Mercy’s Effects

Posted on 28, Jan

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Dr. Gregory House (of the television series House) insists that people don’t change. Both the Apostle Paul and novelist Victor Hugo would disagree, though they would also insist that real life-change requires that we do something other than adopt a legalistic, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps approach that invariably results in an attitude of self-righteous judgmentalism toward others. (A terrible self-destructive and others-damaging attitude which, ironically, Dr. House seems to manifest quite often despite his atheistic disdain for all things religious!)

Is it really possible for people to change? What does it mean to become a holy person before God? How is this actually accomplished? How do we experience genuine life change without becoming arrogantly self-righteous and judgmental toward others? These are some crucial questions I want to address in this blog posting.

The protagonist of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, is a man named Jean Valjean, an escaped parolee whose life is radically changed for the good when he is shown mercy and grace by a kind, sincere, forgiving bishop of the Church. I want to suggest that Jean Valjean is meant to represent every sincere Christ-follower who has truly encountered and embraced the mercy extended to him or her through the cross-work of Jesus Christ.

But the story also has an antagonist, a policeman named Javert, who is so compulsive about seeing the law kept that he makes it his great mission in life to see Jean Valjean re-arrested and re-incarcerated for the rest of his natural life.

The irony is that near the end of the story, Jean Valjean shows his mortal enemy, Javert, the same mercy and grace that he himself was once shown by the Christian bishop.

But Javert is not like Jean Valjean. He represents those people in this world (and sometimes in the church) who simply cannot receive mercy or grace. So, rather than live his life with any sense of indebtedness to Jean Valjean, Javert decides to commit suicide instead.

So, in a sense, the story told in Les Misérables is all about this business of mercy and grace. What will we do with the offer of mercy presented to us in the Christian gospel? Will we allow an embrace of God’s grace to change our lives for the good, or would we rather die (or continue to behave in ways that are ultimately hurtful to ourselves and others) than be indebted to the mercy shown to us by Jesus Christ?

Like Les Misérables, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is likewise all about this business mercy and grace. Over and over again in the first eleven chapters of this missional missive, Paul advances the idea that the key to possessing a right relationship with God is not to try to earn this standing by trying really hard in our own strength to obey the dictates of the Old Testament law (rules and rituals), but to simply receive the mercy and embrace the grace made available to us because of Jesus Christ who perfectly fulfilled the law on our behalf.

Then, having spent eleven chapters hammering away at this theme, in chapters 12-14 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul begins to talk about the effects that this embrace of God’s mercy and grace will have in his readers’ lives. He boldly states here that if we have truly experienced the mercy of God, we will find ourselves empowered to live a radically different kind of life—a life that is truly pleasing to him!

This powerful section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans begins with these words:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. {2} Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

According to this passage, if we truly embrace God’s offer of mercy, experiencing his grace down deep in the core of our being, then we will find ourselves (like Jean Valjean) empowered to live our lives in a way that lines up with God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.

And what does God’s good, pleasing and perfect will look like? That, in a nutshell, is what Romans 12, 13 and 14 are all about. According to the Apostle Paul, if we’ve truly embraced God’s mercy and grace down deep in our hearts, we will find ourselves empowered to:

  • Use whatever gift(s) God has given us for the good of others and the cause of Christ (12:3-8).
  • Love people enough to speak truthfully to them about any ongoing sin still present in their lives (12:9).
  • Demonstrate genuine devotion to one another, honoring each other above ourselves (12:10).
  • Maintain a strong, unwavering sense of spiritual sincerity and intensity (12:11).
  • Manifest an amazingly consistent joy, hope, patience and prayerfulness despite the adverse circumstances that come our way (12:12).
  • Share our resources with each other as needs dictate (12:13).
  • Respond with blessing rather than cursing when people treat us unfairly (12:14).
  • Genuinely care for other Christ-followers, feeling their joy and pain along with them (12:15).
  • Be humble enough to cultivate genuine friendships with people whom society as a whole would not characterize as especially pretty, powerful or popular (12:16).
  • Simply let go of the insults and slights that come our way instead of feeling the need to get revenge every time someone does us wrong (12:17-19).
  • Actually respond with kindness and goodness to those who feel the need to treat us as their enemies (12:20-21).
  • Submit ourselves to the governing authorities: obeying laws, paying taxes and tolls, honoring leaders for their service to the community instead of constantly criticizing them (13:1-7).
  • Be careful to pay off bills and loans in a timely manner so that no one can accuse us of defaulting on a debt or taking advantage of a friendship (13:8).
  • Love our neighbors as ourselves by refusing to engage in any behavior toward them that we would not want them to engage in toward us (13:8-10). 
  • Focus more on becoming Christlike than on doing those things the world says are necessary in order to “have a good time” (13:11-14).
  • Learn how to live peacefully and non-judgmentally with other church members who disagree with us regarding certain worship, ministry and lifestyle issues (14:1-13a).
  • Always act in such a way as to try to edify fellow church members in their walk with Christ, even if this means laying aside our own “rights” in the process (14:13b-23).

