I recently concluded my 2017 Annual Report for our church. My final section was on biblical unity and a plea from my heart to persevere toward biblical unity by the power of the Holy Spirit. I decided to copy and paste that section of my report here as a cry from the heart of one pastor to the Church for biblical unity.
I would like to conclude this annual report by speaking to what I see as our greatest and deepest need: the unity of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. This call is for each of us as it only requires a single individual to disrupt the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not only a call to unity but a call to accountability as well; may we willingly and humbly hold one another accountable to keep the unity of the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 3:4-6 gives a clear call to the Body of Christ: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” In praying for our church and her leadership for this year, I feel very much like Paul who, in II Corinthians 11:28, after telling of his hardships for the sake of the Gospel added, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for the churches.”
When I first arrived here, one of the first pieces of church history presented to me, with pride, was that “we have never had a church split!” While I understand the significance underlying those words, and the pride attached to it, we must not relegate biblical unity to “we have yet to cannibalize one another!” True biblical unity surfaces in sacrificial love toward one another, in action as well as spirit. Philippians 2 describes this attitude best when it says:
“5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death--
even death on a cross!"
In your relationships with one another, you become nothing for the sake of others. This is, undoubtedly, a work of the Holy Spirit as nothing in our flesh can have, or even desires to have, the same mindset as Christ Jesus. This requires a full and complete submission of our wills, opinions, personalities, and desires to Jesus so that Christ is glorified and His bride is unified.
This attitude leads us to consider the needs of others before we consider the needs of ourselves, and to esteem their opinion as more important than our own. It leads us to spend our time doing what they enjoy and not what we enjoy. A Christ-like unity involves each of us sacrificing ourselves and our lives (time, money, energy) for others to the glory of God.
John Piper noted poignantly, though, that biblical unity includes affectionate love, not just sacrifice for those you don’t like. It is a feeling of endearment. We are to have affection for those who are our family in Christ. “Love one another with brotherly affection” (Romans 12:10). “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “All of you, have . . . sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
Biblical unity, though, is not primarily unity with one another (though that is an important variable), it is primarily unity with the Holy Spirit of God. This unity with the Spirit of God then draws us to be united with one another. Biblical unity requires our heart to align with His heart and our goals to align with His goals.
So imperative is the unity of the church that Christ says that our unity is what leads the world to believe in the Gospel. Jesus says in John 17:21, “I ask that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Without the unity of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit, the world scoffs at us for we appear no different to them than politicians.
Unity will not happen apart from relationship: a personal relationship with Christ and, flowing naturally from that, a deep, affectionate relationship with one another. Unity breaks down when relationships are not deep or authentic. When the only thing holding a group together is a shared interest in anything other than the mission of Christ, disunity will be the norm. It is predictable and understandable that people will differ in preferred methodologies, styles of music, spending of money, and a multitude of other issues. However, we must not lose the authentic biblical affection for one another that causes us to reorient our daily lives, change our priorities, and humbly cease to voice our personal opinion.
As your pastor, I am calling us all to celebrate those things that Christ celebrates and to be broken-hearted over those things which break the heart of Christ. I pray that we would individually and corporately celebrate the reconciling of relationships, the healing of a brother or sister, the conversion of the lost and the discipling of a brother or sister. I pray that we would not only celebrate these victories but work together toward those ends. Likewise, I pray that we would be broken-hearted over the brokenness all around us, over the destruction of relationships, the lostness of man, and the discreditable lack of discipleship evident in the Church. Similarly, I pray that we would work together toward bringing the healing hand of Christ into such brokenness.
Recently, I had an M.Div. student at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest contact me for an interview. One of his courses required him to interview a leader, record their responses, and write a paper about Christian Leadership. I was humbled by his request and joked with him about it, telling him that when I thought of a good leader I would gladly recommend one to him.
However, it got me thinking of the paradigm of the term "Christian Leadership". After all, we never really "lead", as the world defines leadership, because we are always following Jesus and living in obedience to His will. No matter the degree of "leadership" the world or the church place upon us, we are always primarily followers of Christ Jesus our Lord.
I took my responses to his questions and have presented them below as a reminder to myself and all who follow Jesus, especially in positions of Christian leadership, of the unique and paradoxical mantle which we carry: the mantle of leading by following.
Please describe your leadership responsibilities.
My leadership responsibilities include pastoring a church of approximately 100 and overseeing a Christian school of approximately 150 students and 20 staff. These responsibilities encompass administering three boards, superintending a budget of approximately $750,000, and presiding over a 30-acre campus. From the standpoint of spiritual leadership, these responsibilities include primarily vision casting, preaching, counseling, mentoring, and aligning human and physical resources to our corporate mission and vision.
