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.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dangerous Faith: David

[God] testified concerning him: "I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do."
Acts 13:22

David has been called a man after God’s own heart.  Much has been made about this title. Many a preacher has ventured a guess as to what it means, but today I would like us to focus on the statement that directly follows that one. “…he will do everything I want him to do.” I don’t think there could be a truer definition of dangerous faith.

Dangerous faith is faith that has been put into action. It’s dangerous in the sense that it is bursting with the potential to impact the world in significant ways. What could be more dangerous than a person who is willing to do anything that God asks him/her to do? God’s divine power and wisdom working through a willing human instrument—what could be more effective or dangerous than that? The real question before us though, is how did David get faith like that and how can we get it? As always, we turn to Scripture for clues. 

Looking at the classic story of David's battle with Goliath we see how he responds when he first hears Goliath’s chant: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?"  Notice David isn’t filled with anger out of national pride that Goliath would dare defy Israel. He is filled with anger that Goliath would dare defy God. This is made even clearer later when David tells Goliath that, “Today…the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.”

David was passionate about God’s glory. He was jealous for the honor that was due God’s name. In fact, in the Psalms David often praises God’s name publicly. “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (Psalm 22:22). It is this passion for God’s glory that gives rise to the desire to obey God. He was energized and focused on bringing glory and honor to God’s name. But this desire to do God’s will wasn’t enough. He also had to be willing to act on that desire.   

Look at what David said to Goliath right before he killed him:
"You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied… All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands."

David understood that the battle belonged to the Lord. You get the sense that David actually believed that God was fighting the battle with him. In Psalm 18:29 David says, “With your help I can advance against a troop.” This carries weight because David had actually experienced it. David stood on battle fields watching entire armies advance against him and his men and he knew militarily that he ought to be killed that day. But even in those moments when ten thousand men wanted to kill him, he trusted the Lord. The battle belonged to the Lord. He might have a sword in his hand, but his sword wasn’t going to win the battle. It was the Lord who fought on David’s behalf.

So David was willing to do anything God asked him to do because 1) he was passionate about bringing glory to God’s name and 2) he trusted in the Lord to fight his battles for him and to protect him.

Are you passionate about God’s glory? When was the last time you bragged on God? David says, “I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among throngs of people I will praise you” (Psalm 35:18). Are you passionate enough about bringing honor to God’s name that you are willing to praise him in front of other people? If not, pray and ask God to give you a heart for his glory. I believe that the entire purpose for our existence is to bring glory to God and that we will spend all of eternity doing just that.

Also, do you trust God to fight your battles for you? Do you believe that the battle is the Lord’s? When your spouse is diagnosed with cancer, or your mother dies, or you get laid off at work, or you feel like everyone you know is out to destroy you…do you believe that the battle belongs to the Lord? Are you willing to step out on faith to do what God has called you to do and trust God to take care of you? If not, ask God to help you trust Him with your life. This is the very foundation of the Christian faith. 

For further reading this week:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Granddaddy of Dangerous Faith: Tested by Fire

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."
Genesis 22:1-2

This passage can be rather disturbing. In many ways it seems completely out of character for the Christian God. We don’t serve a God who wants human sacrifices. That’s the sort of thing you see in movies. (You know, the village people have to throw a virgin into the volcano to appease the gods or the volcano will erupt.) But this isn’t how the true God of heaven and earth operates. So why does God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? And why, as the rest of the chapter bears out, does Abraham go along with it without any emotion whatsoever? He just walks up the mountain, ties his son to a pile of rocks, and is ready to slit his throat.
Certainly this is a difficult passage, but I believe that if we are willing to listen, the Lord will teach us something from this passage.  

First, we see that God did this to test Abraham. Now it’s interesting that we consider this passage just two weeks after having looked at the rich young ruler. He was put to the test, you will remember, after he approached Jesus to ask for eternal life. Jesus responded by telling him to sacrifice all his money and possessions for God. Unfortunately, the rich young ruler’s faith did not pass this test. Abraham's faith, on the other hand, was put to a far greater test and passed. In fact, according to James chapter two, Abraham’s faith was “made complete” by his obedience to God's strange command.

James points out for us that this strange request from God wasn’t an isolated incident in Abraham’s life. Many years earlier (several decades at least) God had promised Abraham that he would have a son in his old age and that it was through this son that he would be made into a great nation. His descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore and through his descendants all the nations of the earth would be blessed. When God told Abraham all of this, the Bible says that, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).   

