The tell-tales of Spirit-empowered Holiness


Holiness is beautiful.  Its counterfeits are odious, but their standards are humanly attainable.  So we write our rules and set ourselves to keeping them. We make our do’s and don’t lists and check them off…and are no more holy, and maybe a little more smug, when we’re through.

I’ve been meditating, talking and reading about holiness a lot lately. What does the real thing look like? It’s a many-faceted topic and I’ve wrestled all day at where to begin here…HOLY.   It’s what God is. It’s what He’s called us to be.  It’s both what we are and what He’s making us to be.  It’s His work and it’s ours to reach for.  We can’t attain it but are to be ever about the business of aiming at it while waiting for it.  Holiness is a beautiful enigma.

My practical grasp of it is so far behind my head-knowledge of it that to write of it seems hypocritical.  And yet, I have a growing sense of what it is not and how it is not attained.  And surely this is a start…

“Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”(Gal.3:3)

“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col.2:22,23)

We through the Spirit are being made holy, being conformed to the image of Jesus.  The process is hard to define and impossible to mandate. Though we are called to be active participants we are clearly not in control of outcomes. Only God can make us holy. 

The man-made versions of holiness come in an endless array.  They may look quite impressive and their appeal is tremendous.  We can at last ‘do something’ to make ourselves holy!  But without exception, unless the Spirit of God is the wind in our sails, the results will be disastrous!

I’ve been thinking of these things this week in light of sickening scandals revealed at the highest levels of two widely renowned Christian ministries known for their strict adherence to “Biblical principals’’.  Thousands of Christians dedicated to pursuing the highest standards for their families have been  sucked into movements whose founders have been living duplicitous lives for YEARS, even decades in one case. How has this not come to light sooner? How is it that a Christian ministry can flourish in terms of adherents, purporting to promote godliness, while grieving the Holy Spirit all the while,  and noone knows the difference?

Have we gotten so very clever with our principles and formulas for being ‘holy’ that we no longer need faith or dependence on the Spirit of God? Are we blind to the infinite difference between what we call ‘godly’ and who God really is?

I’ve been mulling over these things…surely there are indicators to keep us off the shoals of self-made religion and running in the power of the Spirit toward that  holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14). How do we distinguish the two?  Holiness is not a goal we can reach without God but we can sure waste a lot of time and energy and do a lot of damage pursuing it on our own steam.

It’s rather like sailing without minding the tell-tales.  A pair of these brightly colored strips flip about in the wind on either side of the sail.  The position of these tell-tales  tells the sailor how he’s doing with respect to the wind in his sails.  If  he reads them well, he will be spared a great flapping of sails as the wind catches them awry and attempts to turn his boat from its course.  If he fails to heed the tell-tales indication of what the wind is up to he may lose control of his craft and find himself headed in quite a different direction than he had intended.  The tell-tales are there to show him the optimal angle of attack with regard to the wind. The handy sailor will gain a great advantage by them. He will trim his sails accordingly and so arrive at his destination.

Is this not the way of the Christian life? We can get in our boat and try to motor against wind and wave, sails flapping, being blown this way and that because the set of our sails is wrong.  Or we can heed the tell-tales and sail in the power of the Spirit to God’s destination for us—the likeness of His Son.

So what are the tell-tale signs that the holiness we espouse is truly Biblical holiness?  What are the indicators of the Spirit’s sanctifying work and where is it just our flesh flapping in the breeze and thinking we’re going somewhere?

May I offer some negative perceptions first?  These are the ones I know best. They come naturally to me. This stripe of ‘holiness’ is tell-tale that we’ve missed the wind of the Spirit and are heading off course.

  • When we get together for ‘fellowship’ but speak of ‘them’ and ‘us’ more than of Jesus.
  • When we follow the letter of the law but fail to celebrate the grace of God in Christ Jesus as our only source of righteousness.
  • When we are so appalled by the evil in others and in the world at large that we don’t see the evil in our own hearts; more energy is spent enumerating other’s faults than repenting of our own.
  • When we are quick to condemn others’ blatant sins (especially those with which we have not struggled),  but slow to see our own (which are no doubt just as glaring to others)
  • When we are more apt to point out another’s sin than to aid in his restoration.
  • When we nobly bear the burden of obedience to our own set of prescribed rules but cannot help condemning (and secretly envying) others who don’t follow our rules.
  • When we justify our pious distance from sinning brothers in Christ as ‘holiness’ and are consequently too distant to be involved in their restoration

My sails have been madly flapping all through that list.  Those things are tell-tale indicators that we are veering off course in our pursuit of holiness. I see another way drawn out all through Scripture, a “new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom.7:6) It is beautiful, marked by righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Obedience is no longer burdensome but the overflow of love for God and others that the Spirit has worked in us.  It is marked by a glad service to God, rather than a holy grimness.

