Do you allow people to surprise you?

I recently did some study on critical thinking.  One of the core principles is what I would call the art of the question.  That is, spend more time asking questions and less time trying to explain yourself.  While I agreed that understanding one another is good, I was bothered because the ephasis on questioning felt very pluralistic…like to be a critical thinker, you had to accept others views as being equal to your own.  I now understand that rejecting intense questioning simply because others use it in a pluralistic manner would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.  What I have discovered is that questioning is the only way we can learn about people…surprise!  The culture today needs us to learn about them in order to relate to them.  It’s amazing how hostile people become conversant if you just start asking questions rather than preaching dogma and defending yourself.

Those of you following this blog know that I believe the power to change a person’s heart resides in the gospel alone.  But, with some people, you simply have to earn the right to be heard.  We do that primarily by asking questions and genuinely trying to understand where they are coming from.  Once you know where they are coming from, then you can share the gospel in a way that they can understand and relate to.  This applies to all people…no matter where they are in their walk…no matter if they are world, fringe, or core.  If you want to help them move toward the middle, you have to be prepared to ask questions and be opportunistic with your teaching rather than dogmatic. 

You also have to ask questions to know whether your time is better invested in this person or if it would be better to move on, which brings me to my final point.  When you change your attitude away from dogma (here is the truth, take it or leave it) and move toward questioning (once I understand where you are coming from, I’ll communicate the true and full gospel in a way that you can understand), people will surprise you.  Hostile people will calm down.  Intellectuals will become emotional.  Facades melt away.  Issues are uncovered; hearts are softened.  Defensive people will begin to listen to what you have to say.  You will have earned the right to be heard.

I’ll add one more thing here…as an aside, but very important.  To be successful in this, you must have thick skin. You must have already placed your reputation on the alter as a living sacrifice.  If you take on a challenging relationship, you may be called out to your face or in public.  Are you strong enough to control your response?  Are you strong enough to resist the tempation to defend yourself, to strike back, to control your emotions and allow God to deal with how others perceive you, to focus on your objective which is to a) determine whether or not this person is being prepared by the Spirit to receive the gospel; b) share it in a way that they can understand it; c) be obedient to all of God’s commands, for the right reasons, throughout the process.

So, here is my encouragement, in three parts: 

First, you simply must know your Bible and be working on your own transformation.  Anyone can be dogmatic; it requires a different kind of Christian to engage people where they are. 

Second, ask questions before making assertions.  Know where people are coming from before assuming you know what they need to hear.  This is how you get past the natural defensiveness of a lost person in today’s culture.

Third, don’t become distracted from your ultimate purpose of sharing God’s gospel and His Truth.  As you question, the conversation may tend toward distracting topics…it’s ok to weave, but don’t forget where you are trying to head.  Look for opportunities to share God’s truth related to areas of confusion, difficulty, struggle that people have.

What has God taught you lately?

More than one wise disciple-maker has told me that they could guage the temperature of a person using one simple question…

What has God taught you lately?

Brilliant, IMHO.  I’d like to share something specific God has been working on in me and pray that it might be an encouragement to you.  If you are performance-oriented, this post is for you.

So many of us struggle with a strong performance-orientation.  That is, we are driven by goals, performance, winning, competition, results, excellence, and the like.  On one hand, I praise God that he creates people who are driven to perform at high levels.  The Bible is full of such people, and if it were not for the obedience (i.e. performance) of the heroes of the faith, we would not even have a “faith”.  But, as with so many good things God provides, this blessing can become a bondage to us.

Now, I’m not going to dive into the pop-psychology of performance “bondage” and why we ought to blame our parents for being as we are.  Rather, I’m going to show you a simple truth and pray that God will use it to help you the way He has used it to help me in the past week.

Think about who we would be if it were not for God.  We would be dust…literally.  We would be as significant as the ground you walk on.  This is why is absolutely fascinates me how an athiest can avoid despair…there is no reason whatsoever for an athiest to ascribe significance to matter that rises from insignificant organic matter and disintegrates back into that insignificant organic matter.  The philosophy behind all this is a topic for another day, but it should be intuitive to a reasonable thinker that significance does not rise from insignificance.  Something, or someone, of significance has to give an object significance for it to be genuinely significant.

