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Christian Life, Faith, Spiritual Growth

Bible reading won’t build your faith

March 10, 2017

 

 

 

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
– Matthew 7:24-27

 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
– James 2:14-17

 

Growing up in the evangelical culture there was a constant emphasis on Bible reading, memorization, and study. I’m grateful for the countless hours that I was taught to learn from God’s word, delving into the nuances of sentences and stepping back to see the grandeur of the over-arching storyline. I did (do!) annual Bible read-throughs, 90-day Bible read-throughs (that was intense), and hundreds of studies through various books of scripture.

Evangelicalism has done an excellent job training its adherents that the Bible is God’s inspired Word. According to a recent poll 95% of evangelicals affirm that truth. When I ask young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches what they can do to grow spiritually the answer is invariably some variation of “Read the Bible more.” For many within evangelicalism Bible reading is the path to holiness and increased faith. But there’s a problem with that. Reading the Bible doesn’t build your faith, just like stacking wood doesn’t start a fire. In fact, just reading the Bible (or hearing God’s word in any form) is the equivalent of building a house on quicksand. Jesus himself says so.

How Faith Grows

Jesus says that anyone who hears his words and does them builds their house on a solid foundation. It’s not the hearing that saves – it’s the obeying and acting according to what you’ve heard that is faith. The Apostle James is even more explicit in his Epistle, saying that without action faith is dead (James 2:17).

We need to move away from the idea that reading the Bible more is the primary means of spiritual growth. If it was wouldn’t we have significantly more examples in Jesus’ ministry of him and his disciples reading and discussing the Torah together? Certainly he and the Apostles after him taught people from the scriptures deeply, but I would argue that it was through obedience to the Word that growth came.

Peter walked on the water not because he heard Jesus’ command to “Come,” but because he stepped out of the boat. To reference James again,

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
– James 2:21-25

In each case the individual heard God’s word and obeyed. They acted, and it was in the action that their faith was established.

Gather Fuel

What Bible reading and prayer do is give us the fuel for putting faith into action. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” But, as we’ve already noted, that faith doesn’t become a reality if it isn’t acted out. The Gospel of God starts a fire in our soul and the Word is fuel that stokes that fire, but to gather wood and never place it in the fire is pointless.

There are too many long-time believers sitting in spiritual houses stacked to the roof with well organized, neatly split firewood and a barely flickering flame. Faith looks like taking some of that firewood and throwing it in the fire.

If you’re lacking fuel, spend time in the word and prayer. Make this a daily, frequent practice. Abide in the word and let it abide in you. But you must not stop there. Cords of firewood do no good to anyone in this frigid world of sin and brokenness if they are never lit. Let’s start putting fuel on the flame by obeying Jesus’ commands and following the Spirit’s lead.

Stoke the Fire

Two practical ways you can do this:

  1. Whenever you read a section of scripture, finish by asking God “What do you want me to do in response to this?” Write down what the Spirit prompts you to do and do it.
  2. Don’t move on from a section of Scripture until it’s become a part of your life and you can truly say it’s become a part of how you live, not just another thing you know.

We all want heart change – we want our passions and lives to align with what our Lord calls us to have. Reading words from the page of a book, even if it is inspired by God, is not the way for that to happen. Faith won’t grow simply by reading a book. Additional knowledge can’t create definitive change in the human heart. The only way that happens is if our faith is put into action. Let’s put God’s word to the test. Let’s be people who believe him and act accordingly. As we do so the flame of our faith will grow in ways that those around us won’t be able to ignore.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Warfare

Fighting Cravings

December 23, 2016

 

 

 

For most long-time followers of Christ many of the sins we end up in aren’t the result of conscious, pre-meditated disobedience. More often than not it’s a split-second decision to go along with a seemingly out-of-nowhere craving. The Apostle James describes it in his epistle, writing, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” (James 1:14)

We are lured and enticed by the cravings that come flowing from within our flesh, choosing in those moments to go with the flow into sin when we could instead, by the Spirit, “stand firm” (Eph. 6) and resist temptation. According to a recent webinar with the VitalSmarts, several studies have shown that most cravings last around three minutes, so if we can resist and refocus ourselves for three minutes we’ll see a drastic shift away from giving into those craving-driven sin. The question is, what do we do during those painful three minutes?

