Wednesday, January 26, 2011

God Knows His Plans for You

I've been chewing on this one for a while. Having friends/family that serve in areas hostile to the Gospel and teaching Acts on Sunday evenings has brought this to the forefront of my mind. Please pray for the Persecuted Church.

I have a bad habit. If I hear a discussion on religion, I squeeze my way into it. It doesn't matter how awkward I appear or how insensitive it may seem. It's an occupational hazard. I see an open door and I barge boldly through it.

One example of this boorish behavior occurred several years ago when we were living in Kentucky. My wife and I went out to eat at the local Dairy Queen and seated near us was a group of teenagers. Their Christian T-shirts, 'WWJD' bracelets and brightly colored Bibles told me they must have been getting ready to go to a youth group meeting at one of the local churches. As I munched on my fries, I could hear the door of opportunity creak open as they began discussing, quite animatedly, a theological conundrum that has given scholars much to write about for centuries: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? The discussion started getting more lively and I looked up at my wife, who had the "you're-going-to-do-it-anyway-so-just-hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with" look on her face.

I put my french fries down and quickly assessed the group. The most dominant was a loud and brash girl who was maybe 16. She spoke with the cocksure confidence that comes with adolescence. So, like a gun-fighter approaching a posse, I chose to address her. She spoke of how her minister said as long as you had enough faith, bad things won't and can't happen to you, because you are under God's protection. She then went on to cite several television evangelists who spouted off the same message of prosperity and well-being for all God's faithful children. After she gave her side of the argument she crossed her arms and gave me a smirk that said, "I'm right. You know I'm right, so why don't you just go back to your fries and cold hamburger."

I politely asked her one simple question: What Scripture backs up this claim? Her response? Jeremiah 29:11- "'For I know the plans I that I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare, and not for calamity; plans to give you a future and a hope.'" I asked her about context and Biblical examples of suffering, including Jesus, but she was deeply rooted in her philosophy and would not yield. I knew when I was beat, and when discussing religion with a headstrong teen, reason would not prevail. I gave her my email address and excused myself from the table.

America is a tremendously prosperous nation. There can be no denying that God has blessed us materially. The majority of Americans live in the top 1% of wealth in the world! But all this wealth has had a side-effect that has seeped deep into the culture of the American church. Consider the following stats from the 2006 article 'Does God Want You to be Rich?' in Time magazine:

-17% of Christians claim to be a member of a church/denomination that teaches 'prosperity theology'

-31% of Christians believe that if you give God money, He will bless you with more money

-61% of Christians believe that God wants all Christians to be prosperous (although to be fair, the question did not specify spiritual or financial prosperity)

-The article goes on to claim that 3 out of the 4 largest congregations in America preach a message of 'prosperity theology.'

What the article does not say is that this theology is a phenomenon unique to the American church. In countries where the Church is persecuted, you won't hear a message of financial prosperity based on having enough faith. In cities stricken with disease and poverty, the 'health & wealth' gospel would be rightfully scorned. Every day Christians all over the world are arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed for their beliefs. What do the prosperity preachers have to say to these martyrs? Was their faith, a faith that was fired in the kiln of persecution and purified in the crucible of humiliation, not enough to allow them to fulfill God's plan of financial well-being in their life? This doesn't include the Christians who die of cancer, who are suffering from debilitating diseases or who work hard every day to keep their head from drowning below the poverty line. The prosperity 'gospel' leaves way too many questions unanswered for my taste.

But what about Jeremiah 29:11? What about other passages where it clearly states that God desires to bless his children? How do we interpret these Scriptures in light of the reality we face?

1. Recognize that the World is Sick with Sin
Sin has consequences that reach far beyond our own personal lives. Because of sin death entered the world, and with it came every form of disease known to man. Because of sin governments are corrupt, depriving people of the ability to make a living or practice their faith openly. Because of sin natural disasters (a byproduct of the flood that destroyed the world in Noah's time. A world so sinful that God was forced to 'wash' it away and start anew) inflict terror that is felt acutely by countries so poor, they cannot properly prepare for them. Sin is what causes suffering. Not God, and definitely not a lack of faith in Him.

2. Recognize that God's Blessings are not Always Physical
Some of the blessings I have enjoyed from God are not physical in nature. Encouragement, the presence of His Spirit, the confidence of knowing He stands with me and the knowledge that this world of suffering is not my home are all things that pale in comparison to physical wealth. When we add suffering to the mix, the apostles open a whole new door on how to rejoice in God's blessing. They counted it as a blessing to share in Christ's suffering (Acts 6:40-41). Paul said that 'to live is Christ and to die is gain'. The greatest thing that can happen to a Christian is death. The early church understood this, and this leads us to one final point.