Here are some of the tell-tales that the Spirit is filling our sails and moving us steadily in the right direction:

Restful Confidence that the good work God’s begun in us He will move in us to complete.  We won’t be motivated by guilt, anxiety or regret but by the Spirit of God revealing truth and error and guiding our steps in practical daily ways. “…He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” Phil.1:6

Freedom.  We won’t be bound by a one-size-fits-all exhaustive list of  principles and disciplines.  Our righteousness will not be about keeping rules: “Never…,  Always…”  but about walking by the Spirit in the light of God’s revealed truth.  Consequently, we won’t assume that the way God has directed us is the way everyone must live. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.” II Cor.3:17

Sacrificial love will characterize our lives and interactions with others in the Body.  Rivalry will cease.  Instead we will look for every opportunity to build up, to restore, and to forgive.

Self-forgetful humility will keep us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. We will not necessarily recognize the changes God is making in us, but others will.  When Moses talked with God, his face shone, but he wasn’t aware of it. The people around him certainly were!

Devotion to Christ will be more important than keeping up appearances or keeping rules. We will seek approval from Him alone.  Our focus will not be on doing but on being with Him and getting to know Him and He us. Our ability to do anything good will flow from being rooted and grounded in this relationship.

These are some of the tell-tales when our sails are trimmed to catch the wind of the Spirit’s working in bringing us to glory.

We dare not be driven by our own ideas of righteousness, our own clear-cut standards and programs and principles to the exclusion of the need for faith and the Spirit’s power.  It is not the externals that make us holy but the matters of the heart. “All that matters is faith working through love.” Gal.5:6

If we want to be holy people, it will not start with lists, but with loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength.  Who can do this in his own power? The answer to the  lawlessness we see around and within is not law-keeping or even law-enforcement, but love. The one who loves God keeps His commandments and they are not burdensome.

And so we’re faced with ‘Be holy as I am holy.’  What will we do?  It will start with the provision Jesus has made for us to draw near the throne of grace ‘that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ Heb.4:16  It will be in drawing near to Him that we will be changed.  This is where the breeze is blowing us. Mind the tell-tales.


“the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” Ex.34:29

For ‘through the Spirit by faith we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness’ Gal.5:5

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. II Cor.3:18


A related post from the archives: “Wind and Spirit”

My gleanings—the ‘mini devotional’


In my post, Some Bible Reading Pointers, I suggested a multi-genre way of reading the Bible, including some tips for getting the most out of it. One of those ideas was to take what you’ve read and connect-the-dots to formulate a ‘mini-devotional’.  This is easier said than done.  While in my mind I can see beautiful glints that form patterns, much like in a child’s kaleidoscope, it is not simple to put them in words.  The marvel of Bible reading is that the Spirit breathes life into the words and helps us make sense of it and see the glory of God woven through it.  This is not easily put in print.  However, it’s worth a try in hopes that you will be inspired to do the same (  :  So here are my gleanings for your consideration.

This will not be a polished ‘devotional’, just some snippets from my October 15th reading.

Right now I’m reading in the books of Leviticus, II Kings, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Hosea, Matthew and Romans as per the Grand Tour of Redemption Bible reading idea I explained in the JUST READ IT tab (at the top of my home page), and referred to in this post.

Note: This is really not an overwhelming amount of reading.  Just one chapter from each of these books took me 36 minutes, including the time it took to jot down some thoughts from each.  [And no, I don’t usually time myself!  I was just curious how much time was passing; I avoided rushing.  I like to ‘chew’ a little and go back and forth a bit comparing passages…and still it was just over half an hour.  So yes, this is quite doable time-wise even for a busier person than I!]

Anyway, here’s what I found:

Leviticus 24—It’s important to keep the lamps burning in the tabernacle, and to keep the bread of offering fresh and present on the table.
Cursing ‘the Name’ was punishable by stoning.
Laying on of hands was actually a form of testimony against the guilty—yes, this is the one; I heard him curse. (Now that’s interesting; (how) does this relate to the purpose of laying on of hands in the New Testament?)
And lastly, ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is presented as the just way of dealing with sin against one’s fellow man.  Yikes.

II Kings 12—Here’s a bit of practical wisdom for temple maintenance.  Take up regular offerings and do the maintenance as ‘funds’ become available.  And the workmen were trustworthy ‘in house’ maintenance men.  Hmm.  Seems pretty sensible.  But what’s this? Sacred gifts that had been dedicated to the Lord, and gold from the temple treasuries is given as a bribe to keep the King of Syria at bay!  Up till now King Joash, the boy king, under the tutelage of Jehoiada the priest, has been a good king.  But ‘oh no!’ his own servants conspired against him and killed him.  Why?!  I just had to detour from my ‘planned’ readings to the parallel account in II Chronicles (12).  It filled in the dismaying missing pieces.  When Jehoiada died King Joash returned to idolatry, hardened his heart against God’s prophets, one of whom was Jehoiada’s son whom he killed, and so Joash came to a bad finish himself. Sad.

