Reconciling the Call to be Productive with the Messiness of Life

Posted by on May 22, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Reconciling the Call to be Productive with the Messiness of Life

Discipleship-green

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

One of the difficulties in affirming that God calls us to be productive is that this can sometimes be mistaken to mean that there is always an easy solution to our productivity challenges. We can think that there is no place for messiness, difficulty, and even falling behind in the life of truly productive, God-honoring people.

For example, if your car has a problem, you take it to the mechanic and he ought to be able to fix it. That’s what they are trained to do, and most automobile problems are well understood. If your mechanic can’t fix diagnose and fix a broken fuel pump or heater core, there is indeed something wrong with that shop.

Lots of things in life are like this, so it can be easy to think that productivity is supposed to be like that as well. We can easily reduce our thinking to something like this: “You feel like you are always rushing and are pulled in a thousand directions? Well, just do these three things, and it will be all fixed by tomorrow. Oh, and, by the way, how did you not know that? [Implication: Something is wrong with you, and look at how great I am for being able to easily “fix” your problem!]”

But managing our tasks, workflow, and lives is not like that. It is not like getting the oil changed or fixing the radiator in your car. The reason is that we are often dealing with the unknown and with ambiguity.

Hence, there are two errors we can fall into. The first is, as I mentioned, to think that there is always an easy solution and that if you are having a tough time keeping up with things, then the problem is always you. That’s simply not true.

The other error, though, would be to conclude from this that there is not any way at all to actually get on top of your work. That would be a very depressing, discouraging reality.

Fortunately, it’s not true. It is possible to be on top of things.

Yet, at the same time, there will be seasons where you aren’t — and perhaps can’t be. 

How do we reconcile these two realities?

By recognizing that productivity is a learning process. Further, by recognizing that it is sometimes a tough learning process. You can grow and get better — but that doesn’t mean it will always be a smooth ride.

It is like learning calculus. You can learn calculus. But it can also be a big challenge.

The challenges along the way don’t mean something is wrong with you. Rather, they are part of the learning process. Further, as we achieve certain levels of effectiveness in managing our work, we graduate to new challenges — which require a new level of learning. So sometimes it can even feel like two steps forward and one step back.

I remember when I was learning Spanish in high school. We reached a point where, when some certain advanced material was introduced, we actually fell backwards in our abilities. It was strange. But our teacher said this was perfectly normal. It’s what happens. It’s part of the learning process as you graduate to new levels of difficulty.

And, it’s temporary. If you keep at it, you make it through these periods and emerge with entirely new, amazing abilities.

If the calculus analogy seems a bit off-putting (since calculus is so hard!), maybe think in terms of learning a foreign language, or even learning algebra. Most productivity stuff is not calculus level. The point is simply that in learning anything, there will be ups and downs.

I think this allows us to account for the biblical teaching that things will not always be going perfectly for us (including our productivity abilities) while also affirming the equally true other biblical reality that we can indeed make a difference in our lives for the better.

It helps us avoid a prosperity gospel-like view of productivity, thinking that everything is always supposed to be perfect if you are just doing the right things, without falling into a defeatism that says we are somehow supposed to be always stuck.

We aren’t supposed to be stuck, and there is hope. It just takes a learning process and persistence, not a magic wand.

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Five Signs You Might Be Making Disciples of Your Church Instead of for Jesus

Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Five Signs You Might Be Making Disciples of Your Church Instead of for Jesus

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenEveryone makes disciples of something or someone. Just think about all the disciples that are made each and every fall as college football and the NFL kicks off with a brand new season full of thrills and excitement. It’s not new. It’s the same game played each and every year. But there’s much to be excited about. Why? Because we love it. We throw on our favorite jersey, eat our favorite nachos, and party while grown men war for a trophy. It’s great.

Disciples love the object that is teaching them something. The very definition of a disciple is “learner,” though it is not simply a cognitive thing. It’s a life thing. We invest our emotions, desires, affections, money, time, energy in its mission. We’re all followers; we’re all passionate about something.

It is often the case that local churches build disciples around the organization itself. More often than not, this is accidental. We as church leaders and members typically have good intentions. We want people to know Jesus. We think that our pastors and our music and our worship experience are great gateways to meeting Jesus. That’s why we invest in that church community, right?

