Growth

Following Jesus means... Leaving some things behind

Jesus changes our lives

We have many idioms in the English language. Far too many, some might advocate. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," is one that bugs my wife in particular. She would argue that you can in fact have cake and eat it too. Part of eating cake is having it first, right!?! She and I like to joke about this, but as she well knows, the meaning of the phrase is that you cannot both possess the cake and eat it too. Once you have eaten the cake, you no longer "have it."

The expression communicates a self-evident truth that certain choices necessitate an impact in other areas. Once I have eaten my cake, it is no longer sitting on my counter for me to enjoy later - a problem that happens often in my household. Megan makes something delicious. I eat said treat. It is no longer there for someone else to enjoy later.

Megan and my decision to live in an urban area gives us access to innumerable parks, people and opportunities. It also means that we have a small yard and can't see the stars at night. Our decisions have an impact on other aspects of our lives. It is inevitable.

When someone makes a decision to follow Jesus, it is impossible to live an unchanged life. Following Jesus and remaining the same is an impossibility. It is like jumping into a pool of water and remaining dry. It cannot happen.

I mentioned in a previous post that I have been looking at the word "follow" (akoloutheo) in the Gospels. One of the first uses of that word in all four gospels is when Jesus calls his first disciples. Their decision to follow Jesus meant that they had to leave some things behind. In essence, it meant that Jesus had to be the number one priority in their lives. He was first, and all other things were subject to the decision to follow him.

When someone makes a decision to follow Jesus, it is impossible to live an unchanged life.

Following Jesus means that we must leave some things behind.

The first disciples

When Jesus calls his first disciples, he invites them to "follow me." In response, they make the decision to follow Jesus as his disciples. Their decision forever changes their lives, and God uses them to change the course of history. You can read about Jesus calling his initial followers in Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11 and John 1:35-51. In these passages, Jesus calls four initial disciples, Simon who is called Peter and his brother Andrew, James son of Zebedee and his brother John.

Their response is remarkable. It says that "Immediately they left their nets and followed him (Mt 4:20, Mk 1:18)," or "Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Mt 4:22)," or "They left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him (Mk 1:20)," or "And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him (Lk 5:11)."

For the first disciples, following Jesus meant leaving some things behind.

It's a matter of priority

We could draw some extreme interpretations from these passages, and then generalize them for everyone - a common problem with interpreting and applying narrative passages. It would be poor Biblical exegesis to assume that based on the accounts of the first disciples, that everyone who follows Jesus needs to leave every part of their life behind. This isn't the case. Not everyone who follows Jesus is called to leave everything behind in order to follow him.

However, we are all called to make Jesus the number one priority in our life, and that will mean that we have to leave some things behind. It will look different for everyone. Some people will be called to move to a distant land, serving among an unreached people group so they can share a clear presentation of the gospel with people who would otherwise not hear. This will require them to leave behind family, friends and the comfort of American life. Others will be called to leave behind a job or dream that conflicts with God's call on their life. Everyone who follows Jesus will be changed in such a way that they must leave behind some of their former ways of life that are sinful and dishonoring to God.

This is all about priorities. When Jesus becomes the greatest priority in your life, it reorients everything. Your job, approval, marriage, family, money, acclaim, possessions or whatever used to be first in your life has to give up its place. Jesus cannot be primary when something else already claims that spot. When we follow Jesus, we must be ready to leave some things behind - at a minimum, they do not get to be our first priority any longer.

Is Jesus your highest priority? What might you need to "leave behind" to make it that way?

You are not alone (even when you feel like you are)

Fear Not

One of my favorite passages of scripture comes from the book of Isaiah. God's people needed a fresh word of hope and confidence, and God delivered. He responded with the words, "Fear not, for I am with you." There is nothing more comforting than the confidence of God's presence. No matter our circumstances or situation in life, knowing that God is with us brings hope and peace. It shines light into the darkest of situations.

Loneliness and isolation are some of the most difficult of human emotions. I have felt it in a foreign country, when I lacked the ability to fully communicate with the people around me. Or when I have been in a room filled with people, most of which I did not know, but they all knew each other really well. In both scenarios, I could have been surrounded by a million people, but I still felt alone. Or when depression sets in upon a human mind, loneliness is often quickly behind. At those moments, it is not the number of people around you, but the presence of the right person that matters.

It is not the number of people around you, but the presence of the right person that matters

Whether it be a lack of genuine relationships, the storms of life that brew on the horizon, or the crushing weight of unmet expectations, we need to know that God is with us. In Isaiah 41, God's people are in exile. They feel defeated and alone in a foreign nation. They needed hope.

God says,
"Fear not, for I am with you;
     be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
     I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10)."

What a beautiful gift God gives his people. There is no greater hope than the confidence of God's presence. Even in exile, God's people can have hope because God says, "Fear not, for I am with you."


I am with you

All throughout the Scriptures, God's presence with his people is a major theme. When they are in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, God went with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). When Jesus was leaving this earth, he promised that he  would always be with his disciples, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). Jesus explains that God is Spirit (John 4:24), as a way of teaching that God's presence is not restricted to a particular location. God's presence is far reaching and can be with anyone at anytime without limit.

There is nothing more comforting than knowing that God is present with us. When the waters rise and waves begin to crash on the shores of my family life, my wife and I know that if we are in it together, we are much better off than when we go it alone. It isn't just the presence of another person that brings comfort in the storm, it is the presence of the right person. My wife is great, but she isn't God. Knowing my wife is going to hold my hand and weather the storm with me brings comfort, but knowing that God is with me is unmatched.

God says that he will strengthen us, he will help us, he will uphold us with his righteous right hand. This may not mean that he takes the storm away, but that he will hold our hand in the midst of the storm. God renews his promise a couple chapters later, when he says "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine (Isaiah 43:1)."

He has called us, and He is our God. The God who formed the earth, who commands the seas, who calms the storms and whose voice the winds obey, that is our God. We are his, and he says, "Fear not, for I am with you." The same God who made that promise to his people through the prophet Isaiah is the God whom we worship through Jesus Christ.

I would encourage you to memorize Isaiah 41:10, and recite it to yourself over and over. Remind yourself again and again that God is with you. And help others to remember that God is with them as well.

Fighting Sin by Building Fences

Waging war against sin

We don't like to talk about sin very often. It makes us feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. It makes us feel ashamed and unworthy. Unfortunately, not talking about it doesn't make the sin go away. Every day, to varying degrees, we deal with sin in our lives. It is inescapable.

In fact, the Bible says that if we claim to be without sin, we are making God a liar (1 John 1:8;10). God's opinion is that we do have sin in our lives, so if we claim that we do not, we are disagreeing with God's assessment of the situation. Let's be honest with ourselves and with one another, we do have sin. We need to be aware of it, repent of it, and wage war against our sin.

Fighting our sin is important, not because we need God's approval, but because God loves us and our sin undermines our relationship with him and the good he wants for our lives. Sin is parasitic, it wreaks havoc on our souls and on our life. The gospel of Jesus is what saves us, not our ability to successfully put to death any particular sin. It is out of our new life in Christ that we pursue freedom from sin.

Building Fences

An important strategy for fighting sin is building the right fences to keep sin out. When my wife and I were looking to buy a house a couple years ago, one of the items on our list was a fenced in back yard. We have small children, and we wanted them to be able to play outside without needing to worry about them running out to the road. Our fence keeps the children in and danger out.

We can also build fences that help to keep us safe inside and our sin outside. I have had multiple conversations in the last couple weeks about the specific area of sexual sin. Whether it be lust, pornography, adultery or other behaviors associated with sexual sin, this can be a very destructive sin if we allow it to take root in our lives. But it is far from being the only sin we have to deal with. We may sin through our anger, pride, stealing, lashing out with our tongue, materialism, etc. Whatever the sin may be, we need to set up boundaries that will help free us from the sin.

If you struggle with pornography, a helpful fence post may be installing monitoring software on your computer - Covenant Eyes and X3 Watch are great options. If you struggle with materialism, you may need to cancel your subscription to certain magazines that fuel that sin. If you struggle with comparison, you may need to take a break from social media. If you struggle with anger, you may need to add counseling to your life.

These fences are meant to create a safe space for you to grow and develop. The boundaries you create will not stop sin on their own, but they can help give you the freedom needed to fight the sin in your life. What boundaries or fence posts do you need to incorporate into your life?

An important strategy for fighting sin is building the right fences to keep sin out.

Giving our spirit the safety to grow

Growing up, my grandfather was a farmer. I remember him growing a small plot of sweet corn each year so that we could enjoy a feast of corn on the cob in the fall. He had a problem though. The deer would come and help themselves to a little sweet corn as well. It was tasty, so why wouldn't they want some? The problem was that the corn could not grow strong and healthy under the constant burden of the deer's meals. So, my grandpa but an electric fence around the corn to keep the deer out.

The fence around that small plot of land allowed my grandfather's corn the freedom to grow strong and healthy. Eventually the corn stocks would grow enough to sustain us taking the mature cobs, without hindering its ability to continue growing the cobs that remained.

We bought a house with a fence to keep my children inside and the danger outside. My son has now grown old enough to crawl up the fence, reach over top, and release the gate. We even let him ride his bike up and down the alley way if we are outside and able to watch. The fence kept him safe for a season, so that he could eventually stretch his wings and expand his boundaries.

In our own lives, building fences helps to keep us safe from sin, allowing us the space to grow and mature. It allows us to deal with the deeper issues that fuel our sin. Building fences is not just about keeping the sin out, but also about giving us space to grow. As we grow and mature, some of the fence posts may be able come down, but that doesn't mean we run back to our sin. My son rides his bike down the alleyway, I ride mine on streets and bike lanes, but it would be foolish for anyone to ride it down the middle of the freeway. No matter how much we mature, we still need to be wise and continue to fight our sin. Building some fences enables us the freedom to grow.

Dealing with the deeper sin

Without the space to adequately develop this idea, I want to touch on it momentarily. As we begin to fight our sin, we must recognize that there are deeper sin issues that reside beneath the surface. Our sinful behaviors are the product of deeper sins that must also be dealt with. If we only ever deal with the behavior, but not the sin that has produced those behaviors, we have not adequately fought our sin.

You may see victory over a behavior, but the deeper sins, if not dealt with, will manifest themselves in other ways. Your desire for material things may have their deeper root in a need for security, approval or pride. Looking at pornography may have a deeper root in the need for significance, relationship or fulfillment. Even if you stop buying things or no longer look at porn, if you have not dealt with those deeper needs and the sinful thoughts that accompany them, they will find their way out into other behaviors. As you fight your sin, from the safety of your fences, don't just deal with the surface behavior, deal with the deeper sin as well.

Following Jesus means... Being more than just a fan

And a great crowd followed Jesus...

Following Jesus sounds pretty good when it is convenient and trendy. But what about when it is not so easy? Or when it demands more than we are willing to give? Following Jesus is not like following our favorite sports team or political figure. It is easy to be a fan when they are doing well, not so easy when they are getting ridiculed. Ask any Patriots fan living outside New England as the DeflateGate scandal has gone on.

