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Christmas gift giving can, and should, be a wonderful experience — but too often it’s full of relational complexities instead of wonder. We all would want love to be the motivation behind our gifts, but if we’re honest, other motivations often muddy the waters.

Like other people’s expectations, for example. We often give gifts because we fear disappointing or offending others. We can feel obligated to give certain people a certain number of gifts at or above a certain financial threshold. Motivations like these distort Christmas gifts into appeasement offerings.

And then, of course, we have our own expectations. The kind and quantity of gifts we give others and expect from others can have more to do with us than them. Maybe we use gifts to recapture nostalgic Christmas experiences of our past, or to pursue ideal experiences we feel we’ve missed out on. Or maybe our gift exchanges have more to do with generational traditions than the real people we’re giving to. Or maybe we errantly believe our value and others’ value correspond to the expense or quantity of gifts we give and receive.

These motivational currents make for muddy Christmas waters, and they are strong in our culture. The powerful American Christmas economy is, I suspect, driven more by fear, obligation, manipulation, and personal preference than good will toward men.

To whatever degree this is true for us, it need not remain true for us. Change is possible, even this year. Gifts can once again become wonderful. For God has shown us a more excellent way.

God Shows Us How to Give Gifts

That more excellent way is found in the most famous verse in the Bible: “God so loved the world, that he gave . . . ” (John 3:16). Stop there and linger for a moment. God so loved that he gave. God is revealing something profound here. What’s the connection between love and giving? It is the very nature of love to give. And since God is love, it is the very nature of God to give (1 John 4:8). Love expressed is love given. Love given is true gift.

Now let’s complete that most famous verse: “ . . . that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If love expressed is love given, supreme love expressed is supreme love given. If love given is true gift, supreme love given is the greatest of all true gifts.

For the rest of the post…

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May 26, 2014


Remember

Memorial Day, as Americans have come to know it, began in the years immediately following the Civil War. But until World War II, most people knew it as “Decoration Day.” It was a day to decorate with flowers and flags the graves of fallen soldiers and remember those who had given, as Lincoln beautifully said, “the last full measure of devotion” to defend their nation. It was a day to remember what the honored dead had died to defend.

A century and a half has passed since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending a national nightmare that filled over 625,000 American graves with dead soldiers. Since then, other international nightmares have ravaged the world and put more than 650,000 additional Americans into war graves in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific Rim, Asia, and the Middle East.

Remembering Is for the Future

Memorial Day is an important national moment. It is a day to do more than barbeque. It is right and wise to remember the great price some have paid to preserve the historically unprecedented civil and religious freedoms we Americans have the luxury to take largely for granted.

But the importance of Memorial Day is more for our future than it is for our past. It is crucial that we remember the nightmares and why they happened. We forget them at our own peril. The future of the United States depends in large amount on how well we collectively remember and cherish what liberty really is and the terror of tyranny. There is a high cost to forgetting. In the words of George Santayana’s famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A Memorial People

Christians, of all people, understand the crucial importance of remembering. Christians are “memorial people” because the whole of our faith depends upon remembering. Those who persevere into the glorious future are those who remember the gracious past.

That’s why God has surrounded us with memorials. The entire Bible itself is a memorial. We meditate on it daily to remember. The Sabbath was a memorial to Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:15), and the church switched it to Sundays as a memorial to Christ’s resurrection and our freedom from sin. Israel’s great gathering feast days were memorials (Exodus 13:3). And now each time a local church gathers, each Lord’s Supper celebration (1 Corinthians 11:24–26), each baptism, each Christmas celebration, and each Easter celebration is a memorial.

Remembering God’s past grace is necessary to fuel our faith in God’s future grace for us.† This makes the memory one of God’s most profound, mysterious, and merciful gifts granted to us. God designed it to be a means of preserving (persevering) grace for his people. We neglect it at our own peril.

The future of the church, globally and locally, and of each Christian depends largely on how well we remember the gospel of Jesus, all his precious and very great promises, and the successes and failures of church history. Scripture warns us that if we fail to remember, we will be condemned to submit again to sin’s and hell’s enslavement (Hebrews 6:4–8). Such warnings are graces to help us remember.

For the rest of the post…

February 19, 2016


I remember singing this old hymn in church when I was growing up:

O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.

As a kid, I didn’t think very much about the words. Now I’m thinking a lot about them. They make a huge claim. And if true, they make a huge claim on us.

But are they true? Or are they just naive, simplistic Christian cliché? Do they hold up under the real world weight of complex pain we suffer in the varied afflictions we endure?

