Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'm Glad the Bible Isn't Written About Me

The Old Testament is full of historical accounts. Some sections are focused in on individuals & their "life story," while some are pulled back to capture events of an entire people group or nation. In either case, most of the time these accounts include a narrative about failure. They cite instances of rebellion, idolatry, immorality, and more - some in great detail and others in sweeping generalities.

I recently started reading through the book of Hosea, and so far it has been very descriptive of the sin of Israel at that time. God, speaking through the prophet of Hosea, does not pull any punches when accusing His people of their sin. There was no semblance of any kind of morality, but the biggest issue was that they had completely pushed God out of their lives - both individually & as a nation. They were in over their heads with idolatry - so much in fact, that in chapter 4 it says that there was "no knowledge of God in the land." While reading through chapters 4 & 5 today, I had a few observations about idolatry:

1.  Idolatry Looks Really Dumb
Hosea 4:12 - "My people inquire a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles..."
Have you ever asked a tree branch a question? How about a twig for advice, or tried to gain insight on an important life decision from a log? Maybe you've begged a stump for healing, or pleaded with it to comfort you in a time of sorrow?

When I'm involved in idolatry - placing things above Jesus that are of far lesser value - I have convinced myself it's the best option. I truly believe in that moment that I'm pursuing what is most important. If only I could step back sooner & see the futility of replacing Christ with anything else - it's as smart as talking to a piece of wood.

2.  Idolatry Takes a Lot of Effort...For Nothing
Hosea 4:13 - "They sacrifice on the tops of mountains and burn offerings on the hills..."
It's not exactly easy or convenient to climb to the top of a mountain, or set up an altar on the top of a hill. Think about all the detail they must have gone to in order to make sure their sacrifices were "just right" for their false gods. But their offerings simply burned to ash, and the smoke just disappeared into the atmosphere. There was nothing and no one on the receiving end of their effort. How much effort do I put into serving the idols of my heart? And for what eternal gain?

3.  Idolatry is a Conscious, Deliberate Choice
Hosea 4:8 - "...they are greedy for their iniquity."
Hosea 5:11 - "...he (Israel) was determined to go after filth."
What might start as something innocent, unintentional, or even "good," can easily turn into an idol of the heart if we proceed without caution. Once something takes priority over Christ, our service to that idol is always a deliberate, willful choice. How "determined" am I to "go after filth?"

While these lessons are true, and the applications are's the danger we can often fall into when reading these accounts of sinful behavior:  "Wow, the Israelites were pretty messed up people, look at all that bad stuff they did." - and basically leave it at that. But today, I had this thought:

What if the Bible described the idolatry of my heart in detail, for everyone in the history of the world to read? What would God say in written form about my heart during the darkest, most selfish times of my life? What would the Holy Spirit inspire someone to record about my motives, even when I might think I'm doing right? Unfortunately it would be eerily similar to that of the Israelites...too often taking advantage of God's unending grace and patience. Too easily forgetting how He was faithful to carry me through the deepest, darkest valleys when I fill my mind with worry and doubt. Too often deliberately choosing to do what I want instead of thinking and praying about what God desires of me as His redeemed child. Would He describe me  as "greedy for my iniquity"? Would He say that I am "determined to go after filth"? However worded, it would definitely be ugly, and it would be embarrassing... but it would be true.

This is why I'm thankful the Bible isn't written about me - as a historical narrative of the specific thoughts & intents of my heart over the years. However, even though our own life stories aren't written down in detail - the Bible is definitely clear about who we are. I truly believe that the sins of Israel (and many others) are not just recorded for us to have an example of "what not to do." They aren't written down only for us to observe how messed up those people were & to try and avoid their acts. Their sins are described to show us who we are. To teach us about the depravity of mankind & the wickedness of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). But the Bible doesn't build a case against us just to leave us wallowing in our misery. It all points to the fact that we're powerless to change our own sinful heart. We can't clean ourselves up. It all points to the cross, and it points to the suffering Servant who took the very punishment for our sins to offer freedom from the idols I too often chase.

So while I'm thankful the Bible isn't written about my life - I'm also thankful that it teaches me about my sin. What I'm most thankful about, though, is who the Bible IS written about - Jesus Christ, who didn't come to condemn the world (even though He would've been completely just in doing so)...but in order that the world might be saved through Him. (John 3:17)

"The Bible is not first a recipe book of Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our unchristian living." - Tullian Tchividjian

Friday, April 18, 2014

What is "Good" about Good Friday?

