Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Review - 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness

I love to read about people in the past.  I like big, detailed books, like 500 page biographies that leave no question about the subject unanswered.  I also quickly recognize that a great number of people look at a book like that with horror.  They could not fathom having the time, energy or interest in plumbing the depths of a tome like that. 

Yet there is often much to learn from a well-written biography, especially a biography of a fellow Christian.  While we are obviously called to spend our lives following Christ and not other believers, learning how other believers put their faith into action can be incredibly encouraging to our own faith.  After all, it is what the apostle Paul taught when he wrote, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  (1 Cor. 11:1)

With that in mind, let me introduce you to Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness.  Metaxas is well-known for his excellent biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as his contribution to the Breakpoint radio commentaries.  In this book, Metaxas provides 7 short (about 30 pages each) biographies of seven men who, in living out their faith, became men to admire in unique ways.

The seven men highlighted in the book may by surprising.   Some of the men come from recognized evangelical faith traditions.  William Wilberforce was a force behind stopping the slave trade and reforming manners in England.  Eric Liddell, made famous by the film Chariots of Fire, was a world-renowned athlete and a committed missionary.  Charles Colson, the former Nixon White House “hatchet man” came to Christ and founded Prison Fellowship.

Others come from a faith tradition outside of what is commonly understood as evangelicalism.  George Washington, America’s first president, lived out his belief in a quiet, faithful way that demonstrated what leadership should be like.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran, faithfully resisted the scourge of Nazism and ultimately lost his life for being implicated in an attempt to end Hitler’s evil power.  Pope John Paul II, head of the Roman Catholic Church, displayed his greatness on a world stage and changed people’s perception of the world’s largest church tradition.

Perhaps the most surprising man in the book is Jackie Robinson, the first African-American man to play baseball in the major leagues.  Metaxas tells a story that is significantly different than the one laid out in the popular movie 42.  In the movie, Jackie Robinson displays incredible endurance and grace in the face of racial hatred.  Metaxas provides a broader picture, also displaying Robinson’s endurance and grace, but grounding those characteristics in the Christian faith he had trusted since his childhood.

All and all, 7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness is well worth a read.  In these days when our society glorifies celebrities that are not on any way worthy of emulation, 7 Men is a valuable reminder that there still are admirable men out there.  True heroism and greatness is on display in each of the lives portrayed in this book.  And where does that heroism and greatness come from?  It flows from the faith of these men and the transforming work of Christ in their lives.  7 Men is a wonderful reminder to all who read it of the power of God to make sinful, flawed human beings truly great.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dear Angelina Jolie

Dear Angelina Jolie,

Let me say right at the beginning that I appreciate your talents as an actress and a film director.  And I want to thank you for putting the amazing story of Louis Zamperini to film.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have heard snippets of the Louis Zamperini story.  Track star.  World War 2 veteran.  POW.  But it was not until Laura Hillenbrand’s wonderful book Unbroken came out that I got the whole story of Louis’ life.  It truly is an amazing story – one worth telling in many ways and forms.

When I heard that Louis’ story was going to be released in movie form, I was excited.  I don’t go to many movies, but this was one that I was planning to pay to see in the theater.  I remember telling my wife that just a week or two ago.

Since then I have read some reviews from advance screenings and have changed my mind about seeing the movie in the theater.  Although the reviews I read praised the movie, the acting and the story-telling, they also make it clear that you and the writers chose to only tell part of Louis’ story.  Once again, Hollywood seems to have an aversion to really telling the story of someone with genuine, transformative Christian faith.

In fact, I even would say that choosing “Unbroken” as the title of your film was disingenuous.  Yes, Louis did persevere in many areas of his life.  He endured in his life as a track star.  He endured in the military.  He endured weeks marooned at sea.  He endured years as a POW in a Japanese prison camp, undergoing all manner of abuse.  By all outward appearances, Louis Zamperini was unbroken by all those experiences.  And that is the story you tell – Louis returning home to be reunited with his family.  It is a wonderful story of the triumph of the human will in the face of cruelty and evil.

While Louis returned home appearing to be unbroken, that was a lie.  As the next few years of Louis’s life proved, he was broken.  He endured all those traumatic and terrible things during the war, only for his brokenness to be made apparent on his return.  He suffered terrible nightmares – when he closed his eyes, his prison guards were waiting for him in his dreams.  Running, which once gave him joy, was now joyless.  He started drinking heavily.  He raged at his wife.  He exhibited all the symptoms of what we understand now as P.T.S.D., which can break a person from the inside out.

One day, all of that began to change for Louis.  It was not because of greatness of his will overcame his inner demons.  It was not because a wise counselor set him free from his struggles.  No, change came to Louis’ life in the person of Jesus Christ.  The brokenness the world around him could not heal was healed, day by day, bit by bit, by the transforming work of Jesus Christ in Louis.  That is the real story of unbrokenness – that Someone could take a human being who is truly broken from the inside and rebuild him, heal him and put his unbrokenness on display for a whole nation to see.  The real story is that a man could be healed to such an extent that he could return to Japan and express his forgiveness to the guard who beat and abused him.  That is a story of hope, a story of real change, a story of the complete transformation of a life.  It is a story that is increasingly needed in our dark days of terrorism, economic troubles and racial tension.  We need that kind of hope.  We need that kind of change.  We need the kind of power to forgive.  That is the story I wish you would have told.  Unfortunately for me, there is too much in Unbroken that is left unspoken, much to my personal disappointment.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Why Do We Sin?

I think we can all relate to the power of sin.  We can relate to the struggle against sinful habits.  We have experienced the discouragement and frustration that comes when we fall into temptation and sin. Perhaps that sin has become so habitual, so ingrained, that we don’t even see it as a sin anymore.  Maybe we excuse ourselves away with statement like these: “I just don’t suffer fools.”  “I have a temper, that’s who I am.”  “I always speak my mind.”  And in stating these self-identifications, we do not recognize the carnage that sin is causing in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Situations like that are difficult ones.  Persistent sin is discouraging and it is damaging.  We know we should not live like this.  And yet telling ourselves to do better, to do things differently, to do more things like praying and reading the Bible, is often not sufficient. When we come face to face with sin, the question we want to ask is this:  what will it take to bring true change at the core of our being?   What will it take to bring heart change?  You see, that is the kind of change that is necessary – not just new habits or new actions, but a transformation that happens at the center of who we are.

