Category Archives: Scripture Meditation

Your Problem is Worse Than You Think

“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’ He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”(Mark 7:6, 7, 20-23 NIV)

Today as I was reading Mark 6-7, this passage where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their traditionalism jumped out at me. The Pharisees have just criticized Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the tradition of ceremonial hand washing before eating, which symbolized spiritual cleanness. Jesus responds by rebuking their philosophy of traditionalism and their propensity toward substituting their traditions for the commands of God. He also states that it is not what one brings into their body which defiles a person, but what comes out of their body which defiles a person.
Since this passage mainly deals with the errors of traditionalism, I have often missed a more subtle but profound truth hidden in these verses. Jesus says that sin–and he cites the examples of adultery, sexual immorality, murder, greed, etc.–comes from the heart, not from things external to oneself.

This reminds me of a very helpful sermon illustration that I believe John Piper once used. I have adapted it here. Imagine going to a doctor because of a fast heart rate. You tell the doctor, “Doc, I think I may have high blood pressure or something. I just can’t seem to get my heart to calm down.” The doctor reviews your symptoms and takes your blood pressure. He replies, “Well, your blood pressure is a little off, so why don’t we run an MRI just to see what we can find.” You feel that’s entirely unnecessary–you’re guessing that you just have high cholesterol and need to eat better and exercise more–but you consent because the doctor says so.

A few days later, the Doc calls you into the clinic to discuss the results. Imagine your horror to discover that it’s not high cholesterol, but a deformed, diseased heart which is causing your symptoms. Most of us would agree that this discovery is very bad news.

Here’s the thrust of what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees, and to you and me: we have a dangerous tendency to downplay the severity of our sin. We tend to think, like the Pharisees, that we can simply perform a few ceremonial rituals (i.e., go to church, tithe, etc.) and be declared clean in God’s sight. Or, like the cardiology patient, we tend to self-medicate our sin with diet and exercise in a futile attempt to lower our blood pressure or relieve the symptoms. If we are willing to admit that we have sin–and often we are not–we usually fail to see its severity and, therefore, resort to inadequate means of dealing with our sin. We go to church, read self-help books (even Christian ones!), and we try to eliminate external temptations for our sins. All of these things are good, but they fail to address the root of the problem of our sin. By themselves, they’re no more effective than taking ibuprofen for a brain tumor or changing your diet to fix a deformed heart.
Jesus said that our sins cannot simply be washed off in a ceremonial cleansing. The horrible news is that our condition before God is far, far worse than we could have ever imagined. We have a sinful, deformed heart. We don’t need medication, we need a heart transplant. Without such a transplant, the result of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Do you struggle with “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly?” Jesus says “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come.” You and I struggle with sin because we have sick hearts and we are in desperate need of the Healer.

While this is decidedly bad news, there is an element of hope in it. At least now that we know the severity of our true condition we can properly treat it! At least now we know better than to expect diet and exercise alone to fix our heart. What you and I need is for God to give us a new heart. We need new desires, new passions, new eyes to see and new ears to hear.
The good news? That’s exactly the business in which Jesus thrives.

When we give our lives to Christ, Jesus gives us a new, restored heart with new desires and longings. I was, at first, puzzled by the name of John Piper’s ministry: Desiring God. I used to think it was an odd name for a ministry. But, I’ve since come to realize that a burning passion and desire for God is exactly how you and I can live our lives in such a way that brings us the most happiness and God the most glory. Why? Because we desire sin least when we desire God most. But, unfortunately, that heart is still often plagued by sin. We live in a fallen world, and until we are reunited with Christ in heaven, we will always struggle with sin. But, rather than give up, we ought to pray for a renewed heart every day–a heart for God and His glory.

I struggle with sin every day. I battle it. And, I need those external temptations removed; I need diet and exercise for the soul. But that alone will not suffice. Washing my hands won’t clean my heart. My external religious observances are necessary and good, but they are worthless unless they proceed from a clean and pure heart. Let us recognize the severity of our state before an almighty and holy God, lay aside our futile efforts to wash away our sins externally, and pray as David did when he had sinned:

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me … You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:9, 10, 16, 17 NIV)

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart… (Psalm 24:3, 4 NIV)

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. (Matthew 23:25, 26 NIV)

So you’re a Christian? Prove it.