Jesus has always had fans. Even when conducting his earthly ministry, he commonly had great crowds following him from town to town, hoping to get a glimpse of the man that everyone was talking about. In the gospels, the word "follow" (akoloutheo) is used 76 times and 14 of those are in reference to the crowds that followed Jesus.

Jesus also uses this word to call people to be his disciples. When he approaches Levi (Matthew), and calls him to be his disciple, he says, "Follow me (Mk 2:14)." I have recently done a word study in the gospels for follow (akoloutheo), and it is illuminating to see what we can learn about what it means to follow Jesus as his disciple.

One thing that is very clear, there is a big difference between someone who follows Jesus as his disciple and someone who follows Jesus as merely a fan. Following Jesus means being more than just a fan.

Following Jesus means being more than just a fan.

4 ways that following Jesus means being more than just a fan

Fans just go with the flow

Fans are just part of the crowd. They do not feel any sense of confidence in the mission, they are just moving with the flow. Fans are swept away when the waters rise, because they are not grounded. If you asked them why they follow Jesus, they cannot give you an answer that will withstand the strong current of culture, circumstance or calamity.

Followers of Jesus are like the man in Psalm One, who is firmly planted by a stream of water. They know where they are going and will not be confused or tricked into alternative schemes. A fan is like the chaff, blown around like the winds, taken wherever they are lead.

Do you know why you follow Jesus? Do you feel grounded in your identity as his follower and your commitment to his mission?

Fans are primarily in it for themselves

We don't always realize it, but being a fan is really about us. My son loves the Okee Dokee Brothers, and as an adult who has to listen to music geared toward kids, it is actually very good. He and I went to one of their concerts at the Minnesota Zoo where we got to meet then and get their autographs. It was a blast! Liam still talks about it and says to me every now and again, "Dad, remember when we went to that concert at the zoo. That was great!"

We did not go to the concert for the Okee Dokee Brother's benefit. It wasn't about their good. It was about us. I have no problem with that when it comes to bands, sports teams, movies, etc. But when it comes to Jesus, I don't want to be a fan who is in it just for me.

I don't want to follow Jesus so that I can just be a fan who seeks my own benefits.

Fans leave Jesus when things get hard

There were often crowds that followed Jesus. When he enters Jerusalem before his crucifixion, there are numerous people who lined up to place garments and palm branches on the road for him to ride upon. In less than a weeks time, the crowds had changed their minds. They were no longer clamoring to get near Jesus, they were calling for his death.

Fans only follow Jesus when it is convenient. They leave him behind when everyone around them has decided to move on. As your friends, families and culture rejects Jesus, do you leave him behind as well? Or do you persist as his follower, even when it is no longer convenient?

Fans won't carry their cross

It is clear from Jesus' teachings that following him will bring challenge and difficulty. Jesus calls us to carry our cross (Mt. 16:24), giving up our own preferences and prestige to love others and bring honor to his name. That is not always easy. It often causes suffering. Fans don't want to endure those difficulties. And when difficulties come, they may want to blame Jesus and move on. Fans won't carry their cross. They will attempt to "gain the whole" world at the cost of their souls.

Are you a follower or a fan?

When you think about your relationship with Jesus, are you a follower or a fan? Is your commitment to Jesus unwavering? Or is it just convenient for you right now?

If you have created a list of criteria for following Jesus, if you say, "I will only follow Jesus if...," then you might just be a fan. If your motivation for following Jesus has more to do with the approval you can get from others, then you might just be a fan.

Consider your commitment to him and resolve to follow him on his terms. No matter the circumstance. No matter the decision of those around you. Follow him, not as a fan, but as a true disciple.

A New Way to be Human

You have been made new

Central to our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is an understanding that when we believed the gospel and placed our faith in Christ, we were made new. In the gospel of John, Jesus teaches Nicodemus that unless you have been born again (new life), you cannot see the Kingdom. In Ephesians, Paul extends the "new life" paradigm.

"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ [new life] - by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1-2, 4-5 ESV)."

Our new life is not only something we should come to understand as a Biblical reality, but also provides a foundation to catalyze a new way of life. Because we have been made new, there is a new way to be human. 

Put on the new self

In multiple of Paul's letters, he calls his audience to a new way of living. He does not just dole out commands intending to fill up a task list for the believer to follow. The exhortation Paul commonly gives is grounded in an understanding of our new life.

For example, in the book of Colossians, Paul spends much of the first two chapters reminding his Colossian audience of the new life they have in Christ. He begins chapter three with the words "if then."

"If then you have been raised with Christ... For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 13:1,3 ESV)."

He begins chapter three by grounding his exhortation in the reality of our new life. He goes on to explain that we should put to death the former behaviors that were consistent with our old self (Colossains 3:5-11). Then he calls us to live a life that is consistent with our new life in Christ. He tells us to "put on" certain characteristics. As men and women who have been made new, we are called to "put on" certain qualities, such as compassionate hearts, kindness, etc. We are to clothe ourselves in the qualities of a person who has been made new.

Live consistent with who you are

Paul is telling us to act in a way that is consistent with the new life we have in Christ. We are no longer the people we used to be. We have been made new and have put aside those former ways, we must walk in them no longer.

Oak trees produce a certain kind of leaf, and grow in a certain kind of way. When you walk along a path and hear leaves crunching under your feet, feel the reprieve of the warm sun under the shade and see acorns strewn about the ground, you know you are in the presence of an oak. Leaves, shade and acorns are the product of a certain type of tree. An oak tree won't drop a maple leaf. It won't produce an apple or orange. It is an oak tree and by its very nature will create a certain type of leaf, grow in a certain way and produce acorns.

As a follower of Jesus, we have been changed. We have been born again. As a result, our nature should produce certain traits in us and walking in sin is no longer consistent with who we are. That doesn't mean we won't still struggle with sin, but Paul is telling us that because of Jesus in our life, there is a new way to be human. He is calling us to live in a way that is consistent with who we already are in Christ. We don't live in a certain way to gain the love of Jesus or so that Jesus will gracious enough to change us, but because we have already been loved by Jesus and changed by Jesus through our new birth.

What is true of a disciple?

Remembering our primary goal

I recently led the Community Group leaders at First Baptist Church through an activity that asked the question, "What is true of a disciple?" It is important to recognize that everyone is at a different stage along the spectrum of growth as a disciple. No single person is perfect, and so we were really asking an idealized version of that question. Not just "what is true of a disciple?" right now, but what sort of things are we aiming for as a disciple.

It is an important question for us to ask. As we participate in the various activities at church, we have to remember our ultimate goal of becoming more like Jesus. It isn't just to show up to Community Group each week or complete the weekly "assignment" for group. The goal of our Community Groups are that men and women grow as followers of Jesus, becoming more and more like their savior. That was the point of the activity, to remind us of where we are aiming.

I am going to share the collective results of the activity with you. But first, I should tell you what we did. I asked them to get in groups of 3-4 and gave them a sheet of paper with the outline of a person. On the sheet, we highlighted the head, heart and hands, which provided the framework for a three part paradigm that helped us think about what is true of a disciple.

I asked them to take some time to consider what is true ofa disciple based on the head, heart and hands framework. Each group came up with really insightful qualities of a disciple, and I want to share them with you.

What is true of a disciple?

Head

Head is meant to represent Biblical and Theological Knowledge. It helps us to consider what a mature disciple knows to be true based on what the Scriptures have revealed. Here are the collective results from the Community Group leaders:

  • Jesus is the Savior
  • God’s love is unconditional
  • We have a fundamental need for salvation through God’s forgiveness
  • Salvation through grace, not works (Eph 2:8-9)
  • Jesus says the most important command is to love God and love others
  • "I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you (Ps 119:11)."
  • Believes, studies and memorizes God's Word
  • Scripture is authoritative
  • Understanding of Biblical interpretation and hermeneutics
  • Scripture has a cohesive message
  • A basic knowledge of the gospel message (i.e. 4 spiritual laws) and ability to articulate that message
  • Knowledge of the truth (i.e. God the Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit)
  • Academic humility
  • Understands character and nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures
  • Believes we are all sinners
  • Tendency to turn to Christ
  • Seeks to learn and grow
  • Hungers after the Word

As I reflected on this list, it was clear that a commitment to reading and understanding God's Word is an essential quality of a disciple. This will lead to a clear understanding of our sin and our need for Jesus to be our savior. It will also help us know the qualities of God and the importance of our need to love God and love others.

Heart

Heart is meant to help us consider the character of a disciple. As we grow as disciples, certain qualities will be true of the way we behave, both internally and externally. Here are the collective results:

  • Loves God with heart, soul, and strength
  • Loves neighbor as oneself
  • Kindness
  • Love for people
  • Showing Jesus’ love
  • Loves others as God’s children
  • Wants to bring others to Christ
  • Possesses a passion to live for Christ
  • Committed to prayer and spiritual growth
  • Conviction without shame
  • Growing in our desure to exhibit fruit of the Spirit
  • Softness of heart
  • Puts God and others before themselves
  • Humble confidence in God
  • Non-judgmental love
  • Grace and mercy
  • Generous with time, money, and resources
  • Patience, gentleness (display fruits of the Spirit)
  • Desires to become more like Jesus and be with Him
  • Loves the lost
  • Has a heart for “mission” need
  • Loves sinners
  • Forgiveness
  • Mercy
  • Compassion
  • Patience
  • Meekness

As I reflected on the characteristics that the Community Group leaders wrote down, it was clear that love was a central theme. This is good, because that is what Jesus told us was the most important commandment, to love God and love others. This love is for fellow Christians and also for those outside the church, with a desire for them to know Jesus. The Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, Gal. 5:22-23) also had a significant presence on this list. If loving God, loving others and exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit were defining characteristics of a person, it would be a good mark that they are a mature disciple of Jesus.

Hands

Hands is meant to represent the way that we express our knowledge and character in ministry application. As we grow in maturity, we will gain skills and desire to invest ourselves in ways that help to serve and advance the Kingdom of God. Here are the collective results from the Community Group leaders:

 

  • A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another (Jn 13:34)
  • “Do Unto others (Lk 6:31)”
  • What you do for the least of these, you do for me (Mt 25:40)
  • Serves the Lord with Gladness
  • Go-Support-Send
  • Wise application of Scripture to life
  • Willingness to serve when natural man says “no!”
  • What we know doctrinally affects the long-standing patterns in our lives.
  • Open doors to unbelievers (and Christians) –invite to church, events, etc…
  • Engage in conversations with others—empathize and see their viewpoint
  • Live missionally
  • Volunteer in various ministries
  • Demonstrate fruits of the Spirit
  • Willing to serve others
  • Willing to give up resources for the furthering of the kingdom
  • James 11:27 – visit orphans and widows
  • 2 Corinthians 9:7- God loves a cheerful giver
  • Apply knowledge
  • Acts of obedience to God's commands
  • Serving
  • Transferring the truths
  • Mission trips
  • Volunteering - (ie. In Love, Word and Deed)

As I reflect on this list, it is clear that we are called to serve others. Whether it be inside the church building or to those outside our walls, we are called to serve. This will require us to give sacrificially and consider others needs above our own. Jesus says that if you want to be great in the Kingdom, you must be a servant (Mk 10:42-45). Another important element to this area is that a mature disciple is intentional. They are intentional in relationships and actions, recognizing that they are a witness to God's Good News (Acts 1:8). We are called to be witnesses in word and deed of the Gospel.

