All by myself?

She’s a self-made millionaire.

He’s a self-made man.

Self-made?

It starts early in many of us. When one of our kids was a toddler, she shied away from accepting our help with almost anything she was trying to do.

“I do it self!” she would say (quite emphatically).

Tempting, isn’t it?

We’re much too socially conscious to say it out loud, but we’ve been tempted to think the same thing, with only a slight modification.

Maybe it’s success on the job, or a sizeable nest egg, or kids or grandkids we’re proud of.

“I did it (my)self!”

It’s part of the American dream, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. With hard work and a little luck you can accomplish anything you want.

I suppose there’s a fine line between being pleased with the outcome of your efforts and proudly patting yourself on the back.

We need to avoid the self-congratulatory attitude.

Just before the people of Israel took possession of the land of Canaan, God warned them:

Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).

God knew they would start looking at their success and forget where it came from.

Come to think of it, we are quite an accomplished army.

It’s no wonder we’ve done well—we’re smart, talented, and resourceful.

“I do it self!”, in other words.

God’s warning to them applies just as directly to us.

Look around you—from what you’ve got to what you’ve done to who you are.

All the good comes from God.

We need this reminder often, because a lot of folks—well-meaning, no doubt—will sometimes try to convince us that we’ve accomplished amazing things, we’re incredibly talented, we’re smart, successful, gifted.

Don’t fall into that trap.

Our power and our might and our ingenuity didn’t get us where we are . . . God did it, and he deserves our gratitude.

To him be the glory for all he’s done.

Living in the moment

Just live in the moment . . . or so we’re told.

You want the shiny new car?

Buy now and pay later.

Marriage taking too much work?

Find a new spouse that makes you happy.

In one way or another, we’ve all bought into it. It works because we human beings are finite creatures. We’re bound—to a great extent, at least—by time.

We’re aware of the past, and we anticipate the future, but more than anything, there’s today.

That causes problems, of course.

The Lord described himself as the Alpha and Omega in several places. He’s our Alpha, our starting point, our Creator. “In the beginning God created,” and “In the beginning was the Word . . .” He’s never not existed.

But he also wants us to look in the other direction.

Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Jesus uses it to point to that time in the future when everything will converge.

As Tim Keller puts it, all of history is rushing headlong into his lap.

All things come from Jesus, and all things are going back to him.

When we forget that, we get messed up. We make decisions that bring us the most immediate satisfaction, but we fail to consider the long-term effects.

I struggle with that, don’t you?

It’s so easy to buy something I want right now, when that money—God’s money—might be used later for a better, less selfish, purpose.

It’s tempting to postpone spending good, God-focused, character-building time with my kids for that nebulous point in the future when everything slows down.

I want the courage to live today—every day—with an eternal perspective.

I need the discipline to make decisions right now based on something more substantial than what’s easiest in the moment.

Jesus is the Omega.

He’s the End Point, the Judge, the One “to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Everything is converging toward that final day when he’ll gather us home and all of history will be understood as his story.

We live today, but let us live it as it is—one more opportunity to be used by our Lord to bring eternity to a time-bound world.

Who’s your Alpha?

You’ve made bad decisions, right?

Some of them were really bad, resulting in things you’re embarrassed about, stuff you won’t share with anyone who doesn’t already know.

Welcome to normal. It must be written in our DNA.

Decision-making is a complex process, of course, and unfortunately we can’t will ourselves into always making right decisions.

But here’s a good place to start:

When the Lord revealed himself to John near the end of the apostle’s life, he said:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega . . . who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).

Those are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, so when Jesus says he’s the “Alpha,” he’s speaking of his eternality; he doesn’t have a beginning . . . he is the beginning. He’s the Creator, not the created.

But there’s something here for us beyond our conviction that Jesus is the Eternal God.

If he is “the” Alpha, then he ought to be “my” Alpha.

That means he ought to be my starting point for everything I do, every decision I make.