Psalm 97—When the Lord reigns the earth rejoices! In comparison idols then look as worthless and shameful as they truly are. This psalm exudes gladness, light, righteousness, justice, glory and of course, Thanksgiving!  As I reflect on it I realize that in our world righteousness is often viewed negatively. God reigning sounds like oppression.  Idols are desirable objects—how can we live without them?  This is all wrong.  To what extent have these impressions crept into my thinking?  This psalm is a joyful restorative of truth—where the Lord reigns there is joy! And what a contrast to the reign of King Joash.  His own servants rose up and killed him.  Once he abandoned the Lord his reign became tyranny.

Ecclesiastes 10—So much of this book is a tad depressing and not really wise.  But here are some proverbs I jotted down—
A dull ax requires more strength.”  In other words, work smart; sharpen your ax. I wonder… what tools of mine need sharpening?
“A fool multiplies words.”  Hmm.  I’m reminded of that proverb that says something like ‘in a multitude of words sin is not absent’. (I found it just now: Prov.10:19–“In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise.” ) Seems like wisdom requires few words. Hmm.  Is this post getting too long?!

Oh, and here’s a tidbit that sounds quite like modern thinking:
“Money answers everything”  (19) This certainly didn’t prove true for King Joash.  His bribe of gold was no use against the King of Syria. “Though the army of the Syrians had come with few men, the LORD delivered into their hand a very great army, because Judah had forsaken the LORD, the God of their fathers. (II Chr. 24:24)  The Lord is King after all and money is not everything!

And one more:  “The toil of a fool wearies him for he does not know the way to the city.” Is is a stretch to be reminded of the Celestial City?…We know where we are headed.  Our labor is not in vain in the Lord.  We need not grow weary in well-doing as the fool who has no purpose in what he does…I think of the workmen in temple gladly serving the Lord (II Kings 12)…I think of the gladness of all the earth when the King reigns (Ps.97)…Serving Him is not wearisome, unless we lose sight of the City he’s preparing. “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Heb.11:16

Hosea 12—At this point in my little notebook, my words are getting tiny and all jammed up. I loved this chapter. It underlines that it is not self-effort but reliance on God that honors him: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (6) Here again, God sends prophets to warn his people (as He did Joash), prophets which go unheeded.  God is not eager to judge.  He woos us to return to Him when we get off into our own ways of doing things.

Matthew 24—Jesus is coming again.  In the meantime there will be others who come in His name.  We don’t have to go check them out.  It will be obvious when Jesus comes.  His Glory will be unmistakable.  Meanwhile the love of many will have grown cold in an atmosphere of lawlessness.  (What is it about lawlessness that makes love grow cold?  Could it be the persecution that accompanies lawless times?)  The hope of Jesus’ return is designed to have a purifying effect.  This is illustrated in a parable of servants whose Master is away. The faithful ones live expectantly.  The unfaithful abuse their positions and incur the Master’s wrath at His unexpected return.

And I couldn’t help noticing the upcoming story (in Matthew 25) of the ten virgins, five foolish, five wise.  The wise had oil for their lamps and were ready to meet the groom when He came to get them.  Their lamps were lit…hmm…how does this relate to the constant burning of lamps in the Old Testament tabernacle? (See Lev.24)  I wonder… But there’s one last chapter…

Romans 7—  “We serve in a new way, by the Spirit, not the written code.” God gives us new desires but our ability to carry them out is dependent on the Spirit who gives life and power to these bodies destined for death (Yes, I peeked at Romans 8 also).  Could this be what the five foolish virgins were missing?  The Spirit.  That old Sunday School song comes to mind:
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray…
Keep me burning till the break of day.

Did we know what we were singing about?

And that was my reading for the day.  It took much longer to tell you about than it did to read and think about!  But it left me with an overarching awe of God’s Kingdom—Where He reigns there is joy and love and gladness. Until He reigns there will be wicked kings, crazy idolatry, lawless persecutions…but it’s not forever.  With His oil in our lamps and His love in our hearts we can serve faithfully as we wait eagerly to be welcomed into the joy of our Master!

Now it’s your turn. I hope you will have a try at reading widely throughout the Bible in one sitting. And I’d love to hear how it works for you.

For the nitty gritty and some practical pointers check out the “JUST READ IT” tab above.

O you who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the lives of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.  Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.  Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous, and give thanks to his holy name! Ps.97:10-12

Some Bible reading pointers

Bible reading is like prayer.  We know it’s important. We know it’s something we should do as Christians, but sometimes it can seem like a burden and as such is easily neglected.  What if it were to become a delight? What if we were to change the way we think about reading the Bible and take a fresh look at WHY and HOW we do it?

This year I’ve been reading the Bible differently than ever before.  I’ve been reading more of it and loving it more.  And my thinking has changed about why I read and how I read.  I’ve written about my actual plan at length on my Bible Reading Plans page in the side pull-out menu.  But for today I’d like to give an update on how that’s going and some tips I’ve learned along the way.  And yes, I’m hoping you’ll try it too if you are in need of a plan to reinvigorate your time in the Word.

But first a disclaimer

For readers new to the Bible, this plan is not ideal; it’s probably best not to break up reading into chapter segments.  Who reads a story that way?!  But if you’re familiar with the Bible and you know all the stories and feel like it has nothing new to offer you, this plan is ideal.  It will shake things up and get you out of old ruts of thinking about pet passages.