In looking for that transformation, perhaps we should ask ourselves another question:  why do we sin?  There are many potential answers to that question.  We can defend ourselves and justify ourselves with our answers.  But the question really only has one true answer.  Why do we sin?  Because we love the sin more than the Savior.  The sin is greater in our affections than Jesus is.  We prefer the self-righteous adrenaline of anger over a spirit of forgiveness.  We prefer to think of ourselves than consider others ahead of ourselves.  We love the satisfaction we get when we put someone else in their place more than the joy that is found in being gracious to others.  Our sin is the result of what our hearts love most, and practically speaking it is often not the One who died for us.

Bryan Chapell, former President of Covenant Theological Seminary, shares some thoughts on this in his book Holiness by Grace:  Delighting in the Joy that is our Strength.  He notes that often the apostle Paul, as he is writing to churches and praying for churches, began with “knowing” rather than “doing.”  He began by expressing to the churches what they knew before he shared about what they should do.  He began by unpacking salvation and the wondrous gift found in Jesus Christ before he moved on to telling the church how to live in light of that gift.

All too often we are guilty of reversing that order.  We put a lot of emphasis on doing over knowing.  Doing can be a good thing, but truthfully, we cannot really do until we know.  There is no real foundation to our action if we do not know first what Jesus has done for us. 

If you are like me, your typical response to sin in your life goes something like this:  I sin.  I feel convicted.  I confess that sin to the Lord.  And then I pledge to try harder, to do more, to be more committed, etc.  What would happen if we changed that response?  What would happen if, after we confessed that sin to the Lord, instead of doing, we concentrated on knowing?  What would happen if we focused our efforts on preaching the gospel to our hearts rather than trying to do better?  What would happen if we targeted our affections rather than our habits? 

The most powerful spiritual weapon a believer has in his arsenal is the truth of the gospel of Christ, the mercy of God as revealed in Jesus.  What place do the truths of the gospel have in our hearts?  In light of the gospel, what do we know about God and about us?  Let’s be faithful in preaching the gospel to our own hearts.  Meditate on God’s eternal love for you.  On Christ’s humble birth.  On his perfect, sinless life.  On his selfless, substitutionary sacrifice.  On his victorious resurrection.  On his present and coming glory.  Meditate on the blessings found in the gospel.  Redemption and forgiveness.  Reconciliation and adoption.  Righteousness both now and for eternity.  The gospel is the message that transforms our hearts.  The truth of God’s love displayed in Jesus Christ is the only thing that can truly change our affections.  If we want to have victory over sin, it starts with loving Jesus more that we love our sin.  And that can only come when we invite the truths of the gospel to invade and transform our hearts.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How the Holy Spirit Glorifies Jesus, and Changes Us

When we think of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, we think of many things.  And rightly so – the Holy Spirit has a many varied ministry in the life of a Christian.  The Spirit gifts and equips for ministry in the church.  He guides us into truth.  He convicts us of sin.  He illuminates the Word of God, shining God’s truth into our hearts.  The list goes on and on. 

But the primary ministry of the Holy Spirit is not actually on that list.  The primary ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Jesus Christ. (John 16:14)  At first glance, that ministry seems all spiritual and transcendent, far separated from our own reality on earth.  In reality that is not true.  In his book, Delighting in the Trinity, author Michael Reeves shares some thoughts on how the Spirit’s ministry of bringing glory to Christ can change the way we live our lives.

The Trinity is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.  It is a doctrine the Bible clearly teaches, yet it is one that is hard for us to wrap our brains around.  One some level we have to accept by faith that one God exists eternally in three distinct but perfectly unified Persons.  In that Trinity relationship, God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit exist in perfect fellowship.  There is no strife, no disagreement, no conflict, just perfect, unifying love.  God is a God of relationship.  As a result, when God created the world, He created it as an expression of his love and goodness and to draw His creation into a love relationship with Him.  God did not need relationship with us – after all, He already was in the perfect relationship – He chose to offer us relationship with Him.

So where does the ministry of the Holy Spirit come in?  When we enter into relationship with God, through faith in Jesus Christ, we receive the Spirit of God.  Life in the Spirit is begun in us.  This life is God’s own life, resurrection life, a life of fellowship with the Father and the Son, given to us in the Spirit.  As a result, the Spirit seeks to open our eyes regarding this Jesus we are in fellowship with.  (John 15:26) He sees to help us see the glory of Christ.

We struggle with seeing the glory of Christ, because we tend to worship other things.  We worship ourselves - our talents, our abilities, our experience, our reputation.  We worship stuff – material possessions, bank accounts, hobbies.  We even worship people – our spouses, our kids, celebrities. 

The problem with all this is what we become like what we worship.  Worshipping ourselves makes us completely self-absorbed and conceited.  Worshipping stuff makes us materialistic and earthly-minded.  Worshipping others makes them the true gods in our life.

When the Spirit comes into our life, His goal is to cultivate in us a deepening vision of Christ.  That means taking my eyes of myself and my false gods and putting them on Jesus.  After all, my stuff is not going to die for me.  My human idols cannot not forgive me or give me lasting peace.  In all my conceit and pride, I cannot save myself.  I need Someone Other.  Someone beyond me and above me.  Someone beautiful and perfect and powerful and able.  I need Jesus.  The wonderful ministry of the Spirit in glorifying Jesus seeks to persistently and faithfully guide me and convict me and teach me that true satisfaction, true peace, true hope is found only in one place – in the One who died for me.  He and only He is my life, and the Spirit is committed to helping me understand that each and every day.

Realizing this, says Charles Spurgeon, is the secret to Christian happiness.  He writes: 

“It is ever the Holy Spirit’s work to turn our eyes away from self to Jesus; but Satan’s work is just the opposite of this, for he is constantly trying to make us regard ourselves instead of Christ…  We shall never find happiness by looking at our prayers, our doings, or our feelings; it is what Jesus is, not what we are, that gives rest to the soul.  If we would at once overcome Satan and have peace with God, it must be by “looking unto Jesus.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Peace in Conflict, conclusion

Drawing our discussion on Colossians 3, peace and conflict to a close, we want to discuss the last few verses in this section of the chapter.  We have seen that our earthly cravings fuel our conflicts.  Our negative heart responses of anger and malice add fuel to the fire.  But this kind of thing is not what we have been saved for.  These are elements of our old self; that which we are to put to death.  Christ has saved us and given us a new self.  The characteristics of the new self are things like compassion, kindness and patience.  The new self chooses to bear with one another and pursues forgiveness when offenses happen.

