Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Knowing God's Will: A Real Life Example

The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Psalm 23

Up to this point in this series of posts you may feel like all I have given you is vague generalities. The truth is I wish I could be more specific. I wish that there was a neat mathematical equation for knowing God's will. There simply isn't. Knowing God's will is a spiritual gift and an acquired skill. It is a gift that only God can give and only you can learn to perfect for yourself as you walk through the valleys of life hand-in-hand with your Savior. One thing that may be helpful however, before we move on to some of the more concrete ways God sometimes uses to give us direction, is for us to pause to look at a real life example of how someone has discerned the Lord's will. Since my knowledge of the intimate inner workings of a person's decision making is limited to myself and my wife, I will have to resort to a personal story. It is somewhat fitting however as this post will serve as a sort of review of the journey the Lord has taken my wife and I on over the last year.

Towards the end of 2009 my wife and I felt led to resign our positions at the church where we were both employed at the time. December 31st of 2009 was our last day of work for the first church we had ever served in full-time ministry. We started 2010 unemployed, with no immediate job prospects. Unemployment was at the highest rate it had been in our lifetime, and I was scared. I had felt led by the Lord to resign, but even I had my doubts about the intelligence of doing so. But discerning God's will isn't always about being certain. In fact, I believe that it will always require a step of faith. At its core it is about wholly accepting as true the fact that God knows better than you what you should do in a given situation.

So I started 2010 on a job search that would last six months. At the time it felt like an eternity. In retrospect I can see how blessed I was to find a job so quickly. I applied to churches all across the nation. In total I believe I applied to more than 75 total. I was desperate for a job. A few months into the search a church in rural Georgia began to show interest. After several phone interviews and even one face-to-face meeting the church told us that we were their top choice. They wanted to move forward and have us come down and meet the people. This will sound crazy but almost immediately I wished I wasn't their first choice. Although we lacked any really clear direction from the Lord, Stacy and I both had an uneasy feeling about this position. I couldn't imagine walking away from what looked like a solid job offer, the only thing resembling a job offer we had received in months, but we simply didn't have a peace about moving forward either. One thing I have learned is that part of discerning God's will is listening to the counsel of wise people in your life. I value my wife's opinion and when she validated the uneasy feeling I already had, it was a big red flag to me. Add to that the fact that God had not indicated to us in any way that He was calling us to go to this church, and Stacy and I felt like we had no choice. We hesitantly walked away. I wasn´t 100% sure it was the right decision when we made it. At the time it was a step of faith, but within a very short period of time Stacy and I were both very confident with the decision. This leads to another important point: Sometimes silence is God's means of showing His will.

After we turned down the opportunity to move forward with the church in Georgia, there was a long drought in our job search. After several months, in order to bring in some money for the family, I took a job as a teller at a bank more than 30 minutes away from our house. I felt like I was on a spiritual island. The Lord was strangely silent. The clear direction that He had given me so freely in the past now seemed absent. In this time I learned that discerning the Lord's will often begins with silence. This silence may seem to drag on forever, but we serve a God who doesn't leave His children in silence forever. He will speak in His time.

Finally about four months into the job search things started to heat up. After several rounds of phone interviews there were two churches near Washington D.C. and one in Nashville that were still interested in us. I was on an airplane returning from an all day face-to-face interview with one of the churches near D.C. when I began once again to plead with God for some direction. I was asking God simple questions and hoping for some sort of an answer. "Lord do you want me to work at this job in Northern Virginia? Do you want us to take this position in Maryland? God is it your will for me to work at Haywood Hills Baptist Church in Nashville?" As I sat in the plane and prayed, God finally gave me that moment of clarity I had been seeking after for so many months. No hoopla or fanfare, just quiet assurance and confidence that I was being called to serve at Haywood Hills. It was hard to believe at first. I hadn't even met anyone from the church. I was set to have my first face-to-face interview with them in just a few days, and I hardly knew anything about the church. Over and over again I repeated that question to the Lord for weeks. Consistently and patiently He gave me the same answer every time. A quiet assurance in my gut, in my heart, and in my mind that this was what He was calling me to do.

