Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.
“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”
- Hosea 6:1
Has anyone ever mentioned to you how God seems to be brutally vicious in the Old Testament, but then we have Jesus who is loving and kind in the New Testament? I mean, except for Revelations. We’ll just discount that because look, it’s a lot of symbolism to unravel. Why bother with that mess when we can just act like an ostrich instead, right?
Honestly, both those perceptions are wrong. It’s so wrong that it collides with the truth like a child run amok in a bumper car arena at the state fair. When they run into you, it's repeatedly done, it's on purpose, and neither of you generally get anywhere at all.
Regardless, that’s one of the subjects pastors face from not only non-believers but also people struggling to wrap their head around a God that you cannot actually wrap your head around. Grasping the concept of God is impossible for a variety of reasons regardless of what Paul might have wished for us. We still try, though, because there are contrasts in God that we seem stuck on trying to reconcile. Why we choose to do it from our decidedly non-God viewpoint is puzzling to me, though. It’s sort of like trying to drive a car from the back bumper. You can’t see anything and you can’t reach the steering wheel or the pedals, but for some reason, we still think we’re fully justified in getting mad when we run over a stop sign.
Or at least we hope it was a stop sign.
There's a reason for this, and it has to do with how we are built for harmony. Think about life being like a bank statement. On one side of the ledger, you have deposits and on the other side, you have withdrawals. Somewhere in between those, we want to come to a zero-sum truth. Neither side loses or gains more than the other side loses or gains. Right there, we know we’re at a point of equilibrium in between the balance of negative and positive. We know where we stand.
But let me tell you, I hate balancing my checkbook sometimes. Somewhere along the line I missed something, or added wrong, or hit a decimal point where it shouldn’t have been, or forgot to add in a fee or a withdrawal for ice cream or another cool pastoral book or something like that. Then I’m trying to figure out just where that extra $4.67 came from and why these silly numbers aren't adding up perfectly. Math used to drive me nuts when I was a kid, especially when the answers just didn’t add up. There was no equilibrium in anything, let alone an equation when that happened and I really wound up blaming those "stupid numbers" instead of looking at the real issue. Me. That contrast of positive and negative, that equation that should have led to equilibrium led to pretty much anything except a feeling of being balanced. I may have gotten high marks for mathematical skills when I was younger, but I’ll tell you this. Numbers and I have an uneasy truce. Maybe that’s why I have yet to do a Bible study on the book of Numbers. Too much numerical trauma?
Anyway. The point is that we’re in this quest for equilibrium in our lives. Balance helps us feel like we’re in a good place because we were built for harmony like the Trinity is in harmony. When we get off-kilter slightly, we try to balance back to level and right ourselves in any way we can. When we get way off-kilter, we begin to panic, which leads to a whole host of other issues.
Those issues can contrastingly lead us farther from God, or closer to God depending on the choices we choose to make.
The Replacement Factor
The whole of this scripture passage is about God replacing one thing with another. Predatorially tearing prey to pieces is replaced by skillfully and surgically healing those tears. Violent injury is replaced with meticulous binding. Even the Hebrew idea of "come" means to travel to a place as a group, and that is contrasted by a return to a previous state or position. You see, we have an ebb and flow here. A give and a take.
A call, and a response.
A call to return is very much at the heart of the book of Hosea, putting God's incredibly passionate love for His creation on full display. Hosea was a prophet who was a contemporary of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in the early to late 700’s BCE. He became a prophet right before the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He had a 60-year ministry that we believe was in the northern part of the two kingdoms because he appears to know a lot about the geography and the customs of the people there. Hosea's ministry here is often seen as a prophet of doom and gloom, but he also prophesied how great God’s love is in recovering who we are as His children. His relationship with Gomer is what many people remember about Hosea, with the contrast of estrangement and return running throughout the entire book. It’s literally a study on those contrasts we find so perplexing about God.
For example, there's a contrast in Hosea's children. We know children are supposed to be a blessing, but they had names based on anything but blessings. We are shown a contrast of God deserving the very best, receiving the worst, but loving us nonetheless when we return. It’s a contrast of us deserving death, but God giving us life and loving us all the same when we return. At one point, Hosea bought Gomer back for 15 shekels and some barley. That contrast of unworthiness still fetching a price that was paid is vital here. It mirrors the price Christ would pay “just to win you,” and that he would “surrender his good life for bad.” He “called that a bargain, the best he ever had.” And while it might be strange to some that I just quoted The Who here, what is stranger than all that, is our desire to identify with Hosea’s holiness in this contrast, when it’s more appropriate for us to be identified with Gomer.
Black white right left
It’s important to look for the contrasts like that in our spiritual walk. One of the spiritual disciplines we have, fasting holds a strong contrast for us. At the heart of fasting is turning from an attitude of idolatry to one of true worship. Fasting is about submitting things that we love over to God, in order to more fully receive His investment of His love in our lives. That requires not just a heart change, but a response that is caused by that heart change, just like I broke out from Romans 10:10 recently. In Wesleyan history, we are a people who are very attuned to the fact that faith demands a response of action, just as grace demands the response of faith in Romans. It is literally the pinpoint pinnacle of our turning from sin to salvation and likewise from our perspective to our purpose. The gift of faith is at the center of all of this.
As Methodists, we’re not justified in ur salvation by our actions, but rather we’re motivated to action by our faith whigh was instilled in us at our salvation. When we fast, we are giving up a relationship with something that doesn’t serve us for a relationship with something that does. Through it, we can go beyond it and step from fasting as an act of piety to fasting as an instigator of acts of mercy. James 2:18 says, “But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
In the Bible, fasting often is about food, which is where we get the notion that to fast, we simply just don't eat and that makes us magically holy. But food isn’t it. Food was what sustained the people in the Bible, so they would replace food with God as a way of sustaining themselves. That’s the very heart of Jesus saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God.” What fasting is basically saying is, I’d rather have something in my life that glorifies and builds up God inside of me, than something in my life that glorifies and builds up my flesh. Isaiah talks about this with a great deal of simplicity in Isaiah 58:6. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” In order to get to that kind of fasting-based act of mercy, we need to undergo a fasting-based act of piety. By engaging in a fasting-based act of piety first, the Holy Spirit builds our faith to a point where the acts of mercy are reachable, achievable and sustainable. All this stems from God’s greatness, and not ours because it comes through, and builds up, our faith. Remember, faith is something we can possess as a gift from God, but only God can build it.
Noted blogger Rachel Myers said, “Here’s the thing I’ve learned about fasting: it’s really only ever for one thing. Fasting is for God’s glory. And so, we fast to know Him. Because that gives Him glory. We fast to become like Christ. Because this glorifies the Father. We fast—whatever it is we’re fasting from—because He is God and we are not.”
Just like God is a God who can tear us apart and just like God is a God who can slay, kill, beat, slaughter and strike us, He’s also a God who can bind us securely from the wounds our selfishness can give us. We're not God and we can't do that for ourselves, but He can. It still depends entirely on what we want, and what we place first. God moves everything forward in our lives out of that choice.