Once upon a time, Jesus was asked his opinion regarding the most important commandment of the Law. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus responded by saying …

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ [38] This is the first and greatest commandment. [39] And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ [40] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Keeping the story of Les Misérables in mind, we should notice how that the list of mercy’s effects provided us by Paul in Romans 12-14 suggests that our embracing God’s grace will empower us to do precisely what Jesus instructs: love God and our neighbors in ways that are radical and practical at the same time!

For those who are concerned that an emphasis upon grace will lead to a lack of concern in the area of sanctification, the truth is that the effect of God’s mercy in one’s life is not to produce a sense of spiritual narcissism, entitlement, complacency, or sloth. To the contrary, an authentic embrace of divine grace serves as a powerful motivational force that is successful in producing genuine life change precisely because it emanates from within us via a transformed heart and a renewed mind.

In other words, yes, genuine life change is possible, but the key to becoming a more holy person is not legalism but grace. In point of fact, a legalistic approach to sanctification will make it impossible for us to become the loving people God desires us to be. In another passage, Jesus commented on the connection between our receiving mercy and our ability to extend it toward others. Speaking to a self-righteous, hard-hearted Pharisee, Jesus said:

. . .  he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

Again, the key to our becoming truly holy people—i.e., becoming more and more loving in our relationships with God and others—is for us to humble ourselves before Christ and gratefully receive his mercy and embrace his grace.

This was the case with the literary character, Jean Valjean. It has also proved true in the lives of many millions of Christ-followers throughout the history of the Christian church.

Then again, adopting the grace-rejecting (and ultimately self-destructing and others-damaging) legalism of the policeman, Javert, remains an option as well. But taking this futile approach will only serve to reinforce the cynicism of the Dr. House’s in our world. May all of us who name the Name humbly allow the Spirit of God to help us actualize Romans 12:1-2 in our lives!

Something to think about.

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A Theology of Uplifted Hands

Posted on 24, Jan

A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah. O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. {2} I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. {3} Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. {4} I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalms 63:1-4)

The psalmist David speaks here of being desperately thirsty for God’s presence and power in his life. Can you relate at all to this spiritual condition? Have you ever been desperately thirsty for more of God in your life? Are you there right now? If so, I encourage you to read on … and to do so with an open mind.

It’s with a desperate need for more of God at work in his life that the psalmist speaks of lifting up his hands. I want to suggest that while this prayer-and-praise posture can be one which a worshiper might assume in a thoughtless rather than thoughtful manner, it can be much more. The uplifting of our hands in praise or prayer can also function in a powerful, sacramental manner, helping us make a spiritual connection with the God we’re so desperately thirsty for.

That said, the theme of this blog posting is that maybe the lifting of our hands in prayer and praise is more important to our walk with God than even the most charismatic Christian ever imagined. Could it be that those of us who want more of God in our lives should be more careful than we might have been in the past to follow the lead of the psalmist and lift up our hands in praise and prayer?

This bold, perhaps provocative thesis is based upon the following observations:

First, the actual frequency with which the Bible refers to the devotional practice of lifting one’s hands is actually somewhat startling.