But being a disciple of Jesus means that we are learning from him, walking in his ways. To be a disciple of Jesus means that we take our cues from him, not an organization. If we’re not careful, we can get distracted by the organization or event and forget about the reason it exists – for the glory of God.

What happens when we make disciples of the church instead of disciples of Jesus? What might that look like? Here are five signs that we might be making disciples of our church instead of Jesus.

1. We Get Upset When People Are Gone

A prominent temptation of a local church is to root success in attendance on Sunday mornings. This is only part of what it means to be the church. Yes, we gather, but we also scatter. If we put too much emphasis on the Sunday gathering and see this alone as “church,” then we’ll get frustrated when people aren’t there. Many pastors and members build their identity around numbers. This is dangerous and is most certainly a sign that you aren’t focused on making disciples of Jesus, but instead, disciples of the church. Disappointment is understandable; we want to see the lost come to know Jesus. But that must be grounded in gospel-motivation toward seeing more and more people become disciples of Jesus.

Disciples of Jesus build their identity around the gospel. Disciples of the church build their identity around attendance.

2. We Criticize Other Churches

We all tend to think that we’re the pure, true, and most correct church. This may, in fact, be true, but when we demonize others and divide on secondary matters, we are trying to defend Jesus when he needs no defense. When we criticize others, we are making disciples of our church because we want to keep people near to us and away from “them.” We’re more concerned about them huddling up with us instead of sending them out on the mission. Suddenly your criticism serves as a ploy to justify “your church” and all of its perfection. We must remember that unless heretical teachings exist elsewhere, all churches built on the gospel of Jesus are on the same team. We are fighting the same fight under the same Master. If a person in the church wants to join the mission with another church, they should be sent away with joy and prayer. We should love other Jesus-glorifying churches as we all make disciples of him.

Disciples of Jesus are known for their love (John 13:35). Disciples of the church are known for what they’re against.

3. We Invite People to Come but Don’t Tell Them to Go

This is a classic and often overlooked – example. When success is defined by an individual’s attendance and giving instead of obedience to the gospel, we make disciples of the church instead of Jesus. When we over-emphasize “church” activities (Bible studies, Sunday night services, Wednesday night services, age-appropriate services, missional communities, service projects, etc.), it is no wonder a person views church as merely a thing they attend. They tend to embrace the goods and services, pay their money, and leave. We are so busy seeing the church as a come-and-see event that people aren’t sent out on mission into their families, groups of friends, neighborhoods, workplaces, and to the ends of the earth. We must equip people in the power of the gospel to take that gospel out into their everyday lives. A lamp under a basket does not offer light to a dark world (Matt. 5:15-16).

Disciples of Jesus are sent on mission and challenged to do so. Disciples of the church just come and sit.

4, We Make Gatherings a Gimmick

When we ignore the mission of making disciples of Jesus, we tend to fill the time with goods and services. Suddenly, the bulk of our teaching becomes a gimmick to “get people to church” instead of a passionate plea for mission through the power and purpose of the gospel. We set up our Sunday mornings to make it as comfortable as possible. This is related to point #3 because instead of freeing up the church calendar for mission, we fill it with entertainment that ultimately distracts people from the real task at hand. Instead of training people for war, we entertain them with pithy paraphernalia. I get it. It’s often easier because living our lives on full display for a doubting and watching world is hard. But Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow him. This means that church gatherings are a training ground for gospel battle, not a hip place to drink coffee and feel better about ourselves.

Disciples of Jesus long for the gospel, long to see not-yet believers come to Christ, and situate their lives to accomplish this. Disciples of the church long for the newest and best gimmick at church.

5. We Make the Gospel Dependent Upon Men

It’s tempting to default toward trying to get people in the doors so that the gospel invitation can be given by the “professionals.” We do this with good intentions, hoping that the lost person will come to faith. However, this sometimes turns into us spending more time getting people to acclimate to our church culture rather than familiarizing them with the good news and the grand mission. The gospel then becomes something only “those” people need to “get saved,” and not something that is a daily necessity for all people. We tie their faith to a one-time experience based on the teaching of someone other than Jesus. This stunts their lifelong growth in the gospel. The gospel is the very power of God, not simply a fact to be acknowledged one Sunday morning. We must, with laser-like focus, continually point people to Jesus and the gospel as the only perfect goal. People will let them down; Jesus never will. He must be their prize, their hope, and their motivation toward daily striving.