When I look back at the foolish things I’ve done, there’s a common thread: he wasn’t my Alpha when I did what I did.

Can you relate?

We all have something on the altar of our hearts, and whatever that is influences everything.

From whom we choose to marry to which job we accept to the clothes we put on.

Many things compete for that center spot, but Self often wins.

In fact, Self-worship is usually responsible for those bad, life-altering decisions we make.

Look back at some of the things you wish you hadn’t done.

He wasn’t your Alpha, was he?

Chances are, at that moment, you had taken him down and put something else there.

We can’t do anything about what’s already happened, but we can look ahead.

There’s no guarantee we’ll always make the best decision, but the place to start is by giving the Lord his rightful place in our hearts.

Make him your Alpha, and often the other stuff will fall into place.

God is working in you

It’s clear that God expects a human response in our relationship to him, but do we sometimes emphasize that over what he’s doing?

We need to know that God’s saving us begins, continues, and ends with his initiative, not ours.

Notice how Paul mentions both in this passage:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

It’s a play on words, one scholar says: We are to “work out” because God “works in” (R.R. Melick).

I’ve done—and you’ve heard—a lot of preaching on the “working out” part, but maybe not as much on God’s “working in.”

Maybe that’s part of the reason we often struggle to feel truly secure in our salvation. We know, more than anyone else (except God), how far we fall short of being who we ought to be.

If it depends on our efforts, we know we’ll miss out on salvation—even if we don’t like to admit it.

On the other hand, when we recognize that God is working in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure,” it directs our focus Godward, instead of inward.

That’s where we find comfort. I’ll always fall short, but he won’t.

In another place Paul wrote this: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:16).

There’s a reluctance to embrace this, because we fear that emphasizing God’s initiative will cause us to relax . . . to fall into spiritual apathy.

But I think we’ll find that it’ll do the opposite.

Maybe when we put more trust in God’s power to accomplish in us whatever he chooses, we’ll find ourselves obeying more faithfully out of gratitude, instead of some kind of misguided attempt to earn what we can never earn.

It ought to comfort us in a way that our attempts to measure up never can—God, who loves us infinitely and wants to save us, is working within us to accomplish his will.

Do we obey?

Absolutely.

But we do it in response to what he’s already done, and what he continues to do.

Do you know this guy?

Some folks seem to thrive on being involved in some kind of controversy. It brightens their day when they can darken someone else’s.

You know the one I’m talking about, right?

He’s the guy at work who’s outraged today at what so-and-so did yesterday, and next week he’ll be mad about something else. If there’s unrest in your work environment, chances are he’s in the middle of it.

She’s the one who’s always in a back-and-forth with someone about something, which is usually nothing.

Maybe you go to school with her, or live next to him, or have kids who play on the same soccer team.

They’re looking for the proverbial parade to rain on, and if you look closely enough you’ll see storm clouds just above their heads.

Let’s not be that guy.

Paul loved the church at Philippi, but apparently it had some of this don’t-cross-me attitude.

Never one to mince words, he wrote this:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world (Philippians 2:14-15).

We don’t know for sure what the Philippians were arguing about, but Paul wanted them to stop.

His reason is interesting: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation . . .”

Here’s a paraphrase: “Stop arguing, because your positive attitude ought to separate you from the unbelievers around you.”

Our problem is that we’re usually pretty good at seeing an argumentative spirit in other folks, but not as good at seeing it in ourselves.

The grumpy coworker? The irritable neighbor? The argumentative kid at school?

That one’s easy to spot.

But we probably ought to ask ourselves: Am I having conflict with someone right now? Did I have a nasty disagreement with someone last week? Does it seem like people are always starting arguments with me?

As hard as it might be to admit, sometimes we need to take responsibility for being part of the problem.

Or maybe more often than “sometimes.”

Let’s pray about this today. Let’s show the world that as Christians we have a different spirit–one that’s about better things than arguing and bickering. We’ve got too much to thank God for to buy into the world’s negativity.

