Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.
Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.
The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose way is upright; their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.
Better is the little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous.
The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will remain forever; they are not put to shame in evil times; in the days of famine they have abundance.
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish--like smoke they vanish away.
The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives; for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
The steps of a man are established by the LORD, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the LORD upholds his hand.
I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing.
Turn away from evil and do good; so shall you dwell forever. For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.
The wicked watches for the righteous and seeks to put him to death. The LORD will not abandon him to his power or let him be condemned when he is brought to trial.
Wait for the LORD and keep his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off.
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found.
Mark the blameless and behold the upright, for there is a future for the man of peace. But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; the future of the wicked shall be cut off.
The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their stronghold in the time of trouble. The LORD helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they take refuge in him. (Psalms 37:1-40 ESV)
I never would have thought that such a pursuit could be so challenging. In my own spiritual development, I have found that I tend to be quite "academic" in my approach to God and His ministry through me. I am fairly gifted at teaching and leading, which are certainly used for His kingdom's good; however, there must be an imperishable source from which all that instruction and leadership flow. I am convicted that I must learn to be filled more of Him than of myself. I must learn to delight in Him Who is my Delight and Source.
That pursuit repeatedly brings me back to Psalm 37. Psalm 37, with David's admonition to "Fret not," and to fully live in and trust in the LORD, is a living roadmap into this state of delight. I will write more on this over the next few weeks. For now, it's simply good to dwell on verse 4 and let it "sink in" as it were:
"Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart..."
This delighting is akin to what Jesus describes as "abiding" or "remaining" in the Vine in John 15. When we delight in Him, our desires begin to resonate with His and we align to His love, mercy, grace, will and heart. When we "abide" in the Vine, we can ask for anything (John 15:7). Delighting in Him, our desires become His desires -- so He is eager to grant them.
More to come...
Friday, May 8, 2009
Confession of sin to someone you have wronged is a powerful thing. In fact, in our look-out-for-number-one culture today, is even more powerful because almost nobody actually does it! I don't know if it's pride, ignorance, or something else -- but even Christians today almost never confess to one another, let alone to someone outside of the Christian community. Like the world around us, we default to saying "I'm sorry" -- which simply means "I feel badly about this." And too often we are experiencing remorse because we got caught. God never calls his followers to say "I'm sorry" or even "I apologise;" rather, he teaches us to humble ourselves and confess our sin to one another, asking for forgiveness. In fact, James shows the vital link between confession and prayer for one another:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (James 5:16).
Jesus' words on the subject are particularly powerful:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).
This passage is a wake-up call to me. The word for gift here is usually considered as a financial contribution. But the term simply means something given gratuitously, even something more intangible like service. In other words, Jesus is telling his followers that reconciliation (and in this verse the weight is laid upon the confessor) is more important that our financial gifts and service to his kingdom work! Christ says it plainly: Christians are to stop their gratuitous contribution (even their ministry activity) in its tracks and first go and be reconciled. Why? Because to continue ministry without reconciliation is to completely obliterate the work of Christ on the cross (see my blog entry on April 27, A Church With No Gospel). How can we call ourselves Christians, taking on the name of the Savior, doing ministry with an eternal message of reconciliation and yet have unreconciled relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ? It is the ultimate hypocrisy and makes a mockery of Christ's sacrifice for forgiveness of sin.
Practically speaking, I have found that few people have been taught how to confess their wrongdoing to a brother or sister in Christ (or even to a non-believer for that matter). Most parents do not teach their children to do this. Few churches teach it or even make it a priority (which is interesting since it's one of the main themes of the gospel). So I want to conclude this entry today with some basic teaching on confession from Peacemaker Ministries out of Billings, Montana (www.hispeace.org).
The "Seven A's" of Confession:
1. ADDRESS everyone involved - the circle of confession should be only as big as was the infraction for which you are confessing. If you wounded someone one-on-one, then your confession should be the same (but always face-to-face if possible). However, if you wounded someone in front of an entire congregation, then the confession should be directed to that person in front of the entire congregation. The confession should address everyone involved, but ONLY those who were involved.
2. AVOID if, but and maybe - never, under any circumstances, qualify your confession (e.g., I should not have done this, but if you had kept your mouth shut...). Your confession rests on what YOU have said or done -- not anyone else. Your behavior is never anyone else's fault. Never.
3. ADMIT specifically - briefly recount exactly what you did. This shows that you know how you have wounded the other party, or gives an opportunity for them to clarify what you did if you truly do not understand.
