More Spiritual than God Part Three: Too Spiritual to Pray

Many who approve of prayers of adoration begin to squirm when we talk about petitionary prayers or prayers that intercede for others. For some, rejecting petitionary prayer is a way of exalting the sovereignty of God. If God is in control of all things through his meticulous providence, why pray for Him to do something specific? After all, we can’t suggest something God hasn’t considered. And if God is in control of all things, can’t we just let His plan unfold? Yes, it may look like some possible outcomes are evil or at least unwanted, but who are we to question the will of God by asking God for something else? Our prayers, some would say, should just be prayers of praise and thanksgiving for God governing all things according to his sovereign will.

Others object to intercessory prayer to exalt the love of God. God is love, so will our prayers for someone else move God to love them more? Will God do some loving thing for someone just because we prayed? Will God withhold a loving act of help or healing just because we didn’t pray? It is God’s essence to love, so how can our prayers make Him love or do more? If we really trust in God’s love, why pray?

Sometimes people express the idea this way: “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us”. Prayer certainly does change us and the character of God is certainly unchanging, but the idea that God does not act in response to our prayers is simply unbiblical. Even the idea that prayer changes us can be problematic if we think God is sovereignly at work in shaping our character. Do we dare suggest that God needs us to pray so that His will is done within our spiritual growth? Can’t God simply do in us what He wills?

Isn’t it more spiritual to simply surrender to the sovereignty of God and accept all things as from his hand? Well, no. This is the opposite of what Jesus taught about prayer. Again and again, he tells his disciples to ask. In the parable of the widow and judge (Luke 18), Jesus emphasizes being persistent in petitionary prayer. And of course, Paul prayed for God to do things for each of the churches addressed in his epistles. Paul also asked the churches to pray for him. Asking seems to matter.

However, a responsive God leaves us with the uncomfortable reality that some things will not happen unless we or others pray. This can be, in some ways, terrifying and other ways exhilarating. God, it seems, wants to partner with us in the work of the kingdom. God seeks our help because in our prayers we become more like Jesus. Petitionary prayer keeps us in relationship with a loving God who seeks to work with and through His people. Like a loving Father teaching a child how to do chores, God patiently uses our prayers and our obedience to accomplish HIs purposes. Like the good father, God does not need our help. This partnership with us in the labors of the kingdom is one of God’s most important goals—a goal He can achieve only if He chooses not to do everything apart from our prayers. We co-labor now with God so that we are trustworthy and equipped to reign with Him in the age to come.

Many of Paul’s exhortations to pray and stay alert are in response to us having a very real enemy who seeks to destroy us. Intercessory prayer can be entered before God as evidence and as an argument for mercy. Satan is the “accuser of the brethren,” and demands God judge sin. In response to intercession God will sometimes show mercy. After Moses interceded for Israel, we are told, “So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people” (Exodus 32:14). Many have a hard time with this verse and inject a lot of explanation to avoid the obvious meaning. Was God just “kidding” when said he would destroy them? Was God just testing Moses to see if Moses would intercede? Or maybe God is relational and actually responded to the intercession of Moses—like the verses say.

Yes, a life not burdened with petitionary and intercessory prayer would be easier—and can be passed off as more spiritual. Prayer wears me out. I get disappointed and frustrated when my prayers aren’t answered when and how I desire. And many of the prayers involve people who, it appears, have the free-will to resist God and break my heart. So I pray for people, not certain how much my prayer helps.

I wish in one lovely prayer I could give all things into God’s hands and stop asking Him to save people, heal people, protect people, and help people. But God’s Word and His Spirit won’t let me. They have conspired to make me live like Jesus who once said to Peter, “I have prayed for you” (Luke 22:32).

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More Spiritual than God Part Two: Too Spiritual for the Gifts

Believers come up with several very spiritual sounding reasons for not caring about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the most spiritual sounding is “I am seeking the Giver, not the gifts.” It wrongly suggests that we can do one without doing the other. Both the salvation and the Holy Spirit are called gifts. Imagine refusing these gifts because you cared more about the giver! The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the result of the indwelling presence of God himself through the Spirit. To restrict the presence of the Holy Spirit with an apathetic approach to His gifts is an insult to both the gifts and the giver.

Some declare that they care more about fruit of the Spirit than the gifts of the Spirit. This certainly sounds humble and noble, but is misunderstanding (often willfully) a multiple-choice question. The real answer is all-of-the-above. The Holy Spirit can give us the mind of Christ through wisdom, the character of Christ through the fruit of the Spirit, and the ministry of Christ through the gifts. It is both/and—not either/or. God’s people are meant to walk in both the power and purity of the Holy Spirit. If the enemy can’t get us to reject, the Holy Spirit completely, he will make us think we must choose between all the Spirit offers.

