3 Reasons We Must Fight for Joy in God

“To the world, the dejected Christian seems to accuse God and His service, as if he openly called Him a rigorous, hard, unacceptable Master, and His work a sad unpleasant thing… You are born and new born for God’s honor; and will you thus dishonor Him before the world?”   Richard Baxter, 1830. I'm going to risk offending someone with this, but it must be said.

Nowhere in the world have I ever lived or visited where the residents seemed more regularly dogged by depression, anxiety, and unhappiness. In my church full of young, bright, healthy people this most obvious. Now, there are really good reasons to experience sadness — injustice, death, tragedy, to name a few.

But.

Many of us walk around with pursed lips and furrowed brows for some bad reasons. Maybe we think it suits our temperament. Or, maybe we've erroneously thought that Christians should be serious people — so serious, we're horribly sad. Maybe we just like the attention we get. Baxter has a point that we can't qualify into oblivion.

Unjustified Sadness Tarnishes God's Glory

Key word: Unjustified. Christians are not to be people who fake smile their way through life. The Bible says that there is a time to weep. It's just not all the time. When we're dour for no reason we tarnish the glory of God. Christian, you're ineffective at spreading the good news of the gospel when you unceasingly act as if it's bad news in your life.

Unsought Victory Minimizes God's Power

While the Bible clearly teaches that human beings are sinners in need of grace, it also calls Christians overcomers. But merely practicing a few spiritual disciplines with faith, how much victory could we experience! But when we don't seek victory over sadness, we minimize God's power. We say with our lives, "God's really sorry, but he can't help you right now."

Unmixed Sorrow Forget's God's Future

Sorrow is real and appropriate many times in life. But sorrow cannot be the lonely only emotion we experience. God is bringing about a world that, even in the darkest of times, we're never to forget. That's why Christian sorrow should always be mingled with invincible joy. Heaven is real, and it is coming. Sin is real, and it is defeated. Jesus is real, and he is victorious. God's future is forgotten when our sorrow goes unmixed with deep joy.

Get up, man of God. Fight your folly.

Woman of faith, resist your sadness.

Christian, take hold of your Bible, engage your faith, confess what it says about you. Seek pray from others and practice the pursuit of joy. Much depends on it.

 

The Mission Has a Spirit

Imagine the profound idiocy of a general sending troops into battle with no weapons, radios, or air power. Such is the situation with much of modern church planting, I fear. In a quick survey of the last ten books I’ve read on church planting, not more than 5% of the total text had anything to do with the Holy Spirit, much less was it devoted to pleading with the planter to pray for the Spirit to move mightily in the work of the church plant. That’s a good deal less than God’s book on church planting—the book of Acts. A brief Google of the phrase “church plant conference” unearths vast practical resources, website companies, church plant gear guides, and other so-called “must haves” of the entire enterprise of church planting. But if one were to go by the Google results alone, one would be hard-pressed to believe that the church ever got off the ground in the first century at all without the whizz-bangery of church planting that we’ve come to believe is mission-critical. In fact, a study of the early church may lead us to believe that the aforementioned mission-critical whizz-bangery is just all noisy gongs and clanging cymbals compared to the Spirit that powered the mission in the first place.

The Mission Started With The Spirit

There they were, praying in the upper room, when the local church planting coordinator called and informed them that they got a huge grant, and a few hundred people were just outside. So, Peter put on his face mic and walked out just as the worship leader was putting down his all-rosewood, custom Taylor guitar, having just ended a new rendition of phos hilaron. Lights up, stool out, Pentecost time.

Wait. No … That’s not how it happened at all.

They were scared, small, and stirred by the resurrected Christ to wait for the Spirit. He came, and the mission of the forward motion of the church began. We who care about church planting would do well to remember that the church began by a powerful working of the Spirit of God which was preceded by a dramatic experience of faith in Christ. Having just seen Jesus after he was raised, they were believing, but they were waiting. When the Spirit came, the church began. The mission given by Jesus was turned to action by the Holy Spirit.

The Mission Advances By The Spirit

Further, the power of Pentecost wasn’t just the church’s big coming-out party. Of course, a common rejoinder from modern people is that when the cannon of Scripture was closed, the Spirit packed up all the party supplies (supernatural gifts and acts) and went home. But a rejoinder to that rejoinder is, well, history. And the Bible. In fact, the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is uniformly attested to by the earliest post-biblical sources as not only normative, but critical to the mission. Early church leaders were pretty much expected to operate in the gifts of the Spirit.[1] In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that between the death of the Apostles and the writings of the first Christian apologists, the church’s main mission strategy was through demonstrations of power which attested to the truth of the gospel message.[2]

Of course, we’re skipping entirely over the books of Acts, which is replete with descriptions of miracles, healings, answers to prayer, and other powerful workings of the Spirit which, in every single case, serve to advance the mission. The fact is, the history of the early church is not all doctrines and councils. It’s the story of the work of the Spirit to grow the church in the midst of a hard culture.

Your Mission Needs The Spirit

Look, I get it. Who wants to be a crazy charismatic? Your church plant plan doesn’t include any mention of falling over, shaking, or any otherwise odd-looking behaviors. You’re just hoping to lead some people to Jesus, preach well, and make disciples. Nothing to see here, right?

Here’s the thing, I’m actually really grateful for all the whizz-bangery of church planting. I think it’s all an expression of a Spiritual gift, actually—the gift of wisdom. It’s wise to have great music. It’s wise to have a decent website. It’s wise to attend a conference, build a team, and do best practices. I teach that stuff to church planters all the time. But I don’t know if you’ve read 1 Corinthians lately, but the Spirit offers a great many more gifts to us than just wisdom. And if we’re really serious about getting the mission done, then two suggestions come to mind. First, we should re-read Jesus’ mission statement. He said, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded.” Then, we should go read that commandment in 1 Corinthians 14:1, and start to earnestly desire Spiritual gifts.

Further, every church planter is already asking God to do a far greater miracle than the kinds of things that give John MacArthur heartburn. We’re asking Him to perform the miracle of conversion—the new birth. Raising a sinner from spiritual death is a good deal more impressive than the gift of prophesy. And yet, strategically, God has given a whole set of gifts to bring about that gift. Why not just ask God for all of them?

God is a great general. He would never send his people into confrontation with the gates of Hell unarmed. That’s why the disciples waited in an upper room. Before you and I step out onto the mission field, perhaps we should prayerfully await the Spirit, too. Who knows what powerful work God would do if we believed the mission had a Spirit.

——

[1] Ronald Kydd notes that “[All the leaders] were expected to minister charismatically. . .; Ronald A. N. Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984), 10.

[2] Ed Stetzer, “The Wandering Ecstatic Prophet in the Mission Strategy of the Early Church,” Journal of Evangelism and Missions (Spring 2003): 1.

Can a Christian Be Patriotic?

I remember the little church we would frequent had two flags: one American, one Christian. One Fourth of July weekend, I clearly remember singing the National Anthem and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Church and State were partners in those days, and the patriotism seemed to go hand-in-hand with Christianity. And, in many churches today, this is still the case. But should it be? Some Christians believe quite strongly that we cannot be patriotic. With our citizenship in Heaven (Phil. 3:20) shouldn't be skip the fireworks on the Fourth and instead long for the country that is coming — the one without corruption, without injustice. The one ruled by the One great King?

Not Blind Patriotism

Both of these views are right, and both are wrong. Blind patriotism is clearly wrong. And, many American Christians are blindly patriotic. Believing only in the Christian America origins of our nation, this view utterly ignores the weeds of injustice which have grown up along the good stalk of the puritanical vision. The same weeds that today seem to be choking it out altogether in many quarters. Indeed, our citizenship is in Heaven, so we can never be blindly patriotic.