4. ACKNOWLEDGE the hurt - own up to the pain and frustration you have caused as a result of your actions. Let the other party(ies) know you understand how what you have done has affected them.
5. ACCEPT the consequences - in your dialogue, accept any consequences from your actions. For example, sometimes relationships may be reconciled without immediate restoration of trust. Trust must be re-earned over time.
6. ALTER your behavior - explain what steps you are going to take to ensure that you never repeat what you have done in the future.
7. ASK for forgiveness - finally, humble yourself and ask for their forgiveness. Don't say "I'm sorry," or ask "Can you forgive me?" Rather, humbly ask "Will you forgive me?" Put the ball in their court. Be clear, and then allow them the time they need to respond. Depending on the magnitude of the infraction, an immediate response may not be likely.
Practicing full confession with one another is the key to experiencing full forgiveness and being able to walk in full freedom together as a community of faith.
He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. Blessed is the man who always fears the LORD, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble (Proverbs 28:13-14).
Don't harden your heart (read, "Don't become a bonehead!"). Walk out the gospel of your Savior in your relationships. When you blow it, confess it! Experience the grace, mercy and peace that are yours because of what Christ did to establish reconciliation with God and with each other. This stuff works. And the power it will pour into your witness is incredible.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
In my last article (http://www.ccccusa.com/anger1.html) I talked about anger in the local church and tried to draw some biblical conclusions about our experience and expression of anger. This month, I want to talk about how we should be lovingly addressing anger in ourselves and in our midst.
We need to begin by looking at the typical progression of anger. Paul articulates it well in his letter to the Ephesians.
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every kind of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32, see also Colossians 3:8).
In these short two verses, the apostle reveals the escalation of human anger. What may begin as a natural and even ethical response to injustice, sin or some kind of injury becomes sinful if it is allowed to remain unchecked. Consider the following diagram:
First one must identify if his or her anger is just or unjust. Then the idea is to stop the escalation of anger before it becomes sinful – turning first into bitterness, then on to rage, brawling and slander, and eventually into outright malice.
How does one do that? Paul gives the answer in the very next verse:
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
It’s not easy, but it is necessary. The key to keeping our experience and expression of anger fully and completely righteous is to respond like Jesus right at the point of injury (see the ↓) – demonstrating both compassion and forgiveness. This action must be purposeful, because it does not come naturally. The natural man’s response brings an escalation of hostility. The Christ-like response is peace.
What follows is practical, biblical advice on how to deal with anger in righteousness. Most people will find it easy to understand and some will find it relatively easy to live out. Others (like me) however, will have to work hard to make it a reality. It requires four things:
- Preparation and personal discipline – in order to readily respond in a godly way to frustration and other challenges, one must make oneself ready before the anger-stimulating situation occurs. This takes time and concerted effort.
- An honest assessment of our personality and our typical response to frustration – some personalities are more eruptive than others when it comes to anger. We need to understand ourselves and why we respond the way we do.
- A clear understanding of the difference between assertion and aggression – Les Carter excellently details these two kinds of anger in his book Good ‘n’ Angry: How to Handle Your Anger Positively (Baker Books, 1983). One is healthy, helpful and considerate of others; the other is selfish, insensitive and destructive.
- Continued growth in personal maturity and Christian character – Jesus Christ is our model and we must grow to be more like him.One must be putting these four things in place for true compassion and forgiveness to bear their fruit in us.
If kindness and compassion rule one’s life, then any anger will tend to be righteous and lead to beneficial action. A heart of true compassion keeps one’s frustration in check. Such compassion also helps us to be quick toward both forgiveness and restoration.
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:35-36).
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"
Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.
"Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.
“So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, 'Pay what you owe.'
“So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.'
“He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.
“Then his master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt.
“So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:21-35).
And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them.
“Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
"But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
“And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
“But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate.
" Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.'
“But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!'
“And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found'" (Luke 15:11-32).
It’s extremely difficult in the moment of anger’s ignition, but ask yourself how Christ would respond to your wound or frustration by this other person. In most cases, we see that Christ did not respond with anger (even though it may certainly be warranted), but rather with compassion. See your aggressor through Jesus’ eyes. How does what he or she has just said or done break the Lord’s heart? How far have they fallen from His grace? Do they even know Him?