Another very spiritual objection to the gifts of the Spirit is that we do not need the supernatural, signs and wonders to support our faith. “Thank God,” some say, “that my faith is strong enough to survive without seeing God heal people or do the miraculous.” I actually heard a fellow professor at a Christian college give this as the reason she didn’t want to have the gift of healing. She completely missed Paul’s point about all the gifts being for the edification of others. The gift of healing is for those who need to be healed—not to build the faith of the gifted. Ultimately, apathy about the gifts is a failure to love those who could be encouraged, healed, or guided by those exercising the gifts in love.

The last spiritual reason for ignoring the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a passive surrender to the sovereignty of God. It is expressed this way: “I am open to God giving me the gifts of the Spirit anytime He sovereignly decides to impart them to me.” We would not, however, accept this logic when applied to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Instead we would exhort believers to grow in holiness by nourishing the presence of the Holy Spirit with all the help of the spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, Scripture, fellowship and radical obedience. Paul’s own transition from chapter thirteen to chapter fourteen of I Corinthians shows we need not choose between love and the gifts of the Holy Spirit: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Love should nourish our desire for the gifts.

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More Spiritual Than God (Part One)

Of course, we can’t be more spiritual than God. We can, however, in the pretense of being spiritual reject solid Biblical truths about God and God’s ways. We sometimes clothe these rejections in humility, but this hyper-spirituality robs us of all the spiritual fruit that these truths ought to bear in our lives. Thinking ourselves spiritually rich, we impoverish ourselves.

Part One: Too Spiritual to Care about Heavenly Reward?

I have often heard people say, “I don’t care about heavenly reward; I will be happy if I just make it into heaven. Just being with Jesus will be enough.” This sounds very humble and spiritual, right?

Yet, Jesus tells his followers again and again that they should care about heavenly reward—so much so that when persecuted they can rejoice because their “reward in heaven is great” (Matthew 5:12). When explaining why we should love our enemies, Jesus points out that we have no reward if we love only those who love us (Matthew 5:46). Jesus also warns that those who serve God to be seen have their reward in full, but those who serve God secretly will be repaid by God. In same part of Matthew 6, Jesus urges believers to lay up treasures for themselves in heaven. Why would Jesus tell us to seek after heavenly reward if doing so makes us less spiritual?

Paul also cared intensely about heavenly reward and speaks of the importance of work that can pass the test of fire and be revealed as having eternal value (I Corinthians 3:13). Paul says that after fighting the good fight, he will be awarded a crown of righteousness that has been laid up for him (II Timothy 4:8). In his letter to the Philippians Paul declares that he presses on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). It is silly to think not caring about heavenly reward can make us more spiritual than Paul.

What is heavenly reward? In the parables of Jesus (the talents and minas), Jesus declares that those who are faithful in little will be entrusted with much. In Matthew it says the faithful will be trusted with many things (25:22). In Luke’s version of the parable those who were faithful were put in charge of cities (19:17). In both parables the servant who failed to invest and use the money given him was called worthless and lazy. Our crown of glory is having become a servant that God can trust with big things because in this life we have been faithful in little things. Our reward will be reigning with Christ over a new heaven and new earth.  Pretty cool! Much better than sitting on clouds with harps.

Many believers, however, never think about heavenly reward. Heavenly reward should be so real that we rejoice in persecution and are set free to love even our enemies. Too many churches are looking for only the rewards in the here and now–all the accepted signs of success. An eye toward heavenly reward should free the church from an idolatry of results and the tyranny of cost/benefit analysis.

When our treasure is in heaven we are free to invest in people and causes that will never pay-off in the economy of earth. The practical result of caring about heavenly reward is gritty faithfulness and trustworthiness. It is extravagant generosity with our time and resources toward those who can never pay us back. We must be heavenly-minded enough to be of some earthly good.

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Down with Bottoms!

We have probably all heard, especially regarding addicts, “They just need to hit rock bottom before they will get better.” Often, this idea is applied to people more generally. Sometimes we say of young people, “They are just sowing their wild oats.” Or we say, “They are enrolled in the school of hard knocks.”

Sometimes these ideas become reasons for not helping people and thereby guaranteeing they reach the bottom sooner. I am against any line of thinking that encourages people to hit the bottom before turning away from sin, bondage, and selfishness. I also oppose letting people hit rock bottom when it is in our power to help, intercede, and love. Yes, there will always be people who will not flee the house of sin until it is on fire, but I will always be banging on their doors and catching them when they jump from the windows.