Worst of all, though, blind patriotism always devolves into a kind of syncretism. It muddies the clear, fresh water of the gospel, trading it for the mixed, brackish, and unhealthy false gospel of "America first."

Not Separate Kingdoms

So why not separate entirely? Why would Christians even bother engaging in an American that is wrought with so many problems? Well, the simple answer is, the Bible commands us to engage the world, not retreat from it. While we're not of it, we're still in it. (Jn 17:16) The very reason that God's people remain in the world is to engage it with the gospel, so that every nation might be present before God in worship for all time. (Rev 7:9)

Tragically, those who advocate the church as a completely different kingdom than the world devolve into a sub-Christian separatism. I'm just glad Jesus wasn't a separatist.

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Patriotism as Resident Aliens

The Apostle Peter gives insight into this question in his epistle. He calls the church, “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). Christians are chosen by God to live as exiles in another country—resident aliens. The citizenship of the Christian is in heaven, but the residence of the Christian is in his city. The allegiance of God’s people is to the King of the Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ. But God’s people must love their city and their neighbors all the same. Keller notes:

Resident aliens will always live with both praise and misunderstanding. Jesus taught that Christians’ “good deeds” are to be visible to the pagans (Matt. 5:16), but he also warns his followers to expect misunderstanding and persecution (v. 10) ... Both Peter and Jesus indicate that these “good deeds” ... will lead at least some pagans to glorify God ... The church must also multiply and increase in the pagan city as God’s new humanity, but this happens especially through evangelism and discipling. (Keller, Center Church, 148.)

5 Practices of a Christian Patriot

It's not wrong to love your country, because you and I are commanded to love our neighbor. We shouldn't love it blindly, nor should we hate it blindly. Instead, consider these five practices of a Christian patriot:

  1. Pray for America -  The Scriptures command it. Pray for your leaders, your neighbors, and your city.
  2. Learn the Christian Foundation Story - I know it's not a perfect place, but it's got some good stuff in the foundations. For a refresher, I recommend this book.
  3. Vote Well - People have bled and died so you could participate in government. Quit complaining and use your vote with wisdom and the fear of the Lord.
  4. Be Prophetic - Love calls out injustice. When we Christians see what is not good in our country, we should say something about it.
  5. Make Disciples - Evangelism in our pluralistic society is hard, but it's right. The onus is on us to show how the gospel fares in the market place of ideas that is America.

This patriotic weekend, let us remember our call to love our country — to love it well enough to tell it the truth, and to love it well enough to love Jesus more.

7 Things We Christians Simply Must Stop Saying

I like words. I also like philosophy — logic, particularly. My twin affinities have caused my to head throb over some of what passes for Christian lingo. So, in order to alleviate my headache and help my brethren and sisteren (?) clean up their language, I humbly offer this exhaustive list of things Christians need to stop saying. And spoiler alert, it's a bit of a rant.

"Doing Life"

Oh sweet tautology of tautologies. This one hits my ears like fingernails across a chalkboard.

Fun fact, all you ever do is life. That's what life is — the sum total of the lived experience. I know, I know ... what you mean to say is, "I want to have deep and meaningful relationships with others." Yes, that's awesome. Me too. So say that. That's why we have words which correspond with your meaning. Use those.

What else could you possibly be doing, non-life? In fact, if you're ever truly convinced you're not doing life, check your pulse. You may be dead.

"Season"

This is a personal favorite. To a normal English-speaker, a season is a climatological word demarcating things like Autumn from Winter, Spring from Summer, and so forth. But to a Christian this word is shorthand for any conceivable span of time, with no clear beginning or end, known only to the user of the word. Prime examples include, "I feel like I'm in a season of prayer," or, "God's calling me to a season of service," or whatnot. And look, I get it. It's handy. And, it was probably creative the first few BILLION times it was trotted out. But look, the season for using the word "season," is over. Find a new word.

"I feel like God's calling me to _______."

Turn your Bible over. Now, whack the spine a few times. Look down. Did this phrase fall out? Nope. It did not.

NO PERSON IN THE BIBLE EVER EVER EVER EVER EVER <breath> EEEEVERRRRR used this phrase to describe their experience of the call of God. You know why? Because the Holy Spirit would have never inspired anyone to elevate their FEELINGS over God's instructions. God is calling or He's not. Your feelings about the matter, well, don't matter.

Now, it's not that you can't feel called to do x, but this little phrase has been used to excuse all kinds of silliness. But because it's you who feel called, no one is ever allowed to challenge you on it. As a pastor, I hear this all the time. "But pastor, I feel called to date this loser," "But pastor, I feel called to this obviously disobedient and self-destructive behavior." And if you "feel called" it becomes nigh impossible for anyone to budge you from your "calling," no matter how terrible it may be.

Discern what God is saying, not how you feel about it.

"I'm not being fed."

Phew. This one. I just ... I just need a minute.

This one is a favorite of flaky, semi-attentive consumers of religious goods and services. It usually comes just before they flake their flakerly flaktacular flakiness way the flake out the door.

Now, let me get the disclaimer out of the way: there are sadly a lot of pastors who completely fail to remember that their job is to attend to the Word and prayer (Acts 6). They preach garbage, opinions, heresy, or some cocktail of all three. They are literally not feeding their people.

But.

This has become a favorite excuse of lazy maybe-Christians who actually think that their only spiritual 'meal' is on Sunday. Think of church like going out to eat at restaurant with an open kitchen. Hopefully, I'll cook you up a nice, nutritious meal. Hopefully you leave full of delicious Bible. But now that you've watched the chef cook, go give it a try yourself. Or you'll starve.

Any / all references to multiple bodies of water in worship songs.

Look, I know that a lot of people have been blessed by lots of songs involving good ol' H2o. I'm happy for that, I really am.

Or, I was until they were played to death. Like, actual death may ensue. We're singing about so many oceans, rivers, lakes, fjords, lochs, and ponds that God may just hear us and drown us all. We're going to church on Sunday, not a three hour tour. There's enough water sung about most Sundays to get on Aquaman's nerves. I don't know if all that hair product is just getting to our worship leaders' heads, but I'm praying the Spirit leads you where your songwriting skills are without borders. Particularly, aquatic borders.

All of God's names all of the time in all of the prayers.

"Lord Jesus Father God, I just wanna thank you Jehovah Father Spirit God..."

You know who knows his name? God. God knows his name. How would you like it if I walked up to you and said your name and all your attributes every single time we spoke. "Pastor husband Adam Mabry Man, I was wondering if I could borrow that pen, Adam Leader Male American White Christian Pastor ..." Kuuuuuuhhhhhwitit. Jesus literally said, "When you pray, say 'Father ...'" That's it.

"Hey dad," and you're off to the races.

"I have an unspoken prayer request."

Do you? Really? Then I'll just unpray about it. I feel like God's calling me to a season of doing life where I unpray about unspoken prayer requests. I prayed to Jehovah Jira Father Lord Jesus God Father, and he was cool with it.

Humor aside, I've said everyone of these things. But we Christians say silly things, often with little or no meaning. If you're really offended by any of this, feel free to email me at growasenseofhumor@imnotgonnareadit.nope

4 Ways Rest is Resistance

"I've got 10 lonely seconds to justify my whole existence." That's what Harold Abrahams famously stated in the movie Chariots of Fire. He ran, chasing his worth. We're just like him, I'm afraid. So much of our doing — heck, of my doing — is a chasing. But in the gospel we find an invitation to rest in the finished doing of Jesus. Which begs the question ...