What is a leader?
A leader is someone who influences others. This influence can come in the form of constituted authority, spiritual influence, or can simply be positional. Anyone who influences the thoughts or actions of others is a leader.
What are three important character traits of a biblical leader?
The three important character traits of a biblical leader are, in my opinion, humility, wisdom, and obedience.
Humility is clearly exhibited by Christ in many instances – washing His disciples’ feet, healing lepers, feeding the hungry – but, most powerfully and pronounced, in His death on the cross. Philippians said that He considered Himself nothing and humbled Himself to death on a cross. Likewise, the biblical leader must consider themselves as nothing, and consider others as better than themselves as did Christ. This humility shapes the servant leadership required by Scripture for those who wish to serve in His Kingdom.
Wisdom from the Holy Spirit is required to navigate the difficulties imposed by leadership. Christ told His disciples that He was giving them the Holy Spirit to guide them, and James says that we should pray if we lack wisdom and Christ will give it generously. Wisdom from the Holy Spirit is required to live, walk, and lead in the gray areas and adult-sized decisions that leaders face regularly. Without this wisdom which is not from ourselves, leaders can cause severe damage to Christ and His bride and can leave many bodies in their wake.
Lastly, obedience is required to follow the leading of Christ even when it is difficult and even when all the answers and outcomes are not readily available. Jesus Himself clearly stated that He had not come to do His own will, but the will of His Father who sent Him. This was powerfully evident in the Garden of Gethsemane. Furthermore, Jesus told His disciples that if they truly loved Him, they would obey Him. The biblical leader must, at all costs, obey God’s will if they are to expect those whom they influence to do likewise. Without the obedience of Jesus, there would be no death or resurrection. Every biblical leader must embody obedience to the will of the Father.
What are three vital skills of a biblical leader?
Three vital skills of a biblical leader are communication, flexibility, and delegation.
Communication is imperative not only to communicating God’s Word and the heart of Jesus toward people, but also toward motivating others to see, love, and follow Jesus. Paul addresses that in Romans 10 with his series of questions regarding the importance of communication so that people may hear about and follow Jesus. However, communication is also important for interacting with people regarding intent, planning, and administration. In order for everyone to be marching to be the beat of the same drum in unity, communication is a vital skill which must be continually evaluated and honed.
Flexibility is a vital skill which is often overlooked in biblical leadership. God is entitled to change our plans, and often does. In the Gospel narratives, Jesus was constantly changing course depending on the needs which were brought before Him. The entire course of Paul’s life was changed when he was forbidden to go to Asia in Acts 16. Biblical leaders must be flexible to respond to the voice and leading of God. This is true both in a career sense (I plan to stay for 20 years) and in the daily sense (these are my plans today). James says that to lay out your plans before the Lord is arrogant. Biblical leaders must be flexible.
Biblical leaders must also learn and utilize the skill of delegation. Investing yourself in others to empower them to serve and lead is a skill which was modeled beautifully by Jesus. Though he could have accomplished everything Himself, He carefully and painfully invested Himself in others to empower them to lead. Paul invested in Timothy and Epaphras, and James invested in the elders of the church in Jerusalem. Delegation is not only wise (think of the advice Jethro gave Moses about meeting the needs of the people), but it is also a biblical model for equipping others to serve Jesus in a greater and deeper way.
Please share with me three valuable pieces of advice for leading God’s people.
Firstly, from experience, I would advise you to seek the Lord to help you surround yourself with like-minded believers who walk closely with Him and can speak into your life on a personal level. Leading God’s people is difficult and can be exhausting, however, I would suggest that it is impossible to do alone. Jesus had only twelve disciples, and even within those twelve He had an inner circle of just three. Ask the Lord to show those in your life who walk with Him and who can speak into your life, both for encouragement and rebuke, and be willing to accept those words when they come. These relationships will not only develop you as a leader, but will also serve to help carry you through difficult times.
Secondly, let people have a voice and provide input into issues and decision-making, but understand that the burden and responsibility to lead has been especially laid upon you. Those other voices have not assumed the mantle of biblical leadership, and their lives and souls have been placed in your care. Listening to them is a visible and powerful reminder that you care for them, but leading them is what God has called you to. Listen to them, but lead them.
Lastly, let everything in your life and leadership stem from your personal relationship with Christ. It will be tempting to employ new methodologies and leadership principles, but let those always and only be a secondary supplement to a personal, dynamic walk with Jesus. In leading others, Christ does His greatest work through those who first apply those lessons and principles to themselves. When you visualize the words of Jesus to get the plank out of your eye before you get the speck out of your brother’s eye, this principle will be painfully evident! Walk hand-in-hand with Jesus and let the encouragement, correction, and rebuke that you humbly give to others come only after Christ has given it to you.
