There I Go Again

Posted on 29, Oct

Even before I read James 1 this morning as part of my devotional exercises, I had been thinking about an aspect of my life that I really need to bring under control: my tongue. For whatever reason (nature or nurture, or both) my habit is to tease people I care about. The problem is that sometimes I can say things to people in a teasing manner that end up hurting or annoying them. The irony is that I hate people who do this. I don’t want to be that guy—that smart-alecky, insensitive jerk—who routinely says things in a joking manner that hurts people’s feelings. I hate that guy, and I am that guy! Uh, oh! Not good.

Then, as I’m reading James 1 this morning I run across verse 26:

If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

James evidently had issues with the way some of his readers were using their tongues. Later on in the same letter he wrote a mini-essay of sorts about the need for Christ’s followers to get a grip here:

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. 3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (James 3:2-10)

Having taught the Book of James before in a church setting I’m aware of how influenced James was not only by Jesus’ teachings, but also the Book of Proverbs. That Old Testament collection of wisdom sayings presents us with many exhortations to tame our tongues. Here are just a few:

When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. (Proverbs 10:19)

The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but a perverse tongue will be cut out. (Proverbs 10:31)

A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. (Proverbs 11:12)

He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity. (Proverbs 21:23)

As a north wind brings rain, so a sly tongue brings angry looks. (Proverbs 25:23)

There’s one other passage from the Book of Proverbs that pierces my own heart in an especially precise manner today:

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)

Again, how ironic that someone who spends his days endeavoring to use his tongue to impart wisdom and bring healing to people, can sometimes also use it in a way that hurts and wounds!

I’m sorry if this particular posting seems to be nothing more than an expression of some self-loathing I’m dealing with today. Then again, isn’t it true that one of the purposes of a writing a blog is to allow interested readers into your head? Well, there you go! This is what’s in my head today as a result of reading James 1:26 during my devotional time, and having the Holy Spirit bring me up short in the process. And since James 1:22-25 exhorts us to be doers of the word rather than mere hearers (and readers) of it, I’m willing to acknowlege today my need God’s help when it comes to taming my tongue. (See James 4:6, 10.)

How about you? Might you also need some empowering grace from God in this regard?

Or, maybe your issue is being critical of other people’s blog postings!

There I go again.

Something to think about.


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Really Praying for One Another

Posted on 28, Oct

The Apostle Paul must have really believed in prayer.

How do we know?

For one thing, nearly all of his letters contain appeals for his readers to pray for him (see Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 1:10-11; Ephesians 6:19-20; Colossians 4:3-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2).

Secondly, nearly of his letters contain exhortations for his readers to pray … period! For example:

 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  (Romans 12:12)

 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Colossians 4:2)

 pray continually; (1 Thessalonians 5:17)

 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone (1 Timothy 2:1)

 I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. (1 Timothy 2:8)

I ask you: is it reasonable to assume that Paul would have spent so much energy encouraging his readers to pray if he wasn’t convinced that this holy exercise would make a big difference in their lives?

Evidently, the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther felt the same way.

He once said:

“As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray.”

I want to go further in this blog and direct your attention to one passage in particular where the Apostle Paul encouraged his readers to pray. In this passage we hear Paul encouraging the followers of Christ to make it a habit of praying every day for . . . one another.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:18)

Can we spend just a few moments today thinking about what Paul actually had in mind here? I mean, it is one thing to say in prayer: “God bless so-and-so and so-and-so.” I suspect, however, that Paul had more in mind than this kind of hyper-generic intercession when he encouraged his readers to keep on praying for one another.

What did Paul have in mind?

The best way I can think of to answer that crucial question is to look at the way the Apostle Paul, himself, prayed for other believers. It’s not by mere coincidence that Paul’s letters are filled, not only with appeals for and encouragements to pray, but also actual prayers—his prayers for those to whom his letters were addressed.

Let’s take a careful look at some of those prayers. I believe this quick look at Paul’s prayers will not only inspire us to pray more for one another; it will also inform us how to do so.

Since this call to intercede for one another is found in the book of Ephesians, let’s begin by looking at the two huge prayers that Paul included in this very letter. Early on in this letter, Paul pauses to explain to his readers how he is praying for them. In Ephesians 1:16-20 we read:

I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. {17} I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. {18} I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, {19} and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, {20} which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:16-20)

In this passage, I “hear” Paul praying that his fellow Christ-followers:

  •   might get to know God better;
  •   might better understand the wonderful plan God has for their future;
  •   might better appreciate how valuable and precious they are to God; and
  •   might better comprehend God’s desire and commitment to unleash in their lives the very same power He used to raise Jesus Christ from death to newness of life.

Do you suppose we can and should at times pray this kind of prayer for one another? Wouldn’t it be great to know someone is praying in this way for you?

Let’s press on to consider a second prayer that Paul presents in his letter to the Ephesians. A little later on in Ephesians 3:14-19 Paul writes:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, {15} from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. {16} I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, {17} so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, {18} may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, {19} and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

In this passage, I “hear” Paul praying that his fellow Christ-followers:

  •   might be strengthened by the power of the Spirit to possess a strong, robust faith in Jesus Christ;
  •   might grow in their ability to really understand and experience how radically loved they are by Christ; and
  •   might, as a result of this ever-increasing understanding of Christ’s love, experience the fullness of God in their lives—His awesome presence, peace, power and purpose.

Do you suppose we can and should at times pray this kind of prayer for one another? Wouldn’t it be great to know someone is praying in this way for you?

Here’s a third prayer that we find in Paul’s letters; this one was directed to the church members in Philippi. In Philippians 1:9-11 we read:

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, {10} so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, {11} filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

In this passage, I hear Paul praying that his fellow Christ-followers:

  •   might grow in their ability to love one another;
  •   might grow in wisdom as well as love;
  •   might grow in their ability to discern and do that which is pleasing to God;
  •   might grow in their ability to let Jesus Christ help them live lives that are pure, blameless and filled with good deeds; and
  •   might, as a result, be really ready for the return of Christ.

Do you suppose we can and should at times pray this kind of prayer for one another? Wouldn’t it be great to know someone is praying in this way for you?