One of the first questions I used to ask people when I was hoping to transition the conversation into spiritual matters (and possibly share the gospel) was “So, are you a Christian?” Now, if you’re in India or another country which doesn’t consider itself predominately Christian, that might be an alright question to ask. It’s still probably not the best question, but you’ll probably have better success there than here in America. I’ve come to learn that “Are you a Christian?” is not a very good question to ask if you intend to share the gospel with someone. Why?
Allow me to demonstrate, statistically, why “Are you a Christian” is such a bad question. In a 2011 Gallup Poll, 78% of those asked “What is your religious identity?” identified themselves as Christian. That’s right, 78%. So, what’s the big deal? This poll later reveals that while 78% of Americans consider themselves Christian, only 55% of Americans feel that their religion is “very important” to their identity. That means that 45% of Americans feel that religion is either only “fairly important” or “not important” to their identity. Notice the overlap. There is a significant population of “Christians” who might say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian, but it’s really not a big deal to me.” REALLY?!?!
But it gets worse. In a 2010 Gallup Pole, only 43% of Americans say they “weekly” or “almost weekly” attend religious services. Remember, not all of these 43% are Christian, either. So, 78% of Americans are “Christian” but less than 43% of Americans weekly attend church. In the the largest Protestant denomination in America, the SBC, a 2010 Lifeway poll showed that only 6,195,449 of the 16,136,044 members attend their church’s primary worship service. That’s less than 40%. Even when you consider that many churches have people on their membership roll that are dead or have moved away, that’s still astounding. 78% of Americans are Christian, but to many “It’s not that important.”
Now, before we pass this statistic, let’s think for a moment. How does one make it onto the membership roll of a Southern Baptist Church? Southern Baptists have fairly exclusive membership requirements. Usually, it happens one of three ways: 1) During the invitation, a non-member walks the aisle, prays a prayer, and shortly thereafter is baptized into membership, 2) A member transfers their membership from another Southern Baptist Church (where they have done #1 already), or 3) A member of a non-SBC church transfers their membership, usually after an interview with the pastor who is satisfied that this potential member is, indeed, saved and properly baptized. So, to put that in perspective, over 60% of SBC members, who walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, signed a card, and got baptized, feel that their faith is not important enough to attend church regularly. Hmmm…
So, if I were to ask you, “Are you a Christian?” Assuming that you’d say “yes,” what if I asked you to prove it? Then what would you say? “Well, fifteen years ago I walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, signed a card, and got baptized.” That’s what I used to say. If pressed further, I might have comforted myself with the fact that I was in that 43% who regularly attend church. But did you know that the Bible nowhere says, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we once walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, got dunked, and now go to church?” That may surprise you, given that this is often the exact salvation assurance given to Christians. “Well, I remember walking that aisle…so I know I’m going to heaven!”

So then, how do you know that you’re a Christian, that you’re heaven-bound? Take a look at Jesus’ example:

“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM.” (Matthew 11:2-5 NASB)

When John sent this question to Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah?” Jesus could have given a number of different answers, some of them even true and valid. He might have said, “John, I’ve been baptized, don’t you remember? You were there, after all!” or “John, don’t you remember the dove? Don’t you remember the voice from heaven saying I was God’s Son?” or “John, for goodness sake, look at my lineage! I was born in the right lineage–a direct descendent of David–in the right city, by a virgin…what more evidence do you need?” or “John, I’m a Jewish Rabbi! Would I really lie about something like that?”

But Jesus didn’t point to these things. In fact, it’s somewhat puzzling that Jesus doesn’t pick up the Old Testament and point to all the specific prophecies that only he fulfilled–being born in Bethlehem, being a Nazarene, being born of a virgin, being of the tribe of Judah, etc. Instead of pointing to the evidences of who the Messiah was, his evidence was in what the Messiah would accomplish. His evidence wasn’t internal–a list of qualifications that he lived up to, his evidence was external–a string of changed lives: “the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

You see, the Bible nowhere says that your prayer, baptism, or Church attendance are good evidences of your salvation–though all are good and necessary aspects of your Christianity. Being a true “Christian” is more than a prayer, signed card, baptism ceremony, church membership, or church attendance (though many of those claiming to be Christian don’t even have that much!). It’s about a changed life.