Question: What qualities do you think should be true of a mature disciple?

 

Technology I use: Feedly

I enjoy technology. Probably too much at times. It can be a distraction for me, but I have also found ways to use it in my personal life and my ministry. Every now and again, I would like to share a piece of technology that has been helpful for me.

Posts in the Series

 

What is Feedly?

Do you read blogs? Do you wish you read them more? Feedly helps you keep up with your favorite blogs, all in one place. It has a slick and clean format which makes reading within the application very easy. It also gives you the ability to create custom categories to organize the blogs you follow. This has allowed me to follow about 70 blogs, while only having six in my "favorites" category.

Photo Cred: https://pixabay.com/en/man-reading-touchscreen-blog-791049/

Photo Cred: https://pixabay.com/en/man-reading-touchscreen-blog-791049/

Feedly is available on multiple platforms. It can be downloaded for iOS and Android, or it can be run through a web browser. I personally use it on my iPhone and through my chrome browser. It also has a built in ability to share a post through facebook, twitter, email, etc. It even has an Evernote integration, but that requires you to upgrade to one of their paid versions, which I have not done.

Why I use it

I use Feedly because there is far too much great content on the web for me to keep track of without a blog reader. I used to use Google Reader, but when Google discontinued their own reader I switched over to Feedly, with the approximately 500,000 other people in under 48 hours.

There is far too much great content on the web for me to keep track of without a blog reader.

I go through phases when I keep up with my Feedly more or less often, but it is always there when I come back. It keeps my content ready to read and remains a great resource to see what others are writing. I read blogs about leadership, faith, ministry, books, finance, blogging, family, marriage, missions, etc, and they help me grow in my faith, ministry and life.

Photo Cred: https://pixabay.com/en/read-ebook-education-hand-book-876536/

Photo Cred: https://pixabay.com/en/read-ebook-education-hand-book-876536/

There is so much out there to read. If I find a blog that contains high quality content, I usually add it to Feedly to see if they post anything else worth reading. And with Feedly, it is really easy to do!

Recommended blogs

You might be asking, what are some of my favorite blogs? Allow me to share a some with you:

Between Two Worlds

This is a blog by Justin Taylor. He will sometimes post some of his own material, but he is often a curator of content and other happenings within Christianity. I appreciate his insights and he often shares very pertinent and important information.

Challies.com

This is the online home of Tim Challies, a pastor, blogger and reviewer of books. Tim often has great articles to read about a variety of topics. He also reviews books and displays great discernment when it comes to reading. Each fall he hosts an online reading group that reads classic Christian books, he posts a daily thread with links to other blogs he found interesting and every Friday he does a giveaway to the people who sign-up.

Desiring God

This is a compilation blog with many different writers. The content is always very Biblical and points its readers toward a glorious view of God. I have a deep appreciation for the ministry of John Piper and he also writes for this blog on a fairly regular basis.

Deyoung, Restless and Reformed

This is the blog of Kevin DeYoung. He is a pastor and author in East Lansing, MI. One day, I think he may be regarded as one of the greatest writers of our generation. I wish I could write as well as him. He writes with deep insight and does it in a way that captures the reader.

Michael Hyatt's Intentional Leadership

Michael Hyatt is the former CEO of Tomas Nelson Publishers. He blogs twice a week and produces a podcast once a week. He covers topics about leadership, productivity, intentionality, platform building, etc. If you are an aspiring leader, blogger or author, I think you would enjoy his content.

ScripplePreach.com

This blog is primarily about communication, specifically about writing and preaching. I have really enjoyed the content on this blog, but it has not been updated much lately. The old content is still worth exploring, and if he begins to update more often, you will likely enjoy the new content as well.

Think Theology

There are multiple authors that write for this blog out of England, but I have particularly enjoyed the writings of Andrew Wilson. He is a bit cheeky, but has a high intellect and gives great insights. This is one of my newer favorites.

How to get started?

Getting started with Feedly is fairly easy. I would encourage you to head over to www.feedly.com and get yourself an account today. It would be a great way to keep up with the blogs you follow, including mine. Here is a short video tutorial about how to get it set-up.


Whiteboard Theology: We begin and grow by the power of the same Spirit

Are you now being perfected by the flesh?

We have a habit of trusting in our own strength in order to grow as followers of Jesus. We preach a gospel of faith, not works. We stand in agreement with the Scriptures that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And then we spend the rest of our lives living as though we can earn something on our own. As though we can persist by our own strength. The Biblical vision for the Christian is not that we live by our own strength, but that we are perfected by the same Spirit that saved us. We walk by the strength of God's Spirit, which began this good work in us.

This is not a new concept. We are not falling into a new form of error. Believing that we can somehow earn something on our own is as old as sin itself. In the early Church, Paul gave this exhortation to the churches in Galatia:

"Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness? (Galatians 3:2-6 ESV)"

The Galatians were being led astray by foolish teachers who were undermining the truth of the Gospel message. We must resist the same false message in our own lives. Whether implicit or explicit, the message is being sent that we can somehow earn something from God.

Salvation is more than conversion

Salvation is often equated with only the point of conversation. The Gospel message is commonly taught as a message about only conversion, but that is not consistent with a Biblical picture of salvation. Three core elements of salvation are: Justification (Rom 5:1, 2 Cor 5:21), Sanctification (John 17:16-17; Heb. 10:14) and Glorification (1 John 3:2). All of which happen by the power of Jesus through the work of God's Spirit.

In Hebrews, it says that through Jesus, God has "perfected for all time those who are being sanctified [perfected] (Heb 10:14)." Justification means that "for all time" God has made us completely perfect through Jesus. Another way of saying it is that we have been made fully righteous through Jesus. He took our sin and he gave us his righteousness (2 Cor 5:21).

Even though we have been made perfect through Jesus (justification), we still experience the imperfect nature of our current life. God is still in the process of sanctifying us in our motives, words and deeds. I still experience sin in my life, and so do you. Every day I wage war against my sin and God is helping me grow. I am being perfected (sanctified).

Glorification means that one day I will be like Jesus. I am not yet like Jesus, but God is shaping me more and more into the likeness of Christ. One day, it will be brought to fruition. I look forward to that day with great joy.

Here is a diagram of these three elements of salvation drawn on the white board in my office:

You have an infinite source of strength

Be encouraged today. If you have been laboring under the weight of your own sin, you don't have the fight the battle alone. Actually, you cannot succeed at fighting the battle alone. The power of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit gives you both the motivation and the strength to grow as a Christian.

Motivation

You are already perfect before God (justification). Jesus has already given you his righteousness and you do not have to be afraid of your standing before God. Trying to live a perfect life on your own earns you nothing. Jesus has already lived the perfect life on your behalf. Trying to live a perfect life on your own will actually lead you astray as it did the Galatians. Our motivation to pursue sanctification is not to earn something. Instead, we are motivated because Jesus has already earned everything we need. We do not fight sin to earn God's love, because God has already loved us through Jesus. We fight sin in response to God's love. We fight sin because He already loves us and that love motivates us to pursue the life God desires for us.

Strength

The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead lives inside of you (Rom 8:11). The same Spirit that saved you through faith in Jesus continues to give you the strength to live the Christian life. Why do you try to earn by your own strength that which God has already given you through His Spirit? In faith you began through the Spirit. In faith you will continue through the Spirit.

In faith you began through the Spirit. In faith you will continue through the Spirit.

How do we respond?

Take a moment and pray. Ask God to reveal the ways you are trying to live by your own strength. Repent of those areas and your self-righteous attitude that says you can do it on your own. Turn to God and rely on the power of the Spirit to give you strength for your day. This is not a theoretical exercise. After I typed those words, I stopped and did exactly what I am asking you to do. Be encouraged. You have all the strength you need for your day.

If you get a chance to share in the comments below, let us know how this impacts your life today.

Do you struggle to read your Bible? This may help.

Photo Cred: http://freelyphotos.com/ipadbible/

Photo Cred: http://freelyphotos.com/ipadbible/

A tree planted by the water

If you, like 61 percent of Americans, wish you read your Bible more then this post is for you. In a 2014 study done by the American Bible Society and Barna Group, 88 percent of respondents said they owned a Bible, but the majority (63 percent) said they read their Bible less than once per week. If you struggle to read your Bible as often as you wish then you are not alone - although I would guess that you feel alone. You probably feel guilty for not reading your Bible as often as you feel you should. As a result, you are probably too scared to ask someone for help. And because you will likely not ask, I wanted to give you some help anyway.

Psalm One gives a picture of a man who delights in God's Word, meditating on it day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water. A tree that is planted by a stream has a deep an constant water supply, because it does not rely solely on the rain. It gets its nutrients and sustenance from the stream itself. Therefore, it yields fruit and does not wither. When we are giving ourselves a constant dose of God's Word, we are like the tree planted by the stream. We have a constant source of strength and vitality that is not dependent upon the changing weather of the world around us. We have strength to face whatever the day brings, because we have a deep wellspring of life.

Sadly, this often isn't the case. And hear me on this, I also wish I read the Bible more. I wish that I soaked up its sustaining waters more often. I desire deeper stores of God's truth from which to draw upon throughout my days and weeks. You are not alone. I wish the same for you. And hopefully this will help.

Don't make excuses, make a plan

It is easy to come up with a hundred reasons why we don't read our Bibles as often as we wished. We are busy, so we cannot find the time. We have children, jobs, school, laundry and a dozen other things that fight for our time. Time is a limited resource, so it is reasonable to feel busy and overwhelmed. BUT, and this is a big but... We do make time for the things that matter to us. We find time for many things in our day, but why not when it comes to reading our Bibles and spending time with God?

I think there is another reason that we don't read our Bibles. It is one we often won't admit to ourselves, but it is very real. We are intimidated by reading our Bible. We don't know what to do, and we are not confident we will understand what we read. As a result, deep down, we don't believe that taking the time to read our Bible will have a significant impact on our day.

I believe that with the right plan and the right tools, you can have a more meaningful time reading your Bible.

The right plan

If you want to make something happen in your busy life, you put it on the calendar. I suggest you do the same with your Bible reading. Yes, I mean that you should actually schedule a meeting on your calendar. Don't get too ambitious and schedule times for the whole month, just schedule one time for now. Either today or tomorrow. Choose a time that you are going to read your Bible and schedule it. This doesn't have to be in the morning, although that works well for many people. You know your own life better than me. You chose the time and then put it on the calendar.