Proverbs 21 has some wise insight for us here:

“A slacker’s craving will kill him
Because his hands refuse to work.
He is filled with craving all day long,
But the righteous give and don’t hold back.”
– Proverbs 21:25-26

Cravings will kill

Both James and the writer of Proverbs agree – when we give into temptation and cravings it ends in death. A slacker’s cravings, in this case for food, ultimately kill him because he’s too lazy to get up and do the work to earn money to feed himself. Similarly, in a spiritual sense it’s often our laziness that gives our cravings and temptations power to draw us into the deadly grip of sin. We refuse to do the work that would carry us away from temptation because it’s more difficult.

It’s combat, and it’s what we were given the power to do when we were born again and received the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at two practical ways to combat temptation and cravings outlined in the Proverb above.

Combat the cravings

1. Put your hands to work

God always provides a way out of temptation (1 Cor. 10:13), but it often looks like hard work, so we often choose to float along into death because it seems easier in the moment. But that’s not what we were created for. We were created with purpose for good works (Eph. 2). The slacker’s cravings kill him because his hands refuse to work, so combat your cravings by putting yourself to work.

Do you find yourself craving over-indulging on food Friday nights? Get up from the couch and do some small house work for 10 minutes. Tempted towards pornography? Put your body to work by exercising for 15 minutes. More often than not the craving will be gone by the time you’re done.

2. Give generously

The writer of this proverb contrasts the man who is “filled with craving all day long” with the righteous person who gives generously and doesn’t hold anything back. Generosity is one of the most potent defenses against temptation. Are you fighting a deep-set craving today? Get up, find another human, and bless them somehow. Bless them generously, whether that be financially or with words of encouragement or helping them with a task. As you turn your focus off your cravings and onto the needs of another human being your craving will dissipate like fog beneath the summer sun.

Practice, Practice

Pushing through moments of temptation and craving isn’t an easy thing. Just like any skill it takes practice, and the longer you’ve been giving into the craving the more practice it will take you to divert that temptation into something good and glorious. I wrote this blog post as much for myself as for anyone else who might read it – there are plenty of cravings that I too easily give into, and I intend to take these two practices from Proverbs and put them into action as we move towards a new year. Will you join me?

As we do so may God bless us with his grace to take advantage of the escape from every temptation that he provides so we can find ourselves living in the beautiful, free life that is found in Christ rather than in the dark, crushing captivity of giving into the flesh and its cravings.

 

 

 

Book Highlights, Faith, Spiritual Growth

Finding Fullness of Joy

December 5, 2016

 

 

We humans naturally pursue what is pleasurable. We were created with innate longings for joy and enjoyment and spend our lifetimes capturing it wherever we can. That longing is a good thing, planted by our Creator to draw us like a magnet toward the fountain of pleasure that is found in Him.

The problem is that sin has distorted things and we’re constantly getting drawn into poisoned pleasures that lead to death. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, the mind set on satisfying the cravings of the flesh is death. The earthly pleasures found in sex, food, entertainment, days off, observing the beauties of nature, and the like ultimately all fall short. We consume them and walk away needing more. The pleasures and joys of this earth aren’t full. We need more than what they offer.

Where pleasure is found

In Psalm 16 David gives an answer to the pleasure-seeking ache that every human has. He writes,

“You make know to me the path of life;
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
– Psalm 16:11

Where are we to find the joy and enjoyment that we need? In the presence of God.

Almost every Christian I know would agree with this in general, but in practice we tend to function as if we don’t quite believe what David’s saying here. Note that it’s not in the Bible that David says joy is found. It’s not in church. It’s not in quiet times. It’s in God’s presence. That means that if we’re in God’s presence we can have joy and pleasure.

The question is, where is God’s presence? If we want joy and pleasure and it’s experienced by being close to God, then we must know where God is and go there.

The Apostle Paul states what echoes throughout the Psalms and the rest of Scripture when he declares God, “is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28). God is present throughout all the earth. He fills his creation as the waters fill the sea. As David wrote in another Psalm,

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
– Psalm 139:7-10

Long story short, God’s presence is everywhere. You can’t get away from it.

This truth has amazing implications for our search for joy. If it is both true that God is present in all places and that in his presence there is total joy and pleasure, that means we can walk in constant fullness of joy, regardless of our location or situation. In the midst of family conflict we can have joy. In the midst of moving to a new city and knowing no one we can have joy. When nothing goes according to plan we can be pleased, because God is present and in his presence is pleasure forevermore.