The problem now was timing. Haywood Hills was still at a fairly early stage in their hiring process. I was one of three candidates with no guarantee that they would pick me. In the meantime two of the churches I had been interviewing with told me that I was their number one choice and they wanted to move forward. Stacy and I knew that God had called us to Haywood Hills, but what if the church didn't get the same direction? These other churches wanted an answer from us now, and we weren't going to hear back from Haywood Hills for a few more weeks. Again, with some fear, Stacy and I took a step of faith. We told the other churches that although we did not have any desire to shut the door on them completely, we did finally feel that God had revealed His will to us and that He was leading us in another direction. We didn't feel that it would be right to allow them to fly us out for further interviews and meetings without them knowing our hearts were elsewhere. The churches chose to wait, Stacy and I waited, and I am sure that Haywood Hills also waited for our sovereign Lord to work everything out in His timing.

Waiting is an apt characterization of discerning God's will. This spiritual discipline often involves much waiting. It involves acknowledging that we are not in control and that He is. That we do not know what is best for us, and that He does. That we are completely dependent upon Him for our every need, and that we will continue to wait until He chooses to light our path in His timing.

In the end, God proved faithful. Haywood Hills also felt the Lord's leading and the church voted almost unanimously to call me to serve as their Minister to Youth and Children. And because of the long process that our Lord took us through, Stacy and I know for absolute certain that this is where we have been called to serve which brings us real peace. In the end what started as perhaps the most difficult thing that Stacy and I had ever experienced became our greatest blessing. Walking through this storm with our Savior taught us so much more about God's goodness and trustworthiness than we ever would have learned otherwise. There are some things you just can't learn by reading about them. I believe that the full magnitude of God's faithfulness is one of those things. I hope that you get the chance to experience that goodness in real life ways just like I did, even if it involves walking with Him and discerning His will through difficult situations.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Knowing God's Will: Hearing God's Voice

"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; he who seeks finds; and to him 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!"
Luke 11:9-13

I have spent two weeks trying to convince you that when you are seeking God's will it is best to begin not with trying to hear voices from heaven but rather by digging into God's Word and trying to get to know Him better. We tend to skip over these steps in the discernment process, but I think that we can determine God's answer for 80-90% of our questions just by doing these two things. It's that other 10-20% that causes us anxiety, however; because it often includes some of our biggest life decisions. So how do you know God's will when the Bible doesn't give you an answer?

Well first, we must ask ourselves this question, "Does God still give direct guidance/leading to His people?" Some would say no, but let’s look at what the Bible has to say. If you search the Scriptures you will find plenty of evidence that God does in fact speak to his people (Matt 4:1, Luke 2:26-27, John 16:13, Acts 8:29, Acts 9:10-12, Acts 10:19, Acts 13:4, Acts 16:6-7, Acts 20:23, Romans 8:14, I Corinthians 2:9-16) and no evidence that His interaction with His people has changed. But how do you know God's will? Do you hear an audible voice? Do you feel it your gut? How do you know?

I believe that hearing God’s voice is both a gift from the Holy Spirit and an acquired skill. I Corinthians 12:4-10 contains a list of spiritual gifts and in this list is a gift referred to as “distinguishing between spirits.” Think about it. Anytime you are trying to make a decision, you have to distinguish between a number of voices (spirits) that weigh in on the matter. You have your own voice (your desires on the issue), the voices of your friends and loved ones, the voice of God, and Satan is surely trying to influence you as well. I believe that this passage indicates that the ability to distinguish between these voices and specifically to identify what God is saying is a spiritual gift.

Now there are many spiritual gifts, and we do not possess them all. Therefore, if you haven’t heard God “speak” to you, you don’t need to feel like you are a second class Christian in God's eyes. You just may not have this spiritual gift yet. However, Paul does tell us to “eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit” (I Corinthians 14:1). So the ability to know and discern the voice of God in your life is a gift to be desired and sought after. 

But knowing God’s will is also an acquired skill. Let me explain. When I was in college I was discipled by a man who told me how he had learned to better hear God’s voice. During a time in his life when he felt disconnected from God and was longing to know His will for his life, he decided to set aside one day a week to have a doubly long quiet time. For him this meant having an hour quiet time on Saturdays. During that hour on Saturdays, he got alone with the Lord and prayed a simple prayer. He asked the Lord to let him hear His voice, and then he sat silently. He didn’t pray very much or even read his Bible, he just sat and listened for what God might have to say. At first, his mind was full of thoughts and busyness, but after about 3 or 4 weeks of setting aside one extra long quiet time of just sitting and listening, he began to hear the Lord speak. Over time he got better and better at discerning God's will.