What else does Paul say about peace and conflict in this chapter?  First in verse 14, we discover the centrality of love.  “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  (Col. 3:14, ESV)  What ultimately preserves peace in the midst of conflict is love.  Love stands behind our ability to put to death the things that drive conflict.  Love empowers our ability to resist sinful actions and words, tear down walls of separation, bear with one another and forgiven one another.  Love empowers us to wait for the other person without judgment.  Love empowers us to walk out forgiveness when we have sinned or been sinned against.  Love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Pet. 4:8)  Love is the crowning grace of the Christian.  As God’s love invades our hearts and transforms our lives, it will become more and more evident in our actions and words.

Paul continues in Colossians 3:15-17: 
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called on one body.  And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  (ESV) 
Is all is just wishful thinking?  Can things like this be reality in our lives and our churches?  Life is a complicated mess.  My life does not look like this, and I suspect yours does not either.  But this is a picture of the transformation Christ is achieving in us.  Christ’s peace can indeed rule in our hearts.  Christ can give us a thankful heart.  This happens when the word of Christ dwells in us richly, penetrating every part of our life.  The deeper the gospel penetrates our hearts, the more the blessings like redemption and reconciliation and grace and the forgiveness of Christ become a reality in our life, the more the peace of Christ will govern and the more that everything we do, in name and deed, be done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks to Andy Farmer for guiding my thoughts and ruminations on this topic.  His words and thoughts are often much more powerful than mine.  I encourage you to pick up a copy of his book, Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It (Crossway Publishers) for a gracious, pastoral and most importantly, biblical approach to this wonderful blessing of peace.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 7

As we continue our extended discussion of peace and relational conflict based on Andy Farmer’s book Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It, we have seen that for many offenses against us, our course is to bear with one another, choosing to overlook those things as an exercise of grace and mercy.  That grace and mercy comes from our renewed heart and is patterned on the grace and mercy God Himself has shown us in Christ.

But what about the offenses that we should not overlook?  What about those times when we are sinned against that are too painful, too damaging to be able to bear with one another?  How do we pursue peace in the face of such actions?  Paul has additional words for us in Colossians 3:13.  Together with bearing with one another comes forgiveness.  As Paul notes, “…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  (Col. 3:13b, ESV)

What is forgiveness?  A better start might be speaking of what forgiveness is not.  It is not simply saying “I’m sorry.”  It is not responding with, “That’s ok,” when it is really not.  It is not appeasement.  It is not personal vindication.  It has no winners or losers.  None of these things or anything related to them is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a holy privilege for Christians.  We who have been forgiven in Christ have the privilege of offering forgiveness to and receiving forgiveness from one another.  If you have sinned against someone, you need forgiveness from God and from them.  If we have been sinned against, we are obligated to forgive those who sin against us.

Forgiveness is tough.  In forgiveness we choose to cover the offense of another’s sin.  In forgiveness, we permanently release any debt owed, never to bring it up again.  Forgiveness has a cost.  It is painful.  It involves bearing the emotional cost of someone’s sins against us, fore-going revenge or the ability to harbor a grudge.  Forgiveness is lettering the offender go free.  Forgiveness means dying to being right, even in the face of another’s confession of sin.

When we pursue forgiveness from someone else, there are four things we need to prepare to say:
            I was wrong.
            Do you see anything that I might not be seeing?
            How did this affect you?
            Will you please forgive me?

In closing, let me quote Andy Farmer as he quotes Christian philosopher Cornelius Plantinga speaking about forgiveness: 

Forgiveness is a journey with a definitive start, not a closure experience.   To forgive, we will have to do some dying.  We will have to pray our anger into the heart of God.  Forgiveness is about setting certain memories out of our reach.  Instead we deliberately bring to mind that which will soften our hearts toward the other.  We will focus on the value of lasting relationship.  Forgiveness is a form of grace that flourishes for all parties.  Forgiveness does not mean setting the clock back on the relationship (as if nothing happened).  It is a turning away from destruction to a new future.” (Real Peace, pg. 139)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review - The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins

When we think of World War 1, we think of trenches, mud, poison gas and brutal, senseless slaughter.  We think of nations thrown into war for what seems to us, looking back 100 years, like some pretty petty reasons.  We think of millions killed and livelihoods destroyed for a few hundred yards of ground.  All those things are evocative of World War 1.  But what we don’t think about is the spiritual and religious aspect of the war.  We don’t realize that the combatant nations involved in the war considered it a crusade against evil.  We don’t realize that the Great War was seen at the time as a Holy War against evil.

Philip Jenkins, professor of history at Baylor University, sets out to help us think differently about World War 1.  In his book, The Great and Holy War:  How World War 1 became a Religious Crusade, Jenkins explains the powerful effects the Great War had on the world, especially from a religious standpoint.  As Jenkins notes, “Without appreciating its religious and spiritual aspects, we cannot understand World War 1.” (pg. 28)  His argument is that the reality we live in today, especially when it comes to religious faith, was created by World War 1.

In the first half of the book, Jenkins argues that World War 1 was a religious war in a sense that most people never realize.  Every European nation involved considered itself a Christian nation.  Nations on both sides trotted out churches, preachers and theologians to make the case that the war was a crusade for God and that death in this war was akin to martyrdom.  Jenkins has page after page of evidence pointing to the religious nature of the conflict.  He discusses popular novels and films and how they reflected the war’s spiritual nature.  Spiritual visions and apocalyptic scenarios played important roles on each side of the conflict.  In fact, the wealth of information he provides is almost overwhelming at times.

The second half of The Great and Holy War looks at the world after the treaty of Versailles was signed.  How was the world, and specifically the religious world, affected by the war?  How did it respond?  For Jenkins, World War 1 destroyed one religious world and created another, the world we live in today.  For some, the war and its religious overtones turned them off completely.  The aftermath of the war brought about the rise of profoundly secular thinking.  Christianity in Europe was thrown into decline and into an identity crisis it has not recovered from.  On the other hand, other aspects of faith grew.  Judaism’s vision of a return to Zion, the Promised Land, gained a great deal of traction in the aftermath of the war.  Christianity spread powerfully in Africa in the years after the war.  Pentecostal and apocalyptic forms of Christianity grew rapidly.  In the Muslim world, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had great consequences.  One of the oldest Christian civilizations in the world – the Armenians – were destroyed, in part by the Ottomans, in part by the nation of Turkey that rose in its stead.  The Muslim Caliphate, Islam’s spiritual head, came to an end, causing the world of Islam to search for a new leader and a new vision of their faith.

