Rebuilding Rhythm for the Spiritual Life

In April, our Church Council completed a year-long, devotional study of the book of Nehemiah. In total, we developed twenty-nine principles for leaders. The book of Nehemiah is typically a go-to book for biblical principles of leadership. While it is a treasure trove for that topic, I think it’s important not to miss the reason that Nehemiah’s leadership is necessary—to rebuild a rhythm for the spiritual lives of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Have you ever built a retaining wall? One time at a Christian camp, a team of teenagers and I accepted the challenge to construct a large retaining wall made of railroad ties for a hillside near a basketball court. It was grueling work, bringing out the best and worst in all of us. Quickly, we learned that this project wasn’t merely a physical and mental test, but also a spiritual one. Nehemiah’s wall-building project had a deeper aim than to simply build a wall. He aimed, with God’s help, to restore a regular rhythm in the spiritual lives of people. Here are five key lessons to rebuilding your spiritual rhythm.

Report of Ruin

Read:

Nehemiah 1:1–11

Reflect:

Have you ever received bad news? Such was the news that Nehemiah received, yet behind the gloomy report was the smile of God. This is called providence. One Bible dictionary describes providence this way,

The biblical concept of God’s providence . . . signals a universally confident belief in God’s loving care and protection of the world. It is grounded in the belief in God as Creator, one who continues at all times to preserve and order the world, holding chaos at bay, and leading the world and all human history toward life and full happiness. Sometimes through unpredictable turns . . . God’s providence can be written ‘straight with crooked lines’ . . . God’s provident presence can be manifest in both merciful care and righteous chastisement, but the biblical emphasis surely rests with the affirmation of God’s ultimate care (Freedman, David Noel. Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.).

Consider God’s providential provisions surrounding Nehemiah’s news: (1) he happened to have a rare job (1:11) that made him privy to royal reports, (2) a team from Judah, involving someone Nehemiah knew, arrived in Susa with a report of Jerusalem, (3) Nehemiah’s heart was soft enough to repent and to remember God’s promise, and (4) he had an audience with the king to request that something be done.

Resolve:

Get familiar with the background and story of Nehemiah with The Bible Project. Then, write out the current, major circumstances of your life. Can you see God’s providential fingerprints? Humbly ask God to make his providence clearer to you this week. How would your own “Report of Ruin” read?

Revival Reconnaissance

Read:

Nehemiah 2:9–20

Reflect:

After receiving approval from the king and favor from God to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city, Nehemiah aimed to revive the people and the work. However, he faced radical rivals — Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men opposed Nehemiah throughout the whole story (cf., 4:1, 3, 7; 6:1–2, 5–6, 12, 14, 17, 19; 7:62; 13:4, 7, 28). They tried to destroy his plans through violence from outside the walls and through deception inside the walls. In 2:11–16, Nehemiah took a secret, night-time ride around the entirety of the city wall. Verse 13 says, “. . . and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire.” The word “inspect” means to test or investigate with a hopeful attitude.

Resolve:

Look at the representation of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day. Imagine that this represents your life. Inspect the walls of your life. Is your life whole and at peace? Or are there breaches? Gates were the places where important opportunities and decisions happened. Have you had opportunities or decisions that you feel have been “destroyed by fire”? Lastly, who are your enemies? Remember, external enemies utilize violence. Internal enemies utilize deception, lies, and schemes. Personal revival starts with an honest inspection of the conditions of our lives. Notice how the temple, the place of worship, is at the center. Just as the people in Nehemiah’s day couldn’t worship while neglected walls existed, neither can we effectively worship God while we neglect our own lives. After a thorough look at the walls, gates, and enemies of your life, remember that Nehemiah’s inspection was a hopeful one. He didn’t despair. He was real about the lousy conditions, but he was also real about his hope that God could revive the walls against all odds.

Responsive Reading

Read:

Nehemiah 8:1–12

Reflect:

The people showed great resolve to complete the rebuilding of the walls of the city (cf., 4:6–23). Faithful leaders were found and appointed (cf., 7:1–2). Once the work was completed, the people gathered to hear the reading of the word of God in their own city for the first time in generations. The leaders helped the people to clearly understand the word of God. The people became emotional for two reasons: (1) the clear and accurate teaching of God’s word cut into their souls with precision, like a spiritual surgeon, and (2) the atmosphere of standing within the rebuilt walls of their once destroyed city most likely created an overwhelming feeling—mixed with sadness about the past and hope for the future. Following their emotional response to God’s word, the people made decisions to obey God’s word (cf., 8:13–18) and to remember God’s faithfulness to his past promises and present protection (cf., chap. 9).

Resolve:

Commit to the healing of the walls of your life. To do this, you must faithfully steward the areas of the wall which God has entrusted you to rebuild. You also must have faith in God with those things that are outside of your control. Discuss and measure the impact that the word of God is having in your life. Is it cutting into you (cf., Heb. 4:12)? In what ways precisely? What kind of emotional atmospheres have you experienced with the word of God (e.g., camp, retreat, conference, prayer meeting, small group, recovery)? God providentially uses events like this to stir and awaken our hearts, but what happens after these unique experiences? Do you allow the word of God to cut into your regular rhythm of life? Discuss with a close friend the ways you are or are not creating space for the word of God as a part of your regular rhythm.

Reform Remains

Read:

Nehemiah 13:6–11, 15–21, 23

Reflect:

The book of Nehemiah ends in a strange and deflating way. Nehemiah left Jerusalem and reported back to the king of Persia. While he was gone, the people returned to their old way of life—(1) they flirted with the enemies of God and Jerusalem, (2) they forsook the temple and failed to worship God, (3) they forget to keep the Sabbath day holy, and (4) the men found wives who worshiped false gods, instead of the true God. Nehemiah went on a righteous rampage! The book ends with Nehemiah offering one of his many prayers—the reader can feel how tired he is—“Remember me, O my God, for good” (13:30). So what gives? What happened? Here’s the point. Don’t miss it: All the changes or reforms that we might make in life won’t truly stick unless they land on a new heart. Nehemiah was a great leader and did great work, but even he and all his efforts were not a match for the stone-cold, hardened hearts of the people. The 70 years they had spent in exile didn’t change anything. Consider the words of Jeremiah,

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9),

and Ezekiel,

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh (36:26).

Religious movements, reforms, and retreats may create experiences that cause temporary changes, but if you want permanent, enduring faith and life change, then you need a new heart from God in order to truly take in all of his amazing grace available in Christ.

