Joey Sparks
26Jul/120

The Easiest To Blame

The easiest people to blame are:

  1. Those who are bigger than we are and
  2. Those with whom we don't have a close relationship.

As you can expect, the bigger someone is, the easier they are to blame.

  • Governments. The bigger the political level, the worse they are.
  • Big banks, credit cards, Wall Street.
  • School systems, Boards of Education, Superintendents, school administration and staff.
  • Hospitals, Healthcare providers, insurance companies, drug companies, doctors.
  • TV shows, movies, musical artists, celebrities, news media.

I wouldn't dare suggest these always display responsibility. The bigger the stage, the greater the responsibility (Luke 12:48). They'll be held accountable for how they've occupied the world through their large influence. Which means our finger-pointing is ultimately pointless.

Blame (by FatBusinessman Flickr CC by nc sa)

The other group whom it's easy to blame is composed of those with whom we are not very close.

To test this, did you object to any of the groups I mentioned above?

If you are an educator, because of your personal passions, relationships with other educators, and your view "behind the scenes," you may object that any overall scholastic shortcomings are the fault of the system.

If you work in the healthcare industry as a nurse, doctor, or sales rep, you may be slower to gripe about your industries' shortcomings.

How many spouses in close-knit, intimate, and trusting marriages frequently blame each other? It's hard to play the "blame game" within a thriving relationship.

What does all this mean?

There's no one bigger than God. So it's easy to see why so much blame can be cast his way (James 1:13-15). Whether it's for natural disasters, a cancer diagnosis, the sudden loss of a loved one, or the rock-bottom crash of irresponsibility, it's easy to pin our trials on God because there's no one bigger. There's nothing we can do to change God's "bigness" (Psalm 139:7-12). From day one, he's forever been the Creator, Provider, and Loving Judge.

But we can close the loophole of blame by drawing closer to him daily (Hebrews 10:22; James 4:8). The more intimate we become with his heart and mind, by staying in his word and talking to him in prayer, the more we see his infinite wisdom, mercy, love, and compassion. We won't allow ourselves to blame him because we recognize his complete perfection.

Constantly drawing near to him forces us to see that He Himself has done everything possible to win us back (John 3:16; Hebrews 7:25). The only way we blame God because He seems far away is because we've distanced ourselves from His love and provision.

Blame is useless at best and destructive and debilitating to personal responsibility at worst. There are a multitude of practical reasons to eliminate it from our hearts and tongues. As we continue pruning, we must draw near to God daily to remind ourselves that He's in control. And thus, we have nothing to blame.

23Jul/120

Every Good Gift & Every Perfect Gift (James 1:16-17)

Throughout his treatise on practical, everyday Christianity, James' golden thread is godly wisdom versus worldly wisdom.

Everyone makes decisions everyday. James imperatively stresses that these decisions must be made in light of heavenly wisdom, not earthly.

After outlining the process of temptation, James tells early Christians, "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:16-17).

Regalito (by MCSimon Flickr CC by nc sa)

What wisdom is found in these two verses? Specifically, he warns Christians about the danger of deception. The power of a lie lies not in its telling, but in its receiving. False statements are hurled toward our hearts and minds daily. Our responsibility rests not so much in not hearing lies as it does in not believing them. James makes it clear that Christians bear the responsibility to not fall prey to deceptive schemes.

In the context of this passage, he's specifically reminding the brethren about the danger of blaming their difficulties on God. He shows temptation and deception are against God's very nature in verse 13; he then outlines the starring role our personal desires play in the temptation drama in verses 14 and 15. Verse 16 serves as a bookend to this section of thought. "God tempts us with evil" is as bold and dangerous a lie that we will ever hear.

We cannot believe it.

But James isn't finished. Not only does God not tempt us with evil, but he is the ultimate source of everything good. The Psalmist said, "You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told" (Ps 40:5).

God is not the villian, and is indeed the ultimate hero.

To cast blame for bad upon God and his grandiose goodness is blasphemous to his nature. Falling prey to the lie that he is responsible for our misfortunes is disastrous to our souls.

19Jul/120

Conception Control (James 1:14-15)

What we commonly label "birth control" is more correctly "conception control." The goal is to prevent the joining of the male and female sex cells, which always creates life. (Thus, to destroy an already-joined-pairing, whether it's as a fertilized egg, an embryo, or a 24-week-in utero-fetus, is destroying life, and thus, murder.)

