Monday, April 29, 2013

The Problem with "What does the Bible mean to me?"

This is the third installment of a series of reflections on Joel Van Hoogen’s messages at this past year’s Rocky Mountain Bible Mission Shepherd’s Conference.  Joel spoke on removing the rubble from the wells of our salvation.  The rubble is the dispossessed doctrines of the Christian life.  The well is the refreshing life that comes from Christ.

The first type of rubble the enemy would like to see in our wells is doubt and unbelief.  We discussed this problem in a previous blog posting.  A second type of rubble that finds its way into the wells of our salvation is a distance from the authority of God’s Word.

The fact is, people approach God’s Word, the Bible, in an increasingly subjective manner.  They approach the Bible with a subjective purpose – to find out what it means for them personally.  This type of attitude appears in all kinds of shapes and forms.  Recently a gal sat in my office talking about her struggling marriage and she said to me, “I don’t believe God wants me to be unhappy.”  In other words, her temptation was to approach God’s Word with the purpose of making her feel better and perhaps giving her personal justification to walk away from her marriage.  Again, we come to the Bible with an attitude that says, “What does the Bible say to me?”

Don’t get me wrong.  The Bible has an awful lot to say to each of us personally.  But when we approach the Bible with that attitude, we become sovereign over the Scriptures.  We become the authority, not the Bible.  We decide what the Bible means.  We read the Bible only for personal application.  We craft the Word around our felt needs.  Pragmatic emotionalism trumps any sense of the rational authority of God’s holy word.  There is no sense of approaching the Bible because it is God’s revelation of Himself, His salvation and His plan and purpose for the world.

As a pastor, I feel this temptation as well.  Not necessarily to approach the Bible this way personally, but rather to pander to this idea in my messages.  Churches and ministries tend to grow large and prosperous when their leaders speak to felt needs.  That is what people want to hear.  Of course, I am not saying that proper application should be absent from messages.  Personally I work very hard at applying the passage I am preaching, first to my own life, and second to the lives of my congregation.  For me, application is probably the hardest part of the sermon process.  But proper application and a purely subjective approach to the Bible are two different things.

So how do we make sure that when we open God’s Word, we do not fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from the authority of God’s Word?  Here are some things to keep an eye on:
1.         Make sure when you read the Bible, you take your seat before the Almighty God as a listener, not a reader.  You have no authority over the text.  It is not yours to do what you want with it.  The text – and the God who stands behind the text – has the authority over you.
2.         Be careful not to read it as a personal word for yourself – rather listen to the voice of our Master.  The Bible is first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself to the world.
3.         Ask yourself – what does this passage reveal to me about God Himself?  The goal of reading the Bible is to know God better.  When we know God more deeply, we will increasingly know how to live for Him.
4.         Do not neglect the doctrine of illumination.  God’s Holy Spirit is willing and able to illuminate the Scripture to us.  We should believe that He is able to use the Word to speak to our hearts.  We should both study with our intellects and trust the ability of the Spirit to illuminate meaning. 
5.         Approach God and His Word with a hungry heart.  Listen to wise words from Proverbs:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Prov. 2:1-5, ESV)

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Rubble of Doubt and Unbelief

This is a continuation of some thoughts springing from the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission’s Shepherd’s Conference, held April 16-18 in Missoula.  Speaker Joel Van Hoogen spoke on Removing the Rubble from the Wells of our Salvation, based on Genesis 26:12-18.

After challenging us to pursue a deeper life in Christ, Joel went on to explode some of the rubble that the enemy would love to use to fill the wells of our salvation. 

The first type of rubble he discussed was doubt or unbelief.  This is a failure to reckon on an all-powerful, active God.  When we are caught in this kind of thinking, God becomes an intellectual or even a sentimental notion to us.  He becomes an abstraction, rather than a personal God. 