First, we must admit that rock bottom for some, especially addicts, is fatal. In 2017 over 70,000 people in the United States died of over-doses. If we withhold help until they have hit rock bottom, it may simply be too late. No addict is bouncing back from the bottom of a grave.

But even if not fatal, hitting the bottom can be terrible, filled with irreversible consequences. The bottom can be prison and a felony record. It can mean the loss of children put into foster care. The end of family. Some hit rock bottom and live there for years—sleeping under bridges after spending each day panhandling.

True, some people clamp onto sin like a pit-bull with a bone. They will not let go until consequences hit them up the side of the head with a bat. But I think it arrogance for us to think we know who these people are or exactly what constitutes rock bottom for them. I believe that is best left to God. Often the addiction is not the disease but the symptom of rejection and pain. Letting them hit the bottom hard may cure their addiction for a while but not address the disease best treated by a revelation of Jesus’ love, sacrifice, and acceptance. I think this is why rehab often fails to help so many addicts.

I don’t, however, ever want my help to enable a person to stay in their addiction or continue down a sinful path of destructive behavior. I can’t and shouldn’t remove every speed-bump God puts on the road to hell. On this road, I want a role somewhere between roadkill and spectator. I will put on the orange vest, grab a flashlight, set out some cones, and direct people to the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus. However, too often our fear of enabling is just an excuse for not giving or loving in a way that makes us vulnerable.

Life is short. The devil is a liar. Sin hurts everyone—and teaches us nothing God can’t teach us better with love, gentleness, and grace. Love intercedes without enabling and keeps pointing to Jesus. At any and every moment we must say, “Jesus saves us and sets us free.”

We need a case of holy “carpe diem”. Down with bottoms! Let’s seize the day for Christ. Today, before we hit the bottom, is the day of salvation. Down with getting our act together before we come to Christ.

Up with grace. Up with the steadfast, inexhaustible lovingkindness of God that leads us to repentance before we hit the bottom.

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I’m Sad, But That’s Okay

I have been sad for months. My sadness has made me impatient with worship songs that insist I be happy. I heartily sing, and believe, the songs that celebrate all that God has given me: forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. These are mine through the lavish grace of Jesus. Yet, I recently found it hard to declare, “It is well with my soul.”

It is, of course, well with my soul. And if all my happiness depended only on me and the condition of my soul, I could sing. But I am broken and fragile. I have seen a brother in Christ fall back into drugs, sin, and now prison. People I love are self-destructing. I have seen relationships and marriages blow apart—dreams shatter. My community is full of drug abuse, domestic abuse, theft, and broken families. Our church limps along even though longing to have an impact on the community. I should be sad.

It is a weird and ironic truth that I would be a more joyful Christian if I cared less about others. This may not be saying much, but I am probably as spiritually strong as I have ever been. I am abiding in God’s Word and consistent in prayer. But I have never shed so many tears. All this, however, does not fit the standard description of the victorious Christian life.

My response to a lot of contemporary Christian songs about God keeping us through the storm is, “Yes, yes, I know, but it’s not all about me and my salvation.” What about my family and friends that are not saved? Can we talk about them—their current misery and eternal fate? What about the suffering of kids whose parents are incarcerated for selling meth? By the way, the band Offspring has a song titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright” that perfectly expresses many of the sources of my sorrow. What about believers who have fallen away?

Of course, some well-intentioned friend will clobber me with Paul’s words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:1). This is, however, the same Paul who said, ” Telling you the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience is bearing witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish myself accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is so sad he would give up his own salvation if it would bring his fellow Jews to faith in Christ. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was described in Isaiah 53 as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. One of our least understood beatitudes may be, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The promise is comfort—strength that comes alongside—not the removal of the things we mourn.

So what is the outcome? We are indeed to rejoice always—but in the Lord. Paul rejoiced always while having unceasing grief for others. In Jesus Christ I am wonderfully and eternally blessed, and I can declare Jesus worthy of all praise, glory, and honor. But in this broken world, I will weep and intercede for others.

Yes, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). But this does not mean all things are good; it means only that God is able to bring good from even truly evil things. God may use a woman’s sexual assault to equip her to help other women find healing—but this in no way means we shouldn’t mourn or regret her assault. A lifetime of abusing drugs can be used by God as a testimony to God’s ability to save and restore the most damaged life, but we can still mourn that the addict didn’t raise his or her children and wasted years in sin and prison.

Yes, both Jesus and James talk about rejoicing when faced with persecution and various tests of our faith. Jesus says, “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” Matthew 5:12. James echoes this, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Some will cite these verses as evidence we should be happy about all things. But I believe Jesus and James are both talking about persecution for the sake of Christ.  Paul speaks of the privilege of being counted worthy to suffer for Christ. There are, however, some things we should mourn rather than celebrate.

