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.

Holy Week: Redemption Devotion Two

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Redemption in the New Testament

Redemption means freedom from bondage, which is secured by the payment of a price.” The “price” referred to here is the “ransom payment” required to deliver a person or thing from slavery or captivity. There are a number of dimensions into which the theme of redemption continues in the New Testament:

  • Setting free of the Jewish people from beastly kings and empires by the ransom price (Luke 1:68; 2:38; 21:28; 24:21)
  • Setting free from sin by the ransom price (Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 9:12, 15; 1 Pet. 1:18)
  • Setting free from the curse of the law by the ransom price (Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:13; 4:5; Heb. 9:15)
  • Setting free of our bodies by the ransom price of the legal adoption as sons (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14; 4:30; Heb. 11:35)
  • Setting free of opportunities/time/relationships from evil by the ransom price (Eph. 5:16; Col. 4:5)

The New Testament gets to the heart of why we need a more profound redemption and stronger Redeemer. Sin is at the root of the political, spiritual, physical, and relational slaveries encountered in our world, personal lives, relationships, and experiences. Sin has affected every person who has ever lived (cf. Rom. 5:12); therefore, it affects every institution, group, and activity of which people are a part. Until we get real about the problem (=sin), we can’t begin to get real about freedom.

Dimensions of New Testament Redemption

Political: Do you believe God cares about politics? Do you believe he cares about your politics? The righteousness or wickedness of nations and their leaders? Historically, we can observe that God frequently advanced his program by his sovereign activity over global politics. The redemption of Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s plan for an eternal kingdom of righteousness and peace that will eliminate every trace of the beastly kingdoms of the world (cf. Daniel 7). How can you partner with God’s kingdom agenda by redemptive living at the political level? Nehemiah, Esther, Daniel, and even Paul employed their political influence to advance God’s program and glorify him to nations and kings.

Spiritual: Jesus paid the ransom price to set you free from sin’s slavery—freed from its punishment with justification, freed from its power with sanctification, and eventually freed from its presence with glorification. He also paid the price to set you free from God’s law—its penalties, its demands, and its brand of righteousness. While God’s law is holy and good, it’s purpose was to make sin sinful. Now, the cross is where we discover the sinfulness of sin. We aren’t lawless; rather, we are filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Do you know how to walk by the Spirit and to be free from the law? Read Galatians. You’ll gain an understanding of redeemed spiritual living in Christ by the Spirit and learn how love for God and others sets the boundaries of our freedom (cf. Gal. 5:13).

Physical: Did you know that believers have been granted a legal right to inherit a new and free body on the future day of redemption? This is what is meant by “adoption to sonship” in Romans 8:23. God will set our bodies free from death, just as he did for his Son through the resurrection of his physical body. Through God’s legal adoption of believers in Christ, we now belong to him in life and in death, body and soul; therefore, we should glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20). Are you using your body as an instrument of righteousness or as an instrument of unrighteousness?

Relational: The way to “buy back” opportunities, time, and relationships from evil is through a sacrificial and evangelistic lifestyle filled by the Holy Spirit. It’s going to cost you. Redemptive living always costs, just as it cost Jesus his life. However, it also results in you becoming a life-giver, just like Jesus. By sacrificial worship in the community, we give life to the church. By sacrificial love and submission in our marriages, we give life to our spouses. By children sacrificing their wills in obedience and honor to their parents, we give life to them. By sacrificing the time to be a parent that teaches, we give life to our children. By sacrificing status and rights in order to serve the Lord in difficult situations, we give life to those around us. By sacrificing cultural expectations that are contrary to God’s will, we give life to others. By committing to the work and sacrifice of an evangelist, we give the words of life to needy sinners. What’s the New Testament’s response to evil days? Redeem the time. Take advantage of every opportunity and relationship. There are adventure and freedom in the sacrificial and evangelistic lifestyle of a life-giver. Will you redeem the time God has given you?