What we are missing here is the idea that God is active in our world and that we live every day for His glory and under His gaze.  In the midst of doubt or unbelief, we miss that He is personal in our lives.  That He is able to act beyond what we can fathom with our human minds.  That He is sovereign in His purpose and plan for our lives and our world.  We become like the audience of the book of Hebrews who were warned against an evil, unbelieving heart that can lead a person away from the living God. (Heb. 3:12)

So, how do we know when the rubble of doubt or unbelief is starting to fill the wells of our salvation?  First, it will show up in your prayer life.  Your prayer will be rote and unfeeling.  It will be a recitation or an obligation.  It will be casual and ordinary.  It won’t be an entrance into the very throne room of God.  It won’t be filled with awe and reverence.  It won’t be overwhelmed with the glory of God or by the fact that we have the privilege to enter into the very presence of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.

Second, this rubble will show up in our private life.  Are you concerned if someone knows about your private life?  Is there anything you would like to hide from them?  Are we concerned with the opinion of others?  Are we more concerned about the opinion of others than we are of the opinion of God?  Are we unconcerned about a lack of holiness before God in our life?  Have we become like the elders of Israel, sinning in the dark, in private, thinking that God does not see their sin or that God is unconcerned about their sin? (Ezek. 8:12)

And third, the rubble of doubt will show up in our expectations in life.  It will show up in the solutions we offer to our problems. It will show up in how and where we direct others who come to us for counsel and advice.  You see, when the rubble of doubt and unbelief is starting to pile up in our well, we no longer really believe God is a life-changing God.  We no longer really believe God can transform us or those around us.  We would rather trust “tips” for a better marriage or “lessons” in integrity than the life-altering, soul-transforming power of God.  In essence we have given up on God and His ability to change – both ourselves and others.

Can you relate to any of this?  If so, there is hope and it is found in the truths of our salvation.  In 2 Peter 1:3-4, the apostle tells us that:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 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.

God is active in our lives.  As a result of our new life in Christ, we have been granted all things for life and godliness.  Because we are a new creation, imparted with a new life in Jesus, we partake of the divine nature.  We are not gods, but we do have the life of God in us through Jesus.  As a result, we have escaped the corruption of the world.  We recognize sin still clings, but our real identity in found in our new life in Christ.  It is a life that can and will empower our prayers, bring holiness to our lives and change the way we see God’s work in our lives and the lives of others.

It is time to remove the rubble of doubt and unbelief from our lives through repentance, allowing the refreshing life of Christ to bubble up in everything we do.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Are we Desperate for the Life of Christ?

This past week, I had the privilege of attending the RockyMountain Bible Mission’s Shepherd’s Conference.  The main speaker was Joel Van Hoogen, founder of Church PartnershipEvangelism.  He spoke on removing the rubble from the wells of our salvation, a sermon series based on Genesis 26:12-18.  The following is the first in what is hopefully a series of blog posts exploring some of the ideas Joel presented.

The story in Genesis 26 involves Isaac.  God had blessed him and he had become rich and powerful.  As a result, the neighboring Philistines feared him and demanded that he leave their territory.  Isaac left and returned back to a land his father Abraham had once resided in.  Abraham had dug wells in that land, but those wells had been filled in by the Philistines.  When Isaac came to those wells, he needed water for his family and flocks, so he removed the rubble from those wells, using them again like his father Abraham had.

Our speaker drew a parallel between the wells of Abraham and the Christian life.  Isaac needed the water in those wells.  Today, those wells could stand for the life of Christ in us.  We need the refreshing flow of the life of Christ in us.  But just as Abraham’s enemies filled those wells with rubble, so it is in our lives.  The enemy wants to fill our lives with rubble as well, attempting to slow or stop completely the flow of life-giving water from them.

The word picture resonated with me.  Whether it be myself, or the people I minister with and to, all too often we are satisfied with the trickles of grace rather than reaching deep into the river of Christ’s life in us.  We miss out on the vitality it brings to our life.  Perhaps we had it when we first experienced conversion.  Perhaps we remember it from the time we recommitted our life to Christ.  But now, on a day to day basis, that kind of vitality, that kind of joy, that kind of refreshment from Christ does not seem to be there.  As a result, many Christians are living beneath their calling.  They live in a place that is below the riches available to them in Jesus.