We should not “consider it all joy” when those we love say no to the light and yes to the darkness, and walk away from Jesus. We should not rejoice in the suffering of the innocent. We should not rejoice over injustice to others. We should not rejoice in the destruction of marriages and families that leave so many wounded for so much of their lives. We should not rejoice that the church in many places has little impact on their communities and is being abandoned by many believers. The healing ministry of Jesus suggests we should not rejoice over sickness, but rather seek God’s healing touch. We can rejoice in strife that poisons and divides the Church. However, we should always find joy in the love of God.

In fact, the more joyful our own experience of Jesus, the deeper our sorrow for those who refuse to find rest, peace, and healing in His arms. It is our joy and security in God that empowers us to look steadily at the misery of the world and weep over it with the tears of God. We need not escape this sorrow through shallow religious clichés about God being in control. God does not always get his way. The Bible says God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” II Peter 3:9. Unless we are universalists that believe in the end all are saved, we must confess that God is not going to get what he desires—some will refuse to repent and be lost. This is sad.

The dangers and consequences of sin are real—the choices are real. Jesus says of Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold your house is being left to you desolate.” Notice it is not God that was unwilling.

Paul greatly feared that people would forsake the gospel and it might turn out that all his labor was in vain. A failure to bear fruit should worry and sadden us—and drive us to repentance and intercession. Jeremiah wept over the coming judgment and exile of God’s people. Daniel wept over the captivity of Israel. Nehemiah wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Loving God’s people means weeping for them.

I suspect the call to be simultaneously filled with sorrow and joy is  merely a call to maturity.  It is humbling, and honestly, embarrassing that only now I am realizing I must do both at the same time and not ride the emotional roller-coaster from joy to sorrow. It is a call to live in the midst of a spiritual and emotional paradox. It is, I think, a call to be like Jesus.

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Peter, Jesus, and Church Kids

The story of Peter and Jesus breaks my heart and gives me hope. Peter, like a lot of church kids, was full of promise. Jesus spoke a prophetic word over him, proclaiming that he would become a fisher of men. Peter had several other spiritual high points. When asked who he thought Jesus was, he nailed it: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus then told Peter he was blessed because the Father had revealed this to him and that upon this confession, he would build His church.

Peter, along with James and John, were on the mountain when Jesus was transfigured into a glorious vision of the triumphant Christ. Peter saw Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah. He knew what it was like to be in the inner circle and to be intimate with God.

These promises and blessings make Peter’s denial of Jesus all the more heartbreaking. He betrayed Jesus with eyes wide-open. He had seen the glory of Jesus, and the Father had blessed him with a revelation of Jesus as the Christ—the Messiah. After Jesus’ arrest, Peter denied Jesus three times. Throughout Scripture saying something three times proves you really mean it and will stand by what you say. Peter’s denials were not a slip of the tongue.

As a church kid and preacher’s kid, I get this. When I chose to sin, it was deliberate—and in the face of God. And like Peter, I was without excuse. My mother and father were the real deal—not perfect, but genuine Christians who lived out the Word of God daily. In them, I found no hypocrisy or meanness to fuel my rebellion. Even worse, for my rebellion at least, I had often experienced the touch and presence of God—holy stuff I could not explain away. Like Peter, I was without excuse when I chose my sin over Jesus.

After he denied Christ the third time, Peter, we are told, went out and wept bitterly. No self-deception or rationalizations could protect Peter’s heart from what he had done. Peter had not only denied who Jesus was, he had denied who he was. To deny Jesus is to deny our true selves—the person God has created and called us to be.

The story of Peter doesn’t end here. In the last chapter of John, we have a story of the resurrected Christ appearing on the shore of Galilee. He once again directs Peter and the other disciples where to cast their nets. They had been fishing all night and caught nothing, but assuming this guy on the shore could see what they couldn’t, they cast their nets one more time. The catch is huge, and Peter knows it is Jesus.

I am sure that there is a danger in reading to much into the disciples fishing all night and getting nothing. But their empty nets speak of the emptiness of life apart from Christ and a life that forsakes God’s call upon our lives. They really were meant to be fishing for men. Only Jesus fills our nets.

When Peter realizes it is Jesus, he throws himself into the sea and makes his way to the shore. He left it to the other disciples to bring in the fish. For those who have denied Jesus and are filled with failure, regret, and shame, the only answer is to throw yourself at Jesus. Peter, once again, left his nets for Jesus. But he also left behind his shame and overwhelming sense of disqualification. The pride that made him boast that he would never deny Jesus was gone. So was the shame of having denied him. He also had left behind all concerns about what the other disciples thought of him—the one that had denied Christ so openly. Only Jesus mattered.