Some of you may be thinking, "That's great but how will I know when I hear His voice!?" If you look at the Bible stories in which people receive direction from God you will find that when God speaks to His people, they always know  two things: 1) that God spoke to them and 2) what He told them to do. Our God doesn't mince words. He gives clear guidance. Nowhere in the Bible will you find people questioning whether or not God led them to do something. When God leads, you know it. You may not like it, but you know it. This has proven true in my own experience and in the experiences that others have shared with me. When God speaks you do not hear an audible voice (although this is not beyond Him), it doesn’t register with your ears—it registers in your soul. You probably won’t be able to explain how God spoke to you but you will know that He spoke and you will know His will. 

That may not seem very helpful. It isn't the easy answer that you may have wanted. But the fact of the matter is that until you experience receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit that God has placed inside of you as a Christian, you probably won't understand. Here's some god news though. In Luke 11:9-13 God gives you an open door. He says “Ask me and I’ll give it to you. Knock and I’ll open the door for you. Search for it and you will find it!” Then He goes on to specifically promise that He will give the Holy Spirit to anyone who asks for it. This is a promise that God has made to you. Ask Him for His Holy Spirit. Ask Him to reveal His will to you. Ask Him to help you hear His voice, and trust Him to do so. I challenge you this week to ask God to reveal Himself to you in a new way. Sit and listen expectantly. You might be surprised at what you hear. 

For further reading this week…

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Knowing God's Will Starts with Knowing God

"Show me your ways, LORD, teach me your paths."
 Psalm 25:4

We are taking a few weeks to look at how a person can know what God's will for their life is. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this question; there are, however, some general guidelines that have proven helpful in my own life. Last week I shared one of those with you, namely that we have a tendency to look to God for some special revelation when we really don't need one. Our first stop in determining God's will for our lives should be to look at what His revealed will (that is the Word of God) has to say about it. If He has already told us in Scripture, then we don't need any further revelation.

Scripture does not give us every answer to every question though. Last week I used the example of who you're supposed to marry. The Bible won't tell you your future spouse's name, or which college to attend, or which job to take. When you find yourself in one of these situations - where Scripture really doesn't give you a clear answer - there are a few principles that can be helpful in determining the Lord's will. We'll spend the next few weeks looking at these. Today I want to focus in on just one that I believe is the most important, and I want to start by telling you a story.

 Last year at youth camp some of the counselors were giving the kids mohawks. A few of the boys in my group wanted to get them, and I told them it was between them and their parents. It wasn't until I was on my way home with two teenage boys with less than perfectly straight mohawks that one of the teenagers, Phil, told me that he hadn't actually called his mom and asked permission. He and I talked about what his mom's response might be when she came to pick her son up from youth camp and he had a mohawk. We both agreed that his mom was different than most moms and would probably think it was pretty cool. If I remember correctly her exact words were, "That's pretty rad!" 

Obviously, Phil should have asked his mom for permission and he shouldn't have lied to me about it. But forget all of that for minute and focus in on the fact that he didn't need to ask his mom for permission because  he knew her well enough to know what she would say. My mom and dad would have been furious, but not Phil's. And in the same way that I wouldn't have bothered to ask my mom for permission to get a mohawk (because I know what her answer would have been), so too Phil didn't bother because he knew what his mom's answer would be. 

I believe that the same is true of God... to a certain extent. The more you know Him, the more you get a sense of what His will is. This doesn't mean that you are always right or that you don't need to ask God. Sometimes, our Lord will flat out surprise you, but it is a good starting place. The more you know God, the more you can get a general feel for what His will might be, and that's a good place to start asking for more specific guidance.

So how do you go about getting to know a God who at one and the same time both desires to be known by you (Jer 9:23-24) and is so far beyond you (Is 55:8-9) that you could never know Him perfectly? By attentively seeking knowledge at the hands of the only One who has it and is capable of giving it away: the Lord Himself. Seek this knowledge wherever God offers it: in the Bible, in His creation, in prayer. 

