Misery and Mission

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.  And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.’  So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field.  In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.”

Exodus 1:8-9, 13-14

Israel was thriving in Egypt.  The fertile land of Goshen was perfectly suited for the growth of herds and livestock.  Things really could not have been much better.  The problem was, Goshen was not the land God intended for Israel to inhabit.  This was a problem because satisfied people are difficult to motivate.  Why should Israel pack up and leave when everything was going so well?

Eagles know how to motivate their contented young.  When it is time for young eagles to leave the nest, the adult eagles will fly over them carrying freshly caught food.  The eagles will chirp and flap their wings, but the adult does not come to the nest.  The adult eagles will continue to do this until the young ones become hungryeagle enough to leave the comfort and safety of home.  Adult eagles create discomfort in order to motivate their young.

A new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt who had no idea who Joseph was.  When this Pharaoh looked toward Goshen, he did not see the descendants of the man who saved Egypt from famine.  He saw a million or so potential dissidents.  Pharaoh was concerned that Israel might entertain thoughts of uprising, so he determined to preemptively crush their spirits.  He subjected Israel to slave labor and ordered the killing of every newborn Hebrew boy.  “The people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help.  Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.  “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  God saw the people of Israel – and God knew” (Exodus 2:23-25).  Israel was feeling discomfort and it was creating in them a hunger for escape from this home that had been so comfortable and safe.

Most of us do not want to mess with things when they are going well.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Don’t rock the boat.  We want the comfortable, prosperous times to last as long as possible.  Consider this: what if God gives us these good times to serve as rest and preparation for the conflict and difficulty of His mission?  If this is the case, but we try to hang on to the comfort and prosperity, God must create discomfort and hunger in us.  Difficulties may be God’s way of prodding us out of our nests of complacency and into His mission.

Counter-Movement

I think it’s time for the church to accept that the battle for the culture has been lost.  The Moral Majority, the Tea Party, petitions, boycotts, and election drives have all failed to usher in the spiritual and moral revival for which well-intentioned people have hoped. 

We have opposed the movements that contradict our Christian convictions.  We have debated in the public arena.  We have organized.  We have gone the grass-roots route.  Yet, here we are.  Our President has handed down a directive to all public schools that students must be allowed to use the restroom that accords with their gender identity, regardless of their biological gender.

I do not wish to tackle the issue of transgenderism here.  I would rather reflect on where we go from here. 

For many years, the church in the United States has opposed movements such as “gay marriage” while attempting to convince individual homosexuals that we love them and have their best intentions at heart.  This is a pretty thin line to try to walk.

Perhaps it is time we quit being an opposition party and started instituting a counter-movement.  Rather than trying to bring the kingdom through political means, what if we actually gave Jesus a try? 

I don’t know if you have noticed, but in the New Testament, Jesus didn’t have much to say about the Roman government, even though it was rife with corruption and immorality.  This is not to say that Jesus’ teaching would have no political implications.  It is to say that Jesus did not put forth a political strategy.

 Rather than oppose Rome’s excesses, Jesus instituted a new movement.  This movement, called The Way, took place on an interpersonal level.  Redeemed and transformed people devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles, loved their brothers and sisters in Christ, and trusted that the gospel had the power to alter the course of people around them.  They lived as good citizens of the Roman empire because they were citizens of a greater kingdom.

What might happen if we, the church, followers of The Way, refocused the energy and resources spent on political campaigns?  Instead of merely opposing cultural movements, what if we engaged in a counter-movement?  What if we spent our energy and resources on the proclamation of the gospel, on self-giving and compassionate service, and on relational investments in broken people?  What if we committed ourselves to the teaching of Scripture and to prayer?

God knows the condition of our culture.  He hates sin more than we do.  He is absolutely just.  He will ultimately set all things right.  He is also gracious and merciful.  His offer of salvation is available for those with whom we disagree.  He has chosen to extend his offer through the church.  In our efforts to oppose cultural movements, could it be that we have neglected to offer the power available for true cultural transformation? 