How do we do that?

Answer: We resist. And that's where sabbath rest comes in. So, here are four ways rest is an act of resistance.

Rest is Resistance Against Anxiety

God's people can resist the anxiety built in to the system of performance-based religion, production-based value, and market-based human worth by resting. Taking a day off differentiates us from the system. The practice of leisure and levity are super important here. Anxious people can't laugh. Conversely, laughing people can't remain anxious.

Rest is Resistance Against Autonomy

There is a self-actualization arms race that pressures Western people to "be their most authentic self." No longer do we find our meaning, identity, and purpose within the society, the family, the church, or the group. Now we all bear the pressure of discovering and deploying our authentic individual self — something which the Bible never commands us to do. When we rest, we're resisting the false gospel of the autonomous self and remembering that we're a part of a different people. Namely, those who've found rest in Christ. Those who have laid down their striving after their ten seconds, as it were.

Rest is Resistance Against Coercion

The whole system of self-discovery, self-governance, and self-value that this world offers us is not just oppressive. It's coercive. The demands of the boss, of the game, of the kids' soccer, creep into the time of rest. Therefore the practice of sabbath is an act of defiance against these demands. It's saying a strong, clear "no." Practically, this is where the sabbath practice of avocation (or hobby) comes in. You can put your hands to something that isn't your job because you're free in Jesus to do so.

Rest is Resistance Against Idolatry

All of this frenetic, never-ending doing is rooted in a kind of idolatry. Like the false god-king Pharaoh demanded the Israelite slaves never stop working so he could enjoy rest, the false gods we worship do the same. The career god demands we skip vacations to climb the ladder. The perfect-family-god cries out to us to us to give our lives over to our children in unceasing labor. Jesus isn't like the false gods.

Jesus is the only God who has already done the work of redemption, of acceptance, and of justification, and offers us the fruits of his labor as a gift. Rest is an act of faith where we remember that we're on the receiving end of grace, not the producing end.

Rest is hard for driven people. I know, because I'm driven. But we must resist the rush and return to rest.

 

Image of God over Issues

Once again, an act of terrible violence and evil has occurred. An unhinged Muslim man, motivated by a cocktail of false beliefs about God, hatred of LGBT people, and who knows how much personal brokenness, has injured or killed 100 people in Orlando. Sadly, it took approximately .0025 seconds for our political impulses to get the better of us and for everyone to take sides. As a pastor — heck, as a human — this was so grievous to me that I had to turn off the social media streams for a day just to get a little perspective. I think I've gotten some, and I'd like to share it with you.

Why Is This Wrong?

Why is this act wrong? Well, first let's figure out what aren't the reasons:

  • Killing or injuring 100 people isn't wrong because the victims were Americans.
  • Killing or injuring 100 people isn't wrong because the victims were gay.
  • Killing or injuring 100 people isn't wrong because the shooter was Muslim.
  • Killing or injuring 100 people isn't wrong because of guns.

Hear me clearly: Killing or injuring 100 people is wrong because the victims are people — they bear the image of God. Snuffing it out the image of God is always always always always wrong.

It's wrong to kill gay people, Muslim people, gun-owning people, unborn people, American people, conservative people, black people, poor people, the mentally infirm people — because it's wrong to kill people.

Do we have work to do with the way we love our LGBT neighbors? Absolutely. Do we have work to do with Muslim community? Absolutely. Do we have work to do with our gun laws? Absolutely. But this act was not wrong for any of those reasons — at least not primarily. And when any of us take a tragedy of this magnitude and make it about an issue (and isn't it fascinating that it's always about our pet issue) we ignore the importance of the image of God for the sake of an issue. That is wrong.

Don't Elevate Issues Over the Image

Now, let me go one step further: Using a tragedy as a fulcrum to gain leverage for your position is the worst kind of power mongering. It's literally the attempt to write law in the blood of victims about whom you care less than you do your issue. Their blood cries out to us from the streets of Orlando to remember that they are more than an issue. They are precious, image-bearing, God-made people. All of them. They are dead. That is wrong, and that reason is sufficient.

Some of you reading this will say, "Yeah, but our nation has really strange gun laws, those need to be dealt with." Others will say, "Yeah, but LGBT people have been systematically ignored or hurt by us for too long." Others will say, "Yeah, but we've got a big problem with radical Islam." And let me be give a big yes to all these related issues. Much is the work to do. But, that's my point exactly: these are related issues. By definition, therefore, they are not central. One issue is central: God's image was wiped off the earth 50 times over, and none of us seem to be more grieved by that fact than we are about issues.

The Image of God Unites Us.

This one issue which should unite us in our grief is the same issue which unites us in our humanity. We are image-bearers. But it does more still. It unites us in our hope.

Remembering that we are God's image bearers will quickly call one final reality to mind: The image has been marred. Twisted and bent, the image of God within us has a condition wrapped around it like a python around its prey — a condition called sin. Only one image-bearer has ever crushed the head of this ravenous snake. When tragedy comes, the people of God must resist the temptation to wriggle out of this serpent's grip by ranting and raving about issues, no matter how legitimate they may seem. The time will come for issues. First, we must be among those who look to the one who has vanquished this foe, and plead with him for the grace to help us do the same. If we did, we may just start to see His image in others again — even those with whom we disagree about the issues.

 

3 Trust Issues We All Have

Trust is a sticky issue for most of us. In bygone days, we weren't constantly bombarded with story after story of human untrustworthiness. But today our feeds are filled with clickbait-laden stories of how everyone is really quite untrustworthy. Small wonder, then, that when it comes to trusting God or anyone else, we struggle. Romans 1:17 says, "The righteous shall live by faith." But that greek word "faith" can be just as easily translated as "trust." And when I switch the words, suddenly I see all the ways that I don't trust. Suddenly I'm aware of my trust issues. Here are three I think we all have, and we all can get past with Jesus.

"I Can't Trust God."

This is the big one. When you and I hear that the righteous shall live by faith, we probably think, "Oh, I'm a man of faith. I have faith in God." But when we replace the word faith with its close synonym "trust," then the verse becomes a whole lot more difficult. Trust is active, present, and continuous. Trust is relational. Trust means, "Hey God, I trust you."

When hard times come, we feel that is somehow evidence that God is untrustworthy. "If God were good," we say to ourselves, "then He wouldn't allow this." Or maybe you do this as you read the Scriptures. Coming upon a hard passage you balk, "No God who says this could be trusted," so you walk away.

"I Can't Trust Them."

Our trust issues with God extend to people. If I had a dollar for every person who walked through the doors of my church who said, "Oh I love God, I just don't trust the church. Organized religion, man, it's where all the problems are," then I would have many dollars! Church hurt breeds a lot of mistrust. Perceived church hurt probably breeds more.

Here's the thing — trusting God inseparably entails trusting people. Why? Well because God became a person. Then, he put his Spirit in many other persons. Those people are called Christians. Refusing to trust others (especially other Christians) is a sign of a trust issue, not of a deft personal relationship policy.

"I Cant' Trust Him/Her."

Trust issues with God and with the group of God's people always trickles down to trust issues with an individual. And when we refuse to trust individuals for whatever reason we cannot carry on any kind of relationship with them. This is tragic for a million reasons, but perhaps the most tragic among them is because our mistrust of them means we can't properly love God.

You see, the Scriptures tell us that loving God means trusting people. That's what 1 Cor. 13 means when it says, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, eendures all things." Did you see our word? Belief. Or, you guessed it — trust. To love someone means to extend trust toward them, even if it is hard for us to do. To maintain a posture of cynical unbelief toward someone is to, in some way, be unable to love them.