Resolve:

How’s your heart? Is it stone cold and lifeless, or is new and alive to God? It’s as Ezekiel said—your spiritual nature is stony and must be removed, and God must give you a new spiritual nature. How does God do this? By God’s grace through your faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, your old, calloused heart may die, and a new, soft heart may resurrect within you. The New Testament uses the phrases “new creation” and “new birth” to describe this spiritual phenomenon:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn. 1:12–13).

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3–5).

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

If you recognize your need for a new heart and are willing to put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, to receive the Holy Spirit, and to possess the hope of new and eternal life, then pray to God to receive Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord of your life. Do not remain as those Stephen addressed in Acts 7:51,

You stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.

The Bible also teaches (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:1–3; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:13) that even believers with new hearts can grieve and quench the Spirit in ways that diminish the power of the new life in Christ. If you’re a believer who has grown lukewarm, lazy, and lousy in the spiritual life, resolve today to repent and recover your faith in Christ.

Regular Rhythm

Read:

Romans 8:18–39; Galatians 5:13–26

Reflect:

Tim Keller once described revival as . . .

. . . the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit intensified.

Ordinarily, the Holy Spirit (1) convicts of sin (Jn. 16:7–11), (2) converts to faith in Christ (1 Cor. 12:3; Acts 10:44–48), and (3) gives assurance of salvation (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Have you ever experienced these activities of the Spirit in an unusually intense way? It’s important to realize that these are his regular rhythms too. In the Read portion of this section, we find two more important regular rhythms that the Spirit wants to work into your daily life. The first comes from Romans 8:29. The Holy Spirit aims to use your sufferings, weaknesses, circumstances, and hope to shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. Notice that prayer (v. 26) is an important way for you to participate in his aim for your life. The second comes from Galatians 5:22–23. The fruit of the Spirit’s rhythm in your life looks like these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here, the Spirit’s regular rhythm in your life provides the essential attributes to conform you to the image of Jesus.

Resolve:

1 Thessalonians 5:19 says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Ephesians 4:30 teaches us not to “grieve the Holy Spirit.” In unique and rare moments, the Holy Spirit has worked in an intensified way in your life, and he aims to provide a regular rhythm that transforms you over time to look more and more like Jesus. As you participate in his regular rhythm, how will you avoid quenching the fire that the Holy Spirit started in your life? How will you avoid grieving him? Start by reading the context of the all the verses mentioned in this section. Get a handle on what God says the Holy Spirit wants to do in your life. You’ll discover things like thankfulness prevents the quenching of the Spirit, and putting off the old life and putting on the new life in specific ways prevents the grieving of the Spirit. Discuss with a believing friend the ways that you’ll participate in the Spirit’s rhythm for your life. Remember, God is providentially at work in your life. Are you up for the adventure?

Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart

Marriage & Mountain Climbing

I just finished Dr. Stephen M. Judah’s (1949–2008) book Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart. The book is full of stories of his experiences counseling couples caught in the web of an affair (or some cases multiple affairs). He describes these marriages using a very helpful illustration: mountain climbing. As Judah sees it, couples climb toward an affair. He calls it “the ascent into brokenness.”

Novice climbers approach the mountain unaware of what awaits them. In my one experience climbing, I remember watching a couple of my team members have uncontrollable emotional reactions as they acclimatized to the altitude. Similarly, nothing can truly prepare a person for all that marriage entails. Couples should avail themselves of every opportunity possible to prepare and train, just as a climber should! Preventative measures are practiced by the wise of heart. Even so, you still have to climb (i.e., get married) to have the real experience.

from Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart by Dr. Stephen M. Judah

Judah describes the active affair as the peak of the ascent into brokenness; he also calls it the “death zone.” The reason for such a description is because a person cannot linger long on the peak of a mountain and live—the body simply cannot take it. Likewise, a marriage cannot linger long in an affair. He also compares the active affair to the peak of a mountain ascent because an affair does not simply all of a sudden happen. A couple climbs into it. Judah describes the progressive ascent into brokenness as the accumulation of brokenness from sin, brokenness from the family of origin, brokenness from our peer group, brokenness from dating relationships, romantic love, civil war, the evolution of affair conditions, and finally the peak—the active affair. Rather than an affair being a spontaneous act of passion, the spiritual and social science of the act explains that the affair is the result of the unchecked accumulation of brokenness in a person’s life. We enter marriage with imbedded flaws that remain hidden until a crisis exposes them.

As a boy, I remember watching footage of the January 28, 1986 NASA space shuttle Challenger explosion. It happened 73 seconds into its flight. All crew members were lost. The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology concluded its hearings with a statement: “The fundamental problem was poor technical decision-making over a period of several years by top NASA and contractor personnel, who failed to act decisively to solve the increasingly serious anomalies in the Solid Rocket Booster joints” (under Conclusions, pages 3–7). Years of poor decisions by experts who failed to act decisively created a death zone that exposed everything.

The Ascent into Brokenness

Civil War

In his chapter entitled “Civil War,” he writes, “The experience of civil war has universal and unmistakable characteristics: (1) Awfulization best characterizes the overall experience. The warring pair tend to primarily see the bad in the other. The good is denied or remains carefully ignored. Each becomes at risk to fall into a pattern of being at their worst. (2) Awareness of incompetence—The couple becomes mostly conscious of each other’s incompetence. (3) Negative response—The couple moves either against or away from each other, engaging in classic fight or flight. (4) Depressed sensory acuity—The couple’s senses are diminished, and they attribute the lack of clarity to a lifelessness in their relationship. (5) Separation—They may think or say, ‘I can’t stand to live with you.’ (6) Incompletion—They may think or say, ‘Something is missing.’ (7) Unfamiliarity and disbelief—They may think or say, ‘I’m in the wrong place with the wrong person. How did I ever get here?’ . . . We demand more and put up with less” (pages 65–66). The reality is that both spouses have both brokenness and wholeness within them. Dr. Judah states that “master couples” learn how to focus and practice an awareness of one another’s competencies, which eventually evolves into an unconscious trust in one another’s competencies.

Evolution of Affair Conditions

I found chapter seven, “The Evolution of Affair Conditions,” insightful. He suggests that both “difficult” and “good” marriages experience affairs, and then he seeks to answer the question “Why?” He proposes a two-fold answer: (1) the 60% push and (2) the 40% pull. A negative or difficult marriage environment is likely to “push” a spouse toward an affair. Dr. Judah describes the primary factors at play as (1) communication issues, (2) character or developmental issues (e.g., unmet needs), (3) conflict resolution issues, (4) adult life stage or landmarks (e.g., mid-life crisis), and/or (5) confused or broken choices. A combination of these factors can literally “push” someone toward an affair. However, sometimes affairs (40%) happen in marriages described by couples as “happy” or “fulfilled.” In these cases, there are factors present that “pull” a spouse into an extramarital affair: (1) proximity, (2) similarity, and (3) reward. Work relationships where men and women are working in close proximity and where conversation moves from work-related into more personal feelings, desires, dreams, etc. Unintentionally, boundaries are crossed. From proximity, similarities may begin to surface and create a dangerous intimacy. Eventually, it is possible for the offending spouse to perceive rewards associated in an affair with the third party person.