Now, in reality, there are several more Pauline prayers to be found in the New Testament, but for the sake of time, and so as not to overwhelm ourselves, let’s look at just one more. Here’s a prayer that Paul prayed for the church members in Colossae. In Colossians 1:9-12, Paul wrote:

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. {10} And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, {11} being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully {12} giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:9-12

In this passage, I “hear” Paul praying that his fellow Christ-followers:

  •   might be filled with the knowledge of God’s will for their lives;
  •   might be empowered to live lives that are pleasing to God in every way;
  •   might experience God’s blessing upon every good work they attempt for Him;
  •   might never stop growing in their knowledge and experience of God;
  •   might be divinely empowered to patiently endure every character-building trial God allows to come their way; and
  •   might, even in the face of extreme adversity, find themselves able and eager to give thanks to God—the God who has graciously enabled them to become citizens of His eternal Kingdom.

One last time I ask you: Do you suppose we can and should at times pray this kind of prayer for one another? Wouldn’t it be great to know someone is praying in this way for you?

The great poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, once observed,

“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.  Wherefore, let thy voice rise like a fountain for me night and day.”

Prayer really is a powerful activity. If Paul’s prayers for his readers are any indication, our praying for one another can make a huge difference in our lives.

How would you like it if all the things Paul prayed for his fellow Christ-followers actually happened in your life? Wouldn’t it be great, really great, to know that you belong to a Christian community filled with people who were seriously asking God to bless you in these ways?

I’m convinced we can do this! We can all make it our goal to belong to a genuine Christian community that engages in this kind of prayer for one another!

The next time you meet with your small group of spiritual friends, quote Ephesians 6:18 to them. Then quote Tennyson: “Wherefore, let thy voice rise like a fountain for me night and day.”

Hopefull, you’ll not just get some interesting looks; you’ll get something started. 

Something to think about.

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The Tragedy of Hidden Love

Posted on 27, Oct

Reading through Proverbs 27 this morning I ran across verse 5 which says:

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. (Proverbs 27:5) 

For sure this proverb can be understood as affirming the value of a good, well-intentioned rebuke from somone who truly loves us and only wants to see us succeed in life. But that’s not the impact it had on me this morning. Instead, reading it caused me to reflect on the tragedy, the waste that is hidden love. What I’m taking away from my mediation on this passage this morning is that if I truly love and appreciate someone, I shouldn’t keep it to myself; I should let them know. 

Recently I was made aware that something affirming I had communicated to someone in an email had exercised a powerful affect upon them. Little did I know that they really needed to hear an affirming word that day. I’m glad to hear in retrospect that reading my email chased away, at least for a while, the sense of discouragement that had set up shot in their heart. 

Likewise, it was only last week that a student took the time to linger long enough after a class session to tell me how much she appreciated the course and what I was doing in it. As I expressed gratitude for the kind words I couldn’t help but let her know that they were coming to me at a good time. 

Have you ever been on either side of the affirmation equation: the one who received the encouraging words at a time when you really needed them, or the one whose affirming words to someone else were like music to their ears and like a healing balm to their hurting heart? Surely you have. 

In our book Beyond the Bliss my wife Patti and I talk about the healing power of love in the marital relationship. In the process, we share with our readers a story you may or may not have already heard. Since it wonderfully illustrates the power of affirmation, I’ll share it with you here and now. It goes like this: 

            In her memoir The Whisper Test, Mary Ann Bird tells of the power of words of acceptance in her own life. She was born with multiple birth defects:  deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided feet. As a child, Mary Ann suffered not only the physical impairments but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh, Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “what happened to your lip?” 

                        “I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie. 

            One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test”; if the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said. 

            One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a person of inner beauty and great kindness.[1]

According to Mary Ann Bird, seven words of acceptance and affirmation changed her life. Wow!

Today I’m going to make it a point to prayerfully, honestly, sincerely speak some words of acceptance, affirmation and encouragement to someone in my world. I encourage you to do the same on whatever day you read this posting. After all … better is open rebuke than hidden love. Let’s not keep hidden the feelings of love and appreciation we have for those around us.

Something to think about.


[1] As cited in Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 85-86.  

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Joy In the Journey?

Posted on 26, Oct

One of my favorite Christian songwriters is Michael Card. One of his songs says:

There is a joy in the journey

There’s a light we can love on the way

There is a wonder and wildness to life

And freedom for those who obey

This song, as a whole, insists that while the Christian life will be filled with many challenges, it will also involve much joy.

This passage from the Book of Acts says something similar:

And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:52)

Of course, this is not the only passage that connects joy with the Christian life. Other passages that do the same thing include: Acts 16:34; Romans 12:12; 14:17; 15:13; 1 Thessalonians 5:16; and 1 Peter 1:8. According to all these passages, there should be joy in the journey we call the life of Christian discipleship.

So, what’s the deal then? Why is it that so many of us Christ-followers live our lives as if there was no joy in the journey? Why is it that so many of us Christ-followers live our lives as if we are always getting ready to be happy, joyful and fulfilled?

When I think of the way many of us live our lives, I can’t help but think of a story that Jesus once told about a man who spent his whole life getting ready to be happy, joyful and fulfilled and then died just before that day arrived (see Luke 12:15-21). (It’s true that Jesus originally told this story to encourage people not to focus all their attention on the acquisition of material things. But the story also illustrates the phenomenon of people living their entire lives always getting ready to be happy, joyful and fulfilled. The guy in this sad tale died just before he was ready to start really living his life.)

Wouldn’t it be awful if something similar happened to us? Wouldn’t it be awful if we spent our entire lives getting ready to be joyful and then died before that day of joy finally arrived?

Here’s another story we should ponder and learn from:

Once upon a time, a stonecutter lived all alone. Though he had acquired great skills, he was very poor. He lived in a tiny bamboo hut and wore tattered clothing.

          One day as the stonecutter worked with his hammer and chisel upon a huge stone, he heard a crowd gathering along the streets. By their shouts he could tell that the king was coming to visit his humble village. Joining in the procession, the stonecutter gazed in as the king, dressed in marvelous silk, was greeted by his subjects.

          Oh, how I wish I had the power and glory of the king, he thought. He has soldiers at his command. There is no one more powerful.

          His cry was heard in the heavens, and immediately the humble stonecutter was transformed into a powerful king. He found himself riding on a great horse, waving at the crowds of people who had flocked to see him.

          This is power, he thought.