Getting Past My Trust Issue

So what's a cynic like me to do? Back to the Bible. Back in Romans 1 we read that in the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed, and the whole thing begins and ends in faith. Or, to use our word of the day, trust.

The gospel — the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ — is the ultimate proof that God is worthy of our trust. That's why Paul says that the whole kettle of fish starts and ends with trust (v. 16). To get past my trust issues, I've got to start by realizing that God has gone to an infinitely great length to prove his trustworthiness to me. Not because he had too. God doesn't have to do much. But because he loved me enough to want to. Getting past my trust issues starts with getting stuck into the story of the gospel, and letting my cynicism melt.

I'd invite you to join me. That is, if you can trust me.

How to Read a Difficult Text

This past Sunday I preached 1 Peter 3:1-8. It's not an easy text to hear for modern, Western peoples. In fact, if you read it quickly, it sounds like the first line of evidence in the argument for the case that the Bible is really just an outdated, mostly useless book. Most of us read the Bible about like we read our Facebook feed — quickly, shallowly, and on the hunt for cheap click-bait. So, when we come to a text like the one above, we're instinctively hunting for the frowny-face button to show our dislike. Let me suggest a different way.

How NOT to Read a Difficult Text

  1. Sweep Everything Under the "Culture" Rug One of the quickest ways we Christians have found to alleviate ourselves from the need to listen to (much less obey) hard texts is by saying something like, "Oh, that was cultural. They believed/acted/understood that in a certain way back then, but we're in a different (which we often mean as a euphemism for "better") culture now."

    Phew, that was close. For a second there, I thought we'd have to actually exegete the text. But now that you've pointed out the heretofore ignored fact that modern American society is not the same as ancient Roman society, I feel much better. #Sarcasm

    No. In fact, embracing this technique is really the first step in unraveling your trust in the text entirely, because pretty soon you're the one picking and choosing what is a best fit in our culture. That's not biblical faithfulness, it's syncretism. Furthermore, it's strikingly similar to the method of Bible reading that slavery-endorsing "pastors" used in the south hundreds of years ago, and Nazi-endorsing "pastors" used decades ago. Anyone excited about the culture-driven Bible reading plan anymore? Ok, let's move on.

  2. React and Run Away Reactivity is almost never good, and that's especially true with the text of the Bible. When the Bible offends you, don't run away. You probably should do the when anyone offends you. Yet, we're nursing a kind of millennial angst against offense. Hurting someone's feelings is now morally equivalent to punching them in the face repeatedly. It's just that nothing about that is true. God hurts our feelings with truth so that he can show us grace. When you're offended, lean in.

How TO Read a Difficult Text

I'm taking some of Tim Keller's best ideas on this and expanding them with my own thoughts. So, let's see what we should do with a hard text when it comes and offends us.

  1. Consider the possibility that it doesn't mean what you think. Most of the time that we're offended at a text it's because we've read it at the aforementioned Facebook-feed-level of depth. We're just ignorant of what it's saying because we're not ancient Greek-speaking Romans (in the case of the NT audience). That why people like me go to graduate school — to understand the text so that we can explain it more accurately to our readers and listeners. So, when a text is hard to hear, ask yourself if you're hearing it rightly.
  2. Consider your unchecked belief in the superiority of your own cultural moment.  "That text is offensive," we say. "It's anti-woman, or anti-gay, or anti-progressive cultural values." But let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose we all got on a plane and went to Moscow, then Ramadi, and then Hong Kong. Suppose we brought our offensive Bible text with us. In each of those cities (and cultures) they would have problems with the Bible — just not your problems with the Bible. All the texts we think are regressive for women seem to progressive in Ramadi, for example. So why do you and your culture's problems with the Bible get to be the controlling, most important problems with the Bible?

    Dismissing the Bible because you think it's regressive is, at bottom, an act of pretty extreme arrogance. Sitting atop your mountain of presumed progress, you look down your nose at those poor regressive (which is the NewSpeak pejorative du jour) peoples. Humility would, in this case, be listening to the text.

  3. Ask yourself, "Do I really want a God like me?  We all want God to be on our side, at least initially. But then we need to stop and think, do we really? I mean, you're great and all, but if God is pretty much up there agreeing with you and your culture all the time, in what sense is He God over you? At what point does God get to come and fundamentally alter or correct us and our ways of life?

    In fact, relationships involve trusting the other enough to correct us. God is not a Stepford wife. He is not programmed by us for our pleasure. You can't have a relationship with someone like that. God is God, and He loves us enough to unsettle us from time to time.

  4. Finally, find the good news.  I love the Bible. Like, a lot. And yet there are whole chunks of it that I find really hard to read and understand. But part of the fun of reading the text is digging for diamonds. It takes hard work sometimes, but eventually you strike upon the deeper vein of treasure.

    Ask yourself, "where is the good news in this text? Why would the Spirit have inspired this to be here for me to read?" Get a good study Bible, a good commentary, a good church, and get to work.

7 Pastor Pitfalls I've Fallen Into (And How I Got Out)

I'm by no means a veteran pastor, but in my short tenure I've made enough mistakes to challenge the length of Barth's Dogmatics. So, I thought I might summarize a few of them and how I'm learning to overcome. 1. Confusing Sermon Prep for Spiritual Sustenance The sermon is a great privilege of pastors. We get to spend lots of time in conversation with great men of God from generations past, pouring over the text, and engaging their genius as we prepare a sermon. But preparing a sermon is not the same as spending time with God. That's like the chef never eating on the basis that he's cooked food all day.

2. Saying Yes to Everyone We pastors can be people pleasers. So, when one of the faithful comes forth with an idea, it's hard to tell them no. Early on I didn't do a good job of this. Just one more meeting. One more initiative. One more ... whatever. Saying yes to everyone is a sign of insecurity, fear of man, and an emotional neediness that we shepherds need to get over.

3. Being Nice Instead of Deep So many people, so little time. Instead of making the hard choice Jesus made as to the few men into whom I should invest my life, I've made the mistake of being nice to the hundreds instead of being deep with the twelve. It's not wrong, to be nice, of course. But if I'm going to have a lasting impact like Jesus did, then I must be deeply involved with the few.

4. Not Confessing Sin Quickly Enough Putting the word "pastor" in front of one's name can make you begin to believe in your moral impenetrability. Or, perhaps more accurately, the image of your moral impenetrability. When I've struggled with sin as a pastor, I've hidden far too often. I must confess sin more quickly. Pastor, get yourself a confessor.

5. Refusing to Rest Refusal to rest is what a Messiah Complex looks like. "The church is so busy," I'll say. Or, the more Christian sounding, "It's a busy season." Jesus ain't buying it, and neither is my family. Refusing to rest puts everything at risk, lighting fuse of burnout for an any-day-now explosion. Pastor, rest.

6. Preferring Platform over Pastoring I've been on stage since I was 5. I like stages, and the bigger they are the more I like them. But chasing a bigger and bigger platform is neither a moral good, nor helpful to my being a better Pastor. I've had to learn the difference between allowing God to open an opportunity for me and me striving for a thing I shouldn't have. God has called me to pastor, not to platform build.

7. Venting My Anger Like any job, Pastoring can be frustrating. The unique twist of pastoral frustration is that I can trick myself into thinking that my anger or frustration with my job or my church may be righteous anger. And hey, maybe sometimes it really is. But venting my anger is not righteous, it's foolish. I've had to learn that I can actually vent to Jesus in order to love his people, and that's really liberating.