After explaining these “push” and “pull” realities of the evolution of affairs, Judah offers wrong ways to handle the evolution of an affair and right ways to handle the evolution of an affair (pages 69–75):

Wrong Ways Right Ways
Toying with the possibility of having an affair Commit to finding a way to create a strong marriage—step away from the edge and look for the safe path
Acting out (without talking about) your negative thoughts and emotions Talk about your inner struggle—find friends of the marriage, those who will strengthen your commitment to the marriage bond
Blaming yourself or your partner Replace blame with understanding and take responsibility
Getting bad advice from friends, family members, coworkers, affair partners, or even counselors Get professional guidance that specializes in marriage or relationships
Triangulation or substitute triangulation, which is focusing more on the third party or some other substitute that you do on your spouse Embrace the usefulness of suffering, and choose optimism—suffering together can be a bonding experience
Focusing on the third party rather than on your core values and commitments Focus on the primary couple, the husband and wife
Waiting for a crisis, that is, most people seek help only after an affair has happened Focus on your core values and commitments
Be proactive, preventative and preemptive.
Master essential disciplines—Dr. Judah covers these in part three of his book.

Dr. Judah brings this chapter to an interesting close by warning readers not to dismiss the role of both evil and good supernatural forces at work behind the evolution of an affair. As people of the Bible, we believe in supernatural realities. God calls us to love as he loves—with faithful, steadfast love; however, sin, Satan, and demonic activity are realities opposed to human flourishing. Beware the spiritual forces at work in the “push” and “pull” of the evolution of an affair. Cling to your God and to your spouse.

The Descent into Wholeness

The third part of the book is entitled “Descent into Wholeness.” Surprisingly, the descent down the mountain is harder than the climb up. I remember being caught off guard by this during my single mountaineering experience. There a number of factors that make it more difficult: (1) you’re not as motivated; (2) the goal destination seems boring and anticlimactic; (3) it hurts your joints and feet in an unexpected way; (4) you’re off balance because of terrain; (5) you’re exhausted; (6) you have fewer supplies and possibly damaged gear; (7) you’re far more irritable; (8) the path isn’t always as clear; and (9) well, you’re just done! While all this is true, you must make it back down the mountain—your life depends on it. You can’t survive long at the top. Reaching bottom restores normal, whole, healthy living.

In this section, Dr. Judah walks the reader through his five essential disciplines that have the potential to restore wholeness to a marriage broken by an affair: (1) SHARE—sharing the truth with your spouse, (2) RECONCILE—reconciling the crisis with your spouse, (3) REFINE—redefine and realign your character through development and commitment, (4) ENHANCE—rebuilding and cultivating the positive, (5) ENVISION—flourish by creating the possible, exploring tomorrow’s dreams, and generating today’s plan. The first three disciplines function “like powerful workhorses to transform the negative” (1) communication techniques, (2) crisis experiences, and (3) character traits; whereas, the final two disciplines (4) cultivate what is good and (5) create the possible.

The Crisis & RECONCILE

In chapter ten entitled, “The Crisis,” he borrows an experience from Andy Politz, who has reached the summit of Mount Everest multiple times. He writes, “On one occasion he helped rescue a party of five . . . They had spent the night near the peak in bad conditions. Another party had come across them but left the party for dead, giving them only a candy bar to assuage their own guilt. Andy and his party, by contrast, abandoned their climb to devote all their resources to the rescue. The party in trouble needed oxygen and water of course, but mostly they needed someone to walk them down the mountain step by step. Every two steps those being rescued would collapse. Generally competent, experienced and strong, now they were temporarily dazed, confused, weak and blind. They could not rescue themselves. They needed somebody to help. Rescue by definition usually requires others” (page 108).

He continues to develop what the essential discipline of RECONCILE looks like for the offending and the offended spouses. The offending spouse may experience a great deal of relief when the affair is either discovered or confessed; however, the offended spouse often goes through a threefold process that he describes as (1) disorganization, (2) reorganization, and (3) organization. Further, the offended spouse may experience something similar to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other severe emotional conditions. Judah writes at the close of this chapter, “Oddly enough, the descent into wholeness involves temporarily putting your partner into a crisis state. The offending spouse has been in the death zone for a while, so descending lets them breathe a little easier. By contrast, the offended spouse feels like they have been dropped into the death zone of a mountain peak without any acclimatization. The necessary disclosure hits the offended spouse hard” (page 125). While this crisis has to be a part of the journey, it is miserable.

Flourishing & ENVISION

Chapter thirteen introduces that couples who have experienced an affair can indeed flourish again. “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Here, he helps couples recover and reestablish core desires and core values together. Having “survived, stabilized, and succeeded, then pursue significance” together. Couples that reach this ENVISION stage of the descent into wholeness are invited to imagine a resurrected relationship in which they can clarify goals and adjust priorities. Couples that remain committed in the descent can have fulfilling relationships, discover anew that they are good at something together, make the world a better place together, and enjoy peace with God together.

The Spiritual and the Scientific

Descending into wholeness is possible for the couple that has encountered the “death zone” of an active affair. It will take help from others; it will take commitment to a process; and it will take a new hope and vision. Dr. Judah has a couple of appendices at the end of his book that speak to special situations that couples may face along the way of their journey. His final chapter addresses “The Spiritual and the Scientific: A Fusion of Strengths.” He is a committed Christian, who has trained and worked as a social scientist (a.k.a. a professional marriage counselor). He describes the relationship between the two by returning to his mountaineering imagery. He explains, “Mountain climbers have found one particular rope design superior to all others. The structure involves an inner core rope that provides strength and a series of woven otter strands which amplify strength and offer protection. You cannot actually see the vital inner rope. You can only see the otter strands. When spiritual wisdom and the wisdom of social science combine, a fusion of strengths occurs. They become woven together like strands of a rope. At the core lies an indescribable, invisible and vital force. We cannot see God, but we can see the strands surrounding the core” (page 172).