You might be reading this and thinking – that is kind of interesting, but so what?  This is where Jenkins’ arguments are most fascinating.  The state of Christianity in Europe today, the rise of secular thinking, the existence of the nation of Israel, and even the radical Islam embodied in ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the nation of Iran all have their roots in the chaos and betrayal that followed World War 1.  As Jenkins very ably argues, World War 1 did indeed change the world in ways that still affect us today.  We live in a new reality because of the events of World War 1.  And unfortunately, apart from a few exceptions, most of those changes are profoundly negative and dangerous to our world as we know it.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 6

God, in his grace, is committed to cultivating attitudes in us that will help us extinguish rather than fan into flame conflict in our lives.  These gifts of grace, as displayed in our lives in increasing measure, will restore the peace, the well-being, the wholeness that God wishes to see in the lives of those who belong to Him.

But what about that situation where an offense has been committed against me?  How do I respond when someone slanders me?  What do I do in the face of injustice?  What do I do when I work, (or live with) that person who persistently seeks to tear me down?  We have all experienced those kinds of situations – how can we restore peace when peace has already been broken in our lives?

Typically there are two general responses to conflict.  Either we fight – return insult for insult, slander for slander, and malicious action for malicious action – or we flee, seeking to shut ourselves physically or emotionally away from the person that hurt us.

But in Colossians 3:12, the apostle Paul has another response to conflict.  He says the redeemed people of God are to act in a unique way, “bearing with one another…”  To bear with means to absorb the hurtful words or negative actions and not retaliate in kind.  It means choosing to mercifully pass over the sin done to us, not allowing it to escalate conflict in our lives.

Bearing with one another does not mean being a doormat.  It does not mean creating walls of separation in our lives to keep hurtful people away.  It is taking the mercy of God that we have received and applying it to the situation.  In his book, Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It, Andy Farmer suggests we turn to Psalm 103 to remind us of God’s mercy.  While I don’t have room for quote the whole Psalm, I think just verses 1-5 will get us thinking: 
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases who redeems your life from the pits, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Ps. 103:1-5, ESV)
The Psalm goes on from there, but I think you get the picture.  The mercy of God has been applied to ever so many places in our life.  In light of that, God calls us to take the mercy He has lavished on us and to apply it to the difficult people and petty conflicts in our life.

Ideally this bearing with is mutual in the body of Christ.  Paul tells us to bear with one another.  The hope, of course, is that as we bear with someone, they in turn with us as well.  As we overlook someone’s hurtful words, they in turn might overlook our rude actions.  As Proverbs 19:11 reminds us, it is glory to overlook an offense.  But remember, bearing with is not a product of some superior maturity or wisdom, it is a heartfelt response to the mercy God has poured out into our lives in Christ Jesus.

Think of the many conflicts in our lives that could have been avoided if we had only been willing to bear with the other person or if someone else had been willing to bear with us.  Bearing with someone else means you don’t have to have that last cutting word, that final accusation, or that superior opinion that fuel conflict instead of extinguishing it.  Instead, it means offering others the mercy that God offers us each and every day.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 5

Selfish, earthly cravings are the things that spark conflict.  They are like fuel poured on a fire.  These cravings, and the attitudes that come from them, can do tremendous harm in our lives and the lives of others.  As we have seen, these cravings were part of our old life, and while they do not have the power they once had, they still exert far too much influence in our lives and relationships.  As Colossians 3 reminds us, these are things in our life we must put off.  But what is there to replace them?

As we continue our discussion about relational peace and the conflict we all experience in relationships at times, we come to Colossians 3:12.  It says: 
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…  (ESV)
In this verse, Paul lists a number of things that, rather than throw fuel on the fire of conflict, actually work to suppress the conflict.  As we recognize that there are things belonging to our old life that we must put off, we also must recognize that there are characteristics that are part of our new life in Christ that God wants to cultivate in us.
Andy Farmer, in his book Real Peace: What we Long For and Where to Get It, does a wonderful job defining these characteristics for us.  Listen to what he has to say: 
“Compassion is the disposition of a heart toward mercy.  Mercy causes us to look for some way to extend grave to a person who might do something that could tempt us into conflict. Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit that will not respond to evil with evil, but will look to do good in whatever situation we encounter. Humility is a profound awareness of our own weakness and unworthiness before God that makes it difficult for us to exert our demands or personal sense of “rightness” on others. Meekness is a gentleness that is careful in all circumstances to not affect others in a negative way, or tempt them in their weaknesses. Patience is the capacity to absorb the wrongs of others against us without retaliation.” (Andy Farmer, Real Peace, pg. 135-6) 
Each of these things are characteristics of God.  They are gifts of grace.  They are reflections of the new self, the transforming work of God in us.  God desires to cultivate these characteristics in us.  He is remaking us into the image of his Son.  And He desires to see us overflow in the very things that suppress conflict, rather than the kind of things that enhance it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 4

Continuing our discussion of peace, conflict and Colossians 3 from Andy Farmer’s wonderful book Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It, we come to Colossians 3:10-11.  We have been challenged to seek the things above, the things as they ought to be, the things that come out of our reconciled relationship with Jesus Christ.  We have seen that there is much in our life which must be put to death and many ways those selfish, earthly cravings manifest themselves in our words, attitudes and actions. Each of those things contributes to peace-breaking rather than peace-making.  And now, in Colossians 3:10-11 we come to a transition in the chapter.  Colossians 3:10-11 read, starting mid-sentence:

…and have put on the new self with its practices, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  Here there is not Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)

In verses 5 and 9, Paul declared that we are to put to death and put off what belongs to the old life.  But life in Christ is not merely a matter of putting off so that there is some kind of strange vacuum in our lives.  The old self is dead, but Christ has given us a new self.  The old self must be put off, to be replaced by a transformed new self.

You see, believers have the grace and peace of God at work in our hearts.  The presence of God is at work against the earthly cravings of our hearts and against all the ways those cravings manifest themselves in our lives.  We are being transformed from the inside out.  As we grow and progress in our Christians lives, we should see less of those earthly cravings and more of Jesus.

