Tuesday, March 15, 2011
The Christian life can only be lived out among a group of believers, dedicated to loving one another and on mission together to make more disciples. I'm thankful to be part of the family at City Lights Church in St. Louis. The people there are loving, gracious, joyful and determined followers of Jesus.
My pastors, Ben and Eric, have taught me much about the life of obedience during the last six years, not only through their sound Biblical teaching but by their examples.
My wife, Christina, allowed me many hours on the computer over the last year and a half writing and rewriting posts for this blog. She's part of everything I do and part of everything God has done in me the last ten years.
I wouldn't have kept going without those that took time to read this blog and share kind words of encouragement with me. Thank you, Casey, Nikki, Steve, Janele, Deedra, Jodi, Dave G., Debbie, Dave H., Nicole, Tonya, Lance, Troy, Stephanie, and everyone else.
To Logan, Ethan and Josie. You're all my favorites. I pray that you grow to know Jesus, to love him, and to depend on him for your salvation. I pray that you lead lives of God-honoring joyful obedience through the power of the Holy Spirit. Never doubt that Mommy and Daddy love you very much. Always remember that Jesus loves you best.
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
In twenty years of following Jesus, I’ve struggled with this command more than any other. Since I was a little boy, I’ve been prone to periods of gloominess and melancholy. Now, at age 37, I am living more joyfully than ever before. I won’t pretend to have it all figured out. It's an ongoing battle, but I have experienced healing in this area.
The call to a joyful life is not something that can be observed in any meaningful way in a single week, but I didn’t want to end this project without writing about it. Instead of writing about one week’s experience, I’d like to share what I’ve learned over the last twenty or so years in my fight for joy.
Joy is Commanded.
The first thing you have to accept is that God commands joy. It’s not optional for us Christians. The Psalms admonish us to worship the Lord with joyful songs, Psalm 100:2, and to delight in the Lord, Psalm 37:4. In the New Testament, Jesus, James and the Apostles Peter and Paul command us to be joyful. Matthew 5:11-12, James 1:2-3, 1 Peter 4:13, Phil. 4:4-7, Romans 5:3-4.
There is Joy and Pain.
Christians should be the happiest and most joyful people in the world. We have reason to be. The prosperity gospel, however, doesn’t stand up to the Bible for half a second. The Christian life will always be full of joy and pain. The call to joy is a call to joy in the midst of sometimes difficult lives. Jesus told us that we should rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted and falsely accused. Matthew 5:11-12. The Apostle Peter tells us to rejoice when we share in the sufferings of Christ. 1 Peter 4:13. James tells us to consider it pure joy when we face testing and trials. James 1:2-3. Paul tells us that we should rejoice always, Phil. 4:4-7, and that we should exult in our tribulations, Romans 5:3-4. Paul said that he was full of sorrows yet always rejoicing. 2 Cor. 6:10.
Joy is a Choice.
In the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, Jesus says this amazing thing. In the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says that one of the twelve will betray him, that he is leaving them and that they cannot follow, and that Peter will deny him. Jesus says all this to the men who have given up everything to follow him, to the men who have walked with him, worked with him and loved him for three years. Then, at John 14:1, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” It’s a weird thing to say. Our culture tells us to get in touch with our feelings, follow our feelings, or trust our hearts. Jesus says at the darkest possible time that his disciples should control their emotions, not the other way around. In a life of trouble, we are somehow supposed to choose joy. The question is: how do we choose it?
Repent of Joylessness.
If joy is commanded, then joylessness is a sin. Some of us will need to repent of it and confess it repeatedly. Repentance isn’t something we should be afraid of. Repentance is not presenting yourself before God for a holy butt kicking. Biblical repentance is simply when the Holy Spirit moves us to have heartfelt sorrow for sin, to renounce it, and to commit to forsake it. Yes, the first step in the fight for joy is to feel heartfelt sorrow over our joylessness, to renounce it, and to commit to fighting for joy.
Fix Your Attention on Jesus.
