Billy Graham — Character Matters

This will be said many times in the days to come: few Christians have had a larger impact on the world than evangelist Billy Graham—in all of history. He will be remembered for his character, his accomplishments, and his amazing connections with global leaders over many decades. We will also remember him for his words—and perhaps one phrase that he never tired of repeating: “The Bible says…”

In an age when people were suspicious of “Bible-thumpers,” most people never thought of Billy Graham in that way because Billy Graham did not use the Bible as a weapon or a tool of domination. He did not proffer an exotic personal interpretation. His explanations of the Bible were not cliche or elitist.

When Billy Graham said “The Bible says” it was like watching an eagle catching an updraft with outstretched wings. He invited us to be borne up and carried along by the truth of Scripture. He also brought the truth of Scripture to us as a healing ointment and as a stinging antiseptic.

Most important, when Billy Graham said “The Bible says” he was letting the world know: This is not about me. I am nothing but a desperate sinner like everyone else. I would have no hope without God’s promises.

This, of course, was what gave Billy Graham that rarest of qualities these days for leaders: trustworthiness. He was voted “most admired” man by many polls for many years because we are all looking so desperately for that person who really is without guile—who is genuinely humble, grateful, and reverent.

Though Billy Graham repeated “the Bible says” over and over, we always knew he did not worship the Book. People did not accuse him of “bibliolatry.” What came through was his reverence for God the Father, submission to Jesus, and a wide-eyed expectancy of what the Holy Spirit would do next in a stadium, or through television waves, or within a youth movement.

“The Bible says” means “God says.” Billy Graham knew there was nothing more important.

Developing Discernment

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

[Special Note: Easter is April 1. Available now, the Easter devotional, KNOWING HIM. Get it now, start 3 weeks of daily readings on Sunday, March 11. The life and teachings of Jesus are worth a lifetime of study, contemplation, and application. So too his death and resurrection. Jesus made it very clear that he had a purpose in coming, and that this purpose would be fulfilled at the time when he was betrayed, handed over to the authorities, killed, and raised from the dead. And so for centuries in the spring of the year, around the time of the Passover, Christians have turned their attention to the accounts of the suffering of Jesus, and of his astonishing resurrection from the dead. The apostle Paul said: ““I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).]

Life is complicated. Every day we face decisions large and small that can be knotty and convoluted. Make a poor choice and we may suffer for it, or others may be hurt. If we’re smart we’ll realize we need wisdom that we can gain from trusted mature friends, and from the Scriptures, God’s deposit of wisdom for us.

God’s wisdom is not merely a collection of trustworthy principles for life, however. Wisdom includes a developed ability to make good judgments between what is right and wrong, or good, better, and best. It is what the Bible calls discernment, and it can save us from disaster.

Charles Spurgeon said discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather it is telling the difference between right and almost right. Discernment, in other words, is refined perception. It is an ability to see, at a deep level, our own strengths and weaknesses and those of others. Discernment helps us know what our true motives are.

The New Testament word for discernment (diakrina) means to separate or distinguish. Discernment is the ability to cut carefully between what is good and bad. A surgeon takes a scalpel in hand in order to cut a line between healthy and diseased tissue. We want our surgeons to be skilled so that they don’t leave behind disease and they don’t cut away what is healthy. We want them to use good quality scalpels, not butter knives.

Discernment helps us to be discriminating without being discriminatory. To judge without being judgmental. To separate without dividing. Discernment is fine work.

When we are discerning we are less likely to make foolish decisions based on rash evaluations of our situation. We will not take a black-or-white view of things, a tendency in our society today that comes from simple laziness. Bias is the easy way. Discernment respects others and honors God.

Hebrews 4:12 describes how the Scriptures are the scalpel God has gifted us: “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Generally we should avoid judging the hearts of others because only God knows the heart. If we don’t want other people to assume they know our motives, we have to withhold from judging the motives of others. Jesus said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1–2).

On the other hand, we are called to exercise judgment. “Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!” (1 Cor. 6:2 – 3).

So what is the difference between exercising judgment and being judgmental? We are being judgmental when our motive is to devalue or control others, or to be self-righteous about ourselves.

Note that Hebrews 4:12 speaks of God’s word as alive and active. The word of God penetrates even into the inner recesses of our hearts. Scalpels cut, but with the purpose of eventual healing. We are not to apply verses of the Bible, in other words, in mechanical and crude ways to our lives or in judgment of others. The word of God develops a living dynamic in our hearts whereby our instincts and perceptions are trained. We can see sin over the horizon when we are tempted. We are able to sense when someone is lying to us or to themselves. We can spot the difference between a counterfeit and the real thing.