Good Friday - what could possibly be "good" in connection with a crucifixion? The Son of God - unjustly condemned as a criminal and put to death by way of one of the most horrific, torturous, and gruesome practices probably in the history of mankind. But while the practice of crucifixion itself is horrifying, the eternal effects of Jesus' death are where an unbelievable amount of "good" can be found.

Over the course of this week, I've been trying to think through the "weight" of the upcoming Easter weekend. It's truly a great celebration in the life of a believer, and it's always the Sunday to look forward to in the life of a church. But to sit & try to think through what really took try to sort through the implications & ramifications of the events of that weekend so long's something we really can't even wrap our minds around. To contemplate the enormity of what was accomplished by our suffering Savior on the cross of Calvary is an overwhelming exercise of the human mind. But I wanted to at least make an attempt to look at what was fulfilled for those of us who have placed our faith in Christ when Jesus said "It is finished." By no means is this an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will at least be a good framework for understanding.

Substitution:  First and foremost, the death of Jesus was in our place. It was the death we all deserve...but our sinful state was so depraved that we aren't even worthy to pay the penalty for our own sin. So in God's love, He sent a substitute - the God-Man. Because sin has been committed by man, only another human could be our substitute (the debt alone is mankind's). But it had to be a sinless, spotless sacrifice - so this substitute also had to be fully God in order to be the perfect sacrifice. God sent Himself to meet His own demands to be the substitute for our sin. "Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?" (1 Timothy 2:5; Isaiah 53:5; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

Propitiation:  Christ's substitution brought about propitiation. Because of our sin, we were under the wrath of a holy God. God, being just and righteous, cannot overlook or excuse sin. Sin demands a payment, and "the wages of sin is death." But in the death of Jesus as the sinless sacrifice on our behalf, God literally poured out His wrath as He punished & cursed His Son for our sin. So again, in His love, God Himself provided the means by which His own wrath would be appeased. "And on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied." (1 John 2:2, 4:10; Hebrews 2:17; Romans 3:25; Isaiah 53:11)

Atonement:  Closely connected to 'propitiation,' atonement means to cover, or to satisfy. In the Jewish sacrificial system, the Day of Atonement took place only once a year (Leviticus 16). That was the only day the high priest could enter the holy of holies of the tabernacle or the temple to make atonement on behalf of the people of Israel. There were a lot of specific requirements (almost all of them involving blood - Hebrews 9:22) that went along with this ritual in order for God to be satisfied with the sacrifice, and for the sins of the people to be atoned for (or forgiven). However, on the cross Jesus presented Himself - and His own shed blood - as the once and for all sacrifice. The one-time, sufficient payment for all sins - past, present, and future. "Jesus paid it all - all to Him I owe. My sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow." (Hebrews 10:11-18).

Reconciliation:  The satisfaction of God's wrath & the atonement for sin is the prerequisite to our reconciliation. Our sin created a chasm between us and our Creator. The relationship & perfect fellowship originally established in the garden of Eden was broken with the original sin of Adam and the perpetual sin of mankind. The death of Christ removed that barrier between God and man, and brought restoration to that relationship. Never is it mentioned that God is reconciled to us - rather, we were the ones at enmity with God, and we alone were in need of being reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Romans 5:10)

Redemption:  We were slaves to sin, and slaves to the law (which only magnifies our sin & offers no way of escape). The substitutionary death of Jesus purchased us from the very slavery of sin & death. He paid our ransom with His very blood. "Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it! Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb! Redeemed through His infinite mercy; His child, and forever, I am." (Ephesians 1:7; Galatians 3:13-14)

Justification:  This is the legal declaration based solely on what was accomplished by Jesus, in our place, on the cross. It is nothing we can work for or earn. The very moment we place our faith in Christ's work on our behalf, His payment for sin is applied to us personally, and all of our sins - past, present, and future - are forgiven. We are not "innocent" - we are pardoned. Positionally, God no longer looks at us as a sinner, but instead sees us through the righteousness of His own Son. The divine exchange made possible by the blood of Jesus - He took our sin & gave us His righteousness. A one-time act that has an eternal effect. "Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God, the Just, is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me!" (Romans 5:1, 3:24-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

As I mentioned before - in no way is this any kind of an exhaustive list, but all of these glorious truths were made possible & accomplished at the very moment Jesus victoriously proclaimed, "It is finished!" This is the "good" in Good Friday - that what needed to be done, and what we could never do on our own, was perfectly carried out for us. But perhaps the BEST thing about Good Friday, is that Sunday is just around the corner! When Jesus cried, "It is finished," the payment had been made & He knew the funds were sufficient. But when He rose from the dead 3 days later, the check was cleared and sin, death, and hell were defeated forever!