Nothing in my life has been as effective in the fight for joy as fixing my attention on the gospels, especially the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. For one thing, we don’t get very far complaining about the difficulties we face when we look at the cross. Also, real lasting joy is based on knowing and believing the truth about God’s character and his love for us. Nothing demonstrates God’s love and character more clearly than Jesus at the cross. Finally, when we look at the cross we should be filled with hope for the inheritance that is waiting for us on the other side of eternity.
Pray for the Light and Truth of the Holy Spirit.
We’re not just called to obey joyfully but to obey joyfully by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul says that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Gal. 5:22. Here is how I understand that. It’s not as simple as saying that joy is an emotion that the Spirit puts in us. Real lasting joy is the result of us knowing and believing the truth about who God is, what he is like, and how he works in our lives. The problem is that we tend to leak truth. We may know in our minds that God is good and in control. Our hearts, however, often forget it, especially when we’re in pain. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. The Spirit speaks truth to our hearts about who God is and what he is doing. One of the best ways to fight for joy is to read God’s word while constantly asking the Holy Spirit to show us truth about God’s character, his love, and his promises.
Preach Truth to Yourself.
The Book of Lamentations is a profound expression of grief by the prophet Jeremiah over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. He describes a time of war, deprivation and personal loss. In the middle of his grieving, Jeremiah says:
Yet this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
It’s right for us to feel sorrow over the fact that things are not as they should be. The effects of sin in this world are devastating. We should care a lot about that. On the other hand, we shouldn’t care too much, because we know that God is still good and in control. Jeremiah stops himself in the middle of his mourning. He starts talking to himself. “Yet this I call to mind...” He goes on to preach to himself about God’s compassionate character. That’s a great strategy for us in our fight for joy. We should preach truth to ourselves about God’s character.
Practice the Discipline of Giving Thanks.
The words that come out of our mouths effect what we feel and believe. Grumbling and complaining lead to a gloomy heart. Giving thanks stirs up joy. I’ve learned that I need to practice the discipline of giving thanks. The commands to rejoice and to give thanks go hand in hand. Just as we are commanded to rejoice always, we are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances. Phil. 4:4-7, 1 Thess. 5:16-18. We should especially give thanks when we don’t feel thankful. That doesn’t mean that our thanksgiving won’t be sincere. It means that our thanksgiving will be based on what we know about God rather than our unreliable feelings.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
It’s now about 56 weeks since I started The James 1:22 Project, and I’m finally getting to Week 39. This week involves fasting. You can fast from anything that’s legitimate and acceptable in itself that you give up for God. For the project, however, I wanted to do a traditional fast from food. I’ve been delayed due to the fact that, in order to treat a pinched nerve in my back, I’ve been on steroids and pain medication for several weeks. The medication precluded the fast. With my back feeling a bit better, I’m off the medication and fasting.
At the outset, I want to be clear about what this post is not. This not a comprehensive teaching on any aspect of fasting. I don’t mean to cover the Biblical basis for it or explain the nuts and bolts of how to do it. Others have done that much better than I could. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the links to the resources at the end of the post.
Next, I should clarify that strictly speaking there is no Biblical command to fast. This week’s command is not a command to fast. It’s a command about how not to fast—not like the hypocrites. On the other hand, Jesus says, “when you fast,” not if you fast. Jesus himself fasted. He assumed that his disciples would fast.
We also need to get over the idea that it’s wrong to talk about fasting. Jesus never taught that fasting must be done in secret. His teaching is that you should not fast for the praise or sympathy of men but only for God’s reward. Jesus is concerned about our hearts, not with us keeping our fast a secret. I think we Christians need to talk about fasting more. We definitely shouldn't make a big deal about our religiousness. But, we need to talk with new believers and the next generation about why and how we fast.
What I’ve come to understand about fasting in the last year is that it’s all about relationship with our Father in heaven. As a father, I love to buy things for my kids. I love to see them enjoy the things that I give them. Our heavenly father is like that. He loves to bless us with good things. Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matt. 7:11.