I know that this probably isn't what you wanted to hear. If you are like me you want to know how to get immediate answers to your problems and questions because that is what is important to you. But God isn't a big Coke machine in the sky. You can't just insert a certain number of "prayer quarters" and push the desired request button and expect an answer to pop out all cool and refreshing everytime. People wouldn't allow themselves to be used that way and neither does God.

You see God has different priorities than you do. You may be completely focused on getting the answer to your question, but God isn't. What is most important to God - what has always been most important to Him- is not quick and definite answers but relationship. Yes, I believe God does want us to know His will, but He is most concerned with giving us His answers in a way and in a time that maximizes growth in our relationship with Him. In other words, if you want to know His will on these more difficult questions, the best place to start is by getting to know Him. 

For further reading this week…

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Big Red Phone

 "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--His good, pleasing and perfect will."
Romans 12:2

Do you remember the big red phone that would show up in old TV shows and movies? Whenever there was a major crisis, they would cut to a shot of the main character sitting by a big red phone. This phone was a direct line to the President, and the main character was waiting to receive a call. The phone would ring and everyone would fall silent. This was the moment! The main character would slowly pick up the phone and receive instructions that would save the world.

Well, I wish talking to God was like that. I want a big red phone that gives me a direct line to Him. When I have a big decision to make, I want to simply send my question up in a prayer and then wait for His call- God's will for my life delivered nice and neat and in a heavenly voice. No doubts. No second-guessing. Just clear direction. Unfortunately, that’s not how God works.

Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that our heavenly Father wants to keep us guessing. But it does seem like either God doesn't communicate with His followers as clearly as He used to or we seriously need a lesson in how to tune our ears to His frequency. I think it's the latter. In fact, I think that numerous Bible passages (like the one above) promise that if we truly seek God's will, He will reveal it to us. It isn't always in our timing, but doesn't it make sense that if we want to do what God wants us to do that He would show us what that is?   

Yet, there seems to be confusion surrounding this issue on all sides. During my time in ministry, I have been asked more questions about knowing God’s will than almost any thing else. Many people I encounter feel like maybe they are less than good Christians because they haven't heard God speak to them in some amazing way. Other people, seem to find divine messages everywhere. They praise God for supplying them with a parking spot at the mall. They even tell of how He spoke directly to them while they were eating their lunch. Then there are those who seem convinced that God has told them to do awful things. They blow up buildings and murder abortionists because they heard "a voice from heaven". All of this leaves us very confused. Certainly, it would be easier if there were a “God” phone, but there isn’t. So how can we know when God is talking to us?

I wish that there were an easy answer to this question. There simply isn’t, but there are some Biblical guidelines that are very helpful. They have proven true in my own life and in the lives of those around me. I want to spend a few weeks detailing these for you. I hope they will illuminate your path to knowing God's will as well. 

This week I want to say that many of us rely way too much on asking God what His will is. We want some spiritual version of the magic eight ball that constantly tells us what to do. God doesn’t work this way. He has given us the Bible to guide and direct our lives; He wants us to use it. Many of the answers to our questions can be found in the Bible, and it should always be our first step in trying to figure out what God wants us to do. If you have a big decision to make, go find out what the Bible has to say about it first, before you do anything else. If the Bible deals specifically with it, then you already know God’s will. You don’t have to ask for some special revelation. He’s already told you what to do.

As we all know, there are times when the Bible just doesn’t seem to address our specific problem. The Bible can’t tell us who to marry for instance. It tells us what type of person we should marry; it does not tell us what their first and last name will be or when and where we will meet them. It is in these circumstances that we begin to seek God’s face for specific guidance. And it is in these circumstances that we most want a big red phone. But we must always start by being faithful with what the Lord has already given us.

