Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Whose Word Matters?

Adapted from the message given Sunday, September 21, 2008 at Titusville Branch Fellowship.

“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” Luke 14:26.

Most would agree that Jesus' words here are telling us that our parents, spouses, siblings and children should not take first place in our hearts and lives. He alone should be first.

I would like to suggest another application of this verse: Sometimes what these people have said to us carries more weight than what Jesus says. Their view of us is more important to us than his view of us. What they think about us rises to a place of supremacy over what he thinks about us. And this usually happens subconsciously.

Walking Wounded
There are wounds in many of our hearts from the past, wounds caused by people most important to us. Real, serious, deep, and untouchable wounds. Intentionally or not, they have been inflicted through words or actions that have berated us. Worst of all, many of us have fallen in line and turned on ourselves, believing a lie that we are worthless.

We protect these hurts by building walls around them: sanctuaries to their existence. We instinctively create these defensive mechanisms to keep people from hurting us again. In the process, we distance Jesus from these untouchable areas. He wants to bring healing and life. But holding onto the pain of the past, we don’t allow him access to these remote places of the heart.

These hurts hinder us and hold us back. They cripple us and keep us from walking in the fullness of who Christ is in us. Instead we walk in insecurity, measuring our worth by what we think others think about us. And we don’t experience life to the full as Jesus wants to give it.

Distant Echoes of the Past
Jesus doesn’t want anyone to displace him in our hearts. But how about their words, their actions, or their views of us? Do they hold sway against Christ’s words, actions, and view? Does his word take second place to what has been spoken about us in the past? Does Christ’s death on the cross speak more to us about our worth than what others have done to us?

Of course, in theory, we would say yes. But what about when we are hard-pressed and caught off-guard? Again and again, we hear in our hearts the distant echoes of those who have betrayed our love and trust. We are boxed in and hindered because of insecurities rooted in past hurts.

A Difficult Cross
Jesus goes on to say that if we don’t carry our cross and follow him we cannot be his disciple. A disciple is one who imitates his master. Jesus was absolutely secure in the Father’s love. And he was unswayed when those closest to him abandoned him. His view of who he was in his Father’s eyes was unswerving. Are we secure in the Father’s love? Do we believe Jesus’ declaration of our worth?

Resting in his view of us can be a difficult cross to carry. Sure, we can deny ourselves in many areas. What about denying ourselves the right to believe we are worthless? We can easily see other people’s worth and yet be blind to our equality with them. When we deny our worth, what are we saying about Christ’s death on the cross for us? Are we putting other people’s words in supremacy over his?

Giving Place to Christ's Word
Can we allow Christ’s words to penetrate into these deep areas of hurt and insecurity? Can we love his words and hate all others’?

Can we grant Jesus access beyond the walls that enshrine the words and wounds of the past? After all, Jesus’ word about us and our worth is what really matters.

His isn’t just the final word, it is the only word.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Litany of Humility

This prayer was shared with some of us in Branch Ministries during a Pastor's Training Course. It really drives home how humility applies in more areas of life than one might expect.

by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930)

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Church Growth: What Did Jesus Do?

Now That's a Crowd!
In Luke 14: 25 Jesus had huge crowds following him. Some of his crowds were between 4,000 and 20,000 total people. If only my ministry could generate such a following!

What would any of us pastors do in our day with such numbers? We would probably take up an offering. And we might even build larger buildings as monuments to the validity of our ministry.

Often, we evaluate our effectiveness in terms of numbers. A pastor recently asked me, “What do you run on a Sunday morning?” He wanted to know how many people attended our Sunday morning services. I believe I choked out a less than an agreeable response to his enquiry.

Not Your Crowd-Pleaser
Funny thing is, Jesus wasn’t impressed with numbers. When the large gathering followed him after he fed the thousands, Jesus said some pretty strange things.

This sure wasn’t a crowd-pleaser: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves” (John 6:53). In John 6:66 many of his followers stopped walking with him as a result.

I don’t get the impression that Jesus was concerned with the quantity of his followers, but the quality of his followers. He said things like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me,” and “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (We rarely hear this message any more. It might offend some people.)

And finally, when great crowds followed him in Luke 14, he said something that was sure to send them home. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Maybe Jesus could have used some help from some of our clever, twenty-first century evangelism and church-growth techniques.

Allow Me to Indulge Myself

Adapted from the message given on Sunday, September 14, 2008 at Titusville Branch Fellowship

A dictionary definition for self-indulgence begins with: "indulging one's own desires, passions, whims, etc." Obviously, many desires are not intrinsically harmful, but indulging in many desires can be damaging – physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.

