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When the bombs fall

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Galatians 5:22-23

Someone recently sent me this statement: if you have the inner strength to start the day without caffeine, be cheerful and ignore aches and pains, resist complaining about your troubles, understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time, overlook the times when loved ones take things out on you, take criticism and blame without resentment, face the world without lies and deceit, and conquer tension without medication … then you are most likely the family dog.

These are hard days for us all. The normal stress of life is greater than most people or counselors remember it ever being. And of course our military response in the war on terrorism has begun. In fact, in what is far more providence than coincidence, our soldiers began the engagement just as Christians across the nation were praying in church services for them.

In these stress-filled days, we need the filling and empowering of God’s Holy Spirit. We’ve learned how to be filled with the Spirit. Now let’s see why this daily experience is so crucial. God wants you to know what his Spirit can do for every person who is yielded to him. But there’s a catch.

The life of the law

Paul wrote the letter we call Galatians to a specific group of churches he founded during his first missionary journey. It was my privilege to tour this central part of modern-day Turkey a few years ago. I’d like to take you there for a few moments, so you can see why our text is still so relevant to our lives today.

Paul and Barnabas set out from Antioch of Syria in AD 47. They sailed southwest to the island of Cyprus, then north to the seaport of Perga. Then they walked northward to Pisidian Antioch.

Here Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue, then to the Gentile community, many were saved, and “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (v. 52).

Next they traveled east to Iconium, where they preached and did “miraculous signs and wonders” (14.3). But again the legal authorities drove them out.

Now they came further east to Lystra. The crowds called them gods, then changed their minds and stoned Paul, dragged him out of the city, and left him for dead. But in one of the great acts of spiritual courage in the Scriptures, the Apostle got up, went back into the city, and kept preaching to them.

Next they went still further east to Derbe, where “they preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (v. 21). See what happens when the Spirit fills and empowers God’s people?

All was well, they thought. But Paul had no sooner returned to Antioch of Syria than he learned of a problem which would trouble him for the rest of his life and ministry.

The “Judaizers” were Jewish Christians who believed that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could come to Christ. And so they sought to impose kosher dietary laws, circumcision, Sabbath regulations, and the rest of their legalism on these new believers in Galatia.

At risk was the very nature of the Christian gospel: Are we saved by grace or works? Are we justified by what we can do, or solely by what Jesus has done? Galatians is Paul’s response—his most passionate letter, and a triumphant defense of salvation by grace alone.

Let me show you why we need this life of grace so much in hard times. We’ve learned how to be filled with the Spirit—confess your sins, yield your life to God’s will, ask the Spirit to empower you, and believe that he has. Now God wants you to understand the two reasons you need this experience every day. Two reasons to refuse legalism for grace. Especially when bombs are falling in your world and in your life.

Find help with grief

In 1962, Granger E. Westberg published a little booklet which has since become a classic. Entitled Good Grief, it gives an excellent description of the stages of grief. Here’s a brief survey—see where you are in this process.

The first response to grief is shock—this cannot truly be happening. We’re in denial. We keep waiting to wake up, to get back to September 10, to see New York City with her Twin Towers. I went to a movie last weekend which was set in New York City; the producers had to remove the towers digitally from the skyline. It was surreal. Part of us wants to deny that this has really happened to our world.

Next we begin to express emotion. Tears, trembling hands, quivering voices, words of outrage.

Sometimes we feel loneliness and depression, numbness and despair, a feeling that no one knows our pain or truly cares about our sorrow.

Some people experience physical symptoms or distress, especially if they are still denying their grief. The Buddhists have a saying: the body weeps tears the eyes refuse to shed.

Some people feel panic—no way out, drowning with grief.

Many people feel guilt—what more could I have done? How is this my fault?

Next, nearly all people are filled with anger and resentment. This is actually a healthy stage of grief, for it shows that we are dealing honestly with our suffering as it is.

Then finally hope begins to dawn. We realize that it will not always be this hard, our emotions this raw, our pain this sharp.

So we are able to affirm reality at last. We begin to live our lives as they must be. While things will never be what they were, they can be good in a new way. The World Trade Center Towers may never stand again, but their city will. And so will we.