          As the summer progressed, however, the new king watched the effects of the heat upon his people. Men and animals became weary, and plants withered under the powerful rays of the sun. As he looked at the sky, the new king realized that the sun was more powerful than any earthly ruler.

          How I wish I were as powerful as that, he thought. I wish I were the sun. Immediately, his wish was granted.

          The stonecutter relished his new role as the sun. He gloried in the power he felt as he surveyed the kingdoms below. As he sent his bright rays to earth, he watched kings and princes hide under their parasols; he watched as powerful warriors became weak under his gaze. Even the crops in the field were under his command.

          Then one day a tiny cloud moved over the land, shielding the earth from the sun’s bright rays. Seeing that here was something more powerful, he thought, I want very much to be a cloud.

          Again, his wish was granted. Now he blocked the sun’s rays and felt important. He gathered all his strength, becoming a gigantic cloud, and began to pour down rain on the earth. Rivers formed where previously there were none, and water flooded the streets of the cities and the farmland. Everything—trees, animals, people—seemed to be awed by his power. Only the massive rocks were unswayed.

          There is nothing, he thought, as powerful as a rock. How I wish I were a huge stone. His wish was granted.

          As a stone he remained motionless and powerful, unmoved by sun, wind, or rain. He felt exempt from all the forces that shaped the existence of those around him.

          Then one day a man approached, carrying a bag. When he stopped, he pulled out a chisel and a hammer and began to chip away at the rock. Realizing that the man with the tools was more powerful than any rock, he cried out, “Oh, I want to be a stonecutter.”

          Once again the heavens heard his cry, and he became a stonecutter. Once again he lived in a bamboo hut and made his living with hammer and chisel. And he was content.

What is this story saying to us? Is it telling us that if we’re not careful we could spend our entire lives wishing for something that we already have at our fingertips?

Here’s yet another story we should ponder:

         A rich industrialist was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat.

          “Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked.

          “Because I’ve caught enough fish for today,” said the fisherman.

          “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked.

          “What would I do with them?”

          “You could earn more money,” came the impatient reply, “and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.”

          The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?”

          “You could sit down and enjoy life,” said the industrialist.

          “What do you think I’m doing now?” the fisherman replied.

If you are like me, there is a part of you that wishes you could be as contented right now as the fisherman in that story is. Am I right?

If we’re not happy, joyful and contented now, when will we ever be?

What are we waiting for?

  • Are we waiting for more money?
  • Are we waiting for more time?
  • Are we waiting for more friends?
  • Are we waiting for more education?
  • Are we waiting for a promotion at work?
  • Are we waiting for a new career?
  • Are we waiting until people respect us more?
  • Are we waiting until our talents are finally recognized?
  • Are we waiting until we have kids?
  • Are we waiting until the kids to grow up?
  • Are we waiting until the kids move out?
  • Are we waiting until we can retire?
  • Are we waiting until we’ve built bigger barns and can finally say to ourselves: “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Now you can take life easy; eat, drink and be merry”?

What are we waiting for?

University founder John Henry Newman once warned:

 “Fear not that your life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.”

And in his book Celebrate the Temporary, author Clyde Reid writes:

“Don’t wait. You’ll end up waiting forever. Celebrate the now with all its pain and difficulties. . . . But also celebrate the wonder of being alive. You and I are living miracles. So jump into the now and begin the process.”

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Clyde Reid is right on target. Life itself is a wonderful miracle. We need to “jump into the now” instead of waiting to be happy and joyful. It seems to me that we desperately need to start practicing three very important spiritual disciplines if we are ever going begin experiencing the joy in the journey.

  • First, we need to learn how to begin and end each and every day of our lives counting our blessings!
  • Second, we need to do a better job of celebrating—throwing more “parties.”
  • Third, we need to form the habit of not letting a single day go by without pressing some experience of joy into it!

Remember that fisherman in the story I told you earlier?

According to the Apostle Paul, it’s possible for us to be content . . . right now!

For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. {8} But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:7-8)

We don’t have to wait for anything else to happen. If we choose to, we can be happy, joyful and fulfilled . . . today.

There is a joy in the journey

There’s a light we can love on the way

There is a wonder and wildness to life

And freedom for those who obey

And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 13:52)

Something to think about.

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John Henry Died!

Posted on 25, Oct

Back in 1994 a study was cited by the Harvard Business Review. This study indicated that 60-90% of all medical office visits were made for stress-related symptoms.

I suspect this statistic hasn’t changed much in the past 16 years. Evidently, we live in a stressed out society. Someone has described our modern era this way:

This is the age

Of the half-read page

And the quick hash

And the mad dash.

The bright night

With the nerves tight.

The plane hop

And the brief stop.

The lamp tan

In a short span.

The Big Shot

In a good spot.

And the brain strain

And the heart pain.

And the cat naps

Till the string snaps—

And the fun’s . . . done.

So, what’s causing all this stress and strain on us modern Americans?

Well, there can be many causes of stress in a person’s life, but if my observations are correct, one of the biggest sources of stress in most people’s lives is the fact that they feel that they have too much to do in too little time.

Have you ever heard of burning the candle at both ends? Have you ever heard of going in several different directions at one time? Have you ever heard trying to hang heavy things on very thin wires?

I chuckled knowingly to myself when I heard a character in the Lord of the Rings movie (Bilbo Baggins) describe himself by saying:

“I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like butter spread over too much bread.”

Do you ever feel like that . . . thin?

Sherman James, an epidemiologist (someone who researches epidemic diseases) at the University of Michigan, describes a personality type named John Henryism.

This name refers to the American folk hero who worked on the transcontinental railroad as a “steel driving man.”  In other words, John Henry dug tunnels through mountains and hills by driving a six-foot-long steel bit through solid rock.

According to the legend, the railroad company eventually began to experiment with what they thought might be a better way to build tunnels—the newly invented steam powered drill. The story goes that big John Henry took up the challenge: he raced a steam-powered drill through a mountain . . . and won!

As James defines it, John Henryism involves the belief that any and all demands can be vanquished, so long as you work hard enough.

On questionnaires, John Henry individuals strongly agree with statements such as “When things don’t go the way I want, it just makes me work even harder,” or “Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done.”

People with a John Henry personality type are absolutely convinced that with enough effort and determination they can regulate all outcomes. As a result, they often over commit themselves to too many projects at the same time.