Here are some examples of biblical passages where the lifting on hands to the Lord is referred to:

When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the LORD, he rose from before the altar of the LORD, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven. (1Kings 8:54)

Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the LORD my God {6} and prayed . . . (Ezra 9:5-6)

Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” . . . (Nehemiah 8:6)

Hear my cry for mercy as I call to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your Most Holy Place. (Psalm 28:2)

When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. (Psalm 77:2)

. . . my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. (Psalm 88:9)

I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees. (Psalm 119:48)

I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah (Psalm 143:6)

Furthermore, in several places the Bible actually exhorts God’s people to be careful to engage in this particular devotional practice.

I have in mind here such passages as:

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD. (Psalms 134:2)

Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children . . . (Lamentations 2:19)

Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and    say . . . (Lamentations 3:41)

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

Finally, there is a fairly solid theological argument to be made for the idea that this particular devotional practice might function sacramentally, helping us experience more of God’s presence and power in our lives.

This theological argument runs like this:

First of all, we know that the attitude of our hearts is a crucial factor when it comes to prayer and worship.

A careful read of the scriptures indicates thats it’s not just any kind of prayer and worship that gets God’s attention and elicits His blessings. How we approach God will make a huge difference in our devotional experience.

  • According to 1 Samuel 2:30, God will only respond to those worshipers whose intent is to truly honor him:

“Therefore the Lord, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that your house and your father’s house would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained. (1 Samuel 2:30)

  • According to Jeremiah 29:13, we find God in prayer and worship only when we seek him with a deep sense of devotion and sincerity (if not desperation):

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

  • According to James 4:6-10, we succeed in receiving God’s grace only when we approach him with an attitude of genuine humility in place:

But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” [7] Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. [8] Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. [9] Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. [10] Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:6-10)

Secondly, keeping the passages just referred to in mind, it shouldn’t be difficult to see how the act of humbly lifting our hands toward God during prayer and worship can reflect the kind of heart-attitude God is looking for from His people.

Lifting our hands toward God during prayer and worship can have the effect of honoring Him while humbly demonstrating our desperation. It’s no wonder then that the Bible refers to this practice so often, and, in at least one place, suggests that it is tantamount to the offering of an acceptable sacrifice!

May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

Thirdly, there are passages in the Bible that suggest that God really does notice when His people do certain things during prayer and worship, and that He responds accordingly.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Do you remember how God responded with grace and mercy when Hezekiah turned his face to the wall with tears of repentance?

I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you…. (2 Kings 20:5)

  • Do you remember how God responded when he saw the repentance manifested by the king and people of Nineveh?

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

  • Do you remember the story of that famous battle between the people of Israel and the Amalekites that took place just after the people of Israel had escaped their Egyptian bondage? How Moses’ devotional posture seemed to make a difference in the outcome of the battle?

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. {12} When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up–one on one side, one on the other–so that his hands remained steady till sunset. {13} So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword…. {15} Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. {16} He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD….  ” (Exodus 17:11-16)

These are just three of many stories that seem to suggest to us that God sees and responds to the things we do when we approach him in prayer and worship. Could it be, then, that lifting our hands toward God in prayer and worship can be a way of signaling to him how desperately thirsty we are for his presence and power in our lives?

Well then, here’s my bold proposal: I am humbly suggesting that it’s possible for us to think of our lifting our hands to toward God during prayer and worship as a sort of sacramental action that, because of the heart-attitude it reflects, helps us experience God’s presence and power in a special way.

Here are some analogies that might help:

  • Raising our hands during prayer and worship is like hoisting a sail by which we can catch and be driven by the wind of the Spirit.
  • Raising our hands during prayer and worship is like raising an antenna that can help us tune in to God’s speaking voice.
  • Raising our hands during prayer and worship is like raising a banner that draws God’s attention to our situation and invites Him to fight our battle for us.
  • Raising our hands during prayer and worship is comparable to what a child does when it wants to be held, or what a lover does when he or she longs to be embraced, or what a friend does in order to signal welcome, acceptance or affection to another.

The bottom line is that perhaps, just perhaps, the practice of our raising our hands toward God during prayer and worship is more important to God and more helpful for us than we ever imagined.

Should we be more careful than might have been in the past to follow the lead of the psalmist and lift up our hands in praise and prayer?

Something to think about.

