Pastors Are People Too

©iStock.com/Kovalvs

©iStock.com/Kovalvs

Who has the power to shake you to your core?

When I was young, I noticed that my mom always shooed us kids outside when one particular woman from the church came visiting. Naturally, this made me curious. What did they talk about—some fascinating adult topic that kids weren’t supposed to hear?

So one day I sneaked close to the screen door, staying out of sight but within earshot. The woman was seated at the dining table with my mom, a cup of coffee in front of her. And she was absolutely excoriating one of the church elders, reporting on some ghastly sin he had supposedly committed.

My mother hates gossip and repeatedly tried to cut the lady off, but she wasn’t having much luck. When the woman finally took a breath, my mom tried to steer the conversation in another direction. The woman exclaimed rather indignantly, “Margie! Didn’t you hear? Doesn’t this just make you wonder? Doesn’t it shake your faith in him … in the church … even in God?”

Now you should know that my mom was actually quite a new Christian at this time. What’s more, the woman challenging her was one of the so-called pillars of the church. Nevertheless, my mom replied at once, “Oh, no—not at all! My faith isn’t based on what Elder — does. It’s based on Jesus and what He’s done.”

I’ve never forgotten that simple statement. Church pillars, celebrities, even pastors are just people. They make mistakes. They may be hypocritical. Some may even be full-time hypocrites. And in this age of cameras everywhere, social media, and TMZ, mistakes are less likely than ever to be successfully covered up.

So if we look to these people as models of behavior, we will be disappointed. If we look to them to ground our faith, we may even shaken. But if Christ is our model—if we are grounded in him—the mistakes of others can’t shake our faith.

“There can be no other foundation than the one already laid: I mean Jesus Christ himself.”
(1 Corinthians 3:11, REB)

The Final Judgment — Good News?

©iStock.com/alphaspirit

©iStock.com/alphaspirit

What images pop into your head when you hear the term “Judgment Day”? Standing all alone before a great white throne, your knees knocking together? A wrathful God holding you over hell’s hungry flames? A gigantic balance that weighs your good deeds against your not-so-good deeds?

Many of our ideas about the final judgment are still rooted in the odd mixture of superstition, Roman mythology, and partial scriptural references that come to us from the (aptly named) Dark Ages. But how do these notions compare to Scripture?

Never without an IntercessorMorris L. Venden discusses the Final Judgment  in Never Without an Intercessor: The Good News About the Judgment (Pacific Press, 1996). I recently ran across this 159-page book in a used bookstore. I found it engaging, strongly based in Scripture, and surprisingly easy reading for such a heavy topic. And, as the title suggests, the conclusion is good news.

One of the key take-away points is the distinction between sin and sins—and the trouble we get into when we confuse the two. Sin is a state of being—the state of living apart from God. Sins are the actions that result from our living in this state.

If we focus on the actions, we end up trying to generate holiness by sheer willpower. It doesn’t work. But when we shift our perspective to the relationship—when we focus on abiding in Christ—we open the way for God to work out His holiness in us. From the standpoint of the judgment, this shifts the focus from the lives we have lived to the life that Christ has lived out in us.

This simple distinction has several significant corollaries. For example, the Bible talks about the importance of overcoming (Rev. 3:5). If we interpret this as overcoming sins, we focus on self-discipline and struggle to squeeze ourselves into a holy mold.

But “the real issue is overcoming living life apart from God day by day” (page 104)—that is, overcoming sin. As we do this, we are “clothed in white raiment” (Rev. 3:5). This refers to the righteousness God gives us (Isaiah 61:10), rather than any sort of righteousness we can weave together on our own, because real “obedience comes by faith alone in Jesus Christ. This means that we must come into a relationship of absolute dependence upon Him. This relationship allows Him to do what He has always wanted to do—live His life in us. Then He wills and does according to His good pleasure. And whatever Jesus does is real obedience through and through” (p. 125).

First John 2:28 states this most important point very clearly: “Little children, abide in him.” Stay with Him. Stay in a relationship with Him day by day. And if you do, you won’t be ashamed when He comes, because you will have the garment on. It’s a promise. If I overcome living life apart from Jesus, the white raiment is going to be there (p. 111).

Update – Keeping the Faith

DSCN0543I received word back from Pacific Press regarding publication of the second book in the Race trilogy, Keeping the Faith. Seems it cleared their editorial staff but not their sales staff. Translation: No. (A nice no, as nos go, but still a no.)