Can anyone besides me relate to this particular syndrome?

Do we need to be reminded today that . . . John Henry died after that stupid race was over? If we don’t get a grip on our John Henryism, the stress it brings into our lives just might be our undoing!

Okay, so what do we do?

Well, I could focus our attention now on the kinds of stress-relieving and reducing techniques that we find in magazine articles, self-help books and a hundred-and-one internet websites. I could the devote rest of this blog posting to the goal of encouraging us all to:

  •    Learn some legitimate relaxation techniques;
  •    Make sure we get enough physical exercise;
  •    Get ourselves organized;
  •    Stop procrastinating;
  •    Stop trying to prove our worth all the time;
  •    Stop trying to be the “savior” of every problem we hear about;
  •    Seek balance in our life;
  •    Etc.

Though I believe we would do well to engage in many of these stress-reducing endeavors, these things are not what I want to focus on today.

Today I simply want to remind you of the way the man—Jesus of Nazareth—dealt with stress and encourage you to follow suit.

First of all, here are some reasons why I believe that even though Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human and therefore susceptible to stress just like you and me:

  •       First, we know that Jesus was a very busy person who was constantly having to deal with people who wanted a “piece” of him:

 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. (Mark 3:20)

  •        Second, we know that Jesus knew what it was like to experience heaviness in his heart:

“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. (John 12:27)

  •       Third, we know of at least one occasion where the emotional and spiritual stress Jesus experienced became so great that he developed physical symptoms:

 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:44)

  •        Finally, the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus has experienced every temptation that you and I have to wrestle with (wouldn’t this include the temptation to cave in to stress?):

 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

 The bottom line is that, even though Jesus was the Son of God, he was still very much fully human. As a human, Jesus had to learn to deal with stress just like you and I do.

 And boy, did he!

 I love this quote by Henry Drummond:

Christ’s life outwardly was one of the most troubled lives that was ever lived; tempest and tumult, tumult and tempest, the waves breaking over it all the time. But the inner life was a sea of glass. The great calm was always there.

The big question we need to ask ourselves today is this: How did Jesus do it? What did Jesus do to overcome the negative effects of stress in his life?

I am about to show you a short but profound Bible verse that, taken seriously, could change your life. Are you ready? Here it is:

But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16)

It has been my personal experience (and I might add, the experience of hundreds of thousands of Christians over the last two thousand years, some of whom have written entire books about this matter) that the key to defeating the negative effects of stress, worry and anxiety in our lives is to learn to do what Jesus was in the habit of doing: getting alone with God so that we can pray about the stuff that’s causing us to be anxious.

I want to suggest to you that learning to pray—really learning to pray like Jesus did—will rock our worlds in many ways. One of the things it will do for us is to help us experience a relief from stress that we’ve never known before.

This is why the Apostle Peter wrote these words:

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

And why the Apostle Paul wrote these words:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. {7} And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

And why the Old Testament psalmist wrote these words:

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace. (Philippians 4:6-7)

So, could you use some supernatural strength and peace from the hand of God today? According to these powerful passages, we Christians have a secret weapon we can use to defeat the negative effects of stress. We can do what Jesus did: we can pray. We can develop the routine of getting along with God, pouring out our concerns to him so that he can press his divine strength and supernatural peace into us.

Again, are you really ready to experience some divine strength and supernatural peace? Are you really ready to lean on God a little bit?

Remember, John Henry … died!

Something to think about.

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Creation, Despite the Risk

Posted on 22, Oct

In his book Christianity 101 Gilbert Bilezikian endeavors to help his readers wrap their minds around the idea of the problem of evil, which, I want to suggest, might be stated thusly: If God is as good, big and dependable as the Bible suggests, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world he created?

Having suggested that a biblically informed response to this problem would have to take seriously the reality of the devil and the role of human freedom in bringing about much of the suffering that occurs on this planet, Bilezikian goes on to assert that as valuable as these biblical answers are, they don’t really address the question of why an omniscient God would proceed with creation, knowing that it would become ravaged with evil and that countless numbers of his creatures would doom themselves to eternal death.

So, Bilezikian suggests that the bigger question then is this: Why did God create free will, knowing that it would become self-destructive?

Here’s the bottom line according to Bilezikian:

“So, while acknowledging the fact that human responsibility is definitely involved in the existence of evil, we must honestly face the issue that God bears his share of responsibility for going ahead with the creation of a world that he knew to be corruptible. Fortunately, the Bible does not sidestep and ignore this formidable challenge. Two answers from its teaching and relevant to this issue are outlined below.

                The first answer has to do with the reason for creation. The accusation of cosmic sadism could be justifiably leveled at God if he had whimsically created a world with built-in corruptibility. However, as we discovered above, the world did not derive from a divine caprice, as if in the course of eternity, God had suddenly come upon the idea of creation and decided to put it into effect. Rather, we found that the disposition to create pertains to the very nature of God. Because he is love, God is by nature a giving God. When he gives, he is not content with giving galaxies, mountains and lakes, rocks and plants, fish, birds, and cattle. He irresistibly invests in his creation what is most precious to him: he gives himself by giving his own image. Because God cannot go against his own giving nature, he creates human beings endowed with the capacity to make decisions.” (p. 44-45)

“In other words, God neither willed evil nor did he create it. But because he by nature loves freedom and gives freedom, he was compelled by the necessity of who he is to give the very freedom that would turn against him and against itself. God is neither sadistic nor whimsical. Like a compulsive lover, he is outrageously giving to the point of creating beings whom he allows to function beyond his direct control.” (p. 45)

Bilezikian then asks: Was this irresponsible nevertheless?

His answer is: No, because . . .