So, there you go. Some of my issues for you to learn from. Please do, and figure out to leap past your own pitfalls.

The Gospel for the Relationally Exhausted

It's Springtime in Boston, and that means one thing — exodus. This time each year, around 200,000 students begin to trickle out of the city, many of them never to return, as they enter the real world of employment (hopefully). Others leave the city because of the nature of the place itself. People come here to pad resumes, get degrees, complete internships, etc. Put simply, the high taxes, high cost of living, and tempestuous weather means that most folks who find there way here eventually find their way out again.

What this all means for me is that around 20% or so of my flock turns over each year, usually around this time. Then, in just a few short weeks after the exodus, the city fills back up again. Hundreds of new faces stare back at me as I preach, new hands extend to me as I greet, new messages fill my inbox to request a coffee.

And it's absolutely. relationally. exhausting.

Saying goodbye to people I love and hello to people I don't know — over and over and over and over and over again — is just hard. I mean, it's even hard for me. I'm an extreme extrovert. I'm not particularly emotional about this kind of thing, either. I'm pretty well-built for a place like this. And I'm exceedingly grateful to Jesus that our church is a growing church, and that so many come through our doors.

But, jeez. Even me being me, this can all get really relationally exhausting.

What's worse, I can see this same relational exhaustion in my leaders. While a huge number of people in my church turn over each year, another huge number of people don't. They live here, and they don't plan to leave any time soon. They're trying to build relationships, and this transience makes that really, really hard. And while I may be an extrovert, most of them aren't. I can see their care-worn faces, wishing for roots that simply resist the soil of our city.

How Do I Know If I'm Relationally Exhausted?

Relational exhaustion manifests itself in me in two ways. First, when I begin intentionally distancing myself emotionally from pretty much everybody, I know that my emotional defense mechanisms have kicked it. I see you there. You're new. I smile, introduce myself, small-talk, and then walk away. Five minutes, I have forgotten you, your face, and your story. Safety.

The other symptom of relational exhaustion comes when I start measuring my interest in another human being based solely upon their answer to the question, "How long do you plan to be in Boston?" Less than a year? Bye bye.

These are not good reactions at all. They're understandable, but not appropriate for a minister of the gospel.

A Danger and an Opportunity

The great opportunity of ministry in the global city is just that — it's a global city. People from literally all over the world come to this city to become great. What better place to reach the world? What more strategic location from which to proclaim the good news of the gospel and make disciples? This is the opportunity that I and others have who do such ministry.

But, liabilities abound. The opportunity for cynicism is high. With so much human turnover, it's entirely possible to see these image-bearers of God as a commodity instead of a creation. I must guard my heart against that tendency. Equally dangerous is leaning into the frustration that comes from desiring a safe, stable, relational Mayberry where I see all my closest friends and neighbors as I walk my children to the same, safe, idyllic school all their kids attend. We "do life" together, grow old together, and a whole bunch of other stuff that probably won't happen. Do I wish for that life? Sure. Who wouldn't. But if I allow my longing for a perfect relational heaven to trap me in a frustrating relational hell, that's no good either.

Impermanence and It's Fruits

The simple fact is, that relational place I'm longing for does not exist. At least, not on this side of the Sun. Everything here is impermanent.

What's a Pastor to do with the impermanence of his ministry? What's a Christian to do with the impermanence of his influence? What are the relationally exhausted to do with the impermanence of their relationships? I can think of three appropriate responses.

  1. Long - Impermanence of the good in this life must not create the soil for cynicism to grow. Rather, it must be the beginnings of an appropriate longing for the future world with Jesus Christ. In the Kingdom, we will finally be home. Those roots we wished to lay in this world that just never seemed to take will finally establish themselves in the soil of the Heavenly city. The friendships we were designed for but destined to drop will be had. Laughter will be richer, meals will be fuller, and we will know even as we are fully known. That's a good thing to want.
  2. Wait - In the meantime, we must wait. Waiting is a fact of life designed by God to improve our character. Patience is not a natural phenomenon. It's formed in the waiting room. While we will have great friendships in this life, we must wait for the greatest one. While we will have laughter in this life, we must wait for the greatest joy.
  3. Work - We must resist with all our might the twin temptations to relationally retreat or emotionally write off others, just because they might not be permanent fixtures in our lives. We should work to fight the cynical thermodynamics of relational exhaustion. We must make friends, even for the 53rd time. We must invite people in our lives, even though we're freshly sad about those who've recently left our lives. We simply must work to be and become all that God has for us here.

The gospel is good news for the relationally exhausted precisely because in Jesus we find the one man who loved the world that abandoned him. I, for one, am glad he did. Now I shall attempt to go and do likewise.

3 Ways To Be A Good Son

I'm learning how to be a good son. Family is for me — like many of my generation — a difficult idea. All my parents have had rough marriages, and walked through circumstances that have been extremely challenging. The wrong way to respond to all of this was the way I responded for many years.

For many years, I disdained my family on multiple levels. I looked down upon their poor choices, confident that I, were I in their position at the time, would have done the right thing. I thought myself smarter, better, a cut above, and was therefore eager to leave my hometown. And so I did. As I expected, I accomplished a lot of good things. But on the way I learned something, too. I learned that, while I'd been very good at school, work, and achieving my goals, I'd not been a very good son.

On a recent trip back to my hometown, it all came very much together for me. Here are three things I learned:

A Good Son Celebrates The Good

I love my parents and grandparents. And, I'm learning that part of honoring them means honoring the good I received from them. For instance:

  • Mom taught me diligence. I get my fiery personality from her. She never quit, raised me well, even though it meant working late and missing moments with me. She taught me to be an adult, and never liked the kind of parenting that tried to pal around with progeny. "My job is to teach you not to need me," she would say. Powerful stuff, I think. I appreciate that.
  • Dad is the reason I build. My father is an actual builder, and he's really good at it. I don't think he knows how to do anything but his best work. He taught me that quality and details matter. He was a great provider. He taught me how to work with my hands. Yesterday, in fact, I built a table from scrap wood around my house. Couldn't help but think of him and to be thankful.
  • My grandparents are all amazing. From them I learned entrepreneurship, art, music, manners, and more. My grandfather (we call him "Papa Bill") is a greatest-generation man's man. He has started more business and released more people into more prosperity than anyone I know. As a church entrepreneur, I love that. He's also one of the most generous people I know. My grandmother (we call her "Jay Bird") taught me how to love music, art, and the stage. She was always taking me to plays and musicals, and I fell in love with music in many ways through her. She also taught me manners and how to set a table. My other grandmother ("Granny") is everything great about the South, made flesh. She is the sweetest, most vibrant grandmother ever. No one makes better fried chicken, or breakfast. No one is more kind, either.

I can go on and talk about how great my step-parents are, my siblings (natural and step), my in-laws, and even my spiritual fathers. But, this is a blog, not a book. All that was probably more fun for me to write than for you to read. The point is this, a Son celebrates the good he got from his family.

A Good Son Rejects Cynicism

Man, this one is hard. All of us go through that moody, teenage phase. Some of us never emerge from it.

Every family has junk. When faced with family junk, we have some choices. First, we can embrace the junk and carry it forward. This is not wise, but it is normal. Cynically, this choice says, "this is who we've always been and who we'll always be." This is part of how destructive behaviors like alcoholism, violence, passive-aggression, and all kinds of brokenness get passed onto the next generation. A good son doesn't do that.

