Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dying to Self: The Way of Life

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Cor. 4:10-11)

Stephen was filled with the truths of his God. However, it was this that attracted persecution. Because his oppressors weren’t able to stand against his wisdom, they brought him before the highest Jewish court on trumped-up charges. However, in accord with their own jurisprudence, they gave Stephen an opportunity to defend himself. Instead, he masterfully helped them understand their present behavior in the larger context of Israelite history.

Stephen illustrated how they had rejected their first “savior,” Joseph, selling him as a slave into Egypt. He then showed them how they rejected their next “savior,” Moses, on numerous occasions. Once again, the Israelites had acted unfaithfully by killing God’s ultimate and promised Savior, the Messiah Himself!

Just in case they failed to get the point, Stephen compared their killing of Jesus with their treatment of Israel’s Prophets:

• "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him”
(Acts 7:51-52).

If we want to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to suffer as Jesus and His Prophets had done. This was true for the Apostle Paul. God had informed the skeptical Ananias that He had a plan for Paul, but that he’d have to suffer greatly in the course of fulfilling this plan (Acts 9:16). He learned this lesson well:

• “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”
(Philip. 1:29).

Job, who had lost everything, also had to learn this lesson. God taught Jeremiah the pain of affliction (Lam. 1:5); He directed the Prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute who broke his heart; He taught King David the value of tears (Psalm 13); He required the Prophet Isaiah to go naked and the Prophet Ezekiel to cook with manure.

No pain, no gain! In light of this, our afflictions and rejections shouldn’t be seen as tokens of God’s displeasure or failure to protect us, but as signs of His love. He’s promised that He disciplines those He loves, and that those who go without this discipline aren’t His children (Hebrews 12:5-11).

We therefore must not balk at our disappointments and afflictions but regard them as part of God’s grace-package. If we persist in grumbling about our fate, how can we counsel others to accept their fate! We have to be willing to accept hardship for the joy set before us (Hebrews 12:2-3):

• “But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry”
(2 Tim. 4:5).

Hardship and Christian service are inseparably married. We can not have one without the other. Why not? Only the continual death of our self-esteem, self-righteousness, self-trust and arrogance can provide the soil for the fruits that our Lord wants to grow, as Paul learned the hard way:

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

Learning to “not rely on ourselves” can come in many different forms – insecurities, inadequacies, fears, addictions, and even “mental illness” – but it must come through self-despair.

Farmers look forward to the deep winter freeze to break up the heavy clay soil into crumbly bits so that the roots can penetrate. Without this, the soil remains too compacted for the plants to develop any depth. If we are to develop any depth in the relationship with our Savior, we too must endure the deep freezes. It’s only as our hardness is broken up that we can learn to trust in God, from whom all true virtue must arise.

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