So I’ll be doing some prayerful research and regrouping — I’m just not sure where to take this book from here. I’ve known for some time that I need to get more savvy about book sales and marketing, because I’m truly terrible at sales. As a kid, I was always the sap that ended up buying everyone else’s candy bars rather than selling my own. It’s generally seemed wiser (and less expensive) for me to stay away from that particular field since then. But since this book has twice been tripped up at the marketing level (rather than from a deficiency in the writing), I’m guessing that’s where I need to look for a solution. I just hope I don’t buy too many candy bars along the way!

 

Handling Hostility

©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

©iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

I’ve never understood politicians. Why would anybody want a job where, no matter what you do, somebody’s sure to complain and call you names? Talk about a hostile work environment!

Apparently running a country was just as tough in David’s time, and it sometimes got him down: “The enemy has pursued me, crushing me to the ground, making me live in darkness like those long dead” (Psalm 143:3, HCSB).

In David’s case, there was probably some literal pursuing, crushing, and darkness involved. Still, we’ve probably all shouldered similar burdens—unjust loads placed on us by other people’s anger, jealousy, or misunderstanding.

Maybe we can learn something from how David handled the problem. He left some clues about his method in the rest of Psalm 143:

  1. He called out to God. “Lord, hear my prayer. In Your faithfulness listen to my plea and in Your righteousness answer me” (verse 1). This was a pattern in David’s life—when he felt like grumbling, he grumbled to God rather than to other people. While  it’s sometimes appropriate to seek counsel from others, usually we don’t share our business with other people to find a solution—which makes it nothing more than gossip. Instead, our default setting should be to consult God first.
  2. He admitted his true feelings. “My spirit is weak within me; my heart is overcome with dismay” (v. 4). Some people seem to think it’s unacceptable, weak, or even sinful to express their feelings and fears to God. Yet the Bible records many of God’s people doing it, including Job, Moses, David, and Jeremiah. In order to solve a problem, we generally need to discover what the problem entails; defining our feelings is merely part of this process.
  3. He remembered God’s past leading. Reviewing the evidences of God’s work reminds us of His care and power. It boosts our confidence that He’ll come through for us again. David seems to have reviewed God’s actions in three distinct categories:
  • How God had led his ancestors—“I remember the days of old” (v. 5).
  • How God had led him personally—“I meditate on all You have done” (v. 5).
  • How God had manifested Himself through nature—“I reflect on the work of Your hands” (v. 5).
  1. He maintained his devotional routine. “Let me experience Your faithful love in the morning” (v. 8). When life gets crazy, maintaining a regular devotional time can be challenging. It may even be the first thing to go when our schedules need adjusting. But David didn’t allow even these crushing problems to disrupt his regular devotional routine, which included seeking God every morning (Psalms 5:3; 55:17; 59:16).
  2. He prayed for specific guidance. “Reveal to me the way I should go” (v. 8). David’s prayers weren’t the God-bless-everyone prayers we sometimes rattle off while thinking about something else. He made the effort to think about what he was saying. He took the time to delineate several specific problems, and he prayed for specific answers to each one.

If we want to receive the answers and the comfort from God that David did, we need to know Him as David did. We need to prioritize time with Him, trust Him, and rely on Him. We need to open our hearts and get real with Him.

We need to let Him be our Best Friend.

Knowing God’s Will

©iStock.com/dcdp

©iStock.com/ dcdp

Knowing God’s will is key to living a life that is both blessed and a blessing. But how do we know what His will is? Unlike the characters of The Race, we don’t have electronic devices that make His voice audible to us, so His leading isn’t always as easy to perceive as we’d like.

In “Determining the Will of God,” Pastor Doug Batchelor presents the most complete discussion of this topic that I’ve found to date. In less than an hour, he examines both trustworthy and questionable methods of learning God’s will, as well as some general principles to be aware of. I’ll summarize the trustworthy methods, but you can watch or listen to this talk for yourself here:

Trustworthy methods of learning God’s will:

1.  Pray for a Willing Heart. God speaks to those who truly want to know His will (Psalm 25:9). In his book, How to Know God’s Will in Your Life, Morris Venden talks about having no will of your own on the matter under consideration. That’s not to say you have no preference, but you should seek a place in which you’re fully surrendered to God and truly willing to go in whichever direction He indicates.