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No Country for Hopeless Men

Posted on 14, Jan

You will probably recognize the movie that begins with this voice over monologue:

I was sheriff of this county when I was 25 years old. Hard to believe.

My grandfather was a law man. Father too. Me and him was sheriffs at the same time; him up at Plano and me out here. I think he was pretty proud of that. I know I was.

Some of the old time sheriffs never even wore a gun. Lot of folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarburt never carried one (that’s the younger Jim). Gaston Borkins wouldn’t wear one up in Comanche County.

I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so. Cain’t help but compare yourself against the old-timers. Cain’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times.

There’s this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville: my arrest and my testimony. He killt a 14-year-old girl. Paper said it was a crime of passion, but he told me that they wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell; be there in about 15 minutes. I don’t know what to make of that. I surely do don’t.

The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But . . . I don’t want to push my chips forward . . . and go out and meet something . . . I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, I’ll be part of this world.

Without giving away too much, I’m going to offer that by the end of this movie, the sheriff making these observations (Ed Tom Bell) had decided that the changes coming upon the world were simply beyond his ability to understand, and that he wasn’t willing to be part of that world any longer. Hence the name of the movie: No Country for Old Men.

What kind of world might we expect to experience in the not-too-distant future according to the haunting story provided us by Cormac McCarthy and the Coen Brothers?

I want to suggest that it’s a world where there is no meaning or purpose: where everything that happens, good or bad, occurs by mere chance. It’s a world where the only moral rule is that there are no moral rules: a world where it seems that the amorality produced by philosophical nihilism has become a monstrous, relentless, unstoppable juggernaut that simply can’t be reasoned with.

In other words, it’s a world without hope!

Philosophical nihilism is the belief that we live in an essentially random world void any inherent meaning or purpose. In such a world, there’s simply no ground or foundation for a thing like hope. In fact, the great architect of philosophical nihilism—Friedrich Nietzsche—once said:

Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.

It appears that Nietzsche was a “the glass is half empty” kind of guy! Not exactly an optimist!

Of course, the starting point for Nietzsche’s philosophy of meaninglessness was the death of God. Since there is no God, said Nietzsche, there’s no inherent purpose to life, and therefore no reason to hope that good will prevail over evil in the end.

Contrary to Nietzsche, the biblical authors believed to the core of their being that God is there, that he is sovereign over the affairs of men, and that he has a plan for the planet. Thus, the biblical authors expressed a very different sentiment regarding the importance of hope. For the biblical authors, hope is huge!

According to the Bible, hope is not wishful thinking or a whistling in the dark. Biblical hope is a confident, enthusiastic sense of expectancy regarding the future. It’s a comforting confidence based on the rock-solid conviction that God is there, that he is in control, and that his benevolent purposes for humanity will most certainly be accomplished in the end.

This is why the Psalmist could say:

 I cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills his purpose for me. (Psalms 57:2)

This is why the author of the book of Proverbs could say:

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails. (Proverbs 19:21)

And this is why the prophet Jeremiah could say:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)

The bottom line is that the Bible contains multiple passages which encourage us to keep hoping in the Lord no matter what crud comes our way during this life.

Perhaps the most famous of these hope-encouraging passages is this one from Isaiah’s prophecy:

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. [29] He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. [30] Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; [31] but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:28-31

Finally, this also explains why, near the end of his monumental letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

Do you see the stark contrast between the biblical authors and Nietzsche the philosopher regarding the value and importance of hope?

This begs the question: whose estimation should we trust?

A prominent Jewish psychiatrist named Victor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. He was stripped of everything—property, family, and possessions. He had spent years researching and writing a book on the importance of finding meaning in life—concepts that later would be known as logotherapy.

But when he arrived in Auschwitz, even his manuscript, which he had hidden in the lining of his coat, was taken away.

Frankl would later write:

I had to undergo and overcome the loss of my spiritual child. Now it seemed as if nothing and no one would survive me; neither a physical nor a spiritual child of my own! I found myself confronted with the question of whether under such circumstances my life was ultimately void of any meaning.