3. Recognize that God's People have a History of being Persecuted
Let's take Jeremiah as an example. Here is a guy who wore an ox-yoke while he preached, was imprisoned numerous times, was considered a heretic by the priests, a naysayer by the false prophets, and a traitor by the king. He was so hated that he was thrown into a cistern and left for dead. When his prophecies of defeat to Babylon came true, he was exiled to Egypt, and was hated by the exiles there as he warned against falling into idolatry. Jewish tradition teaches that while in Egypt he was assassinated and denied a proper burial. This is the guy that God delivered the message of "a future and a hope" to Israel. God's promise through Jeremiah was (a) specific to Israel and (b) a spiritual reality to His people. Today, nearly 20,000 Christians a year are martyred world-wide (according to Voice of the Martyrs). This persecution should not be ignored. Neither should it be grieved. These men and women gave their lives for the Gospel. As Tertullian said, their blood is the seed of the spread of Christianity. God placed upon them a burden that is perhaps to heavy for the American Church to bear. Their suffering blesses us with encouragement, edification and hope. If only our 'prosperity preachers' could be so worthy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Birthday Musing

Today I turn 34. It's time for me to make a difference.

According to tradition my lifespan has surpassed that of Jesus' time on earth in the form of a man. I cannot help but think, "What have I really accomplished in that amount of time?" I have been reading a biography on the German martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By the time he was 34 he had earned a doctorate, began a church movement that rebelled against the Nazi-sanctioned German church, spoke at international conferences condemning the Nazi party and completed his masterful book, "The Cost of Discipleship."

I know, it's not fair to compare myself with the Lord of the universe (although He is the only One we ought to compare ourselves with), and Bonhoeffer's example is an exemplary one that few can measure up to. But still, I feel the weight of Paul's commands to 'make the most of every opportunity' (see Galatians 6:10 and Colossians 4:5 for a couple of examples) as I grow older. None of us know how many trips around the sun we get to take. Bonhoeffer would never live to see his 40th birthday, and yet he left an indelible mark on this world for the cause of Christ. Whether I live to be 40 or 100, I want to spend every moment pursuing Christ and His plan for me. I want to accomplish great things for His glorification. I want my life to matter.

Today I turn 34. It's time for me to make a difference.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book List

I get asked all the time about what I'm reading and what I've read lately that's helping me to develop my ministry and myself. Obvious answer #1 is: (drum-roll please) THE BIBLE! But I believe God has gifted many people with the gift of writing to edify and encourage others, so I decided to compile a list of books that I have read in 2010 that I found helpful. These aren't all the books I read last year, they are just the ones that I found beneficial in some way. And they are in no particular order. So without any further ado:

The Simple Life by Thom and Art Rainer, B & H Publishing
Think by John Piper, Crossway Books
Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges, NavPress
The Faith Once for All by Jack Cottrell, College Press
Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O'Dell, New Leaf Press
You Are God's Plan A by Dwight Robertson, David C. Cook Publishing
Desiring God by John Piper, Multnomah Books
Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard, NavPress
The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel, Zondervan Publishing
Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado, Thomas Nelson Publishers
The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson, Multnomah Books
Radical by David Platt, Multnomah Books
Starving Jesus by Craig Gross and J. R. Mahon, David C. Cook Publishing
Just Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybells, Zondervan Publishing
Living With Confidence in a Chaotic World by David Jeremiah, Thomas Nelson Publishing
Everyone Communicates, Few Connect by John Maxwell, Thomas Nelson Publishing
Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow, Thomas Nelson Publishing

The following are books that I strive to read every year because of the great message within them:

Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala, Zondervan Publishing
The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simon and Schuster
Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, Simon and Schuster
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, HarperCollins Publishers

Hope this helps. Feel free to comment and tell me what you are reading to help you grow in your walk with Christ.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


I have a confession to make. I know it may come as a shock to some, and a disappointment to others, but to those who know me best, this confession has been a long time coming.

I... am... a... clutter-bug.

Whew! I said it! It's now out in the open for all to see. It seems wherever I go clutter surrounds me. Even now as I type, my desk is cluttered with books, papers, paper-clips, two empty cups (why do I need two?) and scraps of paper with various tidbits of information scrawled on them (often on both sides). Beside my recliner at home is a stack of books (I can never read just one at a time), a magazine or two, remotes, a stack of mail from the previous couple of days, and if memory serves me correctly, a screwdriver (don't ask me why, it's just there.) When you add four kids to the mix, a busy life with all sorts of demands and a hobby that requires lots of painting and drawing supplies, what you get is a mess.