The purpose is found in emptying our hands
The point here isn’t that God is a bully. It’s that God is just and fair, and He actually leaves the choice up to us as to what we do. Do we place God ahead of our own natures? Do we receive the blessing He has for us in it? Do we, in turn, bless other people through that blessing? Because let’s be real, that blessing we give to others carries a blessing for us as well. Remember the blessing the poor hold for us that I spoke of a few weeks back? When Phillip Yancey said that, it was to motivate us to seek God in that promise so that we might be blessed. We have to put God first in fasting as an act of piety before we can put God first in the act of mercy that is reaching out to the poor.
I’m not going to lie to you. This is going to bring your fleshly nature into direct conflict with the work the Holy Spirit is doing inside of you to create your new authority. It's going to get ugly and it will be difficult. We’re going to be exposed to our selfish nature because we are iso-centric beings. We think about ourselves and our own comforts. It’s the reason our churches are in such a pickle across the board, to begin with. Fasting is exactly how we become exo-centric as not only individuals but as an entire church. To be clear, I’m not talking about anonymous Eco-centric giving where we aren’t in contact with the people out there. I’m talking about removal of fear through the renewal of our spirits in a return to our missional call that will find us at ground zero of church revival.
There is always the possibility that something in our lives is being held up higher than God. While it’s OK for things to be important to us, we can’t allow them to surpass God in their importance. The challenge I am issuing to you, as a man who fasts regularly already, is this. Find something that either is already, or has the potential to eclipse God’s impact on your life, and then pick an amount of time to give it up. Replace it instead with spending time with God. Whether that is a time in worship or communion with God, which is an act of piety, or in service to Him, possibly as a volunteer somewhere, which is an act of mercy.
This is how we all grow. Just like I said last week, this is how our faith is grown by God, through the practice of our spiritual disciplines. It draws us closer to God. Closer to Christ. That is how we step into the renewal of our inner authority so that we can be effective in our purpose of reaching those outside our churches with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Crash bang boom
You know, speaking of Phillip Yancy, he told a story once about just this sort of thing in a book he wrote about spiritual discipline. “Experiences of God cannot be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental,’ a rabbi said. His student asked, “If God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” “To be as accident-prone as possible,” said the teacher.”
I genuinely hope you spend so much time in fasting and the other spiritual disciplines that you crash into God like that child in a bumper car at the state fair. At least then you’ll actually be going somewhere because God will be right in your path.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
- 1 Peter 5:10
First of all, let me say that the "little while" of suffering to which Peter was referring is not my sermon time, contrary to what my congregation may think.
But you know, I could say that the suffering we encounter in life is divisively theodical in nature and I wouldn’t be wrong. Theodical comes from one of those fancy-pants pastor words, “theodicy.” Theodicy is not the story written by Homer (that’s The Odyssey). Theodicy is the study of and attempt to answer why God lets bad things happen to good people. Job, Joseph, Jeremiah, and even Jesus had some fairly terrible things happen to them. Even people without “J” as the first letter of their name suffered. Paul, Peter, and a host of others did, too. We all want to know one thing. Why? If God is the God of all grace and has called us to eternal glory, why does he sometimes do it by dragging the people in his church through 50 miles of mud bog and thorns? Why are we to live in the middle of Babylon if we have been made to be victorious overcomers as I pointed out last week? How is suffering supposed to leave us strong, firm and steadfast as promised?
God revealed to us through faith, which is his divine persuasion, that we could do amazing things. Then the road to those amazing things often takes a hard left turn and if we didn’t actually get thrown out of the vehicle by that, we darned near did. It challenges our trust, and certainly our faith. How do we reaffirm that God actually said what we heard Him say after something like that happens?
I’ll give you an example.
Authority of the Word
As a little boy, I was called at the age of 9. I recall opening the Bible that I received from Trinity Lutheran Church in my bedroom one day and, with no one in the room, I began preaching out of Isaiah 49. Really, all I was doing was reading, but I read with authority, and I’d never seen anyone preach like that so I didn’t know where it came from. Certainly not my pastors, who were very traditional pulpit preachers. I felt passionate and I had fire. I felt the power in those words moving inside me. I felt the power in what was said even though I didn’t understand it. I had absolutely no clue the impact that this chapter of Isaiah would have on my life. All I knew at that point was that the word made me feel safe and secure in a time in my life that was very insecure because everything around me was unsafe. I felt God saying, “This is what you will do for me.”
Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.
But God had to have messed this up, right? I mean, it was His choice to place me in a family that was very broken that would eventually lead me to be a very broken man. In my family, it would be an understatement to say I experienced many not-so-good things. It was deeply broken because the people in my family were deeply broken going back quite some time. They call it a generational curse. So I ask you if God was going to really use me, why would He choose to place me there? Everywhere you look there are these expectations that pastors don’t actually have a past. You launch a rocket from a launchpad, not a quagmire of mud, right?
God had to have gotten this very wrong.
Why did He not place me somewhere that I could really be of use to Him, or in a place where I could be protected until needed? Isaiah 49 said that the servant of the Lord was a sharp sword hidden in God’s palm, and a polished arrow hidden in His quiver. What I experienced was hardly a polishing. It was more like a continual 30-grit grinding of mental, physical and emotional abuse. If I was so awesome and blessed with the destiny to be a vessel of so much power, then who got my travel orders screwed up? I want names and answers, as somebody made a big mistake because my path was a mess from the jump.
Stones in the Process
James S. Hewett said, “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends upon what you are made of.” There was honestly only one thing that got me through that time of grinding and moved me through it to polishing.
A lot of people in our midst have suffered injustices in this world, and while we will spend time talking about that someday, what I am breaking out here today is, how do you trust God when bad things are happening in your life? How can we reaffirm His great love for us when we see so little of that love around us? When things aren’t going your way? When your truck is forever at the mechanic? When the roof blows off your house during a storm? When you have problem after problem after problem after problem crop up?
It’s really not surprising when we start looking around for our own solutions because we don’t think God is answering us, or at least he’s not answering us as fast as we would like. There’s a catch, though.
If we put the problems we face into the context of the problems faced by the people of Peter's time, we’re actually getting off really easy. The vast majority of us are not persecuted like they were, or even like some churches are in our modern age. But still, our perception (there’s that word) is all too often our reality. Our context matters to us, and even if we can’t compare our issues to those of others, that still doesn’t make our issues go away. So WHAT will? WHAT gets us through the grindstone of life to come out on the other side. WHAT makes us polished and flawless arrows that will fly true and WHAT makes us swords that will cut surgically?
That WHAT question is important to ask because it holds a promise (there’s THAT word again). We find the promise of peace in that “WHAT” question. Our anxiety levels could sure use a healthy helping of peace.
The whole focus of 1 Peter is talking about finding hope in hopeless situations. Finding God’s pattern in the past and understanding how that power plays into our persistently stepping into our faith. That's the same faith God gave us and the Holy Spirit's work happening in it to create that new “authority inside” of us.