And a couple clarifications

  • This is not a plan for ‘getting through the Bible in a year’.

This will likely happen but why count days or risk ‘getting behind’? This is a different way of reading the Bible, one in which you progress through all sorts of books at the same time, a chapter a day from each. Some books you’ll see repeatedly in a year’s time. Other longer books not as often.

  • This plan is not meant to replace your regular devotional time.

There’s a lot of reading to do.  It could easily displace meditation and prayer if you try to squeeze it into a limited quiet time. You may choose to read a portion of it devotionally and take time to pray and meditate on it.  But I have found it best to save the bulk of the reading for another sitting, much like I would sit to read a book. Having said that, really, at a slow to moderate reading pace with time for making a few notes included, it only takes about a half hour to read up to seven chapters.

So HOW does this work….

I’ve spelled out the details of my plan here.  Basically, it’s a very flexible and ‘tweakable’ way to read the Bible so that every day you are seeing God through the lens of the law, the prophets, the psalms, the gospels, and the letters of Paul.  Because you’re not aiming to ‘get through’ the Bible it makes no difference when you  start (Today is a great day!) and you are never ‘behind’.  This is a way to read, not so much a schedule for reading.

Depending how many chapters you want to read a day you can expand or reduce the genres you are reading from. But the more types of books you include, the richer the experience will be. There are lots of options, but the point is that you will see ‘old’ passages in a new light when they are read beside less familiar ones.  The Bible becomes a commentary on itself.

As you read flipping from one book to the next, ask yourself how these passages are related. What is the theme in each?  What stands out to you?  I have a little notebook in which I jot down a phrase or idea that jumps out at me from each chapter.  What I have found remarkable is how the same themes or even actual words will be given emphasis over multiple books in any given day.   I will find Solomon giving advice that is illustrated in the History book I’m reading.  Or Paul talking about a concept I find in Deuteronomy.  And always there is God–this awesome holy glorious God revealing Himself in every genre.  Don’t let anyone convince you the Old Testament version of God is different than the New.  You’ll come to have a greater appreciation for the New when you have ‘lived’ in the Old for a while. What better way to understand the book of Hebrews than to be reading simultaneously from Leviticus as the ceremonial laws for sacrifice are laid out?  The coming of Jesus as our Priest becomes all the more incredible!

Why read so many chapters at once?

I was initially skeptical of this plan. I have read the Bible before, multiple times. I have studied it quite a bit. It can feel all too familiar, so why read it even more, and why in such large doses?  Don’t I run the risk of the whole thing becoming a bore?!  I mean, I already get the gist of it;  I’ve heard all the stories…

But I was in for a surprise.  Tackling it this time was different.  Instead of going into my reading looking for what’s in these few verses for me, a sort of ‘eat-and-run’ approach, I read for the face value of the passage.  What is it saying, period.  What is the main idea?  The pressure was off to ‘find something’ to bless my day. With this much reading to cover I began looking at God’s words more objectively—what is God wanting me to see about His heart here?  What about the nature of man, my nature?!  And right from the start I was intrigued with the idea of finding connections between the different chapters.  How does this psalm relate to this law? to this Gospel story? to this letter?  What themes thread their way through all my readings?  What’s the big idea today? 

Reading this way becomes a treasure hunt.  And because the same Author inspired the whole thing, you see His character shining through in a way that begins to balance misconceptions you’ve had. Do you need a bigger reason to read? Read to know the Author better.  Read to understand His heart.

OK, some tips…

The nitty-gritty of setting up your plan can be found at my Bible Reading Plans page on the side-popout menu.  Included there is a PDF file of my own specific plan, but it’s not magic; use it as a launching off place to form your own.  Just be sure to make a copy of your plan and tuck it in your Bible!

But as I’ve followed through on this I’ve learned a few things that have worked for me…

  • Make time no matter what (esp. for the first month or two)

As with any new habit you will have to carve out a little chunk of time. Not much, just a half-hour a day or so. If you are strict with yourself for the first month or two you will find pockets of time you didn’t know existed. If it’s a priority you will read before you open the computer or  watch a movie or open a magazine or before you go to bed.  If at first you don’t allow for the missing of a day, it will become a habit. I discovered audio Bibles [  and ] on my smart phone early on.  That way if I didn’t have time to sit down and read I could multi-task.  I washed the dishes to Leviticus and brushed teeth to the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not always ideal to do it this way but it works in a pinch, and it adds welcome variety any time.

  • Don’t let it become a burden

Once the habit is established don’t become a legalist.  Your spirituality is not dependent on whether you’ve read your designated chapters without fail.  There will be exceptional days.  There will be days you want to read somewhere else than what is designated.  There will be days that crowd out your best routines.  If you find the reading becoming a dreaded burden, lighten the load. Drop Leviticus and come back to it later.  Be flexible. Tweak your plan.  Read a whole book right through for a change. Allow the Spirit to draw you to other passages than the ‘designated’ ones.  This is a plan, not THE plan to end all plans…

  • Ask questions as you read

Wonder ‘why?’  It keeps your attention glued to the passage.  You might not have an answer. That’s ok. Write down your question and tomorrow maybe there’ll be a tidbit of light on it…

  • Talk about what you’re reading

Give it a life outside your head!  Copy your favorite verses down and find a way to share them.