How to get there

In another Psalm we read,

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
– Psalm 100:4

Want to get into God’s presence where there is pleasure and joy unending? The way to get there is is thanksgiving and praise. Thanksgiving gets you through the gates, praise into the courts of his presence. If we want pleasure and joy we must put praise and thanksgiving as high priorities in our lives.

When you’re feeling dissatisfied with life is your response to start thanking God for all the good he’s given you? When you’re stressed and joyless do you turn on the praise by declaring to God his glorious character and promises? God is present in all places and at all times, and we can encounter that presence in a real, mind-and-emotion-impacting way through thanksgiving and praise.

If you’re struggling to grasp joy and find pleasure in God or in life, set aside regular time to worship. Read the Scriptures and respond with verbal, out-loud declaration of thanks when you read something good. Write out a list of what you’re thankful for in this moment. Turn on worship music and soak in the lyrics. Inevitably you’ll find that as you do so your heart and Spirit rises to the joy and pleasure that is found in the presence of God. And that, my friends, will make all the difference.

 

 

 

 

Christian Life, Faith, Parenting, Spiritual Growth

you’re not inadequate

September 19, 2016

 

 

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
– Colossians 2:8-10

 

 

This whole parenting thing has left Kelly and I both feeling thoroughly inadequate. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate just how much energy – emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual – it takes to care for a tiny human.

Maybe your thing isn’t parenting at the moment, but I know there are many of you reading that are coming into this new week feeling that kind of inadequacy. You had an exhausting weekend dealing with family stuff that you didn’t want to have to ever deal with. You’re waking up and heading to work with dread, unsure if you’ll make it through the next 8 hours. You feel trapped in a hole of depression and anxiety and feel utterly out of energy to fight.

Whatever it is that has you feeling small and unable to cope this morning, Colossians 2 has important truth for you. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae to remind them of the truth of the Gospel and to exhort them to not get caught up again in worldly thinking – i.e. the “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” mentioned in the verses above. His remedy to this worldly kind of thinking is a strange one. He declares, “in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”

Christ the fullness

“In Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily”. If you’re a Christian, you probably get this statement on some level. Or do you? Have you thought on the massiveness of what Paul is saying here? God – infinite, eternal, omnipotent – somehow got packed inside a body and became a man by the name of Jesus.

When you encounter Jesus you’re not encountering some small portion of God. No, in him the entirety of God resides without limits. That’s amazing. But it gets even more crazy.

Filled in Him

Paul could have stopped and built his argument against worldly thinking simply on the fact that God had become flesh in Christ, but he doesn’t. Instead he goes on and makes what is, in many ways, an even more audacious and wild statement when he writes, “and you have been filled in Him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”

Catch that? Paul just said that the same Jesus in whom the fullness of God has residence has filled you. You, my friend, have the fullness of God filling you. The one who has all rule and authority and power, the one of whom the angels and elders and all creation declare in Revelation 5, “ Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” that one has taken up residence in you.

When that one, the almighty one, has filled you there’s no room for inadequacy. As Paul writes in the following verses to the Colossians, you were dead in your sin but God baptized you into Christ and you now have resurrection life at work in you. You’ve been filled in him in whom all the fullness of deity dwells bodily. The same one who parted the Red Sea for the Isrealites, made blind people see, fed 5000 with a kid’s happy meal, and resurrected himself from the dead is at work in you.

Don’t buy the lie that you’re inadequate and unable to take on what God’s placed in front of you. If you’re in Christ and Christ is in you you have more than enough to endure in joy. My prayer for you and for Kelly and myself today is that we would truly experience the reality that we have indeed “been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” and as we experience that demonstrate to the watching world the beautiful peace and power that is found only in Jesus.

May the Lord make it so, as it already is.

 

 

 

Commentary, Spiritual Growth, young adults

To You, Young Man

August 24, 2016

 

 

I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
– 1 John 2:14

 

You Are Strong

Young man, you have been given physical strength and energy. You can handle pushing yourself. Don’t waste that energy and strength on video games and entertainment. Don’t waste your strength on pursuing and impressing women (or, worse yet, forcing yourself on women). Instead look to Jesus who used his strength to serve, love, and bear the burden of his Father’s honor.

You also have mental strength and fortitude. Push your mind to learn and grow now while you are young so that it has capacity as you grow older. Engage with deep issues, don’t avoid them. Read. Write. Think. Jesus “grew in stature with men and God.” You do the same. You are strong.