As a father, however, I want my children to love me more than the things I have given them. The highlight of my work day is when I come home at the end of the day, and the boys forget about whatever they’re doing for just a minute and come running to greet me with hugs and kisses. That’s what God wants our hearts to be like when we fast. Fasting is about setting aside the good things that God has given us and running into his arms. Fasting is about us expressing that we love God and desire him more than the good things he has given us. We give up a meal or a few meals and spend time with our heavenly Father, because we find him more satisfying and joy-giving than food or anything else. It's not some extreme religious discipline for super-Christians. It's a simple way of expressing our love to Abba, Father.
The danger for us is that we will love the gifts more than the one who gives them. Sometimes, I come home, and the boys don’t come running to greet me. They’re too busy playing with their toys. We’re like that as Christians sometimes. We’re simply too busy playing with our toys and indulging our appetites to notice that our heavenly Father is waiting to give us a better reward and a greater pleasure—his own loving embrace.
Here are some resources for those who want to learn more about fasting:
1. A Hunger for God by John Piper
2. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
3. Answers to FAQ about fasting by me
Friday, January 7, 2011
"The worst enemy of enthusiasm is time." ~ John Piper
It is so easy to grow weary. So hard to endure. Last week, millions of people made New Year's resolutions, and this week millions are breaking them.
My sons are already growing weary of the toys that they received just two weeks ago at Christmas.
People grow weary in their relationships. In the United States, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. For second marriages, sixty-seven percent will end in divorce.
How about your job? Maybe you started years ago with enthusiasm, and now you feel bored or burnt out.
My point is that human beings quickly and easily grow weary of wonderful things that they were once excited about. Christian ministry is no exception.
My wife and I started leading small group almost three years ago. For me, at first, the excitement of leading group was strong. As I studied the Bible in preparation for group night, led discussions and prayed for our group members, I felt joyful and strong in the Holy Spirit. And, in that first year, there were few challenges as the group flourished, grew and sent out a new group. Now, I've begun to grow weary. The second and third years of leadership have brought struggles---emotional, relational, and spiritual. In the midst of those struggles, some of the joy has gone away. I still love my small group. I love every one of our group members more than ever. But, sometimes preparing for group night, calling group members, or leading our Bible discussion feels like a chore.
Does God want us to abandon what He has called us to when things become difficult? The answer is clearly, NO! Galatians 6:9 says, "Let us not grow weary in well-doing." His church depends on people that keep serving obediently year after year in spite of obstacles. Here are the questions that I've been asking God the last couple weeks: "How do I keep going? How do I not grow weary? Where does endurance come from?"
God's answer loud and clear has been this . . . HOPE! In Galatians 6:9, the command to not grow weary comes with the encouragement to have hope in the promise that if we do not give up then we shall have a harvest. Endurance is the fruit of hope. Paul told the Thessalonians: "We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Thess. 1:3.
How do we get hold of hope in Jesus and keep hold of it? Romans 15:4 says, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by the endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope." What this means is that God's word is our source of hope and endurance. One thing I've repeatedly been impressed by during this project is that believing God's promises given in the Bible is essential to a life of obedience. And, just as faith in God's promises is the antidote to worry and fear, I've realized that hope in God's promises is the antidote to weariness.
In the Book of Lamentations, we see a beautiful picture of how hope in God's compassion, mercy and faithfulness gave the prophet Jeremiah endurance to carry on even as he saw his beloved Jerusalem conquered by invaders and the temple destroyed. Reading Jeremiah's prayer fills me with hope.
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall,
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope;
Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him."
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to forget the various evangelism formulas and strategies that I've been taught while taking a fresh look at what Jesus said about our role in helping others to know God. It turns out there are not seven easy steps to win people to Christ. There are only two steps. They are, however, perhaps not so easy.
Step One: Joyful Suffering
Jesus commands us Christians to live our lives in such a way that when others look at us they will glorify our Father in heaven. Jesus says, "let your light shine." Which, begs the question, what light? The answer, Jesus says, is that "You are the light of the world." In other words, letting your light shine is not about being something you're not. It's about being what God designed you and destined you to be. "You are the light!" Why would your light cause people to glorify God? Because God in you is the source of your light. What does all that mean in practical terms?