Hebrews 5:14 speaks of mature believers “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” The ability to discern comes by training, in other words. There is no substitute for accumulated experience. A surgeon gets better and better with the repetition of the same procedures, and by reading profession literature as a habit. In the same way we get better and better at discerning the complexities of life through experience and by a lifestyle of reading Scripture.

Living the Bible means that we exercise a kind of penetrating vision that helps us see through the dust and fog of life, to see things the way they really are, and to make conscious choices about the people we want to influence us. Discernment is perception, insight, and correct judgment about the people wanting to influence us.

And so we come back to this principle: Living the Bible means living in reality. The alternative—to live in some degree of self-deception or extreme naiveté—is not right and not safe.

_____________

Special Note: Easter is April 1. Available now, the Easter devotional, KNOWING HIM. Get it now, start 3 weeks of daily readings on Sunday, March 11. The life and teachings of Jesus are worth a lifetime of study, contemplation, and application. So too his death and resurrection. Jesus made it very clear that he had a purpose in coming, and that this purpose would be fulfilled at the time when he was betrayed, handed over to the authorities, killed, and raised from the dead. And so for centuries in the spring of the year, around the time of the Passover, Christians have turned their attention to the accounts of the suffering of Jesus, and of his astonishing resurrection from the dead. The apostle Paul said: ““I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

Growing in Wisdom

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

If you had a really difficult decision to make today that was complicated and would affect the rest of your life, what kind of person would you go to for advice? You’d be smart if you sought out one or more people whom you know to have a lot of wisdom—and you yourself would be wise for doing so.

Most people are longing for wisdom, whether they use the word or not. When they get advice that has a ring of truth to it, and it leads them to goodnesss and wholeness and peace, they are deeply satisfied. Most people wish their leaders were wiser. There are just too many ways in which a lack of wisdom, or outright foolishness, can hurt ourselves and others.

What is wisdom? Both a special gift from God and a personal skill that is developed over time, wisdom is deep insight into the true nature of things, including their moral value, and the integrity to act on that insight. Wisdom is not different from knowledge, but is more than knowledge—like the difference between knowing about your spouse and knowing your spouse.

The Bible is a book full of wisdom, and it teaches that God wants every person to grow in wisdom. This is the highest form of “living the Bible”—to grow deeper and deeper in wisdom, to gain “the wisdom from above” (James 3:17), and “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Then our life choices small and large are good and right because they have been regulated by the moral quality that is at the heart of God’s wisdom.

The alternative is unthinkable. The book of Proverbs speaks about “the fool,” but there are several different levels of foolishness, marked by the Hebrew words that are used.

The most primitive form of foolishness is simplemindedness. This is simple ignorance. Not knowing any better. Making mistakes. Being naive. Simplemindedness can cause great harm, but more serious still is the kind of foolishness that is carelessness. This is when we choose not to listen to good advice, when we rush a decision, or say or do things without regard for their effects on other people, when we are foolish through negligence. That can cause a lot of harm. The strongest form of foolishness in the book of Proverbs is cynicism and hypocrisy. This is the “scoffer,” someone who mocks what is good. When people just give up on integrity, or act civilly in public but turn into monsters behind closed doors, that is the strongest form of foolishness.

The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor. 2:1). He said: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Jesus is the message. He is better than “the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing” (1 Cor. 2:6).

And so, Paul says, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words” (1 Cor. 2:13).

So how does this work? How can we live out the wisdom of Scripture?

First, we must read all of Scripture with open and teachable minds. Every page has wisdom, and we will catch different points over the years.

Then we can pay special attention to the so-called “wisdom literature” of the Bible. Anybody would do well to read the remarkable book of Proverbs once a year. Its opening words speak of its purpose:

Proverbs… for gaining wisdom and instruction; for understanding words of insight; for receiving instruction in prudent behavior, doing what is right and just and fair; for giving prudence to those who are simple, knowledge and discretion to the young— let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance. (Prov. 1:1-5)

The book of Proverbs gives us general statements of what is generally true. This is different from God’s promises. The book of Proverbs makes us wiser in how we view life. It shapes our expectations so they are not too low or high. It also gives us bold warnings about life decisions that are dangerous.