And so, this is not about new behaviors or trying harder or making new habits.  This is not about watching our words a little more closely or refocusing our desires to be more honoring to God.  This is about submitting to the transforming power of God that is present in your life.  This means that a believer who struggles with anger, by the grace of God, can choose, in the power of God, not to angry.  God is transforming us.  He is changing us.  He is renewing our hearts into the image of our Creator.

As a result, as verse 11 reminds us, God has made a new people.  Our unity in Christ is so much greater than the things that divide us.  We hold so many more things in common than the things that separate us.  Paul lays bare many of the typical relational fault lines in the ancient world.  Jews and Greeks did not associate, but are now one in Christ.  The circumcised and uncircumcised were spiritual opposites, now brought together in Christ.  Barbarians, and even Scythian, the worst of the worst from the edges of civilization, slaves and free people – all are one in Christ.
We live in a different world than Paul’s, but we still have divisions.  We still gravitate to the people like us and it is easy to be in conflict with those who differ.  Conflict is so easy - me against you, us against them, whether we are Jews or Greeks, white or black, Calvinist or Arminian, public schoolers or homeschoolers, or any of the other things that divide us.  The point Paul is making is that God has created a new people in Christ, a people who are united by the most powerful, transformative Being in the universe, the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is what the gospel of Jesus Christ does – it creates a new community that would have never been formed without it.

So what does that say to those petty conflicts we have with those other believers who have slightly different views, those believers who do things in a different way, or have opposing political views than we do?  Remember Christ is all and in all.  Only in Christ is there true peace.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 3

As we continue our discussion about peace and conflict based on Andy Farmer’s book Real Peace:  What we Long for and Where to Find It, we come to Colossians 3:8-9.  We have seen that we need to seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated.  We have seen the importance of putting to death our earthly cravings, those things we pursue that fall far short of real peace. We recognize that peace is broken by our desires which war against our souls.

Our natural response to this kind of thing is this:  if our cravings are the problem, maybe we should just bottle them up and or keep them to ourselves.  The problem with this is that our commitments to do just that don’t last very long.  Our human ability to bottle these things up is extremely limited.  All too often, our earthly cravings escape as actions which cause conflict.

Colossians 3:8-9 says,
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander and obscene talk from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices… (ESV)
If you thought long and hard, I don’t know that you could come up with a better All-Star team of peace breaking actions than the ones listed in Colossians 3:8-9.  Think about the conflicts you become involved in and how these 6 things inject themselves into almost every one of them. 

When we display anger, we are looking for a fight.  An angry person is easily frustrated and always ready to respond with harsh words or revengeful actions.  Related to anger is wrath.  Human wrath is a hurtful, explosive outburst meant to wound.  How many conflicts begin or are kicked into a high gear by these things?

Next on Paul’s list is malice.  To hold malice against someone else is to harbor the wrongs done to us.  Malice quickly morphs into hatred and bitterness, poisoning our souls toward that other person.  Malice has the ability to sustain a conflict.  That insensitive word at work or that selfish action by your spouse can become, if we are not careful, something we dwell on and use as a weapon, sometimes days or weeks or months later.

Slander also escalates conflict.  Perhaps born out of an angry or bitter heart, in slander we give our tongues free reign to say anything we want about the other person.  We don’t hold back and we discover the most juicy, cutting, or vicious things coming out of our mouths.  We don’t even care if they are true or not, as long as their hurt.  Partnering with slander is obscene talk, verbal attacks using offensive and violent language that is far away from anything peaceful.

Paul ends his list with lying, this tendency we have to cover our sins, to reject our responsibility and to avoid blame for our selfishness.  We lie because we fear the truth, or have placed our pride on the throne of our hearts or perhaps we are convinced that we are the victim.  There is no peace in lying, there is no wholeness or well-being or order in a heart that is set on speaking things that are not the truth.

Again, Paul reminds us that these things are part of our old life.  They should be things that are put away in our new lives.  Their power to control our lives has been crucified with Christ.  You no longer have to be enslaved by these things.  While we will never be free of these things completely this side of heaven, God seeks to apply his powerful, transformative power to these areas of our life.  He is able to increasingly replace our peace-breaking words and actions with words and actions that promote His peace in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 2

This is post number 2 in an extended discussion of chapter 8 in Andy Farmer’s book Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It.  Last time we looked at Colossians 3:1-4 and pondered the question about what our relational conflicts would be like if we daily set our thoughts on things above where Christ, our life, is seated.

Unfortunately, for all of us, we struggle mightily to seek the things above and set our minds there.  All too often we find ourselves reflecting the truths of Colossians 3:5-7 rather than the previous verses.  Colossians 3:5-7 state:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming.  In these you too once walked when you were living in them. (ESV)
The things we to put to death in this passage are our earthly, selfish cravings.  You see, peace is not possible when we put our earthly cravings on the throne of our lives.  That is our natural tendency – to put our self and what our self wants on the throne.  If we are not careful, the craving of our hearts can quickly become the true gods in our lives.  They can become the idols we pursue and worship.  In choosing earthly things, we turn away from true peace.  In those times, we settle for much less than shalom, the wholeness and well-being God offers in Christ.

You see, when our cravings rule, conflict will abound.  What does James 4:1-4 tell us?
What causes quarrels and what cause fights among you?  Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?  You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.  You do not have because you do not ask.  You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  You adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (ESV)
The passions James speaks about here are hidden deep in our hearts.  While we have been given new life and a renewed heart in Jesus, those old habits and selfish ways of doing things raise their ugly heads far too often than we are comfortable with.  In times of frustration, times of stress, in our earthly plotting and planning the things we are to put to death are all too alive in our hearts.  And the saddest thing about all of this is that these things, the earthly cravings of our hearts, cannot truly satisfy our hearts.  They are merely poor substitutes of the satisfaction, the joy and the peace found in Christ.