What’s odd here, though, is Peter saying, “After you’ve suffered a little while,” … um, Pete, let’s talk about exactly what your definition of “a little while” is, shall we? This “little while” has been going on for what seems like forever. Suffering has been evident EVERYWHERE for much longer than just a “little while," Pete. In my own life, it's been over 40 years, Pete. Four-tee-years, Pete. That's a "four" and an "oh" as in "Oh my word, this has been going on forever, Pete." This is not a “little while!”
Or is it?
Peter is actually right. Our perception is that suffering has been happening for a long time, but if you look at God’s timeline from God's perspective, this actually is just a little while. When we start to look at God’s promise from God’s perspective, a funny thing happens. We begin to see things through God’s eyes, and that shift causes us to see that it really is just “a little while.”
The fact is, lifting ourselves out of our perceptions and into our purpose requires faith in the promise, just like we’ve been talking about. And today, I’m going to start unpacking how we go about doing precisely that.
The answer, as you may have guessed it, is to use our spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, bible study, worship and communion to let God build more faith in us. Remember, the growth of faith comes from practicing our spiritual disciplines in acts of piety and acts of mercy and over the next several Sundays we’re going to talk about each of them. Let’s launch this with the spiritual discipline of prayer.
Engine or Caboose?
Prayer was never meant to be a last resort, even though we sometimes use it that way after we've gone digging for our own solutions. Instead, it was always meant to be the most powerful first resort we could actually possess. It’s one of the ways we allow Jesus to perfect the faith his Holy Spirit placed inside us.
Think of prayer as our baseline communication with God through the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is chock full of people praying, otherwise, it would just be a history book with some nifty ideas thrown in. Jesus, for example, prayed deep and powerful prayers. In one instance, he told his disciples that some demons could not be exorcised except by prayer. It's no doubt that his disciples prayed, but did they pray as deeply and as widely as Christ prayed? We have evidence that they didn’t in the same way we have evidence that we don’t, either.
The Bible also tells us to pray anytime. Ephesians 6:18 says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests; with this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
Psalm 116:1-2 says, “I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live.”
So we see here that we are to pray all the time and for as long as we live. Why? Because we’re in a flesh suit all the time. We’re suffering all of the time. The answer is to go straight to God with it, all of the time. Why? Because he hears our voices when we need His mercy, when we need His peace and when we need His reaffirmation. This is where we find that guardianship of our hearts called peace. It comes from the same place the peace that passes all understanding mentioned in Philippians 4 comes from. Peace there is brought by the vehicle of prayer, petition, and thanksgiving. You get it? Prayer is a vehicle to peace, which comes solely from God.
A deep breath
That peace helps to alleviate a LOT of anxiety. Prayer enables us, through faith in the power of God, to have peace that will transcend the toughest times that we as Christians can face. In Peter’s time, they had it rough. They faced persecution at many turns and would for centuries to come. There was a spiritual war going on around them. There’s one going on around us as well.
“Really? What persecutions do Christians really face?” Many ask that. Maybe you ask that. I know I've asked that. The answer is spiritual persecutions. Be sure of that. The devil doesn’t like to lose, and he works double hard not to lose. So we have to pray doubly hard to win. What is essentially stopping us from doing that and making headway into God’s good and perfect will for us? Our own selves, mostly. But if we could discover that reaffirmation in prayer, there would be powerful forces unleashed for God’s glory that would outwork, outwit and outlast the devil.
That little 9-year old me that I told you about grew to be a man (as evidenced by me writing this to you now, obviously). There were many times that life got really difficult. Not just challenging, but mercilessly difficult. It hurt too often, too hard, and too painfully to keep going. I’ve said before that a young boy should not go to bed praying God would spare him from waking up in the morning. In the end, though, I always woke up. I wondered why, but just kept going. I just kept praying. Through it all, I came to the conclusion that if God and Jesus loved me, well, that is enough to just be willing to try, just like Bob when he was asked to catch me in last week's message. That little boy prayed hard, and right now he’s standing before you preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as he was called to do.
Life still hurts. Life still isn’t easy. And I still pray.
The 49-year old man that was that 9-year-old boy would tell you to pray. Pray hard, pray often. Discover new ways to practice prayer. Pray with your family, pray with your friends, pray with and for people you don't even know and always pray that the Holy Spirit would open up opportunities for you to serve others in prayer. This guides us into the men and women God designed us to be. Prayer takes that grindstone of life and adds the polish to create a flawless finish to our faith.
That flawless, reaffirming finish on our faith is how we get really good at our purpose. It’s how the trials we go through are endured so that the promise of “joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness,” all due to the divine persuasion of faith, come to us and through us.
In her book, Shadow of the Almighty, Elisabeth Elliot wrote about her husband Jim Elliot. Jim was a missionary to Ecuador who was martyred in 1956 in the jungle by a tribe he and his missionary team was trying to reach.
Jim was a constant journal writer and one of his journal entries addressed his concern about the impact his life would have on others. He wrote a prayer that said, “Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” Jim Elliot’s impact continues on even though he died so long ago after having prayed that at the young age of twenty-nine. Imagine how prayers like that could impact our lives and the lives of those around us.
One of Elliot’s comments echoed a nonconformist preacher named Philip Henry who was the father of Matthew Henry, the noted Bible commentator. Philip said, "He is no fool who parts with that which he cannot keep (like Jim did with his life) when he is sure to be recompensed with that which he cannot lose (His glory in Christ after he was killed)." We undergo the suffering Peter talked about for “a little while” because we cannot lose the promise given us from God of being made strong, firm and steadfast, even if that means after our deaths.
The truth is, you cannot stay a stone all your life. It’s your choice whether or not you become ground down by the grindstone or polished up by the process. Among the other spiritual disciplines, prayer is the fork of faith in the road between your perception and your purpose. That fork of faith is where we find God’s reaffirming promise when we wake up in the morning just like that 9-year-old boy did.
You know which fork he took. Which one will you take?
“for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”
1 John 5:4 NIV
How many of us know the difference between faith and belief? That's a legitimate question with the way that we use the two terms interchangeably these days. And it begs questions like, "Can we believe and not be saved?" Throughout the Bible we see questions like this dealt with on a regular basis, but we still stumble over the exact difference between the two with regards to Christ and our salvation. For example, James 2:9 tells us that the demons believe, and shudder. So if belief is what is required for salvation, how is it that demons aren't saved?
That has to do with the fact that faith is how we are saved. And yes, you can believe and still not be saved. As I see it, Romans 10:10 breaks this out for us rather nicely.
"For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified" which means you are judicially appointed worthy by God. God judges you and justifies your heart. This means that with God's drawing grace, he has brought you along to an understanding that you are in need of saving, that you cannot save yourself, and that only Christ can through your repentance and acceptance of his free gift of grace. That belief in your heart is what God can only see and know and weigh. That's why no one but God can judge whether or not a profession of faith is sincere. Well, God and the person making the profession, that is. Which brings us to the second part. When God justifies us in that judgment, we are then forgiven our sins, and imparted faith. "and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."
