Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Start the Process


Life is much easier when we go with the flow. The reason it is easier is because it requires little effort since we are moved along by the currents of the culture around us. 

Yet, this is also the reason it is a problem. When we simply go along with the flow we allow our lives to be at the mercy of the culture. We go where the culture takes us. 

I believe this is one of the key reasons why American Christians lack spiritual maturity. We haven't put intentional effort into following Jesus. Rather, we simply went with the flow of our culture.

Thankfully, God in His mercy, has still brought healing to our hearts and transformation to our lives. It is not like we haven't experienced any transformation, but the growth we have experienced has been stunted.

The fact that we have experienced spiritual formation should cause us to pause and thank God for the work He has done in our lives. At the same time it should move us to confess that we have not lived up to our side of the transformation.

It is crucial for us to understand that there is a part that we play in Christian spiritual formation. All through the New Testament we find expectations for the way we are to live. There are lists of things we need to stop doing and lists for things we need to start doing. Faith requires action and obedience is an act of faith.

With that in mind think about what Dallas Willard wrote in Renovation of the Heart:

"Spiritual formation in Christ is an orderly process.  Although God can triumph in disorder, that is not his choice.  And instead of focusing upon what God can do, we must humble ourselves to accept the ways he has chosen to work with us.  These are clearly laid out in the Bible, and especially in the words of and person of Jesus."  p. 10

Since Christian spiritual formation is an orderly process, then it is a process that we must choose to begin. I already wrote about The First Step of Christian spiritual formation.

How do we take that first step? What does it meant to surrender to Jesus?

I think we find the answer in Matthew 4:17;  From then on Jesus began to preach, "Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near." (NLT)

Repentance is the intentional action we take to surrender to Jesus.

Repentance isn't just feeling sorry for and confessing our sins. Those are important elements of repentance, but I think repentance means much more.

Real repentance is about changing our loyalties.  

Remember, sin is rebellion against God and His Kingdom. That means, through sin, we have pledged our allegiance to Satan and his kingdom.  Repentance is the undoing of that reality. By repenting we declare our loyalties are changed and now we loyal citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

This intentional change of loyalty is absolutely crucial to spiritual formation.

There are other steps that we must do through this process. We have to do things like pray, study, give, be baptized, forgive, and serve. For these acts to truly have a transformational affect on our lives, we must first repent. 

Repentance, at is core, is an act of faith. It is an act of faith because through repentance we declare our belief, trust, and commitment to God. This is what it looks like to surrender to Jesus.

Christian spiritual formation is an intentional process. It is a process that begins with our choice to repent. Make that choice.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Choose The Right Way

Freedom is a beautiful thing.

We love being able to make the choices that determine the course of our lives. We don't want other people making those decisions for us.

As wonderful as freedom is, it also is a very dangerous thing. It is dangerous because our freedom can lead to our enslavement.

There are certain choices that we can make that will either help us live a life of freedom, or will take freedom from us.

Here is an extreme example. If you decide to murder someone, that decision will rob you of freedom. Even if you were never caught and didn't spend a day in jail, the guilt of the deed and the constant fear of being caught would hamper your ability to enjoy life.

Here is a more common example.  Your choice to use credit to furnish a lifestyle way above your income will mean that you are enslaved to creditors. They are entitled to the money you already spent. That means part of the time you are working, you are working to pay them. Not only that, because credit comes with the attachment of interest, you will be paying back more than what you borrowed in the first place, giving you less money to use for necessary things. Often this leads to using a credit card and going deeper in debt.

Your freedom is affected by the choices you make.

The choices we make will either bring us greater levels of freedom or restrict the freedom we already enjoy.

There are many choices that we freely make that end up taking away our freedom. Our freedom and our choices are eternally connected.

Erwin McManus wrote:
“Not all free acts lead to freedom. The choices you freely make may cost you a life of genuine freedom. This is why the Bible talks about the human experience in terms of being slaves to sin. Sin creates the illusion of freedom; it fools us into seeking freedom from God rather than finding freedom in God. 
“Whatever else Jesus came to do, one thing is clear—He came to set you free. God is not a warden; He is a deliverer. And so earnest is He about your freedom that He was willing to be taken captive and crucified on your behalf just so you can run free.” (Stand Against the Wind; p. 14)

If we are going to be free we have to make choices that enhance our freedom.

