Unity Trumps Uniformity

March 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

I have great friends. Seriously, there are some awesome people that have been a huge part of my life and have really shaped how I think and what I do. These guys are constantly helping me grow in understanding and conviction, while at the same time offering fun and confidence. The funny thing is, I disagree with them. A lot.

In the last few years there has been a bit of an upheaval in the Christian community. New ideas (or new versions of old ideas) and methods have made their way to the forefront and have caused problems among believers. Battle lines have been drawn in an attempt to define political/religious/social/cultural camps. These lines generally help define our circles of influence and comfort. They create safe zones in which we are able to establish fairly conflict-free lives.

For many, their closest circle of friends is made up of people who see the world roughly the same way. They listen to the same music, the same talk shows, and read the same books. Their political enemies and allies lists are basically the same. And when it comes to religious beliefs, they are basically in lock-step.

Now, there is nothing wrong with having friends who think the same way you do. It’s natural and normal to form tribes around common belief and practice. That’s fine.  And I would be lying if I said I didn’t have friends whose ideas are generally the same as mine. I do. But those people aren’t the total picture and often they aren’t even the central figures of my social life.

My closest friends are people who I enjoy spending time with and can converse on a variety of topics on a knowledgeable level. They aren’t the people with whom I most agree. In fact, the conversations with my best friends often involve a healthy dose of debate. While some may think I’m crazy, I really think it’s healthy. But why?

First of all, I believe that biblical unity is experienced in diversity rather than uniformity. It seems that God is more interested in the harmonious working of varied parts than the bland plodding of sameness. Paul is aware of this when he tells the Ephesians to KEEP the unity of the Spirit UNTIL we all come to the unity of the faith. He is expressing a difficult idea that, though we are experiencing the same Spirit, we don’t all have the same understanding and are all needing to grow in the knowledge of the Son of God. It seems God is pleased when I admit that my understanding is finite, and that someone a little different from myself can teach me something. If everyone were absolutely alike, there would be no need for unity. While I do believe there are reasons to separate from some, those reasons are fewer and more rare than we often think.

Beyond unity, my relationships challenge me and my understanding of Jesus and scripture. They ask questions that I don’t ask. They approach things from an angle I don’t. They push me to get outside my narrow perspective and take a fresh look at the Bible, my beliefs, and my practices. Because of those conversations, I am forced to admit that my opinions and impressions are not the final word in determining truth. I have to engage in a whole new way. When the dust settles, I am either convinced to adopt and adapt to new ideas or I am strengthened in my ability to articulate my original position.

Ultimately these guys are my friends because they’re fun, we enjoy time together, and we care enough about our God, His truth, and each other to disagree respectfully. My friendship with them, and their friendship with me, doesn’t come with a lot of strings. We disagree. We might argue. But at the end of the day, we are better people after our talks than we were before. There may never be a day when I convince my friends to come to my position. They may never persuade me to theirs. But in the end, we are all better Christians, better people, and better friends.

Keeping Faith Through Tragedy

March 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Thursday November 25, 2010, Thanksgiving morning, I received news that would tragically change my life forever. I was awakened by a phone call from my father with the terrible news that my little brother was killed along with his wife of six months in a car accident. The irony of this phone call was that just four and a half years earlier I received a similar phone call from my brother informing me that my mother had passed away.

I do not consider myself an expert on the psychological effects of tragedy or even a great counselor to those who have experienced loss, but I have had considerable experience dealing with the uphill climb that comes with picking up all of the broken pieces and trying to maintain my faith during tragedy and disappointment. In this post I want to simply relay some of the things that I have learned in hopes that my experience can help someone else.

I would like to begin by saying that we were not designed to be able to deal with death. The human race was designed to live in a garden where death and disappointment weren’t realities. Death and disappointment were introduced as realities because of the fall of man. We need to understand that even though the realities were introduced at the fall, the construct of humans was not changed to make dealing with them easier.

Understanding that we are incapable of handling loss on our own makes the presence of the Holy Spirit in our life invaluable. Through the most tragic experiences that we face the Holy Spirit will always bring comfort. Obviously the pain will be present and without a doubt tough days will still happen, but the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives makes death and disappointment bearable.

