Friday, February 27, 2015

Faith Triumphs over Fear

I struggle with fear. Often, I will appear strong and in control, but inside I tend to fret about what people are thinking, what they might do, and what might be the consequences of their actions. And I often base my actions, or inaction, on these musings rather than on the clear will of God and the advice of good counselors and friends. To be sure, my fears are based on lots of experience, so they don’t come out of nowhere, but they’re fears nonetheless.

Sometime ago, while meditating on Isaiah 41 and 43, the Lord taught me a very important lesson that went pretty deeply into my heart. The lesson is this: faith triumphs over fear.

Here’s what Isaiah wrote, I encourage you to read this prayerfully and carefully: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (41:10). 

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (43:1-3).

We who believe in Christ and follow him day by day have no reason to fear anything or anyone. Why? Only because...
  • The Lord Almighty is our God, and he is infinitely strong and able.
  • The Lord our God is with us—literally with us.
  • The Lord has promised to strengthen us, and therefore our strength is very great.
  • The Lord has promised to help us, and therefore our help is very great.
  • The Lord has promised to uphold us, and therefore we shall never ultimately fall.
  • The Lord has redeemed us and called us by name—he has made us to be his own.
  • The Lord has promised that when we pass through water and walk through fire he will be greater than these things and protect us from them. 
  • The Lord is our God, the Holy One of Israel is our Savior—our God, our Savior!

Therefore, if the Lord is our God, we have no reason to fear anything or anyone. His perfect love in us casts out all fear. So if we fear, it’s a sign that our love for God, or our understanding of his love for us, has yet to be perfected. If we fear, the solution is to turn from our fears and toward our hope. It's to look to God and seek God and grow in love for God until our fear evaporates into the light of his glory.

Indeed, faith triumphs over fear.

So let us look to the Lord today. Let us allow him to take our fears away. Let us open our hearts to him and learn what it means to say that perfect love casts out fear. Lord, please help us as we seek you. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

J. Ellsworth Kalas: Seasoned Preacher and Teacher

Yesterday I finished reading Preaching in an Age of Distraction by J. Ellsworth Kalas (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). I really appreciated the book but this brief video helped me to appreciate the man. As you listen to this brief word from a seasoned preacher and teacher of preaching, please pray for his ministry and for his fruitfulness in Christ. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Power in Prayer and the Atonement of Christ

In his book If You Will Ask, Oswald Chambers writes, “When we pray relying on the Holy Spirit, He will always bring us back to this one point: we are not heard because we are in earnest, or because we need to be heard, or because we will perish if not heard; we are heard only on the ground of the Atonement of the Lord.”

Oh what refreshing and relaxing news. In prayer, we can simply express our hearts and thoughts to God regardless of the quality of the articulation. So many times I’ve said to the Lord, “O Father, I don’t know what I’m saying, but you know what I’m saying!” Power in prayer comes from the power of Christ and our connection with him. The more we understand this, the more we'll be motivated to pray, and encouraged in prayer. So please read and savor these words from Hebrews 10:19-23. Let them sink in and shape your day today.

“Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Paul Washer on Prayer and Missions

Here's a video, though a bit long (33:43 minutes), that really encouraged me this evening. I preached on this very subject this morning, you can hear the sermon here. So I was particularly primed to hear this message, and again, it really encouraged me, impacted me, taught me. So I commend it to you, and I pray that above all we will learn to pray, hear, and then go according to the will and ways of our God and Father. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Technology and Slavery of the Heart

John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you” (Mortification of Sin). Something similar can be said of our relationship with technology: we must master technology or technology will master us.

In her book Alone Together Sherry Turkle writes, “Technology ties us up as it promises to free us up. Connectivity technologies once promised to give us more time. But as the cellphone and smartphone eroded the boundaries between work and leisure, all the time in the world was not enough” (13). Indeed, in many ways we have come to live for that which was supposed to help us live better, or at least more efficiently.

But having said that, I must add that it’s a mistake to blame technology itself. Surely, the big tech companies are spending billions of research dollars on the psychology of technology and doing what they can to addict us to their products. Addiction equals sales, plain and simple.