What is the greatest mistake you have made as a leader in your ministry experience?
My greatest mistake in my ministry experience was that for the first several years I made certain assumptions about people which simply are not true. In my naivety, I assumed that everyone had the same desire I had to follow Jesus and be transformed by Him. I unconsciously equated time as a believer to spiritual maturity. However, I was disappointed to discover that this was not the case. I put far too much faith in people and not near enough faith in Christ. The potential risk for this mistake is huge because it can easily lead to giving up on ministry and even people altogether.
What has been the greatest blessing of being a leader?
The greatest blessing of being a leader is being used by God to pour into the lives of those He brings into your life. I have had the blessing of seeing the Lord use my walk with Him to lead dozens of people to Jesus, and to walk with them through their own growth with Him. It is the most rewarding and fulfilling experience a human being can have. I have one man whom I have been intentionally pouring into for the past four years, and he now serves as a pastor. I have others whose relationship with Christ and spiritual maturity have grown so much that it is evident to everyone. This is the greatest blessing of being a leader. Like the great missionary C.T. Studd famously quipped, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”
What is the riskiest prayer you have ever prayed? My most recent sermon dealt with the issue of taking faith-filled risks. At the end of the sermon, I challenged our congregation to apply this concept to their own prayer lives. Do we pray risky prayers, or do we “play it safe” with what we ask of God? If we always, or even mostly, pray "safe" prayers, I would question whether or not we understand the power of the Holy Spirit and the grandeur and glory of Him to whom we speak.
When the apostle Paul prayed for his church in Ephesus, his Holy-Spirit inspired view of God was recorded in Ephesians 3:20-21. He said,
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
When is the last time this exalted view of an all-powerful God enveloped our conversation with Him? What is it that causes a person to pray in such a way? What is it that would cause you to pray in such a way?
As we look through Scripture, we find a common denominator in those who pray in such a way: they have not only encountered Christ, but they have been completely transformed by Him. Their view of God and His power has been forever altered, and their view of themselves and their lives have been radically revolutionized. Take, for example, the tax collector in Luke 18. Here is a man of relatively important status and lofty position compared to most around him, and yet, when he sees God, He truly prays for likely the first time. His words were simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Consider also the leper from Matthew 8. Following His famous “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus is approached by a leper who bows down before Him and prays, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.” What a risky prayer! This man approached Jesus willing to continue to live with leprosy, if the Lord willed Him to carry on in that condition. However, as with the tax collector in Luke 18, Christ had mercy and compassion and touched him.
Likewise, think of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. In Acts 7, he was being stoned to death for his speaking against the religious leaders of the day. They became furious and began stoning him, and yet, because he was full of the Holy Spirit, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What a risky prayer! Stephen did not beg the Lord for victory over those killing him, he did not ask him for longer life, but he simply asked that the Lord would not hold the sin of killing him against them.
Let’s get back to the question: what would cause you to pray this way? What would it take to increase the risk factor in your prayers to Jesus? I would suggest that Scripture is clear on that: someone full of faith in Christ (Hebrews 11:1), full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:55), and fully surrendered to His authority (Matthew 28:18) will pray very differently from someone who is not.
How do you approach God when you talk to Him? Do you approach him, like the leper, knowing that knowing and worshipping Him is a greater end than being cured? Do you approach him, like Stephen, knowing that being forgiven and forgiving others is greater than life itself? Do you approach Him, like Jesus, submitting your will to Him even when you know His will is radically different from your own?
It is like the story J. Vernon McGee once told of a young seminary student who was about to preach his first real sermon. The young man was quite accomplished in his studies, and he felt more than equipped to communicate God’s Word. As a matter of fact, he was overly confident. When the time came for him to deliver the sermon – he walked boldly, even arrogantly, to the sacred desk. He arranged his notes before him, then gazed over the congregation. As he began to preach, his memory and his tongue betrayed him. He couldn’t remember his illustrations, his words shaky and weak. What he thought would be a 30-minute sermon was over in 10 minutes. Sheepishly he descended the stage after the concluding prayer.
The Senior Pastor of the church was an experienced minister who had seen this sort of thing many times before. He placed his arm around the young seminarian and said, “Son, if you had walked onto the stage the way you came down, you would have come down the way you went up”.
God our Father is, as Paul stated, “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us”, and all He asks of us is faith that He is and that He can. Why, then, when we walk and talk with Him, do we so often not exhibit such elementary faith in Him with our words and actions? Why, when we walk and talk with Him, do we so often pray for outcomes or solutions that are well within that which we can ask or imagine, and require no power at work within us? A.W. Tozer said that, “God is looking for those with whom He can do the impossible – what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves”.
