What does it really look like to trust in our Sovereign God?

I’m almost finished with pastor Tim Keller’s new book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering … and it’s great on many levels.  This morning a section he wrote was powerful in my thinking and heart.  This is the kind of stuff we MUST have settled in our hearts before we enter the furnace of suffering and confusion.  I just want to give you an extended sample of what he wrote … then go buy the book:

Context – Keller has described the Joseph story and the hideous human event of his brothers sinful choice to sell their brother into slavery, and another Biblical event that happened in that same geographical place (Dothan) a number of years later – that of Elisha praying to God when he and his servant were trapped by Syrian troops and God showed them “Angelic troops and chariots of fire” and later struck the entire Syrian army blind.

Keller writes – ” Now think of these two divine acts of deliverance at Dothan.  In the first incident, Joseph cries out to God for deliverance and rescue.  But instead, God appears to do nothing at all.  In the second incident at Dothan, God answers Elisha’s prayer for deliverance with an immediate massive miracle.  On the surface, it appears that God ignores Joseph and responds to Elisha.  But that is not so. It would turn out that God had been as watchful in his hiddenness as in any miracle.  The two extremes of His methods meet in fact in Dothan, for it was here, where Joseph cried in vain (Genesis 42:21), that Elisha would find himself visibly encircled by Gods’ chariots.  God was just as present and active in the slow answers to Joseph as in the swift answer to Elisha.  He was as lovingly involved in the silence of that cistern as he was in the noisy, spectacular answer to Elisha’s prayer.  And indeed, it could be argued that Joseph’s salvation, while less supernatural and dramatic, was greater in depth and breadth and effect.  The Joseph story tells us that very often God does not give us exactly what we ask for.  Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows.  We must never assume that we know enough to mistrust God’s ways or be bitter against what he has allowed.  We must never think we have really ruined our lives, or have ruined God’s good purposes for us.  The brothers surely must have felt, at one point, that they had permanently ruined their standing with God and their father’s life and their family.  But God worked through it.  This is not inducement to sin.  The pain and misery that resulted in their lives from this action were very great.  Yet God used it redemptively.  You cannot destroy his good purposes for us.  He is too great, and will weave even great sins into a fabric that makes us something useful and valuable.”  Later in the chapter Keller quotes from one of my favorite books of The Letters of John Newton – “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds … when you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader.  When your spirit is overwhelmed within you, he knows your path: he will not leave you to sink.  He has appointed seasons of refreshment, and you shall find he does not forget you.  Above all, keep close to the throne of grace.  If we seem to get no good by attempting to draw near him, we may be sure we shall get none by keeping away from him (Newton).  Newton’s statement – ‘everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds’ – puts an ocean of biblical theology into a thimble.  If the story of Joseph and the whole of the Bible is true, then anything that comes into your life is something that, as painful as it is, you need in some way.  And anything you pray for that does not come from him, even if you are sure you cannot live without it, you do not really need … we get God’s saving power in our life only through the weakness of repentance and trust.  And, so often, the grace of God grows more through our difficulties than our triumphs.” (pgs 263-269)

May we learn to really trust that God is for His children … always!

Religion’s Appeal to the Flesh

I’ve heard it said since I was a kind – “Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship.”  And yet in my personal and pastoral experience for many years now I’ve found that most people actually choose religion over relationship.  Why?  For the very same reason the apostle Paul put his confidence in the flesh for so many years before his conversion – It makes me feel in control and brings me to a place where I can boast about what I’ve accomplished (Philippians 3:4ff).  Relationship with the Triune God is hard work … heck relationship with anyone is hard work.  It requires patience, a persevering pursuit, and years of doing the same thing (the Bible calls that faithfulness).  In contrast to religion which can flare up in glorious displays of passion, mighty acts of sacrifice, and no real need to deal with what’s going on inside one’s soul.  Who dare question such spiritual power.  The sad and unfortunate thing is that in my own life and as I watch, counsel, and shepherd the lives of others – those spiritual displays more often than not fade, or worse are found out to be false and man-centered.  The “form of godliness” that Paul speaks of can actually come in the “picture of power” that denies the real power of God (2 Timothy 3:5).

