Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 5)

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). Prayer reminds you that your biggest life struggles exist inside, not outside, of you. Real prayer always leaves you humbled because real prayer requires you to admit who you really are. We would all like to think we’re fundamentally good people whose biggest struggles in life exist outside, not inside, of us. But prayer confronts us with a humbling reality: we’re only hooked by the evil outside of us because of the evil inside of us.

Prayer requires us to face the fact that no matter what we suffer, the deepest, most abiding dilemma of our life exists inside, not outside, of us. Prayer requires us to face the dark and devastating reality of our sin and how it distorts what we think, desire, say, and do. Prayer requires us to acknowledge that we need rescue and protection because we carry around something inside ourselves that tempts us away from what is right toward what is wrong. Prayer humbles us as it welcomes us to admit that we carry around something inside that is self-focused and antisocial and therefore destructive to ourselves and to our relationships.

Prayer requires us to confess that the biggest problem in our lives, the one thing we cannot escape by change of situation and location, is ourselves! It’s our sin that seduces, deceives, and entraps us again and again. It’s our sin that causes us to want things we shouldn’t want, to think things we shouldn’t think, to say things we shouldn’t say, and to do things we shouldn’t do. Prayer calls us to quit blaming our circumstances and relationships for our words and actions. Prayer welcomes us to accept responsibility for our behavior and, as we do, to receive forgiveness and help.

Prayer destroys the finger-pointing, it’s-your-fault, blame game that paralyzes us. When you’re deeply persuaded that your hope in life is to get everything around you fixed, and the people around you are deeply persuaded of the same, you can be sure that nothing will get fixed. It’s only when you and your neighbor both confess that it’s the sin inside that leads you both to do what’s wrong—not the failure of the other—that each hungers for growth and change and then reaches out for God’s help.

Change always begins with looking within, and that’s exactly where prayer calls us to look. The celebration of a Savior, which lies at the heart of prayer, makes sense only when we acknowledge that we can’t escape from the sin inside us. When we acknowledge our sin, we quit blaming people, places and situations and begin getting serious about getting help. Prayer reminds you again and again that your biggest, most abiding problem is you.

“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Prayer reminds you that the key to real life is found in an allegiance to God’s kingdom and not your own. True heartfelt prayer ends as it begins—with recognition of God’s kingship and his glory. Prayer reminds you that life isn’t about you. Prayer reminds you that the center of your universe is a place reserved for God and God alone. Prayer reminds you that real peace, satisfaction, and contentment come when you live for a greater glory than your own. Prayer reminds you that hope in life isn’t found in building your own kingdom but in submitting to the wisdom and rule of a better King. Prayer calls you away from the kingdom of self, which is so destructive to everything life is intended to be, and welcomes you to the kingdom of God, where a God of love rules in wisdom and love.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 4)

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors ” (Matt.6:12). Prayer reminds you of God’s daily call to give the same grace to others as God has given to you. Prayer requires you to love others as you have been loved. Prayer makes no sense if it isn't rooted in recognition that God has placed his love on you even though you could never have earned, achieved, or deserved it. Prayer makes sense only when its rooted in the reality that you’ve been gifted every day with patient forgiveness and empowering grace. Prayer humbles you as it forces you to acknowledge that the most valuable thing in your existence, the love of God, is the thing that you had no capacity whatsoever to earn. And as prayer calls you to celebrate undeserved love, it requires you to commit yourself to love others in the same way. There is a direct connection between self-righteousness and an inability and unwillingness to love others.

It is a contradiction to seek God’s help yet be unwilling to help your neighbor. It is a contradiction to celebrate God’s love yet refuse to love others. It is a contradiction to be deeply aware of your moment-by-moment need of grace yet unwilling to give grace to the person you live near and say that you love. It is a contradiction to know that your only real hope in life is God’s forgiveness yet refuse to forgive that person who has sinned against you. It is a contradiction to know that God will only listen to your requests because he is patient and kind and then turn and respond to others in irritation and impatience.

It makes no sense to participate in an act that, by its very nature, recognizes that you’ve been blessed by divine love and grace, yet to have no practical commitment to love and grace in your relationships. It makes no sense to celebrate God’s forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others in those moments when forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration are so obviously and practically needed. As prayer calls you to celebrate vertical forgiveness, it requires you to offer horizontal forgiveness as well.

Prayer reminds you of God’s call to love. It reminds you that you’ve been designed to live a lifestyle of willing self-sacrifice for the good of another. Prayer reminds you that successful living is all about loving God above all else and loving your neighbor as yourself. Prayer reminds you that your relationships are always about the daily dynamics of a sinner living near a sinner, and because it is, there is no more important commitment in relationships than the commitment to forgive. Prayer reminds you that there is never a day when you aren’t called to give another grace that hasn’t been deserved or earned.

Here is the thing that happens to many of us. Pay attention to the cycle that I am about to describe. As we lose sight of our daily need for forgiveness, we quit being so willing to forgive others. As we quit forgiving others and putting away their offenses, we begin to keep a record of the others' wrongs. As we keep a daily record of wrongs, we're increasingly aware of how much we’re affected by the weakness and failure of others. As we carry this awareness with us, we become increasingly irritated, impatient, and intolerant with others. So we deal with our disappointment with others by protecting ourselves from them with distance and busyness; living in networks of terminally casual relationships.

A mutual commitment to give grace daily is the only hope for a relationship of a sinner to a sinner, which is the only kind of relationship there is. Prayer reminds us of God’s call to love and forgive, and it reminds us that this call is most needed when it is most undeserved.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 3)

"Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). Prayer requires you to see yourself as needy. The prayer for something as normal as bread for the day makes no sense unless it pictures something true about you. We are needy and dependent. We were never hardwired for an independent, self-sufficient existence. Prayer makes no sense at all unless it is really true that you are dependent upon God for the basic necessities of life. Prayer always requires you to acknowledge personal inability, weakness, and need. Daily prayer acknowledges daily need. Daily prayer acknowledges God’s call for you to be content with what he gives you today and to trust tomorrow into his hands. And if you are dependent on God for something as basic as bread, then there is a whole catalog of things necessary for your life that you are unable, in and of yourself, to provide.

I cannot and do not control all the things that need to be controlled in order to guarantee that I will have a job that can support my family. I do not rule all the circumstances that must be in place to ensure that my family has an adequate home to live in. I do not control all the things that will result in those I love and me being healthy and safe. I do not determine all the things that must be in place for my children to have a good school to attend. I do not exercise authority over the things that will ensure that I will have a solid church to attend. There are many important needs in my life that I do not have the power to independently meet.

But there is more. If you take obedience to God's call seriously, you need to know that you can’t become these things or do these things by yourself. You do not have the ability to turn yourself into a person who is loving, kind, patient, thankful, gentle, forgiving, faithful, and self-controlling. And you surely have no power whatsoever to ensure that the people near you will be these kind of people. These essential character qualities of life are only ever the fruit of the transforming work of the Spirit of God in your heart. They only come as he progressively delivers you from you and forms you into the likeness of Jesus.

Prayer yanks you out of your delusions of self-sufficiency and reminds you of how deeply needy you really are. Prayer reminds you that you will never be what you need to be and do what you are called to do without divine rescue and restoration. Prayer humbles you, and as it does, it makes you more patient and more understanding of others. No one is more patient with the weaknesses and needs of another than the person who has admitted that he is also deeply needy.

For many of us, somewhere in the early days of good commitments, wise choices, and loving responses, we quit seeing ourselves as needy, and the result is devastating. At some point we begin to feel that we have figured it out. More and more it seems as though we have arrived. We don't know it, but we are turning gifts of God’s grace into an occasion for personal pride. This pride in our wisdom, ability, and strength is subtle and deceptive. It almost always is. Then we announce, in some moment of theological change, “We don’t need God anymore.” And we don’t quit praying before a meal and at the end of the day, but our prayers are more a spiritual routine than an indicator of what we really believe about ourselves and God. We never quit participating in the programs and ministries of our church, but there's a clear separation between the Sunday celebration of God’s grace and the self-sufficiency of the rest of the week.

In fact, in a real way, we effectively quit praying, because we quit seeing ourselves as needy. Sure, we mumble well-rehearsed religious phrases with heads bowed and eyes closed. But these “prayers” are no more true prayers than the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple in Christ’s illustration in Luke 18. Often our prayers are devoid of a deep sense of personal need, and because they are, they are also devoid of heartfelt appreciation and celebration.

I wish I could say that I’ve never been in this position, but I have. Much of the trouble that I experienced in the early years of my marriage was due to my pride and my impatience with Luella, who was “not as righteous and mature as me.” My prayers were more an act of external religiosity than they were an honest expression of the cries of a needy heart.