Don’t Lose Hope; Grab the Rope

Don’t die on the mountaintop trying to handle your crisis all alone. There is hope. Get some help. May God grant your marriage the grace to descend back into wholeness with a new hope and vision. May it be stronger having gone through such an incredible crisis.

Holy Week: Redemption Devotion Three

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Redemption in the Early Church

For these three Holy Week Devotions, we will use a very precise definition of the word “redemption.” It means freedom from bondage, which is secured by the payment of a price.” The “price” referred to here is the required “ransom payment” needed to deliver from some sort of slavery or captivity. The early Christians after the apostolic era continued to use the language of redemption in their writings:

  • Some subjected themselves to bondage or other financial sacrifices in order to obtain the ransom price required to set another free from slavery or hunger (1 Clement 55:2; 59:4; Shepherd of Hermas 38:10).
  • The early martyrs poetically described their temporary torture for the faith as a small ransom price that purchased an eternal reward (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3).
  • They believed that at the time when humanity’s iniquity was at its fullest and that God had clearly revealed punishment and death as our due recompense, He neither hated nor rejected us, but rather parted with his own Son, who became the ransom price paid for us (Diognetus 9).

These early church leaders continued to believe in Christ’s redemptive work and to lead redemptive lives in the world and in the church. They found true freedom in Christ; they were free to live sacrificially for their brothers and sisters; and they sacrificed their own lives for the testimony of Jesus Christ, having their gaze fixed on a greater reward.

Continuing the Redemptive Tradition

Reach Down: Here’s a quote from 1 Clement 55:2, “We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others.” The early Christians “reached down” in radical ways to “pull up” their brothers and sisters from dire circumstances of slavery and hunger. In some cases, they literally took their place, seeing this as a proper practice of the work of Christ in the believing community. Consider how Jesus himself radically “reached down” to us to save us. Do you know anyone who is hungry? On Monday, April 2nd from 9–11am, many from our church are visiting Feed My Starving Children to help children who are hungry. Can you go? Not as radical as the Christians Clement spoke of, but it’s as good a place to start as any in developing a lifestyle that reaches down to give life.

Deposit Suffering for Glory: The writer of the Martyrdom of Polycarp tell us, “And giving heed unto the grace of Christ they despised the tortures of this world, purchasing at the cost of one hour a release from eternal punishment. And they found the fire of their inhuman torturers cold: for they set before their eyes the escape from the eternal fire which is never quenched; while with the eyes of their heart they gazed upon the good things which are reserved for those that endure patiently, things which neither ear hath heard nor eye hath seen, neither have they entered into the heart of man, but were shown by the Lord to them . . . ” (2:3). A martyr is someone who is killed for their faith, like Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John. These early martyrs viewed their persecutions like deposits they making, the return on which they would experience later in heaven with God. It’s like what Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). What a perspective. When faced with persecution for their faith in Christ, they “bought” it and made a deposit in heaven. Have you been persecuted for your faith in Christ? Don’t be ashamed; don’t be afraid. Buy that hour of persecution and make a deposit in glory.

Ascribe Beauty to the Gospel: Diognetus’ ninth chapter ascribes beauty to the gospel of Christ, “Having thus planned everything already in His mind with His Son, He permitted us during the former time to be borne along by disorderly impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because He took delight in our sins, but because He bore with us, not because He approved of the past season of iniquity, but because He was creating the present season of righteousness, that, being convicted in the past time by our own deeds as unworthy of life, we might now be made deserving by the goodness of God, and having made clear our inability to enter into the kingdom of God of ourselves, might be enabled by the ability of God. And when our iniquity had been fully accomplished, and it had been made perfectly manifest that punishment and death were expected as its recompense, and the season came which God had ordained, when henceforth He should manifest His goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and love of God), He hated us not, neither rejected us, nor bore us malice, but was long-suffering and patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us lawless and ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the Son of God? O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and the righteousness of One should justify many that are iniquitous! Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed a Savior able to save even creatures which have no ability, He willed that for both reasons we should believe in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life.”

Do the people whom you’re close to know how beautiful the gospel is to you? It’s Easter Sunday tomorrow. There’s no better time to let them know.

Singleness & Spirituality

Singleness & Spirituality

In the 2018 blog posts, I intend to focus on family and relationship matters as they relate to the spiritual life. I plan to share insights by way of both book reviews and devotional thoughts from God’s word. As you seek God in this new year, I hope that you’ll follow along, that you’ll be blessed by the content, and that you’ll receive some direction about where to look further for spiritual wisdom in relational and family matters. Our vision here at West is for Jesus to fill every heart, head, and hand. I pray that these articles may be one way of leaning into that vision.

With Saint Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, love is in the air! I’ve been taking the same beautiful gal out on dates at this time for nearly 13 years now, so for me, the decision of “Who?” has been settled. Now, the decisions are narrowed to “Where?” “When?” and “How do we secure a babysitter before everyone else does?!” However, many of my friends are still asking that first “Who?” question, and they’re not just asking it for February 14th, but they’re asking it about their lifelong partner. “Who?”

Unique Challenges to the Single Life

I want to acknowledge the unique challenges of the single life today, at least the ones I am aware of. I add that disclaimer, because honestly, I don’t know what it’s like to be single today. I was single over fourteen years ago. Things have changed. Yet, some things are timeless for any single person of any era. Single people today wrestle with God about their marital status; some single people may be disappointed. You may feel like you missed your only chance to be happy, and you are still blaming yourself. Others wonder if they’ve waited too long. Impatience short-circuits the spiritual development needed to prepare you for what is next. The single person may find it difficult to find his or her place and voice in the church’s vision, mission, and goals. You may be dating someone right now, and you are looking for guidance. Finally, some of you are boiling angry that the thing that people notice most about you is your singleness, instead of the gazillion other wonderful things about you (Cue: SCREAM!!! Go ahead; let it out.).

In 2011, I performed a cultural assessment on the layers of the world’s voice and message to people, particularly in the areas of romance and singleness. The world has something to say to you, but it is the way of folly. The way of folly always leads to a grave of many kinds of spiritual death. The single, faithful Christian set on purity and pursuing God will receive ridicule from the world. Virginity today is mocked instead of treasured and protected. Unfortunately, single people who seek refuge in the church often encounter an even more perplexing, profound, and painful mockery. I have talked to single adults throughout my years and places of ministry who have experienced blindspots in the church when it comes to singles. For example, the church hurts singles when it carries the unspoken “rule” that marriage is the rite of passage into true adulthood.