But we are not the helpless victims of corporate strategies, rather, we are relentless idol worshipers. That is to say, we are constantly putting people, things, and ideas in the place of God and living for them rather than for Him. If not technology, it will be something else. Indeed, the heart of the problem is our own hearts.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:21, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Our foolish hearts came to believe that we could find joy and satisfaction in something other than God. But this is a delusion. It’s futile thinking. As Augustine said, “You [God] made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

So again, the heart of the problem is our own hearts, not technology.

What, then, shall we do? Well, biblically speaking, there’s only one way to free an enslaved heart, and that’s to look to Jesus, believe in Jesus, and embrace all he is and all he has done for us. Our hearts will never be free until they’re free in Christ.

But, you might ask, What does this mean? On the one hand, it means that Jesus suffered and died to pay the penalty for our sins, for our idolatry. God does not take our false worship lightly, and for it a price has to be paid. That price is higher—infinitely higher—than we can pay, and so Christ paid it for us. When we believe in him, his payment is added to our account and we’re free from the power and penalty of sin.

On the other hand, it means that Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life. He obeyed God the Father with infinite perfection in thought, affection, word, and deed. Therefore, when we believe in Jesus, his righteousness is added to our account and we become acceptable to God.  

Or to put it another way, we become free. We become free to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And we become free from lesser loves that we formerly put in the place of God. To be sure, we continue to struggle and fight to direct our worship aright, but in Christ, we’re free to do so. We’re able to do so.

Technology is an issue, but it's not the problem. The heart of the problem is our own hearts, and the solution to this problem is to embrace the heart of Christ: all he is and all he has done for us. May the Lord grant us the desire and ability to see the glory of Jesus and choose him above all other things today. May the Lord grant us the ability to be free and satisfied in Him. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Does God Exist?

Last week and this I have been teaching a mini-class on the existence of God. One argument for his existence is the "teleological" or "cosmological" argument, that is, that creation assumes a Creator and is indeed filled with signs of his direct involvement therein. One of the resources I've used in the development of my classes is a several-part series on this argument by Stephen Meyer. Each installment is about 20 minutes long but well worth the time. 

Happy viewing! May the Lord build your faith and equip you to help others see - indeed know - that God is. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Holy Spirit and Discipleship

While preparing for a sermon a few weeks ago I came across this quote from John Stott. I don’t want to get in his way, so let me just encourage you to read this carefully and prayerfully, and to reflect on the central role the Holy Spirit plays in your life with Christ.  

“Without the Holy Spirit, Christian discipleship would be inconceivable, even impossible. There can be no life without the life-giver, no understanding without the Spirit of truth, no fellowship without the unity of the Spirit, no Christlikeness of character apart from his fruit, and no effective witness without his power. As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead.”

John Stott on Acts 2:1-42

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Serious Hazards of Distraction

In his book Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014) J. Ellsworth Kalas writes, “Some think we are part of the most distracted generation in human history. I’m constitutionally uneasy about using words like ‘the most,’ ‘the least,’ ‘the worst’ or ‘the best,’ because I know just enough history to realize that it’s hard to prove such superlatives. Even so, I can’t help feeling that whether or not distraction is now at its worst, it is certainly at a level where it imposes serious hazards to what is best in our human character, and it presents particular issues to those of us who try to lead by preaching, teaching, and writing” (page 14).

Interestingly, Kalas feels that to some extent distraction is a necessary and helpful to human beings. Were it not for distraction, for example, creativity and invention would suffer because we would simply settle into, and be content with, the status quo. So the issue is not a matter of distraction or lack of distraction, rather, it’s a matter of discerning when distraction becomes hazardous.

And, I suppose, it’s a matter of coming to terms with the fact that distraction can indeed become hazardous. I’ve only read one chapter of the book thus far, and so I’m not sure what hazards Kalas sees, but for now I see at least three. First, too much distraction harms our ability to think because we lessen or lose the skill of contemplation. The more we consent to the “give it to me quick and easy” culture, the less we are able to understand great things and think great things on our own. Constant distraction diminishes our mental capacities, and this impacts us more than we realize.