Heart belief pushes us into God’s righteousness and the impartation of faith to us - It is our mouth professing that faith that saves us. Simply put, it is relational interaction with God through Christ that imparts faith to us through our salvation.
That still doesn't exactly answer the question of what is faith. Very simply put, faith is the enabling power of God in the life of an individual. Faith comes from God alone and is the exclusive possession of the believer. So, while faith only comes from God, it is resident in ourselves as our possession. Nevertheless, you still can't boast on yourself as to your faith because you didn't make it available, and you cannot add to it on your own. Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us that it is by grace alone through faith alone that we are saved, and this not by ourselves, it is from God. When you read that passage, the "it" isn't salvation or grace, but rather faith.
Difficult to wrap your head around
If you're not still asking, "Which came first? Belief or faith?" then you might be asking, "What do we do when we have it?"
Or, "Are we acting on our faith?"
Or "If we’ve overcome the whole world with faith, why don’t we act like it?"
If we get past the chicken or the egg aspect of belief and faith, there's a minefield of other questions to ask. There's a massive amount of uncertainty that surrounds faith inside a community of faith and the irony is so thick you need a commercial-grade chainsaw with which to cut it.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever had a decision that was difficult? I mean a real head-scratcher of a question. I'm not talking about where to eat lunch after church, I'm talking about questions with life-changing ramifications. Wouldn't it be great to get a cheat code for life when those come up? Something that could just get you past the issue with a little hint? Or for some of us older folks, it'd be like flipping the crossword puzzle upside down and taking a fast glance at the answer key to get around that one line we're stuck on.
Faith is that cheat code. Faith is that peek at the answer key, and the difference is, it's God giving it to us freely instead of us just taking it on the sly.
God’s perfect will is found in faith because faith is God's enabling power in our lives. Power to hear, see and act far beyond what we can do physically. What's more, if we don’t seek his will through faith, we won’t find it his will because through faith is the only way it is given to us. Look at it this way, without faith, we miss God’s will because we can’t hear it, we miss God’s blessing because we can’t see it and we have no communion because we can’t converse with him. We're literally deaf, dumb and blind without faith.
Faith is how God's purpose for our life is revealed because faith is the ability to hear God's word, communicate with Him, and act upon our instructions. Faith is about divine persuasion and revelation we receive by trusting God. The only way this comes about is via the Holy Spirit.
The primary difference between faith and belief
Belief or confidence comes from man and our fleshly nature, founded on tangible, non-spiritual experiences and facts. Faith is the spiritual side of that coin, and while faith is distinctly different from belief, belief is a component involved in faith. Hence all the confusion.
The Greek word for faith that is used outside a religious context means, "warranty" or "guarantee." When we apply it to our experience in sanctifying grace, faith can be described as God's warranty, certifying what He reveals to us will happen, because it’s actually already done. This is why it can be hard to step into God’s will because it relies on God's persuasion after a lifetime of our tactile sense of belief. For a believer, though, if we don’t step into his will through that gift of faith, we will continue to languish here in the belief side.
Languishing is not God’s plan. It never was. His plan was always to establish faith in us, and then grow it, expanding our reach among the mission field to which God assigned us. 2 Corinthians 10:15 specifically addresses this pattern of growth and purpose of existence, and it is only through the indwelling work of God's Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, the author, and perfecter of our faith. We are to be overcomers. Warriors. Victorious in power over the principalities of a dark authority coming to destroy and devastate God's children.
In short, we weren't called to stand still.
Catching in faith
We move in belief towards the cross, but once we’re past it, we’re running on faith. I recently gave an example of this in my church on Sunday morning. Before service, I asked an older member of our church to come up and to cup his hands together. That's it. Well, that and he had to trust me. He agreed, smiled and sat down. When the time came during my message for Bob to come up, I filled the whole congregation in on what I was going to do.
I said, "I will jump in the air, Bob will hold out his hands and catch me."
Needless to say, a lot of people looked at me like I had six heads and three were on fire. I asked Bob if he trusted me, and his response was priceless. "I'm willing to try."
That is powerful right there. Hold on to that a moment.
I circled back to the congregation and asked them if they believed Bob could catch me after I jumped in the air. They sized up the 180 lb. pastor in front of them and the 90-year-old congregant next to him and all but one said they didn't believe me.
So I got Bob ready, and then I jumped in the air ... and landed straight back where I was standing. Immediately I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small, wadded up piece of paper and dropped it into Bob's waiting hands. I asked Bob to unfold the paper and read what it said on it.
"Me," he read.
So, you see, I jumped in the air, and Bob caught, "me." There are two takeaways here. Three if you count the pastor who is a master of dad jokes. The first is this. Anything God asks us to trust him over will almost NEVER look like we expect it to look. God’s ways are higher than ours, and that is the very difference between our perceptions and His purpose. As John Eldredge once elaborated, we were never meant to understand God's ways, anyway. If we understood them, it would be because God explained them, and then we would be functioning on belief. We'd still be living in the flesh. We would still be living under death.
Re-read that and let it sink in, we would still be living under death.
But God's ways are higher. They are ways that provide grace for us as His people, faith for us as His children, co-heirs with Christ. We aren't called to live under the belief of our flesh, but to overcome the world through the faith that God imparts and perfects in our lives.
In our lives, we are or we know someone who needs Christ. We/they can be reached. We/they can be healed. We/they can have life more abundant. None of that happens through belief, and all of it happens only through the work of faith-building done by the Holy Spirit inside of us. That's how a new "authority inside" of us is created and our lives are truly renewed and a world is overcome.
If you are born again, you are past the point of belief. We are to move in faith, hearing God, being in communication with Him, being faith-perfected by Christ. With the Holy Spirit to guide us, we don’t have to mark the path for ourselves. We have a guide, a comforter, and we are never alone.
I told Bob ahead of time what was going to happen. If the church knew what I was going to do, they'd have believed he could do it, but that belief instead of faith would have placed them on the opposite side of where they needed to be. Because of their perceived circumstance most didn’t believe. Bob could believe just enough to have faith in me because I'd been persuasive enough during my request. That's how this works.
This is a map of the path to purpose. God’s preferred will is found in faith because faith allows us to hear God speak in us if we are actively listening like in Habbakuk 2:1. As a church, we’ve been missing the tremendous depth and power of this point of active listening in our faith. How long have we labored? How long have we hoped? How long have we struggled under our own power and belief? We need to stop laboring in the field of belief and go into the field of faith so we can hear God’s orders and do the work He has set aside for us. It’s there that we will find our work bears fruit because when we are there, it’s actually God’s work and God’s glory.
Done. Not underway, but actually already done and completed because God has always faithfully delivered on His promises. Anything He tells us via divine persuasion, that is to say, faith, will be revealed in due time as done. What is more, we will store up rewards for ourselves in heaven in the entire process.