                “The second answer provided by Scripture to the startling concept of divine responsibility in regard to the existence of evil is that God, lovingly and servant-like, accepted that responsibility and assumed it upon himself.” (p. 46)

                “The God who created the freedom that would turn against him in pride and rebellion also took it upon himself to come into the world as a baby and to grow up as a servant, perfectly subjected to the Father and submitted to humans to the point of dying at their hand. The God who created beings who chose evil and brought into the world sin, suffering, and death, also took it upon himself to defeat sin through the righteousness of the Son, to bear our suffering on the cross, and to overcome death in the victory of the resurrection. At infinite cost to himself, God initiated a redemptive program that required his own identification with humans at their lowest point. As a result, God is able to offer those who submit to him access to new personhood in Christ, inclusion in God’s new community, and deliverance from the eternal consequences of evil.” (p. 46)

Intrigued by Bilezikian’s line of thinking, I’m wondering if at least a part of a biblically informed treatment of the problem of evil doesn’t have to take seriously the concept of God’s fatherhood and the risk that all real parenting involves. Though I’m still musing on this matter, here’s what I’m thinking:

As C. S. Lewis has suggested, the God of the Bible is a triune God who is not only personal, he’s super-personal due to the fact that he exists eternally in an inter-personal relationship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is a sense, then, that the God who created the world should be viewed as hyper-personal and radically committed to a personal relationship with those he’s created in his image.

Indeed, the rest of the biblical story seems to suggest that, as a loving father, God’s ultimate goal is to spend eternity in fellowship with human beings who will love and trust him fully and forever.

Now the dynamic that inspires us humans to love and trust God is the experience of his love for, and faithfulness to, us.

The apostle John put is this way:

We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

The problem is, however, that the loving act of creation evidently wasn’t enough to inspire or inculcate within us human beings the kind of complete love and trust that would last for eternity.

We needed to experience more than creation in order to love and trust God fully; we needed to experience redemption as well—God’s coming after us sinful people, reconciling us to himself through the death of his much loved Son.

The apostle Paul put it this way:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) 

So, having witnessed this amazing, loving act of redemption, which cost God so dearly, our hearts can now be filled with an amazing ability to love and trust God in the way he deserves: fully and forever!

In other words, what if God always knew that his creating us wasn’t enough by itself to inspire us as free moral agents to choose to love and trust him for eternity?

What if God always knew that it would take the sacrificial death of his Son on our behalf to fully communicate to us just how much he loves us, and to inculcate within us the capacity to love and trust him fully and forever?

What if God created us as free moral agents knowing that: (a) his heart would be broken by our rebellion against his loving lordship; (b) his heart would be broken by the death of his Son on our behalf; and (c) his heart would be broken by the fact that there would be some people who would use their free moral agency in such a way as to never allow themselves to be inspired to love and trust their creator in the way he deserves?

And yet, God created us human beings with free will anyway.

He’s like all human parents who make the quality decision to bring kids into the world, knowing full well that their kids might either bless their socks off, or break their hearts (ruining their own lives in the process).

Maybe the truth is that we don’t refer to God as a Father because we’re projecting onto him an aspect of our reality; maybe our experience as parents who can’t help but create and love despite the risk mirrors his reality as an eternal, loving Father.  

Even the possibility that a triune God who exists as an eternal community—Father, Son, and Spirit—is so eager to have a real, deeply meaningful, fully free relationship with me that he created me knowing full well that for such a relationship to last for eternity he would have to suffer and die in order to inculcate within me the kind of love and trust such a relationship would require simply blows my mind. Doesn’t it yours as well?

What do we do with a God like this?

I suppose we could reject him and his attempt through both creation and redemption to woo us into an eternal relationship of love and trust. But why we do that? Wouldn’t such a response say more about us and the condition of our hearts than it would about him? And that brings us back to the issue of human free will and the role it plays in human suffering … our own included.

I realize that this line of thinking, as a work in progress, doesn’t answer every question we might have regarding the problem of evil. Still, I’d like to think that it might provide us with …

Something to think about.

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According to the news being reported this past week, President Obama and I have something in common: both of us have wives who are more popular than we are! 

I don’t know about the president, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that for a variety of reasons my wife Patti is always going to have more friends, make more of an impression, and draw more of a crowd than I. She is a lovely, lively and witty person who is simply fun to be around. I get it. 

What’s more, I love it! 

I not only love (and like) the person I’m married to, I love the fact that I’ve been privileged to be married to her. I love the difference she’s made in my life. What’s more, I love the difference that sharing life with her has made in me! (Hopefully, she feels much the same about being married to me!) 

This idea that a couple’s marriage can have a transformational effect upon the both of them is at the heart of a book that Patti and co-wrote entitled: Beyond the Bliss: Discovering Your Uniqueness in Marriage. In the introduction to this book we write: 

            To be sure, being married is a good thing; the Bible tells us so. Passages such as Genesis 2:18 and 2:24 teach us that God gave the institution of marriage to humankind in order to meet an innate need within each of us for a sense of intimate companionship. And yet, this doesn’t mean that just any experience of marriage will do. The Bible doesn’t encourage the practice of being married many times over the course of one’s life (see Matthew 19:9); neither should we think that simply being married a long time, by itself, guarantees that we are experiencing the good God intended the institution of marriage to produce in our lives. Unfortunately, nearly everyone knows of at least one couple whose long-lasting marriage was remarkably void of anything resembling real, genuine companionship. 

            So, at the very outset of this book, we want to make the bold assertion that it’s one thing to have a long marriage; it’s another to have a healthy one. Marriage has a purpose. Healthy marriages fulfill that purpose; unhealthy marriages don’t. 

The Purpose of Marriage

            So, what is the purpose of marriage? Knowing God to be a loving heavenly Father who desires our wholeness as well as our happiness, our hearts resonate with the purpose of marriage put forward by the Swiss medical doctor turned Christian turned psychiatrist—Paul Tournier—who said “That is what marriage really means: helping one another to reach the full status of being persons, responsible and autonomous beings who do not run away from life.”[1] In other words, the purpose of marriage is to help both partners in the relationship become fully human as God originally intended. 

            In a nutshell, this what this book is about: Our goal as authors is to help our readers cultivate truly healthy marriages that not only last a long time, but that serve to empower husbands and wives to become uniquely whole, responsible, spiritually mature human beings who do not run away from life. 

We go on in the book to talk about the inevitability of problems in life and how that the key to mental and spiritual growth is to lean into them instead of, in one way or another, always running away from them. Agreeing with M. Scott Peck that four life disciplines are the key to responding well to life’s inevitable problems, we endeavor to teach couples how they can use these biblically supported life disciplines to overcome the five big issues that cause many marriages to go off the rails: communication issues; division of responsibility issues, financial issues, in-law issues, and sexual intimacy issues. 

Though our marriage isn’t perfect, and I’m certainly not a perfectly whole, responsible, spiritually mature human being, I’m a much better man for having been married to Patti, and I’m not afraid to say so. 