Disciples of Jesus long for the gospel in every moment. Disciples of the church see the gospel as irrelevant in day-to-day life.

Are we making disciples of Jesus and centering our churches around him and his mission? Or are we too busy making our own survival as an organization the most important thing?

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Two Antidotes to Anxiety

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Two Antidotes to Anxiety

Discipleship-green

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul’s Christian friends at Philippi had things to worry about. They faced both external and internal threats to their peace and progress as heaven’s citizens, trekking as pilgrims through earth’s unfriendly terrain. From the outside, they were confronted by opponents whose intimidating aggression was daunting, putting at risk their courage to stand together. Paul, their spiritual father, was chained in Rome, awaiting the emperor’s life-or-death verdict. Back in Philippi, they, too, were engaged in the conflict that they had witnessed in Paul and Silas’s experience when their congregation was first planted. Within the church, individuals’ preoccupation with their own agendas jeopardized their unity of mind and affection toward each other. Earlier in his epistle, Paul had addressed suffering and the threat it poses to our joy and peace (Phil. 1:27–30). He also spoke to the problem of self-centeredness and its insidious effect on the unity of the church (2:1–4). For both problems, the apostle’s prescription was for believers to

There are two ways to handle the stresses of life. One approach comes “preloaded” at birth on the “hard drive” of our hearts. The other can come only from a radical change of heart and perspective, produced by the gracious intervention of God. The first approach is rooted in the desire to control the variables of our own lives through diligence, ingenuity, and hard work. Jesus’ servant Paul, however, writing God’s truth, commends to us a radically different approach to the troubles that tempt us to worry. Paul presents a far stronger antidote to anxiety than politicians’ promises, cheery self-coaching, or calming meditation. He directs his Philippian friends and us to a life-anchor that goes deeper than the surface storms of circumstances, even deeper than whatever emotional equilibrium we could muster through happy talk or mellow mantras or any other stress-management technique. Paul offers us an anchor that secures our well-being eternally in the life and love of the ever-living God. He commends to us the joy that he has found through having his life defined by Christ, his cross, and his resurrection power. From that joy flow calm gentleness, thankful prayer, and the pondering and practice of the character of Christ. The result is protection from worry through the peace of God, conveyed to our troubled hearts through the living presence of the God of peace.

As we listen to “Dr. Paul’s” prescription to remedy the anxiety that threatens our joy and peace, we must remember that Paul is not offering an ivory-tower theory from the armchair comfort of a tranquil university campus. He is writing from imprisonment, with the possibility of brutal execution on the horizon, and he writes to people who face real-world threats.

Antidote to Anxiety #1: Refocus on Your Faithful Lord

Paul’s parting directives—his parental “to-do” list for his spiritual children, now far from his fatherly eye—touch on a variety of themes: joy and gentleness, prayer, pondering, and practicing. Yet through them all, underlying each instruction, runs a motif that binds them all together: refocus on your faithful Lord.

The motif that pervades each “movement” of Paul’s parting instructions and binds them all together is the presence of the true, triune God in the lives of those who trust in Jesus. Notice how persistently in these few verses Paul mentions the God who has loved and rescued us through Christ: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). “The Lord is at hand” (4:5). “Let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). “The peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). Even “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (4:9) is the gospel, which is “preaching Christ” (1:15–18). And finally, “The God of peace will be with you” (4:9).

Through different variations, Paul keeps playing one tune: the antidote to anxiety is to have the living God deeply involved in your life. Whether he is addressing how to find emotional equilibrium in trouble (joy, Phil. 4:4), how to respond to those who reject or resist us (gentleness, 4:5), how to petition the Father (pray, 4:6–7), or how to cultivate Christ-centered “habits of the heart” (ponder, 4:8) and patterns of behavior (practice, 4:9), at every turn Paul shows us another facet of the anxiety-banishing constancy and compassion of our Creator and Redeemer.

Paul meets us at every turn with a reminder of the God of grace because he knows that our anxiety is not merely the product of poor coping strategies. It is symptomatic of misplaced trust. Anxiety shows that our hearts are so set on something that we are terrified of losing it, desperate to hold onto it for dear life. That “something” that we cannot bear to lose is our heart’s foundation, its “center of gravity.” Even good things—love, family, knowledge, success—cannot last through thick and thin because they are creaturely and finite.