Even if we were to succeed in our opposition, we would have changed laws without changing hearts.  True and lasting change only comes through the opening of eyes to the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Battle Plan

10 I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!— I beg of you that when I am present I may not have to show boldness with such confidence as I count on showing against some who suspect us of walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. [1]

 

Here, Paul is addressing philosophical ideas in Corinth that are opposed to Christ.  Paul is urging the Corinthians to, by the Spirit (divine power), do battle against the prevailing “wisdom” of the worldly Corinthian culture.  He instructs the Corinthians to engage cultural values with the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The goal is to bring the culture into conformity to Christ, not by political or legal means, but by the Spirit working through the Gospel.

This is certainly applicable to the church’s engagement in her current environment.  There are obvious cultural movements that clearly contradict the truth of Scripture.  The church must be vigilant in her efforts to, by spiritual means, influence the culture toward Christ.

With that said, there is also opportunity to apply this text individually and personally.  In searching our hearts, I am certain that each of us will find beliefs, attitudes, and expectations that are born of our culture’s influence.  For example, when I have a craving for food, I am able to walk to the refrigerator and find a snack, whether I need it or not.  In the United States, we are able to satisfy our cravings instantly.

What if one has sexual desire?   Satisfaction may be attained with a few clicks of the mouse.  What if one desires the latest tech gadget on the market but lacks the funds to purchase it?  Swipe the credit card!  A business says, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas?”  Boycott them and post angry comments on Facebook!

When urges, cravings, and desires arise in our hearts and minds, we often respond reflexively, without evaluation.  We don’t give thought to the nature of the desire, or the potential outcome of satisfying the flesh’s demands.  Therefore, conquering the satisfaction reflex will take a great amount of discipline and Spirit-wrought effort.

So, here’s the ASIA plan.

1)       Acknowledge, as soon as possible, the rising of desire in the heart and mind.

2)      Submit the desire/thought to God.  Ask him to help you feel, evaluate and respond to the desire rightly.

3)      Interrogate your desire.  Why do I want this?  Do I really need to do this?  What will happen if I satisfy the desire?  What will happen if I don’t?  Does this desire accord with the truth of the gospel?

4)      Act accordingly.

 

Don’t expect this plan to go smoothly.  We have whole lifetimes of mindless surrender to the flesh.  This will take practice and perseverance.  We must learn to steer our desires in a Christ-ward direction rather than letting our desires steer us where they will.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (2 Co 10:1–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Power, Promises, and Partnership

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”

2 Peter 1:3-4

 

So, here’s a thought. Christian, God has designed all of time for your assurance, sanctification, and fulfillment of his mission. God is so absolutely, radically committed to the growth, fruitfulness, and ultimate joy of his people that he commits your past, your future, and your present to these ends.

God’s Past Provision

 Peter says that God “has granted” everything necessary for fullness of life and godliness. We have already been fully equipped for the lives to which he has called us.

Exactly when did this this happen? Peter says all things were granted to us “through the knowledge of him who called us.” This is a description of our salvation. At our salvation, we were indwelt by the Spirit of God. He is the powerful provision for life and godliness.

God’s Promises for Future Partnership

 We have also been given “precious and very great promises,” through which we become partakers, or partners, of the divine nature. Promises are future-oriented. [pullquote align=’left’]Confidence in the future fulfillment of a promise causes actions that reflect this confidence.[/pullquote] God has given us these precious promises so that we may live now in the confidence that they are ours.

God’s Present Provision of Purity

 Peter says that we have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” The past event of our salvation means that we are now free from the corruption brought on by sin. Paul says, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We certainly continue to struggle with sinful desires, but God has declared us to be innocent. We are, right now, positionally pure before God. This truth is intended to make us confident that God is for us. We are free to pursue him without a wall of sin standing as a barrier.

God has acted in the past to secure for us a glorious future, so that we may live in confidence and joy in the present.

Great! Now what?

We work! Because God has equipped us, because he has secured our eternity, because he has dealt with our sin, Peter says we are to “make every effort” to make God’s work visible in our faith, virtue, knowledge, self, control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5-7). God saves us and equips us to partner with him in his mission to make himself known as glorious for all eternity. God has invested all of time in making us confident and fruitful in fulfilling this mission.