I wonder if President Obama feels the same about his wife Michelle? If so, that’s two things we have in common!

How about you? Is your marriage transformational in character? Do you want it to be? It’s never, never, never too late (or too early) to start the cultivation of a marital relationship that can help both you and your spouse become better, more fully human, more Christlike people. 

Don’t settle for just being married a long time (as good a goal as this is). Shoot for a truly healthy marriage that fulfills the purpose God has invested in it. Then you too can have something in common with the president … and me.

Something to think about. 


[1] Paul Tournier, The Meaning of Persons (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1957), 146.

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Wrestling With the “Why?”

Posted on 19, Oct

On February 15, 1947, Glenn Chambers boarded a plane bound for Quito, Ecuador to begin his ministry in missionary broadcasting.  But he never arrived.  In a horrible moment, the plane carrying Chambers crashed into a mountain peak and spiraled downward. Later it was learned that before leaving the Miami airport, Chambers wanted to write his mother a letter. All he could find for stationery was a page of advertising on which was written the single world “WHY?” Around that word he hastily scribbled a final note. After Chambers’ mother learned of her son’s death, his letter arrived. She opened the envelope, took out the paper, and unfolded it. What she found was a precious note from her now dead son. But staring her in the face in the middle of the page was the question “WHY?”

That’s the question we inevitably wrestle with whenever we pass through a season of suffering. And that is evidently the question some Christians living in the first century were wrestling with as they found themselves being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, I want to suggest that since the goal of the devil is to cause Christians to defect from their faith, he uses all kinds of suffering in our lives in order to achieve this purpose. Thus, there’s a sense in which all undeserved suffering can be considered suffering for Christ’s sake.

The bottom line is that the book of the Bible we know as 1 Peter was evidently written to encourage a group of suffering Christians to hang in there—to stand firm in their faith, and in so doing to defeat the devil and inherit an eternal reward from the hand of God.

Why do we suppose that this was the ultimate purpose of this letter?

Well, this little letter has five short chapters in it. Can you guess how many times some variation of the word “suffer” appears in it?

18 times!

Understanding that the apostle Peter’s purpose in writing this little letter was to encourage some suffering Christians to hang tough in the face of adversity helps to explain why he begins the letter with a series of important reminders.

Presented in this first section of 1 Peter are some things that Peter’s readers must constantly keep in mind if they are to overcome the suffering that God has allowed to come their way.

In the first few verses of this little letter of encouragement written to some suffering Christians, I hear the apostle Peter making the following “Don’t you dare forget” statements:

  • Don’t you dare forget how special you are to God!

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, {2} who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. (1 Peter 1:1-2)

Peter refers to his readers here as those who are a part of God’s chosen people! It’s a wonderful thing to be “chosen,” to be “included” isn’t it?

The opposite of being chosen is being rejected.

There is probably no pain worse than the pain of rejection, and no greater joy than the joy of being chosen, included.

So, one of the first things that Peter does in this letter of encouragement is to remind his readers of how special they are to God; He has chosen them to be a part of his forever family.

  • Don’t you dare forget that for us Christians, this life is not all there is!

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, {4} and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, (1 Peter 1:3-4)

One of the great things about belonging to God’s forever family is the hope we have in our hearts that we will live with Him . . . forever! Just as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so shall we be.

Furthermore, the clear teaching of the Bible is that the reward we will experience in the age to come, the eternal inheritance we will receive as God’s children, is well worth any amount of pain and discomfort we suffer for Christ’s sake here and now. This is a well-rehearsed theme in the writings of the New Testament (e.g., see Romans 8:16-18; Matthew 5:11-12; 16:27).

And so, Peter wrote to these suffering Christians, encouraging them to hang tough. This life is not something we should throw away or spend foolishly, but neither is it all there is. Those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ know there is something more: the hope of resurrection and of eternal reward. This thought can and should encourage us when we pass through seasons of severe suffering for Christ’s sake!

  • Don’t you dare forget that as bad as things might seem to be at this present moment, you can rejoice that God is with you, shielding you from stuff that is far worse!

[you] who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. {6} In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:5)

Peter seems to be reminding his readers here of several things:

First, while it may seem that God is a million miles away while we are passing through our season of suffering, the fact is that He is really right there with us.

Second, while it may seem that our present level of suffering is as bad as it could be, the truth is that God is actually shielding us from some painful experiences that are worse than anything we could possibly imagine.

Third, we can rest confident in the knowledge that while there is a real devil out there who would love to have his complete way with us, God will never allow that to happen!

The Bible as a whole teaches us the comforting truth that we human beings do not live our lives at the mercy of mere chance or fate; instead, there is a God in heaven who is in complete control! The Book of Job in particular makes it very clear that the devil cannot do anything to God’s children that God doesn’t allow.

But then, this begs the question: why does God sometimes allow Satan to touch his people, the way he did Job?

  • Don’t you dare forget that there is a reason why God sometimes allows His people to experience trials and tribulations that are very difficult to endure!

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. {7} These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

There is an old saying that goes like this: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

This old proverbial saying is trying to communicate to us the idea that successfully enduring the trials and tribulations we experience in life has a way of making us better, stronger people. Not only does 1 Peter suggest that God uses experiences of suffering to test us—to make us stronger—other portions of God’s Word do as well:

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (Job 23:10)

For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. (Psalms 66:10)

The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart. (Proverbs 17:3)

See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 48:10)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, {3} because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. {4} Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? {8} If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. {9} Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! {10} Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. {11} No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7-11)

According to the passages cited above …

God’s great goal is not to make us happy in this life, but to get us ready for the age to come, to make of us real people—people who possess real faith, real hope, real love—the kind of people He can live in and with forever, the kind of people he can entrust his eternal kingdom to.

Evidently Peter assumed that his readers would be motivated and encouraged by the thought that God was at work in their lives precisely in the midst of their suffering.

  • Don’t you dare forget that it certainly is possible for you, despite your suffering, to continue loving and believing in a Jesus you’ve never seen, and to experience a remarkable, supernatural joy in the process!

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, {9} for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)

According to this passage, there is a grace we can receive from God that allows us to experience a special, profound sense of spiritual well-being despite the suffering we are experiencing at the time.

I’m not talking here about a mere acquiescence to, or a stoic acceptance of, painful circumstances.