So James shows us that what God was really doing was testing Abraham’s belief in that promise He had made to him several decades earlier.  In a sense, God was telling Abraham that it was time to put his money where his mouth was…or I guess more appropriately that it was time to put his obedience where his faith was. Abraham had faith but his faith was not complete yet because he had not truly acted on it. 

In the same way, you and I can have all of the dangerous faith in the world, but if we never put that faith into action it is meaningless. It is not enough for us to simply confess and believe, we must also do. Indeed it is in the doing that our confessing and believing is made complete. James puts it this way:
 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
James 2:14-17, 20-24

So here’s the challenge for you this week. We have been studying dangerous faith for about ten weeks now, but has that affected your actions at all? Are you living your faith out more dangerously? Are you willing to join Abraham in saying, “Here I am?” Will you get alone with the Lord right now and say “Here I am, Lord. In what ways am I not acting out my faith? How can I live more dangerously for You? What do You want me to do, Lord? Here I am, speak to me. I am ready and waiting.”   

For further reading this week:
  • Genesis 22:1-19: Read the entire story.
  •  Romans 4: Read how Paul understood this important Old Testament passage.
  • Hebrews 11:17-19: Abraham is remembered in the great chapter of faith for his unwavering belief in God's ability to keep His promises no matter the circumstances.
  • Genesis 12-22: If you really want some perspective, read all of Abraham's story leading up to this point.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dangerous Faith: What do you have to lose?

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth…
Mark 10:17-22

Last week we looked at this rich young ruler who walked away from a personal invitation to discipleship from Jesus. We only covered half of the story though. Mark, the gospel writer, has written this story to us in a certain context, and that context helps us to see what he is trying to teach us. A little later in the chapter Jesus sets a shocking standard for faith. He says: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth; anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:14-15).

What is it that Jesus saw in those first century children that  would make him say something so bold? In those kids Jesus saw exactly what the rich young ruler had lacked. They had nothing whatsoever to offer God. They were not especially holy or clean or righteous. I believe they were just regular, everyday, snot-nosed, play in the dirt kind of kids. They were wholly incapable of meeting the criteria of righteousness under the Mosaic laws. But, they had nothing to withhold from God either. Children aren't too proud to admit their need for God's love and forgiveness. They don't try to hide who they really are from God. They just want Him to love them. These children were completely incapable of dealing in the currency of the old covenant—keeping the Law, but they understood the currency of the new covenant—grace—better than most adults. 

What’s more, Mark juxtaposes the story of the rich young ruler (who did not have child-like faith) with the story of a blind man named Bartimaeus who did:
Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"

Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called to the blind man, "Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you." Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see." "Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Mark 10:46-52

There is one crucial detail that I want to point out in this passage. Bartimaeus throws his cloak aside before running to Jesus. This cloak would have been very important to him. It would have protected Bartimaeus from the rain and sun. It probably would have served as his blanket at night. Most likely he set it on his lap to collect the coins that people gave him as they passed by. Very likely it was all that he owned in the world, yet Bartimaeus casts it aside at a moment's notice. Why?

Bartimaeus believed that Jesus was going to heal him. He believed the promises that Jesus had to offer were worth far more than even his most prized possession.  He didn’t have very much, so he did not find it difficult  to lay it all down in order to follow Christ. We should all seek to be more like blind Bartimaeus. He exemplifies what dangerous faith is all about—complete surrender. Like him we ought to throw off all that would hinder us from running to Christ. A call to discipleship entails taking up our crosses and laying not only our possessions but our very lives on the altar. “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). 

But the more we have to lose, the harder it is for us to live fully surrendered to God. I like the way Wesley put it, “Beware that you cleave not to the dust. ‘This earth is not your place’” (Wesley, 6). This world is passing away. It is but dust. We cannot cling to this world and live our lives for the kingdom of God at the same time. If our hope is placed firmly in the promises of God concerning the new world that is to come, then we must walk through this world “as aliens and strangers” (Hebrews 11:13, I Peter 2:11).

I challenge you today to surrender your whole life and all of your possessions to God. I am convinced that this is a necessary component of the call to faith. This is not optional. According to Romans 10:9, in order to become a Christian you must confess “Jesus is Lord.” This is, at its heart, a recognition of Christ’s sovereignty over all of creation. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Surely, this requires acknowledging Him as Lord of your own life as well. Has your heart been relinquished to His control? If not, then I urge you today to confess “Jesus is Lord.” Maybe you have confessed it in your own heart but not publicly. If so then I challenge you to consider being publicly baptized as a symbol of this declaration.