For us to make those choices requires that we look towards the future and not just live in the moment. We need to remember that our choices often have lasting consequences far past the time that we made them. A small choice that you made in the heat of the moment can alter the entire course of your life.

This is why we need a guide. When we choose to follow Jesus we will discover freedom. 

This is what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. 
 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.. (Romans 6:15-20; NLT)
The follower of Jesus is free because he has given himself over to the true way to live life.

Think about this analogy.

A person who is righteous is like a jazz improviser. She has learned the chords and studied the music to the extent that she understands where the music is going. When she goes off on her own she stays true to the music. The jazz improviser has freedom to improvise because she has been a slave to the music.

The person who is a slave of righteousness is able to live with freedom because he has come to understand what life is truly about and where life is ultimately heading. With those things in mind a great many options in life opens up for him. But, those things are only possible because first he choose to do what was right.

Use your freedom to choose to do what is right.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Work of Prayer

I am in the process of doing an in-depth look at the book of Colossians. For the past week I have read
through the entire book each day.

There are a number of passages that have stood out to me as I have done this, but there is one in particular that keeps grabbing my attention.

It is one of those passages that is easy to miss because it is at the end of the book in the section of greetings that we tend to just skim rather than read.

The passage I am refering to is Colossians 4:12-13. This is what Paul wrote:
 "Epaphras, a member of your own fellowship and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you his greetings. He always prays earnestly for you, asking God to make you strong and perfect, fully confident that you are following the whole will of God. I can assure you that he prays hard for you and also for the believers in Laodicea and Hierapolis" (NLT).
Here is the question that I have pondered because of this passage: How hard do I pray for people?

I can pray desperately for myself and the circumstances that I am facing. I can pray for my family and the circumstances of their lives. Yet, when it comes to other people, I fear I am rather indifferent to the needs of their lives.

As I think about discipleship and spiritual formation, I have to wonder if one of the obstacles that I face (and I have to believe others face as well) is a lack of praying hard. Is it possible that our church families are not maturing and are not growing because we have not committed to praying for growth?  Perhaps the reason the people in our lives struggle with broken hearts, depression, and addictions is because we are not praying for them?

Now, I don't want to make it sound that all we have to do pray and then magically everything will be better. Through the Bible God calls us to get off the couch and love our neighbors.Yet, the effort has to be grounded in prayer.

I confess that the reason this passage has been running through my mind is because God is calling me to do this work of prayer. It is something I keep putting off because I have other things to do: sermons to write, a church family to lead, and children to raise. Yet, aren't these the very reasons I should be spending more time in the work of prayer?

One of the realities about prayer is that it sounds very easy to do, but it is extremely difficult. Satan and his demonic horde will do everything in their power to keep us from praying effectively. No wonder Paul wrote that Epaphras prayed hard for the Colossians. It wasn't easy! It may not have been easy, but Epraphras committed himself to pray for the people of his hometown church.

I urge you to commit yourself to being a person of prayer. We all have people in our lives who desperately need our prayers, and if we don't pray for them who will? 

Join me in making a commitment that when a person pops into our minds, that we will stop what you are doing and pray for them. By doing this we are not not only inviting God to be part of the situation, but we are also doing our Christian duty of loving one another.

I think that we need recapture the idea of the work of prayer. Through prayer we can work for the Kingdom of God in this world. It won't be the easiest thing we have ever done, but it has the potential of being one of the best.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Two Ways to Live

Have you ever had a truth penetrate your mind that was so simple that you wondered why it took you so long to figure out?

I have.

One of the reasons for this reality is because the Holy Spirit holds back a teaching for the moment it will make the biggest impact in our lives. It has less to do with our IQ and more to do with timing.

One of the times I have experienced this happened several years ago while I read James 3:1-12, particularly verses 9 through 12:
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water (James 3:9-12; ESV).
James wrote that there are two uses for our tongues.

  1. We can bless God and others with our words. Our tongues can be an instrument of worship to God and an instrument of encouragement to those around us.
  2. We can curse God and others with our words. Our tongues can be an instrument to misuse the holy of God and an instrument to abuse those around us.

Think about how you use your tongue. Are people blessed by what you say or are they hurt by the words that come out of your mouth?