All Because We Do Not

To test its truthfulness, we need to peal back the poetic skin and see if it has a Scriptural skeletal structure. And as it turns out, it does:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6–7)

God’s amazing promise to us through Paul is the power behind the hymn’s simple poetry.

And the promise really is amazing! We must not let the familiarity of these verses make us dull to their edge. God is promising us peace in everything and freedom from controlling anxiety! Peace is ours for the taking.

So if we don’t have the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds, it’s all because we do not . . . do something God calls us to do.

Carry Everything to God in Prayer

The wonderful thing is that what God calls us to do is easy! His is an easy yoke, a light burden (Matthew 11:30). He’s calling us to pray.

And what is prayer? Prayer is asking our generous heavenly Father for whatever it is we wish (Luke 11:13; John 15:7), trusting that he will answer with whatever we need (Luke 11:10; Philippians 4:19). It is casting our anxieties on him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

But the only problem with bearing this easy yoke of asking God in faith for what we need is that we often find it hard. And what we find hard about praying is believing God — believing that it’s making any real difference.

Prayer is the native language of faith. That’s why a soul full of trust in God finds prayer almost effortless. But a soul full of doubt finds prayer a heavy burden. Prayerlessness is the muteness of unbelief.

An accurate gauge of our level of faith is how and how much we pray. A growing prayerful dependence on God is evidence of our growing spiritual maturity. And the more we pray in faith in everything, the more we experience the peace of God.

The Secret to Prayerful Dependence: Resting on the Faithful One

Why do we find faith so frequently difficult and therefore prayer such a labor? And what is the secret to realizing the promised peace Paul wrote about and experiencing what it means to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)?

Hudson Taylor, the great 19th century missionary to China, struggled with this very issue. Here’s how he described his struggle:

I strove for faith, but it would not come; I tried to exercise it, but in vain. Seeing more and more the wondrous supply of grace laid up in Jesus, the fullness of our precious Saviour, my guilt and helplessness seemed to increase. Sins committed appeared but as trifles compared with the sin of unbelief which was their cause, which could not or would not take God at His word, but rather made Him a liar! Unbelief was, I felt, the damning sin of the world; yet I indulged in it. I prayed for faith, but it came not. What was I to do?

Then he experienced a breakthrough that changed his life:

When my agony of soul was at its height, a sentence in a letter from [his missionary colleague, John] McCarthy was used to remove the scales from my eyes, and the Spirit of God revealed to me the truth of our oneness with Jesus as I had never know it before. McCarthy, who had been much exercised by the same sense of failure but saw the light before I did, wrote: “But how to get faith strengthened? Not by striving after faith, but by resting on the Faithful One.” As I read, I saw it all! “If we believe not, he abideth faithful.” I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He had said, “I will never leave thee.” “Ah, there is rest!” I thought. “I have striven in vain to rest in Him. I’ll strive no more.” (Spiritual Secret, 261)

The key for Taylor was that he stopped focusing on trying to exercise more faith and instead he looked to Jesus, “the Faithful One,” as revealed in the written word. While his focus had been on his lack of faith and trying to work it up, he was miserable. But when his focus turned to the fullness of Jesus, he discovered the peace surpassing understanding.

Faith is not a muscle that we need to pump up in order to be strong enough to trust Jesus. Faith is our response to what we perceive as trustworthy. The more trustworthy, solid, stable, dependable, unfailing, and secure something appears to us, the greater our trust or faith in it will be. When our faith is weak, it’s an indicator that our focus is on the wrong thing.

Taylor’s refocusing transformed him. For the rest of his life he was marked by the peace of God and a remarkable freedom from anxiety. It bore up under the real world weight of his excessive labors, financial stress, frequent dangers, disease, the deaths of his wives and children and colleagues — the sort of difficulties that Paul knew (2 Corinthians 11:23–28).

For the rest of the post…

September 26, 2014 by Jon Bloom

Pray for the Strength That God SuppliesWe weak people frequently need to pray for strength. “Oh Father, please give me strength for ___” is a wonderful prayer. It’s a necessary prayer, and it’s a God-honoring prayer because it recognizes the true source of our strength (Exodus 15:2).

What Are We Really Asking For?

But when we ask God for strength, what are we asking for? Are we asking for the strength that God wants to give, or are we asking for the strength that we want to have?

The reason this is important to ask is because the two may not be the same. Highest on God’s agenda for us is strengthening our faith (Hebrews 11:6, Galatians 2:20). Highest on our agenda is frequently accomplishing something necessary or noble, or escaping affliction or humiliation. These may not be wrong desires, but they may be the wrong priorities.