May the risk factor in our prayers continue to increase as we encounter the God of the impossible; the God beyond our comprehension; the God of all authority; the God throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen!
Scripture is replete with thoughts and ideas that seem at first glance to be paradoxical, but, in fact are not. For example – take the attributes of God’s mercy and justice. God is merciful (Luke 6:36), but at the same time totally and completely just (Psalm 7:11). At first glance, it seems near impossible for someone to possess both the attributes of mercy and justice simultaneously; they seem as though they would constantly be at odds with one another. Yet, because of God’s holiness, He is always just and always merciful. As A.W. Tozer stated, “There is nothing in His justice which forbids the exercise of His mercy.”
This issue of seemingly paradoxical values gets played out in countless examples throughout our life. One great example which immediately comes to mind is a scene from the movie “Les Miserables”, and it has everything to do with these attributes of justice and mercy.
In the most recent remake of the movie, there is a scene where a convict is invited into the home of a bishop and his wife. They feed him dinner and give him a place to sleep for the night. In the middle of the night, the convict gets up and begins stealing all of the silverware in the kitchen. The bishop hears the clatter, and gets out of bed to go check up on things. He enters the kitchen, spots the convict, and they stare into each other’s eyes for a moment. Then, suddenly, the convict punches the bishop, knocking him unconscious, and makes off with the silverware. The next scene opens with the convict being brought back to the house, in chains, escorted by armed soldiers. They tell the bishop that they caught the convict making off with the loot. Then, when questioned about it, the convict told them that the bishop gave him all his silverware, to which they all laugh. Then, the bishop says, “I did! Why did you forget the two silver candlesticks? They’re worth at least 2,000 franks!” He then has his wife fetch the candlesticks and get the soldiers some wine to drink. Then, he approaches the convict, chains now released, and removes his hood and says, “Don’t ever forget, you promised to become a new man.” The convict replies, bewildered, “Why are you doing this?” The bishop then replies, “My brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.” The scene then ends with the convict gazing with astonishment into the bishop’s eyes.
Depending on your viewpoint, you could cite the bishop as either failing to administer justice or excelling in administering mercy. You could accuse him of lying to the authorities on giving the convict his silverware, or you could applaud his act of ransoming the convict from fear and hatred in that same act.
There are countless other examples of these seeming paradoxes throughout Scripture. One which the Lord has recently placed on my own heart are those of faith and planning. At what point does diligent planning become an infringement on living by faith, and at what point does a lack of planning lead to irresponsibility and a disregard for biblical stewardship? These questions are at the heart of many discussions by Christians and churches today seeking God’s will. Our Father speaks about both ideas throughout Scripture.
From the book filled with practical wisdom we find, in Proverbs 21:5 the admonition that “the plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.” Clearly, we understand here that diligent planning is valued over hasty decision-making, and the lack of planning can easily lead to poverty.
However, in Luke 7, we see Jesus commending someone for their faith in Him (which was the only time such a commendation from Jesus was recorded) without requesting or requiring a plan of him of how his request was to be met. A Roman centurion – not a disciple, religious leader, or Rabbi, but a Soldier (of all people!) – requested Jesus to heal his dying servant. However, an unexpected commentary came with his request.
“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
How remarkable! There is no lengthy, technical explanation of what was going on, there was no discussion of his medical history, and there was no sense of panic despite the urgency of the situation. The centurion required nothing of Jesus but to simply “say the word”, and had complete faith that when he arrived home, everything would be as it should. Thus, Jesus marveled and said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (Luke 7:9).
Fast-forward a few chapters to Luke 14:28-30, and Jesus talks about the issue of diligent planning. He says to a large crowd:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.’”
Now, again, Scripture is speaking to us of the importance of diligent planning. Jesus is cautioning the crowds, essentially, to count the cost before taking the first step. He even re-emphasizes the point by following that parable up with a similar one about a king counting the cost before going to war (vs. 31-32).
So, what’s the answer here? How are we to reconcile these seemingly competing values? When does planning stop and faith begin? How much diligent planning is wise, and how little planning is required for commendation from Jesus?
I think the best answer comes at the end of Jesus’ parable in Luke 14. After advising the crowds to count the cost of their plans before making such decisions, he says this:
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
These parables regarding the importance of planning were themselves intended to communicate the necessity and centrality of faith! In other words, if you want to follow me, Jesus was saying, make a calculated plan to live by faith from this day forward! Consider the cost of discipleship before you plan on following me, He says, because it will cost you everything.