The Word of God Lives in You

Paul says that physical training is of some value, but training for godliness is eternally valuable (1 Tim 4:8). Your strength is good, but it must be directed towards an eternally valuable end. Train yourself for godliness by cultivating the word of God that lives in you.

Soak in passages of scripture, yes, but most importantly let Jesus, the living Word, abide in you and you in him. Stop focusing so much on the fact that you need to read your Bible more. Instead, trust that the Word (Jesus) has indwelt you through his Spirit. He lives in you. What more do you need?

If Christ and his Spirit live in you, you have knowledge of God’s word and will. You don’t need to be passive and act as if you don’t have anything to contribute. Be humble, yes, and learn from your elders, but also be bold. In Psalm 119 David says that he had more understanding than all his councilors because he meditated on God’s law. Be that guy.

The Word lives. This isn’t some dead knowledge. It is a living force that will compel you to obey and move in faith. It lives in you; a foreign power has taken up residence within you. Submit to it.

You Have Overcome

You are strong. The Word abides in you. As a result have and will overcome the evil one. Your overcoming is so sure that John had to put it in past tense. Because Jesus defeated sin and Satan, you too overcome the evil one.

You, young man, get to walk around in victory over Satan. You get to laugh at his attempts and attacks. His deceits and temptations have already been overcome. He doesn’t get to have any power in your life.

That overcoming doesn’t stop with your life though, just like Jesus’ defeat of Satan didn’t just result in freedom for him personally. In the power of Jesus you can help others overcome the demonic forces in their own lives. Step out boldly. Take risks and you’ll see the kingdom of God break in and overcome beautiful ways.

You, young men, have great potential in the kingdom of our heavenly Father. The Apostle John thought so. I think so. I write to you because I want you to step into the full reality of that potential. Don’t settle for being anything less than you are. You are strong. You have the word of God living in you. You are an overcomer. Live that today.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Discipleship, Spiritual Growth

The Cost of Hiding Talents

July 14, 2016

 

 

 

The Apostle James wrote, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17) That, I believe, is one of the main points of the Parable of the Talents that Jesus tells to his disciples as he explains what things will be like “at the end of the age.” It’s a message that we desperately need to take to heart.

Hiding Talents

One of the greatest issues for Christians in the western world is that we know a thousand right things to do and struggle to accomplish even one of them. Our knowing has far exceeded our obeying. As Carey Nieuwhof quipped, “the average North American Christian is about 3000 bible verses overweight.” (read his full post here).

Jesus makes the expectations of God clear in the parable of the talents. Matthew records its strange conclusion this way:

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
– Matthew 25:24-30

What was the issue with the third servant? Is the master a greedy man who just wants more money? No. The problem is, “You knew that I reap where I have not sown”. Because the servant knew his master’s character, the master expected the servant to act accordingly. He never commanded the servants to make more money for him, so I believe we can infer that the issue here is not the money. The master cares that his servants live up to what they know.

My friends, are we living according to what we know of our heavenly Father’s character? Do our actions and thoughts towards others align with the love that the Father has demonstrated in Christ? Are our financial, time, and relational priorities synced with his? He has given us talents – he has given us his Holy Spirit – and he expects to return and find that we have invested them as we have.

Losing talents

If we are the servant hiding or hoarding the talents we’ve been given, this parable gives us cause to tremble. Apparently the kingdom of heaven works in such a way that those who don’t use what they’ve been given have it taken away from them and given to someone who already has a lot. “to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. “

I won’t take time here to delve into these couple verses that seem almost vicious on the surface. Suffice it to say that the intention of the punishment of this wayward servant in the parable isn’t to make us cower in fear. It’s there to motivate and inspire us to invest our talents – to be the one who has wisely worked what they’ve been given and can come before the Master and receive his commendation.

Investing Talents

The beautiful truth is that, for those of us who are in Christ, the Holy Spirit is the engine and the fuel for that investment. He is the one who leads and guides and reveals, gently insisting that we bear fruit as we abide.

If you have little, start investing. As with the woman and her copper coin that received Jesus’ praise, those of us with seemingly minuscule talents can uncover great glory through faith. For both the servant with ten and the servant with five talents, their investment was doubled. Had the servant with one talent invested as well I believe his talent would have doubled again. And again. And again.