But lately I've been wrestling with the idea of simplicity. Some of the early church leaders considered simplicity a spiritual discipline. So what is simplicity? My take on it is this: paring down your life to only the things you use regularly. You could even take it a step farther by paring life down to only the things you need. The discipline part of this is easy to understand, especially to someone like me who is able to function amidst the detritus of a cluttered life. It takes discipline to put things away, to not buy new things to add to the mix and to throw away things you no longer need or use. But what part of this is spiritual?

Let me rewind a couple of weeks. God blessed my family this year with a very good Christmas. The kids got all sorts of stuff from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. I got a brand new recliner and we were able to give generously to our parents who have given us so much. But as I looked at all the stuff my kids got, it occurred to me we would need to get rid of older things to make room for new. As my wife and I began organizing and sorting old from new, used from neglected and superfluous from the necessary, we decided we needed to do the same with our things. Initially this decision was made to wage war against the materialistic demons that wage war in our culture. Things are great to own, but too often we become owned by them. But as we have continued to 'downsize' throughout the house it occurred to me, the more stuff I get rid of, the more room I have for God; the louder my proclamation that He is my sustainer and I need nothing apart from Him. It was one of those 'Ah-Ha!' moments as I realized what God has been trying to tell me over the last several months.

So as I threw away the 10-year old Sports-Illustrateds (the ones with the Yankees celebrating another World Series), and the stack of ball-caps that I had not worn in the last 3 years, and as we packed up clothes to donate, we did so as an act of worship. It was, and is, our declaration of dependence on God and God alone.

Now, I just need to clean off this desk.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Slave by John Mac Arthur

John Mac Arthur's books have always been hit or miss for me. I either love them or really don't get anything out of them. This one, Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ, falls into the 'love it!' category. MacArthur takes great care in uncovering a truth that has been lost in many modern congregations. In his own words, "The current of mainstream evangelicalism is driven by pragmatic concerns, not theological ones. Church growth gurus worry about what draws a crowd, not about what the Bible says... prosperity preachers make man the master, as if Christ were some genie in a bottle... Even within some conservative circles, pragmatic worldly methods... and almost boundless adaptations of the worst of worldly music are aggressively defended as long as they get visible results." (see p. 74)

What is this lost truth? It is the idea of God as our master and we are his slaves. MacArthur begins with a thorough word study of the Greek words 'kurios' ('master' or 'lord') and 'doulos' ('slave' or 'servant'). He rightly teaches that 'doulos' always means a slave, but that to avoid confusing first century slavery with British colonial slavery, translators have opted for the less offensive term, 'servant.' MacArthur follows this through with practical applications for how Christ is not only master over the Church at large, but also master over us as individuals.

Following Paul's pattern in Romans 6-8, MacArthur then points out how we are mastered by either sin or by grace. For several chapters he shows the tyranny of being enslaved by sin, and in his concluding chapters he artfully teaches the oxymoron that there is freedom in slavery to God. Throughout the book is a call for all Christ-followers to submit to Jesus as our master. He owns us and uses us at His discretion, and we, if we are true slaves of God, have no choice but to obey Him, and through this obedience discover true liberty.

A great read that I highly recommend to any Christian or anyone thinking about becoming a Christian. MacArthur helps us to count the cost and to choose whom you will serve.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Casting the Vision

There she was, my eleven-year-old daughter trying on her first pair of glasses. Not only was she looking way too grown up for my taste, she was looking. As we walked around the store later her eyes were wide with wonder as she was able to read clearly that which was but a few moments before a blur. The fascination continued in the car trip home. She constantly marveled at the signs she could now read and the details she could now see. Vision was restored, and she didn't even realize how poor her eyesight had become.

That's the way it is with many of us. We often need vision revealed to us. It doesn't come naturally or easily. We need someone to correct our sight and re-focus our eyes on that which really matters. God has done this throughout my life. He has used parents, grandparents, professors, ministers, my wife, and even my children to adjust my vision. But His greatest tool has been His Word. When I am in the Word daily, my vision is clear. But if I miss a day, or two, or fifteen, the vision returns to a weakened state. That which should be clear is fuzzy, and I get very nearsighted, focusing only on the things that immediately affect me.

As we start a new year, my prayer is that my vision is His vision, and that I keep my eyes open to it. As a preaching minister, part of my ministry is casting a vision for the congregation I serve. It is a daunting and humbling task. Only after much prayer and consultation did I move forward, and even then it was with the nervousness of one who is about to attempt something he is not quite sure he is capable of completing. But that's the point! I am not capable. Thus, when the vision is achieved, God, not I, gets all the glory and praise.

My hope is that you realize God's vision for your life and for your local congregation. 2011 holds much potential, but it will only be realized when we begin to see it clearly.