The Characteristics of Religion

The appeal to the flesh in religion is strong … and yet often very subtle (deceptive).  Religion says – “there is more that you can do.”  And that more can take the form of rigid moralism that does all it can to clean the outside of the cup, reducing the Gospel to a set of rules to be followed void of any considerations of the heart.  Or it can take the form of spiritual fervor that does all it can to demonstrate passion, power, and love for God, reducing the Gospel to a spiritual power pill that claims intimacy with God based on the obvious external behaviors.  The problem?  Both are driven by the flesh, preoccupied by activity, and closed to evaluation by others.  Religion produces performers – some look “nice and attractive” and some look “mean and uninviting”, but both feed the flesh making one’s confidence in something other than what Christ has one for all done for needy undeserving sinners.

The Characteristics of Relationship

Relationship says – “I have nothing to offer you, and demand nothing of you, I just want You!”  This is the reason marriage is so hard … if you don’t do what I need and I don’t do what you need there is every reason to retreat in fear.  We all want to be in relationships where the expectation is of two flawed individuals who can embrace each other warts and all (SIN and all).  How does this play out in our relationship with the Lord? Who wants to be a fervent prayer warrior in the closet day after day when Sunday affords me the opportunity to show how spiritual I am?  Who wants to evaluate your own heart with Psalm 139 “Search me Spirit of God” prayers when you can feel good about the things you’ve accomplished and the influence you have?  There is little appeal to the flesh in faithful enduring commitment to relationship.

So …

Recognize that each and every “spiritual activity” can be counterfeited by the deceitfulness of the human heart.  Don’t believe me? Read Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affections.  Ask the harder questions of yourself than merely – “What am I doing for God?” or “why don’t I feel passionate?” Ask – “Where has my sin hurt others?” or “Why don’t I repent more?” or “Who have I invited to point out my blind-spots lately?”  King Saul learned this the hard way when he cared more about his influence and spiritual displays of sacrifice than obeying God (1 Samuel 15). God calls you and I to do the hard work of relationship – pursuing when we feel like retreating, calling out for help when we feel like complaining, and faithfully obeying when our flesh longs for something more gratifying.  Indeed following Christ is about relationship and not religion … He despises your religiousity but is near the humble.

Narnia, Rivendell, and The Kingdom of God

I have competing forces in me, and it’s taken me along time to understand how they fit together. I’m not talking about the flesh and the Spirit, or even good and evil. But the boyish love for stories and the man-like love for logic, reason, and evidence. On one hand I’m the classic sap who loves a good story, cries watching sentimental movies, and can’t wait to see Frodo and Sam make it through the Black Gates. And on the other hand, I love precision, measure twice cut once, and carefully researched exegetical papers on theology. My Tolkien side has felt insulted by my Calvin side for being shallow and too easily entertained, while my Calvin side is being attacked by my Tolkien side for being too heady and academic. What to do!?! Here is how the Spirit of God has made these enemies into friends …

Understanding God’s Story

The Bible is a story! And not just any story, it is God’s story. And at the climactic center from the beginning to end is Jesus the Warrior King. God moved men in various times and in different places to reveal the grand narrative of heaven to earth. God is the great story-teller, and He has made Himself known to men. He didn’t drop a theology book from heaven, send a college professor, or host a pastors conference … He sent a King. So it appears that Tolkien’s Aragorn and Lewis’ Peter are actually quite helpful and beautiful in helping us understand the Father’s King Jesus. And so, the story of earth tragically corrupted by the dragon, intensely waiting for a deliverer, striving to fix itself, and the loyal following holding out hope, aren’t so “fairy-tale” after all. Hush up, academic side … God is the great story-teller, Tolkien and Lewis are just following their author.

Shading in the Details

Every good writer does his research, and the richness of the story is shaped by the textures and shades of the thoughtful details woven into the tale. So it is with these epic stories, they need the theology, care, and study of the great theologians. Truth be told, Tolkien and Lewis are some of the finest theologians around. Why? Because they had that academic, professor, Calvin-side. They wrestled with sovereignty, substitutionary atonement, depravity, and redemption. They were exegetes and not just playing make-believe. We miss the joy and beauty of the grand narrative without the depth and clarity of Biblical theology.