The trouble that many believers run into while experiencing loss is a tendency to blame God and lose trust in him. One of the most blatant failures of the church is that we often preach a Gospel that makes us immune from hurt and disappointment. Church leaders often talk about the blessings, health, and favor that come with living a life of faith in Christ at the neglect of the reality that life will happen. We are never promised that things will always be perfect. The promise that we have is that God will never leave us alone in the midst of the hard times. I know that church leaders may have the best of intentions when they are talking about the blessings and favor, but the truth is that they are withholding truth from the believer that could end up being devastating to their faith.

The first thing most people do when they get the news of tragedy or loss is question whether or not God is really as loving as they were told. If God really loved me why would he allow this to happen? If God is all powerful why didn’t he fix this? These are questions that believers ask because they are not correctly instructed on what a life of faith really looks like. They have been falsely led to believe that the life of a Christian is immune to hurt. It will be impossible for this believer to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to comfort and heal them because they feel that God has broken their trust. It is imperative that we do not try to create a pseudo-Gospel for the sake of marketing. The Gospel that Jesus gave us is the only Gospel and it does not need help to be effective. We simply need to preach it faithfully.

The second thing that often happens in the mind of a believer dealing with loss is that they begin to wonder whether or not God is punishing them for their lack of faith. We have seen Christian leaders speak up regarding the recent tragedy in Japan by saying that God is punishing them for the lack of faith and obedience. We heard much of the same rhetoric from Christian leaders when New Orleans was devastated. When I hear someone speak like this I want to tell them that they don’t even know God and they should not have a platform to speak from. It hurts me so deeply when I hear Christians misuse scripture and misrepresent God in this way because I know the hurt that it causes the families of the victims.

The bottom line is that life happens. We are not immune to tragedy. Truthfully there is no sense in even trying ask God why the tragedy had to happen. He is sovereign. That is where we need to focus our thoughts. We will lose our minds if we start down the road of “what if?” and “why?”. During tragedy we must work hard to keep our thoughts in check and rely on God for strength. Keeping my faith in God is the only thing that has allowed me to keep living after the loss of my brother. Just two weeks prior to the accident my wife asked me what my greatest fear in life was and I told her that it would be losing my brother. I didn’t think that it would be possible to make it through that kind of loss, but with my faith in tact I have allowed the Holy Spirit to heal and comfort me. Does this mean I don’t have hard days where I miss the phone calls and doing life together? Absolutely not, I still cry. I still have days when I go back and look at pictures and feel empty because I know that those days are gone. But at the end of the day we cannot allow our faith to be taken from us. We can not allow the unfaithful preaching of pseudo-Gospels to warp our understanding of the all loving God.

Our promise is not that we are immune to tragedies but that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Tragedy isn’t something we can handle on our own and if we choose to blame God and lose trust in him we are choosing to fight that battle alone. We will never understand why things have to happen like they do, but always be aware that it is not God punishing you or leaving you. He is there. He wants to comfort you. Allow him to be your strength.

Struggling with Faith?

March 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

I love reading the Psalms. I think the main reason is because the writer almost comes across as bi-polar and I totally relate. In one chapter he will be talking about how the Lord has his enemies in his hand and they will not defeat him and then in the next chapter he is talking about how his enemies will overtake him because he doesn’t know where the Lord is. Reading Psalms is a roller-coaster ride of emotions that most of us can relate to.

I think that we would be lying if we said that our faith was always in tact. It would be difficult for me to take someone seriously if they told me that they never struggled to trust God in certain situations. We all have those days when we feel like God must have left us. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong and we can’t catch a break. As if the problems in front of us weren’t enough we start to question our relationship with God because we know that our faith is weak. Obviously we want to have faith and we want to trust God for everything but in the middle of the struggle it is difficult. But what if your moments of faithlessness did not disqualify you from being counted faithful by God?