Following our passions, our selfish desires, and our earthly cravings will always result in more conflict and less peace in our lives in the long term.  What is it that you need put to death?  What is the idol of your heart, the true reason you do and say what you do and say?  Those things were crucified on the cross with Christ.  The power of those things to rule our lives has been broken.  We are no longer slaves to sin, but rather have been freed to practice righteousness.  As a result, we need to daily lay our earthly cravings before the throne of God.  Seek victory in His power.  Ask for the spiritual awareness to recognize these things in our lives and the spiritual will to submit them to the transforming work of God.  Always remember that God has begun a good work in you and He is committed to completing it at the day of Christ Jesus.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Peace in Conflict, part 1

Conflict seems to be an inescapable part of life.  Conflict between nations or groups make the headlines, and while that conflict has some effect on our lives, that is not the kind of conflict that affects us most.  Rather the kind of conflict that affects us most in the conflict that results in our day to day relationships, often with the people we are closest to. 

The other day, while reading Andy Farmer’s wonderful book, Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It, I read his chapter on peace in the midst of conflict.  The book’s premise is that real peace – shalom in the Hebrew – is found only in relationship with God, and of course, in Christ.  Shalom as the ancient Hebrews defined it, is a state of being, a state in which order, security, relational harmony, well-being and wholeness rules our life.  There is not anyone in the world who would not want such peace. 

Farmer than brings this vision of peace to bear on the various areas of our life where we struggle to live in peace, particularly the areas of stress, anxiety, grief, depression and conflict.  While all these chapters are graciously written from a pastoral heart, the chapter on conflict was especially powerful for me.  As a pastor, I deal with conflict regularly.  Some conflicts are resolved quickly, others fester. Some come out of family situations, others out of work experiences or ministry life.  As I read Andy Farmer’s wise words, I feel the pull to boil them down into a series of blog posts about peace and conflict.

Colossians 3:1-17 is the focus of the chapter.  Colossians is a book written to Christians who were struggling against false teaching.  Paul begins by expressing confidence in the work of the gospel in their lives (Col. 1:6) and confidently declares that peace with God comes through the reconciling work of Christ (Col. 1:19-20).  He then addresses false teaching in light of that very gospel (Col. 2).

The apostle moves on and in chapter 3 gives instructions to the believers on how the gospel of Christ should be lived out.  He begins with some powerful words in Col. 3:1-4:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above not on things that are on earth.  For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears then you also will appear with him in glory. (ESV)
In these verses, to set the stage for his discussion abut the gospel lived out in community, Paul reminds believers of their spiritual state.  Who are we?  We are people who have been raised with Christ.  We are united with him in new life.  We have died to our old life.  Our new life in Christ is hidden with Christ in God.  Christ is our life, and one day, He will present us holy and blameless before God in glory. 

In light of those truths, the mindset of believers is not focused on earthly things, but rather the things that are above, the things that belong to the realm of Christ.  That is our highest aspiration as a Christian – to live our lives with our minds set on the things that glorify and reflect Christ.  But as we will see, earthly things are all too prevalent in our lives.  Earthly attitudes are the reason we have conflict.  They are expressions of our selfish cravings, as we will see in the verses to come.

Before we get there, I encourage you to take the time of reflect on what it means to set our minds on the things of Christ, the things that are heavenly.  Think of the conflicts in your life.  What would happen in those conflicts if we had set our minds on the things of Christ?  Would they have begun?  Would they persist today?  How could they be resolved?  These are the questions we will pursue in future posts.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Book Review - How the West Won by Rodney Stark

In the not so distant past, a standard course in almost every American university was Western Civilization.  It was common for university students to trace the ups and downs of civilization from a euro-centric viewpoint.  Today such a course has basically disappeared completely from the secular university.  Such a course is profoundly politically incorrect.  Today it is profoundly insulting to every other culture in the world to suggest that western civilization is what we have to thank for modern science and economic growth.

As a result Americans have and will increasingly become ignorant about how the world came to be.  Their heads will be filled with absurd history that does everything in its power to downplay or outright deny the debt our present world owes to western civilization.  

Into this realm of historical absurdity rides Dr. Rodney Stark, sociologist at Baylor University.  In his latest tour-de-force entitled How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, he argues that the world is much poorer when we ignore the fact that the modern world owes a vast debt to the free civilization begun with the ancient Greeks.

In addition to recounting the history of the West, he looks at things in a whole new way, tackling the received wisdom of how and why history happened.  For example, he argues that the fall of Rome was a good thing for civilization because autocratic, imperial Rome stagnated progress rather than accelerated it.  The Dark Ages, famous for being a time of ignorance and stagnation, was actually a time of development.  He addresses the effect of climate change on history, especially the centuries long global warming in the middle ages and the little ice age that followed.  According to Stark, the scientific revolution was no revolution at all, but merely a continued development of scientific progress that began with the founding of western universities.  On top of that, he presents a strong argument that the vast majority of scientists of the day were devout or at least practicing Christian believers.  Rather than the modern argument that Europe took advantage of its colonies, draining them of wealth, the actual truth is that European nations poured much more into their colonies then they took out.  He also expands on some of the recent scholarship that shows that the influence of western, Christian missionaries had a profound and continuing impact on developing nations.

Stark answers questions such as why China, which developed so much technology, was never able to apply that technology to its civilization as a whole.  Why were eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, telescopes and microscopes found only in Europe for centuries?  Why did science, geographical exploration and capitalism develop only in Europe?  What is the right answer to the modern view that the western world is profoundly in debt to Islam?

The fact is, in the west, and only in the west, could a person find freedom, property rights and governments that were not imperially autocratic.  Out of these things and more, western civilization developed.  Compare that to a typical Eastern civilization like the Islamic Ottoman Empire.  For example, at the battle of Lepanto (Oct. 7, 1571) between Mediterranean Christians and the Ottoman Turks, Ali Pasha, the commander of the Ottoman naval forces had his whole personal fortune with him on his galley.  When the ship was captured, all of it was plundered by enemy sailors.  Why did this man have the equivalent of millions of dollars on his boat?  Because there was no other safe place to have the money in the corrupt, autocratic Ottoman Empire.  There was no place that this man could have his money that was protected and free from its loss or confiscation at the hands of a repressive economy run by a megalomaniac sultan.

As our nation becomes increasingly autocratic, as our government erodes constitutional freedoms, as private rights increasingly take a back seat to the “public good”, Rodney Stark’s book is increasingly important.  If we forget how we got here, we have no hope of continuing on that path of progress.  While Stark’s book is not the only history book you should read, it is definitely worth a read , if only to counter the increasingly absurd arguments of those who seem to be increasingly hateful of the freedoms and economy of the West.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review - AHA: The God Moment that Changes Everything by Kyle Idleman

I have always enjoyed Kyle Idleman’s books.  There are a number of reasons.  His sense of humor appeals to me.  His writing style is comfortable.  But most importantly, he has an ability to say profoundly challenging things in an accessible way.