His resurrection ultimately sealed the fate of death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). It sealed our inheritance, and it gave us a guaranteed hope of new life in Him, and eternal life with Him (Ephesians 2:4-9; Colossians 3:3-4; 1 Peter 1:3-5). The weight of Easter weekend, then, is so much that the very focal point of all human history is centered on a bloody cross and an empty tomb. It is the basis for not only our salvation, but for any and all forward movement in this life. "It is finished" is a cry that echoes on through eternity and brings victory, freedom, and hope to all who repent and believe in His Name (Acts 4:12; Acts 16:31). It is the banner under which the believer lives his life, and it will be the basis of our unending praise throughout eternity. May our minds and hearts be saturated this Easter weekend with these great truths of what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf!

"Man of Sorrows" what a name for the Son of God who came;
Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Guilty, vile and helpless we, Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full atonement! Can it be? Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die, "It is finished," was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

When He comes our glorious King, all His ransomed home to bring;
Then anew this song we'll sing: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hard Work of Doing Nothing

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in February 2014 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

Am I the only one who ever feels like the Christian life can be exhausting at times? There are days, sometimes weeks, where I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels. I feel like I can’t do anything right. I get beaten down by my guilt & sinful desires. My mind is a frequent battleground for the war that Paul describes in Romans 7 between the old nature & the new. I end up either beating myself up, or throwing a giant pity party. But why does it get this way? How do we get to that point of exhaustion, and what drives us there?

The last few weeks at High Pointe, we’ve had the privilege of learning from John chapter 15. We’ve heard sermons on the concept of abiding in Christ and continued the discussion within our small groups. Personally, it has been eye-opening, refreshing, and mindset-altering. And in the midst of saturating my mind with these truths, the Spirit of God has helped me realize the catalyst that leads to our periods of “spiritual exhaustion.” It’s when we forget that we are branches & try to act like the vine.

John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

“Apart from Me you can do nothing.” - I think it’s safe to say that truth is the foundation of any & all Christian growth. We would all readily nod our heads and say a hearty “amen” while listening to someone read that verse. We would all agree that “of course we can’t do anything apart from Christ,” – and we’d probably even try to sound smarter by victoriously adding, “Instead, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” But for some reason, even though we would all nod our heads in agreement to this foundational truth…it’s usually the first one that we practically abandon.

One of the most difficult things in our walk with Christ is to get our hearts to agree & mesh with what our mind knows to be true. When it comes to our salvation, our minds know & understand that what truly took place was a divine miracle of passing from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13-14). Our minds know & understand that it wasn’t based on anything we have done, could do, or ever deserve – it was truly an act of God & through His grace alone (Ephesians 1:3-6; Ephesians 2:8-9). Our minds know & understand that once we place our faith & trust in Christ, we are forever justified & viewed by God through the righteousness of Christ (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1; Romans8:33-39). And we know that nothing can ever change our position in Christ. However...when it comes to our sanctification, for some reason our hearts tend to hold on to some deep-seated desire to continue to work for that salvation. To try & prove our worth to God. To dig deep and do everything in our power to “be all that we can be.” Our hearts try to hold on to the notion that God is disgusted with us when we fail, and that our good behavior is required to keep God’s approval. This is the disconnect that causes our disappointment & exhaustion.

These contrasts of belief & practice are what pastor & author Tullian Tchividjian calls “self-salvation projects,” and they eventually give way to legalism & slavery. In his book Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian says most believers realize that we could never earn our salvation, “…but when it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists.” He goes on to say,
“We seem to inherently assume that our performance is what will finally determine whether our relationship with God is good or bad: so much good behavior from us generates so much affection from God; or so much bad behavior from us generates so much anger from God … Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game. Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and to despair when we fail. But ultimately it leads to slavery either way, because it becomes all about us...”
And when being a Christian becomes all about us – when it becomes all about following our “to-do lists” – that is the very moment that we, as a branch, have broken off in a futile attempt to be the vine. We subconsciously believe that we are our own life source. We start reading the Bible as if it was mainly written about what we need to do for God instead of what God in Christ has done for us. And the whole time we’re “working hard” to build up our spiritual résumé & impress God, we don’t even realize how far we’ve strayed from the foundational truth that we were once saying ‘amen’ to:  “apart from Me you can do nothing. Talk about a definition of exhaustion – working hard to do nothing.