Another choice might be to eschew the whole family for the sake of the junk. This was more my style. But very little good has ever come from throwing babies out with bathwater. The image of God resides in every person, along with their brokenness. It's no good to reject the image on account of the sin, except in the most extreme cases. Good sons avoid this move, too.

A Good Son Embraces The Best Son

So what is this, just good advice I'm spinning? May it never be.

The gospel means that I've been adopted into the only perfect family. Just as I was born into my natural family, I needed to be born again into this one. And, just as I did nothing to merit being born into the Mabry household, merit and good work didn't get me born into the family of God. I've been adopted. I've been embraced, despite my sin. Jesus bled to rescue the image of His Father in me. If this is the cost that the best Son paid to reunite me with His family, then I can do likewise.

The best Son saw the good in me, and loved me, despite all my sin.

The best Son rejected cynicism about me, and loved me instead.

To be a good Son, I can look at the best Son, and do with my family what He did with me.

I'm learning how to be a good son. The best Son is teaching me.

You Are Not Invisible

One of the most effective lies I see militated against the people I pastor is the lie that they are, despite their proximity to others in day-to-day life, alone — the feeling of utter invisibility. This lie — that no one truly sees us — is especially effective because pulls the rug out from our pursuit of God while also undermining our ability to be in relationship with other people.

Sinning Is Easier When You Think No One Sees

The enemy of our souls is a brilliant strategist, and he understands that if he can get you to believe the myth of your invisibility, you’ll do in the dark what you’d not do otherwise. If you cannot see me, if no one can see me, then in what sense am I accountable for my actions? What makes my deeds matter?

The Scriptures tell a different story — one where all our deeds will be brought into the light. Forgetting this fact, however, makes missing the mark easier.

Despair Is Deeper When You're Invisible

Among our deepest longings is to know and be known. This longing drives us toward relationships with each other and God. But the sense of invisibility — of utter aloneness — means deep despair. For, even in my deepest human relationships I am not fully known. What ballasts the soul when faced with the fact that we can’t, in this life, be fully known by another person, is the understanding that we can be full known by God. Without that, the exhilaration of discovering someone new will soon give way to the hell of knowing you’ll never fully know anyone, nor be fully known.

God Turned His Back on Jesus So He Could Turn His Eyes Upon You

Only God can deal with this problem — the problem of invisibility. Only God can fully see and know us, and then only can we be fully known. Of course, our sin gets very much in the way of such intimacy. For, our sinful rebellion against God casts our souls away from the only relationship that can both satisfy our soul-deep need for intimacy.

But God has mended the tear which hides us from Him. In turning His back on His Son, He turns His gaze on you. When Christ went to the cross and uttered, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” he embraced the despair of invisibility so we could experience intimacy.

You aren’t alone. Not in Christ, not anymore.

Come out from the dark, and back from the brink. He sees, He knows, and His forsaken Son has been to the outer darkness to call you back from it.

A Monday Missional Mind-Dump

Yesterday was an awesome day at church. For the first time, we baptized people in all four of our weekend gatherings. That's a pretty big milestone for us. All of this cool stuff has my head spinning, and pumped for the mission of God in the Earth. So, here's my Monday Missional Mind-Dump:

God is on an Unstoppable Mission to Love and Save His Enemies I just don't get why, but God really, really loves his people. And we, His people, are one messed up group of folk. But, cover-to-cover, the Bible tells a story of a God who is dramatically and deeply devoted to redeeming the servants of his enemy and adopting them into his family. Piper says it well when he writes:

He created us "in his image" so that we would image forth his glory in the world. We were made to be prisms refracting the light of God's glory into all of life. Why God should want to give us a share in shining with his glory is a great mystery. Call it grace or mercy or love-it is an unspeakable wonder. Once we were not. Then we existed-for the glory of God! [note]John Piper, Desiring God. (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 1986) 55.[/note]

God Delights to Involve Us in the Mission What's crazier than the mere fact that God loves us sinners is that he commissions us into His service for the mission. The mission which led to our salvation doesn't stop with us, it consumes us.

God Uses Regular People The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 reveals something: God uses a regular dude to do an irregularly awesome thing. Philip here was not the Philip, famous as one of "the twelve." This was the other Philip — the one who was always getting confused with the Philip. This Philip was just a regular guy who led a ministry team in the early church.

Missional Efficacy is Proportional to Spirit Sensitivity Philip had a couple things going for him. First, he was sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Because of that, he could hear when God said, "Yo, go talk to that guy." Are we Spirit sensitive? Would we even hear if God told us to tell someone the gospel? Do we know His voice?

Truth + Grace = Change Over and over again I see in the Scriptures how effective gospel ministry appears to be this beautiful combination of truth telling and grace giving. Philip was able to explain the Scriptures to the Ethiopian. I wonder, could you have done the same thing? Part of the reason we study the Bible for its meaning (not just its significance to us personally) is so we can accurately explain it to others. But when we share the truth, we must show grace. When gospel truth mingle with gospel grace, lives change. People get saved, delivered, and helped.

Baptizing People Is My Favorite Certain parts of ministry totally get old. Baptizing people into the family of God never does.

 

Sunday Wrap: Money

Yesterday I preached on everyone's favorite topic — money. Here's my random smattering of observations regarding that super-fun topic to preach about:

  1. The generosity of God in Jesus Christ means responsibility and generosity in this life. God has been crazy generous to his people. He, the wealthiest conceivable being, took responsibility for a problem that was not his own (our sin) and generously dealt with it at the highest imaginable cost, the death of His Son. When we receive that grace, we should do likewise.
  2. Hyper-Capitalism isn't the Kingdom Making profits in business is good, not bad. I mean, Jesus worked as a for-profit small business owner for the great majority of his adult life. But hyper-capitalism is the belief that profit is the good — transforming a tool into an idol. This false view of God's stuff plays on the emotion of fear and love — fear of lacking money, and a love of money itself. It creates selfish, money hungry people, not disciples.
  3. Marxio-Communo-Socialism isn't the Kingdom, Either When I made point 2 yesterday, everyone smiled. When I made this point, everyone scowled. That's because I'm in the Northeast. If I preached the same sermon in Alabama, it would have been just the reverse. But again, Jesus was a small-business owner. He wasn't a socialist (or a communist, or a Marxist), because he very obviously believed in the private ownership of property and the means of production. This view doesn't play on our love of money or fear of lack. Rather, it plays on our self-pity and jealousy.
  4. A Right View of Money Starts with a Right View of God We can't build an autonomous view of money. If we're going to think, feel, and act rightly with God's stuff, then we should probably think, feel, and act the way God does about stuff. If you think God is a celestial miser, you'll treat money wrong. If you think God is to be manipulated by prayer and obedience into giving you what he wouldn't otherwise, you'll treat money wrong. We must see that God is crazy generous. That's the starting point. And, his generosity is on display for all to see in the giving of Jesus for the sins of the world.
  5. Receiving God's Generous Grace Means We Must Be Responsible When we get something from God, we must note three things: (1) It's not ours, it's God's. (2) We must be faithful with it — using the best wisdom from the Scriptures and from the pros to manage it well. And, (3) we must use our faith. We should invest, save, and spend in faith — asking and trusting God to provide blessing and protection over our investment.
  6. Receiving God's Generous Grace Means We Must Be Generous We can't be selfish grace recipients. Receiving grace entails generosity. This one's pretty simple, really. If we're not responsible with God's stuff, we won't have any money with which to be generous. But if we are, we will. And when we are responsible and see a profit, we must be generous.
  7. Preaching on Money is Not Fun, It's Necessary Man, I got some mean looks from folk when I criticized their politics. The idolization of the voting booth appears to be alive and well in my church. I intend to offend into the light and kill it with the truth, because the belief that we can vote the Kingdom of God in from the hyper-capitalist or the socialist is just plain foolish. I'm not called to console Republicans or make Democrats. I'm called to make disciples, and the politics of the Kingdom would scandalize both parties and their respective economic visions at different levels.
  8. I love Lists Especially numbered lists. Mmm. Lists...