When you set a meeting with someone else, you generally chose a location too, right? Well, I want you to do the same with your Bible reading time. Maybe it is at your kitchen table. Maybe it is at Starbucks. Maybe it is on the back porch or maybe it is at the office over your lunch break. Choose a place.

And finally, choose what you will read. I would suggest that you choose a book of the Bible and just read the first chapter. The next time you read your Bible you can read chapter two, and so on. I would recommend starting with the Gospel or Mark or the book of Philippians. They are not overly complicated, and would give you a glorious picture of Jesus.

I am telling you to make this plan in order to reduce the number of barriers between you and your Bible reading. If you are planning to read your Bible but have no clue what you will read, it can be intimidating to actually start. Making some decisions now about when, where and what to read will make it more likely you are going to follow through.

A word of caution. The ultimate goal is to read our Bibles so that we can grow in intimacy with God and live in accordance with His desires. If you don't read at the exact time you planned, or at the location you decided on, or even the chapter you had chosen, but you do spend time reading the Bible and growing closer to God, then it was a success. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't happen as you planned - or if it doesn't even happen at all. Just reset yourself, make a new plan and be diligent to make it happen the next time.

A tool to read the Bible

It is time. You have set your plan and followed through. You are at your designated location at your planned time. Now what? I am going to share a very simple, but very effective tool to help you have a meaningful time reading your Bible. This entire process will take about 20-35 minutes and here are the basic steps:

  1. (5-10 minutes) Read one chapter. You may even be able to read it twice within 5-10 minutes
  2. (10-15 minutes) Choose a small section from the chapter you just read and use the Inductive Bible Study Method I am about to teach you to study it more in depth.
  3. (5-10 minutes) As you finish, take 5-10 minutes to journal and/or pray about what you have read and learned.

The Inductive Bible Study Method I am going to teach you comes form a tool I received from a ministry called Navigators. Their .pdf is not available anymore at the link I have, but you can download it at the bottom of this post. Here are the four steps (you may have even heard of them before):

  1. Observe 
  2. Interpret
  3. Apply
  4. Illustrate

If you have, you may even scoff at me suggesting you use such a simple method to study the Bible. Let me ask you this though, when is the last time you read the Bible in a meaningful way? If it has been longer than you would like, then just give this a try and see if it doesn't help. And I am not promoting a method that I don't actually believe in or use. Just this morning, I used this exact method and it was very helpful for me. I am a seminary graduate who has had countless hours of study and instruction on Bible interpretation and hermeneutics, and this method is still helpful for me. Try it. Use it. And if you don't like it, then find something else. But at least give it a shot. You might be surprised how much this simple tool helps you.

Here are the steps:

Observation (What does it say?): Look closely at the verse(s) you are studying. Answer some or all of these questions. Who are the people involved? What happened? Where does this take place? When did it take place? How are things accomplished? Are there any key words in the passage? What images (pictures) are in the passage?

Interpretation (What does it mean?): Write out questions about what you don't understand in the passage. What do you think this passage meant to the original audience that received it? Are there any words you need to better understand?

Application: (What does it mean to me?) The following questions may help you apply the passage to your life. The SPECK method. (1) Is there SIN for me to avoid? (2) Is there a PROMISE for me to claim? (3) Is there an EXAMPLE for me to follow? Or not follow? (4) Is there a COMMAND for me to obey? (5) Is there any other KNOWLEDGE I should pursue?

Illustration (How do I pass it on?) Draw a picture or diagram to illustrate what you have discovered from this passage.

An example of the method in use

In an effort to provide the most helpful, I will provide an example of how I used this method this morning to study Galatians 2:11-14 a little more in depth.

Observation

  • People involved: Cephas, Men from James/Circumcision Party, Gentiles, Jews at Antioch, Barnabas, Paul
  • What happened?: Cephas ate with Gentiles, Men from James came and Cephas withdrew, others withdrew also, Paul confronted Cephas about his behavior
  • Where did it take place?: Antioch (v.11)
  • Key words: Gentile(s), Jew(s)
  • Images: Walking in step with the Gospel

Interpretation

  • What did it mean to original audience? Gentiles don't have to become Jews in order to follow Jesus and live in a way that is consistent with the Gospel. In fact, forcing Gentiles to become Jews is not in step with the gospel. Another meaning is that our actions communicate what we believe about the gospel (ie. Cephas)
  • Write out questions about what you don't understand in the passage. (I didn't have any major questions after reading this passage, but here are some examples of questions you might ask): Why was it inconsistent with the Gospel for Cephas to act like he did? What did Cephas fear about the circumcision party? Who is Cephas? What is circumcision?

Application

  • Sin to avoid: Living inconsistent with the gospel out of fear or approval
  • Promise to claim: I don't have to conform to social or cultural norms to follow Jesus
  • Example not to follow: The example of Cephas
  • Command to Obey: I didn't really see any "commands"
  • Knowledge to pursue: If forcing others to conform to cultural norms is not consistent with the Gospel, what things do I believe that are cultural norms vs. Biblical commands?

Illustration:

I drew this diagram of what I saw discovered in the passage

I would love to hear from you

I would love to hear from you. If this was helpful for you and you are able to follow through with reading your Bible in the next couple days, please let us know how it went.

Share what passage you read and what you learned in the comments below.

A key element that we often forget about love

Loving well

Loving well is not always easy. It is often quite difficult. We struggle with our own selfishness and prejudice, hindering us from loving others as we ought. Its like canoeing upstream when turning around to move with the momentum of the river would be much easier. Fighting the current of our own flesh often frustrates our more pure desire to love well.

Not to mention that the definition love has been molded and manipulated into many forms. We use the same word to represent how we feel toward our iPhone, our favorite coffee and our spouse. Dictionary.com lists 28 distinct ways that the word love can be used. It isn't necessarily good or bad that we have so many uses for the word love, what is important is that when we use the word love, we do not confuse what meaning is intended.

Even the Bible is not monolithic in its use of the word love. There are three different greek words in the Bible that we often translate as love. They are agape, phileo and storge. There is also a fourth greek word, eros, that is often associated with love.

The key element I want to focus on comes from the greek work agape. This is the love most often associated with the love of God because in 1 John we read that God is love [agape] (1 John 4:7-12). This is the sort of love that is grounded in the very character of God.

God's love as our example

When I consider how I ought to love others, the love of God is what first comes to mind. Jesus gave this instruction to his disciples:

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35 ESV)"

Jesus instructs his disciples that they are to love one another. But this doesn't seem like a "new command." What is new about Jesus telling them to love one another? I believe that the new command is that Jesus grounds his command to love one another in the example of Jesus' love. Jesus says, "just as I have loved you..." We are to love one another in the way that Jesus loves.

John took this teaching from Jesus to heart. Elsewhere in the Bible he wrote, "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:11)." John appeals to the love of God as a way of pointing his readers to also conduct themselves in love.

Jesus is our example of love.

Photo Cred: https://stocksnap.io/photo/0D9713A6E0

Photo Cred: https://stocksnap.io/photo/0D9713A6E0

A key element to loving well - taking the first step

In his love for us, Jesus took the first step. "In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10)." We did not love God. He loved us. We did not initiate. He initiated. We did not take the first step. He took the first step. He sent Jesus. God demonstrated his love when he made a way for us through Jesus, even while we were still sinners and enemies of God (Rom 5:8-10). We did not take the first step. We were blind to the ways of God because of our sin. We would not have sought him out if it were not for his desire to seek us out first.

When I consider the initiation of God to love us first, I am compelled to believe that part of loving others well is taking the first step. In his love for us, Jesus took the first step. We are called to do the same with others. This has massive implications for all of life. Here are a few ways that taking the first step in love can impact our lives.

In his love for us, Jesus took the first step. We are called to do the same with others.

Initiating with our spouse

How often have you waited for your spouse to take the first step toward reconciliation after a fight? I am telling you that loving well means you take the first step. Even if you don't think you were in the wrong, take the first step. This is highlighted even more for men in the marriage relationship, because Paul calls the husbands to be like Christ (Eph 5:25). Christ took the first step to reconcile our relationship with him, so we should do the same in our relationship with others, especially with our spouse.

This also means that we are actively pursuing a deeper relationship with our spouse. We are thinking ahead to ask good questions and pursue a deeper relationship. Take responsibility to move toward your spouse today.

Initiating with our neighbors 

Jesus did not wait for us to come to him to begin a relationship. He did all the work to make it possible. If you want your neighbors to see the light of Jesus, do not wait for them to come ask you. You go to them. Do not wait for someone to stumble into your church to build a relationship. Do not wait for your neighbor to knock on your door with cookies. You take the step to meet them first. Initiate in relationship with the people around you. Jesus did. We should as well.

Initiating in reconciliation

I already discussed this in the section about spouses, but the example of Jesus regarding reconciliation is too great to not expand my exhortation. If you have a relationship that requires forgiveness and reconciliation, do something to initiate. Do not sulk to yourself about their lack of initiative while you do little to pursue forgiveness yourself. This will look different in each relationship because of various histories, pains and hurts. There is no one-size fits all, but because of the example of Jesus, I believe you are called to take a step in the direction of reconciliation. Even a very small step in love can bring about a miracle through the work of God.

Initiating to meet a need

Sometimes we observe a need in someone around us. Or maybe someone shares a prayer request in our small group about an area of need they have. One of the ways we can show the love of Christ in our communities is to initiate in seeking to meet a need. This doesn't need to be complicated. The first step can be to simply ask if there is a way that you can help. But don't ask if you are not prepared to follow through on their response. You don't need to wait for someone to ask you specifically. It also isn't always wise to assume you know the best way to meet the need. But you can always ask.

Take the first step with someone today

Here is my call to action for you today.

Pray and ask yourself who you might be called to love more intentionally today. Who is God inviting you to love well today? And then take a step that would be a clear expression of your love. It might be a step toward repairing a relationship. It might be a step toward deepening a relationship. Or it might be a step toward beginning a relationship.

Whoever it is, you take the first step. We would be lost if God had not done the same for us. Shouldn't we do the same with others?

And let us know how it goes in the comments section below.


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Loving the giver more than the gift

Abram and Sarai

At First Baptist Church, where I serve as the Adult Ministries Pastor, we are currently spending time looking at the life of Abraham. Our preaching series is taking us through the chapters in Genesis that tell the narrative of his life. This past Sunday, Pastor Matt preached on Genesis 16 and explained how Abram (that was his name before God changed it to Abraham in Genesis 17) and his wife Sarai grew impatient with God's promise of a son. They took a short-cut to try and fulfill the promise on their own by having a child through Sarai's servant Hagar. In the end, this ended up causing significant conflict for them and their decedents. Abram and Sarai wanted the gift of a son more than they wanted to honor and trust the promise of the giver. You can listen to the full sermon audio here.