So how do we avoid this? What does it look like to “abide in Christ?” I believe it starts with a daily acknowledgment of the gospel. The gospel, ironically, starts with us – but it’s not good. As William Temple said, “the only thing you contribute to your salvation and to your sanctification is the sin that makes them necessary” (Romans 3:10-12; Romans 3:23). Too often, I fail to daily acknowledge the fact that Jesus brought me out of death. If I could do nothing on my own to escape my spiritual death, why would I ever think that I could do anything on my own to become more like Jesus (Galatians 3:2-3)? “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life.” – Tchividjian

So is sanctification effortless? Does our growth require no “work” at all? Of course not – Jesus says in John 15:10 to keep His commandments. But the work isn’t focused on us or our performance – it’s focused on Jesus and His performance for us. We work to recognize that He is the one at work in us & through us (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3). To gain a deeper understanding of what we already possess in Christ. And perhaps the thing we need to work the hardest at is to simply stay put; to remain; to abide. To stay attached to the true vine – our life source – and let His grace, mercy, and love propel us to then let our light shine before men, so that ultimately He is glorified (Matthew 5:16). “Practice doesn’t dictate position. Position dictates practice.” – Judah Smith

When we try to do it on our own, the Christian life will become exhausting. But when we abide in Jesus, we find true rest. Abiding in Christ doesn’t mean that we have to work hard to keep a good standing with God – it means living with the freedom that Jesus has done all the work for us, and will continue to remind us each day that “It is finished.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 
Matthew 11:28-30

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Real State of the Union - Why I Don't Do Politics

In no way am I intending to insult or offend anyone involved in or interested in politics. I am simply expressing my own opinion & viewpoint on why I'm not interested in them.

I hate politics. I really do. I don't watch CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or The O'Reilly Factor. I'm pretty confident in saying I never will.

It didn't always used to be this way. In fact, I used to be very interested in politics when I was in high school. But the more I paid attention & the more I learned, the more I realized just how corrupt it is - and it didn't take long for me to entirely lose interest in all things political. The prototypical politician is only concerned first with his or her own agenda & re-election; after that, maybe they skim through the concerns & interests of the people group they represent. To be honest, this is true of any form of government; whether capitalism, socialism, communism, or a monarchy - the inner pride & hunger for power always makes its way to the top & eventually dilutes the well-intended structure that was originally put in place. In all of human history, we have yet to create a form of government where this didn't eventually happen. It's the truth...and it's depressing.

Human government and politics are broken. While government is necessary to accomplish civilization, cultural order, and to uphold some set of legal code...politics can never truly solve any of our real problems. No matter how "big" or "small" our government becomes, it can never remove injustice (also known as: sin) from the world. In a sermon entitled, "Making Much of His Name," Matt Chandler said the following:
“Capitalism does nothing to transform hearts, it just creates the venue by which we will oppress & operate in injustice. It doesn’t eradicate oppression & injustice – it just sets the grid for how our wicked hearts will practice such things. And the United States – for all of God’s grace on this beautiful 50-state union – is not the light of the world.”
Here's why I don't "do" politics:

1) America is not the answer. Before you tell me to "love it or leave it," I assure you that I'm thankful to live in this country. I am very grateful for the freedom we have and for the sacrifice of so many to preserve that freedom. But here's the honest truth: America isn't God's program for today. The church is - and not just the American church. Jesus did not institute the church so that we could efficiently spearhead political reform and spread the word about the shortfalls of the government. He instituted the church to make disciples of Jesus and to make His name famous throughout the world.
I didn't watch the State of the Union address - I didn't need to. Things are bad and they are getting worse. But it honestly amazes me that there seems to be so much shock from within the church about the deteriorating morality of our nation - 2 Timothy 4:3-4 was a pretty clear warning of that taking place world-wide. It's undoubtedly scary, but it shouldn't be shocking. It should only increase our sense of urgency and our level of seriousness toward making disciples. Here's a hard truth for the most patriotic of Christians: God's plan to save sinners is not dependent on the status of the United States. Whether America thrives as a nation or becomes bankrupt, poverty-stricken, and even overthrown...Jesus Christ will continue to build His church & the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