  • Mark Cross-References

Make note of related passages with a tiny reference in the margin or a footnote. Soon you’ll have your own customized chain-reference Bible.

  • Keep a little notebook

Record snippets from the chapters you’re reading—a phrase, an idea, a theme, or a favorite verse.  Compare the day’s notes when you’re through. Do you see any related themes?

  • Write about it (?)

On days with a little extra time, write a mini-devotional tying together as many passages as you can.  It will help you assess what you’ve gleaned!  If writing is not for you, by all means pass your thoughts along over a pot of tea…

  • Stay Flexible

This is A way, not THE only way.  Be open to a change of plan on any given day.  If a chapter comes to mind as related to the theme that’s unfolding, go for it.  This is not a ‘check-it-off’ plan.  You’ll be reading this book for the rest of your life. Enjoy the process; there’s no rush to get through it. For instance, yesterday morning as I was reading about King Joash  I had questions? Why did his servants rise up and kill him–I thought he was a good king?  I departed from my ‘plan’ to include the parallel account of his life given in II Chronicles.  It was an eye-opener.  I was glad I’d taken the detour!  A plan is good when it gets you reading consistently. It’s bad when it suffocates and confines.

  • Just start

If this is something you’d like to do, don’t wait for the perfect time to begin.  Start today; there’s no reason to wait for a new year.  This is not a year’s worth of reading, but an endless orchestration of chapters ever combining in fresh ways to reveal God’s unchanging purposes.

I know this plan isn’t for everyone.  I don’t mean to sound ‘pushy’; I just wanted to share what has worked so well for me in hopes that you too might find it a blessing. Actually, I’d enjoy hearing how you keep the Word present in your mind’s eye and alive in your heart.  Please share your own ideas in the Comments!


P.S. If you’d like to see how this works—I’ve tried my hand at the ‘mini-devotional’ idea here using one day’s gleanings.  See: “My Gleanings—The Mini Devotional.”

Find Out What Pleases Him

Last week I was looking at things that rouse God’s wrath, things written about the Israelites in the desert, written to be an example and warning to us so that we don’t miss out on God’s best for us (I Cor.10). Moses thought it crucial for the people to remember the stubborn bent of their hearts.  He reminded them of five concrete events where they’d provoked their God to wrath, instances of: idolatry, complaining, testing God, lusting after things He hadn’t provided, and unbelief. (Deut.9) That’s how far I got last week.  Looking at them.

It’s one thing looking at them, so long ago, so foolish, so stupid.  I can get the impression that I would never react like that.  Who complains when they’re getting the ‘bread of heaven’ delivered to their doorstep daily? Who would be silly enough to cast an idol in the shape of a calf and worship it?  Granted, God is invisible and we’d like to be able to see Him and assure ourselves that He is in fact leading us but… I can go glibly through these examples and disparage the Israelites for their unbelief and stubborn hearts and miss the fact that these are written down for ME!

However, my week didn’t end with theoretical ponderings.  Without warning I found myself in Israelite sandals.  I live in a land of plenty. My freezer’s full of the fruit of the land.  The ‘bread of heaven’ is delivered to my doorstep, in the form of plums and apples and tomatoes and …well, you get the idea.  I have plenty.   But, my ‘neighbors’ have more.

I am prone to measure my godliness with inaccurate scales, by the sins that don’t readily draw me.  For instance, I can read in Colossians these instructions while doing a mental check-off of ones that don’t apply to me:  “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality (check), impurity, (check), passion (check), evil desire (check?) and covetousness, WHICH IS IDOLATRY.”(gulp)  What exactly would you call it when I stand in my neighbor’s yard surveying all their fruit and nut trees and wishing they were mine?!  Guilty as charged!

How is idolatry somehow less bad than sexual immorality?  Only in my mind.  When I measure my spiritual stature based on sins that don’t hold great temptation for me, I am only deceiving myself.  I could well write a more personal list of ‘Things that make God angry’… It might begin this way…

–When I  want my neighbor’s good fortune for myself, or at least his apples!

Or if I’m to go for the jugular, what about:

–When I despise my neighbor—considering him more foolish than I, using his blind spots to bolster my pride in ‘knowing better’.

Yes, I’ve had to do some repenting this week.  These are things God hates.  They don’t reflect my calling as his dearly loved child: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Eph.5:1,2

Instead I envy.  I judge.  I criticize.  I condemn.  I exult in pride: “you’ll see”; I ‘know better’; “Poor you”;  “Fool.”  Mind you, I don’t say these things.  But sins of the heart are no less sins.  God hates them.  (And thankfully He prompts me to see them and to hate them too.)