I leave you with this. Which of these two men are you most like? Are you willing to lift your life up to God with open hands and tell him that he can have total control? Are you willing to live fully surrendered?

For further reading this week:
  • Mark 10: Read the whole chapter.
  • Galatians 2:19-21: Dying so you might live?
  • Hebrews 11: Consider how the heroes of our faith had to let go of this world in order to grasp onto God's promises for their lives. What do you need to let go?
Wesley, John. “On Riches: Sermon 108.” ed. Thomas Jackson. 1872.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Saying No to Jesus

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."

Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth…
Mark 10:17-22

Today we encounter the anti-example in our series “Dangerous Faith.” Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler is recorded in three of the four gospels and carries important implications for the modern church.

It should be noted that this young man comes to Jesus in all sincerity. In fact, he runs to Christ and kneels at His feet in earnestness to ask his question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is desperate to find that which he lacks—certainty of his place in the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ response to his question is interesting and puzzling. He points the young ruler to the Mosaic Law, specifically to the last half of the Ten Commandments. Jesus seems to be telling this young ruler that he can inherit eternal life by keeping the law. Isn't this inconsistent with the rest of Christ’s teaching? Why didn’t Jesus tell him “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (John 3:36)?

Jesus sometimes said things that are hard to understand. When we encounter these hard sayings of our Lord, it is important that we stop and dig deeper to discover what he meant. Is Christ saying that all you need to do to receive eternal life is keep half of the Ten Commandments? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why. Jesus’ response would have been fairly typical and expected in his day. I believe that Jesus knew His answer was not completely satisfactory, but He wanted to know if the young ruler knew that. Plus, this also served Jesus' purpose in helping the rich young ruler see where his true problem lay.

Jesus pointed the young man to the second half of the Ten Commandments which deals directly with how we interact with other people. The rich young ruler quickly brushes this aside saying that he has kept all of these commands from childhood and yet he knows that he still lacks something. This would ground his problem soundly in the area covered in the first half of the Commandments…his relationship with God.

It is only now that the young man can see where his problem lies that Christ offers a true solution to the problem and issues a call. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Again, Christ’s response leaves the modern day Christian staggering. How are we to interpret this? Does this mean that in order to become a Christian you have to renounce all your earthly possessions?

Once again we must delve deeper if we are to understand Christ’s difficult saying. First, notice that Christ issues a call to discipleship to this young man. The passage of Scripture says that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Christ saw something special in this young man, so in the same way that He had called each of the twelve disciples to follow him, Christ looks at this young man and says, “Follow me.” The New Testament only records Christ saying this to two men outside of the original twelve, so this is very special indeed. The rich young ruler responds in sadness though. He thought selling all his possessions was too high a price to pay.

This brings us to the reason why Christ told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions in the first place. The first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me.” Christ looked into this young man’s heart and could see that his wealth was a hindrance to his relationship with God, so He asked him to set it aside. In pointing the rich man to his problem, Jesus is not giving a general teaching that all should be expected to follow, but rather is showing this one man what was impeding his relationship with the Lord: his wealth.

Although Christ’s message to the young man may not apply to us literally, its application most certainly extends to us figuratively. Christ is making a very clear statement that following Him as a disciple means laying everything at the foot of the cross. He asked the rich young ruler to give away his riches because they were preventing his spiritual growth, but He could just as easily ask any of us to do the same. Being a Christian is about declaring Christ as Lord of your life. Declaring Him Lord makes you His servant. All that you have, your very breath, belongs to Him and is at His disposal. Such is the relationship between God and His people. 

For those of us who have heard the Holy Spirit's call this is easy. We have seen the goodness of our God. He has proved His love for us in Christ's death. We trust Him with our lives more than we trust ourselves. Though we do not always understand His methods, we trust that He is in control. All things work together for our good and for His glory. Surrendering your whole life to a God like that isn't as hard as you might think. 