In Chapter two of the book of Genesis we read a story about Abraham, his wife Sarah, and Abimelech the King Gerar. To summarize the story, Abraham and Sarah were traveling. They came into Gerar and Abraham knew that the King would think his wife was hot. Abraham was afraid that the king would kill him so that he could have Sarah for himself so he devised a plan. Abraham convinced Sarah to tell everyone that she was his sister. Just as Abraham had suspected the king thought Sarah was hot and he wanted her. When he heard that Sarah was Abraham’s sister he brought her to the palace. In the middle of the night God spoke to Abimelech in a dream and told him that Sarah was actually Abraham’s wife. Abimelech was furious that Abraham lied to him and could have cost him so much. Abraham explained why he lied and long story short, they made peace with each other.

The crazy thing about this is that all through scripture Abraham is said to be counted righteous because of his faith. How can this be? He wasn’t even able to trust God to spare his life so he lied and created a mess for everyone. The point that I want to make is that your entire life is not summed up in a moment. We will all struggle to completely trust God in certain situations but God is interested in the big picture. Overshadowing that weak moment were many moments when Abraham trusted God entirely.

When we find ourselves in a situation where faith is lacking it is so easy to feel like we’ve let God down. We often question whether or not our faith is authentic. If it was then we shouldn’t have such a hard time trusting God, right? Faith isn’t situational. We don’t lose faith and they regain it in the next hurdle. We can be sure that we have faith because God said he gave it to us. We have to be aware that there will be times in your Christian journey that you will find yourself in a place that your faith isn’t big enough to maintain complete trust in God. It will grow your faith. It is good for you. It will help you through something later in life. The fact that you aren’t completely sure if God has things under control does not mean that he doesn’t. He does. Allow your faith to be stretched in the weak times. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just talk to God. He still considers you faithful.

Good People or Disciples of Christ?

March 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

After the resurrection of Jesus he met the disciples on a mountain in Galilee. After some preliminaries Jesus gives them what has been tagged “The Great Commission”.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 28:19 (ESV)

Go and make disciples of all nations. I love it. Basically, he was telling them never stop preaching the Gospel. Every person in the world needs to hear it. But think about this for a second with me. This is a big responsibility. Obviously, we are aware that only the Holy Spirit can really transform a persons heart, but Jesus was commanding us to get involved and play a part. This is the mission of the church. Every believer is supposed to get involved in sharing the Gospel with their sphere of influence so that their friends and family will experience transformation and become disciples of Christ.

I can’t think of anything more exciting than leading people to the cross and watching as the Holy Spirit begins to change their lives. But sadly, I have watched as a lot of churches have aborted mission. They would never admit to aborting their mission, but too many churches are settling for building good people. Obviously I am all for people changing and becoming good people, but is their a difference between a good person and a disciple of Christ? I think that we would all agree that there are people that are just good people based on the moral compass of our culture. They are honest. They don’t cheat on their spouse. They don’t break the law. They give to charities and they volunteer at the soup kitchen. They are good people. But are they Godly people? There is a difference between being a person with a moral compass and a disciple of Christ.

The church has to be careful that we don’t become a life skills institution. I have been in services where the message is “3 Steps to being a better father/mother”. 1. Spend thirty minutes each day helping them with their homework. 2. Do your best to eat meals as a family and ask your child questions about their day. 3. Schedule time weekly to take your child on play dates. These are all great things. I am for being the best Dad out, but what does this have to do with Jesus changing your life? I absolutely believe that it is the plan of God for each guy to be an incredible and loving Dad, but the “3 Steps” sermon doesn’t teach that person to allow God to make them a great father or for their changes to be made through faith in Christ. Being a Disciple of Christ will always make you a better person but being a good person doesn’t make you a disciple of Christ.

My challenge is for every speaker to put their trust in God as they speak to their church. It is easy for us to lose sight of the goal. It is too easy for me to get impatient with God and assume that the spiritual journey of a believer is progressing too slowly. The temptation is to try to change them myself. So I try to implement parameters into their lives. I teach them that going certain places are bad and doing certain things are harmful. I set up boundaries for them so that they will not fall victim to temptation. I do my best to make them into good people that are good for the image of the church. But have I created a good person or a disciple of Christ?