As I said before, there is nothing wrong with a drive to perform; but, whether we recognize it or not, performance is usually tied to significance.  We perform because we are attempting the earn significance from someone we perceive to be more significant than ourselves.  Said another way, we’re trying to “earn their love”.  And the fact is that no one’s love is worth attempting to earn, because it is vapor…earned love is not really love; earned significance is not really significance.  Satan just likes to make us think that to keep us from living fully in God’s genuine love and sigificance.

Therefore, I have two important principles for you today.  I pray you will find them biblical, helpful, and a light from the Lord himself today.

First, you are significant only because God gives you significance through His love for you.  Your performance has zero affect on your sigificance.  Yes, it may affect rewards in Heaven, but it does not affect God’s love for you nor your true sigificance.  If you did not grow up in a healthy home, I know this is hard to understand…but, it is indeed true of your Heavenly Father.  Just how significant are you?  Significant enough for the God of the universe to condescend to that of man and die for you in Christ.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5:6-8 (NASB)”

If you struggle with performance, as I do, it would be helpful to memorize this passage and meditate on it regularly.  Who are you trying to impress with your performance?  A boss?  A spouse?  A son/daughter?  A neighbor?  A competitor?  Who is it?  Now, what do you really have to gain?  If you believe in Christ and have been regenerated, you already have divine significance bestowed upon you by God’s love as demonstrated by His death for you.  Why not just rest in that?!?

Second, work hard (i.e. perform with maximum excellence) at everything you do, but do it as an expression of Christ-like agape love for others.  Performance ought to be seen as something we give away with no expectation of anything in return; it should not be seen as something we use to earn something from someone more significant than ourselves.  Be motivated to empty yourself for others as Christ “emptied” himself for you.  We had nothing to give back to the Lord for His sacrifice, yet he did it anyway.  Likewise, give of yourselves in your work (no matter what it is) as an expression of love for others. 

  • Do you go to school? 
    • Don’t learn to impress or even meet the expectations of your parents or teachers.
    • Do it because educated people are better equiped to serve others.
  • Do you run a household? 
    • Don’t do it to impress your neighbor, spouse, or children or to make them feel a certain way.
    • Do it simply as an expression of love toward your spouse and children, regardless of their response to your efforts.
  • Do you manage other people’s money? 
    • Don’t do it to impress your peers or clients. 
    • Do it because as an expression of love for the person for whom you manage money.
  • Do you write software? 
    • Don’t do it to impress your boss, peers or an open source community.
    • Do it as a work of service to your leader, company or community.
  • Do you clean inside or outside of a building/home?
    • Don’t do it to impress your boss or home owner.
    • Do it because God is orderly, and you can love the owner by providing an orderly space for them.
  • Do you lead or manage other people?
    • Don’t do it to build an empire and to extract significance from people by ruling over them.
    • Do it because you care about developing people and working as a team to love those your team serves.
  • Do you teach the bible, blog or engage forums?
    • Don’t do it to build a reputation or empire.
    • Do it simply because you care about other’s development and welfare.

What do you do?  In what way are you trying to perform for someone else?  How could you change your attitude so that you do what you do to love others rather than gain love from them?  How can you use your work to pour significance into someone else who is not lovely, rather than trying to exact more love and signifiance from those who have nothing to give?

And so, we can summarize with a simple statement…one I plan to carry with me and live as best I can:

God has already made you significant; there is no need to extract significance from others, as if it were even possible.

I started this by saying that this is something God has been teaching me recently, but I would love to know what he has been working with you on!  If you would like to encourage others by sharing, please do so.

Treasure in Earthen Vessels

One of my favorite bands is Jars of Clay.  They get their name from 2 Corinthians 4:7…

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” 2 Cor 4:7 (NASB)

Paul’s point here is that God has chosen us (as ordinary, fragile, and insignificant as a clay pot) to hold and distribute His gospel so that He would receive all of the glory for it’s power and not us.  But, you do not even have to leave Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to see something else that this body of ours “contains”.