The book of I John is particularly helpful in this. Note what John says is good evidence of true Christianity:
“If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth…” (1 John 1:6 NASB)
“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked…The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now…Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:3-6, 9, 15 NASB)

Now, our temptation is to make this into a list. “Keep the commandments, Check! Love your brother, Check!” But this is not John’s intention. Notice verse 6: “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” A true Christian lives (or strives to live) like Jesus. How did Jesus live? In a way that wherever he went, he changed lives. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, strength to the lame, life to the dead, and good news to the hopeless. How do you know you’re a Christian? Because your life is lived in effort to open blind eyes to the truth of Jesus Christ. You live to open deaf ears to hear the Gospel. You live to give strength to those who feel like they can’t carry on any longer. You live to breathe life into the spiritually dead. And your life is so permeated by the Good News of Christ that it spills over onto anyone who gets too close. No one who lives this kind of life could ever say their faith is anything less than “very important.” The faith of a true Christian is everything. It is more important than life itself.

So, my friend, are you a Christian? If this post has left you unsure of your standing before God, pray that God would open your eyes to truth. A heart that has been changed by God will always result in a life lived for God. Good works can’t save you, but neither can the type of faith that doesn’t produce good works. Are you a Christian? If so, prove it.

*For more information about how to become a true Christian, click the “Gospel” link above.

What’s your epitaph?

As a youth pastor, I am keenly aware that my actions have a significant effect on those to whom I minister. But, oftentimes, I am tempted to think that I can isolate areas of my private life with no affect on my ministry. As a leader, minister, or parent it is tempting to think that our private sins (either of commission or omission) can be effectively isolated from our ministry or realm of influence, since “what they don’t know can’t hurt them.” But this path of thinking is not only dangerous, but flat out wrong. Having just finished reading the books of the Chronicles, i was struck by the repetitive epitaphs given for each of the kings. Of course, these epitaphs are no theological secret, but what struck me most was the close, inevitable parallel between the kings’ epitaphs and those of their people. For example, take II Chronicles 33:2-6:

And [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had broken down, and he erected altars to the Baals, and made Asherahs, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord…And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger…

But the effects of Manasseh’s evil were not confined to himself, or even just his family:

Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel. The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. (II Chronicles 33:9-10)

Again, in Manasseh’s life we see a parallel between his actions and the peoples; this time, however, it is a somewhat more positive one:

And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God. Nevertheless, the people still sacrificed at the high places, but only to the Lord their God. (2 Chronicles 33:12, 13, 17 ESV)

The people continued to sacrifice unlawfully outside of Jerusalem, but when Manasseh repented of his idolatry, they did as well. A final example will sufficiently make the point, I think:

And [Josiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them…Then the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. Then he made all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin join in it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. And Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel and made all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord, the God of their fathers. (2 Chronicles 34:2-4, 29-33 ESV)