The question Joel asked us is this – do we have a desperate need for this kind of life?  Do each of us desperately crave this kind of daily refreshment?

If so, we need to call ourselves and our fellow believers to this kind of vital life in Christ.  We need to understand that this is normal and necessary to living a victorious Christian life.  We also should not hesitate to preach holiness, a holiness that is not a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that only brings guilt, but a deep desire to live for Christ that wells out of the fact that we are a new creation in Christ.  We should not be afraid of spiritual dissatisfaction, either in ourselves or others in our church family.  I admit that I have not always known how to care for that person who is spiritual dissatisfied.  But now, having experienced some of that same dissatisfaction in my life, I recognize that can be profound evidence of Christ calling us to a deeper life in him.  After all, a healthy child of God is going to want more of God.  And finally, we cannot give the impression that the expressions of the Christian life – prayer, church, devotions – take the place of the experience of the Christian life, which is abundant life in Jesus Christ.  Those expressions are good things, but they can, if we are not careful, actually lead us to trust them as means of grace rather than the life of Christ in us.

Are we desperate for more of Jesus?  Are we desperate to see the refreshing life of Christ well up in everything we do?

I want to thank Joel Van Hoogen for his thoughtful, prayerful, Spirit-led messages.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on removing the rubble from the wells of our salvation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book Review: God is not Fair, He is More than Fair by Lee E. Pollock

In the spirit of full disclosure, while I do not know Lee Pollock, I was given this book by Lee’s friend and editor Joy Kear.  Joy and her husband Chuck serve faithfully and well as associate pastor couple at Lolo Community Church.

God is Not Fair, He is More than Fair is not the type of book I usually read.  Please don’t take that as a negative statement.  My “too read” pile is stacked with theology, history, biography and church ministry books.  So a book that is a collection of stories does not often find its way into my reading queue.  But I am glad it did.

The book is self-published through Xulon Press.  At times the writing suffers some, being disjointed or uneven at times.  That aside, there is a wonderful, encouraging message in this book that enables us to look beyond some shortcomings in writing style to see the amazing way God works in our lives.

Lee Pollock ran a hardware store in Hysham, MT, pastored in the Wesleyan Church and is presently retired in Oklahoma.  Over the years, he has collected a variety of stories of how God demonstrated the fact that He is not fair, but rather more than fair.  Many of these 19 stories happen in Montana, with some taking place in the Dakotas or Oklahoma.  In each story, Lee seeks to demonstrate the truth that while from a human perspective, it would seem that God was not fair, when we open our eyes to God’s perspective and take account of His grace, mercy and provision, we recognize that He is more than fair.

At first glance, the stories vary greatly.  Some are about people experiencing personal or family tragedy.  Others are about people going through trials with their health.  Some are set in a ministry or missions context.  For someone like me, who is a missionary with the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission (RMBM), it was encouraging to read again the story of the Miller family who formally served at RMBM's Camp Elohim.

In story after story, God’s grace, His power and His provision are on display.  Some of these stories will stretch your view of God, especially if we are tempted to put God in a box and define what God can or cannot do in our world.  Not all the stories have a happy ending, but all of them are demonstrations of the goodness of God.

Lee does a good job carrying his theme – that God is more than fair – throughout the book.  There were a few chapters where I felt that theme was a bit hard to see, but those were rare.  For me, the theme that resonated the most powerfully was the idea that faith builds faith.  That is the value of a collection of stories like this.  They are stories about ordinary people through whom or in whom God did extraordinary things.  These people are not perfect saints – they have struggles, they have doubts, trusting may come hard to some of them – but God is faithful and He responds to the fact that they have sought Him. And stories like that are an encouragement to me.  They build my faith.  They are a reminder that God is always at work, and even when He allows difficult times in our life, He is there to carry us through those difficult times if we allow Him.  So next time you wonder if God is being fair to you, seek His face, trust His Word, cling to His promises.  And as this collection of stories shows, when we do that, we will see that God is not fair, but rather He is more than fair in our lives.