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” 1 Cor 6:19-20

And so, God has chosen (for reasons that are hard if not possible to comprehend) to use fallen, broken, sinful, frail people to hold something as significant as not only God’s universal message of justice, grace, and mercy but also the very Spirit that regenerates and transforms us.  This is the same Spirit who participates in Creation and who resided among men only in the Holy of Holies before Christ.  Amazing…absolutely amazing.

What could be more amazing?  The fact that I, and I’ll bet many of you, do not think on this very often let alone allow it to affect our moment to moment behavior.  How can it be that I get so caught up in the meaningless, being tricked into thinking that it is somehow more significant that the fact that God has called me to be a vehicle of His gospel and His Spirit to a fallen, lost, Hell-bound world?  How can it be that I worry more about the price of a tank of gas than the price Christ paid for my sins.  How can it be that I worry more about how I’m performing and measured by my boss at work than I am my boss who redeemed me, resurrected me, called me, and indwelled me?  How can it be that I worry more about what other insignificant earthen vessels think of me than what the infinitely significant contents of my own vessel thinks of me?

I’m often reminded of a couple simple and practical points that I have used throughout the years to move my attention away from the vessel and toward it’s contents.  I’ll share them here and pray that He would use them to help you as well.

First, frequent and regular prayer matters.  As busy as life gets, too many times I am duped into thinking that my relationship with God is strong enough to skip daily prayer for a season so I can “get things done”.  That’s a lie.  I don’t care how “mature” you are, we all have to be reminded of the treasure within us or we will forget.

Second, every moment of our lives represents an opportunity to live through the strength of what lives within us rather than the weakness of it’s container.  We do not have to change anything about our circumstances to fully glorify God. 

Did you know that a single mom changing the diaper of her 6-month old has the same opportunity to glorify God as does Billy Graham sharing the gospel with millions of people on TV?  This relatively unknown single mom and Mr. Graham are made of the same insignificant earthen material and possess the same gospel and Holy Spirit.  How could one glorofy God and the other not?  It’s all in the heart and motives for doing what you do.  Are you doing all you can, wherever God has placed you, to hear Him, believe Him, and obey Him?  Are you genuinely concerned about how much you reflect the Spirit’s joy, compassion, humility and perseverance?  If you change that diaper out a selfless concern for the baby, joyfully content with the role God has given you then you will be more pleasing to God than a person sharing the gospel with millions of people only because of the attention or money it brings him.

At the end of the day, especially when the world begins to become confusing, I come to the same conclusion that Solomon did:

“The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”  Ecclesiastes 12:13

Any believer, no matter their job or circumstance, can and must fear God and keep His commandments.  In this way, we live by the power of that which lives in us and not by the frailty of the vessel itself.  This is how we glorify God, and all of us have the same opportunity to glorify God to the same extent. 

And so, my encouragement for the day is to seek God and his commands, then live them to the best of your ability right where you are moment to moment.  Let’s leave the excuses behind and help one another in the journey.

The Ultimate Goal

In my last post, I spoke about the specific and immediate goal of ministering to God’s people.  But what is the ultimate goal?  How does the mission of SeqHim converge with and support the ministry of the Church?

I mentioned what I believe is the ultimate goal in my last post, and I want to expand upon it here a bit: bring glory to God.  That ought to be the underlying reason for anything we do (or do not do).  Otherwise, what is the point?  Do everything you do for the glory of God, and work hard at it.  Yes, it is good to just chill from time to time, but even that brings glory to God…it acknowledges a) that God designed us to need rest and recreation; b) that our efforts are not nearly as important as we usually think; and c) that God himself rested and commands us to rest as well.  And so, go play golf, take a nap, or watch HGTV this weekend knowing that you may be bringing great glory to God in the process!