Unique Joys in the Single Life

I also want to encourage the unique joys of the single life. It can be a season of unique friendship. The single life may provide a unique opportunity for adventure, education, career advancement, and spiritual maturity. It is a time for your skill in living to develop in areas such as finance, responsibilities, exercise, and trades and crafts that will benefit you and others. It most definitely presents a time of unique Christian ministry—particularly in connecting with and edifying children, tweens, and teens. Don’t worry; I’m going to catch myself here: Single adults also have a unique ministry to the church and its adult ministries. A faithful, single Christian adult is able to write, teach, and minister with a clarity, conviction, and boldness that sometimes escapes married people because the affections of our hearts are divided. Paul—a faithful, single Christian—called married people out on this, remember?

He wrote,

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another . . . I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:6–7, 26–35).

I have had the privilege to serve with an array of solid, single people throughout my pastoral ministry. They don’t simply acquire joy, but they spread their joy to those around them. They are often very self-less with their time, resources, and giftedness. The church is the body of Christ, and single people are significant members of the body—both historically and today.

Harmonizing with God’s Voice

Single friends, keep seeking God. Harmony is a wonderful sound to experience. God’s voice is clear, constant, reliable, and trustworthy. We must find his voice on the matters of the spiritual life. I’d like to share a number of harmonic voices that have helped me explore God’s wisdom on the single life. This list is by no means conclusive; in fact, I would love to hear from single people about what they’re reading these days on Christian spirituality and the single life. I hope that in the end you are able to find your voice and add it to the harmony. Here are a few resources that impacted my life in a way that matured my spirituality as a single person and a couple of newer ones that I recently encountered:

Oldies But Goodies

  1. The Bible — Well, duh Captain Obvious. I know, but seriously; consider all of the single writers and characters of the Bible (e.g., Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah). Still further, consider the characters whom we observe both as single and married (e.g., Joseph, David, Ruth, Naomi, etc.). Clearly, God employs people who are single to advance his purposes on the world stage. God made us, understands us, and cares for us. What kind of theology of the single life might you gain from studying God’s word from this perspective?
  2. He That Is Spiritual — I’ve read this book several times. I’ve gone back to it again and again when teaching on the spiritual life. It was written by Lewis Sperry Chafer in 1918. The book is an exposition on the (1) Natural Person, (2) Spiritual Person, (3) Carnal Person (the Christian who should be mature, but isn’t), and (4) Spiritual Infant (a new Christian). For Chafer, the key to the spiritual life is understanding the ministries of the Holy Spirit available to you in Christ alone. As a single person, this book helped establish me on a path of seeking the filling of the Spirit and of trusting in his works of grace in my life. It helped me put away some childish things and embrace the responsibility for my spiritual life.
  3. Basic Theology — It doesn’t have to be this particular theology for you, but every single person should work though a volume on basic Christian theology. What do you believe? It’s important for you to know, and it’s important for you to be able to share. I went through Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology numerous times. I used it for teaching early on in my ministry.
  4. Wild at Heart — Aimee, my wife, reminded me the other day how important this book was to me when we first met. She’s right. Wild at Heart was written by John Eldridge. This book is for men, but ladies, I hope you can find something that is equivalent. There comes a point in every adult’s life where they have to face their past—things that were in our control and things that were not but affected us nonetheless. This book helped me confess, heal, and advance as a man who wanted to experience God.
  5. I Kissed Dating GoodbyeThere are actually some interesting, current developments going on with this 90s–2000s classic. For me in my own experience, it exposed the sexual and emotional sewage in which I had been swimming. It showed me the lies that I’d believed about love, trust, dating, happiness, purity, and more. It helped me discern what matters at 50. It caused me to be honest about the sickness in my heart. It challenged me in the area of genuine friendship. Joshua Harris had some wise things to say back in 1997 that are still relevant today; however, he may be presently fine-tuning his thoughts on IKDG. As a new Christian in 2001 wondering what on earth Christian spirituality in dating was supposed to look like, this book helped me.
  6. The Book of Romance — Harris’ book deconstructed my non-biblical worldview for dating, but Tommy Nelson’s book helped build something new in its place. Nelson looks at the biblical book of the Song of Songs, and paints a beautiful picture of what romance can be like for the person who loves God.
  7. Passion and Purity — Elisabeth Elliot’s book interwove the spiritual life and the romantic life by means of her own story. As a man, the book gave me insight into a woman’s perspective. A new edition was released in 2002. She’s real about our passions; she’s tenacious about purity. She understands that whatever estate we may find ourselves in, our lives must be brought under Christ’s control and lordship.

Newbies

  1. Just Do Something — Every Christian at some point has to have a frank conversation about “God’s will” for their lives. If you’re like me, you needed more than one conversation to clear the fog. John MacArthur has a sermon that I have listened to again and again for years. More recently, Kevin DeYoung authored this book. I love the subtitle: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will OR How To Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.
  2. Gospel Fluency — In the Christian’s spiritual life either at the beginning or at a point of revival or re-commitment, he or she must encounter the reality that the gospel of Jesus Christ is EVERYTHING. When it is replaced by some counterfeit, the whole of Christianity crumbles. Jeff Vanderstelt places the gospel on the throne of the spiritual life.
  3. Exploring Christian Theology — If Ryrie is a little too old school for you, then try this three-volume set. Don’t worry; each volume isn’t too terribly long. The authors are professors whom I spent time with in seminary, and they have really put together a great beginner’s theology that also connects with the devotional life.
  4. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy — And may I add, single guy. Bonhoeffer was engaged, and he has some other books on that particular topic. However, his engagement was cut short. Eric Metaxas’ biography shows how God was at work in Bonhoeffer’s life and how he redeemed the time during evil days.
  5. Your Money Map — This book by Howard Dayton is one in a long line of succession from Larry Burkett’s influence. As a single Christian, one of the most beneficial things I did was to complete a financial workbook that gave me a sense of what God has to say about money. Single or married, a person needs to know how to handle money, or it will handle you!
  6. Living Together — In a world where cohabitation is on the rise and viewed as a smart thing to do, this book offers biblical insight and wisdom on the matter, particularly for those who find themselves in a situation to give advice. It’s written by my former pastor, Jeff VanGoethem. All the research says the same thing—cohabitation lays a poor foundation for marriage as a sacred covenant and as a life-long commitment. Single adults need to wake up about this, and the church needs to know how to approach the trend with grace and truth.

There are many more books that could or should be included. but these are some with which I have become familiar. I hope that you’ll let me know what book or stories God has used in your life as a single person. Face the challenges with courage. Embrace the joys with great delight. Remember that Jesus loves you; he has not lost track of you in the crowd. May the church be blessed by your presence.