Jumping, trusting and not seeing
When I asked Bob if he would do the sermon illustration Bob had a little understanding of what it was about, but not the whole. His comment was brilliant. "I'm willing to try." As believers, we're often living in the "try" much more than in the "do," and that is OK. This is God growing our faith, Christ perfecting it, the Holy Spirit molding and shaping it into a new authority inside us. Bob trusted what I had told him, but had to go on faith for the rest. He had to have faith that I had the plan all worked out from the jump.
That's us, ladies and gents. That is us.
The congregation didn't have faith because they weren't a believer from the beginning of this illustration. They hadn't been imparted faith/divine persuasion because they hadn't been part of the drawing aside, the convincing and the request for trust. They hadn't experienced what Bob had experienced, so they didn't they trust as he trusted, nor were they willing to try. That’s much like the world sees us, but still doesn't see God. They can't because faith is for those whose belief has been justified by God, and that gift is exclusive.
On the other hand, all Bob had to do was to rely on his faith in me, hold out his hands and receive what I had worked out ahead of time. That’s what God asks us to do. Rely on faith, hold out our hands, and receive what God has worked out ahead of time.
That’s the revelation that we find in our faith, and it is the path to our purpose.
Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.
- Isaiah 61:7
When our church is in a time of spiritual desperation, how do we get to the point of rejoicing? It looks so far away. Thinking of all that we’ve lost over the years, we see decades of decline and think, “How can we turn this around? Is this too big for us?” The promises in this passage from Isaiah seemed so far away from the reality the Hebrew people were facing at the time. They’d lost everything, their cities were destroyed, the allies they had relied upon were, as one person-in-the-know put it, "A broken reed" that couldn't hurt anyone except the one that leaned on them. They felt they’d been abandoned by God, but in truth, they'd abandoned him.
Yes, Isaiah prophesied a return to a blessing that must have seemed incredibly unlikely given their circumstances. A vassal state of Israel, and a vassal-state in training in Judah. The once-powerful and well-ruled kingdoms of Israel had done a fairly substantial 180-degree turn in their fortunes. There wasn't much cause to rejoice in their desperation. But Isaiah promised that God would change that.
Rejoicing can be something we long to do because it’s a relief. The word for rejoicing in Hebrew means “shout!” either in desperation, desire or joy. Here it is a shout of joy that would ultimately be drawn from a people in desperate straits. Joy and desperation are as linked as peaks and valleys in a mountain range. Many times in life, we get our hopes up over a joyous promise, only to have it dashed, bringing about desperation. That happened in Israel in Isaiah's time as they tried to put together a coalition that could resist the Assyrians. This didn't turn out so well for the Kingdom of Israel, but in the end, the promise is that the people will have joy instead of shame. The Hebrew word for “instead” means to replace a thing with something closer to the ground, or the foundation. You can think of it as a closer fit to what God was intending from the start.
God has made many promises to His people, and that includes us, and He never once broke a covenant with us. Our track record, however, isn't so clean. We are a forgetful species when it comes to God and when we forget God's promise in Isaiah and other places like it, we easily fall prey to fear and discouragement instead of pushing forward into a promised purpose. We develop a perception, and we get stuck in it.
What happens next is often a dogpiling of emotions. John Eldredge once said that if the devil cannot defeat you, he will dogpile you. That's what happened to Judah. Attacked by Israel when they wouldn't join the Israeli-Syrian coalition, they found themselves embattled on all fronts. They were battling skirmishes all around them, just like us. When that begins in our lives, it gets hard to climb out from under it and we can make the same bad deals Judah did, leaning on broken reeds in our own lives. The fact is, we can’t climb out from under it without help from God.
Living into God’s promises for us moves us closer to the rejoicing we want to do, filling our hearts with joy throughout the process. Sadly, the inverse of that is true as well.
Tension in the Turmoil
we step out of that limiting perception simply by choosing instead to believe through faith that God is faithful to deliver on the promise
As we examine the text of Isaiah about rejoicing, there’s a tension here between the shame instead of reward, disgrace instead of inheritance, and it’s the reality of where we are placed against the reality of where God is leading us. The big question is, where are we putting our faith? Are we putting it in the perception we've crash-landed in, or are we instead placing it in God’s promise?
Remember, we’re in a state of spiritual desperation here, in our world, nation, community and especially in ourselves. But the promise of this passage is that we don’t have to be. And that's not just getting back to square one, but a double portion of rejoicing in our inheritance that we'd lost and everlasting joy that we could never earn. That’s exactly the thing for which we are looking, striving and struggling.
Perception, as I mentioned it, is the issue here. Much the same way we look at the promise of salvation and see who we are and we wonder if we deserve it, we can get stuck in the same trap moving beyond our salvation. The simple fact is, we don’t deserve God's goodness or His mercy, in anything, and that's ok. Our future in Christ is based on the Five Solas, specifically these two: Sola gratia, sola fide (by grace alone, by faith alone). We weren’t saved by our works, but rather by our faith in the grace God first extended. SO that means that anything we subsequently receive from God moving forward - mercy, justice and the balance between the two - that has nothing to do with anything upon which our perceptions are based.
That’s very freeing, but ... it requires faith. Powerful faith. Did I mention the faith that is required needs to be powerful? Think top fuel drag car instead of a 1988 Yugo.
In the lives of this church, we step out of that limiting perception simply by choosing instead to believe through faith that God is faithful to deliver on the promise of an inheritance to us. He did that for the people of Israel that Isaiah prophesied to all those millennia ago, so why not us? Why not now? Why not here?
Speak Life over Your Faith
Developing powerful faith can be done in a variety of ways, but they all revolve around constant contact with the Holy Spirit. Praying. Fasting. Worshiping. Being in and studying the Word. Worship on every day that ends in "y." Communion, both sacramentally and in community. The biggest thing we can do that is above and beyond this is change our narrative. We can constantly remind ourselves that this promise is here for us and that it was part of our being freed from sin. We can create a habit inside 30 days of doing this, and it's important that rabid, Holy Spirit-led, habitual faith is a vibrant characteristic of our individual and collective church make up.
This is how we start making the promises of the word reality in our lives so we can move into the purpose God has planned for us. We don’t have to earn anything at all in order to start moving into this promise. Just believe. Just like Jesus told Jairus. Like in Romans 10:9-10. God promised to never leave us nor forsake us. Rejoice and live into that. Jesus promised he would be with us until the end of the age. Rejoice and live into that. Rejoice. Live.
If we can stop living under the lie of our perception and start waking up every morning, going to bed every night placing our faith in that promise in the same concrete way we believe in our salvation, then powerful revival is possible for our church.
For What Reason Are We Here?
This is how we get to our purpose, a purpose that is the point of our existence. It's a transformational relationship that sets captives free, and it matters because we are truly freed to serve God by the promise at the heart of all of this. Others around us can experience that same kind of freedom.
