More Than One Angel

Despair. I don’t despair in God, but I am sometimes shattered by despair for those I love. Free-will is alternately exhilarating and terrifying. Of course, Christians have been divided over free-will and salvation. Some take comfort in the idea that those God has predestined to be saved will be saved no matter what. I, however, don’t know how this idea doesn’t also terrify us with the crushing possibility that those we love deeply have been predestined to hell—however we understand it. I am not objecting to the justice of God, but I would find it hard to say aloud, “God is love, and has, in his love, decided before time began to send you into everlasting torment.” So, I believe we are saved by grace and yet must respond to God’s free gift of salvation with faith in Jesus. But the free-will of those for whom we pray means they are free to resist God’s grace and harden their hearts to the voice of His Spirit. Here is where despair destroys me. Some are so hard.

Angels. Recently a friend praying over the phone with me said (I paraphrase a little), “God, you have more than one angel and more than one way to reach the heart of the lost.” The phrase “more than one angel” even though it states the obvious, helped me in the midst of my despair. Because my love for lost friends and family seems so ineffective, I am tempted to think God’s love is too. But God has more than one angel. My comfort is not in a kind of fatalism that God in the end gets His way—and somehow all is good. My comfort is in the infinite resourcefulness of a God who loves and pursues us. God, who doesn’t wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,” is unrelentingly seeking the salvation of those we love even when we falter and despair.

Tongues. We can only pray for a thousand tongues to praise Him, but God has a thousand tongues to speak into the hearts of the lost. This is the promise of tongues at Pentecost—that God speaks the language of every heart through the voice of the Holy Spirit. Where my eloquence fails and my words fork no lightning, God’s voice can speak perfectly and powerfully. The smile of a child, the sun on a leaf, or the sound of a jay rejoicing in the dawn can become the language that awakens a prodigal son to the love of the Father. And we know from Scripture that God’s truth can come rolling out of any mouth: Balaam’s ass, shepherds, fisherman, the king of Persia, or some wise guys from the east.

Memory. When a prodigal seems to have forgotten every taste of God’s goodness, God can bring the memory of His love and goodness. God can make the memory of His reality inescapable and can plow through the lies cobbled together to deny His goodness. Memory of His Word and his promises can come alive on a starry winter night or gentle spring morning.

Judgment. God can use circumstances to awaken the hearts of the lost to their need for Him. The consequences of sin can be so bitter that the lost soul cries out for living water to wash away the taste of ashes. Both the kindness and judgments of God can lead us to repentance. It is better to respond to His kindness, but God’s judgments are drenched in His mercy, powered by His love.

Prayer. And our prayers matter. God bottles our tears (Ps. 56:8) and pours them out as blessings on those for whom we weep. God is moved by our intercession when we are helpless. Our prayers, in the hands of God, are a powerful weapon against the enemy seeking to destroy those we love. This side of heaven we will never know how much evil has been stopped by the prayers of the saints.

Krav Maga. Like Imi Lichtenfeld who developed this martial art used by the Israeli Defense Forces, God is a streetfighter. The emphasis of Krav Maga is real life effectiveness and the use of anything at hand as a weapon. God used pigs to awaken the heart of the prodigal son. God will grab anything and use it. I have a brother who, while far from God, randomly chose to see a play in San Francisco—a play called Godspell. The play began with the sound of a shofar and a song “Prepare, Ye the Way of Lord. At that sound, God’s Spirit ambushed my brother and called him back to his faith in God. God does not fight fair, and it is hard for kids to escape the intercession of their parents and grandparents.

Hope. So, hope breaks through my despair, and I keep praying. I pray because God has more than one angel and more than one angle. God is a street-fighter whose wild love pursues those we love. I trust Him.

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Chastch Me!

With eyes lit up and curly hair flying wild, my grandson, Ari, will often say, “Papa, chase me!” He is three, so it actual sounds more like “chastch me”—a combination of chase and catch. So around the kitchen table and into the living room we run, giggles and ear-piercing shrieks making it impossible for Ari to hide behind the couch.

Then he is caught, sometimes tickled, hugged, or tossed into the air—always squealing with delight, always loved wildly by Papa. The wisdom of the child grasps that the whole point of the game is the joy of being caught and being loved.