This is precisely why, in Hebrews 11, these men and women were in the “Hall of Faith”: their only plan was to follow Christ at all costs! No further discussion, calculation, or deliberation was required. Obedience was the extent of their plan. This is communicated in the very first verse of the chapter when we read that,
“faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
For the believer, faith in Christ itself is our assurance and certainty. Of course, planning is involved in temporal projects such as construction, buying a car, paying for college, and preparing for retirement. This is where King Solomon’s words of wisdom enter into the practical realm of human existence. But, the faith embedded in the mantra of the Roman centurion of “say the word” is the extent of the plan of the Christian.
Plan to give up everything, Jesus says. Are we prepared to take those words seriously? If Christ called you to something that you didn’t fully understand, would you trust Him? Or, would you have a litany of questions wanting more information and a detailed timeline? I’ve always found it humbling that when Jesus was telling His disciples about the end times in Mark 13, even His most devoted disciples asked Him privately:
“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
Most incredibly, Jesus doesn’t give them a timeline. Rather, in verse 11, He says:
“Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever you are given at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”
After hearing that reply, my thoughts might be something like this: “Are you kidding me, right now, Lord?!? The world is ending, and you’re telling me I am going to be arrested, flogged, and asked to speak before governors and kings, and I shouldn’t even plan on what to say?!?”
Don’t plan what you will say, Jesus says. Don’t plan your present. Don’t plan your future. James calls such planning arrogant and evil (James 4:16). Just plan to give up everything. Just plan to obey. Just plan to be faithful.
This summer I am leading our church through a biblical look at our core values. We are delving into who we are as individual Christians as well as our identity as a corporate body. The particular value that we looked at recently was the biblical principle of stewardship: “Everything we have belongs to the Lord. We are His stewards.” In examining many Scriptures on this topic, the most impactful came from Romans 14:8.
“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
It can be tempting to exclude ourselves – our bodies, our opinions, our lives, our personalities, that which comprises the very core of who we are – from the “everything” that belongs to the Lord. Yet, the Holy Spirit inspired words of Paul are very clear here: we belong to the Lord. Whether you live or you die, you belong to the Lord.
Individualism has been a cherished value in our culture, and, in fact, often appears to the highest virtue in many ways. The attitude of “this is MY body”, “this is how I feel”, “this is what I think”, “this is what I see and understand to be truth”, and so on. It is painfully evident in many national conversations: abortion, sexual identity, gender discussions, race relations, etc. However, it is also on display in most every area of our life: our attitude, our money, our relationships, our bodies, and our possessions.
As a Christian we are not the Captain of this ship we call our life but rather, as 1 Corinthians 6:20 tells us, we were bought at a price. We are called to actively and consistently DENY ourselves (talk about counter-culture!), take up the cross, and follow our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:24). We are called to be transformed – that is changed from our own image – into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2). What does this mean for us, Church?
The implications are far-reaching, indeed. Since we belong to the Lord, He owns us; we are His and He is our Master. Imagine the impact we would have on our community – and ultimately our country and the entire world – if every Christian began to live this way! If, as we began to read Scripture, we actually read these inspired words as mandates, as commands, from our Lord and Master and, in response, began to internalize them and live them out. The death-grip that individualism has on our culture would disappear as people began to “live for the Lord” rather than “live for themselves”, or “live for the moment”, or “live for the feeling”.
May I challenge you with what I have been challenged with this past week? Ask the Lord to begin to conform you to His image to the point where the reality of Romans 14:8 is undeniably evident in your heart, mind, and life. You belong to the Lord. Submit your opinions to Him. Submit your identity to Him. Submit your strengths and weaknesses to Him. Submit your will to Him. Ask the Holy Spirit to take your very life, and live it for Him. As we do this, may He begin to transform not only us, but our families, the people around us, our churches, our communities, our country, and the world. Live for the Lord, today and every day. You belong to Him.
I closed my sermon with a powerful prayer from John Wesley. I would encourage you to not only pray this prayer, or one of your own with the same heart and spirit, but also to ask the Lord to embed it deeply in your spirit. I do not believe we can honestly pray this way and not be changed.
“Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. Let be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things, let me have nothing, I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen”
Acts 9:36-39: "In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated, is Dorcas), who was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room...All the widows stood around [Peter], crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them."
Right now, our church is studying through the book of Acts. It has been a tremendous encouragement to see how regular, every day, ordinary people are used by the Lord to accomplish incredible things for the Kingdom.
Much of the early part of the book is devoted to Peter. It’s not uncommon for people to think of Peter as “super-spiritual” because of what the Lord used him to accomplish in his lifetime. But, as I reflect on the Peter revealed in the Gospels, I discover a man who struggled with a temper, a man who had a big-mouth, and was always having to fish his own foot out of his mouth for having spoken too quickly! And yet, it is simple surrender to the will of the Lord and being filled with the Holy Spirit that allowed him to be used in such an undeniably powerful way by the Lord.