For further reading this week:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dangerous Faith: When God Makes You Look Bad*

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25

We don’t know very much about the man who raised Jesus as his own son. Scripture tells us that Joseph was a carpenter and that he was engaged to a young woman when he found out that she was pregnant. By Jewish law, he should have divorced Mary publicly and had her stoned to death for adultery, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Certainly, Mary must have told him of her visit from the angel Gabriel and that the child in her womb was put there by God. Joseph must have struggled to believe her. In the end, virgin birth was simply more than he could fathom. He decided to divorce Mary quietly to save her the embarrassment and probable stoning of a public divorce. It was then that God spoke into Joseph’s situation. The Lord sent an angel to him in a dream who confirmed Mary’s story and told him to take her as his wife. It is in Joseph’s response to this dream that his true character is revealed. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…”

What a verse! What dangerous faith!

Now, if you’re thinking that it doesn’t seem like much to you, there’s good reason for that. It’s easy to read over a passage of Scripture like this and remain unmoved. We are accustomed to movies, books, and plays that explain in great detail what each character is feeling so that we can understand the power the circumstances have on the character’s life. Oftentimes though, the Bible doesn’t do this. 

What we must remember is that the Bible is a compilation of texts - the most recent of which was  written almost two thousand years ago. The Bible was written to a different civilization with utterly different methods of story telling and that it has gone through a series of translations to reach us today. So, we must train ourselves to read between the lines. We must be careful not to add to or take away from God’s Holy Scripture, but we cannot understand these stories devoid of emotion. We have to breathe life into these stories to make them understandable. This requires a slow and purposeful reading of the text. It requires stopping to consider how each person must have felt and how we ourselves might feel in their situation.

Joseph must have known that no one would believe their story. He would either be regarded as a fool who had married a woman in spite of her unfaithfulness or as a sinner who had impregnated his wife prior to their marriage. But Scripture skips right over all of this without a word. It says simply that God spoke, and Joseph obeyed. I wish it was that simple in my own life! Too often I complicate my walk with the Lord by cluttering the situation with my feelings and thoughts and desires. In the end, it really is as simple as this passage makes it out to be. God speaks. We obey. This simple formula holds the secret to intimacy with God.

For Joseph, following this formula meant ruining his reputation. The Jews were looking for a Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government with military might and institute a golden era of prosperity in Israel’s history. None of the Jews were expecting a virgin birth, and they had very little reason to believe in such a wild notion. Certainly, it must have been popular opinion that either Mary had committed adultery or that Joseph and Mary had Jesus out of wedlock (and this was no light offense in those days). There would have been a significant stigma hovering over Mary and Joseph. This stigma may have even extended to Christ himself. Might Jesus have been called a bastard as a child? Might he have been called the son of a whore? We have no way of knowing, but it is certainly possible that Jesus knew first-hand what it means to suffer ridicule at the hands of mean-spirited children.

Thankfully, Joseph was willing to sacrifice his reputation for God’s purposes. As J.R. Briggs put it “[Joseph] knew he was participating in God’s bigger story and that the story was not about him and his life and his reputation.” Joseph succeeded where many others have failed. It’s easy to follow God when it makes us look good to do so; it’s hard when it makes us look like a fool. John 12:37 & 42-43 bears witness to this:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him… Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
Too often, we are like these religious leaders. The weight of public opinion prevents us from doing God’s will. What a drastic miscalculation to value man’s opinion over God’s! Many of us would not have been willing to pay the price as readily as Joseph was. Even though none of us will find ourselves in exactly Joseph's situation, Scripture tells us that we will be asked to suffer for Christ. Philippians 1:29 says:
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…
There are several readily available examples of this in Scripture. Joseph isn’t the only one who lost his reputation in the service of the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah is commonly known as the weeping prophet. The Lord only gave him messages of impending judgment for the people of Israel his whole career. Jeremiah was extremely unpopular because of his message of gloom and doom. He lived to see this judgment and was carried away into captivity by Babylon along with all the Jews who had failed to heed his warnings. God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize his relationship with idolatrous Israel. Noah was mocked for over a hundred years before the flood actually came and he was vindicated. So, don’t think that this won’t happen to you. God is working a great act of redemption in our world and “it has been granted to you…not only to believe [in Christ], but also to suffer for him.”

In your walk with the Lord, sooner or later, you will be asked  to do something that makes you unpopular, or makes you look foolish, or that makes you look downright stupid. Place this simple formula that Joseph followed in your heart. God speaks. We obey. This is the secret to intimacy with God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). So, the question is, what are you willing to suffer for the cause of Christ? Are you willing to be Christ’s fool…or will you settle for the world’s praise?