Of course, there are many more similar examples throughout Kings and Chronicles, and even throughout the rest of the Bible, for that matter. I chose these examples, though, because they closely mirror three positions that I see many churches and families in. Few churches that I know of would willingly classify themselves in the first category–as “Manessehites.” After all, “we don’t practice idol worship or child sacrifice! We worship God!” However, far more churches and families fall in this category than would admit. These churches and families, led by pastors and parents with only a thin veneer of religiosity, are headed down a one-way path to destruction. These pastors and parents, while not openly condoning idolatry or paganism, secretly endorse such through their lifestyles. Addicted to a career, money, cars, and success (or worse, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.), they unwittingly sacrifice their children and church on the altars of their addictions. They may attend church, pray, and even tithe, but “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19 ESV)” They fall prey to the lie that their private actions can be separated from their sphere of influence. It is easy to see how sins of commission (drugs, alcohol, sex addictions, etc.) could negatively affect those who know they exist (be it church members or children), but what about secret sins and sins of omission? Could a pastor’s secret and unknown addiction to pornography, or his lack of daily devotion or prayer really cause his entire congregation to fall into the same sins? The connection is less explicit, but it is there, nonetheless. A pastor whose affections are stolen away from God for his addictions is less passionate in his preaching, less convicting and bold in his proclamations against sin, since every condemnation he issues against such is inevitably directed toward himself. These pastors tend to skirt around these delicate issues with less conviction, much like David after his sin with Bathsheeba could not find the moral conviction within himself to put his son Amnon to death for his rape of Tamar or Absolom for his murder of Amnon, since in doing so he would have to condemn his own sins of adultery and murder. Pastors who fail to maintain their prayer life experience less answers to prayer, thus decreasing their convictions on the necessity of prayer. Pastors who fail to maintain their daily Bible reading find fewer new observations in God’s word, and as a result, their preaching is weak and feels recycled. Failing to find anything new and instructive in the text, they resort to substituting clever stories and illustrations for the meat of the word. A church can only survive so long before it begins to feel the effects of its pastor’s private sins. Children whose parents fail to maintain their prayer and Bible reading will not have that model of daily devotion. Children whose parents tell them “do what I say, not what I do” will quickly recognize the hypocrisy for what it is. The truth is, half-hearted devotion to God will always spill over into one’s sphere of influence, be it a church or a family. You can’t isolate your personal life. So the question is, what kind of influence do you have over your family or church? Are you sacrificing your children on the altars of your career or addictions? Are you imitating half-hearted devotion to God, such that your children will be half-hearted Christians, worshipping God, but in a manner he forbids? Or, are you, like Josiah, modeling heartfelt humility and repentance over sin, demonstrating a passion for God’s Word and serving God with all your heart and soul? Your kids and your church will show the fruits of your affections. After you are gone, will the legacy that you leave behind prompt your kids and your church to be completely devoted to God? What will your epitaph be?

All in due season

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Don’t Give Up.  As Christians, sometimes we can get discouraged by what we see in our churches.  When we look at the church in America, we don’t have to look far to find problems.  Discipleship is shallow.  Evangelism is ineffective or lacking altogether.  Conversions are in decline.  Population growth is outpacing the growth of almost every evangelical Christian denomination.  Many, many churches are permanently closing their doors every year.  It’s easy to loose hope, to give up.  A couple weeks ago, that’s exactly where I was.  Discouraged, frustrated, ready to give up.  And that’s exactly what Satan wants.

You see, our enemy doesn’t fight fair.  He abides by no rules of conduct, no Geneva convention, no gentleman’s code.  He fights dirty.  He doesn’t march out in phalanx formation like the ancient Romans.  He doesn’t wait for his turn to take a volley like the Red Coats of the Revolutionary War.  He doesn’t even wear a uniform to distinguish himself from his enemies.  No, he uses much more covert means of warfare.  He waits in ambush under cover of darkness.  He picks of the weak and wounded stragglers who are too weary to keep up with the herd.  He turns brother against brother, friend against friend, believer against believer.  And when he has succeeded in sowing discord, strife, and bitterness in believers, he divides and conquers.

Satan has an unfair advantage…you can’t see him.  He sneaks around with his “invisibility cloak” taking cheap shots at unsuspecting believers.  And when these believers turn and fire, they realize all too late that he was hiding behind another believer.  Friendly fire is one of Satan’s most successful methods of defeating the church.  We don’t realize until it’s too late that it wasn’t our brother or sister in Christ that made that rude, hurtful comment or who sloughed off their church duties, but Satan whispering lies into their ears.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

I think that one of the reasons we get so discouraged and frustrated with fellow believers and our churches is that we mistake friend for foe.  We begin to think of people as the enemy, or the obstacle, to our church, and we treat them, instead of the true enemy, as hostiles. Such has been Satan’s ploy against me for a few weeks.  I began to focus on the problems.  I began to see my fellow believers as hostiles.  By the grace of God, as I was poised and ready to open fire, God began convicting me of the spiritual attack that I was under.  Then it hit me: why did I feel like I was under such heavy spiritual attack?  Because Satan only bothers attacking those he deems a threat.  I couldn’t see how I–or our tiny little church–could be deemed a threat, but it gave me some courage to continue on.

Prior to this revelation I had begun to become so discouraged that I had considered cancelling the next upcoming youth event: the Winter Jam concert.  I justified this decision with all kinds of rational sounding excuses.  “We don’t have enough adult volunteers–we’ll loose the kids in the crowd of thousands of people.”  “Their not old enough to benefit from the experience.”  “Neither the kids nor the church can’t afford it.”  But, God revealed my bad attitude to me, and I prayerfully decided to go ahead with the concert.