And yet this is only half of the story. God’s wrath is aroused because He loves us. These things he hates destroy His glorious designs for our lives. They are destructive. They mar the holiness we are made to reflect.  We are by nature  children of wrath but He has called us to be His children and to learn His ways and to share in His holiness (Heb.12:10)

And this is the delightful part of the story. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Th.5:9

We have a good idea what incites God’s wrath, but do we realize
what delights Him?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the Old Testament over the last several months, comparing it to what I’m reading in the New.  You cannot read Leviticus and not be struck with all the bloody sacrifices that had to be made to cover the people’s sins.  God makes it perfectly clear that He is holy and the people He has chosen to be his own are not. Their hearts are endlessly straying to other gods and requiring the slaughter of animals to atone for them.  Sacrifice is endless… You could get the impression that God loves the slaughter of animals, the blood of bulls and goats.  But this is not so.  He’s only laying out a plan.

Then the ‘fullness of time’ comes, and with the New Testament God’s plan unfolds.  He’s made a way for ‘children of wrath’ to be His friends.  He wants them near Him.

That plan is Jesus—the very Son of God ‘with whom He is

What delights God?  Not animal sacrifice, but His Son.
God Himself provided the propitiation for man’s sin in the perfect Lamb, Jesus.  The blood of bulls and goats only pre-figures this.  Propitiation, ‘the turning away of wrath by an offering’ is exactly what we needed! Jesus was sent into the world to be that offering, the perfect Lamb ‘who takes away the sin of the world’.

“…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” (Rom.3:25)

Which brings us to another thing God delights in—faith in His Son. I am not stuck in my sins.  I am not destined either to live in remorse, kicking myself for not being more holy, or in constant struggle to do better.  I am offered by faith the very righteousness of Christ to my account, if I will receive it.  Will I put aside my determination to do better, be better, be good, prove myself worthy (and such rot!) and simply  cast my case on Jesus?  His death and resurrection has covered  my sin once and for all.  My covetousness, my envy, my pride, they are real. I remember them, lest I begin to  think myself beyond need of Jesus’ blood.  But overlaid on the memory of my sins is another remembering.

“But when Christ had offered for all time a a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb.10:12-14)

Jesus invites me to remember Him“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Lk.22:19)  Jesus died to cover my sin.  This is enough.  That bread from heaven the Israelites ate, that was a picture of Jesus.  No wonder their despising it was an affront to God.  Jesus is the bread of life; those who eat will live.  Those who demand something more, something else, something other, may get it, but with it death.  There is life only in Jesus.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. Jn.17:3

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12

There are plenty of things that bring God delight I suppose but they all come back in one way or another to Jesus (“God Saves”). God is pleased with His Son–the perfect spotless obedient Lamb who fulfilled the Father’s purpose and will be the culmination of everything. Eph.1:9,10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me…And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Heb.10:5,10

This is why faith pleases God when it is placed in His Son. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Matt.17:5
We cannot assume God is pleased with us apart from it. “And without faith it is impossible to please God…” Heb.11:6  Any vestige of confidence that I have something to offer God in and of myself is folly.  It is only when my faith rests in His Son as my only claim to righteousness that God  looks at me with pleasure.

This is a little hard for me to swallow.  I am by birth a ‘pleaser’.  Even as a Kindergartener I was known for my quiet compliant demeanor.  This is not a virtue; I just wanted people to like me.   But God is not fooled.   He does not look and say ‘Oh, what a sweet girl’.  No matter what moral codes of conduct, rules or formulas we’ve found to live by they are not sufficient to gain favor with God.  Only faith in Christ makes us pleasing to God.  No sacrifice, effort, or moral lifestyle can take its place.  God is looking for humble hearts that will acknowledge their shortfall and take Him at His Word:
–All have sinned and fall short of my Glory.
–Sin’s wages are death.
–Believe on Jesus as your Lord and Saviour and you will live.

If you’re good enough without Him, Jesus did not come for you.

It’s simple. But it’s humbling.  And it leaves no room for self-justification or self-anything!  The children of Israel in the desert failed in this respect; they had hard unbelieving hearts.  They were stubborn, resisting God’s voice, choosing their own desires over His.  Consequently a whole generation died in the desert, never reaching the good land God had intended for them.

For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.” Ps.95:10

Even as believers, God is not so much pleased with our efforts and determinations to be good as He is with our faith in His Son. It is only through the Spirit of Christ within us that we can do anything truly good in God’s sight.  “Without Me you can do nothing”.   Again it is humble faith that pleases God and by which we are transformed to resemble Jesus in our thoughts, words and deeds.  We can’t do this life in Christ apart from Christ!

“If we are going to grow in the realization of who we are in Christ, we must come to terms with the reality that we are not yet perfect; the presence and activity of sin is still alive and well within us. The reason we must accept this fact is that we cannot look to Christ for our identity if we are still trying to find something about ourselves to prop up our self-esteem. To really grow in the wonderful reality of who we are in Christ, we must abandon any desire to find something within ourselves that makes us acceptable to God.” –Jerry Bridges

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Gal.3:2,3

But here’s the remarkable thing.  These bodies, in which the Spirit of God comes to reside can then become living offerings to God—good and pleasing sacrificesBodies that were once instruments of sin, in thought, word and deed become houses of worship.  Our lives become living sacrifices in honor of the One who designed them for His glory.

Therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual worship. Rom.12:1 HCSB

As I yield my heart to learn God’s ways, to say  YES! to Him and NO! to ways the world calls life, I am transformed into a living sacrifice with an aroma that’s pleasing to God.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom.12:2)

Pleasing aroma—the Old Testament is replete with this expression.  Every sacrifice, every bit of incense, every burnt offering gave off an aroma pleasing to God.  Jesus is the fulfillment of these offerings.  Jesus’ death on my behalf was a pleasing sacrifice.  Now I am brought near to God, reconciled to Him at great cost.  And because He lives in me by His Spirit my life now is said to have a pleasing aroma to God!

For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing,  to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? II Cor.2:15,16

It’s incredible really, but this body of mine that houses the part of me that is bent toward sin, also is God’s instrument for righteousness.  And because I am IN CHRIST He looks and is pleased.  I still fail.  I still fall. I still envy my neighbor and harbor ill will at times.  But Jesus doesn’t.  And by faith in Him I can get up, admit where I’ve fallen and know that Jesus blood was shed for this and God is pleased.  I will never outgrow this dependence on his mercy, this need for his grace and his forgiveness.  I was never meant to.


For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice,  do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness Ps.95:7-8

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,  equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. Heb.13:20-21

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Ps.51:17

But I am afflicted and in pain; let your salvation, O God, set me on high!  I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving. This will please the LORD more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs. Ps.69:29-31

But the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. Ps.147:11

May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD. Ps.104:34

Nothing in Ourselves

“God sees it best for us that we should be complete in nothing in ourselves, that in all things we must be ‘complete in Christ’, which is best for us.”

These are the words of John Owen, a 17th century Puritan who wrote with great insight about overcoming sin and temptation.* We hardly talk about such things anymore.  One could wonder why we need to, since as believers our sins have been forgiven—past, present and future.

We think little of God’s wrath anymore and the Fear of God is an outmoded topic to some.  After all, we are loved.  Perfect love casts out fear, or so the reasoning goes, (with little respect for the context of the statement).  But have we too hastily put all thought of sin behind us? Because we’ve been forgiven can we just forget the rebel nature that caused the Perfect Lamb to have to die in our stead?  Dare we do so?

Truly God’s wrath has been appeased by the blood of His Son. As believers we stand complete in Him.  We’ve been given a new identity. We are sons and daughters of the Most High God, co-heirs with Christ of all the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies.  We are no longer slaves of sin; we’ve been transferred to the Kingdom of God’s dear Son.  We are new creations in Christ; the old is gone, the new has come.

And yet, we still sin.  And sin still does damage.  And sin is not God’s design for us.  Why are we so ready to excuse it?

It is not popular to speak of sin, either  in the world (What’s sin anyway?), nor in the church (We’ve been forgiven; why harp about sin?).  Preferring to rest on the laurels of ‘grace’ we have too often relaxed our vigilance regarding sin.  The effects are rampant. Claiming to live by grace we have missed the point of grace—to enable an unholy people to walk with a holy God and learn to live in His ways.

Grace was never intended to be a permission slip for sin. (Rom.6:15)

As long as we live in these ‘bodies of death’ (Rom.7:24) the draw of sin will be present in us. Unless we are actively denying the ‘old man’ a say, we will find ourselves doing the things God hates.  Is this how we treat the One we say we love?

Granted, we as believers  have been declared righteous because of our faith in Jesus, but we are still quite capable of unrighteousness. If we suppose otherwise, we deceive only ourselves. (I John 1:8)  Any righteousness we claim is all about Jesus, not ourselves. Our righteousness remains ‘IN HIM’ on the basis of faith.  It is not ours to boast of.  We are declared righteous on the basis of what Christ has done, not what we have done.  We bring nothing to commend us to God, but our relationship to Christ.  Nothing.  Any good thing we have accomplished, any good thought, any good deed of any eternal worth is because of Christ’s Spirit working in us to bring forth life.

When we forget this we’re in danger of forgetting the glory of what God has done for us in Christ, the glory of the Gospel.  And when we forget, we are apt to slip into the very sins God hates without being much concerned about them.

We are prone to forget whose righteousness we stand in when we forget the rebel nature with which we first came to Christ.  It lives on. And we are meant to remember from whence we’ve come.  Only then will we glory in Christ’s righteousness and not slip into a lax assumption that we’re doing pretty good on our own.

On what basis do I say this?  Well, I’ve been reflecting on the things that rouse God’s wrath and the things in which He delights.  In the process I came upon Moses words to the children of Israel before his death.

He passionately warned them not to forget the stubborn nature of their hearts, not to forget their sinful bent, not to forget their track record of provoking God to wrath.

“REMEMBER and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness.” Deut.9:7

He knew that if they did they would begin to say: “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess the land” (Deut.9:4) And this would be a fast track to losing their way in the pride of their hearts.