* (This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

For further reading this week:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Speaking Up*

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

"Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!”
2 Samuel 12:1-7

The above passage of scripture is God’s response to David’s affair with Bathsheba and eventual murder of her husband (to get the whole story read II Samuel 11-18). Most of you probably remember the story of David and Bathsheba; but since the mind tends to lose important details over time, allow me to refresh your memory.

King David was out for a walk on the palace roof one night when he happened to see an attractive woman bathing on a nearby rooftop. He discovered that the woman was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in his army who was away at war. Even though David knew that she was married, he was stricken by her beauty. He sent for her to be brought to him, and he slept with her. Not long after, Bathsheba sent word to King David that she was pregnant. David wanted to cover up his sin, so he devised a plan to get Uriah to come home from the war on leave that way Uriah would sleep with his wife and the child would appear to be his. David sent for Uriah to be brought to him so that he could give the king a report on the progress of the war. After Uriah gave his report, David sent him home for the night thinking that he had solved his problem. But Uriah did not go home that night; he chose instead to sleep at the gate of the palace with the king’s servants. When David questioned Uriah about why he had refused to go home, Uriah replied that he did not think it was right for him to go home and eat and drink and lie with his wife when the ark of the Lord and Israel’s army were sleeping in the open field. Uriah was a righteous man. The next night David got Uriah drunk before sending him home, but once again Uriah, even in his drunken state, refused and slept at the palace gate. As a last ditch effort, David sent Uriah back to the war carrying a sealed letter instructing Joab (his commanding officer) to place Uriah on the front lines of battle and then withdraw the troops around him to ensure that Uriah would be killed. Joab followed orders and Uriah died. After Bathsheeba’s time of mourning was complete, David took her to be his wife. The Lord was displeased with what David had done.  

But notice, God didn’t speak to David Himself. He did not appear in a thundering cloud. Nor did He appear in a windstorm. Rather, He sent His servant, Nathan, to speak on His behalf. And that pretty much sums up the job description for an Old Testament prophet. Prophets were God’s mouthpieces. They said whatever God told them to say to whomever God told them to say it. In short, they spoke the truth—good or bad. They predicted victories and they predicted defeats. The proclaimed good health and they proclaimed death and disease. They spoke to Kings both Jewish and Pagan. They spoke with the authority of God; His hand was heavy upon them.

Can you imagine being one of God’s prophets? Can you imagine being called to speak God’s words (good or bad) to powerful kings and peasants alike? Put yourself in Nathan’s shoes. He had to walk up to the man who by Jewish standards was the greatest king of all time and call him out on his sin? Nathan had no way of knowing how David would respond to this rebuke. David could have had him killed in an instant. In fact, David could have had him and his whole family killed in an instant. I imagine that Nathan was at least a little bit afraid.

But if he was afraid, then why did he do it? What gave Nathan the courage to step out and live his faith so dangerously for the Lord? Simply put, I think that Nathan feared the Lord more then he feared King David. Nathan served a King that was much greater than David—a King who truly had the power to sustain Nathan’s life or to take it away. Nathan knew that the only thing more dangerous for him than obeying God in his situation was disobeying God, so he stepped out on faith and obeyed the Lord’s command. He confronted the king.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that God has appointed you as a prophet and that you need to go around telling everybody how sinful they are. You probably wouldn’t be very popular or effective if you did that.

What I am saying is that God has called us as Christians to live in community and sometimes that requires “speaking up when we want to shut up” as J.R. Briggs put it. Confrontation is never easy, especially in our comfort-centered culture. Most of us would rather pretend the problem isn’t there and hope it goes away than actually confront someone about it. But sometimes confrontation is necessary in the family of God. We have to be bold enough to “speak the truth in love” to one another (Ephesians 4:15). It takes a dangerous love to be willing to risk losing a friendship, but sometimes it is worth that risk when you know a friend is in danger of being swallowed up in their sin. And it takes a dangerous love to listen while a friend confronts you with your sin, but sometimes that is what it takes to wake us up to the seriousness of our actions. 

The Bible says that we as a group of believers make up the body of Christ. In this body, Christ is the head and we are the different parts, each with our own function and calling. Sometimes we lack the perspective to look at our own lives and see when sin is preventing us from performing that function, and sometimes we even lack the ability to see the complete devastation that our sin will inevitably bring upon us if we don’t repent. Sometimes a good kick in the pants is just what the doctor ordered, and most of the time it takes someone who loves you enough to endure your defensiveness and anger to deliver that kick.