I’m talking about a radical confidence in God’s love and plan for our lives that sets us free to experience a radical, inexplicable, irrational kind of joy.

In his book Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, the late Henri Nouwen wrote:

          I have a friend who radiates joy, not because his life is easy, but because he habitually recognizes God’s presence in the midst of all human suffering, his own as well as others’. … My friend’s joy is contagious. The more I am with him, the more I catch glimpses of the sun shining through the clouds. Yes, I know there is a sun, even though the skies are covered with clouds. While my friend always spoke about the sun, I kept speaking about the clouds, until one day I realized that it was the sun that allowed me to see the clouds.

          Those who keep speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky are messengers of hope, the true saints of our day.                                                                

I have met a few saints in my day—people who spoke of the sun while all I could see in their life was the clouds.

I want to become such a person. Don’t you?

The good news is that the apostle Peter says it’s possible.

I suspect that someday someone will stumble across this blog at a time in their lives when they will need to be made aware of the five “Don’t you dare forget” statements that I find Peter articulating in the introduction to his letter to some suffering Christians.

Are you that someone? Is this that time?

If so, I hope this reflection on what the apostle Peter had to say about suffering helps you, if only just a little, as you engage in your own wrestling with the why.

Be encouraged.

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The Yoke that Brings Rest

Posted on 18, Oct

In my book Defeating Pharisaism: Recovering Jesus’ Disciple-Making Method I devote a few pages to the task of helping my readers recognize how that Matthew, a skillful author in his own right, used the literary device of irony in the first four chapters of his Gospel to prepare his readers for the many ironies they will find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5 and runs through Matthew 7. (See Defeating Pharisaism, pp. 105-109.) While out walking this morning my mind latched onto yet another of the many ironies we find in Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. This one is found later in his Gospel in chapter 11. Here, read this irony-laden passage for yourself:  

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)  

Do you see the irony here: a yoke that brings rest to the one who bears it? Yokes don’t usually do this. Yokes usually mean hard work. Jesus’ yoke—his call discipleship—promises spiritual rest instead of hard, back-breaking, blister-forming labor.  

In another section of Defeating Pharisaism I address this same issue when speaking of the logistical setting of Jesus’ most famous sermon. I’d like to think that giving the following excerpt a careful reading might prove worthwhile:

             In a previous chapter we took note of the fact that many scholars believe Matthew’s reference to Jesus going up on a mountainside in order to teach was intentionally reminiscent of Moses receiving and issuing the Old Testament law on Mount Sinai. These scholars are convinced that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s story was to establish quickly and efficiently the authority of Jesus, Israel’s messianic king. Therefore, it is held that Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus assuming a Moses-like posture and then delivering a teaching that rang with a special sense of authority (Matthew 7:28–29) was filled with theological and rhetorical significance.[1] 

            If this is true, then we run into yet another occasion where Matthew’s story exudes a very strong sense of irony. However aware of the suggested rhetorical/theological significance of the Sermon’s hillside setting a typical first-century Jewish reader of this Gospel might have been, he or she would not have expected to hear Jesus do anything more than simply reiterate the highly venerated law of Moses. But what Jesus had actually come to do was to establish a new covenant altogether, a covenant that would differ significantly from the one that Moses had initiated. The difference between gospel and law is magnificent, as this quote from Carl Vaught indicates: “Moses went up onto a mountain where the first covenant came to focus in the first Law. Matthew, writing with Hebrew apologetic purposes in view, wishes to remind us of this fact, and thus he sketches a picture of Jesus going up onto a hillside to begin his teaching. However, this time what is at stake is a new covenant; on this occasion, what is involved is a new Law; in this context, what Jesus formulates is the Law the prophet Jeremiah mentions when he says: ‘One day I will write a new law on your hearts’ (Jeremiah 31:33).”[2] 

            Could it be that Matthew (and/or Jesus himself) did invest the hillside setting with this sort of New Covenant significance? If so, we need to recognize the tremendous importance of the teaching we are about to study and to approach it with the same sense of reverence, awe, and appreciation that, on their best days, earmarked the attitude of the ancient Jews toward the law of Moses. 

            And yet, in our case, the sense of reverence, awe, and appreciation with which we approach the Sermon is heightened by the fact that this teaching does not present us with laws written in stone which we must strive to obey in our own strength. No, a big part of what makes the New Covenant “new” (and different) is that an authentic, Spirit-empowered “reading” of the Sermon on the Mount is the process by which God writes his law upon our hearts, the means by which Jesus instills within his followers the grace necessary to actually discern and do the will of God. I am convinced that a sincere, prayerful study of this discipleship teaching, engaged in under the right circumstances (genuine Christian community), has the power to change us at the core of our being. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ way of planting the seed of kingdom life deep within those who have made the decision to follow him. This really is good news! 

Here’s the bottom line: the Christian life can’t be lived by us in our own strength. Only Jesus can live the Christian life. The good news is that his Spirit is available to help us do what we can’t. 

So, are you struggling rather than resting today, spiritually speaking? To be perfectly honest, I began my walk this morning with a sense of spiritual striving and existential angst in place. I finished my walk rejoicing that I don’t have to live the day in my own strength. By his Spirit, Jesus is here to help me. His yoke is easy and burden light. 

God’s irony is good! Right?  

Something to think about.  


[1] For example, see Sinclair Ferguson, The Sermon on the Mount: Kingdom Life in a Fallen World (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 6.  

[2] Ibid.

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Church, Why Bother?

Posted on 16, Oct

One of Philip Yancey’s most controversial works is his book Church: Why Bother? In this book, Yancey very honestly describes his frustrations with the church. In one passage he writes:

          Is church really necessary for a believing Christian? Winston Churchill once said that he related to the church rather like a flying buttress: he supported it from the outside. I tried that strategy for a while, after I had come to believe the doctrine sincerely and had committed myself to God. I am not alone. Far fewer people attend church on Sunday than claim to follow Christ. Some of them have stories similar to mine: they feel burned or even betrayed by a former church experience. Others simply “get nothing out of church.” Following Jesus is one thing; following other Christians into a sanctuary on Sunday morning is quite another. Why bother?

I want to suggest that, given the importance the Bible places on fruit-bearing, one of the biggest reasons why we need to belong to a community of faith is because it is only in the context of real Christian community that we are able to fully develop and employ our fruit-bearing potential.