The prodigal son had squandered his share of his daddy’s estate. He had lived a life that was filled with illicit behavior, and he had even stooped so low as to care for swine (a forbidden career move for a Jew). When he returned home, his father would have been in his right to punish and berate him. But compassion leads us to step outside of our “rights” and to do what is ultimately in the best interest of our accuser/attacker. The father ran to his son with open arms and loved him unconditionally.
Begin each day prayerfully committing yourself to respond to those around you with Christ’s compassion. You’ll be amazed at what such a decision will do to stave off your usual angry nature!
The very heart of the gospel and the Christian Faith, the greatest weapon against the progression of anger is true forgiveness – especially when it is undeserved. It is so important, that Jesus even teaches us to make it the center of our prayer life.
Pray then like this: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:9-15).
Herein is a clear demonstration of God’s law of reciprocity. We often think of this law in terms of stewardship (i.e., if we sow bountifully, we will reap bountifully), but it actually applies to the whole Christian life. In this case, the measure of daily freedom in forgiveness we receive is directly related to the measure of forgiveness we bestow! See the words in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, AS we forgive our debtors” (v. 12). Every time you recite that prayer, you’re asking God to forgive you in direct accordance with how you forgive others. Boy! Does that shed light on the subject!
When we add verses 14 & 15, we see how serious is our state: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Let me explain it this way: think of your life as a garden hose. God is represented by the spigot. When you receive Christ as your Savior and Lord, God opens His “faucet” of grace, mercy and forgiveness all the way and then breaks off the handle so it can never be shut off again. You are the nozzle on the end of the hose. If you are “cinched down” tight, refusing to forgive someone for what they’ve done to you, then it doesn’t matter how much water pressure is behind you, the water (or in this case, grace, mercy and forgiveness) cannot flow. It isn’t that God withholds forgiveness; it’s that you completely impede its flow by your own refusal to “open” yourself! If God’s forgiveness cannot flow THROUGH you, it also cannot flow TO you!
Remember that nothing in your Christian life is about your ability. Rather, everything is about God’s power and completed work at Calvary. It’s not your forgiveness that you appropriate, but God’s. That’s why forgiving is so crucial when you are wronged.
Decide every morning to respond immediately to every frustration and injury that day with forgiveness. Not only will it help to dissipate your anger, but it will also give you an incredible freedom!
In these two articles, we have barely scratched the surface on addressing anger. But I hope you have gained at least some simple, immediately practical pointers that you can use yourself and can offer to others. Anger is much too prevalent in local churches today. We must practice compassion, forgiveness and mutual accountability in our church families, or we will continue to see anger escalate in our midst.
How do you express anger and frustration? How do you respond to others who are experiencing or demonstrating anger in your presence – especially inappropriate anger? What will you do now to help address such emotion, preventing its acceleration into something sinful? My prayer is that Christ will be honored by us and by our churches in all things – especially when we’re frustrated, hurt or otherwise on the verge of anger.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these…” (Mark 10:13-16).
Jesus got angry – and yet he did not sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). And there are ample illustrations of God’s anger and wrath throughout the Old Testament as well. So anger, if experienced and expressed by both the Father and the Son, cannot be sin in and of itself. Sinful anger is a uniquely human problem: We add something to the “mix” that can make it sinful. Therefore Paul, quoting from Psalm 4, warns the Ephesian Christians, “In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26).
I have found Anger to be a huge problem in the local church today. Sometimes it’s the pastor, reacting in pain or utter frustration at the challenges he faces in leading his flock. At other times, it’s the members of the flock who are reacting to change, or even the prospect of losing personal influence. But all too often, it’s the vicious combination of the two. And I must admit that, in most cases, neither side is being particularly righteous in their expression of this emotion (although each thinks they are!)
The Scripture has a lot to say about anger and its proper expression. And its proper expression within the Church makes all the difference. Local churches, pastors and parishioners will always have seasons of stress, periodic conflicts and tough ministry challenges. The question we face is whether or not we will respond in ways that honor God and represent him well to each other and the world.
There is a marked difference between godly anger and the eruptive emotion we often see in today’s local church. In every case, we see that God’s (Christ’s) anger is imposed upon sinful behavior, injustice, willful disobedience and the like. Righteous anger always is. However, most Christians today express anger in much the same way the world does – because of fear or over selfish, worldly pursuits. The anger I often have to address in local churches is the result of personal agendas being impeded. There is little or no self-control – the anger escalates and even becomes a weapon of intimidation over time. It is rooted more in personal posturing than in truth (and is often accompanied by a very personal “spin” on pertinent facts). The anger I see is impatient, calculated, vindictive, and bitter. It rarely guides the involved parties toward reconciliation and forgiveness. It simply does not honor God.