The kids were extremely well behaved.  I had two adults step up to volunteer.  It turned out to be cheaper than expected.  Two of the kids from the youth group were so moved by the presentation by Holt International (an international adoption agency) that they decided to sponsor a child awaiting adoption in Ethiopia as a youth group.  And best of all–one of the kids was saved that night.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.   For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Galatians 6:6-10 (NASB)

Is your church under spiritual attack?  Are you harboring bitterness and resentment toward a fellow believer?  Have you been deceived by the enemy that your efforts are in vain?  God is not mocked.  Keep up the good fight and recognize Satan’s ploy for what it is.  It’s all worth it if there’s just one who comes to know Christ.  When I look back at my attitude a couple weeks ago, I can only thank God that he did not allow me to persist in my plans to cancel that concert trip.  While I certainly can’t take the credit for what happened that night (without the Holy Spirit’s conviction, nothing would have happened!), I can say that my obedience to Christ’s calling did put those kids in the right place at the right time for the Holy Spirit to do his work.  One girl can now rest assured of her eternal destiny, and a little boy halfway around the world is experiencing the overflow of the love of Christ expressed by changed hearts here in our little church.  What a blessing it is to be the vessel God uses to accomplish his great plan.  Who knows how far the ripples will continue?  So if you are under spiritual attack right now, take heart!  Your obedience is NEVER in vain.  You may not see the fruit right now, but in due season you will reap, IF you do not give up.

Don’t give up

          The past couple of weeks at church have been somewhat discouraging for me.  Attendance—while never “high”—has been abnormally low the past several weeks.  Since Christmas, it seems that the attendance has dropped each week.  This week was the lowest.  I had three kids in Sunday School today, including one of the pastor’s sons.   Last Wednesday we had two youth show up.  (Much thanks, btw, to the faithful few!)  In addition, the church has decided to meet only in the fellowship hall downstairs to limit energy expenditure because the budget is tight.  In short, our church is going through one of those rough spots.  I know that churches go through tough times, especially in winter months, and often rebound just fine, but as a church member you should know that it’s especially taxing on your minister(s) who so desperately desire to see the church grow and flourish in God’s work.

          With all this as the backdrop, imagine my despair as I listened this afternoon to John Piper preach a message to his church about a new church plant they are a part of.  He talks about the church’s mandate to spread the gospel and the effectiveness of church planting in making new converts.  Then, he goes on to describe the church’s history and the many, many churches it has planted over the years.  I found myself crying out, “I want to be a part of that!”  I began to despair thinking that my church would probably never be a part of such a magnificent work as a church plant.  I listened as he described the two or three campuses his church has.  I imagined the many hundreds and thousands of people who regularly attend his church.  I listened as he talked about his church’s “resident church planter” program, in which ministers train for 18 months and are then released to plant a church.  I listened, drooled, and then despaired as I realized the stark contrast to my church of 15 (at least by today’s count) which can’t even afford to pay its ministers or the utilities, much less invest in such grand Kingdom work.

          Then John Piper said something that caught my ear and put me in my place: How did God start the church at Philippi?  With a woman named Lydia whom he gave the heart to do the work, a demon possessed girl, and a suicidal Roman jailor.  With only three people God grew the church at Philippi…We’ve got fifteen!  I get so frustrated sometimes at my church, at our situation.  I find myself thinking that our church will never amount to anything, never accomplish anything for the Kingdom.  We just don’t have enough people or resources.  But God chooses the things which are weak to shame the strong.  God often works through impossible situations, just like the one my church is in—and seems to thoroughly enjoy doing so!  Sure, there are things that frustrate me about my church, but that’s because it’s made up of imperfect people, of whom I often feel like the chief of sinners. But it’s not my church, it’s God’s church, and he knows what he’s doing.