It is tempting to look at the actions of Abram and Sarai and condemn them for their short-cut. They were more in love with the gift than the giver. They pursued their own means to satisfy the desires of their hearts. While we may want to validate ourselves by criticizing their choice, we are blind if we think that we are immune from this type of behavior.

The most powerful idols in your life are the ones you don't see and often they are fueled by a disproportionate love for some of God's most treasured gifts.

Moving beyond the less acceptable sins

It is not uncommon for a person to share their testimony of faith and for them to describe how they had formerly succumbed to a pattern of sin, but have now moved beyond the behaviors of their past. Especially when it relates to some of the most common sins we think about (ie. pornography, alcohol abuse, drugs, stealing, gambling addictions, sexual promiscuity, etc.). These are not sin patterns to take lightly. We must fight these with deep resolve and persistence.

Unfortunately, we have created a culture in which people feel lost after they overcome those sin patterns. Once we see consistent victory over these past behaviors, we don't know what comes next. Our definition of sin has become truncated and myopic. We can only see sin as those "really bad" things that we used to do.

The more subtle sins that creep into our lives are the worship of God's good gifts. These idols can become the most powerful and unnoticed sins. And they have the potential of being even more destructive than the more obvious sins we leave behind.

I experienced this process personally in my own journey of faith. As I grew in my commitment to Jesus, I walked through a process of fighting off one of these more "obvious" sins. Eventually, I came to see that I still had idols that I worshiped, only these idols were often associated with many of God's good gifts.

The most powerful idols in your life are the ones you don’t see

What is an idol?

We commonly associate the word idol with a trinket we might find in an animistic culture or the god of another religion. In the Bible, we see idols such as Dagon (1 Kings 5) that the Philistines worshiped. But idols in American culture are not often found in a god-like entity, but rather a material item, social status or emotional connection. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, Timothy Keller defines an idol this way:

"What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god [idol] is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children , or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving 'face' and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty and your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in Christian ministry (pg. xvii - xviii)."

Idols are anything that surpasses the level of our love and commitment to God. We are more committed to our idols than our God. We are more in love with our idols than our God.

Abram and Sarai were more in love with the prospect of a son than they were with their love and trust for God. As you delve into the story more, it is also apparent that Abram was more concerned about keeping Sarai happy than he was at being committed to trusting the promise he had heard from God. Abram elevated his wife's approval and happiness above his love for God. These are all ways that our idols begin to creep up and sap our love for God.

photo cred: pixabay.com

photo cred: pixabay.com

God's good gifts

The challenging thing about idols is that we often make them out of God's greatest gifts. As Timothy Keller delves into the danger of counterfeit god's, he examines some of our most common idols. He spends a chapter each on the idol of love/relationships, money, success and power. He also talks about how religion and morality can become an idol when we worship our own righteousness.

Love and relationships are good gifts. The opportunity to invest in a loving marriage is a beautiful and sweet gift. Having children who we can care for and see grow into mature adults is a legacy worth leaving. Loving relationships are not bad. They are actually something God has given to us to enjoy and celebrate. Unfortunately, we can twist these relationships into idols. This happens in the person who sacrifices their own integrity in order to receive affirmation from another person. It happens in the sexually promiscuous life that pursues meaning through fulfilling lustful desires. It happens in the young man or woman who spends their time looking for significance in internet pornography instead of developing meaningful relationships with real humans. We begin to love God's gift more than we love God. We make an idol out of it, and idols can be cruel masters.

Money and material possessions are good gifts. Through money, we are able to purchase food, shelter and clothing. With money we are able to enjoy many other elements of God's creation. We can travel to visit family or go to a conference. Through money, we can support the mission of God in the world through churches and ministry organizations. Money is a good gift. But it can easily become an idol. We can quickly become consumed by getting a bigger paycheck, so we can buy a bigger house and nicer car. It does not take long before we love our money and our things more than we love our God.

The most elusive idols come when God's good gifts become our ultimate desires. We begin to love the gift more than the giver.

How do we overcome our idols?

If you read Keller's book, you can get a far more comprehensive solution, but allow me to suggest a few quick steps that can help to remedy your idol worship.

1. Identify your idols

The first step to overcoming your idols is to see which ones exist in you. You can ask yourself some questions: "What thing in my life, if I lost it, would utterly devastate me?" or "Where do I spend my resources of time, money, emotions and mental energy?" or "When I feel sad or hurt, where do I turn to for comfort?"

You can also ask God to help reveal the idols that exist in your life. Ask God to help you see where you are loving his gifts more than you are loving him. You can also ask the people closest to you. Ask them to tell you where they see idols in your life (this might be hard, but also very helpful).

2. Repent

Once you begin to see idols surfaced in your life, you need to take the time to confess them and repent. Confess them to God and repent of the way you have been worshiping these counterfeit gods instead of the one true God. Repentance is not just acknowledging sin through confession, it also includes a desire to change.

3. Remember the Gospel

Once you have repented, remind yourself of the gospel. Tell yourself that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rm. 8:1)." Remind yourself that "as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us (Ps 103:12)." Remember that the grace of Jesus "is sufficient for you (2 Cor. 12:9)." God has set you free through Jesus. He has given you new life through Jesus. Repent and acknowledge the weight of your sin, but do not stay there. Remember the gospel of Jesus and live in a way that is consistent with the new life Jesus has purchased for you.

4. Elevate the giver - don't minimize the gift

We may assume that in order to not worship these idols we need to minimize their goodness. That will not actually help us much. Because the gifts truly are good. They are God's good gifts for his people. Love, relationships, success, money and righteousness are not bad. We do not need to villainize that which God has given to us as good. The solution is not to minimize the gift.  The solution is the elevate the giver. Increase your love and affection for Jesus. Remind yourself of the gospel. Get into a community that helps to cultivate your love and commitment to God.

At times, it may mean that you need to actually remove the barrier that an idol has created by selling the thing you idolize. It may mean that you need to give up an unhealthy relationship or that you need to change careers. Increasing your love for Jesus may require a more radical change. Although, it should be in the service of helping to grow your love and affection for Jesus, not because that good gift is necessarily bad.

5. Ask God for help

You don't have to do this on your own. In fact, you can't do it on your own. Ask God for his help and trust in the work the Holy Spirit will do in your life.

What about you?

I would love to hear from you. What ways have you seen God's good gifts turned into idols? And how have you been able to battle the idols that seem to weasel their way into your life?

Authentic Worship: A lesson from my son

Worship can be very simple to understand. Worship can also be very complex.

I am not attempting to navigate the various complexities of worship in this brief post. However, I was given a fresh picture of worship recently that has shaped my understanding.

It began with my son. As a father, my eyes have been opened to new understandings of how we relate to God as Father. When Jesus instructed us to pray, he began "Our Father..." In Galatians, Paul tells us that we have been adopted as sons and daughters of God. My experience as a father has helped me to have an increased understanding of how we relate to God. While my relationship to my children is far from a complete representation of my relationship to God, I have seen some things in a new way.

My birthday was a few months ago, and my wife and I went out to celebrate. We had a babysitter come over to watch our children so that we could go out. With two littles running around, dates are hard to come by, so we were excited to get out together. Unfortunately, our son had a very difficult time with us leaving that night. He really wanted us to stay home. It broke my heart to leave him as he asked us over and over again to stay home. Even though it was difficult to leave, it was necessary for the health of our marriage, so we went anyway. 

Our keen babysitter suggested that Liam and she make a birthday card for me while I was gone. He jumped at the opportunity to make a card for his daddy. They took out a blue piece of paper, folded it in half like a card and wrote "Happy Birthday, Daddy" on the cover. With colored pencils, Liam included some random marks and traced his hands a couple times. They also wrote Happy Birthday on the inside with the words, "I Love you Dad." Our babysitter gave me the card when I got home, and it was so precious.

The card was not anything special. It was actually sort of a mess. There were random marks all over, and scribbley-traced little hands. The colors didn't coordinate well, and there was a lot of blank space that had no real purpose. It was not aesthetically pleasing from a purely objective sense and I do not assume that Hallmark would duplicate this card in order to sell it anytime soon. But for me, no card that could be found in the endless racks of Hallmark or Target would be sufficient to replace the card that Liam made. It was priceless.

A short time after receiving the card from Liam, I was sharing about it when speaking to a group of students and it nearly brought me to tears.

Why would the card mean that much to me? From a design standpoint, it wasn't anything special. There was no poem. There were eloquent words. The value in the card came because it was an authentic and genuine gift from my son, whom I love dearly.

The value of our worship

My experience with the card that Liam made for me helps me understand the heart of God for His people. The value of our worship is not found in the eloquence of our speech. It isn't found in the harmony of our singing. Our worship is not valuable to God because we adhere to certain traditions. It isn't found in our ability to choose the correct songs or know all the words. The value of our worship is not in our physical posture. We are not better worshipers because we raise our hands or because we lay prostrate on the ground or because we shuffle our feet with our hands in our pockets. The value of our worship is not in the type of building we worship or the theological system to which we ascribe. It isn't because we know the definition of justification, propitiation or sanctification.

The value of our worship is found primarily in our identity as God's children, created in His image and redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Our worship is valuable not because of how we do it, but because of who we are.

The value of our worship is found primarily in our identity as God’s children.

God desires our hearts

Flowing out of our identity as God's children, our worship is meant to be marked by hearts of humility and love. God says that he desires "steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6)." More than our sacrifices or our traditions, God wants our hearts. He desires for us to offer Him pure and authentic worship in response to His character. As we learn more about God and are reminded of His love through Jesus, we respond in worship. God wants our hearts. He wants our real, raw and authentic worship.

The card Liam gave me was not special because of its quality. It was special because Liam is my son. It was special because as my son, Liam wanted to give me a card to express his love and appreciation for me on my birthday. I have tried to remember this in my worship lately. My worship to God is special because I am His son. As His son, I want to give Him worship as an expression of my love and appreciation to Him as my Father God.

6 ways to intentionally pursue rest

Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel stressed, stretched by life or emotionally drained? Do you ever feel like you need a little rest?

I feel confident that most people would answer yes to these questions. I am often prone toward feeling this way as well.

According to MasterCard's clever commercial featuring children trying to convince their parents to take "one more day" of vacation, over 400 million vacation days go unused every year. On a fairly regular basis, I see an article on a news site or linked from social media that tells us we live in an overworked nation. For example, here is an article that tells us that "The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World.

People speak of their busy lives with pride. We wear busyness like a badge of honor. I do not believe that is how God wants us to live. I do not believe that God desires his people to overwork themselves and live under the constant stress and worry of a full schedule and never ending to-do lists. Do not misread what I am saying. God wants us to work hard. God does want us to set goals and pursue great things for His ever expanding glory. But God also wants us to rest. If we do not rest, we may end up like a $100,000 car that is out of fuel on the side of the freeway. It doesn't matter how beautiful or grand or breathtaking our work may be, if we do not have the fuel to sustain it, then it is like a beautiful hunk of metal on the side of the road with nowhere to go.

We need rest, but we are not alone in our need for rest. We have good company.