Holy Week: Redemption Devotion One

WLC Holy Week: Redemption Devotion for Monday, March 26th, 2018

Redemption in the Old Testament

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. There are a number of ways that redemption was practiced in the Old Testament. Here are a few:

  • Setting free of a criminal by the ransom price (Ex. 21:30; Isa. 63:4)
  • Setting free of land or property by the ransom price (Lev. 25:24, 29, 33, 51; Jer. 32:7–8)
  • Setting free of the firstborn by the ransom price (Ex. 11:1–12:7; 13:13–15; Num. 3:46–51; 18:16)
  • Setting free of the childless widow to the kinsman-redeemer by the ransom price (Ruth 4:6)
  • Setting free of the sinner from guilt and consequences by the ransom price of the covenant (Ps. 111:9; 130:7; Isa. 59:20)

In ancient Israel, a household typically designated a man to be the go’el or the redeemer. He was responsible for redeeming property. We might compare it to our practice of a father co-signing a car or education loan for his child. If necessary, he designates himself to pay the ransom price in order to set the child free from the bondage of debt. The Israelite go’el avenged a harmed or killed family member by seeking the legal ransom price from the guilty criminal. This is comparable to our legal definition of restitution. In a patriarchal society, a childless man who died suddenly was a great tragedy for his name and inheritance, and a childless widow entered a desperate condition (cf. Gen. 38). Therefore, ancient Israel practiced levirate marriage in order to redeem these situations. Finally, Israel’s God is the Supreme Redeemer, whom they trusted to deliver them from their enemies, who had taken them captive, like Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and to deliver them from their sins by his faithfulness to the new covenant.

As you think about redemption in the Old Testament today, notice that many of the applications pertain to family relationships. To “free” a family member from bondage always came at great cost to the redeemer. Notice too that the Old Testament speaks of redemption in both the physical and the spiritual realms.

Redemptive Living

Redemption for You:

Physical: Are there any areas of the natural, physical life (e.g., debt, crime against you, emotional or social trauma) in which you need redemption—freedom from bondage secured by someone willing to help with the price? What is your hope in the situation? Have you prayed about it? What other friend or family member may be able to help you navigate this? Are you willing to be honest with them?

Spiritual: Are there any areas in the spiritual life (sin’s temptations, guilt, consequences, Satan’s darkness, influence, or accusations) in which you need redemption? Jesus stands today as your Redeemer. Your Redeemer lives! He has paid the price. Have you singled out the spiritual problem? Have you referenced God’s word to see what it says about that topic? Have you written out your reflections—connecting what God says about this spiritual matter? Have you prayed about it? Have you found authentic fellowship with another man or woman to help apply Christ’s redeeming power?

Redemption for Others:

Physical: Are you in a position to redeem someone who has fallen on hard times, fallen into one of the bondages of the natural life? Inventory your resources and loved ones. Redeem where God may lead you. Remember, the one redeemed can’t possibly pay you back.

Spiritual: Jesus redeemed us by paying a ransom that we could never pay ourselves, nor repay. Have you experienced the power of the gospel in redeeming you from sin’s temptations, guilt, and consequences? Have you experienced freedom from Satan’s darkness, rule, and accusations? If yes, then you are in a position to help others find this freedom in Christ. Inventory your spiritual knowledge, resources, and your loved ones. Redeem where God may lead you. Even if you feel your spiritual experience or resources are meager—remember that our God is strong, and it is he who is at work in you.

The Seven Rings of Marriage

Rings As Seasons in Marriage

Next in the 2018 Messenger series on family and relationships, I hope to convince you to read a new book on marriage. A professor at Bible College used to tell us poor students that a good book was worth selling the shirt off your back to have in your library! This is one of those shirt-sellers! The name of the book is The Seven Rings of Marriage written by Jackie Bledsoe. The title is creative and memorable. Here’s how the chapters unfold:

Introduction
Chapter One: When Your Dream Becomes a Nightmare
Chapter Two: Begin with the End
Chapter Three: The 7 Rings of Marriage—An Overview
Chapter Four: Ring #1—Engagement RING
Chapter Five: Ring #2—Wedding RING
Chapter Six: Ring #3—DiscoveRING
Chapter Seven: Ring #4—PerseveRING
Chapter Eight: Ring #5—RestoRING
Chapter Nine: Ring #6—ProspeRING
Chapter Ten: Ring #7—MentoRING
Chapter Eleven: What Ring Are Your Wearing?
Chapter Twelve: End with the Beginning
Conclusion