          In Acts 18:9-10, God tells Paul “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”  Now I don’t presume to know God’s plans, but I have to imagine that in a city of 1.2 million, God has many people in this city that will come to know him.  We may not be the biggest, nor the best church in the city, but God has called me to minister to the people of my church.  Part of that ministry is dragging people—saved and unsaved alike—out of the darkness and into the light.  And that’s not easy work.  People get comfortable.  But my God is a God of the miraculous, of the impossible, and it doesn’t have to seem “reasonable” or “feasible” for my church to suddenly be indwelled with the power of the Holy Spirit as were the churches at Philippi, Ephesus, and—in more modern times—John Piper’s church in Minneapolis, MN.  It doesn’t even have to be “possible.”  Because “with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NASB).  I just need to be faithful in my ministry and do as I feel God leading, no matter how unreasonable or unlikely it may seem.  God has changed worse people (Saul–>Paul) and I have no doubt that he can and will do so for many more.

          Unfortunately, as the church in America is in a well-documented state of decline, I’m probably not the only person to have felt like this.  You may be struggling with the same things in your church.  Attendance is down, tithes are down, bills are up, and it seems that no one has a heart for doing God’s work.  But don’t despair.  All it takes is the Holy Spirit’s moving in a handful of people.  A single match can start a wildfire.  Trust God, pray for his Spirit, and never despair of doing what is right, of serving your church.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.   For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Galatians 6:6-10 (NASB)

Why Do We Pray?

Much has happened over the last couple weeks that is worth comment, but I will contain my comments to one particular event which happened the last Sunday before Christmas (12/18/11). I had been leading the youth in preparation of a Christmas play/cantata that we were to perform that Sunday. We were about 10 minutes into the play, and during the second song, while I was leading the congregation in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” Mrs. Ethel Brown (our pianist) suffered a massive stroke and collapsed into the floor. We cancelled the remainder of the service and play (which we were fortunate enough to be able to perform the following Wednesday evening) and I immediately began leading the youth in a prayer vigil. At the time, I assumed that she had suffered from a stroke, but none of us knew the severity. Mrs. Ethel (as we all call her) had suffered from two simultaneous aneurisms, one in each hemisphere of her brain, both too far interior for operation. In other words, there was nothing the doctors could do but sit and wait.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking exactly what the doctors told us: “There’s no hope.” One doctor, as I recall, even told us that he’d never seen someone live who suffered that severe a stroke. He told us, “I deal with facts, not hope.” (Some bedside manner he had! Quite the charmer…) So, we continued praying. Oddly enough though, not even the family was praying for Mrs. Ethel’s survival just out of a desire to keep her around. Even the family was praying for God’s will to be accomplished and for him to be glorified. Many of us prayed for God to spare Mrs. Ethel to prove to an unbelieving doctor that God–not facts and statistics–is in control. And he answered our prayers. Mrs. Ethel Brown is currently undergoing therapy and rehab. She has regained much cognitive ability and awareness, and though she still has a long road of recovery ahead, her survival is nothing short of a miracle and an answer to prayer. It gave me great joy as I was able to tell the youth on Wednesday night that their prayers had been answered.

There are many examples in the Bible of specific answers to prayer. One that caught my eye today while I was reading is David’s requests in Psalm 21:1-7. David asked for God’s blessings and length of life, and “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips” (v. 2). I have often wondered what the difference is between prayers that are answered and prayers that are not. David tells us, though, why his prayers were answered in verse 7: “For the king trusts in the Lord…” Those prayers which are answered are those which are prayed from faithful reverence to God. In our drive-thru society, all too often we approach prayer like a fast food menu. “God, I’ll take a number 1–a happy life–and can I get some wealth and prosperity on the side? Oh, and that’ll be to-go; I’m in a hurry to get to work.” But when Jesus modeled prayer, the first thing that he prayed was praise (“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”) and a request for God’s will to be done on Earth just as it is done in heaven. How is God’s will done in heaven? Without question, complaint, doubt, or reservation.

Many people assume that if God is in control of everything that happens and knows or predestined the future then prayer is pointless. After all, if God is going to do what he has already planned to do anyhow, then your prayer is not going to change anything! But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Do we really wish for the infinitely wise, all-knowing God of the universe to change his plans based upon our sinfully tainted desires and finite understanding?!?! How absurd! How dare we approach the throne of God as if we were sitting in Santa’s lap reciting our Christmas wish-list! Prayer that works, prayer with the right purpose, is prayer for God to align our desires with his, not prayer that asks God to align his desires with ours. We do not pray for God to change his plan, but for God to change our hearts. David’s prayers were granted because he trusted in the Lord, and it can be inferred from other passages in the OT that God’s desire to prosper David was firmly rooted in his desire for the other nations to see Israel’s prosperity and come to serve Israel’s God. David knew that. When he prayed for blessings and prosperity, he didn’t pray from a selfish, greed driven desire to get rich and live a good life, he was praying for God to be glorified (see v. 13).