Married couples use any number of forms of "conception control" to morally and ethically control the number and timing of children they bear.

Don't Take Away My Birth Control (by afagen Flickr CC by nc sa)

We would do well to look at this common practice when we analyze the temptation process as outlined by James in chapter 1:14-15. There, he says, "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."

In verse 15, he turns toward one of the most natural processes known to man: conception and birth. When the two sex cells join in a mother's womb, barring rare circumstances or man's heinous crimes, it creates an embryo, which is eventually born into the world as a baby human being.

It is a divinely-designed and naturally-occurring process.

James says the same about our desires, which lead to temptations, which lead to sin, which leads to death.

We can, and should constantly try to, improve and replace our sinful desires with good attitudes and the supreme concerns of our Creator. But we will never eradicate all of our fleshly desires. This begs a legitimate, and concerning, question.

If our desires are within us, and the process of sin is as dependable as the child-bearing process, how can we successfully resist sin?

Though we all sin and fall short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23), we don't always have to sin. James himself says in chapter 4, verse 7, "Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."

The answer to our alarming question lies in the same neighborhood as our modern practice of "birth control." Once an embryo is conceived, a mother gives birth. Once our desires conceive, they give birth to sin. We cannot rest all of our hope upon controlling or changing our desires. But we can keep our desires from conceiving!

If we continually allow our desires and external opportunities to sin meet, we're doomed to lose the battle with sin. But if we intentionally control our environments, in order to limit and eliminate opportunities, then we begin to win.

One of my professors at FHU counseled a Christian gentlemen who was fighting a losing battle with alcoholism. During one session, the man said something to the effect, "Every day when I come home from work, I convince myself I'm not going to stop and pick up some booze. Then I see that Big Dog liquor store and I just can't resist. It happens almost every day."

So my professor, in his direct, matter-of-fact, country-boy ways, said, "Son, sounds like it's about time you find another route home."

Change the environment.

The process of temptation and sin is frightening, but only if we allow our desires to conceive with opportunity, thus leading to sinful action. Because of James' detailed and nature-based illustration, we can highlight the course of victory over sin and temptation.

May we lean upon God as we practice spiritual "conception control."

16Jul/120

2 Keys to Resist Temptation (James 1:14-15)

Humanity shares several "common lots." All human beings require food and water for physical nourishment. Every person desires love, affection, and companionship for emotional health. Everyone suffers pain, disappointment, and heartache.

Spiritually, all mankind faces--and gives in to--temptation.

James says, "But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed."

Paul says in Romans 3:23, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

We face plenty of uncertainties in life, but we are certain to face temptation and sin.

Temptation's certainty is sobering. And knowing we are drawn away from within our own hearts, much like a fish is lured by its belly toward a dangling worm, can be discouraging as well. But these revelations must not drive us to guilt. Harboring guilt for being human can be dangerous. We can attempt to ease the pain through ungodly, selfish, or fleshly pursuits.

Young Smallmouth Bass (by nklatt Flickr CC by, nc, sa)

Jesus, the Son of God, was tempted while on earth, and yet never sinned (Heb. 4:15). While sin is born from temptation, temptation is not sinful. When Satan tempted Jesus in Matthew 4:1-11, he used the very things Jesus wanted and was sent to earth to accomplish. Satan tempted Jesus to do good things in ways contrary to God's ways.

We also cannot allow our missteps into sin to fuel our temptations. Though we can never be perfect, we must be aware that sin creates new temptations more powerful and destructive than we anticipate. For example, resisting the temptation to drink after 20 years of alcoholism is more difficult than resisting the first drink. If we feed temptations with the flesh, they grow into gigantic beasts.

Reality. Knowing sin's deceptive and deadly power helps us develop healthy fears of temptation. Though we all face it, we must never grow comfortable with it nor welcome it. The price for playing with temptation is steep. James follows verse 14 with this, "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (1:15).

This harmonizes with Paul's words in Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Water, carbon monoxide, and other natural compounds are abundant on earth. But we must always respect their power to destroy humanity. Temptation is no different.

Replacement. Knowing that temptation results from our own desires can be discouraging if we're not careful. We must be intentional to continually replace our wants with God's desires. When the two compete, we must always submit to God's will.

But over time, we can also develop the heart and attitude that above all longs for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The more we try to be like God from the inside out, the less power we give to our human desires and tendencies.