Idleman’s newest book, entitled AHA: The God Moment that Changes Everything, is case and point.  The book is humorous.  It is an easy read.  And he has done a wonderful job reminding us of how God brings transformation to our lives.

The book, which is based on the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, begins with some thoughts on the whole self-help genre.  Self-help books are everywhere, covering every topic.  The very volume of self-help books suggests that they do not really help much at all. Is our “self” really able to help us with the problems we face?  The main premise of Idleman’s book is that we need to reject our self’s offer and help and embrace the provision and power of God’s help.

Like the prodigal son in Luke 15, almost everyone finds themselves, at times in their life or in certain areas of their life, in a distant country.  There are times when we have walked away from God, perhaps with our whole life, or perhaps in particular areas of our life where we do not want to submit or obey to God.  There are, of course, many reasons for rejecting God’s provision and care.  AHA reminds us that God is often not who we assume him to be.  He is an ever present source of help.

The book is contains three main sections, each section focusing on one part of the transforming work of God in our lives.  The first – “A” – stands for sudden awakening.  The prodigal son, having rejected his father, spent his inheritance finds himself feeding pigs to make a living.  As Luke 15:17 notes, one day, in the midst of that situation, he came to his senses.  He came to a realization of where his life was leading.  It was not a pretty picture.  God has many ways of bringing sudden awakening to us.  His uses his Word or the words of others, or perhaps He gives us a taste of the future consequences of our actions.  During this time of awakening, we come to the recognition that we cannot turn our lives around ourselves.

The second step is “”H” – brutal honesty.  As Luke 15:17-19 notes, the prodigal son said to himself - my father’s servants are better off than I am.  He looked into the mirror at his life and saw that it was profoundly lacking.  Such honesty brings healing and drives us to God for His forgiveness.  Of course, we can find all number of excuses to avoid being honest with ourselves.  We can deny the depth of our problem.  We can project the reasons we have problems on others.  We can minimize our problems, convincing ourselves they are no big deal.  But if we avoid those kind of pitfalls, we come to a good but painful place, and we can be honest about our lives or areas of our lives are deeply in need of God’s help.

The last step in AHA – “A” – is immediate action.  The prodigal son did not spend weeks pondering his fate.  Luke 15:20 simply states that after he realized his predicament and was bold enough to be honest with himself, he got up and went back home.  He acted.  Without action, the awakening God brings to our life amounts to nothing.  How many times have you been convicted by a sermon, only to walk out of church without doing anything about it?  Passivity, procrastination and a defeatist attitude that convinces us that it is too late are the enemies of action.

Luke 15 tells us how the story of the prodigal son ends.  His father embraces him, forgives him and celebrates his homecoming.  Our story can end up the same way.  No matter how far we have run, or how long we have run, or how many areas of our life we have resisted God’s call to holiness, God is still there.  His patience and mercy and grace is still available.  And like the prodigal son’s father, our Heavenly Father longs to embrace us, forgive us and celebrate our homecoming.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review - Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung

Have you ever noticed that when we ask a friend about how they are doing, the response we receive is in the context of how busy they are?  I have been especially guilt of this in the past.  At times, when I get, “how’s it going, Jeff?” the response I have often given is simply “Busy.”

That kind of answer seems pretty frequent these days.  We are more connected than we ever have been.  There are more things to do and more things to distract us than ever before.  And we are busy.  The fact is, Americans lead the world in hours worked annually.  I remember a conversation a few years back with some of my family members in Canada.  They asked me how many hours a week I worked.  After hearing my answer, they remarked that their denomination had done a study which found that the average pastor in the denomination worked about 35 hours a week.  I remember sitting there thinking, “That sounds like bliss.”

Yes, I have a problem with busyness and saying no and taking on too much.  Maybe you do too.  That is why, when I heard one of my favorite authors, Kevin DeYoung had written a book on busyness, I made sure I picked up a copy.  Ironically, I was too busy to read the book until recently and actually read most of it on vacation.  I suspect I might be the only person in the world to read a book on busyness when I should be relaxing.

DeYoung’s book, Crazy Busy is subtitled A Mercifully Short Book about a Big Problem.  Like many of us, Kevin DeYoung struggles with busyness.  And so as he writes this book, it is not a book written by an expert, proclaiming truths from his ivory tower to us lowly people who have not yet grasped the wisdom and knowledge he has attained.  Rather he writes as a fellow struggler.

DeYoung begins by exposing 3 dangers of being too busy.  Busyness can ruin our joy.  Joy should be a characteristic of one who is being transformed by the gospel, a fruit of the indwelling Holy Spirit.  But being too busy can mean a lack of joy.  Busyness can rob our hearts.  The cares of the world, the worries of life can quickly swallow up our desire for better things.  Busyness can also cover up the rot in our souls.  Busyness can make us physically and spiritually sick – it can bring discouragement, discontent, strained relationships and physical exhaustion.

Crazy Busy contains 7 diagnoses against busyness.  Again, these are not lectures, but 7 areas where we need to do some difficult and painful soul searching.  I won’t summarize all of them, but rather the 3 that hit me personally.

First, busyness is often about pride.  There is a certain pride involved when we tell people we are busy.  There is a ‘look at me’ type spirit that wants people to see all that we are accomplishing.  Pleasing people, receiving affirmation, having our performance noted and praised and proving ourselves capable all play into this.  Sometimes being busy is all about making trying to make myself look good.

Second, sometimes we are busy doing what God does not expect us to do.  Sometimes our busyness is a guilt response to a feeling that we are not doing enough.  But the fact is, we are not Jesus, and even if we were, we can clearly see in the Bible that even Jesus did not do everything.  He did not heal everyone, for example.  (John 5:1-17 – Jesus healed one man out of many)  The fact is, the gospel is meant to be good news that frees us, rather than something that adds extra burdens to our lives.

Third, sometimes we are busy because we are letting the screen strangle our souls.  While DeYoung could have addressed TV here, he focuses on social media.  Sometimes we are busy because we have to be connected, and that connection – on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, through blogs, even just surfing for new things to read – drags us away from what we should be doing.  The fact is, if a person is not careful, our connected world can fill our lives to such an extent that we not longer have time for God and are unable to hear his still, small voice speak to our souls.