We have to change our own narrative. Instead of thinking of how things fall apart in our lives, we look at how things can be when we believe in God’s promise and live our lives into His purpose. When we are a praying, fasting, studying, worshipping and communal people, with Jesus at the center of our very being, and his Holy Spirit directing us, there isn't anything that can stand against us. When we dream of a vibrant and thriving church that blesses the lives of others, instead of thinking how it can’t happen, a changed narrative and active spiritual life call to mind God’s promises propelling us to pray for a provision that enables His purpose and then pushes it toward completion.
That purpose makes God happy. Flipping that script makes God happy. Replacing that thought makes God happy. Putting the One there INSTEAD of the other is how we fulfill God’s purpose ... and make God happy.
Acclaimed director Alfred Hitchcock once ran into a roadblock with his crew of cameramen, lighting directors and visual effects people over an Avante Garde way of doing a scene. They had always done it one way, but Hitchcock had a vision for something completely new. In order to deal with their objections, he told them the scene was actually a dream sequence. That little instruction gave them the license needed to see things in a whole new way, and develop new skills and approaches that ultimately achieved a blockbuster film. God is challenging us today to look at the future of our church as a dream sequence instead of the same old story we've been living for so long.
The difference is, God’s promise says we get to actually live that dream instead of just dreaming. That's a dream worth having. And that dream is something to rejoice over, don't you think?
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10
"A long-time member of St. John’s church scolded the new pastor for his radical new ideas and changes: “Reverend, if God were alive today, He would be shocked at the changes in this church."
While that sounds funny, I've been at a church where it was a real concern for someone and carried real consequences for that church in terms of lost funding. It makes a young pastor like myself think twice. Trying to grow a church for our denomination can be scary for us, but we have to focus on the fact it is also very scary for our congregations. Congregations face change, face new faces, and ultimately have to face some tough questions.
"Are we too far gone?"
"Are we too old?"
"Do we really need to change the worship service?"
As a Pastor, the primary goal of the church is always to grow and shepherd the flock through the spread of the gospel. That can clash with the fact that sometimes the sheep don’t want other sheep around.
Many of our congregants were alive when their churches had larger attendance. We look at those as the good old days, even though Solomon told us not to in Ecclesiastes. Some congregations have dwindled by more than half inside a few decades. As we look back and then look around, the natural thing to do is ask, "What happened?"
Often, it was many factors and a few explosive situations in some cases. Complacency set in. Internal problems set in. Everything that was wrong was within, but we didn't see it until we got where we are now. Churches grow slowly, and they wither slowly as well. Don't get me wrong, though, they don’t have to die. We still have a choice to reach those outside. To be clear, I'm not talking about people already attending a church. We weren't called to seek and re-save the saved. I'm talking about the lost sheep, the people who need our love.
Before we can do that, we have to renew what’s inside. It's critical to start there because if we don't, those lost sheep will never really catch on in our congregations.
If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.
Breaking down the broke-down king
As a pastor, I am required to exegete the entire scripture before I preach. Exegesis is just a fancy Pastor word for the work done in researching a passage, knowing where it fits in the Bible, where the people in the passage were in their lives and even what the individual words mean in full. It helps us to interpret the scripture and it’s relevance to us today, by knowing the reasons it was relevant when it was written.
In this passage from David, I found an interesting and compelling parallel between David's psalm of penitence as his newborn son lay dying and the situation in which many modern churches find ourselves. "Hey now, Pastor Roland, we're faithful givers, and we're here in our pews every Sunday. Exactly what is it that requires our repentance?"
I'm glad you asked.
Maybe it's not reaching out enough? Maybe it's the fact that, while we are in our pews and I’m in my pulpit, our brothers and sisters aren't. Where is the guy at the gas station gassing up his fishing boat on Sunday morning? Or the lady at the fast-food drive-through with three rowdy kids in tow that simply doesn't look to be headed for a meaningful worship time. That stings me a lot. God once told me during a service that he was thrilled that I was there, and that He was happy to feed my spirit, but ... where were my brothers and sisters?
Ouch. As I said, it stings.
To be fair, we do have to offer ourselves a little grace. Honestly, we don’t know how to reach them in many instances. What you don't know is often scary, and it will keep you living in your perception of doing good enough without living into the promises placed before us.
At the same time, there’s still hope for renewal here, as I mentioned previously. In the overall view of the psalm, David was spiritually bankrupt and desperate. That desperation drove him to seek divine help and intervention. Our churches may not have been involved in a literal affair with deadly collateral consequences, but our straying from our call to make disciples of all nations is leading to the death of God's other children. Our spiritual need is equally as desperate as that of the broke-down King of Israel. David humbled himself, asking for a new heart and a renewed spirit, not on a whim, but because it was available for him. Otherwise, why would he bother God? That same newly created heart and renewed spirit is available for the modern church as well.
Allow me to elaborate.
When I examine the text, I also define each word in its original language via 4-5 different lexicons. I have to do this because I don’t speak Hebrew or Greek and this gives me a pretty good assurance my interpretation is right. Some of the words are very basic in nature, but a few of the ancient Hebrew lexicons actually go back to the pictograms associated with the words, giving some fairly unique insights into the meanings of each word. What I do is write down the words of the passage on one side, and then write out the different notes, meanings, and insights on the other side. Here's what I found.
- Create -The word used here for "create" is only present in the Bible when speaking of God and the act of creation. The reason for this is that it is the act of making a brand new creation, from literally out of nothing pre-existing. It refers to filling something up to fatten it, make it full with God and life, in the way the universe was filled with stars and planets, and the way the earth was filled with plants, animals, and the like.
- In me -As I read it, the Hebrew here is indicative of a transformative motion.
- A pure - Ethically clean, and unblemished. Purged of all that came before it.
- Heart - The concept of the heart in the Hebrew language and culture is vastly different than the concept of the heart in modern western culture. The pictogram for this word is a shepherd’s staff and a tent representing what is inside. “Authority Inside.” To the Hebrew writer and reader and certainly to David, this is an inner person’s emotional as well as mental/thinking center. The idea of this section of the passage is that the author is asking for a brand new mind and thought pattern as well as emotional content center, the seat of the passion that drives him. This encompasses the will of the author being made more like God's instead of his own, changing just whose authority is inside him.
- O God, and - Elohim - plural but inclusive of the entire trinity.
- Renew a - The Hebrew word used here is rooted in chadash. Chadash is part of the Jewish dietary regulations of Kashrut, referring to grain that is new. This had to do with the idea that the new grain is to be set apart and made holy. In a way, it doubles down on the idea of first fruits and offering back to God with regards to the psalmist's spirit.
- Steadfast - We all know what this means, upright, firm, faithful, fitted, fixed and established. But one of the words that jumped out for me was "prepared." The idea here is that steadfastness is in preparation for active ministry for God.