I think teens and young adults play “Chase me!” too. In the midst of insecurities and identity crises, many teens run from their parents and from God. Often this is a way of testing the love of both. The face of a teen defying loving parents is often saying, “Chase me!” It is asking if the parents’ love is strong and constant enough to pursue them in their rebellion and ugliness. They may, however, have forgotten the point of the game—getting caught and being held by arms of those who love them. Even so, buried in all that turmoil and confusion is a longing to get caught. Some parents must run a marathon of unfailing love.

Even as adults, we can play “chase me” in our relationship with God. We hide in our busyness and quickly explain away the sound of His steps pursuing us. We can harden our hearts and wriggle out of His arms when the Holy Spirit catches our heart and calls us home. The game only works if we want to be caught, and too many adults have made other things more important than being caught up in the arms of a loving God.

However, an instinct for “chase me” beats within the human heart. We long for love that pursues. We want that Father that runs down the road and enfolds the prodigal son in His arms. We desperately need a good shepherd that leaves the ninety-nine sheep and chases the one that is lost. We long for God’s unfailing love and fierce pursuit. Human love can be spotty and for some comes only once in a blue moon. But God’s love is unrelenting; it shakes the gates of hell and breaks the chains of sin.

In every heart is not just the cry “Chase me!” but also the cry, “Catch me!” The point of the game is love and relationship. Ari has it right: “Chastch me!”

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Dear Sons, In Case You Missed It

We are saved by grace. Yes, I know, you have all heard this. One of you even sang, “Amazing Grace” at Grandma’s funeral. Nonetheless, we all need to hear this again and again—sometimes in new ways. Sadly, much of church history is a story of God’s people forgetting and then remembering that we are saved by grace. Unfortunately, the drift toward legalism and salvation by works has been as regular as the tides. We are always coming home to God’s grace.

Guilt and shame have a black hole gravitational pull that bends and swallows light, so it is easy to forget our salvation is free. We also have an enemy who again and again whispers lies to us about how all our sins and failures disqualify us. Sometimes the stain of our sin seems too deep scrape off with a broken bottle.

The news that our salvation is a gift is much of what is good about the gospel’s good news. It is easy to overlook how good. Too often church kids confuse meeting people’s expectations with being saved. Often Christian parents (probably even me) make salvation and “being good” seem like the same thing. When this happens everything gets backward. Instead of obedience being a joyful response to the free gift, it becomes a dull duty performed to earn salvation. When we get grace wrong, we give up because we can’t be good enough for God. Church kids also discover that sin, in the short run, offers many pleasures. And we all weary of trying to be good.

The good news, however, is that we are not only saved by grace but changed by grace. When we look at ourselves and see our utter inability to change ourselves, when our defilement seems irreversible, and our identity and our sin are hopelessly entangled, God offers grace. God also offers us death—the death of our false and polluted self. By grace, God offers us a new self. As you guys get older and move around, you will discover that wherever you go, there you are. Only God can set us free from the sinful self that ruins everything. And, this change is free. It is a gift.

We are also set free by grace. We are ransomed by Christ from our jailer. God sets us free from every kind of bondage—sinful habits, rotten attitudes, and terrible addictions. God is a chain-breaker. When we are unable to help ourselves, He sets us free. Sometimes we wrongly think that we must get free before we can return to God, but the grace of God meets us right where we are and begins cutting the chains that make us miserable.

The goodness of grace should surprise and delight us. Do you remember when we all hiked through the desert at the Anzo-Borrego State Park? We wandered up a creek lined with cactus and sagebrush. It was hot and dusty, but we rounded the corner in the canyon and discovered a pool of water surrounded by fan palms. A little water fall that poured over a boulder fed the pool. Some of you grabbed old palm leaves and slid down the boulder into the pool. I hope grace is like this for you—but living water that satisfies our deepest thirst.

So how can we tell if, even as believers, we have missed the truth of God’s grace? We can check our gratitude level. When we realize that salvation and transformation is a free gift, thanksgiving explodes in our hearts. Worship becomes a joy instead of a chore. Gratitude for the free gift becomes the engine that powers our obedience.