2) Jesus was not a politician. When Jesus was on earth, the political scene was anything but peaceful. The world was far from being free of oppression & injustice. The rulers of his day were just as power-hungry, self-serving, and corrupt as any given time period. In fact, the Jews themselves were often the very victims of political oppression. But in all His teachings, sermons, and talks - He never went on a political rant. He never gave a rousing speech to the crowds that followed him around that they deserved a better king than Herod, or how corrupt Pontius Pilate was as a governor. He didn't bash the Roman emperor during the sermon on the mount. He basically avoided the topic of politics altogether, except to simply endorse obeying the laws of their day. Jesus knew that the Jews were looking for a political savior, but that's not why He came. Their cries of "Hosanna" (Lord save us!) were misplaced. Jesus came to save us from our sin & spiritual death, not from a political system or shortcoming.
When I look at how Jesus handled politics - corrupt politics - it honestly troubles me that some of the most potent, unapologetic hatred that is spewed toward the leaders of our country comes from within the church.
As frustrating as the direction of our nation is becoming, and as irritating as it is to catch any leader in a lie, it's imperative that we remind ourselves and come to grasp with the truth of Romans 13 - "...there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed..." God has put every leader in place for the purpose of somehow, someway carrying out His own sovereign plan in the world & receiving glory. This is incredibly difficult to understand, but it's true. (In his book Spectacular Sins, John Piper does a great job of explaining this truth). Instead of publicly bashing our government officials and worrying about what we want to see accomplished through might do us some good to privately pray for them and ask God to help us trust that He is somehow using them to accomplish His sovereign will. 

So the "real" state of the union is that the United States of America continues to head down a path of scary, questionable decision-making with many unknown future circumstances. There is little semblance left of any morality. Opposition to Christianity is growing every day. But should this "shock" us? No. It should drive us to the power, hope, and true freedom found in the gospel of Christ. A constant anxiety, anger, and uproar about the state of our government points to a misplaced trust. Politics cannot save souls. Government cannot eliminate sin. A new president cannot fix what is truly broken. 
"The Christian's trust is not in politics. Our hope for the future isn’t in the incumbent or the challenger, but in the God-man who promises that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18) and that his gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations (Matthew 24:14). And his final instructions before taking to the air didn’t include a word about political activism, but focused clearly and concisely on making disciples. Christian, we have bigger fish to fry." - David Mathis

There is hope for America - but He doesn't live in Washington.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Are We A Safe Place for Suffering?

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in January 2014 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)
In this world, one thing is certain:  Everybody hurts. Suffering may take the form of tragedy, heartbreak, or addiction. Or it could be something more mundane (but no less real), like resentment, loneliness, or disappointment. But there’s unfortunately no such thing as a painless life.” – Foreword of Glorious Ruin by Tullian Tchividjian

If this statement is true, then it also means that our churches are full of hurting people. At any given time, there will be someone that we know that will be going through a season of suffering in their lives. The church - the body of Christ - should be the one place where one can count on to find rest. In fact, it should be the safest place on this earth for a suffering soul to find encouragement, support, and compassion. But unfortunately that is not always the case, and sometimes the church can be one of the scariest places for someone in the midst of a trying circumstance. All too often, we fail to remember that as a community of believers, we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). Instead, we choose to put on a weekly façade of having it all together and expect others to just do the same. When it comes to following Romans 12:15, we’re usually pretty good at rejoicing with others…but can be downright terrible at the second part.

So, because it is true that everyone will face some form of suffering during their lifetime, and that as a church we are also called to “weep with those who weep,” I believe it is important for us to truly examine if we are a safe place for suffering. A good place to start is to gain a sense of what NOT to say or do when we encounter pain in the lives of others.