You may think that all of this is semantics but it is far from being semantics. Our righteousness is filthy rags in the sight of God. Our attempts to do good on our own are gross failures. No one can be righteous without being in Christ and this doesn’t just mean at our conversion. We must continually walk with Christ and allow him to transform us daily. Everything that we teach and preach must connect the believer to the cross. Without faith we cannot please God and our attempts to change by our own effort are faithless. The work that Jesus did on the cross is central to our journey with him. We must have the faith to allow him access into our hearts and into the hearts of the people we lead. When God is the origin of transformation we cease to be just good people, we become disciples of Christ.

Benefiting From the Critics

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Regardless of the setting that you lead in, there is one thing that ties all leaders together; criticism. One of the hardest things about leading is learning how to channel the criticism that you receive. There is a fine line when it comes to finding the balance between allowing your critics to paralyze you and leveraging their critique to grow you. There are a few observations that I have made regarding leaders and their ability to channel criticism.

The first kind of leader is consumed by criticism. They allow the negative press to become their focus until they are insecure in their position. Their attention is taken off of the group they lead and they are motivated to make decisions to appease the critics. The harm done is obvious. The effectiveness you bring to your organization is nullified and you have surrendered any chance of success to the critics.

The second type of leader completely ignores all criticism. This is equally as dangerous because there is a tendency to feel completely self sufficient when you shut out all of the other voices. If you aren’t careful you will find yourself as ineffective as the leader that is consumed by criticism. An important thing to remember is that not all critics are out to find fault. There will be numerous instances that the critics are right and tuning out their voices completely will limit your ability to think objectively. This solution to dealing with criticism will again render you ineffective to your organization because your ego will not allow you to hear the view of others.

The third and final type of leader I want to deal with is the leader that will weigh out the voice of the critic. This type of leadership requires the leader to be mature and disciplined because it is difficult to hear people speak negatively of your decisions or the long-term vision for your organization. All of us want to be the leader that never gets it wrong. We are passionate about the direction we are leading our followers and we make each decision carefully. So to think that we could be wrong is not only stressful but the criticism is often offensive. The most effective leaders learn to compartmentalize criticism. They value the negative press as much as the positive.  Even though it doesn’t feel good to receive negative feedback the most important thing to them is the health of the organization. We have to realize that criticism helps us think objectively.

More times than not we disregard criticism based on the people it comes from rather than the legitimacy of the feedback. We could receive criticism from someone that we dislike and shrug it off, but then hear the exact same criticism from a close friend and receive it well. A very difficult but helpful strategy is to take all criticism at face value regardless of the originator. Look introspectively and see if there is legitimacy to the criticism. Take an honest assessment of your motives and decisions and see if you can benefit from the critique. If we can learn to lay aside our pride and focus on leading people effectively we will be less likely to be offended by criticism and more likely to benefit from our critics regardless of their intentions.

Eternal Security?

March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Eternal Security is a subject that scares a lot of Christians. The reason for the fear towards the subject is that most have never taken the time to understand it. I am not writing to debate or defend the Arminian or Calvinist position. My only goal is to bring to light the biblical perspective of salvation and what it means for the believer in the present tense.

The topic that I want to discuss is the fragility of salvation. Many Christians have a very skewed view of God and his commitment to the covenant of salvation. This is a very important subject because without a correct perspective Christians will end up living in fear of losing their salvation. The result of this fear is that the majority of changes believers make are not “faith based God changes” but instead they are changes made because they fear going to hell. I think we would all agree that living to miss hell and living for God are two very different things. So it is important that we teach people appropriately regarding salvation so that they can experience God to the fullest.

I know that no analogy ever works flawlessly, but I think that the best imagery I can use to explain my point is marriage. Marriage, like salvation, is a covenant. Every marriage comes with challenges and some days are better than others. The fact about marriage though, is that it is a commitment. If I do something terribly wrong to upset my wife the relationship may be strained, but the covenant is in tact.