So what does the Word of God have to say about anger? Let’s look at several verses to establish some sound, practical guidance on the subject:
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil (Psalms 37:8).
The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult (Proverbs 12:16).
A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated (Proverbs 14:17).
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).
A man of great wrath will pay the penalty, for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again (Proverbs 19:19).
Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare (Proverbs 22:24-25).
A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression (Proverbs 29:22).
Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever (Amos 1:11).
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:21-24).
“If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:23-24).
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil (Ephesians 4:26-27).
But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth (Colossians 3:8).
I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling… (1 Timothy 2:8).
For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined (Titus 1:7-8).
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).
Many important points can be gleaned from this quick study of Scripture:
1. As Christians, we are to control anger, not be controlled by it. Being controlled by anger is continuous bondage and usually causes us to be led through life by our emotions.
2. Self-centeredness never leads to righteous anger. There are righteous reasons for anger, but these are never focused on self. If one gets angry because of some personal frustration or injury, you can bet that his or her anger is not righteous.
3. The fruit of escalating anger is always sin. Christians must diffuse anger before it has a chance to grow and multiply.
4. Agenda-driven anger builds a camp – which leads others into sin. As perhaps the most prominent expression of anger I see in local churches, anger over unfulfilled personal desires and agendas is extremely divisive. People get caught up in the battle – often choosing “sides” – before they realize it. I have yet to enter a conflicted church where this is not true.
5. Acting out of anger (rather than righteousness) always leads to sin. For those who are in Christ, it is possible to be angry and still act out of righteousness. This combination is purposeful, caring and edifying. Its opposite destroys.
6. Unrighteous anger is sin and incurs God’s judgment.
7. All those who lead in the local church must be exemplary when it comes to anger – not just the pastor! The biblical criteria for leadership are very clear on this point. People who have a temper make themselves ineligible for local church leadership.
It matters not whether it is the pastor, a powerbroker, or some other saint quietly seething in the back pew, anger in the local church is an issue that must be addressed. In next month’s edition of FORESEE, I will provide some practical advice on just how to do that. In the meantime, continue studying the verses above as part of your daily devotional time, and allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you about your own experience and expression of anger.
Monday, April 27, 2009
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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 5:17-21 ESV)
I received a call from another church this morning -- one where there is division between the Pastor and elders, including some staff, and the congregation at large is frustrated. It's a story that seems to repeat itself over and over, church after church, all over the nation. It usually goes something like this: people begin to leave because it's easier to escape than to confront the problem and they take their bad feelings with them. It becomes harder to find leaders because people don't want to enter the fray. The youth (who nearly always see right through the 'Sunday Christian' facade of the adults) lose interest in 'church' because they see it as irrelevant -- or they seek other places to be fed spiritually (like the church down the road where their friends attend). Their parents become dissatisfied and begin to look for another church home, taking their whole families with them. Now the children's ministry and other outreaches begin to suffer. Before long, only a small core is left and they are proverbially circling their wagons to stop the bleeding. The church focuses on itself -- its human and financial resources used almost exclusively to meet the needs and desires of those who are already members of the church -- resting squarely in survival mode. The community views the church as dysfunctional (because it is) having heard ample stories from those who fled -- and has concluded that that church is full of hypocrites.
There are many variations on this story, but it is way too familiar to many Christians. It may take several years for the whole story to unfold, but a majority of Christians in America today say that they either currently attend or have left a church like that at some time. It's so sad.
Paul tells us that when we are in Christ, we change -- and that change is from God. God then gives that changed community a ministry -- specifically, a ministry of reconciliation (that's the Great Commission, the church's "prime directive"). He also gives that changed community a specific message of reconciliation (that's the gospel of the risen Christ). With those tools, we literally become Christ's ambassadors, representing him and his work to this world. Paul writes, "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."
And this reconciliation also impacts our earthly relationships. In the context of sending us as his ambassadors out into the world, Jesus prays to the Heavenly Father,
"As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." (John 17:18-23 ESV)
The world knows Jesus' mission and his love through his people. We are called to Christ-centred unity. The local church's witness to the world rests on that unity -- one with Christ and one with each other in Him. It's not a forced ecumenical unity, but one that naturally flows out of a changed life (2 Corinthians 5:17) in a changed community. And without it, there is no gospel -- no "good news."
