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.

Abram: Believer, Worshiper, & Proclaimer

The song titled “I’ve Been Everywhere” sparks a connection for most to Johnny Cash. Cash recorded the song in 1996. However, the song has a long history and broad impact. It was originally written by Geoff Mack, an Australian country singer, in 1959 and made popular by Lucky Starr in 1962. In the U.S.A., the song was made popular first by Hank Snow (1962), then Lynn Anderson (1970), long before Johnny Cash gave it a go. In addition to North America and Australia, the song also took flight in New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, parts of Asia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and a number of other places. Literally, the song has been everywhere (Yes, I did use wikipedia for this info ;-)).

In his day, Abram was a globetrotter. His family’s journey to follow the Lord (cf. Josh. 24:2; Gen. 31:53) took them on a +1,000 mile journey from the Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan, and eventually into Egypt and back to Canaan. We know that there was a stop at Haran along the way (11:31–32), where Terah spent his final days. In Haran, Abram received the call from the Lord, apparently the God of his father Terah, to leave his familiar land, relatives, and reputation and trust the Lord to give him a new land, a new people, and a new reputation. (12:1–2). The Lord then commanded him to be a blessing, promising that he would bless those who blessed Abram, curse those who took Abram too lightly, and that in him, the Lord would bless all the families of the earth. Later on as Scripture unfolds (cf. Matthew 1; Luke 3; Romans 4; Galatians 3–4), we learn that Jesus Christ is the divine aim of this promise, in whom God would succeed in bringing blessing to all the families of the earth.

Returning to Genesis 12:4–9, we find an example of obedient faith in Abram, in spite of tremendous obstacles—Sarah’s barrenness (11:30), Abram’s age (12:4), the pagan religion that permeated Canaan (12:6), and later on a forbidding famine (12:9). Not only do we see obedient faith in his leaving and clinging to the new things God promised him, but also we see two expressions of faith as he travels through the land of Canaan.

First, Abram worshiped God in a hostile environment. While he was surrounded by people who worshiped other so-called gods, Abram built altars in their midst as visible markers and expressions of his faith in the Lord. He built altars in 12:7 and in 12:8. The altar he built in Shechem, near the oak of Moreh, is significant for a number of reasons. First, he built it in response to God appearing to him. It marked God’s confirmation of his verbal calling to Abram while he was in Haran. Second, his worship was significant because of what the Lord promised—offspring and land—neither of which Abram had in his possession at that time. Third, his altar was significant because of where he built it. The oak of Moreh was most likely the location of a Canaanite shrine of worship. Abram was expressing his faith in the Lord in a very bold way. Lastly, his worship is significant because this place would not be forgotten by his descendants. His worship became legendary. Joshua would choose this place to call Israel to covenant renewal with the Lord at this same location (Josh. 24). The location of Abram’s second altar—between Bethel and Ai—would also not be far from the Israelite reader’s mind, as they recalled significant events that unfolded in those cities. Bethel, “the house of God,” was where Jacob had his dream (28:10–22) and became a place of covenant renewal for him (35:1–15). Ai recalls the battle that stifled Israel’s confident conquest due to disobedience and led to another time of covenant renewal (Joshua 7–8).

Second, Abram not only worshiped the Lord, but he also proclaimed the name of the Lord. This is most likely the meaning of the phrase “called upon the name of the Lord” in 12:8. Two commentators—Cassuto and Ross—believe that Abram had a history of proselytizing even before this. They understand the phrase “the people that they had acquired” in 12:5 to refer to proselytes, not to slaves or servants, because of the use of the Hebrew word nepes for “people.”

The beginning of Abram’s story is remarkable. It’s no wonder that Israel and the Church look to him as the quintessential father of faith. He left the familiar. He believed in the face of amazing obstacles. God spoke; Abram obeyed. He worshiped openly. He proclaimed so that others knew the Lord. He did all of this in a hostile environment and as he waited for God to accomplish what was yet unseen to him. Saint Augustine is quoted as having said,

God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity.