Jesus Told Stories and Preached Sermons

Survey the life and ministry of Christ and you’ll find both carefully constructed theological arguments and beautifully poetic literature. People sat on the edge of their seat as he crafted parables to bring home a heavenly truth. And they nestled into the hillside as he outlined practical theology in his sermonizing. Truth can be communicated many ways, the main thing is that truth is communicated. When I read a theology book, I slow down, think deeply, reference Scripture, and evaluate where my framework needs tweaking. When I get lost in a story, my heart is much quicker to recognize the dark shadows I face, admit my Hobbit-like need, and long for the return of the King.

The End of Theology is Joy

Calvin-ish people need Tolkien, and those lost in Narnia need The Institutes. If you’re feeling angry (or people feel your anger) and sorta crusty … Maybe you’ve been trying to play the starring role in your own movie, rather than recognizing the story isn’t about you. Pick up Lewis and be reminded that this epic tale is about the glory of God, not life done your way. You can’t fix it all! If you’re fearful and anxious … Maybe you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid of a superficial Christianity and anti-intellectual approach to the Word. Go deep in Edwards and Calvin, you need to be reminded of the Almighty Father, The rescue work of the Son, and the Spirit who ever lives to make intercession for you.

I’m not sure I’ll ever completely rid myself of this internal battle I feel, but the more I study theology AND the more I enjoy the beauty of His Story, the more my soul delights in the Gospel. And delighting in God and the Gospel (His Story) is the chief end of man … So that can’t be all that bad. Go on an adventure with Aslan, have a cup of coffee with Luther … But most importantly worship the Creator.

In His Story,
Pastor Mark

Terminally Casual Relationships

It’s been a crazy bad flu season, and this year they have even referred to it as an epidemic. The threshold for an epidemic is that it causes more than 7.2 percent of deaths, and Reuters reported a few weeks back that influenza had officially reached 7.3 percent of deaths caused by pneumonia and the flu. It’s crazy to me how what feels like a stuffy nose, fuzzy head, and hacking cough, though uncomfortable, can kill people. I mean it’s not cancer or HIV.

It actually has a lot of similarities to another epidemic of even greater proportions. And one every local church must battle – Terminally Casual Relationships. When a marriage disintegrates due to adultery or abuse, usually someone jumps in to confront sin, offer support, and pursue healing. When there is a bully in the class, kids are trained to invite a teacher or administrator to intervene. Those situations make sense, after all that stuff is cancer. But rarely does anyone sound the alarm over too many, “I’m fine thank you’s”. And so no Gospel medicine is applied, no encouragement needed, and certainly no admonitions braved. Just smiles exchanged and the back door after the service eyed with a laser-like focus. This is a nasty flu bug, and can reach epidemic proportions in our spiritual communities. So, what medicine can be applied?

1- Ask a Question

I know that sounds so simplistic, but most fail to do it. They talk, they listen to someone else talk, and then they hope to get out of the conversation without too much delay in getting to lunch. Stop, ask a question: Who are you walking with through what you just shared? What is the hardest part of this circumstance for your heart? Or simply how can I pray for you? I have found that the question, What can I do to help? is rarely helpful because most don’t know what they need or find it hard to ask for what they might really need. It’s much better to be insightful, prayerful, and observant … then offer something

2- Make a Commitment

Salesmen often learn the principle of not ending one meeting with a client before setting up the next meeting, it prevents a potential client from falling off the sales radar. Not a bad principle. Before you say goodbye, commit to a phone call, a coffee meeting, or something you can pursue spiritually together (let’s read through this passage this week, lets go to this Bible Study together). Commit to something that will keep your hearts linked together in the fight against the devices of the enemy.

