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.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why do we do what we do?

Why do we do what we do?  I suspect you can all relate to that question.  I can.  Sometimes, after saying something hurtful to my wife or acting in a prideful or selfish way, I look back and wonder – why in the world did I say or do that?  What motivated me to act or speak that way?

The fact is, we are always motivated by something.  Motivations are the energies that propel and drive the decision we make.  They are the essential substance of our character.  Even people who don’t look like they are motivated – like the young man you know who cannot be bothered to get out of bed and get a job – is highly motivated.  That young man is just motivated to do what he can to stay where he is so he does not have to change.  On the other hand, positive change happens in our life when we are captivated and energized by the right motivation.

So where do our behaviors come from?  What determines our motivation?  In his book, Making Spiritual Progress:  Building your Life with Faith, Hope and Love, author Allen Ratta takes some time to explain what he calls the behavioral supply chain in our life.  This supply chain is explained in five principles that apply to all of us.

Principle #1:  Our behaviors are pre-determined by our character.  Our character, our inner nature, sets the direction of our actions.  Jesus understood this, as he explains in Matthew 7:17-18:  “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.”  (ESV)  According to Jesus, the quality of our behavior – good or bad – is consistent with the nature of our character – good or bad.  We cannot permanently change our behavior apart from a transformation of our character.

Principle #2:  Our character is pre-determined by our motivations.  Our motivations are the shaping forces behind our character.  Ratta argues that faith, hope and love are the 3 positive motivational forces that should direct our life.  Of course, the opposite it also true – when our life is empty of faith, hope and love, it is reflected in our motivations and thus our character and our behavior.

Principle #3:  Our motivations are pre-determined by our master.  Who or what rules your life?  That person or thing will determine the nature of your motivations.  Our motivations are ruled by whatever or whoever is sovereign in our life.  If it is God, then our motivations will reflect things that honor God.  If it is something or someone else, we will be motivated to pursue the will and direction of that master.

Principle #4:  Our master is pre-determined by our heart.  We must get to the heart level to manage our motives.  The Bible understands the importance of the heart.  “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”  (Prov. 4:23, ESV)  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21, ESV)  We must guard our hearts, and examine what our heart holds as its treasure.  What does our heart value most of all?  What captivates our hearts?  What energizes our hearts?  The answer to those questions will determine who the real master of our lives is.

Up to this point, perhaps this discussion has been rather depressing for many of us.  I have used the word “pre-determined” an awful lot.  It would seem that we are rather powerless in this whole thing.  How can we change when everything is determined ahead of time?  Thankfully, those thoughts bring us to our last principle.

Principle #5:  Our heart is liberated by the Holy Spirit.  Every Christian has been given the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  And while we cannot change our hearts, the Spirit can.  As Ratta aptly points out, “Personal growth requires that we put ourselves in a place of awareness where we are capable of hearing and responding to the movement of the Spirit.” (p. 26)  The work of the Spirit is to fill our lives with positive motivations, motivations that line up with the character and will of God.  By His Spirit, God seeks to fill us with faith, hope and love, three things that can transform our heart and make us effective for Him.

Our behavior is determined by our character.  Our character is determined by our motivations.  Our motivations grow to serve our master.  Our heart determines which master we follow.  But thanks be to God, God’s Spirit liberates our hearts to serve God!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review - Killing Jesus

A few years back, I was watching a video clip of a discussion between atheist Bill Maher and TV host Bill O’Reilly.  Maher was busy rehashing the same old arguments atheists have used for years to attack faith.  O’Reilly, a Catholic, was trying to counter Maher, but after a few minutes it was obvious that O’Reilly did not know enough about the Bible or have enough faith in what the Bible said to mount any kind of response.  Frankly, it was all kind of embarrassing.  I came to the conclusion that O’Reilly might do well enough asking the tough political questions, but when it came to theology, he should punt the ball to someone else.

After reading Bill O’Reilly’s latest effort in his “Killing” series (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy), Killing Jesus, my opinion of Mr. O’Reilly’s ability to handle issues of faith has not changed.  I read both his Lincoln and his Kennedy books last year and enjoyed them for what they are – light historical reads that get a lot of things right and are able to draw the reader in with a good, compelling story. 

Killing Jesus is similar.  O’Reilly and is co-author Martin Dugard, do a fairly good job presenting Jesus’ story, together with the history behind it.  They understand Roman times and many aspects of both Roman and Jewish culture.  They give the reader a picture of the decadence of the Roman Emperors, although with a bit too much detail in some places.  I don’t really need images of Roman depravity floating around in my mind.  In my opinion, the book’s major failing falls in the area of how the authors view the Bible.

Although both Dugard and O’Reilly are Roman Catholic, it is obvious they do not have as high a view of Scripture as I do.  In some cases their handling of the biblical record is sloppy, in other cases is it just wrong.  Let me give you just a few examples.  Early in the book, when discussing the gospels in a footnote, the authors explain the John, an eyewitness, wrote the final and definitive work on Jesus’ life (pg. 22).  In John 11, the apostle John records the story of the raising of Lazarus.  O’Reilly and Dugard handle the story of Lazarus as a hearsay story about Jesus.  At one point in a footnote, they call the story a legend. (pg. 199)  It seems they themselves are skeptical about the story.  At a couple places in the book, they say they seek to separate truth from myth and have seemed to conclude the Lazarus story is myth.  Yet they accept without question the content of a conversation that happens immediately after the raising of Lazarus in John 11.  Why is one part of the chapter “legend” and the other historical fact?  Why is one part of John reliable and another part not reliable?

On page 192, the authors tell the story of the cursing of the fig tree. (Matt. 21, Mark 11)  The way they write the story is sloppy.  They make Jesus sound like a spoiled little kid caught in a fit of pique, yet they do not even try to explain why Jesus cursed the tree.  (The fig tree gave every outward appearance of being a fruitful tree, but it was not.)  Why give a strong impression of Jesus – that he was wrongfully annoyed, perhaps sinful in that – without explaining the real background of the story?

My last example is found on page 212.  It is the day of Jesus’ arrest.  The authors suggest that Jesus was feeling the stress of going to the cross, which was true. (see Luke 22:39-44)  But they suggest that Jesus was having trouble focusing on his final message to the disciples and that the looming cross was causing him to panic.  In trying to “humanize” Jesus, I think they go too far.  Does Luke 22:47-53 give us a picture of a man who is panicking?  Rather, this is a man who is resolute in his willingness to do the Father’s will.  When you read John 14-16, do you get the impression that Jesus is struggling to formulate his last message to his disciples?  I don’t.  It is obvious Jesus seeks to comfort his followers and give them powerful instructions for the future.

All of these things are minor issues really, but there are a lot of them.  I did not notice any major errors in the book, but it seems as me as if the authors have stumbled in their efforts to divide the myths of Jesus from the truth of Jesus.  At times they handle the Scripture inconsistently, sloppily and even downright wrong.

Killing Jesus is not a bad book.  O’Reilly and Dugard present a compelling story in a readable way.  They get a lot of things right.  They present the history and culture of Jesus day in a way that is accessible and interesting.  But please read it with your critical thinking caps on.  It is not a gospel presentation – for example they give the resurrection very little attention.  Rather it is an attempt by two authors, whose view of Scripture may be different than yours, to present the story of Jesus Christ.  It is worth the read, but a better read would be the gospels themselves.