Second, too much distraction harms our ability to love others mainly because we lessen or lose the desire to spend time with people, to listen to them, to simply be with them, to enjoy them. Often, we spend time with others by engaging in some form of media together—a movie, a video game, a You Tube clip, a song, or whatever. But we were created to love one another in more personal ways. I’m not saying it’s a sin to enjoy some kind of media with a friend or loved one, I’m just saying that more and more our relationships seem to be based on media and I’m concerned about how this is affecting our ability to love one another. If we need a “mutual buzz” to be in one another’s presence, will we know how to love when that buzz is no longer there?

Finally, and most importantly, too much distraction harms our ability to love God not in the least because we lessen or lose the ability to contemplate the beauties of God, the wisdom of his Word, and the worth of his ways. For example, the vision of the glory of Jesus in Hebrews 1:1-4 alone has the potential to be life-shaping, but such transformative power is only released when we take the time to understand what we’re reading and contemplate the Christ about whom we’re reading. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we are transformed into the image of Christ by coming into contact with the glory of Christ. That is, the will of God is that we become like Jesus by being with Jesus. But this takes time and patience and the ability to contemplate. It takes the ability just to be with someone, aside from busyness, media, and unnecessary distraction.

We live in a media saturated world, a multi-tasking world, an extremely fast-paced world. This is not likely to change any time soon. But what can change is our relationship to this world. We have the ability to put first things first, to prioritize time with God and others over time with various media. We have the ability to enjoy books and other things that promote rather than harm our ability to contemplate. We have the ability to take advantage of the gift of distraction while avoiding the pitfalls of too much distraction.

May the Lord help us as we seek to find the right balance and thus learn to love him and others as we ought.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Prayer: The Most Important Work

In his book Teach Me to Pray Andrew Murray writes, “As long as we look at prayer chiefly as a means of maintaining our own Christian life, we cannot fully know what it is intended to be. But when we learn to regard it as the most important work entrusted to us and as the root and strength of all other work, then we understand that there is nothing we need more than to study and practice the art of praying in the correct manner” (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002, page 7).

I find Murray’s words stirring and convicting, so let me ask some questions of you that I’ve been asking myself: 
  • How are you doing in prayer these days?
  • Do you delight to spend time with your Savior, Jesus Christ?
  • Do you cast your cares upon him?
  • Do you intercede for others?
  • Do you seek his wisdom, power, and resources to do his will from day to day?
  • Do you draw upon him for all your needs and look to him to shape your hopes and dreams?

Murray is right: prayer is the most important work, for time spent with Christ is the root and strength of every lasting work. So may the Lord indeed teach us to pray, starting today, and empower us to take one small step in the right direction. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Book Review: "Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched and How to Connect with Them"

Drawing on data from eighteen nationwide surveys conducted over six years, and including more than 20,000 Americans, The Barna Group's latest work, Churchless (Austin, TX: Tyndale, 2014), helps church leaders understand the churchless in America. They define the churched as those who are connected to the church, even if only tangentially, and the unchurched as those who have either disconnected from church or never were connected to a church in the first place (page 6). 

The introductory chapter asserts that American culture is undergoing radical shifts. The percentage of the churchless in the country, which is currently around 43%, has risen sharply and yet the church has an obligation before Christ to understand and pursue them in love. So, how are we to do that? The Barna group suggests that “loving, genuine relationships are the only remaining currency readily exchanged between the churched and the churchless” (4). 

The remainder of the book, then, offers wisdom about the shape this love should take. But particulars aside, we can say that things are as they've always been - the love of Christ is spread abroad by the love of Christ as the Holy Spirit empowers his people to hear, speak, and act. 