 

The Wonder of Weakness

Like you, I feel constant pressure to look better, stronger, and more successful than I actually am. The world likes the strong. We root for them. We pay them millions to be stronger than others. God, however, seems to be drawn to the weak. "Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted ... you do see, for you note his ... vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless." (Ps 10:14-15)

Three simple observations that are really helping me today.

  1. God isn't attracted to my success, but draws near in my not-enough-ness.
  2. God sees my troubles. Therefore I don't need to whine about them, or sulk in self-pity.
  3. God is the refuge of the weak. The weak commit themselves to God, in part because they have no other help.

Strength is great, but deceptive. Success is wonderful, but worrisome. Only Jesus is the kind of God who displays the wonder of God in the weakness of man. I'm glad I don't have to become strong enough for him. He became weak enough for me.

Talent Ain't Enough

If you're leading a church, you're probably gifted. God's given you some skills which you bring out on a regular basis to build the church. Maybe it's a preaching or leadership. Perhaps you're a great evangelist or strategic thinker. Whatever your talent is, it ain't enough.

Your talents aren't enough to do what God has asked of you. If they were, then you wouldn't need God. Can you get to a certain level on your own? Sure. But to take the work of God in your hands to greater heights, you're going to have to see that your talent alone just won't cut it. Your people deserve you to be more than who you are naturally.

To your talent, you'll need to add the following to steward your talent well:

Study Don't just rely on your gifts. Work your mind to make them better. Get that seminary degree. Dust off the Greek and Hebrew. Your people need you to know what you're talking about.

Fidelity Talent and faithfulness aren't the same. In fact, a lot of talented people get discouraged and quit. Don't. You'll have to become faithful to be truly fruitful.

Practice Talent is just a sign of untapped potential. If you're naturally a good communicator, imagine how good you'd be if you practiced. Do the hours, do the reps. Get better.

Coaching Whatever you're talent is, I guarantee there's some better. Find that person and beg them to coach you. You're never too old, too good, or too lofty to get good kick and a hug.

Your talents aren't enough. But, they're a great place to start. Get a plan, and get to work on them to maximize your effectiveness for Jesus.

A Little Post-Easter Pastoral Perspective (Or, "Resurrection is for Pastors, Too")

Yesterday was Easter Sunday — pretty much the biggest Sunday for us pastors. The pressure was on early this year, since Easter came so Early. But, the folks show up in their Sunday best (even in Boston). Familiar and unfamiliar faces find their way into the seats to celebrate the risen King. Or, at least, to have something to do before brunch.

In any case, Easter Sunday can be a source of massive encouragement and/or massive discouragement for us pastors. So, here are four handy reminders for those of you who find yourself in ministry this meaning, either feeling either good or bad over what are simply the wrong things.

Church Competition Sucks

Measuring my church's crowd against your church's crowd is just terrible. I've been on both sides of that equation. When church is small, you think, "I'll feel better better when it's bigger." But, you don't. When the church is big you think, "I wonder if I'll see many of these people again." Quit comparing your church to something else. Pretty sure the only one who wins there is the devil. Be faithful with what you have, not fretful over what you don't.

Mustering Crowds is Easier Than Making Disciples

Fact: If you give me a million dollars in my marketing and outreach budget, my church will "grow" enormously.

I love that a lot of people came yesterday. And, I'm grateful that it was more than the previous year. But let's be honest, it's way easter to muster a crowd than to make disciples. Fellow pastors, let's celebrate the little movements of discipleship more than the big moments. It seems to me Jesus would feel that way. You know, more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, and all that.

The Easter Moment Could Make Movement

Here's what's great about Easter: opportunity for movement. As my old pastor used to say, people are more likely to believe the gospel if they're in church hearing the gospel. The crowd is bad at all. It's an opportunity. So, however yesterday went, learn from what happened. How could you turn great moments into discipleship movements?

Jesus Rose for Pastors, Too

Hey, Pastor, Jesus rose for you, too. If yesterday was awesome, it wasn't so awesome that the resurrection is somehow less great — peripheral. In fact, if you weren't stunned at the resurrection yesterday, it's a good indication that you're attempting to metabolize ministry success into spiritual life. Not good.

And, if yesterday was terrible, it wasn't so terrible that resurrection won't redeem it. Fellow shepherd, Christ is alive. He is our hope, not just the hope of our people.

 

3 Meanings of the Bloody Cross

The cross of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian story. This one act — the death of the Son of God — carries with it unfathomable significance. But, like a diamond with innumerable facets, there are a few sides to the cross of Christ which are so great that it is only through them we can understand the rest. Here are three meanings of the bloody cross on that first good Friday:

Jesus Died to Absorb the Wrath of God

John Piper once wrote, “the death of Christ is the wisdom of God by which the love of God saves sinners from the wrath of God, and all the while upholds and demonstrates the righteousness of God.” [note]John Piper, Desiring God. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah. 1986, 60.[/note]

Here in the cross we find the resolution — the glorious, scandalous, beautiful, and terrible resolution to the tension of the entirety of redemptive history up to this point, and the sound is an awe-ful and wonderful one. Like the greatest finale to the greatest symphony ever written, Jesus’ death resolves the dissonance of our treasonous rebellion against God and God’s relentless love for us. How does it do this? How could death accomplish such a thing? Because in the death of the Son of God for sinners, God could be both just — taking sin seriously enough to do something about it — and merciful — pouring his wrath out on someone else so that he could save his people. Justice and mercy met where blood and water flowed.

Here, I think it most appropriate to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26).

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God  (2 Corinthians 5:21).

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:10-11).

In sin, man traded places with God. On the cross, Jesus returned the favor.

In dying for sin, Jesus did something totally unexpected — better than we’d ever dream. Jesus, quite stunningly, became our sin and shame. He took all the brokenness, all the fallenness, all the war and poverty and disease. He took the unspeakable acts of horror committed against the innocent and the unspoken acts of violence committed by the guilty. He took every foul thought, impure motive, and unholy imagination that you and I have experienced. He took every part of every brokenness, upon himself. He became sin. He became detestable. He, the beautiful Son of God, became the most disgusting of things — sin. He became all of this and, representing the sin of his people, he died. He killed sin. He destroyed death. The death of death was accomplished in the death of God the Son.

This is the atonement for sin accomplished by Jesus.

Jesus Died to Demonstrate the Love of God

This is the kind of God he is. He is not forced to save us, but out of his gracious love he does anyway. And it’s this kind of love the death of the Son of God demonstrates — the amazing love of God the Father. And, the great news about this self-sacrificing love is that anyone who would look upon the death of Jesus and believe that he died to save them, will be saved. God is not only our judge, concerned with our righteousness. He is also the father of all those who would believe, and he loves us more than we can possibly know. He has the hairs on our head numbered and all our days ordained beforehand. He knows us better than anyone else and loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

“How do you know?” you ask.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, (1 John 4:10).

That’s how we know. You can’t know how much someone loves you until you know how much their love cost them. My wife knows that I love her because of what I’ve given up. To love my wife in the covenant of marriage, I have happily relinquished my say over the rest of my life. I’ve laid aside the option of simply doing whatever I want to do. I have joyfully given up independence, the love of other women, mobility, and a host of other things to gain her as my wife. And, that was a joy for me to do. Similarly, God’s love for his people is the kind of love that willingly gives up the life of the Son of God to gain us — you and me — his people.