As I pondered this passage, the Holy Spirit showed me that the application encompasses more than our tongues.

Ultimately, what James taught in this passage applies to the way we live.

We can use our bodies to either sin and rebel against God, or we can use them to obey and worship God.

It is true that our actions fall on a spectrum between those two realities, but in the end we are either living in obedience or we are living in sin.

In his book Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright devoted a whole chapter to the idea of “building for the kingdom.”
“But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom” (p. 208).
This leads us to ask the question, “How do we build for the kingdom?”

In light of the passage from James, I would argue that we build for the kingdom when we devote our lives to doing good works in the name of Christ Jesus.

This is the point I want us to get today: just as our tongues can curse or praise God, our lives can either work for His kingdom or they can work against His kingdom.

I believe that sin is rebellion against God, and it has a corrupting nature, not only in our lives, but in the world.

Remember, this world was created good, and it has been corrupted through Satan, sin, and death.

For us to build for God’s kingdom requires us to leave sin behind through repentance, and join our lives to Jesus.

It is not enough just to leave a life of sin, but we also need to pursue what is right.

God called us to a life of obedience and good works. This is the practical side of how we join Him in His effort to redeem all of creation.

It is crucial to remember that our good works are not what makes us right with God, that only happens through faith in Jesus. Rather, our good works are our effort to partner with God in bringing His Kingdom to earth.

The implication of this thought is that the more we devote our lives to God’s kingdom the less we will be involved with sin. In other words, the best way to live out our repentance is to spend our lives doing good.

When we devote our lives to doing good, we are no longer participating in what brings corruption and injustice into God’s good creation.  Just as salt corrupts fresh water, sin corrupts good works.

Consider what the apostle Paul wrote in Galatians:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:7-10, ESV).
Here we discover the key to good works: being led by the Spirit.

The best way I know to be led by the Spirit is to be students of Scripture, to be involved in a church family, and to be devoted to prayer. If we care about doing what God has called us to do, if we desire to be led by the Spirit, then we will make these things a priority in our lives.

There are two ways we can live our lives. We can lives our lives in rebellion against God, or we can live our lives building for His kingdom.

Make the right choice.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

What We Think We Know

“We make assumptions about the world around us based on sometimes incomplete or false information...We make decisions based on what we think we know.” ~ Simon Sinek, Start with Why, p. 11

One of the phenomena that we have seen with the rise of internet based media (from blogs to social media to YouTube to Podcasts) is that anyone with an internet connection is able to voice their opinion.

Since the United States protects the freedom of speech, Americans have adopted the idea of giving everyone a voice as a primary value. One way we see this value in our culture is through the declaration that "voting as a sacred duty." Voting, people say, is an opportunity to "let your voice be heard."

The major problem of giving everyone a voice is that opinions are not equally valid.

We hold a variety of opinions, but often those opinions are formed with either insufficient or faulty data. Very few of our dearly held opinions and beliefs are adopted through extensive research. Rather, we simply believed what a trusted source told us.

This reality should make us humble and guide the way we share our opinions.

We should be humble when it comes to our beliefs, but that is not how things works in the real world.

Our experience with social media shows us that humility is often absent in the sharing of ideas, beliefs, and opinions.

It is difficult for us to accept the possibility that we may be wrong about an issue.

The reason we hold the opinions and beliefs that we do is because we believe those beliefs are true. These are the ideas that form our world view.

It is no wonder why many of us take a stance of certainty rather than humility. We are worried that if we are wrong on this one point, we may be wrong about our entire belief system.

A problem that is attached to a stance of certainty is that we are unable to listen to what others say. Instead of hearing what others say, we will call anyone who disagrees with us "ignorant" or "foolish."

In other words, we do not extend to others the respect of being heard. This is a respect they are due because they are people created in the image of God.

Not listening to another person is improper conduct for a follower of Jesus.

Proverbs 11:2 reads; “Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (NLT)

Do you want to be wise?

The price tag for wisdom is humility.

You have to understand, regardless of your education level or how much you have read, that there are huge gaps in your understanding.

The reality is that ALL of us are ignorant about most everything in the world.

Be willing to admit that you could be wrong about what you believe.

In the book of James, the brother of Jesus wrote:
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.” 
James 1:19-21 (NLT)
James identified the essential action for gaining knowledge and growing in wisdom: “be quick to listen.”