We can also test our love level. The love and acceptance we see in the eyes of Jesus takes our eyes off ourselves. And isn’t that liberating? Mean and self-centered Christians (we have met a few) don’t grasp grace. If we recognize how utterly unworthy and undeserving we are and see how overwhelmingly merciful God’s grace is, we can’t help but extend grace and kindness to others—even the most undeserving. We have to show the grace we have been shown.

Perhaps the final test is humility. Grace takes away every boast. That’s why Paul, the guy who perhaps did the most to build and expand the church, insisted that he would boast in nothing but “the cross of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Legalism, salvation by works, has a terrible one/two punch. When you fail to be good enough, you are filled with shame. If for a moment you succeed in being good, you are filled with pride. Grace frees us from both. Grace makes us humble but happy followers after Jesus, daily seeking ways to give grace to others and glory to God. In case you missed it, this is a great way to live—and its free.  

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He Came to Himself

In a hot mess of inarticulate father-love, I sputtered, “But you love Jesus!” My son had been explaining how he wasn’t sure he was still a Christian. I had been challenging him to return to Jesus. My declaration felt pathetic.

I understand the aching heart from which these words flowed, but only now am beginning to understand what I meant. After all, Jesus said if you love him, you will obey his commands. This kid wasn’t. And who was I to tell one my son who he loved? Was this another annoying example of parental over-reach? Maybe not.

Re-reading the parable of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke has helped me figure out what I meant. After the prodigal son had wasted his inheritance and descended into poverty, he looked with longing at the pig food. In the King James Version (Luke 15:17), we are then told: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?’” Other translations begin with “But when he came to his senses” (NIV, NASB). However, “to himself” is closer to the original Greek.

The phrase “to himself” helps me understand what was moving in my spirit when I told my son he loved Jesus. I want my son, like the prodigal, to come back to himself—to the person God’s Word declares, he was created to be. My sons were made to love God and be loved by Him. “To come to himself” isn’t just a turn back to who he once was; it is a step forward to the person God created him to be.

After coming to himself, the prodigal’s mind turns to his father because who we are is always defined by relationship. We are not ourselves apart from relationship with God. The idea we must escape God, run from our father, in order to be ourselves is one of Satan’s most terrible and yet popular lies. It is a promise of freedom that ends in slavery to sin and our own flesh. The son’s journey home is a journey back to relationship with his father.

Even though the prodigal son declares himself no longer worthy to be his father’s son, his father runs down the road, wraps his arms around his son, kisses him and gives him the robe and ring of sonship. In other words, the father ignores the son’s own despairing definition of himself and declares the prodigal, “My son!” With exuberant love the father completes his prodigal son’s “coming to himself”—a beloved son wrapped in His Father’s arms.

This is what was bursting in my heart when I exclaimed, “But you love Jesus!” And in many ways, it is what should be said to every young believer who is hurt or bored with the Church. Yes, Christians are a wounded and wounding bunch of people, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, earthly fathers and mothers are flawed and fail us in many ways, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, there are many intellectual questions about our faith that need answers, “But you love Jesus!”

Sometimes the revelation that we love Jesus is as important as the revelation God loves us. This is part of the what was pouring out of my heart to my son. How can one know of Jesus and not love him? I love his goodness, wisdom, gentleness, and boldness. I can’t read one of the gospels and not fall in love with Him, desire to follow Him, and hope to become like Him. I wasn’t merely informing my son that he loved Jesus—I was declaring Jesus worthy to be loved. How can we be honest with God and heaven and not love Jesus?

We can pray that every prodigal son and daughter will come “to themselves”. We can pray they will remember the relationship with their Father who is already making a cloud of dust as He runs down the road. Because, really, they love Jesus!

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When the Light Goes Out

Few things are sadder than seeing the light of God’s Spirit go out in the eyes of your child. The moment it happens is easy to miss. There are natural rhythms of wandering and return in the lives of most Christian kids. And during troubled teens years, it is hard to tell the difference between a mood swing and the extinguishing of faith.

In some kids the light never goes out. My mother was this way. She couldn’t remember a time she wasn’t a Christian. She had vague memories of giving her heart to Jesus when she was four, but told me, “I already felt like a Christian and loved Jesus.” It sometimes bothered her that she had no dramatic story of when she got saved, but I think her story delightful. The light of Jesus shone brightly in her eyes even on her death bed, hooked to a feeding tube, barely able to speak because of a stroke. Her eyes said everything. They said, “Jesus!”