What Ever Happened to Wonder?

My family spent a week this past summer on a mission trip/vacation in Denver, Colorado. We went to the Royal Gorge, which is over 1200 feet deep in places. We went hiking in Estes Park, enjoying the mountain lakes, waterfalls, and breathtaking views. We love the Rocky Mountains!

My wife and I began talking (dreaming?) about planting a church in Estes Park. Imagine seeing those mountain peaks every day; to be able to sit beside those lakes almost anytime we want.

We were made for wonder. We were created to be awestruck. That feeling of smallness when we gaze into a clear, star-lit sky is purposeful. We are meant to forget ourselves at the rim of the Grand Canyon or the base of Niagara Falls.

We have been blessed with the capacity for wonder that we may respond rightly to that which is bigger than ourselves. Ultimately, we were designed to be in awe of God. His power, his wisdom, his grace, his holiness, his glory are breathtaking. The only proper response to him is to marvel at his greatness.

There is, however, a problem. I have been haunted by it recently. Familiarity seems to anesthetize our senses to wonder. As my wife and I discussed a move to Estes Park, we wondered how long it would take before the mountains we love would fade into the background of the daily grind. That’s what happens. We begin to take for granted that which was once awe-inspiring.

I have become keenly aware of my numbness to wonder in reading Scripture. I find it far too easy to read staggering truths of God’s power and grace, and simply move on to the next chapter. I know that the gospel is outlandish and unbelievable (apart from the light-giving work of the Holy Spirit), yet I am often unmoved by its beauty.

What do we do when the extraordinary becomes mundane? Can our sense of awe be awakened again?

I can’t give you a list of steps to move from ambivalence to awe. My chin doesn’t drop to my chest every time I open the Scriptures. But I am trying to fight for wonder. These are the things I am doing in this fight.

Pray

I know. Sunday School answer. But, the Spirit that first awakened me to the beauty of the gospel, must re-awaken the wonder in me. I ask God to give me the capacity to sense the weight and the magnitude of what I am reading. I ask him to give me the ability to respond in a way that matches the greatness of his truth.

Slow down

I am trying to force myself to take the time dwell on what I am reading. For example, when I read of Jesus walking across the water, I must take the time    to realize that this happened. This isn’t just a story intended to communicate a lesson to be learned. It happened in history. Jesus walked on the water! I am learning to steer my mind and heart to consider the wonder of such an event.

Share it

 One of the reasons Christian community is of utmost importance is that it is designed to help us reject the narrative of the fallen world and embrace the story of God. We, as Christians, feed off of each other’s faith, hope, excitement, and awe. It is important to express what God has shown me in Scripture to others so that we might share a moment of God-gazing together.  We spur one another on to amazement with who God is and what he has done.

I know that we are not to be guided by our emotions. I am not on a quest for a feeling of spiritual euphoria. But, if our God is an awesome God, as a popular song suggests (and he is), then shouldn’t our response to him be a response of awe? He has done marvelous things. We should marvel. He is a wonderful God. We should wonder at him.

Grace and the Law

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Matthew 5:17

 

In the verses immediately preceding 17, Jesus describes citizens of the kingdom as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  He wraps up his description with a command: “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (verse 16).

Two things about this.  First, works are commanded in the Christian’s life.  Second, we are to perform works in such a way that we don’t credit for them, but God gets credit for them.

Let’s talk about the Law. We can see in the story of Scripture ways in which God has and will reveal Himself.  In creating the universe, He revealed Himself in kind of an artistic way.  We can see something of Him, Romans says his eternal power and divine nature, in the things he has made.  The Law is also a way in which God has revealed himself.  It’s not just a civil or moral code.  The Law reveals what God values and what he is like.  For example, God gave a law that said land owners were not to harvest the edges of their fields so that the hungry could come and take and eat.  This law reveals God’s heart for the needy.  The 10 Commandments give us a very clear picture of God.  The first command is you shall have no other gods.  God is jealous for our devotion to him.  He values himself as God above else.  God is our provider.  Therefore, rather than stealing from others, we must trust in him to provide.  God values life.  Therefore, you shall not murder.  God intends for us to be satisfied with him.  So, don’t covet whatever your neighbor has.  You get the idea.  The point is that the Law is meant for us to see something of God.  This is why the Law will endure as long as the earth endures.