So if you have friends that are willing to speak the truth in love to you, then cherish them. If you don’t, then perhaps you need to enlist some. I challenge you to approach one or more of your friends this week and give them an open-ended invitation to ask you hard questions about your faith walk. Give them the right to challenge you and to confront you with your sin before it gets out of hand. James chapter five commands us to “confess our sins to each other,” and this is exactly what I am challenging you to do. I am challenging you to live in community with other Christians in such a way that you are willing to confess your sins to one another, hold one another accountable for your sins, and confront one another when one of you is slipping into sin. And I leave you with a James 5:20. “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”

I pray that you would find Christian friends with whom you could be boldly honest concerning your sin, so that you can experience Christian community in the way that God intended it to be experienced.     

*(This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

For further reading this week:
  • II Samuel 11-18: Read the whole story of David’s sin and punishment.
  • Proverbs 27:17: Accountable relationships with other Christians help us to mature. 
  • James 5:16-20: Confess your sins one to another. 
  • Ephesians 4:1-16: The body of Christ needs your contribution through the special gifts God has given you.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Dangerous Faith: Traitors for Christ

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.
Hebrews 11:1, 31

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do…You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James 2:14-18, 24-26

Do you remember the story of Rahab the prostitute? I know… it’s been a long time. Let me refresh your memory.

The people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years until the Lord raised up Moses and delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh. They crossed the Red Sea on dry ground and entered the desert where God brought them to Mt. Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments. He promised that they would be His people and He would be their God. Then He led them to the Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey that He had promised to their father Abraham. When they arrived at the Promised Land, Moses sent out twelve spies. You probably remember that only two of the twelve (Joshua and Caleb) brought back a positive report and believed that God could and would indeed give this land to Israel. The other ten doubted that God could make good on His promise. So, the Lord made Israel wander in the desert for forty years. That entire generation, save Joshua and Caleb, would not enter the Promised Land. Even Moses himself never set foot on that precious soil because he had displeased the Lord (see Numbers 20:1-13 & Deut 34:1-8). Instead, he died on Mt. Nebo and Joshua became Israel’s new leader.

That brings us to the story of Rahab. Joshua has just taken over as leader. The people of Israel are back at the edge of the Promised Land ready to take possession of it, and Joshua sends out two spies. They go and check out a city named Jericho that is well-known for its fortified walls. While in the city they stay with a woman named Rahab, a prostitute (interestingly enough some scholars argue that she may have simply been an innkeeper because the words for innkeeper and prostitute were very similar in Hebrew). When the King finds out that some Israelites had been spotted in his city and that they were seen staying with Rahab the prostitute/innkeeper, he immediately sent guards to Rahab’s house to seize them. (Apparently the news of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea on dry ground and defeating the Amorites had spread throughout the land and struck fear in everyone’s hearts.) But Rahab hid the spies and sent the guards off in the wrong direction. To explain to the spies why she helped them Rahab says, “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you… for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:9 and 11b). Then she asked the spies to swear to spare her life and the lives of all her family when they come take possession of the land. The spies agreed and Rahab let them down by a rope from her window. They returned to tell Joshua all that they had heard and were encouraged by Rahab’s testimony.  Shortly thereafter the people of Israel marched into the Promised Land and defeated Jericho and Rahab and all her family were spared.

So why are we talking about this obscure Old Testament story of Rahab? Well, because the New Testament seems to think she is worth talking about. Notice that Rahab is the only woman mentioned by name as one who had faith in the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11. The apostle James also mentions her along with the great father of our faith, Abraham, as an example of justification by faith in action. Not only that, but we also find out in Matthew 1 that this Rahab, whether she was indeed a prostitute or just simply an innkeeper, is an ancestor of Jesus Christ himself. So the real question is, what did Rahab get right that we need to imitate?

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as being “certain of what of we do not see.” From the account in Joshua 2 it is clear that Rahab is certain of two things that she does not see. First, she is certain that Israel’s God was going to give the Promised Land to them. Second, she was certain that Israel’s God was the true God of heaven and earth. She had faith in Israel’s God, and she hadn’t really even encountered Him. Hearing testimony of the great miracles that He was working on His people’s behalf was enough. She believed. But James rightly points out that Rahab did more than just believe; she acted on her faith. She was so certain of these two things that she was willing to wager her life on them. She was willing to betray her king, her city, and all the people in it (save her family) in order to be in right relationship with the one, true God. She was a traitor for Christ.