This passage of the Sermon on the Mount comes just after Jesus has given the beatitudes. The closest beatitude in proximity to this passage is: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Matt. 5:11-12. I think what Jesus means when he says "let your light shine" is exactly what he suggested in the final verses of the beatitudes. Rejoice and be glad in the midst of insults and persecution and life's inevitable hardships. In other words, why would God be glorified by our joy in the midst of happy prosperous circumstances? Aren't even ungodly people joyful when all is right with their world? But, when we face hardships and difficulties and still have joy as a result of God in us, then God is glorified.
We shouldn't be surprised, then, that when we ask God to make us lights in our community or our workplaces that we face difficulties. God's light in us shines most brightly in the darkest of circumstances. The Apostle Peter put it this way:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
1 Peter 4:12-14. So, here is step one, in God's easy plan for winning people to Christ: suffer joyfully. That's probably not going to sell many books, but there you have it. It's God's plan; not mine.
How can we have joy in the midst of difficulties? The answer, Jesus says, is, "because great is your reward in heaven!" What awaits us in heaven? The presence of our Lord. When He becomes more precious to us than anything else, then we have a joy that will last in the midst of hardship. Then, our lives will be a light to the world.
Step Two: Joyful Surrender
Jesus says, "Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds . . . ." Jesus is not saying that our good deeds by themselves will cause others to glorify God. Our good works are not the light. Good works are meaningless, unless they are done in the glow of God's light.
On the other hand, our "good deeds" are a necessary part of God's plan. When you follow Jesus and love Him, He demands that you take part in His work. What does it mean to take part in God's work? What I've discovered over the last thirty-six weeks is that God commands every part of our lives. He commands our thoughts, our emotions, and actions. He commands how we relate to Him, to our families, to our church, and to the world. He has a plan and purpose for every moment of every day of our lives. Above all else, he commands us to love God and love others. Following Jesus requires nothing less than absolute and complete surrender to Him. When we joyfully surrender our lives to him realizing that He is absolutely beyond a shadow of a doubt much more than worth it, then others will see our good deeds and God will be glorified.
I've left a few very important questions about joy unanswered. What is Christian joy? Can it be commanded? It is, by the way. And, how do we respond to God's command to be joyful? More on all that, God willing, when we get to the final week of The Project and The Project's final command: "Rejoice in the Lord always." Philippians 4:4.
Friday, December 3, 2010
Jesus came so that we could get right with God. He also came so that we could get right with one another. Reconciliation takes one party seeking repentance and the other party forgiving through the power of the cross. Way back in Week Two, I struggled with the command to forgive. This is the other side of things.
What should we do when we have wrongfully hurt another? "Go and be reconciled to them!" This command is a call to humble ourselves, reach out to those who we have hurt, and to repent. This is such a high priority to Jesus that he says we should take care of reconciliation before making our offerings to God.
I've been struggling with this one for a couple weeks. At first, I knew exactly what God was calling me to do, and I didn't want to do it. And, then, I did it and didn't know how to write about it without betraying another person's confidence and privacy. Back when I was dealing with repentance and confession in Weeks 3 and 6, the Spirit brought to my mind an old sin I had committed about twenty years ago against a person who was close to me at the time. It was not the end our relationship, but, looking back, it was probably the beginning of us drifting apart. We haven't talked at all in several years. When I went through the process of repentance and confession, I felt that God was calling me to reach out to this person and to apologize. I've been putting it off, dreading it. I finally made the phone call this week. To be honest, it was a rather awkward conversation, but I think it was ultimately a healing and freeing conversation for both of us.