1. Do Not Minimize Suffering  - “Minimization involves any attempt to downplay or reduce the extent and nature of pain. Any rhetorical or spiritual device that underestimates the seriousness of suffering essentially minimizes it.” – Tullian, Glorious Ruin
“This too shall pass.” Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said it to someone yourself? This is classic minimization of someone’s suffering. It essentially dismisses the situation as anything worth being concerned about, and (whether intended or not) ultimately causes one to feel shame for experiencing the pain they are in. In our attempt to comfort a hurting friend, “this too shall pass” tells them to place their hope in a false certainty that things will get better (which is never even promised in Scripture on this side of eternity), instead of offering any source of real biblical hope at all. Using a trite saying in attempt to “cheer someone up” will be received about as well as using a bucket of cold water to wake them up from a nap. (Proverbs 25:20 NLT)
Another way we minimize suffering is by comparing one person’s trial to another’s. While the intent is to help one gain perspective of their situation & realize that things could be a lot worse, the reality is that this also does more harm than good. For example, when our response to a couple’s struggle to have children is, “look on the bright side – you could have cancer,” we are not offering any level of encouragement. Instead, we’re only describing their struggle as unimportant and unworthy of the pain they are experiencing because things just “aren’t as bad as they could be.”
The book of 1 Peter is written specifically to believers who are facing various forms of trials and persecution. Peter mentions some form of suffering around 19 times in the book, tracing back to at least 5 different Greek words (one simply meaning “unpleasant experiences”). This shows me that suffering manifests itself in so many different ways - circumstances that might not seem all that terrible for one person may be completely heartbreaking for another. It is never our job to determine what suffering should look like in someone else’s life.

2. Do Not Use Scripture With a “Quick-Fix” Mindset –I am not suggesting Scripture is unhelpful, powerless, and useless to a hurting soul. Obviously we know the exact opposite is true. But my point is this – throwing Bible verses around as a “quick-fix” method hardens a hurting heart more than it heals (yes, even the most applicable, hope-filled passages). Unless you have been walking through a trial with someone on a personal, intimate level; unless you have taken the time to weep with one who is weeping…lobbing out Romans 8:28 in passing with a smile is not a source of comfort.

3. Do Not Avoid Suffering – It’s probably safe to say that this is the category most of us fall into. We’ve all been there:  “I just don’t know what to say.” So in our attempt to avoid any awkward silence, we avoid the topic of suffering or the person involved altogether. Let me offer a source of relief:  When I’m in the midst of a difficult trial, I don’t expect – or even hope– that everyone I come in contact with will share some profound, mind-blowing revelation to me. I imagine the same is true with anyone facing difficulty. We don’t have to offer a perfect, Holy Spirit-inspired message or solution to our hurting friends. But we do need to offer our listening ear, our shared sorrow, and our compassionate response – even if that response is expressed only in tears. Don’t just tell them you will pray for them – take the opportunity to pray with them in that moment.

All 3 of these “methods” reveal our heart when it comes to helping those who are suffering. When someone close to us is hurting, it makes us uncomfortable too - so we immediately try to figure out how to solve the problem. But is this truly motivated by a desire to help them, or by a desire to erase our own feelings of discomfort? It is much harder & more time-consuming to walk through the valley with someone, so instead we choose to throw them a self-proclaimed lifeline. “Here – use this to climb out of your valley & join me.

But if the church is the body of Christ, shouldn’t we aim to follow His example? The gospel is not only comforting to those who are in the midst of suffering, but it is a guide for those of us seeking to minister to a suffering friend. Jesus was uninterested in His own comfort when he left the glories of heaven to put on human flesh. Jesus was indifferent about His comfort level when he bore the burdens of our sin as a substitute on the cross. Jesus didn’t just throw us a life-line from heaven & tell us to climb out of our spiritual death. Instead He humbled Himself by taking the form of a bondservant, and He met us where we were.  (Philippians 2:5-8)

If the King of heaven could humbly step into the world He created and suffer for us, why can’t we humbly walk through the valley of suffering with each other? Maybe if we showed Christ’s love to someone during their darkest days, they would be much more inclined to then listen to us tell them about how Christ’s love can be an anchor through their storm.

Are we a safe place for suffering?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Be a Hero

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in September 2013 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

“How many times am I going to have to learn the same lesson?”  Ever been there?  You feel like you’re plugging along, only to catch yourself falling in the same area of temptation again. You find yourself drowning in worry, stress & anxiety again. You realize you’re doubting that God will provide for you again. I don’t know about you, but there are times where I find myself in these moments, and my heart just sinks. I feel like such a failure, and I wonder why God continues to be so patient with me. I convince myself that He is so ashamed and disgusted with my inability to learn from my mistakes & avoid them. In these moments, it’s almost as if I’m picturing Him as a frustrated teacher, slamming a ruler on my desk & raising His voice at me, “When are you ever going to learn?!” And it’s when I assume God is ashamed of me that I seem to distance myself from Him even more, telling myself the last thing He wants to hear is another broken-record confession from this slow learner. Am I alone, or can anyone relate?