I want to ask you two questions. First, does your faith work? James says that “faith without works is dead.” If you have a living faith, then it will produce action in your life. It is this “living faith” that is dangerous. It is this type of faith that brings about change in our world and lights hearts on fire for the Lord. Do you have a living active faith? If not, then you should ask God to renew and revive your faith. We serve the originator of all life. It was He who breathed life into Adam and Eve’s lifeless forms, and He can breathe life into your lifeless faith if you ask Him to.

Second, are you willing to be a traitor for Christ? (Be careful! You need to really pay attention here or you are going to misunderstand what I mean.) Rahab valued being in right relationship with God more than she valued anything else…even her own life. She knew that if the king’s guards found out that she had lied, then she would be killed. But she feared God more than death. She valued God above all else. She was willing to turn her back on everyone and everything else in order to follow Him. The Bible teaches us that this world is at odds with the world to come. And I John tells us that “if anyone loves the world, then the love of the Father is not in him.” That seems really harsh, but the truth is that because our world is at odds with God’s new creation we are often made to choose between the two. And here’s the point. When put in that situation what will you choose? Are you willing to “betray” this world in order to be a citizen of the next? Are you willing to choose God over any and everything in this world that could compete for your time or passion? That’s what it means to be a traitor for Christ. You choose Christ over all else. You choose Christ over anything that comes between you and He, because you value Him more than all else. And that is the type of reckless abandon and singleness of passion that pleases God and brings about true change in our world.   

For further reading this week…

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Dangerous Faith: “By Many or By Few”

One day Jonathan son of Saul said to the young man bearing his armor, "Come, let's go over to the Philistine outpost on the other side." But he did not tell his father… No one was aware that Jonathan had left. On each side of the pass that Jonathan intended to cross to reach the Philistine outpost was a cliff… Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, "Come, let's go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few." "Do all that you have in mind," his armor-bearer said. "Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul." Jonathan said, "Come, then; we will cross over toward the men and let them see us. If they say to us, 'Wait there until we come to you,' we will stay where we are and not go up to them. But if they say, 'Come up to us,' we will climb up, because that will be our sign that the LORD has given them into our hands."

So both of them showed themselves to the Philistine outpost. "Look!" said the Philistines. "The Hebrews are crawling out of the holes they were hiding in." The men of the outpost shouted to Jonathan and his armor-bearer, "Come up to us and we'll teach you a lesson." So Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, "Climb up after me; the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel." Jonathan climbed up, using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer right behind him. The Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer followed and killed behind him. In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men in an area of about half an acre.

Then panic struck the whole army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God…. So the LORD rescued Israel that day, and the battle moved on beyond Beth Aven.
1 Samuel 14

What caused Jonathan do such a brash thing?

In case you missed it, Jonathan decided that it would be a good idea to attack this Philistine outpost with just himself and his armor bearer. Not only that but the outpost was on top of a pass, so he and his armor bearer would have to fight uphill severely out numbered. AND this pass was guarded by cliffs on both sides, meaning that their options for retreat were pretty limited. So, was Jonathan just stupid and foolhardy?

You might be thinking yes right now, but let me point you to a few passages of Scripture that I think Jonathan may have been familiar with. “You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.” (Leviticus 26:7-8) “The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.” (Deuteronomy 28:7)

Here’s the key. Jonathan knew God’s character and His promises. He knew what God wanted him to do, because he knew God. Jonathan knew that it was God’s will for Israel to defeat her enemies and fully possess the Promised Land. And Jonathan knew that God had promised them these victories. This is why Jonathan was able to act courageously and yes even dangerously. He didn’t need to sit around waiting for divine inspiration. He didn’t need a billboard from heaven. He knew what God’s will was; he just needed to act on it.

But there’s more to it than this. Not only did Jonathan know God’s character and His promises, he also knew that the battle belonged to the Lord. This could be seen all throughout Israel’s history—Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites with only 300 men and Joshua’s defeat of Jericho to name just a few. Jonathan knew that it didn’t matter how many soldiers Israel had or how skilled they were. Victory was dependent on God’s sovereignty and power not on their military strength. This is what led him to the conviction that God could save “by few or by many.”

Jonathan believed that if he stepped out in faith and courage acting in line with God’s will and His promises that he could trust God to bless what he was doing. And God was so pleased by Jonathan and his armor bearer’s actions that He joins in the fight with them. God sends an earthquake that throws the entire Philistine army into confusion. They start fighting each other and retreating. All of Israel was given a great victory that day because of Jonathan’s faith. Literally hours before, Israel’s army was down to 600 men because most of them had deserted and were hiding among the rocks. The Philistine’s had already set up an outpost in the area and were calling the Hebrews dogs for hiding in holes. Then, just like that, two men’s act of courageous faith turned the whole thing around. 