Workable Hopefulness

I’ve read many books on marriage. This book is refreshing. It addresses real marriage problems, seasons, work, and celebrations from a biblical perspective. It’s theology is simple and solid. There’s tons of direct, measurable application points for each RING. I also appreciated the tone of the author when it comes to the messy and dirty moments of marriage. Bledsoe avoids what I’ll call “whiny hopefulness”—hope that’s laced with a grinding and annoying whine. Almost like, “There’s hope, but woe is me.” I totally get it, even been guilty of this myself—we live in the tension of both suffering and hope. Romans chapter eight affirms this already-not-yet reality in which we live. However, the solution in the messes of life and marriage is not to whine in the tension, but rather to persevere in faith, obedience, and to make good changes to restore God’s purposes for our lives. The author nails what I’ll call a workable hopefulness. He offers solutions to a husband and wife willing to put the gospel to work in their marriage.

Marriage Earthquakes

Let me give you a few examples from Chapter Seven: Ring #4—PerseveRING. He creates great word pictures to describe special trials in marriage. He describes these moments as Earthquakes and Storms. He describes an “Earthquake” in marriage as the release of built-up stress that has accumulated over time and causes severe disruption and upheaval. He gives a list of potential fault lines in marriage and then offers tips on how to survive a Marriage Earthquake by applying principles from the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) protocol dealing with earthquake safety:

First, DROP down to your knees before the earthquake knocks you down, meaning pray together about the fault line.

Second, COVER your head and your entire body if possible, meaning guard your mind and body.

Third, HOLD ON until the shaking stops—a marriage earthquake is a time to hold on tighter to your vows and your spouse. Here’s a quote: “The shaking will stop eventually. So don’t let go prematurely. When the shaking is over, you can pick up the pieces knowing you have survived something that destroys many other marriages” (189).

Marriage Storms

Regarding Marriage Storms, he parallels these with our constant concern and preparation for weather in day-to-day life. You can spot a storm coming from far away if you’re watching. Bledsoe observes five different hints that a marriage storm is approaching: (1) You have not spoken your spouse’s love language; (2) you have not been truthful; (3) communication is lacking; (4) you’re not praying together; (5) you have an island marriage (i.e., isolated from or not allowing other married couples to be involved in your life). Then, the author advises how to prepare for these storms: (1) Have your storm gear ready (e.g., Bible verses, babysitters for dates, agreement that no storm will end in divorce); (2) know that storms are not always going to be there; (3) have a storm crew; (4) create your weather patterns as best you can (i.e., if you know certain actions or inactions may generate a storm, what can you change or improve?).

Promises for Marriage

Lastly, in addition to talking about the hard work that is necessary when wearing the PerseveRING, Bledsoe reminds readers of seven Biblical promises for going through tough times:

You are unbeatable because God is always with you (Josh. 1:5)!
Things are working together, and good results will come from them (Rom. 8:28).
Despite the way life may look, you are a winner (Rom. 8:37)!
God wants to help you, and He will if you ask Him (Ps. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7).
Even in tough times, good things are happening (Ps. 112:4).
God’s grace is enough, and His power is strongest when we are weakest (2 Cor. 12:9).
The challenges you face now pale in comparison to the blessings you’ll receive (Rom. 8:18).

Final Thoughts

Chapters Six and Seven are my favorite in the book, probably because they apply to the things that are most important to this season in my marriage: I need to continue DiscoveRING who Aimee is and continue to learn how to love her well, even in this busy season of family and work. In Chapter Six, the author gives terrific lists for 25 Date Night Conversation Starters and 25 Fun Date Night Ideas. While these are my favorite chapters, Bledsoe has really put together a complete book on each season of married life.

There are other recent great works on Christian marriage—Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage and John Piper’s book called This Momentary Marriage—both of which dig into the theology behind Christian marriage. If you are looking for an amazing story, read my friend Rick Rood’s book entitled, Our Story . . . His Story. In this book, Rick tells the story of his experience of God’s grace and strength while he and his wife Polly battled an awful illness. I’ve personally appreciated The Seven Rings of Marriage by Jackie Bledsoe because of his ability to say exactly what I need to hear with just the right dosage of pain and positivity. Hey, a shot hurts, but when you need it, you need it. It’s been a refreshing read. Again, I strongly recommend this book for all those aspiring for a good and godly marriage.

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.