Given that it is good to rest and it is good to work, what do we work at?  What work brings glory to God?  Is it only “ministry” work?  Am I bringing glory to God when I go to church, serve in the nursery, help little old ladies across the street?  Sure, but does that mean that I am not bringing glory to God when I am writing a computer program, changing diapers, taking out the trash, leading a marketing project, punishing the kids, performing financial analysis, studying for a test at school, and so on?  I certainly hope not, because most of us spend most of our time doing these things that are usually perceieved as less or even non-spiritual.

Then how do we glorify God in everything we do, whether it is a ‘rest’ activity or a ‘work’ activity?  Here is a phrase that has helped me tremendously through the years: ‘do the right thing for the right reason’.  As long as you are doing the right thing (with pure motives) in any situation, you are bringing glory to God.  Sounds easy, right?  Ha!  If you think that is easy, you have never really been serious about it because it’s incredibly hard!  As a matter of fact, it’s impossible as long as we remain in this fallen world prior to our perfection.  And so, allow me to revise our goal statement to make it a bit more accurate to what is really expected of us: “strive to do the right thing for the right reason”.  We are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength…to do the very best with everything God has given us to do the right thing.  Thankfully, God’s grace enables us to try and still accepts us when we fail!  But the true measure of our faith is the effort we put into doing the right thing, purifying our motives and avoiding the wrong thing…regardless of the personal risk.

So, may this be an encouragement to you today.  Strive to do the right thing, moment by moment, for the right reasons.  Make it your number one priority, higher than any any other objective you have for today.  Expend yourself learning how to determine what the right thing is, seeking the Lord in His Word, asking the Him for moment by moment wisdom, trusting that He has granted you that wisdom (James 1:5), and then acting accordingly, confidently and courageously.  In this way, you will be a delight to the Lord, He will be glorified, you will be transformed, others around you will be loved as Christ loves them, and others will be attracted to the Savior through your example of Him.

Is God at the Center of your Life?

For six years, I have engaged a wonderful ministry called Bible Study Fellowship (BSF).  I often tell people that I have not benefited more from any other ministry (or church, for that matter) than BSF.  This morning, I spent time in Numbers Ch 1, 2 and 3.  In these chapters, God takes a census and assigns encampments to Israel.  He places His Tent of Meeting in the heart of the encampment.  Why?  Because God should be at the center of the life of His people.

Ok…nice cliche, but what does that really mean?  It means that faithful obedience to God is more important than work for God (or anyone else).  It means that it is more important that we know God’s word, believe it and obey it ourselves than teaching or helping others to do the same.  It means that it is more important to obey the higher principle of love than sacrificing it for family, vocation, ministry, or even adhering to religious tradition (like attending a church service).

Does this mean that we don’t have to go to church?  (Gasp!)  We don’t have to give sacrificially?  We don’t have to take communion, serve the poor, etc?  Well, yes and no.  Here’s the rub…people who know God’s truth, genuinely believe it, and desire to obey him want to worship him.  They want to give sacrificially.  They want to obey Christ’s command to be baptized and to take communion.  They want to perform works of service.  They want to work hard at their vocation.  They want to pay all of the their taxes.  They want to build healthy famililies and sacrifice for them.  These are all things they naturally want to do and do them as well as they can (given the obstacle of our flesh).  If you don’t want to do these things and are constantly looking for ways out of them, God is not yet in full control of your desires.  That’s a problem that needs to be (and can be) addressed.  (BTW, if you want help with this, keep following the blog or send me an email, jreeves@seqhim.org.)

For example, let’s say it’s Sunday morning…you’ve got the family all dudded up for church, about to walk out the door, and the phone rings.  It’s the neighbor down the street (who is a ‘fringe’ person that frankly you don’t care much for).  He is supposed to be at work in 15 minutes, and his car will not start…he’s asking for a ride.  What do you do?  I’ll argue that putting God in the center of your heart means caring more about providing for this person that you don’t even really like than taking your family to church.  It means understanding that the love of Christ is better manifested by sacrificing the benefit and desire to worship with other believers.  It means understanding that the blessings that come from sacrificing your desires for others are more significant than performing religious ceremony and tradition.  It means providing an example of love to your family is better than getting them to church so they can hear a description of love.