- Spirit - Here the word is "ruach," a feminine noun for “breath/wind/spirit.” Feminine connotations in Hebrew culture (as in many cultures) are that of nurturing among other things, but we must also take into account that it is balanced in the masculine identity as well. Ruach is a forceful exhale of breath requiring muscle and focused energy. Compare this to the Hebrew name for God (YHWH), which is literally only pronounced as barely audible breaths. In order to even remotely speak the word YHWH as an audible sound, one must use forceful breaths so any sound can be heard. The spirit of the psalmist needs to be strengthened in order to return to his calling.
- Within me - Literally translated as in the center of one’s being at the seat of thought and emotion, where we feel our "gut instinct." This means to remove everything that was at the core of the writer’s being and replace it with a newly created spirit.
So how does this compare with our church today? That part is simple once you know what I just lined out.
Our church needs God to create from nothing a transformative movement inside it that is completely unblemished of thought and previous misconceptions. This needs to result in an unprecedented authority inside it that offers a new emotional center and a mindset that is devoted solely to God's will and nothing else. It must set apart the very center of the life of the church as a holy thing in an unwavering and immovable manner that is prepared for whatever may come in God’s purpose.
If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside in this manner.
More than just a recapture
The answer is not to just recapture the excitement and energy of our church’s forefathers, but to actually experience the same thing they had in a fresh, new way. The excitement the church had when it first began was rooted in a deeply powerful and precious understanding of grace, and we do need that kind of understanding of grace. We don't need theirs, though, it has to be uniquely ours. We have to treat this day and age like it’s a whole new church, globally, nationally and locally. My church may still be called Brimfield United Methodist Church, but keeping the name on the outside of the building doesn’t mean we cannot have a new heart on the inside.
When we were kids we played Capture the Flag, and after you played that game on the same lot a number of times, it got old. But when you moved the game to a new location, it was exciting again. It felt brand new, and the ground was not played on before, so you had to really grow in strategy and skill in order to play the game well in a new environment. Growth was one of the benefits of this desire to experience the game from a never-before seen perspective. Our renewal happened simply by changing how we saw the ground on which we played.
If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.
What does the promise say?
Throughout this passage of scripture, there's a lot of foreboding, but the basis of the scripture is David's dependence on the steadfast nature of God. He promised to never leave us or forsake us. God also did not call us to be a people that stood still. He called us to be a people of action.
James 1:25 tells us, "But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do."
We need to actively step into renewal with both feet. We need to learn about our past, but not try to relive it, and instead let it spark the fire of renewal inside us. We approach our spiritual disciplines to grow, enhance and expand our spiritual formation individually, which will do the same thing in our church body collectively. I spoke recently about the need to step out of our perception and into God's promise so we can get to his purpose. The purpose of the church is the same as Christ's, to seek and save the lost. I addressed this through Jesus saying "Blessed are the poor," and a very truthful internet meme that said the poor hold a blessing for us. I believe it is the same blessing of which James was speaking.
If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside ... so we can get the blessing God already has in place for us.
Embrace the change, embrace the blessing
God has a new creation waiting for us, just as he has provided a grace that draws us all along the way to our salvation. He didn't stop and stand still at any point. We may not have been able to perceive His movement in our lives, but rest assured it was there. God is also not interested in doing all the work for us. We have to actively move into this new creation God has for our church.
The fact is, we may find that we need new worship services and new curtains, and new carpet and new music. However, change cannot be made simply for the sake of change. We could change all of the things about our churches, but if the hearts inside are not renewed, none of it matters. If our changes are founded in the desire to step into God's purpose through His promise though, those changes may be upsetting, but they are also necessary for the purpose.
If we want to reach those outside, we need to renew those inside.
Three simple rules. If only it was that easy. The name is quite misleading as the rules are indeed simple, but the concept of following those rules is where life gets complex. In a vacuum, following the rules is easy. Doing no harm, doing good and staying in love with God is quite simple when you’re in a cocoon of safety. Place yourself out where the metal meets the meat, and you find yourself under fire and ducking for cover, with the desire to fire back, do harm, and love God when and if you have the time becoming the règle du jour.
out where the metal meets the meat you find yourself under fire and ducking for cover.
The love of God is the key component behind these rules, and for that love to exist in someone and radiate out from their self requires God’s other-centric loving nature to be the rule of the day in a person’s life. Love of self has to go by the wayside, as does the love of others as a chief motivator. The chief and principal motivator of love must be the love of God. Christ focused on this when he said that the greatest must be a servant and the leader must be a slave. We are in service to others, however, we are a slave to God and only God. This belief isn’t just a nice sentiment, but a survival mechanism. Remember, we’re not called to ministry in the safe confines of a church, but rather on the battlefields of the heart. We are promised that fight will be rewarding, but also quite injurious.
Firmly rooting our lives in the love of God, completely sold out and submitted to it, with an eyes-wide-open view of what ministry truly entails, all three rules will have a snowball’s chance on a Georgia blacktop in summer of being followed.
Fittingly, the first rule is where the first battles are fought. It’s in the rule of Do No Harm that we discover our greatest challenges due to our interests to do great good for God. We can potentially trample those on our team, our congregation, our mission field by being overly enthusiastic, possessed by a god, but not by the one true God. If we are to do no harm, we must put the human hearts of others ahead of the human accomplishments of self. The trouble here is that sometimes these two opposing concepts can come to loggerheads, and the result is collateral damage everywhere. Harm is done, good is not done, and our ability to stay in love with God is jeopardized greatly through a variety of avenues from shame to hubris and beyond.
Balancing proper teamwork means loving God so completely that you trust him with details and intersects, and recognize the individual human need of the congregants and those God is drawing to the church to feel loved, but also of the people within the worship team. Leading requires leaning. Leaning on God, leaning on His ability to coordinate efforts for a positive outcome, and leaning on your team. Leaning on your faith more than on your gifting is what a lot of this comes down to.
love them as God loves them. Something as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once you have that down, you can step into the battle to do good. It’s been stated that people will forget what you said, and forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. There’s a massive challenge here in that people must be receptive to the good you wish to do, especially when you’re leading them someplace they don’t want to go, but where they need to be. Doing good for someone requires trust from another person that you’re not the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a day and age where polarization is the norm, and people are divisive while shaming others for their lack of unity, it’s not surprising. The first good we need to do for someone before we can do anything else, is to love them as God loves them. Something as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less, regardless of their response, regardless of their concerns, regardless of how long it takes. It doesn’t matter how lovable or unlovable, how dirty or clean, how deeply broken or together they are, what kind of damage they have done to you or others. Just love them. Not because you have to or are obligated to, but because God chose to love you and them both when your sin was exactly as repulsive to Him as theirs. Only then can you do good.
All of this takes a toll on a person. It’s hard. It’s combat on a soul-deep battlefield and we will be wounded, broken, healed, and sent back into the fray. It’s there that the final rule comes into play. Stay in love with God. Stay connected to the one who gives us life, circling back, spending the night in prayer on the mountain like Jesus, deeply seeking His forgiveness where we’ve not been our best, receiving His rejoicing and favor when we have, and growing in a faithful, humble walk with God.