The same goes for salvation. When we sin, our relationship with Christ is strained. We repent and we try again, but the covenant remains in tact. We are not in danger of losing our salvation every time we make a mistake. God knew that we would continue to sin after our conversion, but he still sent his son to die for us. The covenant never implied that you or I would have to live sinless lives to experience salvation. If that were the case no one would be able to live up to that standard. The truth is that Jesus had to die because it was understood that it is beyond human ability to be sinless. So does this excuse us to continue to sin? Absolutely not. God’s lone interest is our heart. If we are pursuing God but we stumble along the way it’s okay. In fact, It’s more than okay, it’s expected. Everyday you and I sin, but that doesn’t mean our hearts are out of line with God. I can be pursuing God with all of my heart and still sin. We will never conquer sin. We will always battle it.

On your way to work in the morning lets say that you pass a billboard with a very attractive woman wearing very little clothes. Since this is totally a hypothetical situation and you would never do this, lets say that you take a really really good look at this billboard (and its not because you are interested in the product). You’ve lusted. We all know that lust is a sin. Now, its also a fact that almost 100 people are killed in traffic related accidents each day. Do you feel the need to pull over your car and ask God for forgiveness just in case? No. You know that God knows your heart and that is all that really matters. Obviously, in your devotion time you will ask forgiveness for the lust in your heart and you’ll ask God to strengthen you, but you don’t feel the urgency to stop everything and talk to God at that moment because you’ve lost salvation. I think we get this concept, but for some reason we struggle with the notion that we can be secure in God’s covenant of salvation.

Eternal Security is not a loophole for people to live after their own lust and still be saved. When you really study the subject you will find that not even then best Calvinist believes that. It is simply a biblical truth that God is not fickle and he honors his covenant. We do not need to live in fear that one slip up is going to land us in hell. All God cares about is the condition of your heart. If your heart is after him everything else will fall into place along your journey. It is impossible for you to have a heart that is completely surrendered to God and still be lost. But know that even with a heart completely surrendered to God you will still sin. That is what Jesus had to die for.

The Truth about Calling

March 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the most misunderstood and misrepresented subjects in the Christian culture is the idea of calling. I have had the opportunity to speak with a lot of young believers who are trying to find their place within the church and most of them hit me with the same question. “I want to do something for God, but how do I know what my calling is?” After hearing these words I sort of cringe because I can usually detect that at some point along their Christian journey they have been misled about the way that God interacts with them.

As a young Christian I remember hearing people say things like, “Don’t say you wouldn’t want to be a missionary, God may just call you to missions.” I can’t think of a more absurd statement. It seemed as if they believed that God would place you in a ministry that you detested and would never experience fulfillment in just to show you that he is the boss. Quite the opposite is true. God’s plan for your life is to experience life to its fullest because of Christ’s death. The idea that God would call you to to do something that you would never want to be involved in directly contradicts Paul’s writings. In Romans 15 ,Paul says that he (Paul) has made it his (Paul’s) ambition to preach the Gospel. It was something he loved to do. It fit him. It brought fulfillment. If we skip ahead a bit we land in the book of Timothy and we read that If we desire the office of an overseer we desire a good thing. Now, let me ask you this question. Does God allow you to dream and desire to accomplish things for him and then pull the rug out from under you to tell you that he has a different plan for you? One that is much less exciting and doesn’t seem to be a fit for you?

The answer is no. In fact, in a way only the absolutely sovereign God can, he carefully crafted a plan for your life before you were born. The reason that I cringe when I hear a young believer say they are struggling to find the call of God for their lives is because I know that they have been led to believe that the call of God is a mystical experience that they need to be looking for. They are convinced that in some supernatural way God is going to reveal to them his plan for their life. So they sit idle. Waiting and waiting and waiting some more. Finally, they get frustrated because the heavens have not opened up to anoint them with their calling.

Every believer has been given the same call. “Go into the world and make disciples.” Your responsibility is to discover what giftings has God blessed you with that will make you most successful in reaching the unchurched? What passions has he placed in you? Stop looking for the heavens to open up and for there to be a mystical experience. The same God you are waiting  to hear speak to you about your call has already spoken to through the the way he created you.