Jesus Rested

Mark's gospel records a series of events in the life of Jesus that display the value and necessity of rest. Leading up to Mark 6, Jesus and his disciples have been engaged in some intense ministry. Jesus has begun his ministry, caste out demons, healed people, proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom, confronted religious leaders and sent out the twelve apostles to do the same. Jesus tells his apostles, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile (Mark 6:31 ESV)." Jesus, recognizing their need to rest and invites his disciples away to a desolate place. Unfortunately, this does not happen. They are followed by a great crowd, and having compassion on the crowds, "because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)," Jesus teaches them and then feeds them.

After Jesus performs the miracle of feeding the five thousand, he sends his disciples across the sea and dismisses the crowd. Jesus had set out to rest, but his rest was interrupted. While his rest may have been high-jacked, it was still a priority. Therefore, "after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray (Mk 6:46)." Jesus still wanted to take some time to rest and commune with the Father, so Jesus made it happen.

Jesus prioritized rest. He was flexible when it didn't work the way he initially hoped. He still made it happen though, because rest was important to Jesus.

6 ways to intentionally pursue rest

1. Admit you need rest

The first step to pursue intentional rest is to simply admit your need. If you think that you are special and do not need it, you will never prioritize rest. Remember, even our savior needed to rest at times. Do not be so prideful to assume that you are immune to this natural human need. Your inability to admit your need for rest will catch up with you eventually. You will be like a Ferrari on the side of the road. Looking good, with no fuel to get you where you wanted to go. It will require some humility to admit your need, but we have a God who loves to give grace to the humble (James 4:6).

2. Invest in rest (don't just avoid life)

If you are going to take time to rest, be sure to invest in your rest. Your time is precious. The value of your time is one of the reasons so few people want to allocate this precious commodity toward rest. If you are going to take the time to give yourself some R&R, then do something that is actually refreshing. It is extremely common for people to do activities that simply help them avoid life, rather than those that bring new energy to their lives. For example, playing video games, watching a movie, scanning our Facebook feeds or any number of other activities may be considered rest for some people. Unfortunately, these activities don't often give us new energy or true rest, they merely help us avoid the stress and worry of life for a couple hours. But when we finish these activities, the same stress is ready to confront us again. Think about what activities give you energy and refreshment, and allocate your resting time toward those activities.

3. Create regular rhythms

Creating natural rhythms in life that help you rest is important. When something becomes a natural part of your rhythm, it is more likely to actually happen. These activities might include a daily time of prayer and reading your Bible, a daily walk with your family, a weekly Sabbath day to rest from the weeks work, or a monthly planning/retreat day to pull back from your normal tasks to plan and pray. I have eveb read about some people who take a daily power nap. Each person requires something different. For example, you may have read the "daily walk with your family" and thought to yourself, "that isn't rest!" It may not be physical rest, but for my family and me, it creates mental rest. When my wife and I put our kids in the stroller and go on a walk together, we have an opportunity to clear our minds, talk about important things and grow closer as a family. It is something I would consider rest. What about you? What sort of natural rhythms would create opportunities for regular rest in your life?

4. Plan it into your schedule

This is related to #3, but comes at it from a different angle. The previous way is more about creating regular habits, patterns and rhythms that create rest. Here, I am taking it one step further and telling you to actually plan rest into your schedule. Make an appointment slot on your calendar for restful and refreshing activities. Plan a vacation, and guard the dates you choose. Plan a power nap, and ensure that it happens. There is too much in life that wants to encroach on our schedules. Therefore, if you do not plan rest into your schedule, it will not happen.

5. Be flexible when it doesn't work out

In the life of Jesus, we see him flex when his rest didn't work out. He tried to get away for some rest with his disciples, but the crowds followed them. Jesus responded to the situation and flexed on his rest in order to prioritize the opportunities God had placed before him. Don't get so rigid with the rest you have planned that you miss an opportunity God might provide. This doesn't mean that we sacrifice our rest. Jesus may have flexed on the rest he wanted, but once the miracle of feeding the five thousand was over, he still hiked up on the mountain to pray. 

6. Get enough sleep

Sleep is important. The more life I live, the more I am convinced of the value of sleep. If I don't get enough sleep, my mental faculty is diminished, I am a more crabby person and I feel my intimacy with the Lord decrease. Part of resting well is getting enough sleep. It is imperative.

A disclaimer...

...and an opportunity to respond

Let me provide a quick disclaimer. I am not always intentional to rest well. In fact, I often do quite poor at resting well. I am writing this to myself as much as anyone. If you have any thoughts on how to rest well, please share them in the comments below. It will be helpful for both me and your fellow readers.

Preaching the Gospel to Myself

A number of years ago, I read a book by author Jerry Bridges called Growing Your Faith. I cannot remember where or how I came by the book, but God used that book in powerful ways during a transformative time in my life. One of the practices I learned from Jerry Bridges in that book is something he calls, Preaching the Gospel to Myself (pg. 133). It was a very brief part of the book, but still impactful. His discussion of preaching the gospel to himself received about half a paragraph, but it stuck with me. I began to put it into practice in my own life as well, and it has had a profound impact.

What does it mean to preach the gospel to myself? How does it work?

The actual practice is quite simple. I pick out five different passages of Scripture that highlight the truths of the gospel message. There are many to choose from (I have included some suggestions below), but I just choose five. When I am having my quiet time, I will recite these five passages to myself as a constant reminder of the gospel. I usually write each of the five passages out into my journal, and then I just turn to the page with the verses and read them to myself. Whenever I start a new journal, I choose five new passages that I will use to "preach the gospel to myself." 

Increases our love for Jesus

One of the reasons I have found this practice helpful is because it reminds me of what Jesus has done, and this increases my love and commitment to him. Our love and appreciation for Jesus is directly impacted by our recognition of the significance of what he has done for us on the cross. Jesus tells a short parable in Luke 7:41-42:

"A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

The answer to that question is that the one who was forgiven the greater debt will love him more. Jesus is suggesting that our love for him is tied to our understanding of the degree to which we have been forgiven. Ultimately, we all suffer an infinite debt before God because of our sin. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice to satisfy that debt. Therefore, the one who loves Jesus the most may not always be the "worst sinner," but rather the person who most recognizes the great debt that has been paid on their behalf.

When I preach the gospel to myself each morning, it reminds me that Jesus loved me first. It reminds me that the innocent God-man became sin on my behalf, that I might become the righteousness of God in him. It reminds me that I was once a child of darkness, but now I have been called into the light. It reminds me that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It reminds me that Jesus took upon himself the iniquity of us all. When I preach the gospel to myself, it reminds me of the truly good news that is found in the gospel, and it increases my love for Jesus.

It gets the gospel in our head

The second reason I have found the practice to be helpful is that it gets the gospel in my head so it is there when I need it most. For example, I am thinking about the times when I have repented of a sin, but I still feel a deep sense of shame that goes beyond healthy conviction or remorse. I need the truths of the gospel available and ready, like tools in a tool belt.

Another time when I need these gospel truths is at the end of a long day that just didn't seem to go as I had planned. The days when I wake up late and get angry with my wife and kids. The days I am late to work. The days I don't contribute well in meetings and discover that a project I was working on had failed miserably. At the end of these days, I often feel terrible and I need to be reminded that in the gospel, I am more loved than I ever thought possible.

I also need to remember these gospel truths after my day goes exceptionally well. At the end of those days, I can often find myself trusting in my own "righteousness." I can find myself believing that I have earned something from God, when in reality, even on my best days, I am still desperately in need of the salvation and life that Jesus offers. It is good to remember the gospel at the end of those "good days," when pride can creep into my mind.

We need to get these gospel truths in our head like tools in a tool belt, so they are ready and available when we need them. My brother is a trained electrician and he has collected a significant amount of electrical tools over the years. Many of these tools are not ones that I own, nor will I ever probably own. He often has many of his most important and useful tools with him in his truck, so they are available when he needs to use them. It is not uncommon for him to be at my house, discover that we need something electrical fixed, and run out to his truck to retrieve the tool he needs to fix our problem.

When we preach the gospel to ourselves it is like putting tools in our gospel tool belt. We won't always know when we need to be reminded of the gospel, but we know that the tool will be there when we need it most.

Passages that Preach the Gospel

There are many passages that we can use to preach the gospel to ourselves. Here are a few suggestions that you could begin using right away (all verses are in the ESV):

2 Corinthians 5:21

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Romans 8:1

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Isaiah 53:6

"All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all."

Ephesians 2:4-5

"But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved"

Psalm 103:12

"as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us."

Ephesians 1:7

"In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses,according to the riches of his grace,"

Isaiah 1:18

“Come now, let us reason[a] together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool."

Here are more passages that you might consider using when you preach the gospel to yourself: Romans 4:7-8; Isaiah 43:25; Psalm 130:3-4; Isaiah 38:17; Micah 7:19; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:12;

Do you have any suggestions?

If there are other passages that help you remember the gospel, please include them in the comments. I would love to hear from you!

When I feel weak

Image Cred: www.Pixabay.com

Image Cred: www.Pixabay.com

 Admitting weakness is not always easy. It isn't easy to admit it to myself. It isn't easy to admit it to others. There is something in me that rebels against the notion of weakness. And yet, I think I am at my best when I am willing to own my weaknesses and inadequacies. Not in a self-deprecating and whiny sort of way. I simply mean that I am strongest when I am honest with myself about my weakness. Hiding from weakness is simply lying to myself. It doesn't make it go away, it just ignores it.

This was one of those weeks when I was fully aware of my inadequacies. No single event brought about my acute recognition, but a compilation of things coalesced to remind me. My wife and I spent the past weekend traveling for my sister-in-laws graduation from college. It was a great weekend, but we returned home to a new week already feeling a bit behind, so I stayed home a bit late on Monday morning to help get the house in order and then when I got to the office, I realized I had forgotten my computer at home. This resulted in me feeling behind most of the week at work. My wife works more than normal this week and we have some night and weekend commitments this week as well. I was also reminded through various conversations and personal reflection that the weight and responsibility of pastoral ministry is heavy to carry. No one did anything wrong. No single event derailed my week. All of these various things combined to bring about an increased sensitivity to my own weakness. It didn't feel very good right away. Although, it drove me to my knees before Jesus, which has ultimately produced a joy in me that is supernatural.

Each of you may have different contexts in life right now. Different things may bring about each of our own fears of weakness or inadequacy. Whether it be studying for finals, feeling like a failure of a parent or being overwhelmed at work, at times we will all be confronted with feelings of weakness. We can either be honest with ourselves about those emotions, or we can bury them and ignore them. I want to give you the liberty to be honest with yourself. I also want to give you some hope when you do feel week.

God is with us

When I need confidence in the mighty hand of God, I turn to a passage in Isaiah.

"fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

- Isaiah 41:10

What joy and confidence this brings to my soul. "Fear not," God says. Why? because "I am with you." There is nothing greater in times of fear and weakness than to know that my God is with me. The God who made the sun and the stars, the God whose voice the winds and the waves obey, this is the God who is with me. When I need strength, God promises to strengthen me. When I need help, God promises to give me help. When I feel like I cannot stand, God says that he will uphold me. This may not mean my circumstances change, but I renew my confidence that God is with me. God has done that for me this week. He has reminded me that when I am weak and overwhelmed, even in those moments, God is with me.

Jesus gives us strength

The Apostle Paul was very aware of his own weakness. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he was telling them about a thorn that was given to Paul "in the flesh." Scholars and theologians debate about what the thorn actually was - some say it was an area of sin, others that it was a physical ailment and still others that it could have been from persecution. The list of possible meanings could probably go on. Regardless of exactly what Paul meant by the thorn in his flesh, it was something that he desperately wanted removed. It was an area of weakness that Paul did not want to have hindering him any longer. He tells the Corinthians that Jesus responded with these words,

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

- 2 Corinthians 12:9a

In reflection on Jesus' words, Paul goes on to say,

"Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ my rest upon me. For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

- 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10

When we are weak, then we are strong. This resonates with me. If I am aware of an area of weakness, I can either deny it exists, or I can be honest with myself and rest upon the strength of Jesus. Throughout the Bible, we see God chose some of the least likely people to accomplish His work. It is helpful to remember that admitting my weakness and celebrating Jesus' strength brings glory and honor to Jesus. His grace is sufficient. His power is made perfect in my weakness. I don't have to run or hide, because I can rest in the grace of God through Jesus.

These two passages have brought great joy to my heart this week. If you are in need of some encouragement or strength, maybe you will find it in these passages as well. Or, if you have other verses that remind you of God's strength in times of your own weakness, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Listening is more than just hearing

Communication is central to what it means to be human. God has created us as men and women who communicate. In reality, we are always communicating. Whether through our non-verbals, through what we say or do not say, we are in constant communication with one another. Communication is also one of the primary ways God has chosen to include us in community with Him. God communicates through His Spirit, through His Word and through His People. God has humbled himself, and uses our modes of communication in order to have relationship with us. As we seek to live our lives in a way that is consistent with our love for Jesus, we must learn how to communicate well.

Miscommunication doesn't help

Miscommunication can be very counterproductive and even hurtful to people at times. One common way we short-circuit our communication is when we hear what someone says, but we don't really listen. When we listen to someone, we process the information in such a way that we can respond appropriately. If my wife asks me to take out the garbage before I leave for work in the morning and I call out "yeah!" from the other room, and then when I walk out the door for work without touching the garbage, I have most likely "heard" her, but I have not listened to her. I have not heard her communication well enough to process it and respond appropriately. Megan (my wife) can be gracious to me for this oversight, but a consistent pattern of me not listening will eventually become hurtful to her and harm our relationship. This is a small example, but it can communicate a great deal about how much I value my wife and what she tells me.

Listening well is important

Here is a great quote about the difference between hearing and listening:

"The one communication skill that is paramount to good communication is listening. Listening is not the same as hearing. Hearing is an involuntary physical act of sound waves impinging upon the ear. It is passive; it requires only healthy ears. We can hear someone talking without listening to them. Listening requires cultivation. Conscious thought must be given to understand what is said."

The book this quote comes from - The Couple Checkup - is about marriage. Certainly good communication is supremely important to our most important human relationship, our marriage. It is also important to all our relationships. Good listening is important to our relationship with Jesus. It is important to our relationships with our children, our fellow small group members, our co-workers and every other relationship we have. Listening is an important way that we grow together and help one another feel valued - because when we feel heard, we feel valued.

Remove Distractions

In order to practice good listening, we must first eliminate distraction. This means we set aside our phones, our social media or our own thoughts when someone else is talking. This can be hard at times. If we are with someone and they have something to communicate, then they are important enough to proactively reduce distractions so we can truly listen. If you are at home with your spouse, turn your phone off or commit certain time periods to engage in conversation. When you are in your small group, listen to what others are saying and seek to truly understand what they mean. If there is something on your mind that is distracting you, write it down on a sheet of paper so you will remember to come back to it. Get it out of your mind and on paper, so you can listen to the person across the room from you. There are a number of ways to remove distractions, we just need to see the priority of actually doing it so we can listen well.

Paraphrase

I know that it feels unnatural at times, and it can seem a bit cheesy, but paraphrasing what someone else said can be really important for effective listening. If they make a statement, try to rephrase it back to them so that you can clarify whether you understood what they meant. They can either correct misunderstandings, maybe alter what they intended to say or simply affirm that you heard correctly.

Ask questions

Asking good questions helps us understand the other person and clarify statements. Asking questions is so important. This does not mean that you ask questions in order to lead the conversation in the direction you want it to go. Rather, it is an opportunity for you to try discovering something new about them, come to a greater understanding of who they are and learn how God has made them. Remember, the transition from hearing to listening comes when we actually engage what the person says and try to come to a better understanding of what they meant. Asking questions is important to listening, because it helps us to understand what they want to communicate.

Listening helps people feel valued

Feeling like the people around you have listened to you and understood you is extremely important to feeling valued. According to research, feeling understood in a marriage is a high predictor of marital satisfaction (The Couple Checkup). This is likely true for all our relationships. If you are in a small group, I challenge you to be very conscious of how well you listen to your fellow group members the next time you meet. Remove distractions, use paraphrasing techniques and ask good questions. People feel valued when they feel understood. And we cannot be an agent of change in people's lives when we are not actually listening to what they say.

What about our relationship with Jesus?

Many of these principles ring true in our relationship with Jesus as well. While it doesn't function the same way as it would with people sitting around a room, we still should ask ourselves if we are actually listening to the voice of our Savior. Or are we just hearing him? When we read our Bibles, are we asking questions, analyzing the information and processing the message, or are we just reading/hearing it and then moving on with life? Jesus wants to have a relationship with you, and that means listening to his voice.

We are after life transformation not simply information transfer

We often practice the Christian life as though it is all about transferring information. Forgetting that the information is meant to transform our lives. Whether in our own personal practice of faith, in one-to-one relationships, group settings or when entire congregations gather, we must remember that we are after life transformation, not simply information transfer. The Bible often talks about the new life we have in Christ. We have been made new, and with that comes a new way of thinking and a new set of behaviors. We are called to live in a way that is consistent with our new life.

Are the relationships you have and groups you are part of supporting the transformation God wants for you? Are you helping to steer them in a direction that will bring about the transformation God wants?

Photo cred: http://pixabay.com/

Photo cred: http://pixabay.com/

Create systems, structures and models that support transformative experiences

One of the reasons we often focus on simply transferring information is because it is easy. It is clear and not muddy. It is simple and not complicated. We have seen it happen in our academic institutions and we have seen it modeled to us by others. It often takes the shape of sitting across the table from someone, sipping coffee and relaying information. This is not all bad. In fact, I have seen this setting contribute to changing the lives of people around me. It contributed to my life being changed. The problem is when it ends there.

Consider other settings in which people learn a trade or a new profession. Nearly all of them will include the transfer of information, but most of them will also include opportunities for that information to be put into practice. An electrician spends years as an apprentice before logging enough hours to take their test to become a journeyman electrician themselves. Someone trained in architecture will spend years logging hours before they can take their tests to become an actual licensed architect. As we invest in discipling relationships, we must not only create environments in which information is shared, but also put into practice.

This might simply mean that we talk about life when we meet. When I was working through some of my own areas of sin and struggle during college, I had an older man who was mentoring me cry in my dorm room over the sin that I could not seem to shake. He was not just sharing information, he was in my life. He cared about how I was doing, he asked questions, gave suggestions and followed-up with me. He was so invested in my life being changed, that he was moved to tears. This also might mean that we engage in living out our faith together. Serving together in our communities, spending time together over a meal or helping to create an environment in which we can invite our friends to experience the gospel.

This can mean so many different things. The important thing to ask is whether we are creating environments that support transformed lives? Or are just the transfer of information.

Engage and participate, don't just attend

If we want to see our lives changed, then we must be engaged and participate in the communities we form. It can be easy to just show up, but never actually engage. If this is the case, we will likely hear the information, we can even nod our heads in agreement, but we never actually process the information or relationships enough to change us. Being fully engaged will require something from us. It will make us uncomfortable at times. It will mean that we give up control of our own schedules or expectations. It can even get messy. It means that we ask hard questions. It means that we are vulnerable enough to share difficult things. It means that we are patient enough to listen to others. It means that we are open enough to hear what others have to say. It means that we are teachable enough to allow the Scriptures to inform how we live and what we believe - even when we don't understand it all. Life transformation requires us to participate, not just attend.

Ask yourself how this new information impacts how you live your life

In Paul's Letter to the Romans, he exhorts us, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rm 12:2)." There is an important connection between the information we learn and the transformation it brings. I hope you have not heard me saying that information is not important. When I read "renewal of the mind" in Romans, I think about cognitive things and about information. It is by the "renewal of your mind" that God wants to bring about transformation. It is through information and learning that we are often changed. Further, the word gospel means "good news." The message about Jesus is news. It is information. It must be communicated and heard and analyzed and processed and believed. Information is extremely important. I am not minimizing the sharing of information or deep intellectual study. Some of my most transformative moments have come through deep intellectual study of the Scriptures. But what I am saying, and what I believe Paul is saying in Romans 12:2, is that the renewing of our minds should also bring about life change.

Therefore, when you learn something new or are reminded of a piece of information from the Scriptures, I would encourage you to ask yourself, "How does this new information impact the way that I live as a follower of Jesus?" It cannot be just information, it must also change our lives.

Always remember where the change comes from

Finally, we must always remember where our new life and the transformation it brings comes from. While reading this post, you may have experienced some guilt over not doing well enough at seeing transformation in your own life or in the lives of others. Before you dig your heels in, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work tirelessly at the things above, I want to encourage you to remember where it all begins. Our new life has come through Jesus. Our desire to see changed lives flows from our love for Jesus. The power we have to see lives changed comes through the Holy Spirit. It is important that we ground ourselves in the gospel of Jesus first. We have been made new. Jesus makes people new (2 Cor 5:17). Our desire for transformed lives is because we want to see ourselves and others live in such a way that it is consistent with our love for Jesus, because he first loved us and gave us new life.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these [the Scriptures] that testify about me (Jn 5:39)." First and foremost, Jesus says that the Scriptures testify about him. If we miss Jesus in the Bible, no amount of life change will matter. The first bit of information that transforms is the gospel of Jesus - that God loved us enough to rescue us from darkness and give us new life.. We cannot miss this. We must remember where it all begins, and then pursue a transformed life in response to the love Jesus has for us in the gospel.

What are your thoughts?

I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below with your own reflections. How have you seen your own life transformed as a follower of Jesus? And what particular experiences, habits, life rhythms, communities, etc. have supported that transformation?

What does it mean to follow Jesus?