Frankl was still wrestling with that question a few days later when the Nazis forced the prisoners to give up their clothes. He describes the experience this way:

I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber…. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the main Jewish prayer, ‘Shema Yisrael’ (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.)

Frankl became convinced that this was no mere chance occurrence—God was reaching out to him, offering him spiritual strength in the midst of his horrendous trial. It was at that point that Frankl made the decision to not let go of his hope that, despite his circumstances, there was still meaning and purpose in his life.

Later, as Frankl reflected on his ordeal, he wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. . . . He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’.

Did you hear that?

He who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how.”

Mark it down: hope is huge! A sense of that our lives are pregnant with divinely conferred meaning and purpose is critical!

And yet, if movies like No Country for Old Men are any indication, people in our world are losing hope, surrendering to the idea that chance and fate rule our lives, and that trying to live a moral life is a fool’s errand. One way of interpreting No Country for Old Men is as a message of warning: the effect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of nihilistic despair is coming, growing, expanding, and there’s no stopping it!

It’s into a world that is rapidly losing any foundation for hope that Jesus wants his fully devoted followers to function as spiritual salt and light!

Will we do this? Will we be the salt and light that Jesus has called and equipped us to be? Will we, like salt, confront the moral and spiritual decay that philosophical nihilism is promoting in our world? Will we, like light, chase away the moral and spiritual darkness by helping hurting, confused people (like Sheriff  Ed Bell) see just how real the risen Christ is, and why we must never, ever, ever give up hope?

I love this quote from a pastor named Kirbyjon Caldwell:

There are two great moments in a person’s life: the moment you were born and the moment you realize why you were born.

Do you know why you were born? Have you figured that out yet?

Remember, a person who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how.” If we are truly convinced that our lives have a sense of holy purpose attached to them, then it doesn’t matter how despairing our culture might become, or what crud God in his sovereignty allows to come our way. We can stand firm in the faith, never at a loss for hope, always possessing a capacity for love, truly and lastingly making a difference in this world for God.

Poor Sheriff Bell!

I wish he had known the reality of Christian hope. If he had, maybe he’d still be trying to make a difference in this scary new world too.

Something to think about!

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It goes without saying that leadership is important, vital even, to the health of any group of people, and the success of any endeavor. What I want to stress here is the idea that the attitude with which we approach the task of leadership is also crucial. If we think of leadership as bossism we will treat those we are seeking to lead in a way that, despite any apparent short-term success, will ultimately prove to be less than effective (even by human standards) and will, more importantly, lack divine approval.

Some time ago I ran across the following quote from an anonymous source that strives to demonstrate the difference between a boss and a leader:

The boss drives his [or her] men [or women]; the leader coaches them. The boss depends upon authority; the leader depends upon good will. The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires confidence. The boss creates resentment; the leader creates enthusiasm. The boss says, “I”; the leaders says, “We.” The boss assigns the task; the leader sets the pace. The boss gives orders; the leader gives assistance. The boss fixes blame; the leader fixes problems. The boss knows how; the leader shows how. The boss pushes people; the leader persuades people. The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes work interesting. The boss gets compliance; the leader gets cooperation. The boss says “Get going!” The leader says “Let’s go!” The boss builds machines; the leader builds people.

The fact is that bossism abounds in the world today, even in Christian organizations. The question is: Should it? Is bossism biblical? What kind of leadership is it that God is looking for?

The main metaphor the Bible uses to describe the work of the leader among God’s people is that of shepherd rather than boss or drover (a person whose occupation is the driving of sheep or cattle, especially to and from market).[1] Indeed, in Psalm 78:70-72 we find what I believe is a reference to the kind of leadership God applauds:

He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; [71] from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. [72] And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:70-72)

I’m struck by what this passage implies to be true of effective leadership. On the one hand, it is an art—certain skills are involved. But there’s a moral component as well: we lead out of who we are; character counts; morality matters. I certainly don’t wish to imply that skills aren’t important. It’s just that even bosses can possess some leadership/managerial abilities. This leads me to wonder if one of the biggest differences between a drover and a shepherd, a boss and a leader, isn’t the condition of the person’s heart.