But I think my mom’s story unusual. Too many parents have had that moment when they looked across the room at their son or daughter and noticed the light was gone. Their eyes are dead. Joy and hope have fled. They may not be a monster of any kind, but like a zombie—they are still your child, but not the same—not who God created them to be and not the child you knew. Sometimes you see fear and bondage—the sadness of a chained animal.

I am not going to speculate as to what the light going out means theologically regarding a kid’s salvation. I just know it is heart-breaking.

What snuffed out the light? For each Christian kid, it can be different. Often it is simply their surrender to sin or their decision to embrace the values of the world instead of God. It usually isn’t a sin that smothers the light; it is steady rain (or reign) of darkness that comes sin by sin.

Sometimes a kid is wounded by someone in the church, or deeply disappointed by God in some way. The resulting bitterness can violently put out the light of God. To get back at God, their parents, or the church, they run as far from God as they can. Their eyes are not filled with the emptiness of those who have feasted on sin. In their eyes you can see flashes of anger and resentment toward God—their imagined enemy.

What can help turn the lights back on? Sometimes captives in Babylon need to remember the milk and honey of the promised land. God can bring to their memory the joy of being clean before God. The Holy Spirit, as we pray for our kids, can make them aware of the weight of sin and the burden of sin’s consequences. God can reveal to them that one from whom they are running and rebelling is the only One who can heal, restore, and save them eternally.

As parents and grandparents, the most important thing we can do is be steadfast in our declaration that God is good. We must be the real deal. Our life should say that God can be trusted. Any shred of hypocrisy in us, will be used to fuel the wandering child’s rebellion. This doesn’t mean being perfect; it just means being humble and honest about our own failings. We must model the long art of turning and returning to God.

I also believe every good childhood memory we create is part of the honey of the promised land that reminds the wandering of God’s love and goodness. It was remembering the goodness of life with His father that made the prodigal son reject his misery and head home. Here too there is no burden to give Christian kids perfect childhoods. Israel, for all her faults and failings, was still the home about which the exiles in Babylon sang with longing.

It is also true that God can powerfully use the birth of a child to turn the light back on in the hearts of our kids. When our sons or daughters look into the sparkling eyes of their baby, they often want to see the light of God in their baby’s eyes. At that moment, a parent may decide they need the light of Jesus turned back on. It is not just a newborn that is helpless—it is the parents who desperately need God’s help to raise the child.

Even when kids grow into young adults, their parents often carry in their heart a picture of their child when his or her eyes still shone with the light of Jesus When parents remember the beauty of God’s light in their child’s eyes, they fall on their knees and cry out to God—the only one who knows how to rekindle the flame of faith.

There are few joys sharper or more glorious than seeing the light of Jesus come back into the eyes of your children. I know some parents who have not seen it this side of the grave, but many pour out their heart in prayer hoping to see the light in their eyes before they die. There are few things that draw us closer to the heart of the Father than prayers for our kids to come home to God—the perfect Father who through Jesus has made a way. In these prayers my heart and God’s heart beat as one.

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Open Flowers

Sometimes the Holy Spirit draws my attention to a phrase in Scripture and blows a trumpet. This happened recently with the phrase “open flowers” in the description of the temple Solomon built. Usually I would blow right past this phrase, even though it is used four times in chapter six of I Kings. We are told that carved into the cedar walls (v.18) and the olive wood doors (v. 32) are cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.

Throughout Scripture and especially in Ezekiel, the cherubim represent the awesome power of God: both his omniscience and omnipotence. The palm tree in the middle east represents rest, water, and if a date palm, even food. The sight of palm trees indicates the presence of fruitfulness, water, and shade.

What intrigued me were the open flowers. Israel is famous for its wildflowers—thus the honey that flows in this land. But spring is short, and the heat quickly withers the flowers. Psalm 103:15 uses the flowers to express the brevity of life: “As for man, his days are like grass—he blooms like a flower of the field; when the wind passes over, it vanishes and its place remembers it no more.” As I age and spend more time reading my friends’ obituaries, the swift passage of life is always present. There is a wintry melancholy as I contemplate all that is lost and all that is gone. Grandchildren sprout up, things you just painted need repainting, memories fade, and so much is unfinished.  