3- Give Your Heart

It can be a delicate balance between self-protection and self-disclosure, both can be rooted in independence, control, and pride. Some have no problem doing the emotional dump on people, and others guard the details of their own heart with militaristic control. Think to yourself: Have I let this person in? Do they know I need help, and the precious remedies of the Gospel as much as they do? Have I given them anything that they would be able to clearly take to God in prayer on my behalf?

Trust God enough to give your heart away rather than contribute to this spiritual epidemic. We have to be people that don’t wait for someone to be admitted to the hospital to care for each others souls. Guess what? We all need it, nobody is immune from this spiritual flu season … and you can’t sanitize your way around it because you have already been exposed. So just jump in and practice soul care together with your brothers and sisters!

Your Spiritual Pharmacist,
Pastor Mark

Africa is Always a Good Teacher to Me

I’ve had a chance to share some of my recent mission ventures with a handful of folks, but there is still so much rattling around in my heart … I have to put some of it in summary form (mostly for my own processing).

Satan’s Various Strategies and God’s ONE Solution

I imagine Satan thinks himself quite clever that in America he is an angel of light, filling big churches with man-centered teaching, entertaining shows, and Gospel-less preaching.  People think they are “getting in good with God”, when all that’s happening is they are being duped by false-Gospels.  I imagine Satan thinks himself quite powerful in Ethiopia where he advances false religions, witchcraft, tribalism, and demonic possession.  People think they have no hope of freedom, when Satan holds on by a thread knowing his power is weak and his turf limited.  All the same, over the years Satan’s strategies have changes and tweaks attached to them in order to best infiltrate the cultural milieu of the day (Os Guinness has a great book that cleverly exposes this - The Last Christian on Earth).  BUT the clear and simple bottom line is that God’s strategy has never changed.  The church has tried to change it to “stick better” or “present more softly”, but it’s always been about a Redeemer who rescues sinners by grace through faith.  In Northern Ethiopia church planters are simply obeying the Word of God in sharing the Gospel with people trapped by Satan.  Sometimes it’s praying for freedom from demonic activity, sometimes it’s sharing a story of God at work, sometimes it’s delivering medical supplies, but it is always about sharing the free and freeing work of Jesus Christ as the One rescuer of the soul.  And over the past 18 months since we’ve been able to help in the training of these courageous men and women 55+ house churches have been established.  WOW!  These faithful brothers and sisters inspire me more than anyone else I have yet to meet in Kingdom ministry.  Thanks friends for letting me be a part of seeing the Kingdom of God advance against the darkness in Amhara!

It’s Still and Always About Relationship

Crazy to think such an antiquated strategy for seeing life change would still be the case today, huh?  Leaving Ethiopia I had the immense privilege of spending time with one of my favorite families on the planet (The Carrolls).  I got to see what God has done through them in Uganda over the past decade.  It wasn’t the amazing missions training center they built (and then freely handed over to the largest Ugandan denomination in the country) that impressed me. It wasn’t the focused devotion of this missional family (yes kids, you guys are all an amazing example of what a Christian family is called to be) that impressed me.  It wasn’t even the powerful teaching that Dave has done on the heart of the Father (yes Dave … you are a deeply gifted teacher) that impressed me.  It was the people whose lives have been transformed by the power of God through the love of His people.  People don’t worship the Carrolls, but they have come to worship a great God because the Carrolls do. They have welcomed people into their heart and home to experience being loved and at peace.  It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard.  It’s powerful Gospel living, but it’s not always “successful”.  It’s full of joy and sorrow, delight and heartbreak.  But it is the call of discipleship, and it’s still and always what God has called us all to.  Imagine that – Loving Gospel Relationships as a strategy … maybe it’s not our cafés and cool music that change people’s lives.  Thanks Dave and Jen for loving me, and letting me see and experience the powerful way you have loved a nation … and individuals.

