Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bringing Increase by Decreasing (W.o.W. Rewind)

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” 

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John 3:25-30

You can almost hear the panic in the voices of John's disciples. They're concerned that John (the prophet and teacher to whom they have dedicated their lives) is losing his influence. By reading between the lines a little, you even sense a small amount of disdain toward Jesus and His ministry. "The one you testified about," they say. You were so gracious to Him. You honored and exalted Him and now He is encroaching on your turf! He is baptizing and people are going to Him instead of you. This, of course, presents a real problem for John the Baptist. He is kind of pigeon-holed into a certain type of ministry now. He is called John the Baptist after all.

John's response to his disciple's is truly remarkable. Like Job he acknowledges that all he has in life comes from God and ultimately will return to God. John points out that the same is true for Jesus. "If Jesus is receiving influence as mine is waning, then it is because God has chosen to take it away from me and give it to Him," John says. He continues with a wedding metaphor. "Jesus is the groom," he says. "I'm the best man." Does it make sense for the best man to be angry and jealous that the groom is getting married? No! The best man should rejoice and be happy for his friend. So too, John says, "That joy is mine, and it is now complete."

John knows that this isn't his story. He isn't the main character, but he can find joy in playing his part well. He dares not try to steal the lead role from Jesus. "He must become greater; I must become less," John says. In other words, "It's not about me!" What John wanted more than anything was for God's kingdom to advance in this world. Everything else in life was secondary to that goal, even his own personal fulfillment and social standing. His disciples had momentarily lost sight of that.

We sometimes do as well. We work so hard to get ahead at work, to build a life for our family, to build a program or Bible study at church that before we know it we get caught in the trap of thinking that life is about us or our ministries. We make the mistake of thinking that these things are the end goal themselves. They are not. They are merely a means to the end of bringing glory to God and advancing the gospel. Sometimes the gospel advances when you are transferred to a lower paying position or when your hopes for your family are thwarted or even when your church doesn't keep pace with the growth of the church down the street. In those moments how will you respond? Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase? Will you continue to serve Him faithfully even when things aren't going your way? Do you serve God to advance the cause of Christ simply because God deserves your faithful service or are you just trying to make a name for yourself?

Drawing nearer to God almost always requires some form of self-denial. It requires taking up our cross and dying to our selfish desires so that He might use us more effectively for His glory. Are you willing to decrease so that Jesus might increase in your family, office, or church?

For further reading...
  • Job 1:1-2:10- Job understood his place in relation to God.
  • Mark 12:28-30- The greatest commandment requires that God hold first importance in our lives.
*A version of this post was originally published on this blog under the title "What is Your Life About?" on 12/14/11.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cares of this World

Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.
Luke 21:34

My grandfather had a great rule of thumb. He always said that if something wasn't going to make a difference in his life one, five or ten years from now; then it wasn't worth worrying about. The truth is that we spend an exorbitant amount of time worrying about things that we won't even remember five years from now. Jesus reminds us that worry can cost us much more than wasted time, though. If we aren't careful the cares of this life can distract us from the ultimate importance of eternal matters. 

In today's passage Jesus warns us about three things that can weigh our hearts down and cause us to be caught off guard on the day of His return: drunkenness, carousing, and the anxieties of life.* It is easy to see how drunkenness could distract us as well as carousing. (According to Blue Letter Bible in the original language carousing meant "the giddiness and headache caused by drinking wine to excess.") What comes as a surprise to me is the addition of the cares or anxieties of this life. We don't tend to consider worry to be nearly as dangerous as a drinking problem. I can imagine all manner of Christian friends rushing in to confront a fellow believer over drunkenness, but it's hard to imagine them rushing in to confront a brother over being weighed down by the cares of this world.

But the truth is that all three of these things come from the same root. They all stem from a believer being too focused on this world and not nearly focused enough on the next. When a believer gives in to his desires and lust for things in this world it can cause him to run headstrong after these things (like in drunkenness) or it can cause him to be worry over these things. Either way the believer's problem is that his focus has been moved off of eternity and onto the things of this world. He is giving this world more weight than it deserves. The weightier this world seems to us, the more ethereal and abstract heaven is. Conversely, the more heavily heaven weighs in our thoughts the more the things of this world are exposed for the hollow shell that they are.    

Jesus shows that my grandfather's rule doesn't go quite far enough. We must be careful not to be weighed down by the worries of this life at all. In essence Jesus asks, "Will it matter in eternity?" If not, then don't spend time worrying about it. Sure all of us have to live in the reality of this world and sometimes that means dealing with things like paying the bills and washing the car. But we must keep these things in their proper place. We cannot let them begin to push eternity out of our hearts and minds. We must not let the mundane and the meaningless so overwhelm us that we lose sight of our great hope in Christ's return. We dare not become experts in managing the temporary and forget to prepare for the eternal.

For further reading...
  • Luke 8:1-15 (esp. vs 14)- The cares of this world can choke your growth in Christ.
  • 1 Peter 5:7- Interestingly, this verses uses the same word for anxiety and tells the believer what she should do with her anxiety: cast it on the Lord. 