Those who trust in Christ can face every threat and wound that this twisted world can inflict—“tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword,” death and life, things present and things to come, or “anything else in all creation”—because we are assured that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35–39). Refocusing on your faithful Lord, treasuring Jesus and his grace as your life’s foundation imparts joy and gentleness, enabling us to combat worry by praying with gratitude, by pondering Christ’s character, and by practicing the pattern of gospel-shaped conduct.

Antidote #2: Joy in the Lord

Joy is interwoven like a golden thread throughout this letter from prison. Paul prays with joy over his Philippian friends (Phil. 1:4). He is filled with joy when others preach about Jesus, even from unworthy motives (1:18). His friends’ unity of heart will fill up his joy (2:2). Even if death for Jesus’ sake is imminent, Paul rejoices and wants his friends to join his rejoicing (2:17–18). Though he was content when funds were few, he rejoiced when the Philippians’ contribution arrived (4:10). Paul has commanded his beloved brothers in Philippi to rejoice “in the Lord” (3:1), identifying the deep well from which joy springs, whatever the vicissitudes of life’s surface circumstances. Now in Philippians 4:4 he explicitly states that Christians can and must rejoice “in the Lord” and do so “always.” Because our joy is rooted “in the Lord” who will never leave us, we are to rejoice at all times and in all circumstances.

Paul may have in mind the song that closes Habakkuk’s prophecy. That prophet was upset that the wicked in Judah seemed to escape justice. God promised to punish unfaithful Judah through an even more evil empire, Babylon, but that only compounded Habakkuk’s distress. Yet Habakkuk also received good news, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4); so his oracle closed with a song of joy, even in adverse circumstances:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17–18)

It is natural to link our happiness and hopes to juicy figs and ripe olives on trees, sweet grapes on vines, wheat in fields, sheep in folds, cattle in corrals, a robust stock portfolio, or a healthy retirement account. But a moment’s thought shows how fleeting all such resources are. Habakkuk knew that what lasts through boom and recession, success and bankruptcy, is the commitment of God to his people. So does Paul.

Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean that we never experience sadness or grief over loss. Paul himself felt sorrow over Epaphroditus’s almost-fatal illness (Phil. 2:27) and wept over those who behaved as enemies of the cross (3:18). Paul was no Stoic, coolly shielding his composure from the ebbs and flows of emotion, keeping people and their problems at arm’s length. The Stoics, a prominent school of Greek philosophy in Paul’s day, commended and embraced the virtue of apatheia, “lack of feeling.” Such a cool intellectual aloofness, the Stoics believed, insulates individuals from the wide range of emotions from pleasure to pain. What Paul is commanding, however, is completely different from the Stoics’ anesthetized emotional life. Biblical joy, as God commands it, is compatible with the whole spectrum of emotions that fit the range of situations that confront us in this sin-stained world. Pastor Keller is right:

“Rejoicing” in the Bible is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul directed that we should “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy,” since no one can command someone to always have a particular emotion. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it. “Rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetened and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks it needs.”

To “rejoice in the Lord” is to resist the instinct to focus on visible pleasures and problems. It is to concentrate our minds deliberately on treasuring the Lord Jesus Christ, to focus thought on his majesty and mercy, his purity and power, to “see and savor the glory of God in the face of Christ” until our hearts are profoundly persuaded that he really is all we need in every situation.

Next post: Three Antidotes to Anxiety.

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Self-Sufficiency, True Christian Contentment and the Sufficiency of Christ

Posted by on May 19, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Self-Sufficiency, True Christian Contentment and the Sufficiency of Christ

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenPreviously I wrote an article on contentment. Today we’ll continue looking at contentment exploring it’s depths and what it means for us. In Philippians 4:13 Paul provides another dimension of what he means by contentment when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is not God’s blank check signed and waiting for you and I to fill in the amount of strength I want, to achieve impossible deeds. The “all things” that Paul can handle in verse 13 are the range of situations that he has just described in verse 12. Where we read “in any and every circumstance,” the Greek says “in each thing and in all things”—in the whole range of situations, from being stuffed to being starved, from riding high to crawling low.