The Psalmist once said, "With my whole heart I have sought you; Oh, let me not wander from your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You" (Ps. 119:10-11).

The truth about temptation may be discouraging at the surface. But a complete appreciation for God's forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:7) and continual providence in the face of temptation (Jas. 4:7) gives us every motivation and all strength to resist.

12Jul/120

2 Reasons “The Blame Game” Doesn’t Work For Sin

Blame is funny.

We're often tempted to blame someone or something else for our shortcomings and mistakes. We hope, that by successfully shifting blame, to avoid punishment and accountability.

Not only is the "blame game" deceptive--because no one or nothing is responsible for our lives except ourselves--but it cripples progress. Once we convince ourselves we've shifted the blame, we've also given up control to fix the problem. Those who rely on blame instead of responsibility create a prison where improvement is impossible.

We can attempt to blame other people at every turn, but we always face the truth that we can't change others. We can try to blame external circumstances, but then we find out we can't change those either.

Courageously accepting responsibility grants the possibility of freedom. Only those grounded in responsibility and accountability make great strides of improvement and growth.

It's sad that many would rather wallow in negative situations than accept responsibility and thus be empowered to improve them. As Christians, we should not allow this attitude to thrive.

And we cannot allow it to exist when it comes to temptation and sin.

You only have yourself to blame (by higgott Flickr CC by nc sa)

James 1:12 says, "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him." I almost think James anticipated a response to that statement something like this, "Well, it'd sure be a lot easier to endure temptation if that same Lord would stop tempting us to get us to give up!"

So James says in verses 13 and 14, "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed."

It is impossible to blame God for temptation and sin. Just as it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2), it is impossible for God to be tempted, and thus to tempt us. Not only is it futile to cast blame at God's feet, how dare us do so in light of all he has done and all he promises!

God wants the best for us. We must develop a trusting attitude toward him and his word that dares not blame him for shortcomings, mistakes, and sin.

It is impossible to blame anyone or anything else. Instead of listing everyone or everything we cannot blame, James tells us the source of temptation: our own desires. You and I cannot successfully blame anyone or anything else for sin because it all starts in our own hearts. We are "tempted" to sin because it, in some way, appeals to us individually. Temptation, and thus sin, are controlled and guided by our own selfish desires.

Bummer? Maybe, if we're lazy. But not if we truly want to change things.

Jesus' power has defeated the strangling power of sin and death (1 Cor. 15:56-57). And he gives us the opportunity to obey him instead of our own desires. If we destroy, suppress, and manage our earthly desires, we can successfully navigate the labyrinth of temptation in this life. It will never be easy. But it will always be possible; provided we accept responsibility and cut out the blame.

9Jul/120

Lifestyles of the Rich & the Lowly (James 1:9-11)

Notobasis syriaca - Syrian Thistle - Barkan (Flickr CC - by nc sa)

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. (James 1:9-11)

In addition to writing his book full of imperative statements, James also relies heavily upon contrasting elements. In 1:9-11, he contrasts the "lowly" against the "rich." He challenges them with action in the present, but does so by previewing the future.

We must take note that James' emphasis is not upon their bank accounts; it's upon their attitudes. The lowly (humble, 4:1-10) brother acknowledges the utmost importance of God in all that he does. He will be exalted in the life to come. The rich are not necessarily all who are financially blessed, but those whose pride and boasting are founded upon their possessions--and the status in life they provide (cf, 5:1-6).

When Jesus came to earth, he turned it upside down--especially for the Jews. He didn't come with the purpose of doing away with rich and poor designations while on earth. He came to show that man will not be judged by their political, socio-economic, or even religious status. He will judge all men by their hearts (Matt. 5:8).

To illustrate this reversal of standing, James turns to nature in a way where first century Palestinians could not misunderstand him. He compares those who are rich to the grass and flowers of the land. Though beautiful, they don't last forever. Though beautiful, they don't withstand the elements of heat. Likewise, he says, the rich man will perish "in the midst of his pursuits."

These few verses are not James' final word on proper attitudes, partiality, riches, and the brevity of life. He further develops those themes throughout his letter. But we cannot gloss over these specific instructions. Humble and lowly Christians should take courage from their relationship with the Creator of the universe; Christians who choose to build their lives on possessions should repent. Soon, there will be a day when those possessions are nothing but dust.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matt. 7:24-27)

23Nov/110

Words of Wisdom: Ask for It!