This Is My Message and It’s Not Changing

I know, I’m blowing your mind here with the depth of insight and clever strategy I’m pumping out.  We are all more alike than we are different.  Sure, Ethiopia, Uganda, and America have great differences, but at the heart we’re all the same.  The trappings of life are different, but the idols of the heart are the same: love of self, love of control, love of praise, love of comfort.  And the temptations and distraction are as plentiful there as anywhere to think that there must be something more than the sovereign love of the Father, the all-sufficient sacrifice of the Son, and the ever-active transforming work of the Holy Spirit.  I’m always tempted to change my message to sound more innovative and groundbreaking or to make people go “Ohh” over it.  But I can’t, I won’t … there is just nothing else that I have to offer anyone on the planet than the inexpressible joy and satisfaction of the freedom and rest that comes through the cross.  That’s my forever message and I’m sticking with it.  Thanks Spirit of God for planting it deep on my heart, and always pushing it deeper in my life.  Thanks Africa for being a good teacher to me yet again.  And thanks to all of you who prayed for me … you were faithfully used to see the Kingdom of the Gospel advance as the glory of the Lord fills the nations!

Always Needy,

Pastor Mark

What The Prosperity Gospel and Moralistic Legalism Have In Common

Perhaps one of the hardest truths of the Gospel for man to embrace is the cold hard truth that you bring nothing to the table. God is completely independent, self-sufficient, and sovereign above all. Man is dead, heart of stone, desperately without hope of self-improvement. But oh how the human heart is prone to perform, and wired toward the age old axiom of ’cause and effect’. If I do this, then the following will occur … But it is a counter-gospel axiom in the spiritual life. You can go to church everyday of your life, and new life isn’t guaranteed to occur. You can give money, serve on boards, and teach Sunday School, and a healthy marriage is not achieved. You can read your Daily Bread, say your family prayers, and serve at the local shelter, but that won’t prevent rebellion in the hearts of your kids. God is not obliged to service the desired “effect” of your effort-filled “cause”. And sadly this can take all kinds of forms, even ones that seem like polar opposites. Allow me to explain …

Moralistic Legalism

This vein of man-centered religion says, “don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do … and God will bless your life.” Ok, they might put it a little differently than that, but that is the essential message. Work hard at doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things is what honors God. A life of holiness, purity, and integrity is what makes God smile, and therefore makes God open his hand to you. It’s no surprise then that the emphasis of this teaching is on imperatives. Do this! Resist this! Flee that! The promise of the Christian life is hidden behind moral imperatives, religious prohibitions, and political conservatism. Sounds a lot like the apostle Paul’s exposing of this in Colossians 2:20-23 – “…do you submit to regulations ‘Do not handle, do not touch, do not taste’ … These indeed have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism, and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. Nope … moralistic, fundamentalistic, man-made, crusty, stop-doing-that, sort of “gospel” doesn’t honor God nor bring Him glory. So it’s no surprise then to think that in rejecting this and in claiming “authority” is where real power is to be found. Consider next …

Word of Faith, Prosperity Gospel

Yep, they are indeed twin sisters. The name-it-and-claim-it version of man-centered religion says, “You have been given all authority, speak into your deliverance, boldly claim what is yours out of Satan’s hand”. So, obviously I’m a little less familiar with the exact language they put into our mouths, but this is essentially their message. Instead of work hard at holiness to get God’s pleasure, it is asserting your authority over creation, declaring atoms in the body relocated for healing. It is prayers prayed like mantras over someone afflicted with suffering. It is techniques for controlling the Holy Spirit, or activities that demonstrate external evidences of spiritual activity. They have exchanged the imperative commands for the indicative promises, and now use them as leverage to get God to work for them. And the promise of the Christian life is hidden behind spiritual shenanigans, empowered man, and the guise of freedom. All the while it is beholden to the master teacher who has determined what buttons to push, or action to perform this month or at this service, always having to come up with something new to keep it fresh (or to keep the loyal enslaved). And this sounds quite a bit like Paul exhorting Timothy in 1 Timothy 6 to avoid those who have been ensnared by the love of money, power, and possessions and “have the appearance of godliness, but deny its real power (2 Timothy 3:5)”. Nope, name-it-and-claim-it, wacky, man-made, weaselly, just speak it, sort of “gospel” doesn’t honor God nor bring him glory. And it’s shockingly scary how similar these two version of “Christianity” really are. They both are about our performing … Do this and God will act, don’t do this and God is pleased. They both focus on you doing (or not doing) something. So, what then is the answer?