The definition adds this phrase at the end: “especially without restraint.” I would like to add the word “external” immediately before the word “restraint”. We can all exercise restraint; many times we do not want to. To the people who think they cannot control themselves, let’s just change one element of their situation. Let’s add another person. It is amazing how much control they have when another person is present.

Selfish Ambition
I was thinking about some words or phrases in Scripture that connect to self-indulgence. One of them is selfish ambition. James 3:16 says “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.” Selfish ambition can be self-promotion, or perhaps the desire for recognition above others. No one likes to listen to people who brag. But how many times does the word “I” or “me” show up in our conversations?

Fleshly Desires
Some other phrases in Scripture relating to self-indulgence come from 1 John 2:16: the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” The lust of the flesh can mean many things, but simply it means fleshly desires. Do we master our fleshly desires, or do they master us? Romans 8 says the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God and cannot please him. Cain is told in Genesis 4:7 that “sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Here is a fallen man, without any power of a resurrected Christ in his being, being told by God that he could and must master sin. How much more can the believer, who has Christ’s resurrection power in him, overcome sin. The Bible does not afford us much excuse here for helplessness against the flesh. Unfortunately, though, much of our present day doctrine does not allow for this type of victory.

Desires of the Eyes
The lust of the eyes, too, carries many ideas. It can merely mean the desires of the eyes. Do we care how we appear to others? Our culture leaves few of us untainted by this stain. From what we wear to what we drive to what we live in, we are often so self-conscious of how people perceive us. James Dobson says that 80% of people’s self-esteem is based on what they think others think about them. So we parade around acting confident and secure, when secretly we are aiming to look good in others’ eyes, our confidence shattered at the slightest indication of disapproval. John writes that many religious people were not confessing Jesus, “because they loved the approval of man, rather than the approval of God.”

The Pride of Life
Many of us desire position and power. Sometimes we want to be esteemed because of our place or accomplishments. Sometimes we want to keep up with (or be ahead of) the Joneses. For some reason, there is an inflated sense of security and worth that come from having what society says is significant. This shifting sand plays into the hands of corporate merchandisers, and they exploit us because of it. Greed and covetousness is so often spoken against in Scripture. Coveting is breaking one of the ten commandments. It is called idolatry in Colossians 3:5. Jesus himself says, “...be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Let Me First
We often get caught up with a more subtle type of self-indulgence. We think our time runs away from us, when in actuality we are being pulled, leash in hand, by the bulldog of our own busyness. Consequently, Christ’s kingdom comes in second place to our own kingdoms. Two would-be disciples tell Jesus in Luke 9, “let me first...” before they will follow him. Jesus says that such ones are not “fit for the kingdom of God.”

Be On Guard
Jesus warns us to be on guard against self-indulgence in Luke 21:34. Religion, however, does not provide the answer for dealing with self-indulgence. Read what Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!" (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)--in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
So what are we to do? True life doesn’t consist of a bunch of rules religiously kept. True life comes from knowing God, knowing Jesus Christ (John 17:3). The real victory over self-indulgence comes through Jesus-indulgence. As we indulge in him, his kingdom, and the lost, self-indulgence is displaced in our lives.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Loneliness and Independence

A person with an independent spirit tends to gravitate toward others with the same independent mindset. Thus, by nature of their true selves, they can at best only experience artificial camaraderie.

If someone struggles with long-term loneliness, perhaps they should examine their lives and see if their is a deeper issue of an independent spirit.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Abandoning Age Old Arguments

For hundreds of years there have been many fruitless discussions and disagreements between Calvinist and Arminianist thinkers. You do not have to look far to find various defenses of these views. Try a quick search on Google. You can easily discover the five points of Arminianism and the corresponding five points of Calvinism. And then you can get bogged down in all the logical arguments defending either side.

In my discussions with Calvinists, it appears a fundamental goal is to defend the sovereignty and power of God. Calvinists exalt the idea that God is in control, God is sovereign and unchanging. Their doctrine of election comes from his sovereign choosing.

With Arminianists I’ve found a protectiveness over the foreknowledge of God. They exalt the idea that God foreknows all events in the future, all choices and actions of man. Their doctrine of election extends from this.

Does God’s Opinion Matter?
My recent mental meanderings have made me question: What does God exalt about himself?

I recently asked a group of young people what they thought God’s glory was. I believe their answers reflect many people’s opinions: “his power”, “his strength”, a “bright shining light like Bruce Almighty saw when he was introduced to God”, “his control”, “his knowledge”. But is this what God says his glory is? Another way to ask this question is, “What does God see as glorious about himself?” Perhaps this is what we should be defending above all other theological notions.