Real prayer transforms you as it requires you to acknowledge how fundamentally needy you actually are.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 2)

In life, prayer pushes us in all the right directions. It reminds us of the kinds of things we’ve said are so important to life with God and with others. Daily prayer reinforces all the commitments we’re tempted to forsake but that are vital to maintain. Prayer opens our eyes and our heart. Prayer is a necessary ingredient of healthy life and relationships. On our knees is the best posture for living life.

Using the Lord’s Prayer as a model, here are some things that prayer does in you and will do through you in the heart of others.

Our Father in heaven . . .” (Matt. 6:9). Prayer reminds you that you are never left alone to the resources of your own strength and wisdom. Many of us not only lose sight of one another and the commitments we've made to daily, active love, but we've forgotten the Lord as well. Yes, we continue to go to church, and we wouldn’t think of forsaking our faith, but in the hallways, bedrooms, and family rooms of everyday life, we’ve begun to feel that it was all up to US, all on our shoulders. Part of the slow devolution of our spiritual lives was a view of the responsibilities, opportunities, struggles, and blessings of marriage that tends to forget God. Here is why this is so devastating to many of us: when you forget God’s presence, promises, and provisions, either you tend to get overwhelmed and give up, or you try to do God’s job. Neither is a workable option.

Perhaps the most powerful way in which daily prayer for yourself has the power to transform you is this: prayer reminds you that you are never alone. Prayer reminds you that you are never left to your own righteousness, wisdom, and strength. Prayer reminds you that each location or situation where you exist is not only inhabited by God but, even more encouragingly, that each is ruled by him. The one who controls the situations in your life is not only a God of awesome power but is the definition of everything wise, true, faithful, gracious, loving, forgiving, good, and kind.

But there is even more that the Lord’s Prayer confronts you with. It’s that this God who is powerful and near is your Father by grace. If you are God’s child, there is never a moment when you are outside the circle of his fathering care. Like a father, he loves you and is committed to faithfully providing what is best for you. When you’re facing those disappointing moments of life, when you’re not sure what to think, let alone what to do, prayer can rescue you from hopelessness and alienation. Prayer encourages you to say, “I’m not sure how we got here, and I’m not sure what we are being called to do, but there is one thing I am sure of—I’m never, ever alone because I have a Father in heaven who is always with me.”

Acknowledging God will protect you from yourself. It will protect you from discouragement and fear and the passivity that always follows. It will protect you from the pride of self-reliance and self-sovereignty. If you are ever to live life as God designed it to be lived, you must begin with this humble admission: you have no ability whatsoever to produce the most important things that make for a wonderful life. The changes of thought, desire, word, and action that re-create, rebuild, mature, and protect you are always gifts of God’s grace. As you choose to do things God’s way, he progressively rescues you from your own self-interest and forms you into a person who really does find joy in loving him and others. It’s only a God of love who will ever be able to change a fundamentally self-oriented, impatient, demanding human being into a person who not only desires to love but actually does it. There is a word for this in the Bible—grace.

Prayer reminds you that you’ve been graced with a Father’s love and that love will not let you go until it has changed you in every way that is needed.

“Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9–10). Prayer reminds you that God’s purpose for you is always bigger than you. You’ll never understand your life or be content in it until you understand that it’s part of something bigger that’s meant to define and shape how you respond to it. Remember people lose their way because they have no bigger vision for their lives than the establishment of their own little kingdoms. When there’s no larger kingdom to capture my allegiance, my life sadly becomes a war between my kingdom purposes and the kingdom purposes of others. Whether I and they know it or not, each is working in the mundane moments of life to realize their dream for their life.

Prayer reminds you that real life is found only when you forsake your little kingdom of one for the bigger and better call of the kingdom of God. Prayer reminds you that God gives you his grace, not so much for the purpose of making your kingdom work but to welcome you to a better kingdom. Every time you pray, you’re acknowledging God’s rule over you and your life. Prayer is an act of submitting your purposes to God’s. Prayer is all about confessing the self-focus and self-sovereignty of sin. Prayer is a willing offering of your life and all it contains to the loving and wise authority of God. Prayer is an active part of what it means to live for a bigger kingdom than your own.

Real life begins when we quit trying to be sovereign over our lives. Real life begins when we quit trying to set the agenda for our lives and begin, in practical everyday ways, to pursue God’s agenda. Real life begins when we quit being kings and begin to willingly and joyfully submit to and serve the King of kings. Prayer reminds you of a King greater than you and a kingdom better than your own.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Transforming Power of Prayer (Part 1)

Here is where prayer is so important and so powerful. Prayer makes no sense unless two things are true. First, our lives do not belong to us. Since we have been created by God, everything we are, everything we have, and every situation and relationship in which we live belongs to him. Because we are his creatures, our number-one calling in every area of life is to worship him. Everything we do and say in every situation and relationship of our lives must be done in recognition of his existence and for the purpose of his glory. We were created for his pleasure, and we are called to live in constant worship of him. So, everything in our lives has verticality to it. Everything we do must be done in recognition of God’s presence and his rightful ownership of our lives. We must live in our marriage in a way that is distinctively and comprehensively Godward, even in the most mundane moments of life.

There is a second thing that must be true for prayer to make any sense. It is that sin makes us comprehensively needy. Every area of our personhood has been in some way damaged by sin.
We don’t desire what we should. We don’t think as we should. We don’t speak as we should. We don’t act as we should. We need help. We need rescue. We need wisdom. We need forgiveness. We need strength.

So, here is what prayer does for you. In a way that is powerfully protective and relationally transforming, each time you pray, you are reminded of the context of your life. The context of your life is not a situation or a location. The context of your life is a person. The context of your life is God. He is above, around, below, and in you. He created everything that makes up your existence. He controls every situation and relationship you are in. It is his power that keeps you and your world together. He has written the story of your life from beginning to endless end. His plan, purpose, and will are meant to be the reason for everything you do. He alone offers the help that reaches to the deepest areas of your personal and relational need. He is the rightful owner of you, your life, and your relationships. He is the conceiver and creator of your all that makes up your world, and because he is, he is best able to diagnose what is broken and to cure what needs to be fixed. He is the only reliable one who can define what is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, and wise or foolish. He is not only near you, but because of the cross of Jesus Christ, he is now living inside you by his Spirit. He is your life and the hope of your future. He is your counselor, protector, advocate, teacher, guide, and friend. He surrounds you with his love and bathes you in his grace. It really is that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context of your life.

But prayer does something else; it reminds us of the reality of our life. The reality of our life is a constant, moment-by-moment dance of sin and grace. Every day, sin rears its ugly head, and every day, grace gives us what we need to deal with sin. In the same way that we cannot understand life without understanding God’s existence, his ownership, and his power, we cannot understand what we experience in part of our lives and how to deal with it unless we understand sin and grace. Sin is the reason for all the struggles of life and grace is the only reliable hope of being able to deal with them.

Because of the fact that sin still remains in you and in your world, you need to be reconciled to God every day, and every day you need to be reconciled to others. Every day you do something that offends God in some way, and every day you do something that offends another. As we have observed before, these dynamics of sin, struggle, and rescue take place in the smallest and most mundane moments of daily life, moments so normal and in all ways so unremarkable that they pass by without getting our attention. We get used to the daily pace of our lives, we get used to our daily schedule, and we get used to our daily relationships and responsibilities. At some point we quit observing and we quit examining, and we settle into the routine, day piling upon day, month piling upon month, year piling upon year.

This is why we look back during one of those moments that God sends to get our attention once again, and we ask, “What happened to us? How in the world did we end up here?” It feels to us that we‘ve driven into some kind of life fog. It feels that what was once bright and sunny has suddenly gone dark. But nothing has been sudden. The changes in you and your life have taken place in progressive, little steps. In those unremarkable moments that occur in everyone's life, wrong thoughts, desires, words, and actions changed the character and direction of their living; they took place in little moments, and no one was paying attention.

We all do it. It’s not that we suddenly quit loving God and one another. No, that’s not what typically happens. Our living doesn't typically change with an explosion. Our living typically changes by the process of erosion. Even where explosions take place, they usually take place at the end of a long process of erosion. The movement of a life from an active commitment to God and an active lifestyle of unity, understanding, and love with others rarely takes place in one step. Rather, this movement takes place in ten thousand little steps. The problem is that as these changes are taking place we tend to be asleep at the wheel. What we once committed to value and protect has progressively become the thing we take for granted. What we were once deeply appreciative of, we have become used to having over the long haul. The God we once worshipped everyday becomes a formal religious icon and the people that were so much the focus of our affection and attention have morphed into little more than the people that we live with—you know, a part of our environment and daily schedule.

What does this have to do with prayer? Well, prayer not only attaches you to the wonderful resources of a God of grace, who is present, powerfully near, and willing, but prayer reminds you of what you are (needy) and what God is (gracious). Prayer awakens you from your sleep and calls you to pay attention again. Prayer is about affirming weaknesses and blessings. Prayer is about getting your identity and God’s glory right. Prayer confronts you with what is and preaches to you about what is important. Prayer is a very important part of a lifestyle of paying attention.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Listening to Lewis

"Most people, if they really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise...if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).