Integrity of heart. If the life of King David is any measure, we’re not talking about moral perfection. Because we’re human, ethical missteps will occur… now and then. What’s at issue isn’t an impeccable track record, but a genuine and enduring commitment to do the right thing over the course of one’s life. As it relates to Christian leadership, an integrous heart manifests itself in a rock solid determination to lead God’s people, day in and day out, in a way that is pleasing to God. To be more precise, I would suggest that to possess a heart of integrity as a Christian leader is to refuse the temptation to compromise one’s core values or ethical principles for the sake of personal aggrandizment, or even the “success” of the organization. To be even more precise, I believe it is incumbent upon Christian leaders to reject the idea that it’s okay to hurt God’s people in order to accomplish God’s mission. Instead, we must recognize that God’s people are the mission. Thus, it’s never okay to “break a few eggs” in order to make the proverbial omelet! 

Over the years I’ve heard many disturbing accounts related by brothers and sisters in Christ who were devastated by the actions of supposedly Christian leaders. If one were to judge by these terribly sad stories, it would be easy to conclude that it’s rare to find a Christian leader who possesses both skillful hands and integrity of heart. Of course, we know this isn’t the case. There are many Christian leaders whose lives are earmarked by both of these crucial leadership attributes. On the other hand, it’s equally true that some leaders of Christian organizations do seem to possess only one or the other of these attributes, and, evidently, a few possess neither! (I say this knowing full well that some of the people I’ve led over the years might include me in one of the negative categories just referred to!)

If it’s true, as some experts suggest, that “leadership is everything,” then there’s nothing more important to a Christian community than good, godly leadership, and nothing worse than mere bossism. At the end of the day, I would suggest that while the body of Christ can live with leaders who aren’t at the genius level when it comes to the skills involved in influencing the members of the organization for the sake of the common good (though this is a shame), it should be considered completely unacceptable for God’s people anywhere to be led by anyone who doesn’t possess a heart of integrity. Perhaps the distinction between boss and leader doesn’t fully capture the kind of abjectly hypocritical leadership I have in mind. That said, it’s my contention that that one of the greatest needs at this time in the history of the Christian church is for to God raise up for his people a multitude of skillful and morally sensitive leaders who will function as shepherds rather than drovers, and to remove from Christian leadership anyone who really doesn’t possess integrity of heart.

By the way, I assume we all know that we should be praying for our leaders. Right?  Hopefully, we now have a better idea of how to do so.   

Something to think about.

[1] “Drover,” The Free Dictionary (January 5, 2011) <>.

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Hope for the Hard Hearted

Posted on 3, Jan

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)

This verse came to mind recently as I listened to a radio talk show. The host of the program had boldly indicated his belief in God. People were calling in, arguing this point back and forth.

One phone call in particular captured my interest. The caller boldly identified himself as a committed atheist. He heaped scorn and ridicule upon the talk-show host because of his faith in God.

The talk show-host responded by indicating that it was difficult for him to understand how people could not believe in God. He kept hammering the atheist caller, asking him over and over again: “If there is no God, where did our universe come from?”

The atheist wouldn’t answer the talk-show host’s question. Instead, he kept saying “I don’t care how the universe came into being. I don’t care! I don’t care! I don’t care!” In other words, the atheist caller had his mind made up and he wasn’t interested in a genuine dialogue.

What do you do when you find yourself talking about spiritual issues with someone who already has their mind made up? How do you share your faith with someone who possesses a hard heart toward the things of God and simply isn’t open to any sort of change in this area of his or her life? Do you keep hammering away? Do you give up? Or is there something else you can do?

I suspect that many of us may be facing this kind of situation right now. Perhaps you have parents who aren’t believers and don’t seem to be very open to your attempts to share your faith with them. Perhaps you have kids who’ve wandered away from the faith and now seem hard hearted toward it. Perhaps you have co-workers whose foreheads are like flint; all your best apologetic arguments just seem to bounce off in various directions. Perhaps you have some very good friends that you’d love to see come to Christ, but you’re beginning to wonder if they’ll ever do so. Perhaps you’re married to someone who doesn’t share your faith in Christ and has made it crystal clear that he or she is not interested in doing so.

I have some good news for us all today: There’s something we can do when we find ourselves dealing with people with hearts that are hard toward the things of God.