While I have often found myself in the midst of that very cycle, only recently have I realized just how backwards that mindset is! Our inability to go on a “perfect streak” of following the commands of Scripture shouldn’t drive us down into a pit of guilt & shame. It shouldn’t cause us to consciously distance ourselves from God, fearing only to receive a harsh reprimand from Him. Instead, it should immediately push us to the gospel. But why doesn’t that happen?

I believe that we get caught up in a “heroes of the faith” mindset too often. We read & learn about characters of the Bible like Noah, Abraham, or Moses. We read about them in Hebrews 11 – the “Hall of Faith” – and see all of the incredible things they accomplished. We focus on their triumph & forget about their trials, and incorrectly our application is to “be like them.” But when we place people on a pedestal, and our aim is to “dare to be a Daniel,” to “be a hero of the faith like Moses,” or to “confidently slay our giants like David” – we only set ourselves up for extreme frustration when we can’t live up to the hype. When we read this passage and our application is focused on joining the “heroes of the faith” by emulating people, we completely miss the big picture of it all: The Person.

The common tie between all the characters of Hebrews 11 is that all of their accomplishments were made possible “by faith.” But what is faith? Was it their will to succeed? Was it that inner quality to put their heads down, grind it out, and find a way? Faith is only as good as the object it rests in. We can’t rely on “our faith” if it only rests in some inner desire to be good. Instead, their faith was an active trust; securely anchored, grounded, and placed in the subject of the entire book of Hebrews – Jesus Christ. The Great High Priest, who is better than the angels, better than the prophets, and yes – better than Moses. His once and for all sacrifice for sin did what the daily sacrifice of bulls and goats could never do (Hebrews 10:11-14). He is the one and only mediator between God and man, making peace by the blood of the cross. And when our faith is grounded in Him, we can victoriously claim Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

So yes, I’m a slow learner when it comes to keeping all the commandments of Scripture. I fail miserably, and often. But so did Abraham – he had a lying problem. So did Moses – he couldn’t follow directions on whether to hit or talk to a rock. So did Paul, the guy who wrote most of the New Testament – he called himself the worst of all sinners! The thing is, we’re all slow learners, and we’ll never live up to the standard…but that’s the point! Instead of feeling defeat & shame, may it drive us toward the gospel & the grace of Jesus Christ! When we catch ourselves in the midst of anxiety or doubt, we shouldn’t feel like Jesus is rebuking us for “not getting it” – we should view it as a gracious reminder: that He is faithful in our unfaithfulness. He is perfect in our imperfection. He is strong in our weakness. Our identity & position before God the Father is based on the finished work of Jesus. It is a done deal – just as we can do nothing to earn it, we can do absolutely nothing to change it. “God accepts us on the basis of Christ's perfection, not our progress.” (Tullian Tchividjian)

In his book Glorious Ruin, Tullian also gives this encouragement to those of us who get discouraged when we fail:  “God doesn’t give us advice about how to overcome; in the gospel, Jesus has already overcome! …  Jesus is strong, so we’re free to be weak; Jesus won, so we’re free to lose; Jesus was a somebody, so we can be a nobody; Jesus was extraordinary, so we are free to be ordinary; and Jesus succeeded for us, so we are free to fail!”

Let’s abandon the defeat & discouragement found in the “heroes of the faith” mentality, and cling to this hope: Jesus is THE hero of the faith, so we don’t have to be one.

“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The Hidden Treasure in our Trials

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in August 2013 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

“The unknowns.” We face them every day. Technically, that’s a glaringly obvious statement, isn’t it?  Who really knows for sure what’s going to happen during the course of any given day - even the very next hour or minute? But I’m not talking about our obvious inability to see the future. I’m talking about the twists & turns that the road of life takes us on – the curveballs. If there’s one thing that can truly shake our faith as a Christ follower, it’s the circumstance that blindsides us out of nowhere that we have absolutely no control over.