I give painful
evidence every day.
I experience it in
predictable and unpredictable
I guess I should know
but I am often
caught off guard.
There is an
insatiable longing
inside of me,
a thirst that never
seems to be
This deep hunger
doesn't go away
no matter how busy
I get
or how hard I work to be
I long for
and none of these
ever gets fully
And so in my quest
for more
I am faced with
the incontrovertible
daily evidence
that this simply is not all
that there is
and the sure truth
that I was
for another world.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

I know I should watch
my meditation.
It is important to guard
my thoughts.
It is a battle to not
be taken captive.
It's hard to think
after you.
There are so
many things that compete
for my thoughts,
so many things that call after
my desires.
It really is war, fought in the neighborhoods
of my mind.
"If only" commands too much of
my meditation.
"I wish" controls too much of
my thoughts.
"I need" fights for
It is so easy in the midst
of it all to forget
the one thing I was created
to remember:
I now confess
it is so easy to lose sight of
Your presence
Your power
Your kingdom
Your glory
Your plan
Your grace.
In my right mind I know that
forgetting is the
first step in losing
my way.
So, I humbly ask once again,
O, Spirit of wisdom and grace,
please empower me to
meditate on You,
please enable me to fight
Please deliver me from the
one thing I cannot escape:
my fickle heart.
So that everything
I do would bear the mark of
remembering You.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is Your Marriage (Or Other Relationships) A Place Of Trust?

Are you building relationships of trust? Take time to look at yourself, your marriage and other relationships in the mirror of these questions.


1) Is there more unity, understanding, and love in your marriage now than there has ever been?
2) Do you both do what you promise in the time that you have promised?
3) Are you attentive to what your spouse sees as important?
4) Do you make excuses for failures to do what you’ve promised, or are you ready to confess?
5) Do you listen well to your spouse and act on what you’ve heard?
6) Do you follow through with mutually agreed-upon plans?
7) Do you work together on planning and scheduling priorities, or do you demand that the other do it your way?
8) Do you share with your spouse your thoughts, desires, hopes, dreams, and concerns, or is it easier for you to be quiet or to share with someone else?
9) Is there any evidence that you’ve withdrawn from the other in protective distance?
10) Would your spouse say that you’re good for your word and faithful to your promises?
11) Do you carry wrongs around with you, or do you trust one another to confront and confess?
12) Do you ever wonder what the other is doing when not with you?
13) Are you conscious of editing your words and withholding your feelings because you can’t trust your spouse to deal with them properly?
14) Is your marriage partner the best friend in your life or has your dream of this kind of companionship evaporated?
15) Is your sexual relationship mutually satisfying, or is it hard for you to give yourself physically to your spouse?
16) Do you say things to other people about your spouse that you’ve not communicated to him or her?
17) Do you look forward to sharing times together, and when you have these times are they peaceful and enjoyable?
18) Are there problems between you that remain unsolved because you don’t have the bond of trust necessary to work together on a solution?
19) Are you comfortable with the vulnerability that a good marriage involves?
20) Do you ever wonder if you made a mistake in marrying the person who is your spouse?
21) Do you ever fear that you’re being manipulated or taken advantage of in any way?
22) Do you ever wonder if your spouse cares for him- or herself more than for you?

So, look over your answers. What do you think? Is trust solid in your marriage? Is it growing in your other relationships? As you commit yourself to build a sturdy bond of trust, remember you don’t do that work alone or in your own strength. The One, who defines what trust is and does, is with you and offers you every grace you need to build relationships that picture his grace and point to his glory.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Have You Been Taken Captive?

When I was in seminary preparing for ministry, I never imagined what I've encountered since then as a counselor. So many times I've sat with confused and discouraged people, people who had made regrettable personal decisions that further complicated their travels through this broken world. They would sit with me and wonder aloud why things happened the way they had, and what in the world they should do about it all now. Usually they were hoping there might be some rare, hidden wisdom that would clear things up for them. They craved a revelation, a solution, a magic bullet. And as I listened I would think, 95 percent of what this person is seeking is right there in God’s Word.

These people did not need any new revelation or special insight. They needed to submit to what God had already written. They needed to trust what is sure: the clear words of the Creator of it all, found in the pages of his book, the Bible. The apostle Paul does a good job in Colossians 2 of diagnosing this endemic problem.

"So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ"(vv. 6–8).

If you, as a resident of this fallen world, are to follow in the vein of what Paul is teaching here, you must embrace two realities. The first is this: as a person made in the image of God you do not live life based on the cold, objective facts of your experience, but on your interpretation of your experience. Everyone living is a philosopher and a theologian. We are always stepping back, taking a look at our lives, and turning our situations and relationships over and over in our hands for further inspection and understanding. The sense you make out of the events of your life will form what you do and say in response to them. As you interpret new events and reinterpret old events, time after time after time, your interpretations will begin to form into a worldview that will function as an organizing structure not only for what you think, but also for how you live.

Here is the second reality: you are always being bombarded by the opinions of others. The world around you is not silent. You live in the middle of a constant cacophony of interpretations of reality. Whether its the opinion of a friend, the lyrics of a song, the words of a text, an article from a newspaper, the plot of a sitcom, some information on a website, or the worldview of a great movie, your eyes are receiving and your mind is being influenced by a thousand voices every day. Each is telling you how to think, and in telling you how to think, is telling you how to live. We never interpret the events of our lives on the basis of pure objectivity; we are always influenced by a myriad of cultural and interpersonal influences.

Now, keep these two realities in mind as you consider Paul’s diagnosis. He is saying that Christians, people who really do know the Lord, can be taken captive through “hollow and deceptive philosophy.” In this phrase we find a stinging criticism of the limits of human research, experience, and interpretation. Here’s what Paul is telling us: understanding that is merely human, continually claims that it can provide a reliable basis for daily living, yet its hollow (empty) because it doesn't provide this reliable basis, and its deceptive (false) because it cannot. The authoritative truth and wisdom you need to guide you through your situations and relationships simply can’t be obtained from any human source.

Then Paul points us to the fatal flaw of human understanding. Such understanding will ultimately fail because it looks to “human tradition and the basic principles of this world” rather than to Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 3). This is exactly what often makes our lives so difficult. We're relying on some basic tradition of human understanding for guidance in daily life. Some of us are relying on the power of the human intellect: our own. Others are relying on a popular mystical notion we've clearly absorbed somewhere along the line: that a benevolent orderliness in the nature of things will simply guide you into goodness. Both have forgotten about the Fall, about the reality of this broken universe.

Human “wisdom” that cannot be aligned with Scripture simply is not wisdom at all. Because many of us have embraced fallen imitations of wisdom, we live stressful and disappointing lives full of unexpected problems and confusion. We've been taken captive and didn’t know it, even as we hold in our hands the only truly reliable source of understanding and direction: the Word of God; written guidance from the One who supplies every treasure, insight, wisdom, and truth.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Light of the World

On one of those confusing, distressing days when your journey confronts you with the inescapable realities of life in this fallen world, here is something to remember.

A Light in His Hand

So little preparation
so many
unrealistic expectations
so often
dreams are dashed
unwanted fears
Too few
understand where they are
too few
know where they’re going
too many
feel alone and lost.
Yet the One who knows
and who understands
has joined the journey.
He holds a light
in His hands
and He is One
who can be trusted.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

So, What's Hyssop?

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

PSALM 51:7

It seems such a strange request from a man who’s in the throes of grief over sins that he can’t deny and can’t take back. I would propose to you that it was exactly the right thing for David and for each of us to pray whenever we’re confronted with our sins. But when you first read the word in Psalm 51, it does make you wonder, “What in the world is hyssop?”

Researching the plant won’t give you much help. It produces a delicate white flower and is thought by some to have medicinal qualities. But this is one time that won’t help you. What you really need to know, in order to understand the grieving in David’s request, is Old Testament history. David’s mind goes to that original Passover, when the firstborn of Egypt were stricken dead and the houses of Israel that had blood on the door frames were passed over. What does this have to do with David’s request? Here it is: God directed the Israelites to take a branch of hyssop and dip it in blood and paint the door frames with it.

Here is David, grieved by his sin and bowed before God between the “already” and the “not yet.” Already the blood of the first Passover had protected Israel from death and made their exodus to freedom and the land of promise possible. Already the Mosaic system of constant animal-blood sacrifices covered the sins of God’s people. But the promised Lamb had not yet come. Nor yet had his blood been spilt, once and for all, in the final moment of sacrifice that forever ended any need for further sacrifice.