Let’s live up to what we know of God’s character. I don’t want to be the servant who comes before his master with apologies and excuses. Instead I want to be able to come and say, “see what I have done with what you’ve given me!” What beautiful glory and honor there is in living in the power of Christ for the glory of God.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Faith, Life, Spiritual Growth

Fear vs. Faith: A framework for decision making

June 13, 2016

 

 

 

 

Life is basically just one long series of decisions. For those who are followers of Christ we long deeply for those decisions to be ones that glorify our creator and Savior. Some decisions are clearly right and wrong, and we navigate those with general ease. Or at the very least know how we should navigate them. The tension comes when we encounter decisions where God’s word doesn’t give direct instruction and where we may not be feeling a specific lead from the Holy Spirit.

I want to offer a simple, effective framework for navigating that kind of decision in your life. First the basis for this framework, then the framework itself.

Fear or Faith

In the 14th chapter of his epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul makes a massive statement; “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (14:23b) If this statement is to be taken at face value – which I believe it is, judging by the scripture-wide emphasis on faith as the thing which pleases God most – then that means that every act we do that isn’t prompted by faith is, in some way, a sin.

The opposite of faith is fear. Fear is self-focused, faith is God-focused. Fear is about security and control, faith is about trust and obedience. Fear is timid, faith is bold. Faith takes God at His word, fear looks at the circumstances and gathers doubt.

I want you to choose to live in faith rather than fear. When you come to a difficult decision and are unsure what to do, ask yourself this question: “Which of these options is choosing faith?” Choose that one, no matter what. We don’t want to be people who take the path of least resistance. We want to be the people who walk the path that carries us increasingly closer to Christ.

Live in Faith

The funny thing is, the same outward action that comes from faith in one person could be coming from fear in another. To help better grasp how this works out, let’s look at a couple examples and contrast how choosing in faith vs. choosing in fear plays out.

  • It’s Friday. A few co-workers are going to the bar after work and they invite you along. You choose to go.
    • Faith: You chose to go despite the fact that you don’t feel comfortable in bars because you believe that God wants you to love and minister to your coworkers, and you want to get to know them better.
    • Fear: You chose to go because you didn’t want to be seen as an outsider or a goodie two-shoes.
  • You’re frustrated with your significant other because of something they keep doing even though you’ve mentioned that it bothers you several times already. You decide to keep quiet about it.
    • Faith: You chose to be quiet and trust that they care for you and probably aren’t doing it intentionally, so you’ll trust the Spirit to remind them this time.
    • Fear: You chose to be quiet because you didn’t want to start an argument or appear to be nagging or have them be frustrated with you.
  • A person who drains you called this morning and left a message, asking you to call them back. You put it off for a few hours, then call them back.
    • Faith: You chose to call them back because you trust that God will give you the emotional energy to deal with whatever the situation is.
    • Fear: You called them back because you were worried about what they’d think of you if you didn’t, and because you’d feel like you weren’t being Christian enough.

There are a thousand more examples that could be laid out before us. But you don’t need them, because you have the Holy Spirit in you. When you ask which option in the decision you’re making is choosing faith, he’ll let you know. Step into it. We make decision after decision every day, and each one is an opportunity to step further into faith in God or backwards into fear. Let’s make faith our daily choice, no matter what the cost. It will be well worth it in the end.

 

 

 

 

Christian Life, Discipleship, Faith, Spiritual Growth, Spiritual Warfare

Wrong Stronghold

June 9, 2016

 

 

 

A few weekends ago the Threshingfloor Communities leaders spent a weekend together to learn, pray, and plan for the next several months of ministry. During our time at the cabin we all packed into near Park Rapids, MN we watched this sermon by Francis Chan. It led to some great discussion about our personal prayer lives, whether or not we are truly seeking God as our “one thing,” and what exactly we are looking to as our stronghold of safety, rest, and peace.

We live in a world where we are under constant attack. Rare is the day where a person can go from sunrise to sundown without some sort of difficulty, whether it be emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise. We are fragile creatures, even the strongest of us. A harsh word can bring up pain from a decade ago and make it as real today as it was then. A small failure can, in a moment, unearth all our well-hidden insecurities.

We all need a place where we can take our armor off, lay down, and rest without fear. We need a stronghold. Even just the knowledge that we have such a stronghold is often enough to carry us through difficulty.