However, even more encouraging than that, to me, is the story of a lady named Dorcas found in Acts 9. Dorcas was the epitome of “ordinary”. She was an older widow, and the only detail that we know of her life is that she made clothes for people. Here was an older woman who sat in her house and sewed. Her and my grandmother would have gotten along just fine! And yet, when we read of her passing, we read of a tremendous outpouring of sorrow by those in her town. Their sorrow was on a level that you might expect for a government official, or perhaps some local, influential religious leader. All of this for an old widow who wore out her sewing machine.
What was the cause of such an outpouring? It was simple: this woman had a very powerful and impactful ministry in the community. Here was a woman so in touch with the needs of her neighbors, and so in touch with the heart of Jesus Christ, and so in touch with her own skills and abilities that she used each of these to reach deep into the heart of those who lived around her. Typically, we think of those who stand behind pulpits, or those who spend their lives in foreign countries as those who have the most impact for Christ, but what reach a simple servant’s heart that is given to the Lord and seeks to meet the practical needs of others has on people.
As I was encouraged by this Scripture, let me encourage you: let the Lord use you to meet the needs of those that the Lord has placed in your life. Christian service begins with asking the Lord to give you HIS sight for the needs of those around you, and then simply meeting needs with the heart of Christ. Be a “marketplace missionary” in your community. Use those talents that the Lord has given you to have a powerful impact for the Kingdom of Heaven.
I once heard a saying by Ravi Zacharias which deals with the relationship of what is inside of us and what comes out of us. He said:
“When you are bumped, what you are full of spills out.”
Pretty sobering, is it not? In other words, you can really tell what is inside of a person – what the condition of their heart is – based on what comes out of them when they encounter the “bumps” of life.
Jesus expressed the same philosophy to the Pharisees when, in Matthew 12:34-36, he says,
“Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment.”
That last statement is particularly frightening in that it ties every single word that escapes the confines of our lips to the day of judgment when we stand before Christ our King. The words that we say, and the manner in which we say them, reveal far more than simply how we feel “in the heat of the moment”. Jesus tells us that they actually spring forth out of the evil that is harbored within us.
Not too long ago, I had an instance where what came out of me frightened me. I had, just a few months prior, received the gracious gift of an ipad from my congregation, which was quickly employed in most every arena of my life. One day, without thinking, I set it down on the driver’s seat of our van. Then, like children do, my kids began barreling out of the car like an angry herd of rhinos. One child performed a high-quality knee drop right on the screen, immediately and irreversibly sending a crack from one end to the other. I became almost enraged for some reason, and instantly sought to discipline my child. Suddenly, the Spirit spoke to me in that moment. “Why are you so angry about that material possession that you didn’t even purchase to begin with? Aren’t you the one that thoughtlessly and carelessly placed it in the chair?” My reaction frightened me because it caused a light to shine in this dark place in my heart. Luckily, rather than immediately discipline my child out of anger, I repented before the Lord of this “evil treasure” in my heart.
What spills out of you when you are bumped? What reaction springs forth from the depths of your soul when you don’t get your way? What is the response of your heart in those moments when your will collides with the will of God, or even with the will of your fellow man? The sharp rebuke received by the Pharisees from Jesus had everything to do with the inner condition of their heart before their Lord, and this condition was evident based on the words they said and the manner in which they were spoken.
Each of could spend more time, I am sure, in the presence of the Lord repenting of the idle words which all too often roll off our sometimes forked tongues. Go before Christ and ask Him and plead with Him to fill you up with His precious Holy Spirit so that, when the inevitable and inescapable bumps of life collide with you, that it is His Spirit and that alone which spills out of you and not some “evil treasure” of the flesh.
Imagine the success that an enemy could have if, rather than directly engaging the opponent, he simply enticed the opposition to fight against itself. His work would be accomplished without so much as firing a shot or even loading his weapon.
Although the factuality of the battle is questionable, a story is widely propagated and believed that this actually occurred in the late eighteenth century within the Austrian Army.
“Here’s how the story goes: in 1788, Austria was at war with Turkey, fighting for control of the Danube River. About 100,000 Austrian troops had set up camp near Karansebes, a village that is now located in present-day Romania. Some scouts were sent ahead to see if they could find any Turks. Rather than find evidence of the opposing army, they found gypsies who had a lot of alcohol to sell, and they bought it.
The scouts brought the alcohol back to camp and started drinking, since the best thing to do the night before a big battle is get very, very drunk. As their little party became louder and more obnoxious, it attracted the attention of several foot soldiers who wanted to join in. The scouts were not open to sharing their find, and being drunk, they didn’t express this with a lot of tact.