So reflecting on the past, David’s words actually reach into the future. They form the ultimate backdrop to the future prayer. For embedded in this cry for cleansing that remembers the spilt blood of deliverance (Passover) and the shed blood of forgiveness (Mosaic sacrifices), David cries for the one thing that anyone who acknowledges his sin will cry for—cleansing.

When your sin really does become ugly to you, when it produces pain in your heart and sickness in your stomach, you celebrate forgiveness, but you want something more. You want to be clean. You long to be once and for all purified from all sin whatsoever. You want your sin to be once and for all washed away. You want to be free of every dark residue of sinful thought, desire, word, or deed.

Yes, you’ll love the fact that you can stand before God dirty and unafraid because of his comprehensive and freely given grace. You’ll love the fact that his forgiveness of you has been full and complete. But you’ll grow tired of needing and seeking forgiveness. You’ll mourn the hold that sin has on you. You’ll be frustrated with the way that sin seems to infect everything you do. And you’ll begin to plead for what the blood of Jesus alone is able to do; wash away your sin. In this moment of need and helplessness, you’ll cry, “Purge me with hyssop Lord, dip the branch of your grace into the blood of your Son and cleanse me once and for all!”

David never sang that great, old hymn “Nothing but the Blood,” but maybe he’ll hear it some day and remember the tear-stained prayer that followed the visit of Nathan. Maybe someday he’ll celebrate final cleansing with a chorus of the ages singing:

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O precious is the flow,
That makes me white as snow.
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Today do you long to be completely clean? Today will you celebrate the cleansing blood of the son?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Listening to Luther

"With Paul, we absolutely deny the possibility of self merit. God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit...the true way of salvation is this: First, a person must realize that he’s a sinner, the kind of sinner who’s congenitally unable to do any good thing. "Whatsoever is not of faith, is sin." Those who seek to earn the grace of God by their own efforts are trying to please God with sins. They mock God, and provoke His anger. The first step on the way to salvation is to repent." (Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians)

I want believe
that there is another way.
I want to think
that I am the exception to the rule.
I grasp at the thought
that my righteousness is enough.
I hold to the hope
that my behavior satisfies you.
I want to think
that you judge me worthy.
It is my evaluation
that I am capable of your standard.
I want to hold onto my assessment
that I am not like others,
I can plainly see
that they offend your law.
I get the fact
that they fall short of your glory.
I know very well
that they can't stand before you.
But I still want to think
that I am not like them.
I want to hold your Word
and my righteousness at the same time.
I want to celebrate the Gospel
and my worthiness together.
But it is
a self-sufficient delusion.
It aggrandizes me and diminishes You.
It minimizes sin and devalues grace.
It asks the law to do
what only grace can accomplish.
It denies the daily evidence
of my sin.
It ignores the true condition
of my heart.
It turns away
from the sacrifice that you have made.
It omits the sovereign plan
of your grace.
It forgets the desperate condition
of my need.
And so I turn
to what I know is true.
I am nothing
without you.
I accept the invitation
of your grace.
I run to the sacrifice
of the cross.
I cry for the help
of your spirit.
I accept the diagnosis
of your Word.
I trust the faithfulness
of your love.
I seek the forgiveness
you alone can give.
And I reject
the righteousness that is my own.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Reasons to Be Passive - Part 3

Passivity is rarely the result of a conscious decision. You don’t wake up one morning and say to yourself, "I’m going to begin to view myself as powerless. I’m going to look on God as small. So from now on, I’ll just close my door and take care of me and mine.” It never happens quite that way. But it does happen, all the time. Perhaps the broken-down house metaphor can help us again in illustrating the progressive stages of passivity.

One day you’re walking through your living room and notice a slight crack in the wall. It’s barely visible, so you think; it’s too small to worry about today. Now this is a perfectly plausible statement. The crack is minor and not worth re-ordering your day over. But something else also needs to be said; problems are always easiest to address when they are small. So often we make the mistake of not dealing with problems when we first notice them. After all, they crop up in the middle of the mundane moments of our lives—and we forget that those mundane moments are pretty much all we have!

You and I live in these little, mundane moments. The character of a life is not set in three or four moments of huge significance. No, the character of a life is set in 10,000 little moments, one after another. The character formed in those innumerable little moments is what positions us to respond in the big moments of life. (See the Parable of the Ten Minas, Luke 19:11–27.)

But neither the crack in your wall nor the passivity in your heart remains unchanged. So several months later your wife notices that the crack has become sizably larger. It’s now very noticeable, so she asks if you’d do something about it. You say, “I’ll get to it when I have time.” When you tell her that, you’re not lying. You really do intend to fix it when you have a few free moments. The problem is that those moments never come. There’s a principle here; the problems of life are not usually fixed in free and unscheduled moments. Problems generally get fixed because someone cares enough to make the time to address and solve them.

Because you haven’t found that mysterious free moment in your schedule, the crack in the wall is now three inches wide at the top and runs from ceiling to floor. It has morphed from a minor to a major problem. It simply can’t be ignored any longer. At this point, however, it will take real skill to fix. So you say to yourself, this is way too big for me to deal with. Overwhelmed with what you’re facing, you realize you’re incapable of solving it.

Isn’t this exactly where passivity always leads us? “Too little” and “no time” always lead to “too big.”

The Call

The point of the last three blog posts is simple but absolutely vital: you cannot think biblically and adopt a passive lifestyle. To begin with, the world you live in is terribly broken (see Romans 8:18–22). Second, God’s agenda is the complete renewal of everything (see Revelation 21:1–5). Third, God is sovereign and has placed you exactly where he intends you to be (see Acts 17: 24–28). Fourth, you’ve been lit by God’s grace and called to radiate his character in the darkness that surrounds where he’s placed you (see Matthew 5:14–16, quoted previously).

The question is, will you live biblically, exercising the character and influence you’ve been given? Or in your passivity will you try to take yourself off the hook with self-serving rationalizations, flawed logic, and unbiblical thinking? Remember, the One who has positioned and called you is with you again and again reminding you of that fact; he has taken the name Emmanuel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reasons to Be Passive - Part 2

The Magnitude Argument: “The Problem Is Too Big”

Maybe you’re looking at the chaotic life of a loved one and are overwhelmed at all that needs to change. Or maybe you’re considering your marriage, and all the years that have poured over the dam, and it simply seems impossible to turn it around. Or maybe in studying your community you’re stunned at the injustice, corruption, poverty, and violence not too far from you—conditions that seem far too big, far too complicated, and goodness, it’s all been going on for years.

Once more, Moses comes to mind. The children of Israel are now in the wilderness and complaining because they are bored with eating the manna that God provides every day to sustain them. God tells Moses that he’ll send quail for Israel to eat; not just for a meal, or a week’s meals, but for a month, until it comes out of their noses and they loathe it! (Numbers 11:18–20). Now read Moses’ words, and you can then understand what‘s wrong with the magnitude argument.

But Moses said, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?”
(Numbers 11:21–22)

What do you think is wrong with Moses’ analysis? He certainly recognizes, legitimately, that it will take a great deal of food to feed more than 600,000 hungry Israelites. But he can’t see past that fact. The fatal flaw in his analysis is that he thinks far too little of the God who is calling him to act. We know this from God’s answer: “Is the Lord’s arm too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you” (Numbers 11:23). In Moses’ eyes, the God whom he serves is infinitely smaller than the God who actually exists and who’s called him to do great things. No problem is too big for the Creator God.

The Separation Argument: “It’s Not My Problem”

One way we sometimes try to quiet a guilty conscience is to tell ourselves that we would gladly get involved if we were involved. We argue that we’ve a lot on our plate already and we want to be faithful to what God has given us to do. Again, there is some logic to this, and even some truth. You’re a human being with limited time, energy, and resources. And it’s true that you must make a priority of the things God has given you to do. But perhaps we take ourselves off the hook too easily. Perhaps we are often too happily uninvolved.

Could it be that our passivity to the needs around us doesn’t really grow out of a commitment to prioritize what God has commanded us to do, but is really a neglect of how he’s commanded us to live? It’s the difference between focusing on specific behaviors as opposed to a particular kind of lifestyle. Listen to the words of the prophet Micah:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:6–8)

In this passage, specific acts of worship at the personal level (which may or may not be genuinely from the heart) take a definite back seat to a lifestyle at the public level that’s committed to justice, mercy, and humility. Micah’s call takes us way beyond a “me and mine” way of looking at the call of God. God requires his people to be instruments of his justice and mercy wherever he’s placed them.