After fixing breakfast for the disciples, Jesus turns to Peter and asks him three time, “Do you love me?” Three times, the same number of times he denied Jesus, Peter declares, “Yes Lord; you know I love you.” Peter was right. He stood before the Son of God who knew his heart. Perhaps Jesus asked the question partly so that Peter would recognize how deeply he loved Jesus.

I am certainly not saying our wild love of Jesus saves us. Our love is only a response to God’s. We are saved by the free gift of salvation. I do believe, however, that a wild throw-yourself-in-the-sea love for Jesus is the best way for the wayward church kid to find his way out of shame and empty nets.

After each of Peter’s declarations of love, Jesus tells Peter to feed or shepherd His sheep. This command was Jesus’ gentle way of restoring Peter to himself and his true calling. It was an invitation for Peter to come home and to be himself.

Almost 29 years ago, a nurse at the San Bernardino County Hospital put a little boy in my arms. He was the baby God had clearly led Teckla and I to adopt. When he opened his eyes, I said to my son, Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

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We Don’t Know

Over the years I have mastered the art of criticizing the Church. I have skills. Come over when you have four or five hours, and I will share my Biblical, historical, and sociological critiques of the Church. I have stories and scars.

But I have discovered a discomfiting truth as I have sought to follow Jesus: He loves the Church, died and rose from the dead to create the Church, and declares the Church to be His Bride. That means I have to love the Church too. I, therefore, must be cautious about slandering God’s people. One way to do that is to admit what I don’t know.

Let me point to three areas where this humility is important. When I first moved back to Myrtle Point, the Church in the city seemed irrelevant and ineffective. Most congregations were small and struggling just to keep the doors open. The churches failed, it seemed, to have any real impact on the city.

Over the years, however, Teckla and I have worked to connect with people in other congregations. Gradually we began to see that in Myrtle Point the Church, as small as it is, was feeding and clothing the poor, helping the addicted, comforting the wounded, offering the hope of Jesus to the lost.  Across the spectrum of theologies, from liberal social justice Christians to Bible-thumping conservatives, God’s people were being light and salt in Myrtle Point.

One day Teckla and I were discussing how dark Myrtle Point would be if you began subtracting all that God’s people do for the community and for individuals. We soon realized how significant and quite wonderful the impact of God’s people was. Often, we fail to see this because many believers live in the silos of their own congregation and have no perch from which to see all the Church is doing. For years, I simply didn’t know.

Teckla and I have better insight only because of relationships with people in other congregations and because of inter-denominational Bible studies we have attended for years. We have also stepped up to help people in the community only to discover we were not alone—other believers were helping the same folks. But for a long time, we didn’t know, and our ignorance made our default setting to be a declaration that the Church in Myrtle Point was doing nothing for the community.  I didn’t know and should have kept my mouth shut. Could the Church do more to be Jesus to others? Of course! This is always true and should always be our goal.

The second area where we must confess ignorance is regarding our local congregation. It is only fair that I have been at the other end of the criticism that the Church isn’t doing anything. I have heard people make this complaint about the little congregation where Teckla and I worship and serve. Because Teckla and I are deeply involved in the ministries of the congregation, we know much of what it does for the community and one another. Even so, we are continually hearing about individual acts of kindness and generosity that we might just as easily never known if not mentioned in passing.

A third area where we don’t know enough to speak is regarding the work of the pastor. From the outside, preaching twice a week for 45 minutes seems like a good gig. We often don’t know about those late-night calls from people in crisis or treks to the hospital. A few weeks ago an intoxicated and suicidal person showed up at our pastor’s house at about 10 p.m. while the pastor was away at his other job as a manager in the lumber mill. I went over to pray with the guy and help the pastor’s wife with a difficult situation. Soon the pastor arrived, and we walked the person over to the church for more prayer. But if I hadn’t been called to come over, I would have never known. I could easily wonder if the pastor does anything for the church from one Sunday to the next. We should also mention that pastors often don’t know all the ministry the congregation does that falls outside the official programs of the church. We just don’t know.

Our ignorance is understandable. The very nature of Christian love and generosity is that it requires personal time and commitment: it is relational. However, this kind of service to the community doesn’t get headlines and often isn’t part of a program with an impressive name. It is people loving people selflessly and is often hidden from view. None of us really know how much of this one-on-one, non-institutional, service is happening in our own congregations—probably more than we think.