Now, we are not Abram. Abram is a unique, one-of-a-kind figure in Scripture. If you don’t think so, when was the last time God asked you to do what he asked Abram to do in Genesis 22? The answer is never! Nor would he. God was doing something special in and through Abram. Something that you and I benefit from by being found in Christ—the long-awaited “seed of Abraham” (Romans 4; Galatians 3–4). We also benefit from Abram’s example in spiritual living. It is impossible to please God—no matter who you are—without faith. Genuine faith obeys God’s word. Faith many times forces us to leave what is familiar to meet and serve God in something new. It has been said that the African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of nearly 35 feet in a single bound! Yet these amazing animals can be kept in an enclosure in a zoo with even a short, solid wall. The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will fall. There are always obstacles to trusting God—infertility, age, health, finances, hostile work or family environments, foggy futures, unexpected catastrophes. Abram shows us how to worship and proclaim the name of the Lord by faith, when the solutions and provisions are still distant and haven’t yet taken shape.

Two Cups & the Cup-Bearer: How Can You Be Sure That God Will Come to You in Peace and Not Judgment?

Two Cups

Good Friday is approaching, and in order to taste of its significance, let us turn to God’s word and discover what he has said about two cups. Now, what is a cup? What is the purpose of a cup? The purpose of a cup is to securely hold the contents (usually a liquid for drinking) deposited into it by the one who does the pouring.

The Cup of Wrath

First, consider the cup of wrath. God speaks frequently about this cup in his word. What do you think is inside this cup? The contents of this cup are the terrible wrath and awesome anger of God. Why has he poured such a cup? For whom has he prepared such a cup?

Here are some places in the Bible where the cup of wrath is mentioned or described:

Psalms 75:8 NET

For the LORD holds in his hand a cup full of foaming wine mixed with spices, and pours it out. Surely all the wicked of the earth will slurp it up and drink it to its very last drop.

Isaiah 51:17 NET

Wake up! Wake up! Get up, O Jerusalem! You drank from the cup the LORD passed to you, which was full of his anger! You drained dry the goblet full of intoxicating wine.

Jeremiah 25:15–29 NET

So the LORD, the God of Israel, spoke to me in a vision. “Take this cup from my hand. It is filled with the wine of my wrath. Take it and make the nations to whom I send you drink it. When they have drunk it, they will stagger to and fro and act insane. For I will send wars sweeping through them.”

So I took the cup from the LORD’s hand. I made all the nations to whom he sent me drink the wine of his wrath. I made Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, its kings and its officials drink it. I did it so Judah would become a ruin. I did it so Judah, its kings, and its officials would become an object of horror and of hissing scorn, an example used in curses. Such is already becoming the case! I made all of these other people drink it: Pharaoh, king of Egypt; his attendants, his officials, his people, the foreigners living in Egypt; all the kings of the land of Uz; all the kings of the land of the Philistines, the people of Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, the people who had been left alive from Ashdod; all the people of Edom, Moab, Ammon; all the kings of Tyre, all the kings of Sidon; all the kings of the coastlands along the sea; the people of Dedan, Tema, Buz, all the desert people who cut their hair short at the temples; all the kings of Arabia who live in the desert; all the kings of Zimri; all the kings of Elam; all the kings of Media; all the kings of the north, whether near or far from one another; and all the other kingdoms which are on the face of the earth. After all of them have drunk the wine of the LORD’s wrath, the king of Babylon must drink it.

Then the LORD said to me, “Tell them that the LORD God of Israel who rules over all says, ‘Drink this cup until you get drunk and vomit. Drink until you fall down and can’t get up. For I will send wars sweeping through you.’ If they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink it, tell them that the LORD who rules over all says ‘You most certainly must drink it! For take note, I am already beginning to bring disaster on the city that I call my own. So how can you possibly avoid being punished? You will not go unpunished! For I am proclaiming war against all who live on the earth. I, the LORD who rules over all, affirm it!’”

When I was nineteen years old, I began reading through the book of Romans. As I read through chapters 1-3, I realized that this cup that securely held the wrath of God was poured by God himself and was intended, not just for nations, but also for me to drink. God the great Judge of men and women demonstrated that I have broken all of his laws and worshiped other gods. As the first half of Romans 6:23 says, “the wages of sin is death.” God poured a cup of wrath for me.

However, the Scripture reveals to us that this same God who is angry and wrathful toward those who break his law is also a God who is merciful and gracious. Yet, how is it that this God has revealed to us that he is merciful and gracious enough that we may escape drinking the cup of his wrath? It’s like Abram in the OT asked, “How can I know that this will happen?” How can I know that God will be merciful?