Having said that, in order to love well, we must know the people we aim to love. Therefore, Barna distinguishes between four groups: 
  • The purely unchurched - these are people who have never attended a church.
  • The de-churched - these are people who used to attend a church but no longer do. They tend to go in cycles of attending and not attending, but whatever the particulars of individual cases, their number is growing rapidly. 
  • The minimally churched - these are people who attend at Christmas and Easter and a few other occasions. 
  • The actively churched - these are people who attend church at least once per month
With these distinctions in mind, the remaining chapters seek to draw a picture of American culture as a whole, and the churchless in particular. Each chapter includes helpful insights and suggestions, and concludes with a series of questions designed to help church leaders apply the insights of research to on-the-ground ministry contexts.

The book concludes with an affirmation of the place of the church in the Kingdom of God and of the culture. Here the Barna Group offers a number of suggestions as to how the church can engage the culture with wisdom, love, and effectiveness. 

While I disagree with the Barna Group's assertions at various points, I think it's a helpful work that can empower local leaders to understand and love their towns and cities. And besides, it's an easy read, so I suggest you buy the book and read it! 

May Jesus be glorified as we seek to know and love the churchless! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

THE Nation whose God is the Lord

Psalm 33:10-12 says: 

"The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; 
he frustrates the plans of the peoples. 
The counsel of the LORD stands forever, 
the plans of his heart to all generations. 
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, 
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!" 

And what nation, what people is that? The Apostle Peter answers that it is the nation of those who have received the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. 

"But you [who believe in Jesus] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Peter 2:9-10). 

And indeed, by the stunning grace of God in Christ, what a blessed nation are we! May we offer thanks and praise to God this day, may we exalt his name for granting us a King who cannot be moved and a Kingdom that cannot be shaken! 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Alcohol, False Pleasures, and the Treasure of Christ

In Proverbs 23:29 Solomon writes, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes?” If Solomon had stopped at the third question, many answers could have been given, but his final two questions narrow the options and so he answers himself in verse 30: “Those who tarry long over wine; those who go to try mixed wine.”

Notice that Solomon focuses our attention not on those who drink, but on those who “tarry long over wine” and “who go to try mixed wine,” which was probably some form of hard liquor. In other words, he’s narrowly focusing on drunks, not broadly on all who drink. With this in mind, Solomon urges his readers not to be drawn in by the allure of alcohol.

“Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your heart utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of a mast. ‘They struck me,’ you will say, ‘but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I must have another drink’” (23:31-35).

Like many other things, alcohol can appear like an angel of light. It can present us with a lopsided, false, and deceitful vision of itself and what it can offer to us. Or rather than blaming alcohol itself, perhaps we should finger those who manufacture and market it. The next time you see a beer commercial, take the time to analyze what you’re seeing and what the marketing experts are trying to say. If you will do this, you’ll see that they’re trying to suck you in by promising you a better life without warning you of the potential dangers of this path to that life. Alcohol in itself is not evil, and neither is the controlled consumption of it, but the abuse of alcohol is idolatry and certain segments of society are doing all they can to call us into it. 

We would do well to heed Solomon’s words, for in the end that sparkling beauty is a deadly serpent. The thing we thought would satisfy us, in the end destroys us. It causes us to see things that are not there, to say things we wouldn’t normally say, to lose control of our physical bodies, to lose the ability to interpret biological cues that are usually clear and obvious, to want more and more of the poison that’s killing us.

Solomon is here addressing the abuse of alcohol, but this is just one example of many he could offer to reveal what all pleasure-based idols do to us. Alcohol, food, money, power, sex, laziness, or many other things can produce similar results in our lives, and hence Solomon’s wise warning. His train of thought leads us back to something he said in verse 23. “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.” In other words, if we’ll seek to obtain the right treasure, we’ll gain control over lesser pleasures. If we’ll feast our souls on the things of God, we’ll lose our taste for things that are not pleasing to God.

So, my friends, let us beware of the allure of false pleasures, and do everything we can to make Christ our only treasure. To the degree that he captures our hearts, other things will lose hold of our hearts. May the Lord help us as we seek to treasure him above all things.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

To Rule the Self is to be Ruled by Christ

In Proverbs 16:32 Solomon writes, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.”