Have you been faithful to search out God's Word for what it does reveal about His will? Maybe it doesn't give you specific direction about whether or not you should accept that job, but what does it reveal about Christians and work? What does it say about making decisions? Being faithful in this regard goes way beyond merely going to the Bible when we have questions. We must learn to feed ourselves a steady diet of God's revealed will from His word so that we will be prepared ahead of time for what He has in store for us. Romans 12:2 tells us that if we are transformed by the renewing of our mind, then we will know God's will. I believe that the way to renew our mind is to fill it with the truth of God's Word. If it is true that consistently studying God's Word renews our mind and transforms us into His image, then according to this promise, doing so will also enable us to know God's will. Stop and feed on God's precious Word today. "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8).

For further reading this week…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Curiosity Killed More Than the Cat

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' "

"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Genesis 3:1-5

There’s an old saying “curiosity killed the cat,” but curiosity is responsible for much more than that. It lies at the heart of almost all sin. Consider the passage of Scripture above. Satan offered Adam and Eve a new, “eye opening” experience. He convinced them that God was holding out on them. He had access to some good thing that God was withholding, namely knowledge of good and evil. He offered them an opportunity to become “like God,” and curiosity drove them to take it.

Of course curiosity is often a good thing. It has driven men and women to invent things like the light bulb and the automobile. Without this God-given urge known as curiosity our lives would be much worse. So how does this good thing drive us to sin?

At the heart of every curiosity lies a question. For a medical problem the question may be, “How does a particular virus affect the human body?” For Adam and Eve (and for most of us) the question at the heart of our sin is this: “Is God withholding some good thing from me?” It is this doubt, this questioning of the goodness of God’s plan for us, that drives us to sin. Like Adam and Eve, when we doubt this, we begin to grasp at things that God never intended for us to have. We believe that we are missing out on something, and the curiosity of what that thing may be and how pleasurable it may be overtakes us.

Consider, for example, the temptation to have premarital sex. For our entire lives we are told that sex is the ultimate pleasure, and that the best sex is experienced by young, beautiful people in promiscuous situations. The end result is that many of us way overestimate the pleasure of sex before marriage and way underestimate the value and pleasure of sex after marriage. Oftentimes, when we live life by God's rules we feel like we are missing out on the party. We find ourselves asking questions like, “Why doesn’t God want me to have any fun?” The truth is that most of what we have been told about sex is a lie. Sex before marriage always brings pain, and research shows that it is actually less pleasurable than sex within a monogamous marriage relationship.* It is very hard for us not to believe the lies that the world tells us. It is even more difficult for us to believe that our life is better and more joy filled because we aren’t having sex before marriage. I am using sex before marriage here as one example, but the point stands on its own. As long as we doubt the goodness of God’s plan for us, our hearts are fertile soil in which sin can grow and bring forth sin and death.

We must constantly be on our guard against the lies that the devil tells us. They are designed to pull our hearts away from God. We must be vigilant. We have to test everything against Scripture so that we may know what is “good and acceptable.” We cannot afford to simply receive all the messages that we hear in pop music and on TV. We must filter them.  You have a junk mail filter on your email. You need a junk filter on your mind. Filter out all of the lies or they will slowly take root and tear you away from your God.

So here’s what dangerous faith is really all about—are you willing to trust God? Will you trust that His plans for your life are far better than your own? Will you resist the temptation to believe that He is withholding good things from you? Will you resist the temptation to grasp at all the things in life that you want? Will you walk humbly before your God as His eager servant? Here’s the really mind-bending part. Are you willing to believe that you would have more joy sitting in a Chinese prison for Christ than you would making millions selling drugs? Dangerous faith chooses to believe, even to the point of death. Dangerous faith combats the lies of Satan with the truth of God. So I ask you, will you believe the lies of this world or will you believe God? Will you be dangerous today?

For further reading this week…
  • Genesis 2 & 3: Check out the full story on Adam and Eve.
  • Psalm 37: Those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.
  • Daniel 6: (pay special attention to verse 23): Consider a familiar story from this new perspective.
  • Psalm 9:10: "Those who know your name trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you."

*"A large-scale study of 1,100 American adults by the Family Research Council found that 72% of married people who attended church weekly reported being "very satisfied" with their sex lives, thirty points higher than their unmarried counterparts, and thirteen points higher than other marrieds. In these days when we are being bombarded with attacks for our stance on sexuality, perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves why sex, in the Christian context, can be so wonderful." Quoted from the web page "The Joy of Christian Sex" on Sheila Wray Gregoire's website.