Allow me to explain.

In his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) Jesus is discipling his followers: teaching them how to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world; teaching them how to become the kind of people who can help other human beings connect with God.

In Matthew 7: 1-2 Jesus warns his followers not to become judgmental, holier-than-thou folks who look down their noses at people and write them off as being unreachable:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. {2} For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)

Then, in Matthew 7:3-5, Jesus encourages his followers not to become “fixers,” people who rush into other people’s lives and try to fix them without first taking care of their own issues:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? {4} How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? {5} You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5)

In other words, when it comes to effectively sharing one’s faith, the manner in which we do so matters!

With this thought in mind, Jesus seems to go on in verse 6 to indicate that there are some folks who simply aren’t going to give the gospel a fair hearing no matter how careful we are about how we share it with them. When this is the case, Jesus seems to be saying, it’s useless to keep hammering away at them.

“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)

Now let’s be clear about the fact that Jesus isn’t suggesting here that people who don’t believe in the gospel are “pigs” and “dogs.” He’s simply using these animals to illustrate the fact that it doesn’t do any good to try to give something valuable, like the gospel, to people who don’t appreciate what it is you’re trying to do.

Well then, what do we do when we find ourselves in this situation? Do we just give up: wash our hands of these folks, assuming that they will never be able to get it, that they will never be able to understand and appreciate the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ?


Take a look at the very next couple of verses:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. {8} For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

These two famous verses were intended by Jesus to underscore the value and power of prayer.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Right after he encourages his disciples not to keep relentllessly sharing the gospel message with folks with obviously hardened hearts—Jesus begins to talk about the value and importance of prayer.

The implication seems to be this: There is something we can do when we find ourselves dealing with people who don’t seem to be able or willing to even consider the possibility that the gospel about Jesus Christ might just be true.


Support for this idea is provided, I believe, by a passage penned by the apostle Paul—a passage that suggests that a person’s hardened heart (or blinded mind) might actually be caused by a will other than his or her own.

In 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 Paul writes:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. {4} The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

According to this interesting passage, it’s possible that the reason why some people don’t get the gospel is because they are spiritually blind—the evil one having put a veil over their spiritual eyes so that they are unable to recognize who and what Jesus Christ really is.

Of course, we also read in the Bible that God is not willing that anyone should perish, but that everyone would respond in faith and come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

The implication is that:

Sometimes the only way we are going to be able to effectively share the gospel with some hard-hearted folks is by engaging in a thing called spiritual warfare! In other words, before some people will ever be able to recognize the truth of the gospel, we will need to pray, asking God to remove the veil that the devil’s placed over their spiritual eyes.

Does this thought scare you or give you hope? I hope it’s the latter.

The bottom line of this blog posting is this: There’s something we can do to help heretofore hard-hearted people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Instead of continuing to keep hammering away, or giving up …


Hey, it’s at least worth a try, isn’t it?

Something to think about.

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Got Hope?

Posted on 1, Jan

We all know that the virtues of faith and love are important to Christians, but the virtue of hope is huge for us too! In his famous and powerful letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul wrote:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

Now, for sure, Paul wanted his readers’ hearts to be filled with faith and love—the rest of the letter makes that clear. But this passage near the epistle’s end also makes clear that Paul wanted their hearts to be filled with . . . hope.

This makes sense. Psychologists and theologians tell us that it’s very, very important for our hearts to be filled with hope. English politician and writer, Joseph Addison, once observed:

The grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.

The assertion has also been made that …

“Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope”

Mark it down, folks:

The human heart runs on the fuel provided by the experience of hope!

The “God is Dead” philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that … “[i]n reality, hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man’s torments.” Then again, Nietzsche went on to die in an asylum for the insane. While no one can prove that Nietzsche’s lack of hope made him go mad, one wonders.

All this to say that it’s no wonder that the Apostle Paul was so very eager for the readers of his letter to the Romans to be filled to overflowing with the hope given by God’s Holy Spirit—a hope grounded in the reality of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Hope is huge!

Christian hope is the real deal.

Got hope?

I hope so. In fact, I’m praying right now for everyone who reads this posting:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Something to think about.

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