I take this to mean that self-control requires more strength than conquering anyone or anything outside of the self. Therefore, to be in control of one’s self is, or at least ought to be, the highest of human endeavors. But herein lies the problem. As Paul so eloquently said in Romans 7:18-24,

“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

And this was written by a man who was a stellar, religious zealot who was at the top of his class, if you will! If the guy who does everything right feels this way, and sees these things in himself, then what hope is there for the rest of us? Paul answers in Romans 7:25-8:4:

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

So how, then, is one to rule his spirit? Only by being ruled by Christ. Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves, and therefore the way to rule over the self is to surrender to Christ, look to Christ, rest in Christ. May the Lord give us ears to hear and a will to submit to his gracious work in us.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Why Are We So Drawn to Our Devices?

Recently I finished reading Sherry Turkle's fine book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Among other things, her work has caused me to reflect on exactly what we get out of technology, that is, aside from its practical benefits. Or put another way, why are we so powerfully drawn to our devices? Here are a few random (and perhaps rambling) thoughts on the question, I'd love to hear your input. 

First, our machines give us a sense of purpose. To be tethered to the network is to feel alive, to feel that we're part of the human family, that we belong, that we have important things to do (or at least seemingly important). This impulse is understandable but it's dangerous, because we were created to get our sense of purpose from being tethered to God and then to one another. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors which means that being "relationally connected" is the key to having true purpose in life. So while our machines give us the illusion of purpose, learning to relate well with God and others brings us to the heart of our purpose. 

Second, our machines give us a sense of power. Steve Jobs once said in an interview that computers are "the bicycle of the mind." Scientists had previously done a study of the fastest animals on earth which took into consideration their ability to accelerate relative to their mass. Human beings didn't make the top ten, but when we boarded a bike we rocketed to number one. The bicycle allowed human beings to exert more power than they otherwise could. 

"Computers are the bicycle of the mind." They give us the ability to do things that we could not otherwise do; to know things we would not otherwise know; to see things we would not otherwise see (good and bad); to influence others at a level we would not otherwise reach. Tech devices offer us a sense of power we would not otherwise experience, and we're drawn to this. We desire to be more than we are, or at least to seem so, and this is very alluring. 

But the key to happiness is being content in God, and then in who he has made us to be. The desire to be more than we are unveils the fact that we are not content with who we are, or with God. It is not illegitimate to use our devices to do things we could not otherwise do, but the problem comes when we look to this new found power for our sense of purpose and identity. We will be content when we are content in God, and then we will use our devices for the glory of God rather than the inflation of the self. 

Third, our machines give us a sense of community. When we are connected to the network, we feel connected with people. In truth, this connection is superficial at best and, as Sherry Turkle warns us, it may in fact be warring against our ability to form true connections. The solution is not to ditch our devices, but it is to realize their limitations and give more of our time to forming authentic, face-to-face connections with people. This requires us to turn off our gadgets and give our full attention to God and others which is hard but, in the end, very good. As we prioritize actual human connections, our gadgets will take their proper place in life. 

Finally, our machines give us a sense of immortality. Although this movement has yet to infiltrate the mainstream of our culture, there are companies out there like MyLifeBits that enable users to document nearly everything in their lives, including what they see and hear and feel. As the devices required for such "archiving" become smaller and less conspicuous, this movement will gain momentum, and more and more people will seek to archive the everything of their lives. 

But why? I think it's because we have a deep fear of death, and a desire for immortality. The inability to remember the past, and to be remembered by others, is a sure sign of our mortality and limitedness, and we have great angst about this. We are not content to be human. We are not content to die. We know that life is meant to live, and therefore, if we cannot live forever we will grasp onto whatever gives us the illusion of immortality. 

In conclusion, the reason we are so powerfully drawn to our devices is because we do not turn to God. In other words, we tend to look to our devices as God-substitutes. But God is the only one who can satisfy the human soul. All else will fall short and leave us disappointed and depressed. So may we hear and heed the gracious words of Jesus when he says that the greatest commandments in all of life are to love God with everything in us, and then to love each other as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). 

What do you think?