So, ceremony and tradition are good things.  Christ commanded baptism and communion for a reason.  Worship is good, and we should not forsake gathering together on Sunday or any other time. 

BUT, the goal of all of these things is not to make us rule keepers; it is to transform us to the point that we no longer need the rules!

My prayer for you and for myself is that we be transformed to the point that we are so much in tune with the heart of Christ that we no longer worry whether or not we are in His will…we are confident that our desires are His desires and can freely and aggressively pursue them.  We don’t worry about God’s favor if we choose to leverage the resources He has assigned to us to manage (time, money, materials, relationships, etc) in a way that is non-traditional, because we are confident that we are focused on His Kingdom and not our own comfort or preferences.  

I’m a long way from this personally, but as I’ve said, I’m praying for it because I believe God desires it for us and is the ultimate goal of our perfection.

Core, Fringe and World in Luke 15

I owe this one to my pastor, Pete Chiofalo, and his wonderful message from Luke 15 this past Sunday.

First, I’ll provide a quick interpretation of Luke 15:11-32; then, I’ll comment on how each of the three groups we have been discussing (i.e. core, fringe, and world) are represented in “the prodigal son”.

Luke 15:1-2 makes it clear that the next three stories (i.e. the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son) are in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners”.  Each of these parables makes essentially the same point: God has great concern for the lost; He will in a sense leave those who do not need finding to look for the lost one; and, God (and all those of like mind) will rejoice greatly when the lost one is found. 

Focusing now on Luke 15:11-32, we have a man with two sons.  The younger requests his future inheritance ahead of time and leaves the home to squander it; he becomes “lost”.  The older stays behind to continue working diligently for his father.  The younger “comes to his senses” in v17, which simply means that God has convicted him of his sinful ways and his heart has repented.  He returns home to confess his sin, and his father is eagerly waiting for him – rejoicing to the point of throwing an extravagant welcome home party for his “found” son.  Meanwhile, the older son is angry, because he felt he had “earned” what the younger son did not “earn” and was given anyway.  He was jealous of the father’s forgiveness, grace and mercy toward the younger one.

A plain interpretation of this story is that the the father in the story is God; the younger son represents all of us who have realized our “lostness”, confessed our sin to to God, and received His welcome into the Kingdom through genuine faith in Jesus Christ; the older son represents all of those who have grown up in the church and yet continue to try to earn God’s favor by keeping religious rules, completely missing the importance of forgiveness, grace, mercy, and faith to the point that we look down on (and are even jealous of) those who are received into the Kingdom on the basis of God’s grace through faith alone.

If you’ve read some of my earlier posts, I’ll bet you know where this is headed. 🙂

What I have been calling the ‘world’ are all of those who are in the same position that the younger son was in while he was away from his family “squandering his estate with loose living”.  In verse 17, this younger son moved from the “world” to the “core”.  He confessed his sin to the father (v21) and received life (v32).  And the ‘fringe’?  You got it…the older son.  Though he grew up in the same house, he never realized it was grace and mercy that bound him to the father.  He always believed it was his efforts.  People in the ‘fringe’ typically have “grown up” in the church, hearing sermons on God’s grace and forgiveness every weekend (or, at least every Easter and Christmas).  And yet, somehow, their inability to rejoice when the wretched and poor are sought and embraced reveals are heart that was never right with the Lord to begin with.

I’ll end with two questions:

1. How do you act around “sinners”?  How do you feel about other believers who seek out “sinners”?  What is your immediate reaction when a known sinner walks into your church on Sunday?  What will you do to help move people from the ‘world’ to the ‘core’?

2. Do you love those in the ‘fringe’?  Or, do you feel superior because you are the younger son rather than the older one?  What will you do to help those in the ‘fringe’ move into the ‘core’?

Here’s one suggestion on how to answer each of these: keep reading this blog and engage with your feedback.  I have some ‘blue sky’ ideas on how we can help one another do both of these, and I’m going to need alot of help to make it happen!

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