The Strongholds

It’s because of this need for a stronghold that we are constantly seeking and building for ourselves safe place after safe place. Having a rough week? The weekend can be your stronghold, with its (hopefully) less hectic schedule and freedom from work hours. Feeling lonely? The next romantic relationship will be your stronghold. Once you get it, you’ll have the safety and joy that will protect you from the pain of the world, right? Tired? Depressed? Sleep can be your stronghold, with its gentle oblivion to guard you from the weary difficulty of life.

The list can go on. Our ingenuity in stronghold construction knows no bounds. Food, music, movies, anger, traveling – you name it, we humans have at one point or another tested it as a stronghold to protect us from the difficulties of this world.

The problem with these strongholds is that, inevitably, they fail. More often than not when they fail they leave us worse off than we were before. The weekend goes by too fast and is too busy and Sunday night you watch the walls of your stronghold crumble around you, leaving you in the painful world of the weekday once again. The person you were pursuing that romantic relationship with? Yea, well, turns out she’s not interested (despite the signs to the contrary). The stronghold falls and you’re left wandering in loneliness again. And – of course – you weren’t able to fall asleep and spent the night tossing and turning without any real sleep.

The funny thing is that, for most of us, when our stronghold of choice fails us we don’t seem to get the message that it’s not working. Instead we retreat further inside and build the walls higher, bar the doors more strongly. If I didn’t get the weekend I needed this time, then next weekend will be really really resting. The next job will be fulfilling. Little do we know that each time we do this we’re building around ourselves not walls for protection, but walls that hold us captive.

Demolition Time

According to Paul, the Gospel comes in to demolish false strongholds. The good news of Jesus Christ is dynamite that blasts through the walls that we thought kept us safe but in reality keep us captive. In 2 Corinthians 10 he writes,

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. -2 Cor 10:3-5

My friends, we don’t wage war like the world does. We don’t build the strongholds that they do. Jesus won’t let us, because he knows that those false strongholds are lies set up against the knowledge of God. Our Lord loves us too much to let entertainment, food, sex, relationships, or any other false stronghold keep his children from freedom, so he will gladly come and destroy the walls around us and leave us standing frightened and in the open until we turn to the only true stronghold.

The True Stronghold

The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
-Psalm 27:1

David knew well what it meant to need a place to hide. He literally had people attempting to kill him, something that most of us probably haven’t experienced. In the midst of that painful, fearful situation David needed a stronghold. Instead of turning to some earthly thing – hiding and feeling sorry for himself or taking up arms and doing battle against those who came after him – he declares “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.”

When we learn to build Christ around us as the stronghold of our lives, we can laugh and be fearless even when there’s chaos and war around us. We will say with David, “Though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”

Rough week at work with lots of tension? Jesus is peace, patience, and hope. Feeling lonely? God is present with you, closer than any significant other, and he’s given you a family in Christ. Tired and depressed? The Lord gives rest to those whom he loves, and those who trust in him run and do not faint. Worried and anxious? Don’t worry about tomorrow, because your Father in heaven knows what you need and loves you.

The one true stronghold is found in Jesus; all others are failures and lies.

The question is, how do we get there? How do we get to the place where the Lord is indeed our stronghold? David gives us the key to entering the stronghold of the Lord in verses 4-6 of Psalm 27:

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.

Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

When the one thing that we pursue is to be in God’s presence, then we are kept safe in God’s tent. Note that – the walls of God’s tent are stronger than the stones of the greatest fortress we could build. In the presence of the Lord there is safety. Make abiding in Him the center of your mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical reality and your “head will be exalted…” and you will “sacrifice with shouts of joy”. He is a stronghold that will not fail. Indeed, as Luther famously penned, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”

Christian, where is your stronghold today? What are you looking to for protection, comfort, and hope? Is it Christ or something of this world? Don’t lock yourself within the deadly confines of a worldly stronghold. It will make you a captive and a slave. Instead, look to Jesus and see that in him are the walls that shall never fail and the peace that surpasses all understanding.

 

 

 

Christian Life, Commentary, Spiritual Growth

Jesus and Foolish Generosity

April 18, 2016

 

 

 

We were always told to leave any cash or credit cards or anything of value behind when we went out on the streets in Cass Corridor. In highschool I was was able to take three trips with my youth group to that painfully troubled part of inner city Detroit. Talk about eye opening. I learned a lot about serving the Lord and took some huge steps in my spiritual growth during those times. But looking back I see a problem with some of what I learned.