A question we ought to ask ourselves

Eric Metaxas has written two excellent biographies.

Amazing Grace describes William Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight to abolish the British slave trade.

Bonhoeffer discusses the courageous life of a German theologian who stood up to the Nazi regime and was eventually hanged for his convictions.

In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Metaxas himself made a point about the common theme in these biographies: because of their faith, both of his subjects fought for what was right in the face of incredible pressure from the majority of their contemporaries.

I couldn’t help but wonder: if I had lived in a society that approved of slavery or one that marginalized and then murdered millions of people because of their race, what would I have done?

What would you have done?

Those are good questions, I think, but there’s a better one to ask.

After I finished the book on Bonhoeffer, I was bothered by the thought of living where he lived when he lived. What would it be like for your country to be overwhelmed—overnight, it seemed to those who lived through it—by unspeakable evil?

It must’ve taken deep faith and unshakeable courage to let your voice be heard, to be so convicted about your beliefs that you were unwilling to stay quiet.

I kept thinking, especially in my role as a minister, would I have spoken up?

Or would I have compromised my convictions just enough to avoid attention?

But again, there’s a better question to ask.

The apostle Paul writes that Christians are to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15).

Paul’s Roman world was indeed a “crooked and twisted generation,” and so were the slave cultures of the 18thand 19th centuries (and some still exist today).

The Nazi ideology of the 1930s and 40s was as evil as anything could be.

But blatant racism as it manifested itself in segregation a few decades ago in our own country was also crooked and twisted . . . how would we have responded if we lived in the days of extreme racial prejudice?

But again, hypotheticals aren’t the best path, because they allow us to escape in our minds to a world that doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the particulars.

The better question is this: What am I doing right now?

How are we shining as “lights in the world” amidst the perversity and crookedness of our own culture?

As much as we’d like to deny it, human nature hasn’t changed since the slaveholding 19th century or the brutal 20th century.

It just manifests itself differently.

We still live in a fallen world that’s permeated by sinfulness—from materialism and greed, to the obsession with a boundary-free sexuality, to the denial of the personhood of the unborn, to the oppression and marginalization of the poor.

I think people like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer ought to remind us.

As long as we’re living on this side of the Lord’s return, there will always be darkness.

The question to ask is how brightly do our lights shine?

Work out your own salvation

Some folks have a problem with obedience.

Actually, we all have a problem with obedience.

It seems that we’re hard-wired with an inclination toward doing what we shouldn’t, or not doing what we should.

It’s easy to see in kids, of course.

It’s not a good parenting technique, but sometimes the quickest way to get a toddler to do something is to tell him not to do it.

Unfortunately, that little rebellious streak never leaves us.

Not even when we’re saved.

After telling his readers all that Jesus gave up for them, Paul gives them this pointed imperative:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

Salvation is of grace, of course, but it’s not cheap grace.

God never saves people and leaves them where they are. He saves us so that we might live for him.

There’s a hint of a warning here: Jesus expects obedience.

And so we obey.

We obey to thank him for what he’s done.

We obey to show our love for the one who saved us.

We “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” because we realize he paid a debt we could never pay.

Today, let’s practice the disicipline of obedience.

Let’s obey him even when–especially when–it’s hard.

Let’s offer him radical obedience–obedience that follows Christ wherever it leads.

Being a Christian has never been merely trusting in Christ or submitting to the act of baptism.

It’s about accepting God’s gift of salvation and spending the rest of our lives saying “thank you” by the way we live.

Today, just obey him, in everything, no matter what, and see what happens.

He knows your name

If I ran into the governor at the mall today, he wouldn’t know my name.

If I went to a campaign event and got close enough to one of the presidential candidates to shake his hand, he’d have no idea who I am.

Neither would Mark Zuckerberg, Leonardo DiCaprio, or Oprah Winfrey.

I saw my favorite football coach at a golf course one day, and he didn’t seem to be interested in developing a close, personal friendship.

But none of that particularly bothers me.