In early 2003, while in college at FHU, we had our social club officers' retreat at a house on Kentucky Lake. We arrived late Friday evening, so we didn't see the lake until Saturday morning. When we awoke to see it and its surroundings, we were amazed that the lake's surface was totally frozen. Prior to that morning, every time in my life I had seen a body of water, it was always moving. But not this time. It was still and it was solid. I always think about that lake when I read James 1:5-8.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

The first clause of the passage reflects some of James' almost-sarcastic humor. Who, exactly, does not need more wisdom? The "if" sounds as though it's a limiting condition, but realistically, it's a universal statement. Everyone needs more wisdom.

http://flic.kr/p/286Zm

http://flic.kr/p/286Zm

What are we asking for when we ask for wisdom? We commonly think of wisdom as more than just knowledge. It's the practical application of knowledge. Another concise definition I've heard is, "Wisdom is the ability to see potential results before making decisions."

During what situations, then, should we ask for wisdom? The easy answer is, "in everything." But the contextual answer is that of trials that test our faith and reliance upon God (1:2-4). We need the Lord's guidance, direction, and peace when our souls are tested by life's hurdles. Trials easily become watershed moments; we either draw nearer to God and His people, or we push away from His goodness. Thus, we especially need wisdom in the face of trials. So we must ask for it. Additionally, the verb in the Greek emphasizes the process of "keep on asking." We need wisdom continually, thus we must ask continually.

God guarantees that he gives wisdom. But it's not a blank check. Notice how we are supposed to ask: without reproach, in faith, with no doubting. This is where it hits us the hardest. It's easier to simply ask for wisdom than it is to confidently ask for wisdom.

James illustrates our doubting with the simple, but common, sight of water. Its waves are continually driven and tossed, he says, by the whims of the wind. Their direction, strength, and frequency are determined by forces beyond their control.

We will encounter countless storms, criticisms, and confusions in this life. But we cannot be controlled by them. We must be confident, trusting, and solid as we ask God for direction and guidance.

22Nov/110

Amanda’s Chocolate Chip Pound Cake

  • 1 box Butter Cake Mix
  • 1 small box chocolate instant pudding mix
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 Tablespoon Vanilla Extract
  • 1/4 Cup Water
  • 1 Cup Canola/Vegetable Oil
  • 8 oz sour cream
  • 6 oz chocolate chips 
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Grease and lightly dust bundt pan with flour
  3. Mix first 7 ingredients until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.
  4. Bake for 1 hour, or until toothpick is clean when inserted in center of cake.

James tells us, "Count it all joy...when you meet trials of various kinds." It's difficult to "label" tough times, tragedies, and discouragement as anything that's good. Yet James tells us to consider those opportunities as "joy."

Though difficult, he does not expect us to do something this extreme without any assurance about future results. In fact, the very reason he says we should "count it all joy" is that we "know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness" (Jas 1:3). He points to the foundational principle that testing and proving our faith will always lead to strengthening it into faith that lasts. He then instructs Christians to, "let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (Jas 1:4).

http://flic.kr/p/GjwLz

http://flic.kr/p/GjwLz

We can know with certainty about the connection between trials and steadfastness, but we must let it take place. This is the second of James' imperative statements in this letter; yet it is one that we must allow to happen in our own lives. We can't force it to happen. We can't fast forward to a time where it's already happened. We can't negotiate the length of time in which it happens. We can't eliminate the pain accompanied with the trial itself while it happens. But we can--and James says we must--target our attitudes in a godly direction because of our conviction and the assurance that it does happen.

Enduring trials will never be easy. They rarely, if ever, taste good on their own. We must continually mix them with healthy attitudes and heavy doses of God's promises. Then, despite our skepticism and short-sightedness, we must allow the oven of time, faith, and God's providence to deliver the sweet steadfastness of trusting Him. Delicious.

15Nov/110

The Truth About Trials

When we find ourselves in the midst of a "trial," we often focus on the trial itself. We commonly believe several myths about trials:

  • They're always someone else's fault. (Another person, God, the devil)
  • We are the only one experiencing trials. Our trials are far worse than anyone else's.
  • Once we become Christians, trials happen less often, don't hurt as much, or stop altogether.
  • Once we deal with a significant trial, all future trials disappear or become really easy to handle.
  • Removing or ending the trial will eliminate all pain associated with it.
  • If we can just fix all the problems we're facing, we can be happy.