The magnitude & manifestation of these circumstances can vary, but the amount of anxiety surrounding them always seems to be large. Trying to sell a house, facing sudden unemployment, working through a marriage in jeopardy, receiving a devastating diagnosis, grieving the loss of a loved one & wondering how to move on without them – the list of unknowns we face can go on & on. The brutal realization that we can’t control or immediately fix what we’ve suddenly been thrown into can stare you in the face every morning and never leave your mind throughout the entire day. As hours pass by, the “why’s, when’s, and how’s” can grow from a seed of worry to a tree of doubt and defeat. It’s tiring. It wears you down.

Over this last year or more, it seems as if I’ve continually jumped from one giant unknown in my life to another. Each one completely different, but all have been a clear test of my faith. Maybe it’s just my natural instinct as a man, but my first reaction to any predicament is to immediately search for a solution – to try and fix the problem & make it go away. But when you are suddenly dropped into a trial that cannot be remedied with a quick fix, you really begin to learn a lot about yourself. But far more important than that, I believe that I’ve learned the ONE thing that we are ALL supposed to learn through the unknowns we face in life.

Searching for, finding out, and ultimately knowing the “what’s, why’s, and how’s” isn’t really the point. I have wrestled with those questions at some point throughout every unknown I have faced, and I’m always left frustrated & confused. What God truly wants us to search for, find out, and ultimately know during our time of unknowns is what He has already clearly & completely revealed to us:  HIM. Yes, the situations & circumstances that define our unknowns are important – sometimes very important (and God does care about the details of our lives) – but here’s a hard truth: finding out the origin or the end result of our unexpected trial will not bring us satisfaction. When we come to the end of ourselves and surrender our desire for control of the situation over to God, we will start learning how to completely trust Him as He reveals His character & proves Himself faithful. We experience comforting truths like the ones found in Psalm 23:6, Psalm 34:17-19, Isaiah 43:2, Isaiah 26:3-4, Matthew 11:28-30, and so much more! Fighting through that process not only brings a peace that surpasses all understanding, but that is also when we can finally “count it all joy when you meet trials,” as James writes.

I can’t help but think of the book of Job; the account of a man the Bible describes as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He had everything. 10 healthy children, an over-abundance of livestock, multiple servants, and unimaginable wealth; so much that the Bible adds that “he was the greatest of all the people of the east.” But Job was thrown a curveball – an enormous twist in the road – and he found himself in the midst of a greater unknown than most of us can imagine. On the same day, in a matter of minutes: ALL of his livestock were either killed or stolen, ALL of his servants were killed, and to top it off ALL of his children were casualties of a giant wind storm. He later falls into great sickness, his wife and friends hurl insults & condemning words at him, and some even tell him he deserved worse. Talk about riches to rags. Talk about facing “unknowns.” (Spoiler alert: things work out pretty well in the end for Job). But do you know what Job never finds out? The “why.” Even though he has conversations with God Himself, Job is never told that all of his trials were actually the result of his righteous life. That Satan accused him of only being faithful to God because he had great wealth. That God allowed Satan to take everything away from him except his life, to test his faith. Those facts are never revealed to Job. Why? Because if God would have told him all of the “background info” – the answers to the “unknowns” – then Job would have never been able to learn about who God is; he would’ve never realized the power & sovereignty of our Almighty God that was explained to him by God Himself in chapters 38-41. If God would have given Job the answer to the “why” of his situation, Job would have never experienced God the way he did, and he never would have said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.” (Job 42:1-6) God wants to give us so much more than just answers – He wants to give us Himself!

Recently, we were introduced to a new song at HPC called Great Reward by Tim Timmons (you can listen to it here). God greatly used this song to solidify what He was trying to teach me through my many unknowns this last year. Read these lyrics:

I won’t demand to know the reasons for my suffering
These open hands will trust Your wisdom beyond what I can see
Help me to know that You are God, I am not
Remind my soul You’re in control

Praise to the Father with every breath I take
In joy and sorrow, all for Your kingdom’s sake
Be Thou my vision, Be Thou my hope restored
Now and forever – You are my Great Reward

My prayer is for God to help me change my focus and purpose when I find myself in the midst of the unknowns of life! Instead of demanding to know the “why’s, when’s and how’s”; instead of searching only for solutions and answers, I pray that I will run hard after Christ – our Great Reward!