While the law shows us what is good and right, and what God is like, it does not have the ability to make us love what is good and right.  It cannot make us love and desire the God it reveals.  In fact, the law condemns us because when we violate it, it reveals our love and desire for things other than what is good and right and godly.  God demands that all people live in accord with with what is good and right, with who he is.  Obedience, or works, are commanded.  The Law is not abolished.

Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law.  Do you remember when Jesus went to be baptized by John the Baptist? John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).  What did Jesus say?  “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).  Jesus lived the expression of God in obedience fully, completely, and perfectly.  His entire life was one of obedience to God in all things.  I know this is elementary to many in the church, but it cannot be overstated.  Jesus’ life was one of obedience to the Law of God.

This is of immense, ultimate importance to us for at least two reasons.  First, Jesus’ sinless life qualified him to be our atoning sacrifice.  His perfect righteousness made the exchange of our sinfulness for his righteousness possible.  He lived for our salvation before he died for our salvation.

Second, Jesus’ obedience has implications for our life as Christians.  Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  So, salvation means that the natural, sinful me has died with Christ.  I don’t want sin to be the defining, operating principle in my life anymore.  I repent of that kind of life and leave it at the cross of Christ.  Now, Christ indwells me by his Spirit.  The defining, operating principle in my life is now Jesus’ life. What kind of life did Jesus live?  A life of obedience.  So what kind of life should be increasingly (though the rate of increase may be painfully slow) flowing out of me as a Christian?  Obedience! It is Christ in us that causes us to obey, or to perform works, in such a way that God gets the credit for them.

Grace does not make the Law irrelevant to the Christian.  Grace causes the Christian’s heart to love and obey God’s commands.  Or as Titus 2:11-12 puts it, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”  Grace is not just pardon from sin.  It is power to incrementally overcome sin.

 

 

 

 

 

By Streams of Water

I want to be like the blessed man of Psalm 1. I want to be fruitful.  I want to be strong in dry times.  I want to delight myself in the Lord and his word. But I don’t. I delight in many other things all too often.

What does it mean to walk in the counsel of the wicked, to stand in the way of sinners, and to sit in the seat of scoffers? It means to live according to the world’s narrative. It means living by what merely comes naturally. It is agreement with and delight in a fallen view of our world. Pursue more. Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy.

The blessed man is contrasted with this approach to life. The blessed man has different motives and affections that result in different actions. He delights in the Scriptures.   His mind dwells on them continually. He sees life through the lens of the Bible. He understands that this world is only temporary; another world, an eternal world, awaits. His eyes have been opened to beauty and strength that are infinitely superior to anything in this world.

The reality of this other world, this greater truth, is the stream that nourishes the blessed man, even in times of famine. This reality is the stream that feeds the fruit-bearing branches. This is the stream that causes the tree prosper.

I want to be like this tree. I want to live a life that flows from a heart and mind that delights in God and his Word. I want to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want to view all things through the lens of Jesus Christ and his gospel.

I have come to realize that, while I don’t really like it, I need structure. I need a plan to keep me focused. So, I have taken the elements of the Great Commandment and made them into my plan. I have used the acrostic T.R.E.E. to be my guide through this lifelong process.

Think (Mind) – I will think about the Scriptures. This is the process of interpreting the Bible. I want to understand the truth it is conveying. I want to know what the author is trying to get across to his readers. It isn’t about what the Bible means to me. It is about what the Bible means. The goal is to see and understand the truth.

Reflect (Heart)– I will reflect on the Scriptures and the world in which I live. This is the process of understanding the implications for biblical truth in my life. I want to know how the gospel answers every ill of humanity. I want the truth to be precious to me. I want to interpret all things through the lens of Scripture.

Express (Soul) – I need Christian community with whom I share what I have seen. We need each other to remind us that God’s story is superior to that which bombards us at work and on television. We need the help of each other to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.