Although Paul’s “I can do all things” declaration is not God’s carte blanche for youthful delusions of grandeur, the apostle’s words cast a very distinctive light on the meaning of contentment for those who trust Christ. The fact is that Christ’s apostle has borrowed the word content from the ancient Stoic philosophers, and then twisted it inside out. The word’s origin and its contemporary usage gave it the meaning “self-sufficient.” It conveyed the ideal of self-contained independence that Stoicism advocated. The Stoics claimed that the wise person realizes that every experience, whether pleasurable or painful, is part of an interconnected matrix permeated by Reason. Thus, it is pointless to resent illness or injustice. The key to contentment said the Stoics, was to become emotionally self-sufficient by insulating oneself from the variables of pain and pleasure. One scholar sums up the Stoic conception of contentment this way: “By the exercise of reason over emotions, the Stoic learns to be content. For the Stoic, emotional detachment is essential in order to be content.” Whereas the Stoics believed that intellectual aloofness could provide protection from emotional distress, Paul refuses to insulate his heart from sorrow by keeping people and their hurts at arm’s length. He rejoices with people and weeps over them.

Moreover, here he twists the Stoics’ favorite term, self-sufficiency, inside out. His capacity to handle life’s ebbs and flows is not self-generated. It comes from outside Paul, from “him who strengthens me.” Paul’s contentment is found not in self-sufficiency, but in Christ’s sufficiency. Paul has learned the secret of real contentment, which was portrayed beautifully by the prophet Jeremiah:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

He is like a tree planted by water,

that sends out its roots by the stream,

and does not fear when heat comes,

for its leaves remain green,

and is not anxious in the year of drought,

for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer. 17:7–8)

How can a tree keep its green leaves in the summer heat and bear fruit in years without rainfall? Not because the tree itself contains an internal spring of water, but because it is planted by a flowing stream. If you are trusting in Jesus Christ, you are this stream-irrigated tree, just as Paul was.

Christ himself is Paul’s source of strength. Elsewhere the apostle speaks of “him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:12; see Col. 1:28–29). Paul is far from self-sufficient, but the all-sufficient Christ is Paul’s source of strength. Paul has just promised that “the Lord is at hand” and “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:5, 9). Because Paul knows the nearness of Christ even in his captivity, Paul can receive whatever God’s providence brings his way, whether painful or pleasant, with a deep joy “in the Lord.” How can we learn the secret and skill of Christian contentment that sustained Paul?

Contentment Is a Learned Skill and a Shared Secret

In verses, 11 and 12 Paul uses four verbs to communicate how he has acquired the contentment that enables him to rejoice in the Lord in plenty or in want. He writes:

“I have learned …

I know …

I know …

I have learned the secret.”

The double occurrence of “I know” shows the result of the learning process indicated in the first and fourth verbs—“I have learned” and “I have learned the secret.” Paul can say, “I know how to be brought low” and again “I know how to abound” because he has gone through a learning process and been initiated into a secret that gives him a Christ-centered perspective on his fluctuating situation.

The fact that Paul has “learned” contentment shows that his calm response to life’s ups and downs is a skill honed through practice. The author to the Hebrews uses the same term, writing that Christ Himself, “although he was a son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). The eternal Son of God entered the world ready to fulfill the Father’s will (10:5–10), but His holy resolve was tested and proved through His obedient suffering. In this sense He “learned” in practice what obedience entailed, and what it cost. Christ-centered contentment is not preinstalled on our hearts, like a software program preloaded into a new computer. Nor is Christian contentment injected in a single dose, as though it were a vaccine that could make us immune to a complaining spirit. It takes practice. Contentment grows over time, as we face adverse situations—in finances, health, relationships, or other areas—and seek Christ’s strength to release our grip on his gifts, while we strengthen our grasp on his grace.

Yet cultivating Christian contentment is not merely a matter of following an exercise regimen to reprogram our attitudes. Contentment is a secret that has been shared with Paul by Another. Our version’s “I have learned the secret” represents a single Greek word, which could also be translated “I have been initiated.” This is the only place in the whole New Testament that this word appears. In Paul’s day it was associated with the bizarre initiation rituals of the pagan “mystery religions.” (In fact, the verb is related to the Greek noun mystērion, from which we get mystery in English.)

The mystery of the gospel is an “open secret” concerning public events: Jesus, the Son of God, became man, lived a perfectly obedient life, then died a criminal’s death under God’s wrath (not for his own sins but for others’ offenses), rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, rules now, and will return in glory. There it is, God’s most wonderful secret, right out there on the open market … no passwords, no secret handshakes, no going down into a pit to be showered with the warm blood of a freshly slaughtered bull as in Mithraism.