The Bible is clear we must address problems for which we're responsible. But we commonly shirk responsibility for those things and focus our energy upon fixing things we cannot.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/xtrarant/2207094409/

So don't miss James' first imperative statement--one of many--in his letter. "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds" (1:2). Before we can "count it all joy" when we face them, we should observe a few truths that counter the false assumptions we believe about trials.

  • Christians are not immune to trials ("my brothers"). In fact, the trials for these Christians resulted directly from their commitment to Christ.
  • We will face trials ("when you..."). He didn't say "if you..."
  • We will continually face trials. “Trials” is plural.
  • We won't face the same trial/trials over and over ("trials of various kinds").
  • We aren’t the only ones facing trials. It was written to Christians in the first century and has applied to everyone since. We may feel alone at any given time, but that doesn't mean we are alone in our struggles.

We must exchange our dependence upon misbeliefs for confidence in the truth. Once we do, we can begin to "count it all joy" when we face trials.

27Sep/112

4 Things We Learned Rock Climbing

Over the summer, we carried 25 young people & adults (and met up with 25 more from Northport and 9th Ave in Haleyville) to Climb Nashville for an indoor rock climbing lock-in. Teens typically get excited for lock-ins of any kind. But we had a particularly fun time climbing and “hanging” out together.

All 50 of us got together around 2AM and sang a few songs, then discussed what things we witnessed throughout the night that could help us in our spiritual lives. Here are five of the things we talked about as a group:

1) We need others to do difficult things. The only way I’m remotely safe high up on a wall (with no padding below) is if someone else is below belaying for me. A belayer uses a clip that utilizes gravity as a brake in case the climber slips off the wall. He or she just hangs there until they start climbing again or are let down slowly by the belayer. So, first of all, we need someone else to make sure we don’t fall. Next, we need the encouragement provided by the belayer and others on the ground. We heard the sound of “you can do it” and “hang in there” throughout the night. Hearing positive words of praise helps us reach the top. Finally, we need others to help us find ways out. It’s easy to get so focused on everything going around you that you don’t see the next hand or foot grip. But the person below—who has a different perspective—can see things you don’t see. He or she can help you navigate out of a difficult situation.

Similarly, God has never intended for Christians to navigate through life alone. There are times we need one another to keep us from falling, “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death” (James 5:20). We also need encouragement daily from one another, “exhort one another every day...that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). Finally, we often need the advice of others because they can see thigns we don’t see, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20).

2) The best time for distractions is not while you’re on the wall. One of our teen girls was climbing while her older sister belayed for her (I won’t mention names). When the younger sister was almost to the top, her older sister below screamed, “Did you remember to get the cooler off the bus?” When you’re confronting fears and reaching new heights, the last thing on your mind is whether or not you “remembered the cooler.” It’s easy for us to get distracted spiritually. We can’t afford to get distracted by criticism, hypocrisy by others, frustrations, or fun as we work in the kingdom. Nehemiah recognized this when he told Sanballat and Tobiah, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). How many times have we abandoned the work of the Lord to check if we “got the cooler off the bus?”

3) We learn best by doing. The Climb Nashville staff taught the group of belayers in about 20-30 minutes. They utilized a hands-on approach and made the students put into practice what they learned in order to be certified to belay. In a more traditional classroom setting, it may have taken much longer to instruct that group of people about procedures and potential problems. We do a good thing by emphasizing Biblical learning; we need to teach the Bible in a classroom setting. Many who neglect this opportunity weekly should re-evaluate their decision. But we must also never forget that we grow most and best by daily doing what our God teaches. “But the one who looks into the perfect law,the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts,he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).

4) It’s not the real thing. Indoor rock climbing is an exciting thing to do. The night we spent doing it allowed us to challenge ourselves and have fun doing so. It’s a great way to learn and gain experience in a controlled and safe environment. But it’s not real rock climbing. We don’t actually go anywhere. We get to the top, then turn around and slide back down. Likewise, some of the things we do within the church and especially in “youth ministry” are intended to train young people and families in a controlled and safer environment. They’re still very real experiences, but they’re not intended to be the end in and of themselves. We should pray for opportunities to put the spiritual habits we build into practice in the world around us. “Pray also for us, that God mayopen to us a door for the word,to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3).