If we don’t, we will end up as another casualty, and potentially so will others to which we were sent to bring the good news. That cost is too high a price not to adhere to the three simple rules, no matter the complexities.
There are some exciting new things coming from SoMuchBless. With a few small upgrades, we're embarking on a new messaging campaign that will bring you daily scriptural encouragement, pastoral messages, interviews, instructional messages and traditional blog posts. Along with all of this, we're completing work on a third book, God is a Hog Farmer, that will be available alongside Fiercely and Well, and Essays from the Edge.
Friday, 21 June 2019 15:43
Rewrite the script
- Exodus 15:3
- Isaiah 42:13
1 Samuel 1:3, 1:11, 4:4, 7:26, 17:45
Jeremiah 10:16, 31:35
Amos 3:13, 4:13, 5:15, 5:16, 5:27, 6:8, 6:14, 9:5
Let's just face facts: finding a church home can be difficult. Sure for some folks, it's as simple as going to the same place their parents have always gone or finding a faith community that is from the denomination in which they grew up. Sometimes, though, you need to go deeper than your church is going. Other times you need to let Christ go deeper into your soul. The difference is stark, telling, and often scary because of what it reveals about you. Answering questions about your faith is never easy, let alone comfortable, but it is always necessary.
It comes down to a simple game of hide and seek, and honesty is the only way you'll get to the answer as to whether or not you're hiding or seeking. It may feel as though you're seeking, but instead, you're actually using the search as a tool to hide something or keep God at arm's length.
The human heart, as Jeremiah so aptly put it, is deceptive. Who can know it, indeed.
The need to go deeper
Let's say you're genuinely searching for a church home. You might have an idea that a more traditional service would help you open to the Holy Spirit more, or you may feel more open in a contemporary setting. You may want to listen to a preacher who is preaching from a manuscript and you may want a very concrete worship service in place before you. Conversely, you may want a church that flows more freely with the Spirit in its movement, is open to impromptu praise portions and has a more expressive mode of worship. Finding a church that matches your heart is important but there are a few commonalities beyond all of this to keep in mind.
The human heart, as Jeremiah so aptly put it, is deceptive. Who can know it, indeed.
A church, first and foremostly, should lead everything back to Christ on the cross. I love sitting in a good bible study and really digging into the exegesis of a passage, getting into the Bible commentaries and even going back to the Hebrew and the Greek original texts and then trying to grasp the root of what is being said in order to determine a perspective that one can overlay onto history in order to see these men and women of faith in a new, and hopefully more human light. At the same time, however, all of this means very little to the average person whose passions lie elsewhere. A church that places deep understanding ahead of the primary principles of finding Christ is getting the cart miles ahead of the horse.
Most people want to know one of two things. Does Jesus really love me, and is my salvation real? These two questions are often hinge points for their faith that they will struggle with on a daily basis. Even in a recent deep-dive in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary on Isaiah 49 (my chapter), the Spirit brought a thought to mind, "How does this point back to Jesus Christ?" While I love the content, understanding the structural components that link this to other sections, writing mannerisms, etc., if you give this to the average congregant, they'll look at you as if you have six heads, three of which are on fire and at least one of which is catching next.
Finding a Christ-focused church means it is open to serving the "least of these" that Jesus called us to in Matthew. If we have the opportunity to move past the basic issues, that's enormously helpful, but the basic communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone available freely and to anyone has to be the central point of any church ministry.
Not like me
If you struggle to find a church that resonates with you, or you simply don't know where to look, you're not alone. Many people don't know if a traditional church or a contemporary service is where they will feel at home. All those questions that need answering are difficult when we don't know what we're seeking. At this point, it's a bit of Googling about a denomination, social media searching, and eventually you are going to have to attend the church in person. There are a few things to remember here.
- You don't have to attend there right off the bat. Dipping your toe in the water is just fine, and if anyone is a little too clingy, feel free to step back. Just as in personal relationships, churches should respect boundaries. Feel free to reinforce yours.
- There are internal differences. Not every pentecostal church is overtly worshipful, and not every Roman Catholic church is staid and stoic. Every church body has a personality because it's made up of persons. Knowing this going in is helpful.
- Doing homework is fine. It's OK to Facebook stalk the pastor and the church page. It's OK to do your homework. It's OK to call the church and ask to meet the pastor.
- Extra credit might not be. It's not OK to show up outside the pastor's house one afternoon unexpectedly. Pastors get weirded out by this, just like you. We just try to act gracious about it.
- Expect there to be an undercurrent of drama. You will not find a church that lacks drama, ever. If you do, call me and I'll come attend right along with you. Until then, expect drama, and carry a big bucket of grace. Smear it about liberally.
All of this having been said, it's imporant to find a body of believers you can worship with and be free enough that your heart is open to the Holy Spirit. We're all uniquely different, which is beautiful in the eyes of God. The foundation of the church is common, but it's OK if the drapes, siding and roofline of our individual denominations look different.
Maybe it actually is me
This one is the hard one to talk about. Some of us hide from God by saying, "I just haven't found a church that resonates with me yet." I could say it's a cop out, I could say it's pretty fake of a person, except that I've been there before myself. I've been reluctant to go to any church because of how the congregation was in a singular church. Maybe it was something hurtful done or said to us (been there). The devil uses this bruising to keep us away from God, hence my reason for pointing out item number 5 above. Forewarned is forearmed. It could be that church is genuinely experiencing some hard times, struggle and attack. That doesn't mean every church is, and we shouldn't conclude every congregation will be the same as another.
I could say it's a cop out, I could say it's pretty fake of a person, except that I've been there before myself.
And then there's the use of this saying because we're genuinely holding onto our "unchurchiness" (again, been there, done that, have the T-shirt). We'll come up with every excuse in the book to deny going to church because we're either afraid of getting too close to God, or we're enjoying our sin too much to go there. Often it's because of both.
Look, I can't solve the dilemma of your soul for you, and I cannot draw, drag, or force you closer to Jesus, as that is God's job and he's way better at it than I am. What I can do is tell you this. Being dishonest with who you are is a life that is misery. Abject misery. Admit the reason why boldly and deal with it from there. Doesn't sound very pastorly, I know, but it's very much biblical. Being lukewarm was never God's plan for any of us, and living in a lie about who we really are will never work for anything that we attempt to do, let alone for our discovering who our identity is in the Lord. If you're having too much fun in your sin to accept that God loves you and could very likely have a better plan for your life, then live that, but also accept the consequences of that. Otherwise, take a bold step and move in the direction of the one who first moved towards you. Either way, "Do your business or get out of the outhouse."
Submitting to God and Coming Home
In the end, the greatest feeling is sitting in the chair or the pew, in the home church that suits how the Holy Spirit is guiding you, your faith growing and your glorification of God going through the roof. God's desire and design is that we all experience His majestic power radiating from His throne, causing us to, as Micah put it, seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.