Paul implies that there is a secret to contentment, a code to be cracked that will enable you to weather the best of times and the worst of times. Contentment in Christ is a kind of “insider knowledge.” Yet the great here is that it can be known can simply by believing the very public gospel that Paul preached—by entrusting your life to the crucified and risen God-man, Jesus the Messiah. Christ, Himself is the secret to contentment—not a mystical Christ hidden behind secret rituals or visionary experiences, but the historical Jesus who lived and died and rose again, who is now proclaimed openly among the nations. The better we get to know Christ, the more we discover that He is the One who satisfies our hearts.

Food and shelter are necessities for existence on this earth. Extra food and comfortable shelter, as well as cars and computers and the other extras that many of us enjoy—these are not necessary, but they are nice. Yet none of this can quench your heart’s thirst because, at the core of who you are, you were made for friendship with the living God. When you’re tempted to think that there is something else, anything else, that you “just have to have” to make life worth living, that is the time to remind yourself of the secret. By faith in the gospel of God’s Son, you have been initiated as an “insider.” You are in on the secret. You have Christ at the center of your life, and in the end he is all that you need!

Contentment Entails Exerting Strength

Does all of this sound like too facile and cheap a solution to the real-world shortages and crises that keep you awake at night? Is Paul simply offering an ancient form of “happy talk”? No, Paul is a sober realist, and his closing word on contentment, before he resumes his thanksgiving for the Philippians’ gift, shows that the contentment he commends requires that we flex the mental and spiritual muscle that Christ has given us by his indwelling Spirit: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Christ is the source of Paul’s strength and ours, but we must not ignore Paul’s “I can do”—or, as Paul’s Greek says, “I have power” or “prevail over” every circumstance. Paul uses a term that has “strength” built into it in order to remind us that Christian contentment is not a sedative. Christian contentment is something that we fight for. We must exert effort to wage war against the temptation to complain, to envy others, to fixate on what is uncomfortable and inconvenient and downright wrong in our circumstances. We strive to focus instead on the faithfulness and mercy and strength of our God. Paul flexes his mental muscle to remind himself often that in Christ he already has the supreme treasure, and that he is racing toward a goal that will mean an even greater experience of His Savior’s grace and glory. And again, Paul is not striving in his own strength or racing in his own energy. The key to his patience in the present and his hope for the future is the presence of the Christ who gives him strength.

Conclusion

How can you follow Paul’s lead, winning the war over both Anxiety and Discontent, even in financially tight times? Focus your mind on the truth that, if you are trusting in Jesus, the living God is with you and at work in you, through the unseen but very real and very powerful presence of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:19).

The more you direct your heart toward Christ’s presence and power, the less you will waste your mental and emotional energy on the stuff that doesn’t last. You will be able to keep a light grip on what you do have, and you won’t fret over what you don’t have. God will keep the amazing promise that Paul issued just before our text, “The God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). And you will want to invest the resources that He does entrust to you in ways that enable others to see in you glimpses of the generosity of Jesus Himself and the contentment that He imparts to those who trust him wherever He leads, whether through plenty or through poverty.

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YOU CAN FEAR GOD or YOU CAN FEAR MAN

Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

YOU CAN FEAR GOD or YOU CAN FEAR MAN

20150513_feargodman3You have two options when you’re faced with opposition: fear God or fear man.

Nehemiah faced with choice when the wall around Jerusalem was finally completed, reconstructed after 52 days of hard labor. For those unfamiliar with the story, Nehemiah chapters 1 through 6 follows the story of a man named Nehemiah. Nehemiah was appointed by God to lead God’s people back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls, which were destroyed 141 years earlier. This was a task that seemingly nobody took upon themselves for a century and a half! Yet, even in the face of much opposition from others, Nehemiah succeeded where those others had failed. He succeeded because he was a man commissioned by God on high. This was God’s city, God’s wall, God’s people, God’s plan. Nehemiah succeeded because his mission was the Lord’s mission.

And when those walls went up and the final bricks were laid, the hordes of critics and haters were finally silenced, right? Wrong. There was at least one relentless critic: a man named Tobiah.