How you live is much more comprehensive and broader than your specific acts or roles. It’s the child, the apprentice, who simply performs the duties that have been set before him. With growth and maturity comes a release into a broader world where you’re expected to interact more freely with your environment. The apprentice becomes a craftsman, and the child becomes an adult. Consider the call of Christ to us all as recorded by Matthew:

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
(Mathew 5:14–16)

Jesus is saying, “You’ve been lit by my grace, now go let my character shine through you.” How do you do this? Jesus makes it very clear: through a public life characterized by good deeds. Here again is a call to step out into this darkened world, not succumbing to thoughts of your smallness, or the magnitude of the problem, or the distance it is from your front door. It’s a call to remember who you are (someone who has been lit by the transforming grace of God) and who he is (a God of awesome power and grace) and step out to look for opportunities to light what has been dark through actions of love, mercy, justice, reconciliation, peace, and compassion.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reasons to Be Passive - Part 1

Apart from an active faith in God’s sovereignty and grace, it’s easy to throw up our hands and adopt a “What’s the use?” mentality. If it’s going to be so hard to make really significant improvements, what does it matter if things deteriorate a little further?

This sort of faithless attitude could apply to the “house” that is our life, or the “house” that’s the regular environment in which we live and work—such as the school attended by those young men. We could all come up with lots of good reasons to remain passive. The problems seem too numerous, and many seem too large. You see yourself as one little person, in one little place, at one little moment in time, and it just doesn’t seem logical that you could make any difference at all. To be specific, let me propose three arguments that we all tend to make at one time or another that keep us passive and uninvolved.

The Identity Argument: “I’m Too Small”

As I have written again and again, you and I don’t have much in the way of personal power and authority. When we think about it, we know we can’t really change people, and we know that in most important respects we have little ability to alter circumstances significantly. When we compare ourselves to the size of the changes that are needed around our “house,” it is easy to conclude that God must actually be mistaken on this whole subject of renovation.

Remember the first words from Moses’ mouth when God called him to go back to Egypt and lead out the Israelites? Moses said, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). In response, God restates Moses’ commission, and Moses basically replies, “But I’m not sure I know what to say.” So God tells him what to say, tells him that he will go with him, and tells him that he will accompany Moses’ words with “wonders” that will strike the Egyptians. Moses tries once again to take himself out of the action, essentially replying, But what if they do not believe me?”

So the Lord, right there and then, demonstrates two miraculous signs that he will allow Moses to perform before Pharaoh. But these still aren’t enough for Moses, so he says, “O, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Through a series of questions God then reminds Moses that he made his mouth. But Moses is still not convinced that he can do what God is calling him to do and finally pleads, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” The Bible says that at that point the anger of the Lord burned against Moses, that God gave Aaron to Moses as his spokesman, and that God sent Moses to do what he had chosen him to do.

There are two ways to look at how Moses responded here, and both are true. In one sense, Moses was accurately identifying weaknesses in himself. Fair enough, but hardly the complete picture because, far more importantly, Moses was completely overlooking the fact that the one asking him to do these significant things was the Almighty Creator, who certainly had the power to bring them to pass.

So the kind of doubt Moses was displaying here was not simply doubt in his own abilities. There is ultimately a deeper and far more significant doubt involved—a doubt of God’s sovereignty and power. Where the first kind of doubt might be a form of humility, the second is a sinful faithlessness. God knows that in ourselves we are not up to the tasks he calls us to, but he never makes a false assignment. When he sends us we are sent as instruments in his almighty hands. He is the one who creates the change. He is the great Restorer. He never calls us to what we cannot accomplish in him, but he always calls us to what we could never accomplish without him.

God did eventually do amazing things through weak and fearful Moses. Pharaoh was silenced, Egypt was defeated, and the children of Israel were liberated. You see, for the child of God, passivity is simply rooted in poor theology. When you begin to embrace the theology of God’s presence, promises, and power, passivity no longer makes any sense.

Monday, September 05, 2011


It should be the thing that greets your mind and fills your heart as you wake each morning. It should be your final thought as you settle in for a night of sleep. It should define how you face your day, and it should shape your self-reflections. It should be the thing that directs how you respond to others. It should be at the forefront of your thoughts in times of trouble or disappointment. It should alter how you think about finances, possessions, decisions, relationships, and everything else. It should be a central theme of your existence. It's so huge, so gorgeous, and so glorious that once it gets hold of you, you’ll never be the same again.

You don’t need to be an expert at riddles for this one. I‘m talking about grace.

If you’re God’s child, grace is the stunning core reality of your existence. It’s the most amazing thing that has ever happened to you, or ever will. It has changed everything you have, do, and are. It’s redefined your past, refocused your present, and reshaped your future. It’s the thing that you’ve needed since your first breath. It’s an absolutely essential ingredient of productive living on this side of eternity. It’s what you and I will focus on and celebrate for the rest of eternity. And it’s vital that in preparation for eternity we start our celebration now.

Playing with the Box
Luella and I gave birth to a son who didn’t understand what to do with gifts. We would shop for what we thought was just the right gift for him. Then on Christmas, or his birthday, we would watch as he gleefully tore open the wrapping. But not long afterward we would find him playing with the box, his carefully chosen gift lying neglected on the floor! This went on for years, and eventually became quite frustrating.

One Christmas, Luella and I decided to find our son a gift he simply couldn’t resist. After extensive shopping, we found it. We both realized at the same moment that this was the perfect choice. We were certain that this was a gift he’d actually play with.

Christmas morning arrived, and we were all sitting around the tree opening our gifts. I’m sure Luella and I were gripped by more anticipation than our son was. We couldn’t wait for the moment when he opened that particular gift, couldn’t wait to see the look on his face. We just knew that this gift would truly capture his attention. Finally the gift was in front of him, and his little hands instantly shredded the wrapping. He saw the box, opened the box, removed the toy, and actually began playing with it! With the toy! I was filled with a warm feeling of parental accomplishment.

I went into the kitchen to get something to drink. When I returned to the living room a few minutes later, the toy was there on the floor, and our son was sitting in the box! I couldn’t believe it! We’d given him the best toy ever and he was still quite content to play with the box.

Why am I telling you this cute family story? Because I’m convinced that many Christians are a lot like my son. You and I have been given the best gift that could ever be given. However closely you study it, from whatever perspective you choose to examine it, it’s astonishing and gorgeous and awesome in the true sense of the word. No other gift could possibly be more significant or life-changing. As an act of sheer, breathtaking, over-the-top generosity and kindness, no other gift comes close.

The gift of grace is the single most important thing every human being needs. And we all need it equally; no one needs it more, and no one needs it less. Without this gift you’ll never be what you were designed to be, or do what you were created to do. It’s a gift you could never earn, achieve, or deserve. It has the power to completely transform you and everything you desire, choose, think, say, and do. It’s the gift of gifts. It’s the gift of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I’m deeply persuaded that many Christians, having been given this awesome gift, are content to play with the box.

We’re content with episodic Christianity, a faith that lives most vibrantly on Sunday morning. We’re content with stepping out of our busy schedules for occasional participation in ministry. We’re content with a little bit of casual fellowship (which, being casual, usually isn’t fellowship at all). We’re content with putting a little bit of money in the offering plate. We may support and encourage the ministry of others, but if someone were to watch a video of our lives they would quickly conclude we’re driven by hopes, dreams, and values that have little or nothing to do with God’s purposes. Sadly, having been given the most wonderful and trans-formative gift that could ever be, I think there are many Christians who are quite content to play with the box.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Fantasy Sovereignty

Our Sovereign Fantasy
Like children, we all buy into a fundamental and very tempting delusion. Our weakness in this area is what gave an opening to the serpent in the Garden, and by it that same enemy still seeks to prey upon us today. There are two helpful ways of expressing and thinking about this delusion, although in practice these two forms are so closely related as to produce what is essentially a single fantasy.

The first and primary form of this delusion is autonomy. To be truly autonomous is to be independent, self-determining, and self-ruling. To possess autonomy is to have the right to do with your time and resources whatever you will. It means you can set your own rules and chart your own course, that you’re in charge of your own life and nobody has the authority to tell you what to do.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see how irrational and even absurd this notion is. Imagine if all the drivers in Philadelphia, where I live, began to drive as if they actually thought they were autonomous. Imagine the chaos and carnage that would ensue as the desires of one driver collided head-on with the desires of another driver, throughout the city!

Autonomy is a delusion that seduces all of us. Every time I treat my wife, children, or friends in a way I shouldn’t treat them, in order to advance my own purpose, I’m operating out of the delusion of autonomy. Every time I take for myself glory that belongs to God, I’m claiming autonomy. Every time I willingly step over one of God’s boundaries with a word, a thought, a choice, or an action, I’m acting as if my life belongs to me. Autonomy is a dangerous fantasy that at various times and in various ways deceives us all.

Another way to think about this same basic delusion is in terms of self-sufficiency. To be self-sufficient is to have everything you need within yourself to be what you were designed to be, and to do what you were designed to do.

To assume we're self-sufficient is no more rational than to assume we're autonomous. Obviously, a newborn child is the opposite of self-sufficient; while young children and teens clearly have their own limitations. But what about a mature, accomplished adult? What about you? Can you be self-sufficient?