An argument broke out, which soon escalated. The alcohol was confiscated, more people joined in, punches were thrown, and a shot rang out. Amidst the mayhem, someone shouted that the Turks had arrived.
Caught unawares and unprepared, most soldiers fled the scene immediately. Others got into formation and charged at the supposed enemy. Shots were fired, cavalry was assembled, and the defecting soldiers were killing every man they saw without thinking.
Needless to say, the Turkish army had not arrived. They wandered into Karansebes two days later and found 10,000 dead or wounded Austrian soldiers. A little confused by this turn of events, they were nonetheless delighted to take Karansebes without any effort at all.”
The enemy, the Turks, took their objective without any effort at all. Jesus gives His followers several stern warnings about their enemy: Satan. Jesus says that Satan is a murderer and liar (John 8:44), that he attempts to snatch away what has been sown in our hearts (Matthew 13:19), and that his purpose is to steal, kill, and destroy our lives (John 10:10). Truly, this is our enemy. One of the most effective tactics of our enemy is to get us fighting and competing with one another. One of Satan’s most effective strategies is to simply get God’s people fighting and competing amongst themselves rather than fighting and competing against their real enemy. When this is accomplished, his work is complete! He can achieve his objective with little effort at all, simply sowing seeds of discord and watching us fight each other to death.
Mike Breen, a British pastor and founder of the 3DM “missional community” church model, noted the following about the American church:
“You will never find a more hyper-competitive culture than you do in the United States. As a foreigner living in this land, I can attest to that with the utmost respect. Americans love to win, they love the struggle of the journey and love holding up the gold medal of victory. Now don’t hear me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being competitive, it’s just how competition has become warped and twisted within our culture. And it’s that, at least in the church, we are competitive about the wrong things. Much of the American church finds itself competing with the church down the road. “Are we bigger than them? Do we have more influence than them? Do we have the best/biggest youth group in town? Do people like to get married in our church building? Do people like our church better than theirs?” The fact of the matter is that there is a battle, we do have an enemy and we should be competitive…but against our enemy! What we haven’t seen is how crafty he is. This seems to be the alliance he has struck with the American church: “I’ll let a good chunk of your churches grow…just not at the expense of my territory.” And so what happens? 96% of church growth is due to transfer growth and not churches striking into the heart of our enemy’s territory. We’ll consider it a win because we have the new service or program that is growing…but that growth is mainly from people coming from other churches. That’s not a win! That’s a staggering loss. Furthermore, for many pastors, we don’t think we’ve won until we’ve won AND someone else has lost. Seriously?! For sure, we have an enemy and we should be competitive, but we should be competing against our enemy, knowing that the final battle has already been won, and not competing against our own team members. So gifted and skilled is our enemy, so conniving is he, that he has convinced us that beating the people on our own team is victory while he stands back and laughs, rarely having to ever engage in conflict, protecting his territory. He is beating us with a slight of hand, with a clever distraction, turning us against ourselves. Question: In what ways are you competing (both in actuality or simply in your mind) against people who are on your own team?”
So, the question remains: are you competing against people on your own team? If so, let’s go before the Lord and ask Him to show us how we can work together through the unity of the Holy Spirit to achieve His objective and defeat our real enemy, Satan.
“Forgiveness” is not an easy pill to swallow, especially when you are on the receiving end of some hurt by another person. The deeper the hurt, the harder it can be to bring ourselves to the point of forgiveness. And yet, as a Christian, we have a command from our Lord that is as clear as day that we MUST – not just that we ought to – forgive others. There are no caveats to this imperative, there are no circumstances that are exempt, there is only forgiveness.
While this can be hard, it helps for us to remember what we ourselves have been forgiven of. We could each echo the cry of Paul who said in I Timothy 1:15, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
Christ came to forgive even the worst and vilest of sinners, and each of us has been in Paul’s shoes. Why is it so hard for us to forgive others sometimes when forgiveness is so readily available for us?
Matthew 18:23-35 tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. It tells the story of a servant who was forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents (one talent was worth about 15 years’ wages) and yet would not forgive someone else a debt of just 100 denari (about 100 days wages). The last verses of this chapter make it clear how our heavenly Father views and will deal with those who do not forgive others. Verses 34-35 read like this, “His master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My Heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Christ Himself, while being crucified at the hands of those He came to save, pleaded to the Father that they be forgiven. No matter the hurt, Christ calls us to be a people of forgiveness. This week I read an article about the forgiveness that Ronald Reagan had toward his would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr. that highlights this principle well. Craig Shirley, in an article written for RealClearReligion, wrote the following:
“The diagnosis was devastating, but he took it calmly.
