s greatest desire to steal our joy, kill our hope, and destroy our souls. There is nothing cartoonish, impish, or exciting about anything Satan is offering. He may disguise it as such, but his ways lead to death. Every time.

It wasn’t some maggot-infested, half-rotten piece of fruit that the serpent pointed to on the ground near the tree in the Garden of Eden. It was good for food. Desirable for wisdom. Pleasing to the eye (cf. Genesis 3:1-8). Satan’s offerings always look good. But they always also kill, steal, and destroy. He has an agenda. It is for our harm and eternal destruction. We must not be unaware of his designs (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:11).

Be warned.

[More tomorrow]

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Jeff shares the gospel message with some Guatemala children, using the Evangelcube | Guatemala City | September 2018

We were at a church leadership conference in the Chicago area. Bill Hybels was speaking to the crowd of 2000 or so church leaders. He said, “If there is an issue you just can’t seem to get beyond, if there is a sin you can’t seem to defeat, you might do well to get with a Christian counselor.” There was. I did. I am thankful, and at a much better place than I used to be for it.

The blessing of guilt. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad – especially about sin in your life. In other words, feeling bad about something that displeases God is a good thing. If we feel guilty because we are hurting others, and feeling bad about that might lead to a change in behavior that would be good for those you are hurting and for yourself as well.

Brand and Yancey in their book, Pain, the Gift Nobody Wants, share a touching story of a medical missionary visiting a leper colony in India. The doctor had apparently made a major impact for the good of these people and they were excited to see him. In his exuberance one of the patients ran across the open yard to greet the doctor. What he didn’t realize was that as he ran his ankle had completely broken. The bone was coming through the skin and he was injuring his foot and ankle ever more severely with each step he took.

Pain is a warning. C.S. Lewis famously said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to the world.” Through our pain God is sometimes calling our attention to a needed change in our lives. Your friends all forsake you? Perhaps you need to be more understanding or aware of their needs. Have you received a diagnosis of diabetes? A change in diet may be called for. Does your big toe hurt every morning? Perhaps you need to move the foot locker out of your path to the bathroom so you don’t stub your toe!

Some times feeling bad is a necessary precursor to making a change that we otherwise would not make. So while we may not need to feel bad about feeling bad, we may need to feel bad about something over which we have control which is causing us unnecessary distress.

When I was in college I struggled with making good grades. I cast about seeking different career paths. Premed? Great! Except for the D’s and F’s I made in classes essential for entry into medical school – minor things like biology and zoology. The irony of that is the fact that my soon-to-be wife graduated a prestigious university with honors and a degree in biology! She would have made it into medical school – had shoe chosen that career path – with little trouble. But I digress. My college years came to a hiatus only a semester before I would surely have gotten dishonorably discharged from school.

It was the winter of 1973 when I finished a real estate class, to the state exam to become a real estate broker. I had my own business – bankrolled by my dad and mom. I was pretty miserable and pretty much a failure at it. In one week I sold two houses, the realtors fees from which would have bankrolled me for at least two months. The next week, both deals fell through on the same day.

Perhaps it was at that time I also drove up to my future father and mother-in-law’s house to discover a For Sale sign in the yard. They had (wisely) passed over me and chosen another company to sell their house. I was devastated. I sat in stunned silence in the car that night while Diane wondered what to do. It wasn’t her call or her fault, but I was her boyfriend! And at that time I was quite serious about her!

Not too long afterwards my good friend Jerry offered some great words of wisdom. We were on the way to a friends bachelor party. It would be a relatively mild event compared to anything we see on TV or the movies today. But the night would prove to be the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.

We were riding in Jerry’s 1966 Ford Fairlane. The night air whipped through the car windows, as we sped down Interstate 55 to the park we were to meet for the party. Jerry and I were very close friends, and he would speak straight with me. That night he said, “Dave, I think you’d make a better pastor than a real estate broker.”

This was not a new thought. He had long been urging me to become a pastor. I had deftly put it off time and again. This time, however, I had to admit it. He was right. He could have said I would make a better dog-catcher, carpenter, or short-order chef than a real estate broker, and I would likely have agreed. But that night he said, “pastor.”

My acknowledgement of that caused a change deep in my heart which launched my life in an entirely new direction. And that’s a story we’ll take up tomorrow.

One caveat deserves mention. I referenced Bill Hybels earlier. The recent events surrounding his leadership at Willow Creek Church have revealed some major issues and caused much public distress. I am not privy to the particulars of the charges or his guilt or innocence. But I am keenly aware of the severe impact that a leader’s public sin or moral failure – or even the appearance of ungodliness – can have on churches and people. I’m not certain what he was referencing in his comments two decades ago, but I was saddened to learn of his downfall.

Colorful Kite | Guatemala | September 2018

The book, Leadership and Self-Deception, is published by the Arbinger Institute. It is “a relatable story about a man facing challenges on the job and in his family, …[It] exposes the fascinating ways we can blind ourselves to our true motivations and unwittingly sabotage the effectiveness of our own efforts at success and happiness” (Arbinger Institute). The book is insightful and helpful in dealing with leadership challenges; well worth the read.

Leadership and Self-Deception is not a Christian book, although it certainly does hint at the truth of 1 John 1:8-10

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. [ESV]

These words lead us from lament to confession. Lament is important. It is an essential first step to dealing with the challenges of living in a fallen world. But if we only lament we forfeit a fuller experience of God’s goodness, and a greater encounter with true joy. Lament paves the way to confession, which opens the gates of our hearts to God’s grace. God’s grace makes all the difference.

God knows our frame. He knows that we are but dust. He knows all about our fallen nature, our peccadillos, and our wayward and erring ways. We only deceive ourselves when we try to hide our sinful brokenness from him. We cannot pull the wool over his eyes. He knows and loves us even in our brokenness; or perhaps I should say especially in our brokenness.

Some people say we deserve to be loved. I’m not ready to say that. But I do say that we are truly loved – whether or not we deserve it. God loves us. The real us. The broken us. The fallen us. The wayward, rebelling, erring, and sinning us. He loves us so much that he fights for our hearts. He loves us enough to give us his Holy Spirit to transform us. He loves us enough to free us from the old trap of self-deception to a new and free experience of life beyond lament.

Several years ago I was talking with my sister about her marriage. I told her, “We have a great marriage.” Only later did I learn that Diane happened to hear me say that and instantly had a gut reaction. It sure doesn’t feel all that great to me, she thought. All this I learned sometime later. It proved to be a catalyst for some intentional, focused, and sometimes-challenging marriage work.

We will take a look at that and more tomorrow.

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This is just one of several ways I saw while in Guatemala City in which discarded tires were used. September 2018