Show Me Your Glory
Moses prays, “Show me your glory” in Exodus 33. God’s response amazes me. He doesn’t show Moses his great power, strength, or the blinding light of his presence. God answers Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you”. It appears that God’s goodness is what he considers most glorious about himself.

God then says he will proclaim his name to Moses. In the Hebrew dictionary, “name” means also “reputation, fame, glory, and memorial.” At the beginning of the next chapter the Lord proclaims his name:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

The glory of God has more to do with his character than his might, power, sovereignty, and knowledge.

Glory in This
God also says in Jeremiah 9:23, “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches” (NKJV). Interestingly, God doesn’t appear to glory in these things either. He is infinitely knowledgeable, but he doesn’t glory in it. He is infinite in might, power, and ability. But he doesn’t glory in it. He is infinite in riches (“the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”), but he doesn’t glory in that either.

Instead, he continues, “let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the LORD.” First and foremost, God obviously cares that we know and understand his lovingkindness, his judgment/justice, and his righteousness. He puts an exclamation point at the end by saying, “I delight in these things.”

A Calvinist Response to Suffering and Hell
Some theologians would have us believe that God planned and purposed evil and suffering (as well as for countless millions to be condemned to hell). When these ideas offend our understanding of love, justice and righteousness, the common Calvinistic response is: God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, his ways are higher than his ways; we cannot understand these things in our limited understanding. God, however, seems to have a different opinion. Minimally he believes that we can know and understand his lovingkindness, his justice and his righteousness.

What about Arminianists?
Arminianists run the risk of camping closer to the Calvinists than they admit when they affirm God foreknows the destiny of every human being. A fitting philosophical question would be, “If God foreknows my destiny, is it an actual possibility for me to choose something different than what he foreknows absolutely?” Thus they hold to a form of fatalism. Yet they will strongly defend his absolute foreknowledge while claiming man’s free will. Various unsatisfactory illustrations (to me, anyway!) are used to do this.

God isn’t Insecure
God doesn’t need us to defend his infinite power, knowledge, and sovereignty. He’s secure in who he is. In fact, God makes statements about himself that no Arminianist or Calvinist would dare make. In Jeremiah God says three times that the Israelites were burning their sons and daughters to false gods, a thing which had not entered his mind (see Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5, 32:35). God says to Abraham, “now I know that you fear God” (Gen. 22:12) and to the Israelites that he tested them 40 years “to know what was in their heart” (Deut. 8:2). There are also the instances of God changing his mind (a peculiar difficulty with many views of God’s foreknowledge): Ex. 32:12-14, Jer. 26:19, and Amos 7:3,6. (I can already hear different objections to these references.) Hmmm. I wonder if the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.

God is Love
If there is one thing God wants to be known for, I believe it is summed up in John’s repeated phrase, “God is love”. This appears to be the most glorious thing about God. This is what God cares so much that his creation knows about him. (Perhaps we should care more about understanding this than predestination and free will.)

Certain attributes of love are included in 1 Corinthians 13. One of those is love “does not insist on its own way” (ESV). Yet Calvin, at least, would have us believe that God is love and God does insist on his own way by his sovereignty.

Our Theological Base
Theology means the study of God. Shouldn’t our starting and ending points be what God reveals as most important about himself?

God is more concerned about his goodness, his lovingkindness, his justice and his righteousness. When our logical conclusions lead us away from common sense understandings of his good character maybe we should stop. Maybe we should reexamine our theology rather than redefine who God claims to be. Should we sacrifice God’s love and goodness on the altar of his sovereignty, power and knowledge?

Shouldn’t our theology be based in the goodness of who God shows himself to be? He says we can understand and know these things. We don’t have to redefine God’s justice or grace or love to match a theological position. Instead our exegeses should stem from what God declares as the most glorious thing about him.

Let’s spend more time and energy defending and glorying in what God says he delights in. What he delights in should shape our theological interpretations of scripture.

And maybe, just maybe, the scriptures we use to defend our age old arguments have different, legitimate interpretations than what we’ve considered.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We All Worship God in Our Own Way

Do you ever notice how we tend to "react" to something that challenges our beliefs or lifestyle? To defend ourselves, we often borrow from what others have said, without thinking it through completely. Many times we don't want to improve our lives toward nobler ends; instead we want to make excuses for the way we live.

This happened when I was speaking with a friend of mine, and I brought up God. He pulled the classic, "We all worship God in our own way."