The book of James in the New Testament focuses a lot on wisdom. It, too, offers practical advice about life. In contrast with “earthly wisdom” which is so misguided that it leads to “envy and selfish ambition,” “disorder,” “and every evil practice,” James says “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

Each quality in that list describes both attitude and action. Live a life of deeper wisdom, and people will seek you out. You will have the blessing of helping people avoid cliffs, and move on to good places in their lives.

(to be continued)

When It Seems God Is Silent

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

One of the most common spiritual issues is why it seems at times like God is silent. “O God of my praise, Do not be silent!” (Psalm 109:1). This is a plea voiced by numerous authors of Scripture.

There are many different circumstances which may give us a sense that God is silent. When we are having doubts, for instance, even though doubt is a normal part of faith. Or when we are depressed. Elijah the prophet withdrew to the wilderness after a great victory over the prophets of Baal and King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, afraid and depressed. In the end, Elijah heard God as “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12).

In the midst of intense suffering, it may seem like God is silent. Jesus said from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The reason for his dereliction was unique, but, on the other hand, almost anyone may cry out of a sense of abandonment if circumstances are severe enough.

Continue Reading »

How Can We Hear God’s Voice in Scripture?

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

Some years back, I did a survey of our church’s congregation with the simple question: “If you could ask God one thing, what would it be?” I was not surprised that the most frequent response had to do with the problem of evil in the world, but I was struck by the next most common question: “How can I hear the voice of God?” The various wording people used indicated some were facing important decisions, others wanted to know if their lives were “on track” with God, some were in crisis, and still others expressed feelings of spiritual isolation and just wanted to “hear” from God.

There is a long history and many debates about how God “speaks” to us. Our concern in this chapter is how God speaks in and through Holy Scripture. This must be the believer’s major conviction, that we find the voice of God in Scripture, and that the authority of the Bible trumps all other claims about hearing God. Throughout Scripture, God is talking. Creation took place at the verbal command of God. The Hebrews became a nation when they met their God at Mount Sinai and he spoke to them through Moses. The prophets’ oracles often began with: “This is what the Lord says.”

Continue Reading »

Going Deeper in an Age of Information Overload

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

We live in an age of information overload. Bombarded by messages on radio and television, billboards and magazine ads, phone mail, email, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter, each of our days is like crossing a river with a strong and unpredictable current. Shut your eyes and just think for a moment how many voices and messages are pounding their way into your eyes and ears. The messages contain truth and error, grace and malevolence, healing and hurting.

Marketers will do anything to get us to buy products. They play on our fears and insecurities and loneliness. Some journalists try their best to give facts, others are sloppy and lazy. Opinion makers go to extremes to get an audience, oftentimes resorting to extremes in order to get attention. What is really dangerous is that sometimes we only hear the voices are loudest. Volume does not equal veracity.

Continue Reading »

Tribute – a father’s reflections

for Eva Lawrenz 1987-2017

Occasionally someone will say, because they have heard compelling things about Eva, “I wish I had known her.” I always choke up. It honors her, and us. And I think, I so wish there was more time for that to happen. Today, January 16, is the day Eva entered the world at Elmbrook Hospital, 31 years ago. And so I’d like to pay tribute to our dear daughter on this, the day of her birth. You shaped us, Eva. You left the world a better place.

I could write a book about this kid, this beautiful young woman, and how she impacted others. But today, just a few notes.

I heard recently that one of Eva’s peers said: “she was the most radiant person I ever knew.” Radiant—so true, so true. Another person said that she saw Eva bounding across the room at the home of someone hosting a Bible study to greet her friends with her beaming smile, and thought, I don’t know who that is, but I need to find out.

Continue Reading »

Living in Reality

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

The only way to live a stable, healthy, and fruitful life, is to live in reality. There are many ways by which we could live in fantasies and illusions that will set us up for certain disappointment and maybe worse. The fantasy that we are able to have or control whatever we wish is one. The illusion that we are entirely helpless is another. The Scriptures give us a true and reliable picture of what is true about life. The Bible offers reality—not spiritual platitudes that are merely wishful thinking.

Romans 8 is a passage that anchors us in reality. It speaks of true pain and stresses and losses in life, on the one hand. And it offers genuine hope on the other hand. The passage speaks honestly about suffering, calling it “frustration,” and “bondage to decay” that leads to “groaning.” This is true of all creation, and so it is true of us.