“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days…Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s letters came to them…And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.” (Nehemiah 6:15,17,19)

Tobiah had been a critic of Nehemiah’s since Nehemiah 1. He was mean, harsh, and relentless. He was a critic when Nehemiah was doing God’s work, taunting, “You’ll never get it done!” And when that work was done and the walls were up, Tobiah still served a generous helping of criticism.

MOST OF US ARE JUST LIKE NEHEMIAH.

You and I will have critics and opponents in our lives that will never go away. And when we face those critics, there is a temptation to either hide or cower before them. There is a temptation to stop working, stop praying, stop serving. Few things can get a firmer grip on the human heart than this temptation, which the Bible calls the “fear of man.”

Ed Welch, a biblical counselor, offers a helpful definition on the “fear of man”:

The fear of man can be summarized this way: We replace God with people. Instead of a biblically guided fear of the Lord, we fear others … . When we are in our teens, it is called “peer pressure.” When we are older, it is called “people-pleasing.” Recently, it has been called “codependency.” With these labels in mind, we can spot the fear of man everywhere.

Under this definition, we are all guilty, right?

You can fear man in two ways:

  • buckling under those against you, like Nehemiah was tempted to do.
  • catering to those around you, like caving into peer pressure.

Whichever the case, here’s what the fear of man really is, at the very core:slavery.

After all, the fear of man grips the heart and refuses to let go. It dictates our values and the yearnings of our hearts. It diverts us from our mission to glorify God and it glorifies others instead. Because of it, we exalt the opinions of others and spend ridiculous amounts of energy trying to establish ourselves as pitiful little gods in our own narrow little worlds.

TO REMEDY THE FEAR OF MAN, WE NEED TO FEAR THE LORD.

We need to exchange fear for fear—the fear of man for the fear of the Lord.

Proverbs 29:25, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.”

The fear of man is the opposite of the fear of the Lord because it is nothing less than an outright rejection of his Lordship. When you fear men and not God, then you will do things out of impure motives, you will say things that you don’t mean, and you will cross moral boundaries you never intended to cross.

But we can take our cues from Nehemiah. His singleness of purpose and loyalty to God alone served as a shield for Nehemiah in this final showdown with Tobiah. Nehemiah feared disobeying the God he served more than he feared the opinions of the mortal Tobiah. Thus, God empowered Nehemiah to persevere, and He used Nehemiah in mighty ways to continue leading His people on His mission.

Nehemiah wasn’t the only one who valued a healthy fear of the Lord.

JESUS VALUED THE FEAR OF GOD TOO.

In fact, a prophecy in Isaiah 11:3 says this of Jesus: “his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

Jesus has a lot of haters and critics too (and so do his followers). People say harsh things about Him and spread lies about Him all the time. Critics question whether Jesus was truly God or whether His life was truly real. Even still, just like Nehemiah had to continue his ministry in the face of opposition so that God’s city could be built, Jesus had to continue his ministry so that His church could be built. Jesus said He would live perfectly. And He did. He said He would die in the place of sinners. And He did. He said He would rise again. And He did. Jesus also said He would build His church. Just look around; He’s been building it for centuries and continues to build it today. Jesus is the God who not only sets out on His mission, but He never fails because He is the Faithful and Mighty One.

Christians, we are called on a mission to glorify God too. Just like Nehemiah. Just like Jesus. And, like them, we will get criticized for it. When you do, you can either buckle under the pressure or press on to the prize. If you press on, the reward to come is surely great. God proved it with Nehemiah’s finished wall. He proved it with Jesus’ empty tomb. And if we continue, by God’s grace, in humble and God-fearing obedience, God will honor that, and we will see our lives bear fruit like Nehemiah’s did. This we can be assured of because God is the ever Faithful One, worthy of holy fear and mighty to save.

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Discipleship From The Beginning

Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Discipleship, Featured

Discipleship From The Beginning

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenWhen I was in seminary, I was all about academia, theology, and the Word of God; admittedly, three of my favorite things, still. But when asking the pastor about having a discipleship class, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand what discipleship means.” He was right; I was clueless.