On those trips and in general church life I was always taught that you really shouldn’t give money to a homeless person. Actually, you should probably be slightly afraid of them. More than likely they’ll spend on drugs or alcohol or something along those lines. Be generous, sure – give them some food, the coat off your back, a ride somewhere, just don’t give them money. Doing that would be unwise since they probably won’t use the money wisely.

This training, along with so many others that I received both explicit and implicitly from the Christian culture that I grew up in, seems to pit wisdom directly against the words of Jesus. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says,

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
– Luke 6:28-31

Give to everyone

The sermon on the mount seems to be Jesus’ vision of what a world looks like when people walk in step with the Spirit of God. He outlines a radical counter-culture that pushes us past what makes sense in a world where wisdom needs to be completely redefined.

You don’t get much more radical than a statement like, “give to everyone who begs from you.” Everyone means everyone, so Jesus literally means that every time someone begs for money or food or help from you, give to them.

There were drunks and drug users and people who were homeless from sheer laziness in Jesus’ day, yet he says “give to everyone who begs from you.” Where the leaders of the synagogue advocated wisdom and caution in generosity, fiscal or otherwise, Jesus simply says give to those who ask of you. But he doesn’t stop there.

The sentence goes on and Jesus gets even more radical, declaring, “from the one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.” Wait. What? When someone steals from you don’t insist that they give it back? What about restitution? What about the rule of law? What kind of society could function if the caught thief was allowed to keep what he stole?

Our idea of wisdom screams that such a thing is foolishness; that there needs to be punishments in place to keep bad things from happening. The problem is, our definition of wisdom is wrong.

Wisdom vs. Jesus

Biblical wisdom as outlined primarily in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and several other locations throughout scripture can be boiled down to rightly applying God’s truth to daily living. The question comes then, what is God’s truth?

Our wisdom is generally fear disguised behind good principles wrongly applied. We don’t give money to the homeless person because we fear somehow being complicit in providing them access to drugs or alcohol. We fear being taken advantage of in the future so we demand restitution when stolen from.

The truth is that Jesus is wisdom and that following his commands and imitating his ways is rightly applying God’s truth to daily living. Paul makes this explicit in 1 Corinthians 1:30 when he writes, “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Jesus became wisdom to us. For us. Let’s not pretend we have a right to pit his words against some plucked-out-of-context Proverb or culturally conditioned opinion and call the one that makes us more comfortable wisdom. If Jesus truly is the son of God, living the life of God on earth then he’s the one who knows how to live wisely. If he says “give to everyone who begs from you,” then that is what it means to live wisely.

Let’s not let our cultural assumptions define how we live. Let’s be people who take Jesus at his word, walking in wisdom by obeying him even when it seems foolish and ridiculous. It wouldn’t be the first time God asks his people to do something weird. And it certainly won’t be the last.

Keep some cash on you this Spring and Summer. When you come across someone begging, don’t hold back. Give to everyone who asks of you. If someone steals from you, be radical. Don’t demand it back. Instead, call it a gift and pray God’s goodness on the thief. Bless indiscriminately, just like Jesus does. Let’s be people who, with the wisdom of Christ, live with foolish generosity.

 

 

 

 

Faith, Spiritual Growth

Belief and Blessing

April 12, 2016

 

 

You know the story. An angel shows up to a teenage girl in the midst of her morning chores, declaring that she’s going to have a child that will be the Son of God. Mary, though shocked, accepts the angel’s words as true and responds in praise. A few weeks later she travels to stay with her cousin Elizabeth who has had a similarly miraculous pregnancy (though without the whole son of God thing). When Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s house she is greeted with a prophecy.

“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Luke 1:45

Blessed for Believing

Faith is what pleases God most. The majority of the book of Romans is filled with the Apostle Paul making a case for this, and he begins with the statement, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ (Romans 1:17) Faith is what pleases God and gathers blessing for those who believe – hence Elizabeth’s statement “Blessed is she who has believed”!

Despite all common sense to the contrary, Mary took God at his word. That’s how those who are righteous live. Faith is taking God at his word, believing that the Lord will fulfill his promises, regardless of what common sense or circumstance says.

How will you do that today? In Christ God has made countless promises to us, and I want us to be able to come to the end of our day and have it declared over us “Blessed are you who have believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises!”

It is there, in that life of faith and the eternal fruit that comes from it, that true blessing is found. Of course, that blessing might not look like what you’d expect. It certainly didn’t for Mary. But that’s a topic for another post.