Here’s a test. Consider all the things you’ve done in the last twenty-four hours that required the assistance or contributions of others. Did you sleep indoors? Travel in a vehicle? Use electricity? Wear clothing you didn’t make? Read? Eat food you didn’t kill or grow? Get water from a faucet? Would any of that have been possible without the involvement of countless other people?

We were designed to live in worshipful dependence upon God and in humble, interdependent community with other people. Self-sufficiency may be a nonsensical delusion, but it’s a powerfully seductive and dangerous one. Yet every day we act as if we’re far more independent than we actually are. Every time you’re too proud to ask for help, you buy into the fantasy of your self-sufficiency. Every time you reject someone who’s trying to confront you with a wrong, you’re believing the lie of your self-sufficiency. Every time you act as if you know more than you actually know, you accept the delusion of your self-sufficiency.

The Confrontation of Nature

God designed this world in such a way that it serves as a constant reminder of his presence, his character, and his glory. Even as creation reminds us of these divine attributes, it does something else. It confronts our delusions of autonomy and self-sufficiency.
The doctrine of creation reveals the delusion of autonomy for the foolishness it is. Think about the logic here. If there is a Creator and you are his creature, the work of his hands, then there’s no such thing as autonomy.

I am a painter by avocation. When, after months of work, I finally complete a painting, who does that painting belong to? The answer is easy and obvious. It belongs to me because I created it. Does the beauty or sophistication of the thing created change who owns it? No. If somehow my next painting were judged by every art critic in the world to be the single best painting in history, it would still be mine, and I could still do with it whatever I pleased. In the same way, we belong to God, however amazingly well-constructed we are or imagine ourselves to be.
You cannot embrace both the doctrine of creation and the illusion of personal autonomy. The first cancels out the second. The Bible begins by declaring that the entire physical world (including humans) is the product of God’s creative artistry. It follows from this that we’re owned by him. Therefore, he alone has the right to tell us how we should participate in the existence that is his creation.

The doctrine of creation also exposes the lie of self-sufficiency. You can plant the healthiest seeds available, but if God doesn’t send the rain your plants will die. You're dependent on God for your very life and breath. If he would withdraw his hand, this orderly world would explode into chaos. Look how a drought or a flood can bring a region to its knees. Look at all the examples of how the goods of one part of the world are desperately needed by another part of the world. The more you consider the interdependent operation of the various elements of creation, the clearer it is that no aspect of God’s creation is truly self-sufficient, including you.
Especially you.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rest is Hard Work

I did it again and again when our children resisted our instruction and correction. I did it again and again when they debated a command or questioned our plans. I did it again and again when they opposed our authority and quested for self-rule. I did it again and again for two good reasons.

To begin with, my wife and I had brought children into this world who thought they didn’t need us! Each of them at some point fell into believing they were far more knowledgeable and capable than they really were. They all assumed that their intentions were noble and their plans were sound. They all thought they were capable of determining what was best, even when they lacked important information and experience. They simply felt they were in possession of a better way.

But there was a second reason I did it again and again. Our children were too young to grasp the abstract, strategic, and often theological purposes underlying my instruction. Even if I explained everything in as age-appropriate a way as I could, they would still have no actual understanding. They just didn’t yet have the categories or the capacity to grasp the parental logic behind the plan or command.

So I did the same thing again and again. I would kneel down in front of them at eye level and say, “Please look at Daddy’s face. Do you know how much I love you? Do you know that your Daddy isn’t a mean, bad man? Do you know that I would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you or make you sick? I’m sorry that you can’t understand why Daddy is asking you to do this. I wish I could explain it to you, but you are too young to understand. So I’m going to ask you to do something—trust Daddy. When you walk down the hallway to do what Daddy has asked you to do, say to yourself, ‘My Daddy loves me. My Daddy would never ask me to do something bad. I’m going to trust my Daddy and stop trying to be the Daddy of my Daddy.’”

God does the same thing with you, over and over again. He meets you in one of the difficult hallways of your life, kneels down before you in condescending love, and asks you to trust his loving and wise rule, even though you don’t have a clue what he’s doing. He knows there are many times when your life doesn’t look as if there’s anyone ruling it, let alone someone wise and good. He knows there will be times when you’ll wish you could write your own story. He knows that at times you'll be overwhelmed by what’s on your plate. He knows that his plan will confuse and confound you. And he knows that real rest can’t be found in understanding. Real rest is found in trust. He knows that real rest is hard work. So he’s willing to have the conversation with you again and again, and he’s made sure that his Word assures you of his rule again and again. (For just a few examples, see 1 Chronicles 29:11–12, Psalm 103:19, Psalm 115:3, Proverbs 21:1, Isaiah 46:9–10, Daniel 4:35, and Ephesians 1:11).

Monday, August 29, 2011

You're Always in School

I remember when I graduated from seminary my dad said, "You know, you're still in school, it's just a different kind of school than you've been in the last three years. Pay attention and learn your lessons well." Dad was right; we're all being schooled every day. So it's appropriate to ask in the never ending learning center that’s human life, who is schooling you? There’s never a day that passes without you being taken to school in some way. Life is really all about teaching and learning. And there’s a way in which neither stops from the first day until the last day of your life. So perhaps one of the most important diagnostic questions that each of us should be asking is this: “Do I approach life as a student?”

If you’re committed to know and understand; if you’re committed to journey from ignorance to knowledge and from foolishness to wisdom; if you’re interested in more than your own plan and perspective, then it only makes sense to learn at the feet of the world’s best Teacher. Who could know more or be wiser than the One who put the universe into motion; who presently holds it together, and who controls its destiny? Who could know more about the true meaning and purpose of life? Who could know more about your identity? Who could know more about the environment in which you live? Who could know more about the foundational questions of life?

The Proverbs say it very well: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” I like John Calvin’s paraphrase of that: “There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” There can be no better place to go to school than to the University of the Lord and there could be no better course of study than the way of the Lord.

His way is wisdom, and wisdom requires understanding his way. So where are you going for wisdom? Whose school have you been attending? Who shapes your definition of the meaning and purpose of life? Who tells you who you are and what you should be doing? Who crafts the way you look at the surrounding world? Who defines your problems? Who instructs you as to how they will be solved? Who helps you to determine your life’s direction? Who tells you what’s functionally important and what isn’t? Who shapes your relationships? Who clarifies your thinking in moments of difficulty? Are you really a faithful student in the school of the Lord, or do you just audit now and then when it’s convenient? Let me suggest the characteristics of a student in the school of the Lord.

A healthy cynicism toward your own wisdom. Sin reduces all of us to fools; but it does something else that’s even more insidious; it makes us believe that we are wise. Independent wisdom was both the seductive temptation and the delusional desire behind the fall. One of the primary reasons Adam and Eve were attracted to the fruit was that it was “to be desired to make one wise.” But eating the fruit didn’t result in wisdom; no, it opened the floodgates of foolishness, and we’ve been drowning in its waters ever since.

You and I were never created with the autonomous capacity to be wise. Wisdom doesn’t come through research, experience, and study. Wisdom comes by revelation and relationship. You only get wisdom from the One who is its ultimate source, the Lord.

A humble sense of need. We all get lulled to sleep by feelings of arrival, by feeling satisfied with our character, our knowledge, and our behavior. We have little desire for further growth. You know what it’s like. We all have the capacity to be too easily satisfied. Because we know more today than we did yesterday, we quit working to know more tomorrow. Rather than gratitude for what God has taught us, motivating us to learn more, we get smug and lazy, quite content to consider ourselves God’s graduates.

A willing and open heart. Willingness and openness are the essential characteristics of any good student. Why, you may ask? Because learning not only shows me what I didn’t know, but it points out the places where what I thought I knew was, in fact, wrong. I can’t tell you how many defensive students I’ve met in my many years of teaching. “Defensive student” is actually an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or low-fat butter. You can’t be defensive and be a student. You have to open up your heart. You have to be willing to be told that you’re wrong. You have to submit yourself to someone who knows better and knows more. Defending what you know won’t lead to either further or corrected understanding. Willingness to listen, consider, and change are in the heart of every good student.

Discernment, focus, and determination. Discernment means that you have to make sure you’re submitting yourself to qualified teachers. Paul says in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Once you’re sitting at the feet of those who represent the Teacher of teachers, then continued learning takes focus.

You live in a world of many, many voices. All of them are interpreting your world and all of them are vying for the allegiance of your heart. And you have to remember that learning is a process, not an event. One truth opens the doorway to another truth. One truth functions as an interpreter of a truth previously introduced but now understood more fully. Learning is a lifelong process, and because it is, it requires perseverance.