Building a People Full of Jesus

Fresh Proclamation of an Ancient Vision

In 2015, we began having conversations about the vision of West Lisbon Church. For the Christian Church, vision is not something that we have to create out of thin air. God has revealed his vision in Jesus Christ. We are charged with a stewardship of that gospel vision—a fresh proclamation—in this culture and among the people of this generation. Awhile ago, I preached a short sermon series on the book of Haggai, whose message is an important one for a historic church seeking God afresh. Haggai wrote to the people of Judah, who had returned from exile. His vision for a fresh experience of the presence of God caused him to challenge the returning exiles to rebuild the house of the Lord.

For West Lisbon Church, we want Jesus in every heart, head, and hand, and the members of WLC commit to moving people who love God into deeper discipleship experiences with God resulting in activities and relationships that glorify God and advance the gospel in our community and world. Haggai’s message of revival can encourage us as we seek to participate in God’s mission.

Consider Your Priorities

Through the decree of Cyrus the Great (538 B.C.E.), which was later confirmed during the reign of Darius I (522–486 B.C.E.), the Jews were permitted by the Persian Empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. The Persian emperors did more than simply permit the return and rebuilding; they also provided security and resources for the project (see Ezra 6:1–15) until the completion of the temple in March of 515 B.C.E. Despite the support from the Persian emperors, the rebuilding project ceased around 536 B.C.E. and did not begin again until the prophetic ministries of Haggai and Zechariah in 520 B.C.E.

Like many of the prophets, we do not know much about the prophet Haggai’s personal background. His name means “festal,” which has given scholars fodder for conjecture: (1) perhaps he was born at the time of a festival; (2) perhaps such a name anticipated the timing of the prophet’s ministry—“1:1 on the New Moon’s day, 2:1 on the seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles, and 2:18 on the day when the ‘foundation’ of the temple was laid”; or (3) perhaps “Haggai” is not the prophet’s real name but a name given to the author because of the calendar events associated with the prophet’s ministry.

Further, little is known about Haggai’s “exilic experience.” Some conclude that Haggai was an older man who saw the glory of Solomon’s temple (see 2:3) and that he was either one of those who returned from the Babylonian captivity or one who had remained in the desolate Jerusalem until others returned. Others suggest that Haggai was a younger man who was born in Babylon and traveled to Jerusalem after the decrees of the Persian emperors.

Regardless of his background, the prophet Haggai bursts into the lives of a discouraged population in Jerusalem with a brief but powerful ministry during which he communicated a single-minded message that reoriented the spiritual center of the people and the leadership. To the surprise of the reader of the prophetic literature, the people respond in obedience! Haggai’s message to the leaders and inhabitants of Jerusalem is to “Consider Your Priorities” (1:5, 7; 2:15, 18). The leaders and people had established priorities in their lives that were inconsistent with their covenant responsibility and covenant loyalty to the Lord. For example, 1:4 reveals that the people were busy about building their own homes while the house of Lord remained in a state of ruin. The glory and pleasure of the Lord had taken a backseat to the people’s comfort to which the Lord responded with judgments according to the stipulations of the covenant (1:5–6, 9–11; cf. Deut. 11:13–17). The Lord stirred the hearts of the leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, and the people to respond with obedience by rebuilding the temple of the Lord (1:12–15) as Haggai encouraged them with the promise of God’s presence (1:13), to be strong in the Lord’s presence and fear not (2:3–5), and to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty (2:7–9). Upon responding to Haggai’s message to “Consider Your Priorities,” the temple was eventually rebuilt—stirring hearts for the return of the Lord’s glory, presence, and blessing upon his people.

A House Made of People Who Are Full of Jesus

Haggai’s implications for the church today are numerous. The western church has largely become inundated with marketing, entertainment, and consumerism. Let’s be honest; it’s the culture we swim in. Sometimes our culture can be harnessed to draw people to Jesus, and other times our culture hinders drawing people to Jesus. Are we building our own houses and our church facilities with “wood paneling, gold, and silver”? Are we really building the house of the Lord? The house or temple being built according to the New Testament revelation is the Church of Jesus Christ—composed of people—living stones—from every nation because of the peace of salvation secured for us by Jesus Christ (see Eph. 2:11–22; cf. 1 Pet. 2:1–5). The message of Haggai to “Consider Your Priorities” could not be more relevant.

Are we willing to truly build the Lord’s house through relationships that involve evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:18–20)? Gaining church members from other local churches by means of attractions is not really building the house of the Lord; it’s not real church growth. Instead of reaching people who already know and who already grow in Jesus, let’s reach the lost and broken. Let’s reach the forgotten. Let’s reach those who have wandered away from God’s house. Let’s make it a priority to offer them the life-giving message of Christ crucified and resurrected. Let’s provide a warm and effective fellowship family in which these new believers grow, mature, and make an impact for generations. Conversions and disciple-making build up the house of the Lord. God’s call to us is to consider our priorities knowing that he is with us and that we are desperate for him to set our hearts ablaze for the sake of his house.

The Surrender of Thanksgiving

Grabbed by Gratitude

It stopped me in my tracks. Twice. In the same morning even. What was it? Thankfulness. The first time, a song provoked it, and the second time, a story in an upcoming film about a changed life connected to my heart. I felt genuinely thankful, particularly for my wife and children. Lyrics and stories have a way of moving and stirring our emotions.

Hooray for Word Studies: Εὐχαριστέω

Bible readers find the theme of thankfulness throughout the pages of Scripture. In the New Testament, the verb εὐχαριστέω primarily conveys the act of expressing

. . . appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks (BDAG).

It is used 37 times in the New Testament. The occasions for these usages vary: (1) regarding provisions from God (Matt. 15:36), (2) in the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:23; Luke 22:19), (3) in reference to answered prayer (Luke 17:16; John 11:41), (4) obligatory thanksgiving (Luke 18:11; Rom. 16:4), (5) thanksgiving for NOT participating in something (1 Cor. 1:14), but most often, (6) it communicates thankfulness about the fellowship of believers (Eph. 1:16; Phil. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:2).

Spontaneous or Deliberate Thankfulness?

However, the Apostle Paul fashioned the word in a unique way in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. He issued it as a command:

. . . give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

This is the one and only use in the New Testament of the imperative form—εὐχαριστεῖτε. “Give thanks; appreciate; surrender thanksgiving.” But isn’t thankfulness better when it’s spontaneous? Is thankfulness genuinely thankfulness when it is commanded? I mean how many “You-should-be-thankful-s” are chronicled in the history of parenthood, right?!?! Our experience of the feeling of thankfulness is often unplanned, which may cause one to ask, “How does one get better at such a command? Do I simply try harder to feel thankful?”