We often forget that the church isn’t a building or even the organization. The Church consists of the people—living stones built into a temple for God’s Spirit. If we forget this, we may ignore any work or service that isn’t an official expression of the organization. I was once listening to someone criticize the congregation for not doing enough for the poor in the congregation. Over the years, Teckla and I had helped this person in many ways. The person had a good heart, really, and was grateful for all we had done. However, the person did not see us as the Church or regard anything we had done as the ministry of the church. We didn’t, but both Teckla and I wanted to exclaim, “But we are the Church!” Indeed, the Church is made up of all God’s people, and we simply do not know all the ways individual members of the Body of Christ are impacting the world around them. We don’t know.

What we don’t know should not only make us humble and move us away from reflexive criticism, it should challenge us to see the real difference God’s people are making in the community. It should make us grateful for all the little, daily, and often hidden ways believers are expressing the love of God to those around them.

We don’t know, but we can know more than we do if we open our eyes. And again, we aren’t doing enough, but we should not be blind to all our brothers and sisters in Christ are doing. Humbly affirming what the Church is doing is the best way to encourage her to do more.

Even better is for each us to set an example of selfless and faithful service to others—even if only God ever knows it.





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Anxiety and the Disciplines of Grace

Should a believer who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks medicate or meditate? I don’t know. I know those for whom medication has worked well and those who never feel quite themselves on medication. There is also the danger that the medication for anxiety or depression is treating only the symptoms, not the causes. A kind of middle ground is to use medication to provide enough relief to catch your breath, work on the root causes, and develop nonpharmaceutical approaches to anxiety. Without shame or a sense of defeat, believers battling anxiety should consult with trained professionals and doctors.

However, we should also lay hold of all the spiritual resources God has provided. For those I love who are battling anxiety, I would like to outline some spiritual disciplines that help us defeat anxiety. Everyone’s battle with fear and anxiety is different, so some of these suggestions will help some people more than others. None of this a formula that magically drives anxiety out of our lives. They are disciplines that open us to God’s help by intentional and regular actions.

  1. The discipline of grace. This phrase seems contradictory because God’s grace is given freely without regard to how much self-discipline we have. But being given grace freely and enjoying it freely are not the same thing. Often anxiety feeds off the feeling that everything depends on us being good enough or working hard enough.Daily resting in God’s grace and the work Jesus did on the cross can set us free from the hell of never being enough. This means daily thanking God that we are saved by grace, not our works. We don’t have to be good enough for God—He loves us right now. We can take a deep breath of His grace and breathe out all our striving to earn God’s love and salvation. It is ours in Christ Jesus. Whew!
  2. The discipline of adoption. We are especially vulnerable to anxiety when we are young and our identity is still being discovered. It is easy for our identity and our worth to get wrapped up in the how others see us. Believers are called to anchor our identity in what God’s Word declares us to be. We have been adopted as children of God and are now joint-heirs with Christ Jesus (Romans 8)—we are royalty and seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). We can walk around like we own the place because in Christ we do!Our identity isn’t found in our career or academic success or failure. It is, of course, good to pursue excellence in all we do, but our main call is to love others as God has loved us. We are free to fearlessly love others because God has adopted us and poured out his love in our lives. Daily basking in the spirit of adoption can draw out the poison of anxiety and fear (Romans 8:16).
  3. The discipline of the fear of the Lord. Some who suffer from anxiety simple aren’t being afraid of the right thing. They are paralyzed by the fear of failure or the fear of other people’s opinions when they should be afraid of God. This may seem like an odd cure for anxiety, but it works this way. Caring more about God’s opinion is liberating because God already loves us. He also understands us and looks right into our heart. God, unlike people, is concerned with the intent of our heart, not the perfection of our performance.Fearing God frees us from the anxiety produced by perfectionism. I can do my best and offer it up to God in the knowledge that he knows my heart and he will bless my efforts. We are all little boys offering a few loaves and fishes for Jesus to bless and multiply. We give all we have, then rest and trust God to bless. We can live for the applause of heaven instead of the applause of the world.
  4. The discipline of self-control. The need to control everything and failure to control anything are both sources of anxiety. Trusting God’s grace can cure the need to control everything. But we also need the work of God’s Spirit that gives us self-control. Anxiety will feed off our inability to control ourselves and our immediate environment.Routines often increase our peace by bringing order to our lives and extending the rule of God over the details of our days. Regular sleep, balanced meals, daily exercise, and a clean house bring a blessing of “shalom” to our homes and our days. It is important not to make achieving this orderly life just another source of anxiety. Since all this involves changing habits, it is best done little by little. It is important to celebrate every bit of progress in these areas and avoid the set-up for failure inherent in an all-or-nothing approach. God helps us. Making my bed in the morning helps too.
  5. The discipline of simplicity and contentment. The ability to enjoy simple pleasures really is a discipline—one that our consumer society actively wars against. Advertisers depend on our discontent to sell us products, so we must actively resist impulse buying in response to the false promise that the right product will satisfy our emptiness. (Ok, I’m back. I drifted off into a day-dream about getting a faster computer for my blogs.) Some say social media has become a fountain of discontent and depression because it invites us to compare our lives unfavorably with the idealized and false images others post. Regularly unplugging from the internet and texting can unplug us from a lot of anxiety.Another expression of simplicity is doing the small Godward motions. These are all the little external things we can do that are Godward and that help our hearts move closer to Him. Sometimes I kneel because I need my heart to kneel. I lift my hands because I need my heart and focus to rise toward God. I stop and gives thanks for my lunch because in the middle of the day I need the contentment thanksgiving nourishes.
  6. The discipline of a clear conscience. Being completely surrendered to God’s will often does wonders for a believer’s anxiety. It is hard to be confident in God’s favor and protection when we know there are areas we have made off limits to God. Areas of quiet rebellion steal our peace. Of course, Satan, the enemy of our soul is quick to accuse us and convince us God is about to whack us. It’s all nerve-racking!Keeping a clear conscience really combines several disciplines: honesty with God about what we have not surrendered, confession of our rebellion, and obedience to all God has asked of us. All this requires taking time before the Lord asking Him to search our hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit will faithfully show us the disobedience or rebellion that is stealing our peace and disrupting our relationship with God. Again, God is not looking for a perfect performance; He seeks a surrendered heart.
  7. The discipline of God’s presence. The Bible declares that corporately and individually believers are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are filled with the presence of God. Where we go, God goes. We are never alone. We are never without his strength, wisdom, grace, and power.However, we must consciously practice the presence of God and defy the sacred/secular split that the world demands. Religion with its buildings and rituals often reinforces the lie that God is relevant and present only on Sundays and at churches. However, John 17 declares that through the Holy Spirit we can abide in Christ and the Father and Son can dwell in us (v. 23). The reality that we carry in us the very presence of God should empower us to live fearlessly.