Christ Crucified

Yeah, yeah, I know … both of these say that they believe this, and I’m sure to some extent they do. The problem is they just don’t rest in it. It is not about what man does or doesn’t do, it is always about what God has done, continues to do, and will do. God the Father is not manipulated to act according to our holy living, nor is He swayed by our bold declarations … He has acted on our behalf through Christ, and He freely blesses His children with exactly what they need to be sanctified and delighted in, whether that be riches or suffering. He does not withhold when His children “blow it”, and He does not pour forth grace only when we “claim it”. He is infinitely pleased with His Son and the redeeming work He accomplished for those who believe. Nothing we do, good or bad, sinful or righteous, religious or secular, can get us more of Him or prevent His work over us. When we are ‘In Christ’ God is pleased with us … Period! And He is free to act completely apart from us for us! And that is the glory of the Gospel … and it is most definitely for our joy! Which is why Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Rest in that my friend … and that alone!

In love with a God who acts,
Pastor Mark

The Unintended Consequences of Confronting Sin

I believe that the Word of God clearly calls us to “speak truth”, “confront sin”, and “call one to obedience”. And for years and years I taught and practiced it as a Dean of Students and Discipleship Pastor, believing it was to be done in love, with grace, and for restoration. Some did feel loved and their rebellious spirit was squelched, some did receive grace and indeed repent, and yes, restoration occurred in certain instances. But there is more to the story …

The Dilemma

Part of the human Biblical solution is also part of the dilemma a “caught in sin” or “young in their faith” believer faces. As I lay out Biblical truth before them and try to tenderly call them to repentance, they are faced with a few externally conforming options that most likely will not be recognized by others, or even by themselves until later. Option #1 – They change because they respect (or fear) the person doing the confronting which can lead to a people-pleasing obedience, OR Option #2 – They change their external behavior out of respect (or fear) for God which can lead to a duty-filled obedience. People-pleasing morality vs. God-obliging legalism … Not so different. In our best efforts to help, we can actually turn them down a Gospel-less road that undermines their confidence in the Word, the Spirit … and us.

Confronting Sin or Conforming Behavior

Make no mistake, Biblical change can be manipulated and mis-centered, and we who are the disciplers/counselors must know where our leadership ends, lest we be guilty of setting people up for moralism or legalism. We must know where our laying out of Biblical Gospel truth ends, and trusting the transforming work of the Spirit of God in people’s lives takes over. It is indeed our responsibility to call out sin and humbly plead for repentance … It is NOT out role or power to produce the obedient behavior. What does that mean? It means new believers who are still living together unmarried need to be taught what the Bible teaches, but they don’t need your demand of instant obedience. If they are soft-hearted people, they will do what you say either because they genuinely want to please God or please you … but not necessarily because the abhor their sin, have recognized the idol of their heart, or embrace God’s way as their path to greatest joy. We either trust the Word and the work of the Spirit or we don’t. And that may mean we actually have to step back and quit trying to be the Holy Spirit in people’s lives. How inconsistent it is to preach and teach the sufficiency of Scripture, and then give people the do’s and don’t we expect of them by next week. Is your repentance instantaneous? Do you know the depth of your own heart? Doesn’t the work of the Word often take some marinating in your soul, some prayerful reflection that then leads to genuine spiritual decisions?

The Biblical call to confront sin – separate from – the Spirit’s conviction to change

Don’t back up from being a purposeful discipler in people’s lives, and don’t hedge on Biblical truth, but do separate your role in speaking the truth from the Spirit’s role in changing the heart. If true, lasting, Gospel transformation is what we aim at (and it is), then be as confident of Philippians 1:6 as Paul was. HE who began a good work … HE will bring it to completion! We have far too many “Christians” filling our churches that do what they do because the “mature believer” told them to, or because they think they can earn something from God by their duty-filled obligatory behavior. Can we please stop that? Those of us who most trust the authority of the Word, must also be the ones who most trust the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Absolutely Confident of the Word and the Spirit,
Pastor Mark