If God loved us with a less costly, more general kind of love, I suppose that would be nice. That kind of universal, general, we-are-the-world love may be good for a song, but it’s not good for changing a heart. To change the hard, stony heart into one that lives and beats for God requires more. That kind of love can only come from the demonstration of great sacrifice, and in this case the greatest sacrifice possible — the sacrifice of God himself. This is the kind of sacrifice which takes the deepest of offenses and the broadest of relational gaps, and crosses them — even as the Son crossed the gap of eternity to come and die for us.

Jesus Died to Reconcile Us to God and Each Other

This brings us to the third accomplishment of the death of Jesus Christ: reconciliation. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that sin separates us from God, creating an enormous chasm between us. He says:

Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the [God’s people] and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ, (Ephesians 2:12-13).

Our brokenness creates a void that, no matter how we may try, we cannot cross. But, the good news of the story of redemption isn’t that God sits in Heaven shouting at us, “Come over here!” For he knows that we cannot, and we would not. But God, being unimaginably merciful to us, instead says, “I’m coming there.” In coming and dying, he closes the gap and reconciles the world to himself.

Remember that the nature of our offense against God spoiled creation in at least four distinct ways. Our first and primary problem is our separation from God. But of course, being separated from God has consequences — separation from each other, brokenness within ourselves, and even the inability to rightly relate to the created world. But in the cross of Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, and then calling us to be partners with him, heralding and demonstrating that same reconciliation that we have received. Paul tells us, “all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” (2 Cor. 5:18).

The death of the Son of God meant the end of war with God. In the sacrifice of Jesus we find the one death that ends all others, the one sacrifice that makes the two sides lay down arms and embrace in love. In it we also find the power to lay down arms against those who would be our enemies. For, if God has willingly sacrificed his son for a humanity that didn’t deserve it, then how can we, the recipients of such a sacrifice, not extend the same reconciling grace to others?

This good Friday, let us remember and reflect on the stunning love of God for sinners, and what Jesus death on a bloody cross have done for those who look on that act in faith.

5 #TrueFacts About Faith

Here are five #TrueFacts about faith:

  1. Faith is not a Feeling Western peoples have never fully recovered from Romanticism. We lean way to heavily on how we feel at any given moment. This is probably why so much of our church experiences these days are designed to evoke or promote certain feelings. But, faith is not a feeling. It is trust (regardless of feeling) in God.
  2. Faith is a Gift "For by grace you have been saved athrough faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God," (Eph 2:8). If we want to trust God more, we should ask. True we can stir the faith we have, but more faith means more asking. "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." (Mk 9:24).
  3. Faith is Powerful Jesus said that if we have faith like a mustard seed we can command mountains to move. (Matt 17:20). Whatever that means in practice, great faith brings great power.
  4. Faith = Trust, not Manipulation Faith means trusting God, not manipulating him. Having great faith doesn't mean you always get what you want from God. It means you always get God no matter what else you get.
  5. Put Faith in God, not Your Ability to Understand This is subtle, but really important. Faith says to God, "Father, your will be done." While studying the Bible introduces us to God, it does not give us secret knowledge of all His ways. Sometimes we will pray for things to which God says, "no." In those moments, we must remember that we are people of faith in God, not in our ability to comprehend Him.

#PrayLikeJesus

For whatever reason, we have a tendency to complicate spiritually simple matters. One such simple matter is prayer. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn't write them a book or hold a seminar. Nor did he launch into a really long sermon. He simply said, "When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.'”

Three verses.

Jesus is a genius, because in these scant 37 words he gives us everything we need to pray really well.

How Not to Pray Like Jesus

Maybe you already pray well, but I sure find in myself a tendency to pray poorly. Two errors usually come up in my heart which I must resist. See if they sound familiar.

  1. Praying Like a Pagan We pray like pagans when we think that the words we use or don't use some how manipulate God into giving us what He otherwise wants to withhold. This often sounds like saying, "In Jesus' name," after asking for something we can all be reasonably sure Jesus has no interest in giving you. It also sounds like repeating all of the names of God you can think of, over and over again and being wordy.God doesn't listen to our prayers because they're wordy, creative, or special. This prayer, not an incantation. And, He certainly isn't manipulated to cough up a blessing like a cheap date begrudgingly paying for the bill.
  2. Praying Like an Atheist This is simply prayerlessness. Sure, we may lob up the odd, "Hey God, I really need..." but not much more. Some pray little because they have an unbiblical view of the sovereignty of God. "Well, if God knows the future," they say, "why pray?"Look, Jesus prayed. If the Son of God felt it necessary to pray, you need to pray. Further, the Bible commands you to pray. Stop trying to sound smarter than God. "Well Lord, I know you're really so sovereign that your desires will certainly be accomplished. So ... um ... I'll just be very spiritually watching Netflix." Stop it.

How to Pray Like Jesus

If we want to pray well, we simply must learn to pray like Jesus. Here are a few observations we can make from the Lord's prayer:

  1. Pray as a son, like Jesus Jesus said we should call God, "Father." If you belong to Jesus, you come to God as a great dad, not as a cranky boss, angry slave driver, or uninterested acquaintance. Repeat and remember often.
  2. Pray for God to be honored, like Jesus "Hallowed be your name," sounded to me like a weird formality in prayer, a bit like "God save the Queen," in the presence of Her Majesty. These words are actually incredibly missional, not formal. We're asking God to make his name honored where it currently is not. That's huge.
  3. Pray for the mission, like Jesus Like the phrase that precedes it, we pray for God's Kingdom to come down from Heaven and back from the future. We're asking God to extend His presence and power in places that are currently enemy-held territories, both in our lives and in the world.
  4. Pray for provision, like Jesus "Give us our daily bread," isn't just about you. The phrase is "give us," not "give me." Of course God cares about our personal provision, but He also wants us to own, in prayer, the cost of the mission.
  5. Pray for forgiveness, like Jesus On the cross, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." Jesus came to forgive us of sin. When sin remains unconfessed in our lives our prayer and participation with God is hindered. Bring your sins before God often and ask Him to remove their stain.
  6. Pray for reconciliation, like Jesus "We ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us," is a weighty prayer. This prayer, if prayed, will heal our social fabric. It will restore our broken relationships. If Jesus forgives me, I can't not forgive you. Praying this prayer will transform the church into a family, healed of hurt and free from offense.
  7. Pray for transformed affections, like Jesus James K. A. Smith likes to say that we are what we love. In this prayer, we're asking God to lead our loves — to change our palette, as it were, from enjoying the taste of sin to savoring the sweetness of God. Only when God is more fulfilling than sin will we resist sin well.
  8. Pray persistently, like Jesus Apparently Jesus' prayer life was so frequent and so admirable that his disciples wanted to model it. Then, he went and told a parable about persistence in prayer. If we're going to pray like Jesus, we're going to have to keep praying like Jesus. It's not a one-and-done.
  9. Pray in faith, like Jesus That parable which follows the above verses asks, "How much more will your Heavenly Father give...?" Jesus understood that faith isn't about bluster, but belief — belief that God really is trustworthy, good, and able to do all He has promised to do. When we pray, we pray in faith like Jesus.

I dare you to renew your prayer life in this fashion. I know I will be. After complicating and paganizing prayer unnecessarily, I think I'll try to follow the simple formula the master left us. Seems to me he knew something about the matter, and didn't much feel the need to complicate for us.