Conclusion: Many who battle anxiety will also be helped by the disciplines of silence, solitude, study, and submission. Submission can be especially helpful as it frees us from defending our turf, demanding our rights, and watching for offense. There is both power and peace in the meekness that comes from knowing you are a child of the King and have nothing to prove.

We should also directly ask God for wisdom on how to walk free of fear and anxiety. After asking, we should actually take time before the Lord to listen to anything he says. It is important not to get hyper—spiritual. To handle the anxiety before my graduate oral examinations, I played pinball for an hour. It worked wonders. God’s prescriptions are tailored to us and without terrible side-affects. He who the Son sets free is free indeed.

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The Burden of the Gods

My hatred of religion recently got support from an unexpected source: The Babylonian Creation Epic (Enuma Elish). I find it amazing that in this ancient story of the origin of the gods and man, religion is seen as a burden to man rather than a blessing. In the epic, the god Marduk announces that he will create humans and that “They shall bear the gods’ burden that those may rest.” Humans are then created from the blood of Tiamat who is killed by the other gods. We are then told again, “They imposed the burden of the gods on them!”

From the beginning of time, religion has been a burden and has been at war with genuine relationship with God. Religion is best understood as humankind’s efforts to reach, please, and somehow move God or the gods for our benefit. Religion involves a priesthood, religious hierarchy, temples, money, rituals, and rules. It’s a burden. It is man-made.

The prophet Isaiah captures the heart of the difference between religion and relationship in chapter 46. He says of the people’s idols, “Bel is bowed down, Nebo stoops over; Their images are consigned to the beasts and cattle. The things that you carry are burdensome, A load for a weary beast” (v.1). God then addresses Israel:

Listen to Me, O house of Jacob and all the remnant of Israel,
You who have been borne by Me from Israel,
And have been carried from the womb;
You have been borne by Me from Israel,
Even in your old age, I shall be the same,
I have done it, and shall carry you,
And even to your graying years I shall bear you!
And I shall deliver you
. (v. 3–4 NASB)

A few verses later Isaiah mocks the absurdity of worshipping idols that we make and “Then lift upon the shoulder and carry” (v. 7).  The difference between religion and relationship is the difference between a God who carries you and a god you carry. Of course, it is scary to trust God to carry you. Israel was always trying to wriggle out of God’s arms and back into religion.