Yet in the presence of God we are forever open flowers.  In His presence nothing that is truly good fades. God remembers every expression of love for Him and others—nothing is forgotten, nothing lost. Like the flowers carved in the cedar walls of the temple, we are golden.

It is significant that here in God’s presence, the flowers are open. Here it is safe to bloom. We can open ourselves to God. We can just be and leave behind all worries as to whether we have done enough or become enough. All the competing narratives surrounding our identity and value are silenced.

We value flowers for their beauty and joy, not their utility. The Spirit’s invitation to be an open flower before God is an invitation to enter God’s sabbath rest and to walk with God in the cool of day.  Here I need only bloom, not calculate how useful or useless I have been to God.

In God’s presence, I am perfectly known, understood, and loved. Because we are created in God’s image, and recreated by the lavish grace of Christ, we are open flowers—full of beauty and goodness. In God’s presence we not only open our hearts in praise and adoration, we bask in His love and delight in us. We receive the gentle rain of His Spirit and the radiance of His glory.

Yes, in His temple there are powerful cherubim and useful palm trees. But I am grateful God included the open flowers. These too are the glory of God. As David declared (Psalm 29:9): In His temple everything says, “Glory!”

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This word broke my heart. I had been slogging through the sad stories of the kings of Israel and Judah. Again and again they rejected God and worshiped idols. Sometimes they even brought the idols into the temple. Some kings began to sacrifice children, making Israel more depraved than the nations it had replaced. Most of the stories in Kings and Chronicles are not encouraging.

Like many, I have been slogging through the trials of life that can break your heart and weary your soul. I have been committed to the long-haul work of the kingdom: praying for lost family members, praying and working for community transforming revival, hoping and praying for those with addictions to be set free, interceding for the healing of families and relationships. Honestly, the stories of one sinful king after another discouraged me. Why hope for any good in this life?

But then comes the story of King Hezekiah and all he did to restore the worship of the Lord. He cleansed the land of idols. He then reestablished the priesthood and the Levites. In Jerusalem the song of the Lord was sung again. We are told, “And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people, that God had prepared the people: for the thing was done suddenly” (II Chronicles 29:36).

“Suddenly” brought me to tears. I was surprised at how deeply I long for “suddenly.” This year I have grimly embraced the call to be patient, steadfast and persevering in prayer. Yet, I hunger for the sudden answer to prayer that ambushes my heart with joy.

I dutifully pray for the healing and salvation of those I love and am fully committed to keep praying until I, or they, die. God’s Word is indeed filled with exhortations to patiently believe and trust in God’s promises. Endurance and perseverance are essential. But because I had stopped hoping for anything “sudden,” my spirit had grown gray and joyless. My hope was set only on the day when we behold the returning Christ and are in “the twinkling of an eye” changed into His likeness. This “suddenly” is comforting but does not provide much hope for next week, month, or year. It left me faithful but joyless. I was haunted by the possibility that my prayers might never, if ever, be answered.

I wept at the hope and joy expressed by the “suddenly” in this verse. God had brought a quick and unexpected turn-around for the people in Jerusalem. The very suddenness of the return to the Lord was a source of delight. Centuries later after all the years of prayers for the Messiah, there did come a day when Jesus suddenly appeared in the temple. On that day Simeon, who for years waited for the consolation of Israel, held the baby Messiah in his arms (Luke 2:28). Anna, a woman of night and day fasting and prayer, also saw Jesus and prophesied over him. Here perseverance and endurance collided with God’s “suddenly.”

And there is the “suddenly” of Pentecost when the rag-tag beaten down apostles and followers of Jesus became, in a couple days, an army of thousands empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is true, we really are called to endure, persevere in prayer, and hold on to our faith in the face of all kinds of distress and opposition. But it is also true that we pray to a God of the “suddenly”.

Without faith in God’s power and desire to work suddenly, we despair and labor in prayer out of duty instead of joy and hope. Nothing is too difficult, too far gone, or too lost for Him. Every day we need to pray and obey with endurance. But we need to hope for the “suddenly” and with grim joy declare “Today is the day of salvation!”

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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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