Jesus loves to invite people to follow him

Jesus loves to invite people to follow him. Jesus often uses this phrase, "follow me," when he invites people to be his disciples. When he calls Simon and Andrew, a couple of fisherman, he says "follow me... (Mk 1:17). When he invites Levi, a tax collector, he says, "follow me (Mk 2:14)." On numerous occasions within the life of Jesus, he invites people to follow him. This is not merely a physical following, like we might follow someone from one location to another because we don't know the way. It is not merely being starstruck and following him like we would a famous celebrity. It certainly isn't like following someone on Twitter. When Jesus calls someone to follow-him, it is an all-of-life sort of following. It will require all of us. Jesus loves to call people to follow him, no matter their race, ethnicity, culture, sex, age or any other identifying feature. No matter their past sin, or present status in society. Jesus invites every type of person to follow him, but it will require every part of the person who does.

When I talk about being a disciple of Jesus and following Jesus, I use them as synonyms. If we follow Jesus, we are his disciples. If we are his disciples, we follow him.

SO... What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to be his disciple?

Three marks of a person who follows Jesus

They love Jesus above all things

First and foremost, a person who follows Jesus must love him above all things. Recognizing that we are imperfect, and therefore cannot perfectly love Jesus, it may be more accurate to say that we are always growing in our love for Jesus, over and above all things. Jesus says that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Mt 16:24). This does not mean that we do not enjoy the good things that God has created, but they must always be secondary to our love for Jesus. Often, the most elusive sins and idols in our lives are those that come from good things - from loving material things too much, from worshiping our spouse or our children, or from pursuing the praise of others as our primary goal and motivation. Loving Jesus above all things means that he is more important to us than the many good things we have the privilege of enjoying in life.

Paul talks about his desire to boast only in the cross of Jesus (Gal 6:14). There is nothing more worthy of our pleasure and joy than Jesus. All things flow from and to our love and commitment for Jesus. If we follow Jesus, then we must be growing in our love for him and incorporating regular rhythms and patterns that help us grow in that love. 

What raises your affections for Jesus? What helps you to grow in your love for him? Pursue those activities, so that you will grow in your love for Jesus.

They live in a way that is consistent with their love for Jesus

The second mark of someone who follows Jesus is that they live their life in a way that is consistent with their love for Jesus. This means that their character flows from their love for Jesus - it is in response to their love for Jesus. They are not trying to live with Godly character so they can earn the love of Jesus, but because Jesus has already loved them. Living consistent with their love for Jesus means obeying God's commands as found in the Bible. This can mean many things. It means that they exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 6:22-23). It means that they love God and love others (Mk 12:28-31). It means that they change from their earthly desires to those more consistent with the heart of God (Col 3:5-17). Living a life that is consistent with our love for Jesus can mean many things and the person who follows Jesus - because of their love for Jesus - seeks to bring their character into alignment with what God says in His Word.

They multiply their faith by actively making new disciples

Jesus calls his followers to be witnesses to his Good News (Acts 1:8). The person who follows Jesus does so because they have experienced the greatest of news. Jesus brings new life to dead souls - that's really good news! At the cost of his own life, he gives life to those who follow him as his disciples. Jesus wants us to share this with others, so that they can also follow him. When he first called those fisherman on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Mt 4:19)." Jesus' call to follow him means that we will catch men into the net of his Kingdom. Some of his final words to his disciples have become known as the Great Commission - "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:19)." The person who follows Jesus multiplies their faith by actively making new disciples. This happens with our friends, our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, our classmates and anyone else we come to know. We share the good news of what Jesus has done and invite others into the joy of following Jesus.

Ten things I have learned about Jesus in 2015

I have been spending a lot of time studying Mark's Gospel over the past six months. My Community Group launched last October and the first things we read together was Mark's Gospel. It provided a great foundation for our group, and I grew in my love for Jesus. Then in January, our entire church launched into a Mark series. We preached on Mark. Many of our Adult Community Groups studied Mark. I did an evangelism training related to Mark's Gospel. Our Family Ministries incorporated Mark. Through all of this I learned (or was reminded) of some things about Jesus. This all served to grow my affection and love for Jesus, and I am thankful for the time we have spent reading Mark's Gospel. If you want to learn more about how you could read Mark's Gospel, there are resources at this link to provide some support.

Stairs bulb

The Ten things I learned (or was reminded of...)

These are in no particular order, and this is not an exhaustive list of the things a person may learn about Jesus through studying the Gospels. Although each of them is important for us to consider when we think about Jesus.

1. Jesus calls all people to follow him

Jesus invites every type of person to follow him. Whether they are a tax collector, sinner, leper, demon possessed man, fisherman, or anyone else, Jesus does not exclude. For example, Jesus calls Levi (a tax collector) and then shares a meal with his crew of tax collectors and sinners. The religious leaders of the day didn't like that much, so Jesus makes it clear that he came to call the sick (Mk 2:13-17). No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, Jesus invites you to follow him. We just need to recognize our need for the physician and respond.

2. Jesus calls his followers to servant-hood

On multiple occasions, Jesus calls his followers to servant-hood. On one occasion, two of his disciples approached him to request the privileged seats in the kingdom. Jesus explains that greatness in the kingdom is not about lording it over others or exercising authority over others. Rather, "whoever would be great among you must be your servant (Mk 10:43)." With Jesus as the chief example, who "came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 10:45)." Jesus wants his followers to walk in humility and with a servant's heart.

3. What happened during Jesus' last week on earth is a big deal

The events that occurred during the final week of Jesus' earthly life are a big deal. Mark commits at least one-third of his gospel to record the final week of Jesus' life. During this week, Jesus enters Jerusalem, institutes the Lord's Supper, is betrayed, put on trial, crucified, dies and rises again. The death and resurrection of Jesus are extremely important. The fact that Mark (and all the Gospel writers) spends so much time on the final week should make us ask what is so important about that final week. For the person who follows Jesus, the death and resurrection are central to our faith. This is the event that sets us free. It should matter a great deal to us, as it did to Mark's record of Jesus' life.

4. Following Jesus means giving him all of us

As I said earlier, Jesus invites all people to follow him, but it will require ever part of the person who does follow Jesus. Following Jesus is not something a person can just add-on to the rest of their life, like a plug-in to your Chrome web browser. Jesus call us to change everything about who we are. Jesus calls his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. This means that everything now falls under the lordship of Jesus. You don't have to sell your home, but you should no longer view your home as just yours. It falls under the lordship of Jesus. This doesn't necessarily mean you need to change professions, but your vocation is no longer just yours, it falls under the lordship of Jesus. It is an all-of-life short of following. It isn't like adding a plug-in to your Chrome browser, it is like entirely changing your default browser to Firefox (my apologies to all the googleites out there).

5. Jesus prayed

Jesus was intentional to create the space to pray. At one point, Jesus takes his disciples away from all the busyness of ministry to "rest a while (Mk 6:31)." It doesn't say this in the text, but I am guessing Jesus wanted to pray as part of this "rest." They were not able to rest though, because the crowds followed them. Jesus had compassion on the people and he began to teach them many things and eventually performed the great miracle known as the feeding of the five thousand. After this miracle, he sends his disciples ahead, because he still wanted to pray. Jesus went up on the mountain and took the time to pray. There are other instances of Jesus praying throughout the Gospel of Mark (as well as the other three gospels). Jesus prayed. If the Son of God prayed, then so should we.

6. Jesus had an intimate relationship with the Father

Jesus had an intimate relationship with the Father during his earthly ministry. This relationship existed eternally before Jesus came to earth as the incarnation, and still exists today, but we are able to see a clear picture of it in the gospels. God affirms Jesus as his beloved son, in whom he is well pleased (Mk 1:11). Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane signals a deep and intimate relationship with the Father.

7. Jesus wants to be with his disciples, but also send them out

In Mark 3:14-15, there is a great statement about Jesus' relationship with his disciples. It says that Jesus appointed the twelve "so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons." As a follower of Jesus, this was a great reminder to first be with Jesus and then be sent by Jesus. We are first called to a vibrant relationship with Jesus, and then we are called to live as sent ones.

8. Jesus is both mighty and meek

Mark's gospel narrative is organized around first establishing Jesus as God. The first half of the gospel is constantly communicating Jesus' authority and divinity. Jesus is God. Jesus is mighty. Following the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ (Mk 8:29), the gospel narratives shifts its focus toward the cross. After the confession by Peter, on three different occasions, Mark records Jesus explaining that he was going to suffer, die and rise again. Jesus begins to especially call his disciples to other-centered service. Jesus is mighty, but he is also meek. Jesus is powerful, yet allows himself to be weak. It is important to see both sides of Jesus.

9. The wind and waves obey his voice

In one scene, Jesus calms a great storm. The disciples ask, "who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mk 4:41)" Jesus displays his authority throughout Mark's Gospel. We see his authority over the natural world when he calms the storm, over the spiritual world when he casts out demons, over the religious world when he teaches as one with authority, and over the physical world when he heals people. Over and over again, Jesus establishes his authority as God. Even the wind and the waves obey his voice.

10. Jesus' followers are an extension of his ministry 

The ministry that Jesus calls his disciples to do is really just an extension of his own ministry. Jesus calls them to teach and cast out demons (Mk 3:13-15), he gives them authority over the unclean spirits (6:7), he is teaching them how to heal and cast out demons (9:14-28) and he calls them to the same servant mentality that he embodies (10:42-45). Throughout Jesus' ministry, he kept it simple. He preached, taught, healed, casted out demons and called disciples. In the same fashion, we are an extension of that ministry when we share the good news of Jesus (teach & preach), engage in mercy ministry (heal & cast out demons) and invite others to follow Jesus as well (call disciples).

What about you?

What you you learned or been reminded of about Jesus in 2015? I would love to get your thoughts in the comments section below.

 

Learning from your children

The setting

I recently experienced some unintended reproof from my son. As I was trying to get my daughter and son prepared to leave the house, I was beginning to grow frustrated. Getting out the door with two children under the age of three can be challenging. It is not a quick ordeal.

As I attempted to push my daughter's tiny fingers through her coat sleeve, she was not cooperating very well. She has grown past the point where her arms simply go where I put them, but not to the point where she can help me get her dressed. She was putting up a bit of a fight, and I was growing impatient. I expressed my frustration verbally by saying, "goodness!"

The Lesson

All the while, my son was sitting near us waiting for me to finish getting him ready as well. I hear him chime in...

"faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (in a sing-song tone)

My wife has been teaching our son the fruit of the spirit and has employed a short song to help. When I remarked "goodness," it was only natural for him to continue the song with the final three fruits of the spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23.

Upon hearing his response, I was immediately struck with the lack of patience, gentleness and self-control I was demonstrating. God's Spirit brought conviction nearly immediately.

The Response

I said a quick prayer to confess my own impatience and harshness, asking God to help me respond better to my children and grow in obedience to Him. Praise God for the ways He helps us see our own sin and our need for Jesus. May we all be a bit more open to hear from God today. Even when it comes from unlikely places.