When this is the case, our conception of the strength we need differs from God’s. When we pray for strength, we may imagine the answer looking like increased capacities to accomplish or escape. But the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11) is often increased capacities to trust his promises, which might require dying to our envisioned accomplishment or enduring what we wish to escape.

When our conceptions collide with God’s, we are tempted to grow frustrated with God and lose heart in prayer (Luke 18:1). Because we ask for strength and what we receive, it seems to us, is less strength. In fact, things get worse. Our weaknesses are heightened, not diminished. But what’s really happening here is not God’s negligence or indifference to our prayers, but a conflict between our expectations and God’s intentions.

However, once we realize that the strength that God is working to supply us is the best, most joyful and hope-giving strength we can possibly have, it will change the way we pray for strength and change our understanding of God’s answers.

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Strong?

The biblical pattern of God strengthening his saints is this: God chooses a sinful, weak person to be his redeemed saint; God further weakens this saint through circumstantial and/or physical adversity; The saint is forced to trust God’s promises; God proves himself faithful to his promises; The saint’s faith is strengthened and hope abounds because his/her faith doesn’t rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5).

This pattern is woven all through the Bible. As soon as you see it, you see it everywhere. Perhaps the text that most clearly demonstrates this pattern is what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10:

[7] So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. [8] Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. [9] But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. [10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

That is a strange statement: “when I am weak, then I am strong.” What did Paul mean? He meant that through the loving discipline of God’s appointed thorn — his weakening agent — Paul was forced to “rely not on [himself] but on God who raises the dead” and set his hope fully on God (2 Corinthians 1:9–10). Paul came to understand that this weakening agent became a strengthening agent in the hand of God.

God changed Paul’s understanding, which strengthened his faith, which fueled his hope.

For the rest of the post…

Remember

May 26, 2014 

Remember

Memorial Day, as Americans have come know it, began in the years immediately following the Civil War. But until World War II, most people knew it as “Decoration Day.” It was a day to decorate with flowers and flags the graves of fallen soldiers and remember those who had given, as Lincoln beautifully said, “the last full measure of devotion” to defend their nation. It was a day to remember what the honored dead had died to defend.

A century and a half has passed since Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, effectively ending a national nightmare that filled over 625,000 American graves with dead soldiers. Since then, other international nightmares have ravaged the world and put more than 650,000 additional Americans into war graves in Europe, North Africa, the Pacific Rim, Asia, and the Middle East.

Remembering Is for the Future

Memorial Day is an important national moment. It is a day to do more than barbeque. It is right and wise to remember the great price some have paid to preserve the historically unprecedented civil and religious freedoms we Americans have the luxury to take largely for granted.

But the importance of Memorial Day is more for our future than it is for our past. It is crucial that we remember the nightmares and why they happened. We forget them at our own peril. The future of the United States depends in large amount on how well we collectively remember and cherish what liberty really is and the terror of tyranny. There is a high cost to forgetting. In the words of George Santayana’s famous aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A Memorial People

Christians, of all people, understand the crucial importance of remembering. Christians are “memorial people” because the whole of our faith depends upon remembering. Those who persevere into the glorious future are those who remember the gracious past.

That’s why God has surrounded us with memorials. The entire Bible itself is a memorial. We meditate on it daily to remember. The Sabbath was a memorial to Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery (Deuteronomy 5:15), and the church switched it to Sundays as a memorial to Christ’s resurrection and our freedom from sin. Israel’s great gathering feast days were memorials (Exodus 13:3). And now each time a local church gathers, each Lord’s Supper celebration (1 Corinthians 11:24–26), each baptism, each Christmas celebration, and each Easter celebration is a memorial.

Remembering God’s past grace is necessary to fuel our faith in God’s future grace for us.† This makes the memory one of God’s most profound, mysterious, and merciful gifts granted to us. God designed it to be a means of preserving (persevering) grace for his people. We neglect it at our own peril.

The future of the church, globally and locally, and of each Christian depends largely on how well we remember the gospel of Jesus, all his precious and very great promises, and the successes and failures of church history. Scripture warns us that if we fail to remember, we will be condemned to submit again to sin’s and hell’s enslavement (Hebrews 6:4–8). Such warnings are graces to help us remember.

So as we commemorate Memorial Day as Americans, let us do it with profound gratitude for the extraordinary common grace given to us when men and women laid their lives down for the sake of America’s survival.

For the rest of the post…

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