Here’s the point: you and I cannot deal with grief and suffering alone. We weren’t meant to. The Psalmist could say: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). He could add: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows” (v. 5).

When we walk with God, our heart in his hands, our spirit with his Spirit, we can “fear no evil.” Even in the presence of enemies, our host prepares a table for us and our cup overflows with his goodness and blessing. So long as we keep our cup clean, yielded to him, close enough that he can fill it, he will. We can be “filled” with his Spirit even in the deepest grief of life.

I’ve watched Spirit-filled Christians walk through such valleys and eat with such enemies. A family who lost their little girl in the hospital, then prayed with their doctors and the parents of other sick children before they left. A woman dying of breast cancer who called Sunday school prospects from her bed until the week she died. A friend who lost his job recently and is excited about a chance to find work in an office where his witness can be greater. A student who lost his wife and four children but could tell our class, “God is still on his throne.”

When the bombs fall, you need the power of God’s Spirit. Don’t try to handle your grief and worry and fear alone. Ask his Spirit to help. He’s waiting to answer that prayer, right now.

Live the life of the Spirit

Here’s the other reason we need the daily filling of the Spirit: then we can experience his results, his “fruit” in our lives. We want to live the abundant, overflowing, empowered life of the Spirit even in the hardest times. And you can. But only when you are filled with his power.

Our Bible study literature is studying each of the fruit of the Spirit in coming weeks, in detail. Let’s overview these nine symptoms of the Spirit-filled life, very briefly.

The first three are fruit of the mind, our attitudes and temperament. “Love” means unconditional commitment. “Joy” means happiness despite circumstances. “Peace” means inner tranquility which transcends circumstances.

Ask yourself: does your love for others depend on their love for you? Are your happiness and peace affected by the stock market, your popularity at school, your health today? In the Spirit, you can be filled with unconditional, transcendent love, joy, and peace today.

The next three are fruit of our relationships with others.

“Patience” means to be gracious with people, even when they are not gracious with you. “Kindness” means to give more than you receive. “Goodness” means to find ways to help people, whether they deserve that help or not.

Does your patience, kindness, and goodness depend on receiving the same from the people in your life? Or do you look for ways to serve, to help, to be kind, even and especially when others do not? In the Spirit, you can have a servant heart no matter whether others serve you.

The last three are fruit of our personal conduct and character.

“Faithfulness” means to be consistent and trustworthy. “Gentleness” means strength under control. “Self-control” means to be godly with our passions and especially our sexual morals.

Your character is what you are when no one is looking. Are you the same person in private as in public? In thoughts as in actions? In the Spirit, your personal conduct can be godly and good.

Don’t you want your life to be characterized by these “fruit”? But fruit come only when the tree is healthy. Ask the Spirit to fill and control you life every day, and his fruit will be his reward for your obedient faithfulness.

Conclusion

In these hard times and days of grief and worry, you can choose the life of the law or the life of the Spirit. In the Spirit you can face grief and suffering, and you can experience abundant life worth living. The choice is yours.

A friend recently sent me this parable. A mountain climber, proud and self-reliant, set out on a hard climb. As night fell, he refused to make camp but continued his trek. There was no moon, and the stars were covered by the clouds.

As he was climbing a ridge about 100 meters from the top, he slipped and fell. Careening rapidly he could see only blotches of darkness as he felt the terrible sensation of gravity sucking him to the earth. He was certain he would die.

But then he felt a jolt which almost tore him in half. Like any good mountain climber, he had staked himself with a long rope tied to his waist. In those moments of stillness, in the blackness of the dark night, suspended in the air, this self-reliant, self-made man had no choice to but shout into the air, “God, please help me!”

Suddenly he heard a deep voice from heaven: “What do you want me to do?” “Save me!” said the climber. “Do you really think that I can save you?” God asked. “Yes!” the climber replied. “Then cut the rope that is holding you up,” God directed.

There was silence and stillness. The man held tighter and tighter still to his rope. The rescue team says that the next day they found a frozen mountain climber holding strongly to a rope, three feet off the ground.

Let go of your rope, and cling to the Spirit. Today.