Continue Reading »

Guilt and Shame in Everyday Life

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

Though all people are created with conscience—the ability to sense the difference between right and wrong, or good, better, and best—it is possible for to become so hard-hearted that is seems one does not even have a conscience.

Conscience is part of the hard wiring of human beings created in God’s image. Romans 2 says that all people have consciences and inner thoughts that sometimes accuse, sometimes excuse. Some people are plagued with a sense of supposed guilt, of active shame.

Continue Reading »

Voice of Conscience

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

We all know, deep inside, that we need some basic values that can keep our lives on track, keep us out of trouble, and lead us toward virtue rather than vice. In the modern world one value that sometimes is raised above all others is “be true to yourself.” Or “let your conscience be your guide.” In some ways in the modern world “conscience” is given an ultimate value. Even a substitute for the voice of God.

All that matters, many say, is that you follow your conscience, and no one can tell you you’re wrong if you do that. But we all know of times when people we know or we ourselves did something with a clear conscience that was completely wrong. We need the voice of conscience, but we should not consider it infallible.

The Bible speaks of an inner voice or awareness that can guide us toward what is good and righteous. There is no one word for it in the Hebrew Old Testament, but in the New Testament a word does emerge—syneidesis. There are 28 occurrences of the word in the New Testament, two-thirds of them in Paul’s writings.

Continue Reading »

What is the Role of “Law” in Living the Bible?

[Special note… see Mel Lawrenz’s “A Prayer for the Christmas Season,” text, printable PDF, or audio HERE.]

It is inevitable that, when we talk about “living the Bible,” our minds will drift toward verses and passages that are commands or laws which seem to beckon us toward obedience to God. “You shall not commit adultery,” or “you shall not murder,” or “you shall not steal,” and other parts of the Ten Commandments, for instance, seem pretty straightforward.

But the New Testament writers tell us that, with the coming of Jesus, everything has changed. It is not that the old covenant has been contradicted, but it has been fulfilled. Whereas the covenant God gave the Israelites included the more than 600 laws in the first five books of the Bible, in the new covenant God has advanced his relationship with us by internalizing the law: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).

Continue Reading »

Books Make Excellent Christmas Gifts

You may have friends or family members whom you want to encourage. Books are excellent Christmas gifts because they are meaningful, they can keep giving for years, they send a message, they can be shared, they can be easily mailed. Books can change lives. Books can transfer eternal truths.

Below you’ll find links to six different book offerings for 2017, most at reduced prices.

 

 

 

Moral Crisis, Moral Possibilities

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

It is hard not to be utterly dismayed by the lack of basic morality in society today. It is a crisis within the lives of individuals, in groups and organizations, and in institutions. And at the highest levels of leadership it is challenging to find men and women of unassailable moral character—not sinlessness, but basic integrity.

Even making this observation runs the risk of drawing ridicule from those who think morality is a quaint notion of a bygone era, or worse, a rigid and repressive self-righteousness, almost always hypocritical.

Yet morality is one of the most essential and highest human characteristics.

Continue Reading »

Grasping Reality

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

[Special note… see Mel Lawrenz’s “A Prayer for the Christmas Season,” text, printable PDF, or audio HERE.]

_________________________

Some people live their lives disconnected from reality. There is nothing solid beneath their feet because their view of life is based on some fantasy. They may have been raised on lies and so they perpetuate the pattern, believing that there is no one who tells the truth, so why even try to find truth? Or their fantasy-based lives might be a way of escape. Or it could be that they are so afraid of the world, or of themselves, that they create a make-believe world over which they have control, which is, of course, impossible. You can’t control a dream.

Not living in reality—being truly “in the dark”— is one of the most dangerous ways to live. It is to be oblivious to both our greatest dangers and our greatest potential. A false view of ourselves can come out of pride and arrogance, or it can be based on doubt or self-loathing, or it can result from hearing lies your whole life. Any false view of the self can only lead to disappointment.

Continue Reading »

The Barriers of Ignorance and Hypocrisy

in the series "How to Live the Bible"

When believers talk about believing the Bible, respecting the Bible, following the Bible, but do exactly the opposite, the resulting damage is enormous. It damages the reputation of the church. It gives skeptics and doubters reasons to disregard the Bible. It defiles the name of Christ. It would be better that we not talk about living the Bible, unless we are serious about it.

 

Two of the greatest barriers to living the Bible are 1) ignorance; and 2) hypocrisy.

Continue Reading »