Remembering our sinful nature seems a little unconventional in our day.  Aren’t  we encouraged to forget the past, embrace our new identity and move on?  Didn’t Paul say as much: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…’ (Phil.3:13) But given a closer look, what Paul was forgetting was all the reasons he had for thinking himself righteous apart from Christ! And in fact Moses did mean them to remember their stubborn hearts.  For he went on to elaborate specific incidents of rebellion the Israelites should keep in mind.

He reminded them of five places in which they’d provoked God to great wrath, such wrath that on more than one occasion he seems to have considered wiping them all out and starting over! (Deut. 9)

Do we take these things so seriously as God does?

#1 At Mount Horeb—Exodus 32—Idolatry

Moses was away up the mountain.  While he was getting God’s Design Specifications for the Human Race (The Ten Commandments), God’s people were busy looking for another god to follow!  Moses was gone for less than 6 weeks; so quickly they abandoned the God who had delivered them from the bondage of Egypt. God was so furious he threatened to destroy them then and there and only Moses’ intercession spared them. He knew God’s heart and begged for His forgiveness.  The Israelites seemed oblivious how close they’d come to being obliterated. They had little fear of God. He sent a plague to convey the point. Meanwhile Moses demonstrated the kind of heart God was looking for, a heart desiring to know Him more. “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” Ex.33:13  With this God was well pleased.

#2 At Taberah (‘burning’)—Numbers 11—Complaining!

The camping trip got long. The people began complaining about their misfortunes. They grew weary and despondent. Perhaps they refused, like stubborn mules to take another step.  No doubt it got a little tedious following a cloud through a trackless desert.  But God was in the cloud and in the pillar of fire.  God was leading them!  And this desert passage was part of the process of learning to submit to God’s ways for them.   To complain was to rebel against His good plan.  He sent fire that consumed the outskirts of the camp; God takes complaining seriously. Do I?

#3 At Massah—Exodus 17—Testing God

They got thirsty and quarreled with Moses.  Then, rather than simply ask for water, rather than trust that God would meet their needs, they put God to the test: Are you here or not?  If you’re here, give us something to drink!  Asking in this way is not an act of faith, but of unbelief and rebellion. It is not our prerogative to tell God what He must do to prove He is with us. (cf. Deut.6:16)

#4 At Kibroth-hattaavah (“Graves of Lust”)—Numbers 11

—Lusting for what God has not given

‘We’re sick of this manna; why did we ever leave Egypt’. They scorned the Lord’s provision and looked back at the ‘good old days’ of slavery in Egypt. They forgot the forced labor and remembered, of all things, the food!  “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Num.11:5)
This reminds me of Esau, letting his stomach forfeit him his inheritance!  No wonder Paul calls these bodies ‘bodies of death’. (Rom.7:24) The desires of these bodies will corrupt us if our hearts aren’t set on God’s abundant goodness for us in Christ!  God sent them quail, but with them a plague. (Cf.Num.33:16; Deut. 9:22)

‘You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires’ (Eph.4:22)

“…by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
II Pet.1:4

#5 Kadesh-barnea (“Holy-Desert of wandering’)—Numbers 13,14

—Disbelief and Disobedience

They’re on the doorstep of their inheritance. Their fears of suffering harm overcome their fear of disobeying God.   They balk at His command, terrified of the giants in the land.  Next thing you know, they’re ready to stone Moses and appoint another leader to take them back to Egypt! (Numb.14:4) This land is God’s gift to them.  They’re assured of victory.  They don’t believe it. They don’t obey. (Deut.9:23)

And oh the things they said in their tents that night: “Because the LORD hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us” (Deut.1:27) “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” … Numb.14:4

Despite Joshua and Caleb’s reassuring words: “If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey,” they refused to budge.  They could only think of the giants and they forgot about their giant God who had delivered them from Egypt…


Such are the five occasions Moses reminds the people of.  He does not wish them to forget their hearts are stubborn, apt to resist God and incite Him to wrath.  Meditating on these passages I am struck by how lightly I view these things that God hates.  I have reasons and excuses and I assume God’s leniency for my weakness.  But when I read of the dire consequences these sins evoked I am reminded of the tremendous gift I have been given to be able to live in fellowship with this God!  He permits me to come to Him, to confess my sins, to enjoy His kindness, all because of Jesus.  And I am ashamed at how flippant is my view of these sins and how prone I am to  claim a righteousness of my own.  And yet I am complete in Christ.  Could there be  a greater marvel? 

I had intended to round out the picture here and look at the things in which God delights.  But this is enough for one sitting, more than enough.  Thanks for considering these things with me.  May the fear of God and the grace of God strengthen us anew for the battle with sin by the power of His Spirit.


“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.  Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…on account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Col.3:4,5

“Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” Heb.12:28


* John Owen’s book, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers(1656) was reissued in 2006 as: Overcoming Sin and Temptation.  It is available online here.   I have been reading it one chapter per week and paraphrasing the key points along with my own thoughts at