Then, the other day, I yelled at my wife, Christina. She said something to me, which I took offense at and got angry. It had been an awful day at work, and I chose to take it out on Christina. I yelled at her in front of the boys. I think it's the first time I've ever done that. I knew right away that I had really blown it. And, it still took me about 24 hours before I apologized to her. I apologized to the boys, too. I explained to them that what I had done was wrong and that I had already apologized to Mommy. My seven year old, God bless him, said, "Yeah, Dad, I was thinking that you shouldn't talk to Mommy like that." Ugh. How low do you think that made me feel?
I can't sugar coat it. It's a terribly humbling thing to stand in front of somebody and say, "I messed up. What I did was wrong. There's no excuse for it. I know I hurt you. I'm sorry." It's a frightful thing to stand before someone you've hurt, make yourself vulnerable to them, and then hope for mercy. That is, however, exactly what God calls us to. Whether we are the wrongdoer or the one who has been wrongfully hurt, our Lord calls us to take the lead in seeking reconciliation.
Doesn't it make sense that reconciliation should be difficult and painful? Sin is a serious thing. It can't be dealt with flippantly. Jesus suffered and died so that we could be reconciled to God. The cross also gives us believers the power to be reconciled to one another. When it happens the right way, when there is humble repentance on one side and forgiveness on the other, God is glorified, and wounds are healed.
Friday, November 12, 2010
Back in Week Five, I wrote about my first trip down Sniper Alley in Sarajevo.
I was twenty-one years old and scared out of my wits. It was the end of 1995, a few days after Christmas. I had been deployed to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina as an Army Reservist to take part in NATO's implementation of the recently signed Dayton Peace Agreement. Sarajevo had been under siege for the last three years---the longest siege of any city in the history of modern warfare. The main boulevard through the city had been nicknamed Sniper Alley. Snipers had infamously dug in all along both sides of the road, wounding over one-thousand people and killing over two-hundred men, women and children.
Buildings all over the city were in ruins. Sarajevo had once been a developed, modern city---the home of the 1984 Winter Olympics. When I saw it for the first time, it looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
My first stop in Sarajevo was Zetra Stadium. In 1984, it had been the home of Olympic figure skating, speed skating and hockey. Only eight years later, the roof was blown off by artillery fire. The basement was converted to a morgue. Whatever wood that could be salvaged from the building was used to build improvised coffins. When NATO arrived, the stadium was converted into a temporary barracks and headquarters. It was my home address for my first few months in Bosnia. We slept right on the spot where the bodies had been piled.
That first night in Sarajevo, there in the basement of Zetra stadium, I opened my Bible to Matthew 6, and Jesus's words came alive for me.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Matthew 6:25-26. What a difference it made to believe that I was valuable to my heavenly Father---that His love for me was real and present and that I could trust His protection and provision. Faith rose up in me and peace came over my heart and mind.
These days, I'm not living in a combat zone. I'm a trial lawyer. For lawyers, worry is an occupational hazard. A 1990 John Hopkins study found that out of all professions studied lawyers are most likely to suffer from depression. Alcoholism and suicide are much more prevalent among lawyers than among the general population. Lawyers are also at a much higher risk of stress related illness than the general population. It's a business where you're judged on results. And, very often, the results you obtain depend on factors beyond your own control. So, how do we, as a profession, respond? We worry. We stress.
I'm no exception. I constantly struggle with worry and anxiety about my work. I've been preparing for a trial the last month and have been stressed about it. So, very appropriately, the assignment for last week was to "not worry about tomorrow."
Over the years of practicing law, I've often gone back to that lesson I learned in Sarajevo. The antidote for worry, fear and anxiety, is to turn my attention from tomorrow's problems and towards God's promises. A few nights ago, God drew me back to Matthew 6, reminded me of that night in the basement of Zetra fifteen years ago, and reminded me that His love is still very real and present for today and tomorrow. Here are some other promises that God has highlighted for me in times of stress and fear.
- "Fear not for I am with you, be not discouraged for I am your God; I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand." Isaiah 41:10.
- "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Romans 8:31
- "And the Lord is the one who goes ahead of you; he will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear, or be dismayed." Deuteronomy 31:8
- "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord." Proverbs 21:31
- "Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning." Lamentations 3:22-23