Isn’t it incredibly encouraging to know that the only One who really matters knows each of us individually?

Here’s the way Jesus put it:

But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. . . . I am the good shepherd (John 10:2-4,11).

Ever attended a college that identified you by your student number?

Or worked for a company where you were little more than an employee number?

Your government knows you by the nine-digit number assigned to you shortly after you were born.

Not Jesus, our Good Shepherd.

He knows us by name, not by number.

He knows us as individuals, not constituents, taxpayers, or employees.

He’s counted the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7) . . . if that’s true, could anything escape his notice?

He knows about the tough day you had at work last week, the argument you had with your spouse last night, and the anxieties in your heart right now.

He knows how much you love your children, and he knows your plans, your dreams, your hopes.

He’s the Shepherd who knows, loves, and protects you.

None of the heavy hitters may know you, but in the end only one matters.

He knows your name, and he’ll shout it loudly sometime soon when he comes back to get his flock.

What he gave up

I think the greatest motivation for living how we ought to live is contained in these three verses.

Read them slowly, carefully, reflectively.

. . . Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

Scholars argue about the meaning of some of the words—a testimony to the depth of meaning present—but most agree that they form the lyrics of an early church hymn.

Picture a group of first-century Christians sitting on the floor of one of their homes in Philippi, singing a song about Jesus. I wish we knew the melody so we could sing it today.

The essence of the song is this: Jesus gave up something incredibly significant.

He was “in very nature God”—he didn’t give up his deity—but maybe he gave up the appearance of deity while he was a man.

“He emptied himself,” which probably just refers to the incarnation: the God of all creation became a human being.

But what kind of human being did he become? A king? A nobleman? A baron?

Instead, he was born in a barnyard in Bethlehem to poor parents and grew up to die the accursed death of crucifixion.

But why?

So you and I could be saved.

The last couple of days we’ve thought about biblical commands to put others before ourselves, to be less selfish, more compassionate.

We struggle with that, and we’ll probably continue to struggle as long as we’re in the flesh.

But in these verses Paul quotes a hymn that gives us the motivation we need.

If God himself could give up the glory of heaven and put my needs before his own, can’t I do the same with the people around me?

If he could draw me to himself even as I so often disappoint him . . . if he could be patient with my weaknesses and failures and foibles . . . if he could forgive me.

Then can’t I try to imitate him in his self-sacrifice and in some feeble way reflect him to the people around me?

That’s what Paul was singing about.

So let’s pray and sing about that today too.

Jesus emptied himself and became a slave so that we would have an example to follow.

How to get a better attitude

In yesterday’s devotional I encouraged you to do what Paul says here: “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

How’d you do?

If you’re like me, you did really well right up until the point that you got out of bed.

It’s just hard . . . really hard.

Sometimes it goes against everything within you, and it seems to require extraordinary effort to make it through a few hours.

If that’s true, what are our chances of making it a way of life?

The key—though it’s not a magic pill, of course—is in the same paragraph:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Some Bibles translate it passively—“Let this mind be in you”—but it should almost certainly be active:

“Have this attitude in yourselves” (NASB).

“Have the same attitude of mind” (TNIV).

“You must have the same attitude” (NLT).

In other words, choose to have this attitude, because it won’t come naturally.

But how can you consistently choose the right attitude when the opposite is so much easier?

I think the answer is in the last part of the verse: “which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

We find the selfless attitude as we get closer to Christ.

We think about the needs of others in direct proportion to how much we think about the Lord.

I think it works like this: the more time we spend with Jesus, who always thought about others, the less we think about self and the more outward-focused we become.

So let’s try it again today.

Count others more significant than yourself.

Choose that attitude as you go to work or school, interact with your kids or spouse, or deal with difficult people.

Only this time, take your mind back to Christ as often as you can—the attitude you’re wanting, the selfless, other-focused, attitude—is yours, but it’s yours in Christ.

As you focus on him you’ll find yourself loving the people around you more.