*Luke 21:5-36, Matthew  24:1-51, & Mark 13:1-37 in varying degree report Jesus' words in what is commonly called the Olivet Discourse. This passage is rather difficult to interpret. Some think that Jesus is speaking only about the destruction of the Temple which would take place in A.D. 70. Of course the context makes very clear that He is. However, others point out that portions of these passages seem to go beyond the destruction of the temple and seem to fit better with the future return of Christ. These people (of which I am one) argue that Jesus' shifts His teaching at points in these passages to what would signal the day of His return.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

It's Not My Problem. The Problem is with Everybody Else.

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:21-25

There is something inherently Christian about having your eyes opened to your own sin. The Bible tells us that sin is deceptive and blinding (I John 2:11 & Matt 15:14). It also says that the great deceiver, Satan, has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they will not see the truth of the gospel of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4). So no man comes to God in faith seeking salvation unless God's Spirit first opens his eyes and reveals to him his need for salvation (John 6:44John 3:7-8). A good example here is the Pharisee Saul. He believed he was serving God faithfully. He was meticulous in preserving his righteousness and zealous about protecting his religious traditions from the new sect that was infiltrating it. Imagine his surprise when the resurrected Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said to him "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Even as his physical eyes were temporarily blinded by the light, the eyes of his heart were opened to see his own sin. All of us who have repented of our sin have experienced a similar (if less dramatic) moment in which our eyes were opened to our sin by the Spirit of God.

This makes it all the more sad to consider how many Christians walk through their daily lives completely blind to their ongoing sin. Too many of us are arrogant. Too many are hypocritical. Too many are easily angered. And far too many of us seem to think that the problem is with everyone else but ourselves. How can we combat this? How can we guard against it?

2 Tim 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." The Bible is useful for correcting not only others but also ourselves. James puts it this way: when we read Scripture it is like looking at ourselves in a mirror. Scripture is sharper than any double-edged sword and it judges the attitudes of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12). The Spirit of God dwelling in us uses Scripture to reveal sin that is still present in our lives. In these moments when the Word casts light on our sin we have a choice to make. We can find any reason to excuse ourselves for our failure; we can find any distraction at hand to take our minds off of it and cause us to forget what we have seen; or we can "humbly accept the word planted in us" and act on it. We can repent of the revealed sin and put into practice whatever God prescribes. 

So, what if we committed to run towards obedience in these moments? What if the next time Scripture reveals our sin we try hard not to make excuses, not to over think, but simply to look for what God would have us do, and then do it as quickly as possible. Don't be merely a hearer of the Word, put it into practice in your life. Don't work against the Spirit, work alongside Him as He strives to reveal and remove the sin that still entangles you.

For further reading...
  • Check out the linked verse above.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ask God for His Spirit

Time to be honest. I've been struggling against pretty substantial discouragement off and on for the past year or so. Even those who know me well may not have noticed because it never washed over me in one big wave. It has been more gradual, like the tide coming in a little more each day. My family, my job, my life are all wonderful. I am very blessed. I really can't complain and I am not. Yet as I look around at my I look back over the years of ministry that have led me to this point, I can't help but feel that something is missing. Where's the fruit? Where are the souls saved? Where are the lives changed?

Now don't get me wrong. There has been some fruit and for that I am grateful. I just can't help but feel like a farmer who comes up with a small harvest year after year. At some point any self-respecting man would have to stop and ask himself, "Am I doing something wrong? Is there a better way?"

Recently I turned to an old book hoping it might help: D.L Moody's Secret Power. It has been a blessing to me. And in the second chapter I believe God revealed to me a significant portion of my problem. Moody is discussing an old minister who has lost his power in the ministry. His health is failing and he isn't able to do much anymore. He says this:
I don't believe that man broke down at first with hard work, so much as with using the machinery without oil. It is not the hard work that breaks down ministers, but it is the toil of working without power.* (Moody, p.66)

When I read this I thought to myself, "That's me!" I have been working in my own power for too long. Returning to my farming metaphor, a farmer can fertilize, spray, hoe, irrigate and do many other things to help improve his harvest; but at the end of the day he can't make the harvest come any sooner. He can't even make the harvest come. That is dependent on things only God can control like the weather. It is the same in ministry and in our lives. There is much that we can do to prepare ourselves, our families, and our ministries for a good harvest; but at the end of the day we can't make it come. We can't draw people to salvation apart from the Spirit. We can't raise our children up to love the Lord apart from the Spirit illuminating the truth of the Bible to their minds. And we can't change the evil in our own hearts apart from the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Since God revealed this to me I have taken comfort in Luke 11:9-13.
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 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 the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Pray for God to pour out His Spirit on us. Certainly every believer is already indwelt with the Spirit. Scripture makes that clear, but Moody isn't talking about the Spirit being in us. Rather he is talking about the Spirit being upon us. He is talking about an anointing of the Spirit to bless God's work in our lives. I know God's Spirit is in me, but I am not ministering in the power of that Spirit and I am not daily walking in the Spirit as I should. So join me in praying for God to pour out an anointing of His Spirit for the work of the ministry. Pray for your ministers. Pray for yourselves. Pray for me.

For further reading...
Luke 10:38-42- I've been too much like Martha in my ministry life. Join me in choosing Mary's way.

*Secret Power. Moody, D.L; Regal Books, Ventura, CA:1987.