We love to offer our opinion.

We don’t enjoy remaining silent long enough to hear the thoughts of another person.

It is true that we may pretend to be polite by being quiet, but the reality is our mind is at work creating our next argument. Too often we do this based on an assumption of what is being said, rather than what the other person is actually saying.

This type of behavior is toxic for a civil society. We are able to see the consequences of this behavior all around us. I believe it is one of the reasons why the United States feels deeply divided. We lack the humility to examine what other people have to offer.

Without humility we will not give other people a fair hearing, and  we will continue to move forward based on our assumptions rather than discovering what is actually true.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Expected to be Holy

{Ephesians 4:20-24; ESV}

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

When it comes to following Jesus we need to remember two important truths.
  1. We are unable to live faithfully by our own efforts. Salvation begins and ends with God. He is the one who took the initiative to save us for Satan, sin, and death. Therefore we can be confident that He will finish what He started. The primary way transformation occurs in our lives is through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides our lives towards a deeper faith and a greater maturity. The Holy Spirit also brings healing to the wounds located in our hearts. Through the work of the Spirit, God does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.
  2. God expects His people to be holy. What does holiness look like? Holiness looks like Jesus. To be holy requires us to live the way Jesus lived. We are only able to do that as we surrender to the guidance of the Spirit. We cannot become holy on our own, we need to God’s help, but we have to surrender our lives to Him.
Andrew Murray wrote; “Holiness is not something we do or attain: it is the communication of the Divine life, the inbreathing of the Divine nature, the power of the Divine Presence resting on us.” (Holy in Christ)

While God expects His covenant people to be holy, He doesn’t leave us to achieve holiness on our own. God bestows holiness on us through the saving work of Jesus and by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

These two realities don't get us off the hook for the choices that we make. They do remind us that we cannot faithfully follow Jesus simply by our own strength. The work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit declare that God wants us to be holy! Since God wants us to be holy, He is going to do everything within His power to make us holy. That is very good news!

Our responsibility for holiness falls within two areas:
  1. We must put off the old. Our old way of living was nothing less than rebellion against God and His Kingdom. That is why it is important for us to declare that we are no longer part of the rebellion that started with Satan and continues to this day. I would encourage you, while you are praying, to declare that you are done with sin. Do this out loud and be specific. Name those sins that defined your old self and make it known that they are no longer a part of who you are because of what Jesus has done. We also need to take steps to remove sin from our lives, and the first step is renouncing our sins. While this action is often overlooked I think it is basic to discovering real freedom from sin.
  2. We must put on the new. The Gospel declares that when we are in Christ we are “new creations.” That is the reality of our lives, but we must believe it and live it. This begins with asking God to fill us with spiritual wisdom and understanding. We need the eyes of our hearts open so we can understand what it looks like for us to live like Jesus. Embracing the new and living like Jesus enables us to meet God’s expectation of holiness for our lives.
You and I can be holy because God makes us holy. It is up to us to live out that reality in our lives.

Questions to Consider:
  • How important is the pursuit of holiness in your life?
  • What practical steps could you take this week in your pursuit of holiness?
  • Does it provide a sense of relief to know that God makes us holy?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Way of Personal Fulfillment

One of my core beliefs is that there are universal desires that reside in the hearts of all people. These desires may manifest themselves differently in our lives, but they are still the same desires.

One of these universal desires is the desire for intimacy. Each one of us crave to have friendships and other relationships where we feel accepted and valued by other people. This desire is core to who we are as humans. It is the reason God declared loneliness to be not good (Genesis 2:18).

Another desire that is common for people is the desire to have purpose. For most people throughout history this desire revealed itself in the desire to live. When every day is a struggle between life and death, there isn’t a lot of soul searching around the idea of the meaning of life. When life isn’t about daily survival we are afforded the opportunity to ponder about life and wonder if our lives have any greater purpose than mere existence. This desire morphs from the desire to live to the desire to make a difference in the world.

People want their lives to matter and to have a sense of personal fulfillment. No one wants their life to be a waste.

I believe people are doing one of two things: They are either on the pursuit to find personal fulfillment or they are looking for a way to numb the belief that their life doesn’t matter.

Spiritual formation in Christ is crucial because it is the only way to truly experience the personal fulfillment of purpose and meaning that our hearts crave.