Engage (Strength) – The process is incomplete until it engages the world. Psalm 1 speaks of the end of the natural man in judgment. We can be agents who pull people from their current path so that they will stand in the congregation of the righteous. We can be people who help others become trees planted by streams of water. If the truths of Scripture have been rightly understood, have penetrated the heart so that they are precious, then, with the cooperation of Christian community, we will engage a sinful world with the truth that we love.

So, here is the plan.

Gather a small group of individuals (2 or three) who share your desire.

Commit to gathering regularly.

Choose a book of the Bible together.

Each person spends time with one chapter or section, thinking about the text’s meaning and reflecting upon its implications for life.

At the appointed gathering, each person shares his/her insights and reflections.

The question will then be asked, “How will we engage our world differently in light of these truths?”

Think

Find the main thought or verse in the passage you are reading.  Ask yourself, “What is the central idea the author is trying to get across?”

Look at Romans 6:1-4. What verse would you identify as the central idea of these verses? I would say it is verse 3: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

To explain why I say this is the central verse, we must look at the next step, which is to see how the surrounding verses support this idea. The questions Paul asks in verses 1 and 2 concern the believers’ relationship to sin. If salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, then why does it matter whether or not we sin? Paul’s answer is that we have been baptized into Christ Jesus. We are identified with Christ. Paul explains this answer further in verse 4. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The nature of our salvation is a death to sin in Christ, and new life in Christ. The purpose of free grace is the death of the sinful life to life in the One who overcame sin. Verses 1 and 2 lead into the main thought in verse 3.  Verse 4 expounds on the main thought.

Reflect

 Think about your life in light of the truth you have read. How is this truth good news, or how does it relate to the good news? What does this truth tell me about God? What specific problem does this text address? What bearing does this truth have on your life at work, in your family, in your downtime? How should it affect your attitudes, your habits, and your thoughts? Should you interact with people differently because of these truths?

How should these truths affect the church? How can the church pursue Christ together around the truth in the text?

Move outward in your thoughts. How would my community look if this truth was embraced by my family, friends, and neighbors? What would our nation look like? The world? Are there specific issues in our culture to which this truth speaks?

Reflection should not just be practiced at your time of reading. As you drive to work, think about the truth you have read as you encounter horrible drivers. Think about it with difficult coworkers, or stressful situations at work. Think about it at WalMart. Think about it as you watch the news, or scour the internet. Think about it when you lay your head on your pillow at night.

The goal is to connect the truth of Scripture with everyday life.

Express

 When you gather with your group, keep in mind that Christ is to be the central focus of the gathering. The group does not exist primarily for any individual. The goal is to see God glorified in our lives and in our world. It’s about discipleship, not therapy. Another thing to keep in mind, we want to build each other up in Christ. There may be times when we must confront each other, but the goal is to encourage one another in the faith.

First, review the text you have read. Each person share the central truth of the text and the supports for this truth. Discuss differences and insights. If there are different answers, try to work through the text toward agreement.

Second, share your thoughts from your reflection. What has been difficult? Has the truth been helpful in relieving guilt, anxiety, or burdens? What cultural issues should we be addressing in prayer? How can we pray for each other concerning this truth? How can we help each other live in light of this truth? Is there an area of someone’s life that needs greater attention? Can we help formulate a plan of attack for this issue, and do our part in helping carry out this plan?

Third, pray for each other.

Engage

 This is the strategic planning phase. How can we get the truth into the world around us? Who in our lives need to know this truth? Am I willing to be the one to share it with them? Will someone from the group go with me if I need the support or help? Is there something we can do as a group to address issues in our communities and in our culture? How will we live on mission?

Pray that God’s kingdom would be evident in our world. That his Spirit would awaken unbelievers and renew the church.

Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This does not mean that we merely change our minds about certain things. It means that we gain a new worldview, a new way of seeing, interpreting, and interacting with the world around us. A renewed mind views the world through the prism of the gospel.

This is the goal of this process. We want the Scriptures to permeate every aspect of our lives and be the motivating principle in our thoughts, affections, attitudes, and actions.