2.  Consult God’s Word. We can all safely guide our lives by the absolute expressions of God’s will found in the Bible (Psalm 119:105). For example, He clearly says that He wants everyone to be saved (2 Peter 3:9), so we don’t have to wonder if that’s His will for us individually.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) are another such absolute expression of God’s will. In them, He revealed certain basic laws of behavior that apply to all humans. Yet some Christians feel that these laws can be suspended simply because something else “feels right” to them. The wayward wife says, “I know he’s not my husband, but it feels so right when I’m with him—I just know God meant for us to be together.”

As a gynecologist, I’ve often seen the pain such false reasoning brings to families, even Christian families. God won’t force His will on us. He’ll let us go our own way if we insist on it. But we shouldn’t then wonder at the pain that results from our stubbornness, much less blame Him for it. Rationalizing won’t suspend the laws of human behavior or the laws of health any more than it will suspend the law of gravity.

3.  Be Faithful to His Revealed Will. If we aren’t following the path that God has already outlined, He’s not likely to shine any light farther down the path (Matt 13:12; John 12:35). So if you feel like you’re at an impasse, perhaps you need to ask, “Am I doing what He’s already shown me to do?”

4.  Obtain Christian Counsel (Prov. 11:14). Godly friends may be able to see your situation from a different perspective or to see talents/possibilities in you that you’re unaware of. When looking for counselors, look for Christians who seem to have their lives together, people in whom you see the fruit of the Spirit.

5.  Observe/Pray for Providences. God may sometimes arrange events (e.g., Ruth gleaning in Boaz’s field), or open and close doors (2 Cor. 2:12) to point us in the right direction.

6.  Pray. (This list isn’t in any particular order, by the way.) Throughout the Bible, God shows a pattern of revealing His will to those who ask Him to (Gen 18:17; Matt 7:7-8; John 15:15; 1 John 5:14-15).

7.  Fast and Pray. In some cases, particularly when it comes to big or difficult decisions, fasting may be helpful in drawing closer to God and becoming more attuned to His leading (2 Chr 20:3-4; Acts 13:2-3).

8.  Have Faith—on two fronts. First, have faith that God will show you His will (Prov 3:5-6). Second, have faith that He will strengthen you to accomplish His will once revealed (Phil 4:13).

9.  Do the Safe Thing. If God’s leading isn’t 100 percent clear, move toward the safest alternative. In other words, don’t take unnecessary risks.

10.  Make Sure the Decision Brings Glory to God (1 Cor 10:31; Matt 6:33). Your focus should be on God’s glory—not your own.

11.  Consider Others. If the decision will bring changes to others’ lives—for example, family members or roommates—bring them into your decision-making process (Rom 14:7; Gal 5:14)

12.  Pray for and be aware of the Holy Spirit’s Guidance (Isa 30:21). Learning to listen for the Spirit’s voice is a topic all to itself. But His voice becomes more familiar—and, therefore, easier to hear—as we mature in our spiritual walk. Once again, a key to recognizing the Spirit’s voice is understanding that He will never lead us in a path that opposes God’s will as clearly expressed in His Word. (Other spirits certainly will, though.)

13.  Be Patient. David repeatedly advises us to “wait on the Lord” (e.g. Ps. 27:14). In our hurry-up society, waiting can be a difficult skill to learn. But sometimes God simply doesn’t answer our requests right away because He wants us to stay put for a while. Maybe we need to learn something before He can answer us. Maybe He’s planning to bring someone to us or to bring an opportunity into our lives. Maybe He wants us to simply stand by and watch while He solves the problem Himself (Exod 14:13; 2 Chr 20:17). In any case, if we try to run ahead of Him, we’ll mess up His perfect plan.

14.  Tally the Evidence. If you feel as though God hasn’t given you a clear answer, try going through each of these categories and specifically looking for how God is speaking through each one. You may see quieter evidence of a clear pathway in the pattern that emerges (Deut 19:15; Matt 18:16).

15.  What is Your Heart’s Desire? Even Christians seem to feel that following God’s leading must be difficult and disagreeable. But this notion isn’t biblical. Rather, our heart’s desires line up more and more closely with His will as we abide in Him (Rom 12:2; John 15:7-11). If we feel a passion for a particular ministry, it’s quite likely that God has implanted that passion within our hearts. Not only do we find our greatest joy in following these desires, but God finds great joy in fulfilling them (Ps 21:2; 20:4; 37:4).

Learning God’s will should not be an occasional pursuit. Rather, we should be constantly looking for indications of His will—constantly recalibrating, as Pastor Batchelor puts it—to make sure that we stay in the center of His will at all times.