While the reader can take or leave any of DeYoung’s diagnoses, he ends the book with one thing every busy person must do.  We must, even in the midst of all the demands and distractions, take the time to sit at Jesus’ feet.  Like Mary in the gospels, we must daily put aside everything else to spend time with the lover of our souls, the one who can bring order out of the disorder that is all too often our busy life.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Books Review – The Pastor’s Justification

Anyone who knows me knows that I love books.  I buy a lot of books.  My “to-read” pile is large.  And sometimes I am not always keenly aware of what is in that pile.  So a few months ago, when a friend of mine linked a video clip from Jared Wilson to my Facebook page, I watched it and wondered where I had heard that name before.  I did a little searching and lo and behold, I had one of Jared’s books in my “to-read” pile.  At the first opportunity, I pulled it out and began to read.  I am so glad I did.

Jared Wilson’s story is what drew my attention first.  The video clip posted on my Facebook wall was a short summary of Jared’s ministry commitment.  To put it briefly, he left big city church planting and ministry in Nashville to lead a small town, rural church in Vermont.  I was intrigued for two reasons.  First, his “career path” seemed opposite to what a typical pastor would be looking for.  And second, having been in rural or semi-rural ministry all my ministry life, I resonated with his heart for the people in the smaller towns in our country.

Jared Wilson’s book, The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in your Life and Ministry, is a wonderfully honest read.  I found myself again and again nodding in agreement.  His words were sometimes comforting, assuring me that I was not the only one going through this.  At other times, his words cut to the heart, causing me to look hard at how I am living out the truths of the gospel in my life and my ministry.

The book breaks down into two sections.  The first main section of the book follows 1 Peter 5:1-11.  Here Wilson moves thoroughly through 6 areas that affect the pastor’s heart.  The second section is built on the 5 “Solas” of the Christian faith (Sola Scripture – Scripture alone, Sola Gratia – grace alone, Sola Fide – faith alone, Solus Christus – Christ alone, Soli Deo Gloria – To God alone be the glory). In this section, Wilson is concerned with the pastor’s glory, which is not found in himself, but in Christ.  In each chapter, Wilson takes care to challenge the reader, but also to build the reader up in the truths of the gospel.

I don’t know anyone more honest – and often hard on themselves – than pastors.  For a pastor, there is always something that could have been done better.  Someone else to call.  A section of the sermon that could have been clearer.  A person we should have spent more time praying for.  You get the picture.  If we are not careful, a pastor’s life can be one large session of morbid introspection where the pastor spends his time beating himself up for his failures. 

Jared Wilson’s book does not excuse pastoral laziness or incompetence, but it does most importantly remind us to ground our identity and our focus not in what we have done or have not yet or will yet get done, but rather in what Christ has already done and what it means for us.  There is a freedom that comes from knowing the power of the grace of God has been applied to our lives.  There is a confidence that comes from being reminded of God’s call and empowerment.  There is a sure and certain rest for our souls when we are reminded my hope of glory is not in my own achievement, but Christ’s achievement for my sake.

This book was a wonderful blessing to me.  It is easily the most encouraging book for pastors I have read this year.  2 or 3 years in the future, I hope to pull it out again.  My soul needs both the challenge it provides and the soothing encouragement it offers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

God is at Work through You AND in You

I don’t know how you feel about the prefaces or forwards found in many books.  Personally, I am somewhat ambivalent about them.  It seems to me that they tend to fall into two categories.  One category are those forwards that are written by a “celebrity,” someone well known in religious, academic or entertainment circles.  I often wonder how many of these introductions appear in the book – often emblazoned on the cover - just to sell a few more copies.  The second category of book prefaces seems to me to be deeply personal.  They involve someone I may or may not have heard of, but someone who knows the author and his or her work personally.  These are the kind of introductions I read much more carefully, because I know they will likely express the personal impact the author’s words have had on the writer’s life.

The forward found in Jared Wilson’s book The Pastor’s Justification:  Applying the work of Christ in your Life and Ministry belongs in the second category.  It is written by Mike Ayers, a pastor and Bible College professor in Houston, Texas.  I am not personally familiar with Dr. Ayers.  Although he does not explain his personal connection to the author of the book, he very clearly states how he has experienced the truths of what the author is writing about.

Occasionally when I am reading, a sentence or perhaps a paragraph stops me short, arrests my attention and causes me to stop, think and at times pray.  Those are good moments.  I had one of those moments while I read the forward to The Pastor’s Justification.  The sentence that arrested me was this:  “I’ve concluded that God is as much, if not more, interested in doing a great work in us as he is in doing a great work through us.” (p. 12, italics in the original)

I cannot tell you how many times I catch myself thinking – what is God going to do through me?  That is not a bad thing.  Obviously when I stand in the pulpit or sit counseling someone, I hope and pray that God’s Spirit uses me to impact someone in some way.  I usually recognize, when I am not mired in pride, that anything God is doing through me is not because of any innate talents or abilities in me, but rather because of His gifts, His word, and the power of His Spirit.

Dr. Ayers’ words were a wonderful reminder that God may bring a certain situations or persons into our life to do a work in our hearts.  For example, take the believing spouse in a difficult marriage.  God may be working through you to affect your spouse.  But he also will have placed you in that marriage to teach you something about trust and love and holiness.  As the subtitle of Gary Thomas’ book Sacred Marriage challenges us, “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”  Exactly!

The same principle applies to all our other relationships.  It applies to the friendship that has gone sour.  It applies to the perpetually angry neighbor.  It applies to the incredibly difficult or verbally foul person at work.  While God can work through you to touch their lives, God is also, and perhaps more importantly, working in you in the midst of those relationships.

There are more applications than just relationships.  When God allows a difficult job situation to crop up in your life, he can be both working through you and in you.  The same goes for financial difficulty or ill health.  God may use you as a testimony, but he is also doing his transforming work in you are a result of whatever hard, testing or painful situation you are in.  He is teaching you to trust Him and He continues to be willing to do a good work in your heart.

Personally, I have to periodically stop and force myself to remember this great truth:  God is often more interested in what in going on inside me that what is going on through me.  What a wonderful blessing.  God is always at work.  There are no situations or relationships he cannot touch redemptively.  He is molding me, shaping me, transforming me and conforming me to the image of His Son.  And for that, I am, and will be, eternally grateful.