“Jesus does not deny us personal fulfillment, but shows us the only true way to it. In him we ‘find our life.’ He would keep us from selling our birthright as creatures in God’s image - a birthright of genuine goodness, sufficiency, and power for which we are fitted by nature - for a mere bowl of soup (Genesis 25:30-31). Perhaps a little illicit sex, money, reputation, power, self-righteousness, and so forth - ‘the pleasures of sin for a season’ - or for the promise or possibility of such.” 
(Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 68)

The way of Jesus is the only true path for personal fulfillment, because only Jesus can lead us to live the life God created us to live. Only Jesus can infuse our daily activities, as mundane and ordinary as they appear to be, with Kingdom importance.

When our lives are marked with love, peace, joy, gentleness, and the like (Galatians 5:22-23) we are able to experience fulfillment no matter what task or activity is before us.

The way of true personal fulfillment, to live the life we were created to live, is the path blazed by Jesus.  We need to follow Jesus to experience true life!

Following Jesus is more than just believing in him and adopting a few moral principles. It  is actually  adopting the way Jesus lived his life. It requires doing those things which empowered Jesus to love, forgive, and to serve.

What activities empowered Jesus to live life? Jesus spent time studying Scripture, fasting, serving, and praying. Spiritual disciplines helped Jesus live life. We need to follow his example.

Following Jesus doesn’t keep us from personal fulfillment, rather it is the only way to truly experience it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The First Step

Every journey requires a first step.

It doesn’t matter if the journey is an actual physical journey, like traveling New York City to Los Angeles, or a metaphorical journey, like transitioning from being a salesperson to being an engineer, there is always the first action that sets things in motion.

Without a first step you will never be able to complete the journey.

The girl who wants to play the violin needs to set aside time in her life when she drops everything else in order to practice the violin. Only by taking that first step to practice the violin will she be able to master the instrument enough to perform before an audience.

The student who wants an A on his research paper needs to put time into reading and taking notes on the subjects he is going to write about. Only by taking that first step of taking his research seriously is he able to lay a foundation that is able to yield him an A.

The boy who wants to play basketball needs to put in time to shoot baskets, do dribbling drills, and run lines in order to have a good grasp of the fundamentals of the game. Only by dedicating time to learning the basics can he hope to play well in the game.

There is a foundational act the precedes growth and mastery of a subject.

This reality also applies to our Christian spiritual formation.

Dallas Willard wrote:
“Those who are not genuinely convinced that the only bargain in life is surrendering ourselves to Jesus and his cause, abandoning all that we love to him, cannot learn the other lessons Jesus has to teach us. They cannot proceed to any thing like total spiritual transformation. Not that he will not let us, but that we simply cannot succeed. If I tell you that you cannot drive an automobile unless you can see, I am not saying I will not let you, but that you cannot succeed even if I do.” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 66)

Our intentional spiritual formation in Jesus has a clear starting point, and that is our choice to surrender to him.

It is important to understand that surrendering to Jesus is more than declaring that we believe he is God’s Son who rose from the dead.

To surrender to Jesus requires us to lay aside what we believe life is all about, our habits, our beliefs, our politics, and follow him. We follow him, even if he leads us into  hardship and death.

If we don’t surrender our lives to Jesus, it is impossible for us to experience true spiritual formation. Spiritual formation in Christ requires that we trust him more than we trust ourselves.

Jesus told the apostles:
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” 
Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)

The only way to experience the eternal life that is the result of spiritual formation is to surrender to Jesus, and that requires us to follow the way of the cross.

If we are still preoccupied with trying to create the life of our dreams, we will not follow Jesus wherever he leads. Instead, we will question him and hestitate to obey, only following when it makes sense to us to follow.

This is why Jesus’ demand for surrendering is necessary, because without it we will not follow him.

When we surrender to Jesus we are declaring that we believe Jesus will give us life, even in those moments when our obedience seems to take us in the opposite direction of life. The trust that is developed from our choice to surrender is crucial to our spiritual formation in Christ.

On the journey to become the person God created you to be, don’t neglect the first step.

The Discipleship Road: Providence

 I am preaching a sermon series called The Discipleship Road  at Bethlehem Church. The series is loosely based on Eugene Peterson’s book A L...