Commitment to act on what you are learning. Any seasoned teacher will tell you that real learning takes place after the students leave the classroom and practice what they’ve been taught. The God who’s your teacher will orchestrate events, situations, and relationships for the purpose of causing you to live what you’ve been learning. Life is his classroom, and in every new location on each new day, provides a rich and God-given environment to understand more deeply and to live more wisely. So good students always carry with them the commitment to look for ways to apply what they’ve been learning, and they know that as they do, their learning will continue.

By God’s grace we haven’t been left to our own wisdom. We’ve been brought into personal communion with the One who is the source of everything that’s wise and true. So these questions remain: Are you a committed student? Whose school are you attending?

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer should be a daily plea for all of us:

"Teach me your way, O LORD,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies."
Psalm 27:11

Friday, August 26, 2011

Driven to Grace

Perhaps, sometime recently you’ve been thinking, "Life is hard. I don’t know if I have what it takes to live God's way.” Or maybe you’ve wondered how in the world you can do what God calls you to do as a husband or wife, a parent, friend, relative, worker, neighbor, citizen, or member of the body of Christ in the middle of the busyness of your schedule and the catalog of other responsibilities you carry. Maybe you’ve been thinking, “It seems exhausting just to maintain the status quo let alone working to make things in my life better!” Maybe God's street-level call of daily self-sacrificing love for God and neighbor has left you a bit hopeless and discouraged. Or maybe you’ve had to face the fact that you simply don’t have it inside you to fight the good fight in this fallen world. Perhaps yesterday's failure has left you despondent and discouraged. Maybe a situation, relationship, conversation or a book has given you a lens on yourself and, sadly, you’ve realized that things aren’t what you thought. Perhaps you’re feeling the standard is too high and the work too hard.

Maybe all this has revealed how selfish your heart really is and left you feeling weak and unable. Well, I am about to say something that will surprise you. If this has been your response, then you’re in a very good place. Let me remind you that this is one of the uncomfortable gifts that God is working to give you. He’s designed the right here, right now situations of life to expose the neediness of your heart and, in so doing, to bring you to the end of yourself. Why does God do this? He does it because he knows that its only when you abandon your own wisdom, strength, and righteousness that you’ll begin to get excited about his grace.

What is your hope? This may seem strange to read at this point, but it must be said: the hope of your life isn’t all the principles, insights, and perspectives found in Scripture. No, the hope of your life can be captured in one glorious, powerful, and transforming word—grace. Without rescuing, empowering, forgiving, transforming and delivering grace, the principles of the Bible would only leave you discouraged and overwhelmed. God’s grace guarantees that you, in your struggle, will never be alone. God’s grace assures you that when you’ve blown it, there’s forgiveness to be found. Grace means that there’s strength available when you’re weak. Grace assures you that there’s wisdom for the moments when you don’t know what to do. Grace gives you hope when there seems little to be found. Grace enables you to get up and move forward when inside you want to quit or run away. Grace reminds you again and again that you’re not alone.

You see, God knows that this side of heaven there are ways in which we all are weak and unable. There are ways we all fall below his standards. So he’s given us the only thing that will rescue, restore, and mobilize us. He’s given us himself! In his grace he invades our situations, locations and relationships. He comes with power we don’t possess, wisdom unnatural to us, and love beyond anything we’ve ever known. He’s willing to let you see how weak you actually are so that you’ll begin to seek what you can find only in him. What you should be afraid of in your life isn’t your weakness; being needy is a good place to be. No, what you should be afraid of are your delusions of arrival and strength. When you think you’ve arrived, and when you’re convinced you’re strong, you don’t reach out for the incredible resources of grace that God freely offers, which will give you what you need to live in a way that by yourself you could never live.

Jack and Shannon were exhausted and discouraged because they had no hope; nothing they did made things better. They felt helpless and alone with no place to turn. Jack knew that he shouldn’t be so angry, but he was. Shannon knew she shouldn’t be bitter and judgmental, but she didn’t know how to deal with her disappointment. There were moments of peace, but those moments were increasingly infrequent and fleeting. The distance and tension between them seemed to grow every day. Their home was no longer a refuge to either one.

Rather than doing the hard work of dealing with their problems, Jack and Shannon developed the skill of working around their problems. But as their problems grew, it became impossible for them to work around them anymore. Their marriage was no longer peaceful and enjoyable. Their home was no longer a place of rest and retreat. So they sat in front of me, exhausted and discouraged. But I knew that it was the exhaustion and discouragement of grace. I knew that God hadn’t turned his back on them but was with them, in them, and for them. And I knew that God had their attention in fresh and new ways.

I didn’t start by laying on them all the insights and principles about marriage that Scripture contains. I knew that that would leave them even more overwhelmed. No, for the first few weeks we met together, I did only one thing: I worked to help them see Jesus. I knew that when they began to see and trust his presence, promises, power, and faithfulness, they would begin to think that maybe they could hope to experience what marriage was designed to be, and they would be willing to do the hard work that would get them there. I knew that they would live with the assurance that God would always give them what they need in order to do what he called them to do.

Jack and Shannon didn't need a lecture in God's law. They knew their marriage was a mess and that what they were doing was wrong. What they needed was a fresh vision of God's grace; a vision of grace so huge and glorious that their problems would seem tiny in comparison. It was God who drove them to the end of themselves so that they would do the one thing they hadn't done for a long time, reach out for his transforming grace.

Are you reaching out?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Watching your Feet

More than six billion people on this planet are trying to navigate through an increasingly interconnected world of spiritual confusion and moral weakness. Is this all the fault of Adam and Eve’s sin? Not really. Even in their sinless garden, the first man and woman were not equipped to figure out life on their own. We know this because God immediately began to speak to them and direct them as soon as they were created and before the serpent ever uttered a word. By themselves, Adam and Eve would have had no idea who they were or why they existed; no idea how to spend their days. So we see that from the very beginning we were created to be dependent on God, to be willing listeners and humble receivers. God’s Word, spoken directly to man, would give us sure and certain guidance.

Now if this was true of Adam and Eve before sin entered the world, how much more true is it of you and me, who have never known a single sinless day, and are constantly bombarded by unbiblical messages from the world? Certainly, we need to be careful to trust in what we can be sure of.
No passage gets at this need and God’s provision better than Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” When do you need a lamp? Well, you probably wouldn’t pack a flashlight for a picnic lunch in the park. But you wouldn’t think of taking that nighttime walk through the woods without one. And which scenario is more like life in this fallen world: a picnic lunch, or midnight in the woods? You mustn’t try to live as if life is a sunny afternoon picnic. Sin has plunged your world into darkness. On any given day you probably encounter far more falsehood than you do truth. So if you’re going to move forward, to make your way without danger, and get to where you are meant to go, you need something to light your way.

You need light for your marriage and your parenting. You need light for your job and your relationships with your neighbors. You need light for your struggles with desires and temptations. You need light to help you deal with the unexpected. You need light to cope with new difficulties that emerge. You need light for when you’ve been sinned against. You need light to deal with weaknesses of the body and hardships of the heart. You need light for those moments when you’re alone and overwhelmed. You need light for all those unknowns that will show up on your doorstep tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.

You don’t need to bloody your nose and bruise your toes by bumping into trees and tripping over roots. You don’t have to grope around fearfully in the darkness. The Light of the World has graced you with the light of his Word. It will shine around your feet in the midst of the darkness so you needn’t stumble and fall. Listen to the reflections of that great nineteenth century preacher, Charles Spurgeon on this passage.

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. We are walkers through the city of this world, and we are often called to go out into its darkness; let us never venture there without the light giving word, lest we slip with our feet. Each man should use the word of God personally, practically, and habitually, that he may see his way and see what lies in it. When darkness settles down upon all around me, the word of the Lord, like a flaming torch, reveals my way. Having no fixed lamps in eastern towns, in old time each passenger carried a lantern with him that he might not fall into the open sewer, or stumble over the heaps of ordure which defiled the road. This is a true picture of our path through this dark world: we should not know the way, or how to walk in it, if Scripture, like a blazing flambeau, did not reveal it. One of the most practical benefits of Holy Writ is guidance in the acts of daily life: it is not sent to astound us with its brilliance, but to guide us by its instruction. It is true the head needs illumination, but even more the feet need direction, else head and feet may both fall into a ditch. Happy is the man who personally

Monday, August 22, 2011

Prepared Spontaneity

Wise people are not wise because they are prophets who see the future. Wise people are not wise because they can look into men’s hearts and discern their thoughts and motives. Wise people are not wise because they are better at learning from experience. Wise people are not those who’ve been blessed with superior intellect.

Wise people are those who treasure the lamp of God’s Word, seeking out and crying out for the light of truth. In other words, wise people are simply prepared people—biblically prepared and equipped for whatever might come along. People become wise when by God’s grace they are humble enough to accept how unprepared they actually are in themselves. Sacrificing the false god of their own independence, they run to the one place where actual certainty can be found. Then they’re able to live hopefully, productively, and courageously. Then they’re prepared for whatever comes along—not because they saw it coming, but because they’ve been students of the Word of God. They don’t know more about the future than anyone else does. But God, through the wisdom of the Bible, has made them ready for it.