It's a hard and unpopular reality to face, but fewer and fewer churches in America today (even within Evangelicalism) live out this life. We meticulously proclaim our doctrine and the gospel, but in our faith-communities we remain at odds with each other! We call the world to reconcile to God while at the same time we dishonor our God in our disunity. And rather than taking the biblically prescribed steps to address the problem (e.g., Matthew 18:15ff), we either break fellowship (go to another church, taking our baggage with us) or we live in disunity. The world watches us, hears us declare our "ministry of reconciliation" and the proclamation of our "message of reconciliation," and sees that we remain unreconciled with our own brothers and sisters in Christ. No wonder they are no longer interested in what we have to offer. Without the unity Christ describes, our proclamation is empty words. We posture and defend, but in the end, we are not united in Christ and, therefore, we have no authentic gospel to share.
So what's missing? What will bring us back to this unity and empower our message and our ministry? Three things: repentance, confession and forgiveness. Until individuals begin to truly live in ongoing repentance, nothing will change. But once our hearts are broken in transparency and repentance, then we will once again begin confessing to one another and forgiving one another. Only then will we be truly one with one another again.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Why is it so hard to gather God’s people for prayer? Why are Christians in the US (it seems to be primarily an American problem) so unwilling to join each other for regular, fervent corporate prayer? Why do those who love Jesus refuse to pray out loud? I’m actually not sure of the answers to these questions, but I expect most of the problem is rooted in the fact that the Church in the US has not emphasized prayer in her teaching and practice for so long that now corporate prayer and intercession is exceptional – not normative. We limit most of our prayer time together to the worship service – and this is led by the pastor rather than the flock. We teach our children to pray the equivalent of “nursery rhymes” – e.g., “Now I lay me down to sleep…” or “God is great, God is good…” – instead of teaching them how to have a real conversation with God. Many folks say they don’t like praying out loud because they don’t know how to pray; and yet they have conversations every day of their lives.
American Christians also seem to struggle on knowing what to pray. It is rare to find a church that regularly (and corporately) prays for the lost in its own community. It is almost as hard to find a church that exercises intercessory prayer as part of its corporate prayer time, with the possible exception of prayer for the infirmed and hospitalized. I have yet to visit a church (and I visit many different churches all over the country) that asks God to break their hearts for the lost, to raise up full time laborers for the Lord’s harvest from within their own congregation, or spends substantial time in repentance before God in prayer or solemn assembly. Prayer in many congregations today is very self-centered – about what we want God to do for us, rather than for God to prepare us to accomplish His will through us.
Prayer is the missing ingredient in most churches today. We simply do not make it a personal and corporate priority. But without it, we are impotent. This I have come to know first hand. If we will not pray – together as a family – our church will not change and our “issues” will never be resolved. Until we align our hearts with God’s heart in fervent and other-oriented prayer and intercession, we will not realize the fruit our blessed Father in heaven wants to pour out in and through our ministries. If a church won’t pray, the Spirit won’t move, and no one can help them. God doesn’t want our excuses, he wants our attention. It’s time to gather together and to spend our time in prayer.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth...For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known."
Grace and truth. Grace and truth. I remember a conversation with my dear friend, Art Gay, a few years ago when this passage came up. Art noted that Jesus never compromised the truth, and yet he always led with grace. Jesus came to us in grace and truth. Not with one or the other, but with both. And the necessity of that combination is huge!
When one offers grace but is weak on the truth, there is often too much license in life. In the name of this inadequate grace, we do not hold our brothers and sisters truly accountable for thier thoughts, words and behaviors. We correctly define "grace" as "giving what is not deserved" but do so without the anchor of truth -- this allows all the benefits of forgiveness without repentance and change, all the blessings of the Christian life without the transformation of the heart. If we are to follow Christ's example, we must give grace that is anchored in truth.
On the other hand, truth without grace often becomes a weapon. Holding to truth by itself can lead to legalism. Even the most orthodox position, when it is espoused without grace, is deadly. The Pharisees of Jesus' day were masters of the truth, but they lacked the tempering of grace. So too today, Christians can become so consumed with doctrine that they miss the very lives around them that should be built up by it in grace.
Jesus never separated grace and truth. He did not compromise the truth -- and neither should we! But he always led with grace. I am challenged to take some time to review Jesus' example. The gospels are full of it.