In Egypt the Israelites had plenty of opportunities to see just how heavy a burden the gods could be. Egypt had over a thousand gods or names for gods. There was a well-established priesthood with an economic interest in making the burden of the gods even heavier for the average person. Pharaoh’s were worshipped as sons of gods and memorialized by elaborate tombs and pyramids. Up to a point, the magicians and priests of Egypt were even able to match the miracles God did through Moses. As religions go, the Egyptians had an impressive one. As slaves in Egypt, Israel literally carried the burden of the gods.

In contrast is the God of Israel who relentlessly seeks a relationship of trust and faith with Israel. Moses describes a God very different from those of Egypt:

            The Lord your God who goes before you will Himself fight on your behalf,
Just as He did for you in Egypt before your eyes,
And in the wilderness where you saw how the Lord your God carried you,
Just as a man carries his son, in all the ways which you have walked,
Until you came to this place
(Deut. 1:31)

The idea of a God who comes to us, fights for us, and carries us is the opposite of the heavy burden of religion and the gods.

In the gospels, we often see a showdown between relationship with God and religion. Jesus challenges the spirit of religion when he enters a synagogue. Like hawks ready to pounce, the Pharisees wait to see whether he dare heal a man on the sabbath. They had already caught Jesus’ disciples rubbing some grain in their hands and eating it on the Sabbath. He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In the synagogue Jesus looks at the Pharisees angrily, and then defiantly heals a man’s withered hand. The Pharisees’ response is to conspire with the Herodians on how to destroy Jesus. The spirit of religion is murderous when threatened.  

Before we get too busy congratulating ourselves in not being Pharisees, we must be honest about how easily Christianity can become just another religion—a burden of God instead of gods. Our organizations can become ends in themselves and our ministers a bureaucracy of priests. Scoldings from the pulpit can replace the good news of a God who seeks us, loves us, and desires a relationship with us. If we do good works to get blessed instead of doing good because we are blessed, we are carrying the burden of the gods.

Many believers have drifted from the church because they carry the burden of God and have traded religion for relationship and works for grace. Many have been burnt out and worn out by religion. Too easily we forget that on cross the Jesus took on himself the burden of our sin. Jesus invites us to rest in the salvation and freedom that His grace has given.

We must forever remember the invitation of Jesus, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my burden is easy and My load is light.” If our burden is crushing and load too heavy, maybe we are carrying the burden of the gods rather than burden Jesus gives: to love and be loved.

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My Noisy Heart

It is hard to hear the voice of God over the sound of your own heart breaking. When those you love fiercely are self-destructing, how do you silence the fears, disappointment, hurt, and even self-blame?

Love never fails. The noise of our hearts breaking is an echo of God’s heart. But love is not enough. Those who love others deeply often find themselves crying out for wisdom—for the counsel of God–so it is a problem when we can’t hear what God is saying.

Along the Oregon coast, near Yachats and right below Cape Perpetua is a place called Devil’s Churn. It is a long chasm in the volcanic basalt. The waves roll in and then bounce back from the sea cave that goes under Highway 101. The waves coming in crash into waves going out until a butter-colored seafoam is churned. Occasionally tourists fall in and are drowned or smashed against the rocks.

Sometimes I feel like I am in the devil’s churn. The intensity of my love makes me a mess of conflicting emotions. Those who fall into Devil’s Churn are most likely to survive if they catch an out-going wave and make it to open water.  

Sometimes I must pray my way to open water. Old-timers called this praying through. I begin with absolute honesty and tell God all I feel. Next, I pray through some Scriptures—usually Psalms. I pray Scriptures because they rid my emotions of any lies spoken by Satan. For instance, it is perfectly right to be sad over the pain and danger stalking those you love, but it is destructive to surrender to despair. God’s Word, as you pray it, will sanctify the pain and His Spirit will clean the wounds to your heart. God will keep you uninfected with bitterness, resentment, or despair.

Next, I walk on the water. By faith, I speak God’s promises over the situation and people that are breaking my heart. This is nothing fancy—just me telling God stuff he already knows. I let God know how much He loves those folks. I tell Him what wonderful plans He has for them. And so on. When I am done, I feel I am out of the Devil’s Churn.

In the open water I can begin to hear God’s voice and listen to his counsel. I can hear something other than the ventriloquism of my desperate desires putting words in God’s mouth. I am cried out—emptied out and done thrashing about. I am ready to be rescued.

Sometimes God gives me wise counsel for those I love. Usually God talks about other stuff—and ignores my agenda. I have learned to let God set the topic of discussion. On occasion, after my heart grows quiet, God says nothing. We sit on the beach together and watch the sun set—our hearts breaking for those we love.

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