Let me rewind. During this period of my life, I was of the mindset that a Bible study or some type of class was discipleship (as I stated)—that if I studied under someone, that they could teach me to be more like Jesus. Unfortunately, that is just not true; only the Holy Spirit can transform someone. Likewise, Jesus never pulled out the scroll of Jeremiah or the Torah and parsed the meanings of words to His disciples. From the beginning, discipleship looks more like on-the-job training than any classroom that I have ever seen. So, what happened for me was a transformation in understanding what discipleship was, and what it was not.

What It Was Not

I’m in the process of co-authoring another book and it happens that discipleship is a chapter focus, so this is a researched topic for me. I believe it’s something drastically missed within evangelicalism and a spiritual discipline so misunderstood. I believe the ecclesiastical church, as a whole, has mistaken discipleship for catechism, since the time of Constantine. Once the attractional method of the missio Dei came into play, the church seemed to disregard the day-to-day discipleship, which was the evident DNA within a scattered and persecuted church. Nothing can compare to discipleship inside the trenches. And so it seems that complacency is not good for true spiritual edification.

If we look at discipleship from the beginning, we take note that not only did Jesus present His disciples with new paradigms of thinking, but He also offered them visualizations of what He taught. For instance, when the disciples were discussing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus provided an answer by taking a small child, placing him on His lap, and then discussing the attributes of a child (Matt 18:1-6). He didn’t sit them down and exegete Isaiah. Jesus gave visual and tactile teaching (seeing and touching) about something that was evident. We are people who indeed learn better by example. Everyone has been a child, so the disciples knew how children think, and act—their innocence, so to speak. So, from the beginning, discipleship was not about attending a lecture, while lectures may have been a miniscule aspect of discipleship, it was much, much more.

What It Was

Discipleship had a lot to do with contextualization and walking with a person in the everyday framework of life. Jesus, from the beginning of His earthly ministry, walked, ate, and slept with His disciples. He knew them and they experienced His relationship with the Father—a three-year process. They witnessed as He went to pray alone with the Father, heard how He openly spoke with the Father, and what He declared about the Father. The disciples witnessed how Jesus handled criticism, fraud, neglect, discernment, love, empathy, compassion, and even more importantly, the aspects of humanity: money, housing, hunger, sickness, and death. I don’t think we disciple people anymore, I think we speak at them.

I recently heard a good friend, Peyton Jones; say that a disciple must accept permission to be mentored because there is an air of superiority (albeit in Christ-like humility) within true discipleship. The one being mentored must resign to the understanding that the mentor has experienced and knows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, intimately. The disciples were able to disciple others because they walked, talked, slept, and broke bread with Christ—they all had an intimate knowledge of the Son, and upon receiving the Holy Spirit, power from and understanding of the Father.

This means that discipleship from the beginning was neither birthed nor matured in a classroom, but in life. As well, there is no accountability from a classroom. I can’t possibly become intimate with ten to twenty people in the same forty-five to sixty minute group discussion, no matter how deep I care to go. Allow me to validate, I had a younger man approach me and ask to be discipled. I asked if he understood what he was asking. He looked as confused as I had when I approached my pastor some years ago. I knew he didn’t, so I began to explain that discipleship was about the missio Dei intersecting the gospel of life. This meant, I emphasized, “That we will have coffee with each other, lunch, go fishing, and everything in between. I want to know your fears, anxieties, depressed thoughts, and struggles.” I knew that he was searching for a Bible study, but the Bible comes to life through our daily grind. This doesn’t mean that Bible studies are bad; to the contrary, they are much needed and should be a part of every believer’s discipline, much like prayer.

Discipleship From The Beginning

When Jesus elected His disciples, calling them out of the world, He stated, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19 ESV). This means that the mentor has a responsibility, a great one. He must be prepared, as the disciple is to follow, to pour out his knowledge, time, and emotions. But a person cannot be a mentor, who has never been mentored, for he will never understand the mentor-disciple relationship. It is a deep interpersonal aspect of brotherhood, or sisterhood, for the believer. Discipleship goes beyond the spiritual, even though the spiritual is interwoven into everything; it goes beyond the natural, even though the natural is interwoven into everything. Discipleship is Trinitarian; it’s the incarnated flesh and Holy Spirit of God that comes to dwell with man. Discipleship is a slow transformation from perceiving worldly to a renewed thinking and reacting in godliness (Rom 12:2). Discipleship from the beginning is a new creative process of the Holy Spirit, a sanctification of the flesh, mind, and heart. Discipleship is about people walking with people, to be more like Christ.

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