Immediately, I asked the Holy Spirit for a response to this defensive notion, and then I posed the only question that came to my mind: "Oh, what way do you worship God?" He was taken aback, and I'm not sure even he was satisfied with his answer.

"We all worship God in our own way" has been used as a blanket excuse to cover the fact that one doesn't worship God at all.

If we are truly going to worship God, I think we need to worship Him according to the way He really is, not in the way we imagine or hope Him to be.

Monday, September 8, 2008

God, Suffering, and Theology

I've been reading a book by popular author/editor John Piper called Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. The book has various contributors who have suffered in their own ways (including Joni Eareckson Tada & Stephen Saint), and by all means have the "right to write" about suffering because of their personal experiences.

What troubles me in this book, however, is the theological base from which the rest of the book is written.

You may be surprised to find that the theology expressed here is that all suffering exists because God ordains it. And He does this to demonstrate His glory.

God's Foreordination is the Ultimate Reason
Mark Talbot contributes here that "God never does evil. Yet this is not to say that God does not create, send, permit, or even move others to do evil..." In explaining Hebrews 1:3 he goes on to say that "God the Son holds each and every aspect of creation, including all of its evil aspects, in his 'hands' ... where it accomplishes exactly what he wants it to do." His interpretation of Ephesians 1:11 where God "works all things according to the counsel of his will" implies that God is the one working all things -- all things -- by His sovereign will. He "brings about these evil aspects for his glory... This includes -- as incredible and as unacceptable as it may currently seem -- God's having brought about the Nazis' brutality at Birkenau and Auschwitz as well as the terrible killings of Dennis Rader and even the sexual abuse of a young child: 'The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil' (Prov. 16:4 NASB)..." And finally, "Nothing that exists or occurs falls outside of God's ordaining will. Nothing, including no evil person or thing or event or deed. God's foreordination is the ultimate reason why everything comes about, including the existence of all evil persons and things and the occurrence of any evil acts or events." (Excerpted from pp. 41-44.)

The Slaughter of His Son
John Piper goes on to lay what he believes is the Biblical foundation for God's purpose in creating the world, planning its sin and suffering: so that He could show the greatness of the glory of His grace by the "slaughter" of His Son. I'll limit myself to two quotes here:

According to this divine plan, God permits sin to enter the world. God ordains that what he hates will come to pass. It is not sin in God to will that there be sin. We do not need to fathom this mystery (p. 85).
"...the aim of creation is the fullest, clearest, surest display of the greatness of the glory of the grace of God. And that display would be the slaughter of the best being in the universe for millions of undeserving sinners" (p. 83).

Thus, God's intention was to bring about a fallen, sinful, suffering world, so that He could save us from it by the slaughter of His Son. This would demonstrate the greatness of the glory of His grace.

'My Thoughts Exactly'
Exegesis. John Piper and Mark Talbot did a fine job of using many scriptures to lay a foundation for their (traditional) theological position. But at the expense of what other scriptural revelation about God? Obviously, there will always be different theological camps, each one nestled closely to the scriptures that seem to affirm their views. One can do better than this, however, by looking at the Bible (God's revelation of Himself) as a whole. I wonder why a God who planned every evil would say things like this:
"All the day long I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people" Rom 10:21
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling" Mat 23:37
"And they built the high places of Baal ... to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin" Jer 32:35 (cf. Jer 7:31, 19:5)
One more important question for Talbot and Piper is: are there any other legitimate interpretations for the references they use to support their theology? Quite so.

Philosophy. Does someone who is supremely good have to create evil contrasts to show how good they really are? I wonder if I should try that with my children.

Additionally, I wonder how the suffering of countless "undeserving sinners" in hell demonstrates "the greatness of the glory of the grace of God". After all, this theology affirms that God specifically did not choose to save them, but has a greater good in choosing to let them suffer the pain of Hell. Maybe "we do not need to fathom this mystery" either.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Purpose of Faith

For years different groups have touted the need for (increased) faith in order to live in the fullness of God's blessings for your life. Though this has an element of truth to it, there seems to come with it the idea that faith is for "receiving" from God. In reaction to this, coined phrases have surfaced to describe these views: "name it and claim it" or worse, "blab it and grab it".

A couple of years ago a friend of mine said that "faith is given by God for His sake, not for ours." Hmmm. More recently he commented that the purpose of faith is not so that we can "get more" but that we can "give more".

Sounds like something Jesus could have said. "Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap." It takes faith to give, especially when it costs us something (remember the widow's mite?). It seems like God is so pleased when we give in faith, that He is willing to back us up to the degree we express our faith in giving. "For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you."

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