Right Sacrifices

In Psalm 4:5, David gives us some good advice: “Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord” (NIV). Among the blessings we’re to reap from this are great joy and peaceful sleep (verses 7 and 8). Sounds great, doesn’t it? In our hectic world, such blessings are priceless.

©iStock.com/BibleArtLibrary

©iStock.com/BibleArtLibrary

Just one question: What are “right sacrifices”? In David’s world, this referred to unblemished lambs or goats offered with a willing, obedient spirit. But when was the last time you sacrificed a lamb? It’s probably been a while. So what does this refer to in our time?

In looking through my Bible, I’ve found a few things associated with the kind of “sacrifice” that pleases God:

1. Obedience – “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). Cain got into—and caused—major trouble when he offered the wrong kind of sacrifice. And Saul lost the kingdom because he did only part of his God-given duty. Both exhibited an arrogant attitude, which, in God’s eyes, is “like the evil of idolatry” (verse 23). Our motivation matters to God.

2. A broken spirit & contrite heart – “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). This isn’t some sick desire on God’s part to see us groveling in humiliation. Rather, He knows how our minds work. He understands that our drive to earn our own way is so strong that we can’t really seek His help until we truly recognize our need. Jesus called this frame of mind being “poor in spirit”—and this is the mindset of those who receive the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).

3 & 4. Love for God & neighbor – “To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). Sometimes loving that neighbor that absolutely drives you nuts with her gossip or bragging feels very much like a sacrifice. But God, who is love (1 John 4:8), enables us to love both Himself and others when we abide in Him.

5. Ourselves – “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1). Ultimately, God wants us, His children, returned to a state of communion with Him.

6. Praise – “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Hebrews 13:15). It’s interesting how often the idea of praise and celebration are associated with the sacrificial ceremonies described in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. God doesn’t seek our obedience, our praise, or even ourselves as some kind of tribute we’re required to pay; rather, He brings us into fellowship with Himself so that we can share His joy. This is the abundant life Jesus promised (John 10:10).

7. Do good & share – “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:16). Once we’ve learned to experience the joyful communion God promises, we can share that joy with others.

How about you—have you found any other “right sacrifices” in your study of God’s Word?

Life’s Not Fair!

©iStock.com/cofkocof

©iStock.com/cofkocof

This is perhaps the most universally accepted notion in our society. Male or female, young or old, rich or poor, believer or nonbeliever—everyone agrees: Life’s not fair. We learn the truth of it at a young age, probably when a sibling steals our lollipop and gets away with it.

The Bible concurs: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve (Eccl. 8:4, NIV).

Yet Psalm 37:1 advises us, “Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong” (NIV). A more modern translation might be, “Don’t let jerks get under your skin.”

It’s good advice. Worrying over injustice, particularly when we’re not in a position to correct it, is a form of stress. And stress kills. But following this advice is another matter altogether.

Even David seemed to have trouble with that in his younger days; he often rails against the wicked in his psalms. Yet he apparently got a handle on it as he aged (he was older when he wrote this psalm—see verse 25). So how did he get to the place where he could see injustice, know it was unfair, and yet relinquish the anger associated with it?

David actually outlines his method in Psalm 37. He gives this advice:

  1.  “Trust in the Lord” (v. 3) — Trust Him to justify you (vv. 5-6, 33), to strengthen and encourage you (v. 24), to protect you from lasting harm (v. 18), and to settle the score fairly (v. 9, 13).
  2. “Trust in the Lord and do good” (v. 3) — Give up your rage (v. 8) and continue to be gracious (v. 21) and generous (v. 26). In other words, don’t allow the evil around you to interfere with the good God is working out within you.
  3. “Take delight in the Lord” (v. 4) — Elsewhere David links this with meditating on God’s Word (Psalms 1:2; 112:1) and enjoying His presence (Psalm 36:8-9). Other biblical references also mention submitting to Him (Job 22:21-26) and enjoying the blessings of His Sabbath (Isaiah 56:8-9) as ways of coming to delight in Him.
  4. “Commit your way to the Lord” (v. 5) — Trust God with the specific task of watching and establishing your path (v. 23), even believing that He’s holding your hand during trouble (v. 24).
  5. “Wait patiently” (v. 7) – David links patience with being still before the Lord (v. 7) and with keeping His way (v. 34). These disciplines—listening for God’s voice and obeying it—make us receptive to His Spirit; patience is one of the fruits of this connection (Gal. 5:22).

Life in this world is unfair. But God does not leave us alone in an unfair world: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20, NIV).

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