It is my hope that you and I would act with the same courageous faith that Jonathan had. But we can only do this if we know God and His promises like Jonathan. Do you know God well enough and do you trust Him enough to step out on faith like Jonathan did? If so, then how do you need to bring God’s character and His promises to bear on your own life? What strongholds do you need to charge with courage and faith in the Lord?

Don’t be brash, and don’t be stupid. But there are some things that we know God wants us to do. We know that God wants us to feed the starving and rescue the oppressed and defend the downtrodden. We can charge after these things wholeheartedly knowing that God will bless our efforts. But I’m sure that there is more as well. I’m sure that there are things that are specific to your life. What is it that is burning in your heart right now? I urge to draw your sword and step out on faith. The Lord will bless you for it.

For further reading this week…
  • Joshua 6: Check out how God helped Joshua defeat Jericho.
  • Judges 6-7: Gideon's men were outnumbered 450 to 1!
  • I Samuel 17: David & Goliath. A classic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dangerous Faith: When God doesn’t make sense

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it."

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him...Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 
Acts 8:26-31, 35-39

We’re in the middle of looking at what it means to have a dangerous, living faith. Over the last few weeks we have talked about: taking up our crosses daily and following Christ; leaving boring, man-made religion behind and running toward a living relationship with God; and discovering our God given passions and pursuing them in the world. Now we turn to look at various Bible characters that exhibited this type of “Dangerous Faith,” and we are going to see what we can learn from their encounters with God. (This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

We start by looking at an encounter that a guy named Philip had with the Lord. Philip was in Samaria and had just sparked a revival that brought many Samaritans to Christ. In fact, it was a significant enough revival for some of the apostles to come down from Jerusalem to check it out and take part (Acts 8:14). After the revival, the Lord speaks to Philip in the above passage and tells him to "Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."  God tells him to go to the desert!

Why would God ask him to do this? Why would God send poor Philip to the desert? There were so many new converts in Samaria that needed to be discipled. I mean Philip had just led a revival. Was he being punished for something? What’s going on?

Sometimes it’s hard for us to make sense out of what the Lord is asking us to do. There are even times when from our perspective it is easy to think that God has lost touch or that we know better than He does what we should be doing. But God hasn’t lost touch. We serve a God that is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (all-present). Our perspective is just too small for us to understand what He’s really up to.

How could Philip have known that the Lord was going to fulfill two Old Testament prophecies through him on that trip? He didn’t know, but that’s exactly what the Lord did! For years the Old Testament had prophesied that pagan nations in Africa (like Egypt for example) would sing the praises of God and be brought into the family of God (Psalm 68:30-32 & Isaiah 19). Many historians believe that this Ethiopian eunuch with whom Philip shared the gospel in the desert was primarily responsible for taking the good news of Christ to Africa in the 1st century after Christ’s death. If that is so, then through this one trip to the desert God provided a way for an entire unreached continent to be exposed to the good news of His Son.

What’s more, the Old Testament placed a restriction on eunuchs like this Ethiopian from entering into the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1). This man had traveled all the way from Africa to participate in a feast in Jerusalem in which he was not even allowed to participate fully because he was a eunuch. Now he is on the way home, and God shows him (and all eunuchs once and for all) that they are no longer held at arm's length. They can enter into the very presence of the Lord. This special inclusion of eunuchs into the people of God had also been prophesied in the Old Testament. (In fact, it was prophesied in Isaiah 56: 3-5, just three chapters after the passage that the eunuch was reading.)

So through Philip’s obedience God provided a route for the gospel to be preached to an entire continent, extended an invitation to a marginalized people within the Jewish faith, and brought one very surprised Ethiopian eunuch to a saving knowledge of Jesus. How could Philip have known that this one little trip to the desert would accomplish all of that? He couldn’t, but his willingness to obey the Lord even when it didn’t make sense is what made it possible for God to do things through him that were bigger than he was.

It’s the same for me and you today. Sometimes, we won’t understand what God is asking us to do. But, if we are willing to take up our cross and follow Him,—if we are willing to obey even when it doesn’t make sense—then we allow God to do things through us that are bigger than we are. And that’s when we are truly dangerous as Christians.
For further reading this week…