To a person, no one ever came forward and said Ronald Reagan ever felt sorry for himself, ever asked God, "Why me, Lord?" He never got down in the dumps, never moped around, simply accepting and working around his Alzheimer's disease -- and maintaining his uncanny optimism.
Always a man of devout faith, the experience of having narrowly escaped death drove Reagan's Christian faith even deeper into his character.
From Harrison to Lincoln to Garfield to McKinley to Harding to FDR to JFK, all were elected at twenty-year intervals, and all had died in office, including four via an assassin's bullet. Reagan, through the grace and hand of God, the speed of his Secret Service detachment, the decision of Jerry Parr to go to George Washington Hospital rather than the White House, the skill of the attending physicians, nurses, and staff, and his own strength, stamina, and mental toughness, broke the curse; he did not succumb to the assassination intentions of John Hinckley.
But no one would really know Reagan's immense capacity for Christian forgiveness until 1983 after Hinckley's incarceration at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution in Washington, DC.
Astonishingly, Reagan sought a meeting with Hinckley to tell him in person that he forgave the young man. Reagan had first raised the idea of talking to Hinckley with the White House physician Dr. Daniel Ruge one weekend at Camp David. After Ruge initiated the conversation, Reagan reached out to the head of psychiatry at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Dr. Roger Peele.
"Ruge said that Reagan would like to talk with me," Peele recalled. A call was arranged but "the striking thing for me was how modest they were. They were concerned about interrupting my schedule." Reagan and Peele chatted amiably, and Peele said he recalled the kindness and professionalism of Reagan and his staff asking several times if he was being inconvenienced in any way. Further, he told of Reagan saying he wanted to pardon Hinckley, not legally but "personally" and "in private."
As Reagan’s heart was toward the man who wished him dead, so must ours be toward those who wound us. We must understand that by holding a grudge against others, and being unwilling to forgive them, that we are in direct disobedience to the commands of Scripture and that God will deal very severely with us if we do not lay our wounds at His feet and pray His prayer of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them.” Take a moment and ask the Lord to help you develop a forgiving heart and give your hurt to Him.
I have told people before who work with their hands that I envy their line of work. When they build something, they can see the results with their eyes and feel it with their hands; they can observe the completion of their project and be satisfied with the outcome. As a Christian, though, our calling is very different. Our work is not results based and, for many people including myself, that oftentimes can make it discouraging if you go for a period of time without seeing any fruit from your labor.
James compares the work of the Christian to a farmer waiting for harvest time. He says in James 5:7-8, “Be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
Many of the words used by James can be hard to swallow: be patient, waits, waiting patiently, and, again, be patient. We do not naturally excel at being patient, and it makes it all the more difficult when, in other areas of life, patience is not so desperately needed. We long for biblical patience, but we long for it right now.
Many times, though, the Lord will send us His little assurances that, in fact, His work is being accomplished through out toil. Much like the farmer who, after planting the seed and waiting patiently, sees the first glimpse of green breaking through the black soil, the Lord allows us to see the evidence of His fruit before it is completely mature. Paul, for example, planted the Philippian church in about 50 AD. Several years later, he was sitting in a lonely, dark prison cell. If I were Paul, I would be wrestling with the doubt that, perhaps, some of my labor had been in vain. And yet, as he is sitting in this prison cell, a familiar face from the church in Philippi, Epaphroditus, journeys to find him to bring him encouragement and a gift from his friends in Philippi. It was this occasion – the occasion of the green leaf breaking through the black soil of Paul’s circumstances – that prompted him to write the beautiful letter of Philippians.
I experienced a similar joy as I was serving with my Army Reserve unit this past weekend in Atlanta. Everyone in the Army has a specific function, a task to complete. Some work on computers, others handle logistics, and still others handle paperwork and so on. The chaplain, however, has an interesting role within the Army. Their job is working with people, and how do we know when a person is “fixed” to the point where our task is complete? I had spoken with a Soldier several months before when he shared with me some personal difficulties he was having. I prayed with him, wrote him a letter, and sent him a book I had written about having assurance in your faith. This weekend, he found me and told me that, through prayer and reading, the Lord had spoken to his heart, and that his life was turned around. His family was back together, and the Lord had pulled him out of his depression. Praise the Lord! The little green leaf broke through the black soil.
Though, as Christians, we cannot touch a finished product or see a completed project, the Lord does send us little reminders that He is, in fact, accomplishing His good work through us. As you serve the Lord, be patient. Establish your heart in Him as you wait patiently on His return. And, look for the little green leafs that break through the black soil of depression, weariness, and apathy. Look for answered prayers. Look for changed hearts. Look for the Lord and you will discover that, as you serve Him patiently, He is bringing forth a great and beautiful harvest in your life.
Each week this blog will be updated with a word for the week from my current studies.