Similarly, our prayers for Mrs. Ethel to be healed were answered because it brought God glory to demonstrate his power in impossible circumstances, not because God felt sorry for her family and knew how much it would hurt them to lose her. Though God does love his children and has compassion on them during the trials of life, we all must die someday. It is simply a matter of when and how. When we pray for a loved one, or a difficult circumstance, or for blessings, let us not pray out of vain, selfish ambition, but out of a desire for God to be glorified. God may be glorified in demonstrating his power over sickness and death by healing our loved ones. God may be glorified in giving great material wealth and many possessions to his faithful servants. But, God may also be glorified through the persistent faith of his children who suffer unimaginable difficulties, loss, and poverty (See the book of Job). Regardless of the outcome, let us pray to align our will with God’s and save our wish-lists for Santa.

Sin is serious

          Today as I was reading in the Psalms, something I read brought Isaiah 53 to mind, so I flipped to the passage and continued my reading there.  Isaiah 52:13-54:3 is probably my favorite of the many Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament which speaks of how Christ’s atonement brought gentiles under the covenant blessings alongside Israel (see esp. 54:1-3, where the “barren woman”–think ‘Sarai, Leah, or Hannah’–is told to “stretch out her tent” because more “children” are coming in).  What struck me most today in my reading of this passage is how despite the fact that Isaiah never uses the words “Messiah,” “Christ,” or “Jesus,” this passage seems to be screaming all three as you read it!  When read this passage, even my youth group—comprised largely of 10-13 year old kids—agreed in unison (and without prompt!) that this passage was about Christ.

          Having recently read and studied the Levitical system of sacrifice, I was also overwhelmed by the beautiful, poetic imagery of this passage which depicts Christ as a sacrificial lamb offered as a guilt offering for the sins of the nations.  Isaiah 52:14-15a says, “Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men.  Thus He will sprinkle many nations…” (See Ex 29:21).  The very Son of God was slaughtered as a guilt offering for the sins of His own creation.

          Sin is serious.  It has serious consequences.  So many times I am tempted to believe that my sins are “no big deal,” or that they are just simply “shortcomings” or “slip-ups.”  But it seems to me that we don’t call actions which cost the lives of others merely “slip-ups.”  If a president utters a rash statement to a foreign dignitary which sparks a war, do we excuse his “slip-up?”  How much more serious are those sins which nailed the sinless God of the universe to a cross!  I know of few words in the English language which effectively communicate the gravity of sin.  Perhaps “wickedness” comes close.  But we don’t often like to refer to ourselves as “wicked.”  That rubs us the wrong way.  But it is the unfortunate truth.  I’m reminded of an old, anonymous poem (which I’ve adapted slightly):

Man call is an accident, God calls it abomination.
Man calls it a defect, God calls it a disease.
Man calls it an error, God calls it an enmity.
Man calls it a liberty, God calls it lawlessness.
Man calls it a trifle, God calls it a tragedy.
Man calls it a mistake, God calls it madness.
Man calls it a weakness, God calls it wickedness.

          My sin cost my dear Savior an agonizing death.  To use the language of Isaiah 52-53, he was “marred, despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, oppressed, and afflicted.”  Why?  Because I “slipped-up?”  Because I made a “mistake?”  No.  Because I sinned.  Because I, in my wicked rejection of my very Creator and God, decided that my way was better than His.  And because our sin is against not simply another sinful human, but the infinitely sinless, Almighty God, the penalty is infinitely severe: death (Romans 6:23).

          But thank God that isn’t the whole story!  Isaiah 53 (and the latter half of Romans 6:23) also tells another side to the story: redemption.  God—in His infinite love and mercy—despite my sinfulness, chose to love me and save me anyways, through the sacrificial death of his Son.  What a great God I have.

He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!  But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.  All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all.

 –Isaiah 53:3-6