This command is interesting to me, especially in light of the holiday anticipation building as we enter Thanksgiving season. As I experienced a surge of thankfulness this morning about my family, provoked by song and story and genuinely enjoying how I felt, I wondered if there is yet a deeper experience of thankfulness available . . . something more consistent, longer-lasting, sustainable, solid. Is thankfulness something that must come from outside of me; is it out of my control; a dormant emotion only stirred by some kind of external stimulus? Or is it something to which I have constant access, an affection internal and awake, and able to be wielded, controlled, surrendered, and given? If the latter, then where may I find such an endless reservoir of gratitude?

The Surrender of Thanksgiving: Exposition of 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, God reveals some things to us about giving thanks that cause pause. First, he qualifies the command “Give thanks” with a prepositional phrase that describes the circumstances during which we should obey it—in all circumstances. Wait, what? Literally, the translation is “give thanks in any and every, or in every respect or way.” Most Bible translations have adapted the English to read, “in all circumstances.” We are commanded to give thanks for any one circumstance that may come at us from the sum total of all circumstances. In other words, E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. Yikes.

Thanksgiving Commanded by God

Remember, a command implies that God has or is able to supply you with the necessary resources to obey the command. Notice also that the circumstances are not commanded to make people thankful, which would be worded like, “Circumstances, go and cause thankfulness among the people.” Rather, the readers (like you and me) are commanded to give thanks while living under varied circumstances. The command implies that the believer is in possession of thankfulness and then must choose to give it. Now, I think all of us can easily imagine turning over thanks for the joyous moments—straight A’s, making the team, winning the game (Go Lady Norsemen, btw), graduating, getting married, having the baby, going on vacation, church growth, career advancement, and the list could go on and on.

However, are we really to turn over thanks when we fail the class, when we don’t make the team, when we lose the big game, when circumstances delay graduation, when the boyfriend/girlfriend bails, when finances crumble, when the consequences of one bad decision keep piling up, when a child or a parent gets sick or dies, when the marriage fails, when the church splits, when the career tanks, and on and on? Does God really expect me to give him thanks in all circumstances?

Yes. Maybe the surrender of our thanks looks a little broken sometimes, but this is the command. He wants our thanks in any and every circumstance. Biblical thanksgiving seems to be the turning over of something that is both provoked and supplied by God again and again, rather than some uncontrollable emotion that suddenly sweeps over you by positive, external, spontaneous provocation. The giving of thanks is a matter of relationship between you and God. You can choose to give it or not to give it to God.

Thanksgiving in the Fullness of God

Back to the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The next sentence offers an explanation for the command to give thanks in all circumstances, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” A similar statement follows Paul’s command to be filled or controlled by the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18–20,

. . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In that passage, the giving of thanks is evidenced in the life of the believer who is yielding to the Spirit’s control. There again, as in 1 Thessalonians, the circumstances in which we give thanks are broad—always and for everything. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul explains that this always-giving-thanks-in-all-circumstances is God’s will. Comparing this to Ephesians 5:18, we may say that it is the Spirit’s aim.

I see here both the external motivation and the internal capability—both provided by God. The command to give thanks is the external word that comes from God to us, and that word is met in the believer with the aim of the Spirit, who dwells within and who aims to transform the believer into one who turns over thanks to God in all circumstances—making him or her thankful. In this way, the Christian is prompted both externally and internally to give thanks. The uniqueness of the Christian understanding of thanksgiving is that seemingly random circumstances are not in the driver’s seat, but rather our experience and relationship with God while living under a variety of circumstances.

Thanksgiving Under the Influence of Christ

Finally, the phrase “the will of God” is modified by two prepositional phrases: (1) in Christ Jesus and (2) for you all. What do these mean? Paul commonly employs the phrase “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus,” and what he seems to mean by it is the idea of “under the control of, under the influence of, or in close association with” (BDAG, 327–28).

Let me expand that a bit. We are commanded to give thanks in all circumstances because this is the will of God for people under the influence of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Something so influential, at the soul-level, has happened in Jesus Christ for believers rendering them capable of fulfilling God’s will and command to give thanks in all circumstances. What happened? His death and resurrection happened. In other words, Christ’s gospel is the key to your ability to obey the will of God by giving thanks in all circumstances—good or bad, hopeful or despairing. You function in every circumstance with death-defeating, eternally-securing, resurrection-powered love.

Thanksgiving Surrendered to God

Now, let’s get real for a minute. The influence of the resurrection of Christ moves the believer to give thanks to God in painful circumstances. It is truly a surrender of thanks. These surrenders surface on the battlefield of the soul against the sinful nature that longs to withhold thanks from God. This is why Romans 8:26 says,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Later on during the same day that I felt thankful for my family, I received a call from a friend that makes a pastor’s heart shudder and ask, “Why God?” And I, of course, don’t have that answer. Yet, I know that the greatest power and love on heaven and earth is available to those who call on the name of Jesus. When you or I see the hurting person give thanks in all circumstances, we witness that power and love on display. We witness firsthand the external command of God and the internal working of the gospel by the Spirit uniting to produce a thankful believer.

 

Advance the Indispensability of Jesus Together

The Surprising Dispensability of the Leader

The 2014 NCAA Football season for the Ohio State Buckeyes had as many twists and turns as your favorite roller coaster ride. On two occasions, injuries threatened to undo their successful run. As a fan of the Buckeyes, I remember watching the quarterback situation unfold, and after each injury thinking—“That guy is indispensable; the season’s over.” Each time, the next guy who stepped in proved me wrong.

In August, starting quarterback, Braxton Miller, was injured and out for the remainder of the season. Second-string quarterback, J. T. Barrett, replaced Miller, and he continued the Buckeyes success on the field. However, in November of that same season, Barrett was injured and would miss the remaining games, including any Bowl games or Championship attempt.

The weight of the season fell upon third-string, red shirt sophomore Cardale Jones. The first start of his college career took place in the Big Ten Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers. Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59–0 blowout victory. Next, he started in the Allstate Sugar Bowl against the number one ranked, the dreaded Alabama Crimson Tide. Jones led the Buckeyes to a Sugar Bowl victory, 42–35. Then, it was onto the National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks. Jones’ success continued and delivered a 42–20 win against the Ducks and a 2014 National Championship to the Buckeyes.

Over the years, I’ve had similar, personal experiences when I’ve had the privilege to work with young, pastoral interns. I am convinced that most if not all of them will accomplish far more than I ever will for the kingdom if they continue to follow our Lord faithfully. They will soon catch up and surpass me in the things that once made me their superior (i.e., the one leading the internship). Be it education, tech savvy, experience, networking, or ability; I am confident (and hopeful) that they will go far beyond whatever reach I may have in my lifetime for the gospel.