In one sense, this is the secret of “going with the flow” that many people think they are pursuing. In the light of Scripture, however, the nature of all that going and flowing is completely different. It isn’t passive. Its grounded in truth, it understands the real nature of this existence, and its active and attentive.

I call this the principle of prepared spontaneity. You don’t need God-like powers to live a God-honoring life in this fallen world. The perspectives, commands, principles, and promises of the great redemptive story of Scripture will provide all you need to live as you were designed to live; yes, even in this broken world.

You can respond spontaneously and biblically to a myriad of things you didn’t see coming, because God’s Word makes you wise about you, about others, about the meaning and purpose of life, about God and his plan, about basic rights and wrongs, about why things are the way they are and what to do about it, about how we function and how change takes place, and about a host of other things. And because the Bible has made you wise, you’re then ready to face what you neither planned nor expected. You’re ready because you are trusting in what is sure rather than reading the tea leaves of your own viewpoint or passively going with the flow.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Broken House, Skilled Builder.

Understanding and practicing prepared spontaneity can indeed enable you to live productively for God, but I’m not for a minute suggesting life will never be hard again. Every situation, location, and relationship of our everyday lives is in some way broken. As fallen creatures, the best we can ever do in this life is to know how to live in this broken-down house that’s our current address; nothing and no one but God himself, in the fullness of his time, can change where we live. So as we experience the reality of life in this house, sometimes it will leave us confused and overwhelmed. Sometimes it will leave us hurt and angry. Sometimes we’ll give way to envy because the house of someone living nearby seems far less broken. Sometimes we’ll just get weary of the stress of it all and long for a house in perfect repair.

In those moments, those days, those seasons, remember that you are never on your own. The Builder has given you a copy of his repair manual, the Bible. It will help you understand why things are as broken as they are. It will teach you how to live well even in the midst of the brokenness. And it will explain the only way in which repair can ever happen. More than that, the Builder himself has moved into the house with you. You’ve not been left alone. You can rest assured of his presence and his wisdom. His grace has gifted you with both of these.

He who offers you such grace and guidance will never ask you to do what you are not fully capable of doing by God’s grace and indwelling Spirit. He will not demand things of you that are beyond your abilities. Your Lord is tender and kind. He knows who you are and he knows where you’re living. He knows how hard it is to live in this broken-down house because in the flesh he lived here himself. He invites you to walk away from trying to figure it out on your own and he welcomes you to sit at his feet and learn the mysteries of the universe; things so profound that you will see your world in a radically new way; things so practical that you will never live the same way again.

You’re never in a better place than when you give up on you and begin to trust what is sure: the life-shaping wisdom of the One who built the house in the first place.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You're Not

When I'm
Weary and exhausted
You're not.
When I'm
Confused and discouraged
You're not.
When I'm
Fickle and unfaithful
You're not.
When I'm
Doubtful and disheartened
You're not.
When I'm
Fearful and anxious
You're not.
When I'm
Short-sighted and fearful
You're not.
When I'm
Tired and about to quit
You're not.
When I'm
Lacking in hope and love
You're not.
When I'm
Shocked and surprised
You're not.
When I'm
Angrily withholding grace
You're not.
When I'm
Unfaithful to what I've promised
You're not.
When I'm
Selfish and disloyal
You're not.
Oh, Lord of
Faithfulness and grace
I am so thankful
In those moments
When I'm
Losing my way
You're not.

Monday, August 15, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do! Pt.4

Small and Safe

It was a beautiful thing to see. I couldn’t stop looking. The setting was a huge and boisterous crowd, mostly men. Probably many of them had had too much to drink. They were coming out of the stadium, celebrating the big win of the home team. There was celebratory grabbing, shoving, and high-fiving all over the place. In the middle of the crowd was a very little boy, just knee-high to many of the men. You’d think he'd be terrified at that moment, aware of how small he was. You’d think that he’d be overcome by his limits, but he wasn’t. He walked with his head high and a big smile on his face. Why? Because he was with his dad. Wrapped around his little hand was the huge paw of his six-foot-four-inch daddy. The son kept glancing up at his dad, and in return he kept getting those looks of reassurance that put the smile on his face. I don’t think a crowbar could have separated that little boy’s hand from his father’s. He knew his limits and he knew where security could be found. Surrounded by half-drunk guys several times his size, he was at rest.

Have you placed your little hands in the huge and capable hands of your heavenly Father? Have you realized that your life is played out in the middle of a rowdy and overstimulated crowd? Have you accepted how small you really are? Has that made you panic? Or has it given you rest? You’ll only ever know the rest God can give you in this broken world when you begin to accept your limits.

You have real and obvious limits to your wisdom, power, and righteousness. But your heavenly Father is infinite in wisdom, infinite in power and is the only source of true righteousness. Your God has no boundaries, edges, or limitations. In his power and authority, he bows to no one. You are riddled with imperfections, but God is perfect in every way. Therefore, the key to rest is not in continually lying to yourself in a futile effort to convince yourself you’re strong. No, it’s when you humbly embrace your foolishness, weakness, and sin that you’re in the best position to know peace of heart and to live productively in this broken-down house.

So let your smallness drive you to the One who alone is great. There you’ll experience that he’s not only great in wisdom, power and holiness. He’s also great in grace, and he’ll give you what you need. It isn’t your job to be mighty, nor is it within your capacity. That role is reserved for God alone. But like that little boy clinging to his father’s hand, you can know what it means to be both small and safe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do! Pt.3

You Have Limited Power
Suzy comes home from her second grade class one afternoon and says, “Mommy, I have to wear a party dress to school tomorrow.” Mom asks, “Is it someone’s birthday?” “No,” Suzy answers, “We were on the playground and my friend Anna told all the girls that we have to wear party dresses tomorrow.” Just two months into second grade, and a girl named Anna is already acting out of a delusion of self-sovereignty. Little Anna has set herself up as Queen of the second-grade playground, basking in her place at the center of her own little universe.

Yes, we all tend to like to be in control. But accepting that there’s actually very little in life that we do control is a very important spiritual step. If you buy into the delusion of your own self-sovereignty, if you live committed to some grand plan of your own making, with the belief that you have the independent ability to pull it off, two things will happen. You will not submit your life to the plan of Another, and you won’t seek the rest that can only be found in the assurance that God rules over all things for your sake (Ephesians 1:22–23).

Think of the factors that have shaped your life that you had nothing to do with. Think of the location of your birth and how profound an effect it has had. Think of how different things would be had you been born in the jungles of New Guinea, or in the desert of Saudi Arabia, or on some tiny South Sea island. Think of the influence your family has wielded over who you are and how your life has unfolded. You
didn’t choose your mom, your dad, or your siblings, yet each has had a huge effect on you. Think of how profoundly your community and the economy shape your life, when neither operates under your control. Think of how you’ve never had any actual control over the people in your life. Yes, you can influence them for good or ill, but you can’t make them do what you want. Think of how little control you’ve had over your own spiritual life. Yes, there was a moment when you had to exercise faith in the sacrifice of Christ, and you’ve chosen to live as his follower. But you couldn’t have written yourself into the circumstances that exposed you to the things of God, nor could you have opened your own heart to the truth of the gospel.

James calls us to accept the limits of our power with these direct and pastoral words:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you don't even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You're a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
—James 4:13–17

My security isn’t to be sought in the degree to which I’m able to control the people and situations in my life. No, I can accept the smallness of my power because I’m the son or daughter of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s in control, I’m not, and that’s exactly as it should be. There’s one more important limit to recognize.

You Have Limited Righteousness

Does that statement bother you? Actually, it needs to be strengthened. You and I have no independent righteousness at all! All our righteousness has been given to us by Christ. He is our righteousness.

It’s important to accept the fact that there’s never a day in your life that isn’t somehow stained by sin. Sin rears its ugly head in what you desire, choose, think, say, and do, again and again and again. Nothing that emerges from you is perfectly righteous. You simply aren’t pure in the true sense of the word. Yet we’re all tempted to buy into the delusion of our own righteousness. Even when our conscience plagues us because we’ve done something wrong, we try to take ourselves off the hook. We’ll tell ourselves that the news about someone that we just “shared” with a friend wasn’t gossip, but a prayer request. We’ll tell ourselves that that jealous thought wasn’t as envious as it seemed, but was simply a desire for God’s blessing. We’ll tell ourselves that a selfish play for personal power was really just an expression of our commitment to use our God-given leadership gifts.

If you don’t accept your ongoing struggle with sin, if you entertain the thought that your greatest problem in life exists outside of you and not inside, if you try to convince yourself that you’re more righteous than you really are, you won’t seek the forgiveness and righteousness that can only be found in the Lord Jesus Christ.