 With this thought in mind, I encourage the readers of this blog to consider several crucial questions:

Has it occurred to you how important fruit-bearing is to God?

A careful look at what the New Testament has to say about fruit-bearing will certainly reveal this to be true.

  • First, in the Gospels we see Jesus telling stories to make the point that God was about to judge the nation of Israel because of their failure to bear fruit.  (Matthew 21:33-43; Luke 13:6-9)
  • Second, in the Gospels we also find Jesus telling stories to make the point that fruit-bearing was something he expected his disciples to do.  (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23)
  • Thirdly, we see Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, indicating that it is a person’s fruit-bearing that will reveal whether he or she is a true disciple. (Matthew 7:13-21)
  • Fourthly, just before his arrest and suffering, Jesus strongly encouraged his disciples to be careful to do that which was necessary to bear fruit. (John 15:1-8, 16)
  • Fifthly, it’s not just in the Gospels that we find references to the importance of fruit-bearing; we do so in the epistles as well. (Romans 7:4; Colossians 1:10; Philippians 1:9-11; James 3:17-18)

Have you ever really thought through what it means to for us to bear fruit in our walk with Christ?

I’ve discovered that while a lot of professing Christians can say they know that it’s important for them to bear fruit in their relationship with Christ, very few of them have a fully developed understanding of what this means.

Traditionally, there are three ways to answer this question:

  • First, “bearing fruit” means becoming more and more Christlike in the way we live or lives; learning more and more how to say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness (Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 5:8-11; Philippians 1:9-11).
  • Second, “bearing fruit” means engaging in good deeds—tangible acts of justice and compassion toward our fellow man (Isaiah 5:1-7; Colossians 1:10; Ephesians 2:10; Matthew 5:16; 1 Timothy 6:17-19;  1 Peter 2:12; James 2:14-26).
  • Third, “bearing fruit” means reproducing ourselves, making new disciples—winning other people to faith in and devotion to Jesus Christ  (Colossians 1:6; Mark 1:16-18; Matthew 28:19-20).

Could it be that bearing fruit for Christ calls for us to do all three of these things? In fact, could it be that all three of these understandings of fruit-bearing should be viewed as inseparable—three dynamics designed to function in a synergistic manner in order to produce a missional effect?  

In other words, if we succeed at making disciples—influencing other people to become fully devoted followers of Christ—it will probably be because we are learning how to live our lives in a Christlike way, and because we are seriously involved in the doing of good deeds that cause the folks around us to take our faith seriously!

This leads me to the third question I want to pose to you today:

Has it occurred to you that one of the main goals of whatever church you go to should be to help you bear fruit in your walk with Christ?

The great commission Jesus gave his followers in Matthew 28:19 calls for us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and then teaching them to obey everything he has commanded.

Based on this commission, it’s my belief that all churches should strive to function as disciple-making congregations in the business of helping people become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

But what does a fully devoted follower of Christ look like? What is he or she able to be and do?

During my pastoral ministry I worked hard at cooperating with the Holy Spirit and church elders and members to create an ecclesial environment where the following 12 core competencies could be acquired by those who belonged to our community of faith:

1.    An ever-increasing ability to cultivate and nurture a personal, intimate, dynamic relationship with God through the development of a daily devotional time involving such spiritual disciplines as Bible study, prayer and private worship.

2.    An ever-increasing ability to actually obey the Ten Commandments and the moral teachings of Jesus, especially those contained in his Sermon on the Mount.

3.    An ever-increasing ability to cultivate a healthy, functional family life that contributes to the spiritual nurture of fellow family members and provides onlookers with a winsome witness for Christ.

4.    An ever-increasing ability to represent Christ in the neighborhood, on the job and in the community in such a way as to edify fellow believers and to encourage the unchurched to take another look at the claims of Christ.

5.    An ever-increasing ability to explain and defend the Christian faith to those who are either curious or confused about its true meaning.

6.    An ever-increasing ability to lead convinced, convicted seekers into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and to help these new believers become established in their own Christian walk.

7.    The habit of attending church services on a consistent, regular basis, doing so not merely as a consumer/spectator but as a participant whose three-fold responsibility is to worship God, to encourage fellow believers in their walk with Christ, and to contribute to an environment that makes it easy rather than hard for spiritual seekers to connect with Christ and his church.

8.    The ability and willingness to discern and do one’s spiritual vocation—the special, unique way in which God wants to use the individual disciple to minister divine grace to fellow members of the body of Christ (service beyond the general call to encourage one another).

9.    A willingness to cheerfully provide consistent, generous prayer and financial support for the local church as it endeavors to make and mature disciples.

10.  A willingness to cheerfully provide consistent, generous prayer and financial support for the cause of world missions.

11.   A willingness to cheerfully provide generous financial support for the cause of worldwide hunger and disaster relief.

12.   A willingness to become personally involved in the local church’s compassion ministries to the poor and powerless living nearby, i.e., a commitment to pray and work to see justice done and mercy demonstrated in the name of the Lord.

Right or wrong, my assumption was (and is) that if church members were to actually develop these 12 core competencies, they would end up bearing a lot of fruit (all three kinds of fruit) in your relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is why I can say that one of the goals of whatever church you belong to should be to enable you to become a fruit-bearing follower of Jesus Christ.

Finally . . .

To what degree are you really cooperating with your church’s attempts to help you become a fruit-bearing follower of Jesus Christ?

Of course, this question assumes that you are currently participating in a community of faith.

Are you?

Here’s another excerpt from Philip Yancey’s Church: Why Bother? in which he essentially answers the question that functions as the title of his book:

           Christianity is not purely an intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community. Perhaps for this reason, I have never entirely given up on church. At a deep level I sense that church contains something I desperately need. Whenever I abandon church for a time, I find that I am the one who suffers. My faith fades, and the crusty shell of lovelessness grows over me again. I grow colder rather than hotter. And so my journeys away from the church have always circled back inside.

So, have your journeys away from the church always circled back inside?

I would put it this way: one of the biggest reasons why we should bother with the local church, and do so in a meaningful manner, because . . . we need the church in order to be really fruitful in our walk with Christ.

Fruit-bearing is important. A meaningful participation in a genuine Christian community is crucial to fruit-bearing.

You do the math.

Something to think about.

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