Which means this: I am dispensable.

The Dispensable Steward of the Indispensable Promise

In our study of Genesis, we are finishing up the Abrahamic story. He’s a pivotal figure in the unfolding of the program of God—his calling, his faith, his experience. Yet, he dies. He dies while the promises of God are barely realized. We can’t help but feel that the Patriarch of the patriarchs drew his last breath before his time—even if he was 175 years old.

Concerning Abraham’s death, Allen Ross writes in his commentary on Genesis entitled Creation & Blessing,

The message in this part is straightforward: believers will die, and so they must ensure that the work begun in them by God will continue as God desires. It may be through their children, children in the faith, or by some other means; but no one may personalize the program so that no thought is given to the next generation . . . Even though faithful believers die, the program of God to bless the world continues . . . We’re part of something much bigger than ourselves . . . No one is indispensable in God’s program. Good people die (some when they’re young and some when they’re old), and others take up the task to continue God’s program.

So, the question begs, “If I am dispensable (and I am), then what indispensable thing can I hand off to the next generation?” What thing of lasting, eternal substance and weight can I pass on that will endure — come what may in the world?

Think back to Abraham’s journey of faith. The longer he walked in the light of God’s promise, the more singular and pure his faith and devotion became to that promise. The major turning point happens in chapter 22, when he has to offer up Isaac. The writer of Hebrews gives us divine commentary on the event:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (11:17–19).

Whether it was his belief that God could raise Isaac from the dead, his actions to secure a burial site at the Cave of Machpelah in Canaan, or his efforts to select Isaac as his sole heir, all these things reveal that Abraham had finally captured what was truly indispensable — it was the promise. He realized that the promise was much bigger than him. Abraham may have been the initial partner in the bilateral agreement; he didn’t view himself as the sole owner and beneficiary of the blessings. The patriarch came to realize his role as the dispensable steward of the indispensable promise.

Now, don’t misunderstand. By saying that Abraham was dispensable, I’m not implying that he didn’t have worth as a person or that he wasn’t important to God — obviously he was and is. However, as the biblical story demonstrates, even he was replaceable. His own life and position was not superior to the program of God. Think of the links in a chain. Every link is important, and every link has to steward the weight that bears upon it for the whole chain to complete its purpose and job. Yet, we also recognize that a link in a chain can be replaced by the one who created it and gave it purpose.

Stewarding the Indispensable

As Abraham’s faith matured, he understood his stewardship better and his actions aligned accordingly. Here are three ways his mature faith strengthened his stewardship of the promise:

  1. He sacrificially stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God led him to believe in the power of God to raise the dead.
  2. He securely stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God caused him to make decisions that aligned with the details of God’s promise, regarding its location in Canaan.
  3. He selectively stewarded the promise. His faith in the promise of God brought a singular focus on God’s selection of Isaac.

Today, we are charged with being the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise of God in Jesus Christ. In what way has the story of Abraham challenged you to mature in your faith and stewardship of the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The power of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ—I believe—provides us with incredible room and liberty to steward the gospel sacrificially. Having demonstrated that he can raise the dead, what sacrifice is there that should cause us hesitation or doubt? At the end of Paul’s famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he writes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” The reality of the resurrection frees us to sacrificially steward the gospel for the next generation. Here’s the list of sacrifices mentioned in the New Testament, enabled by the power of the resurrection:

  • The Sacrifice of Our Bodily Activities for the Benefit of Others and the Glory of God (Rom. 12:1).
  • The Sacrifice of Selfless Love (Eph. 5:2).
  • The Sacrifice of Pouring Out Your Life for the Community (Phil. 2:17).
  • The Sacrifice of Generosity with Money (Phil. 4:18).
  • The Sacrifice of Praise, Good Deeds, and Sharing/Fellowship (Heb. 13:15–16).
  • The Sacrifice of a Spiritual Life (1 Pet. 2:5 and following).

When Abraham purchased the field and burial plot in Machpelah, he sent a clear message—“I believe the promise, and I’m not turning back.” What decisions do you need to make in order to prepare and position the next generation to receive and pass on the gospel?

I think one of the most important ways we can securely steward the gospel to the next generation is by making clear decisions that allow young people to see the unique value and power of the gospel in our lives. When they look at your bank statement, do they see a clear commitment to the gospel? Do they see the clear priority of the gospel in your family calendar? When they watch your marriage, do they see mom and dad clearly yielding to the Spirit in their dying to sin and raising to a new and better way? Do they see grandma and grandpa’s clear decision not to ever retire from ministry and service, even though they’ve retired from their vocations?

In Abraham’s day, Isaac was God’s clear choice. He was selective—he did not choose Ishmael or the sons of Keturah. The program of blessing selectively continued through Isaac. Today, God’s selection to continue his program of blessing is Jesus Christ, his beloved Son. Therefore, I believe that we selectively steward the gospel by making Christ visible to a watching world. “Throw some paint on the Invisible Man”; through our words and deeds, let’s give shape to Jesus and the announcement of his good news. Convict the world of sin; convince them of God’s love; and call them to the truth.

We learn from the apostles’ example in the book of Acts that the best way to help people “see Jesus” is to get out where they are with our works and message. While this may imply “leaving the building” so to speak, it may also mean employing the building and its programs or ministries to meet people where they are in life. So, if you believe that God has selected to continue his program of blessing through Jesus Christ alone, what are you doing to help paint this picture for people? How are you stewarding God’s selection of Jesus?

Blessing Beyond Our Lifetime

If we steward the gospel of Jesus sacrificially, securely, and selectively, then we will pass on that which is indispensable to the next generation. We’ll build momentum that will last beyond our lifetime. We will effectively be the dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. 

In the epic story of The Lord of the Rings there is only one truth, one promise that was indispensable — the ring of power had to be destroyed in the fire of Mount Doom. Before they destroyed the ring, everyone believed the fulfillment of the promise depended upon someone bearing the ring to the fire. After the fulfillment, everyone believed it to be the key event that ushered in an era of blessing.

Along the journey the team members who joined the fellowship to destroy the ring proved dispensable stewards of the indispensable promise. They sacrificed for it, secured it, and devoted to this promise with a singular aim. They advanced the cause together and experienced the blessings of the finished work together. By mature faith in the promise, they passed on blessing that would last far beyond their lifetime. Before us today is the opportunity to advance the indispensability of Jesus together. I pray that we’ll steward it well.