Our Gracious Cup-Bearer

The cup of God’s wrath appears in the Gospels, but we may be surprised to find the cup in the hand of the Son of God. We may be even more stunned that instead of dishing it out to the nations, he himself drinks it.

Matthew 26:36-42 NET

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and became anguished and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” Going a little farther, he threw himself down with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me! Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “So, couldn’t you stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will must be done.”

Mark 14:36

He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

John 18:11

But Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath! Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

John 19:30

When he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

In his mercy and grace, the Father sent His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, out of heaven to earth so that he might drink the cup of wrath as our substitute and Savior. In a sense, he took on the role of servant by becoming the cup-bearer who tasted the devastating cup laced with the wrath of the holiness of God—a cup that was poured for humanity to drink because of our lawlessness and idolatry was consumed by the obedient, faithful, loyal Son of God! And he drank it all, even the dregs that had settled at the bottom of the cup. He drank this cup as he hung on the cross faithfully enduring the wrath of God that had been intended for you and me to drink. When he finished drinking, he said, “It is finished,” and he died. As cup-bearer of the wrath of God, he died in our place.

Because Jesus drank this cup that was poured out for you and for me, we call the Friday of Holy Week Good Friday.

The Cup of Salvation

Earlier, I mentioned that there is also a second cup. This is the cup that we will drink on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. If I may continue the analogy, Jesus is the resurrected cup-bearer who continually extends to us a cup of salvation, a cup of grace. It is not the drink itself that has become salvation for us. The liquid itself has not become the blood of Jesus. Rather, the cup and the bread testify to us down through history that the blood and body of Jesus were given over on the cross for the salvation of all those who put their faith in Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins and in his resurrection for eternal life.

You see, the cup and the bread of the Lord’s Table answer the question for us, “How can I be sure that God will come to me in peace and not in judgment?” I can with all assurance answer, “The Lord Jesus drank for me the cup of God’s wrath that was due me, and now I sit at the table of the Lord Jesus, where he himself extends to me the cup of the new covenant, in which is the forgiveness of sins by his own blood!”

The Heidelberg Catechism states,

First, as surely as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup given to me, so surely his body was offered and broken for me and his blood poured out for me on the cross . . . Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and the cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood.

Come to the Table

If you can say by faith that the Lord Jesus Christ’s body and blood were offered up for you, so that in his death you have the pardon of all your sins before God, and if you by faith can say that in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ you have the hope of eternal life forever with God, then you may partake of the cup and the bread. The Lord’s Table is a table of grace where sinners can come and sit down by faith and testify that they have indeed experienced the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life in the Lord Jesus Christ, because he drank the whole cup of wrath for my sake and now extends to me the cup of salvation. By partaking, we remember and proclaim the Lord Jesus’ death, and we are to do this until he returns for his people. I personally invite you to join us at West Lisbon Church for all of our Holy Week activities beginning this Sunday, April 9th through Easter Sunday, April 16th.

Merry Christmas Aleppo

citadel of aleppo

I’m not a professional in political science at the international level. I don’t know all of the inner-workings of the conflict that is raging in Aleppo, Syria. All I know is that I woke up and checked my newsfeed, just like many Americans this morning. CNN reported breaking news of the advance of Syrian forces, who were reported to be employing execution style methods to weed out the final population of rebels in eastern Aleppo. Then, I opened Facebook. My cousin had shared a video collage of certain Syrians giving perhaps their last moments and words to a watching world.

Sometimes, I hate the internet. I despise the mobility of information I’m exposed to from around the world. I muse, “If there were no internet, I wouldn’t know about all the horror in Aleppo.” Yet, for the very same reason, the internet is a great grace to us. It makes us aware of needs throughout our local, national, and international communities. I am aware of deep injustice and evil in the world, residing in the heart of humanity. I am aware of the need for the dawn of a new King, a new earth, and a new humanity—a new creation.

It’s Christmas time in America. Is it Christmas time in Aleppo? Choke that one down. There’s nothing pleasant about war, death, and starvation. While many of us will probably enjoy family, decorations, food, laughter, presents, the fruits of our labors, and reminders of the Incarnation, Aleppo will be weeping and mourning—families destroyed, decorations of rubble and bloodshed, hunger and starvation, wailing and crying, no provisions, let alone presents, fruit from vocational work as a distant memory . . . and will there be any reminders of the Incarnation?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. I hope so. It may be all that some have left—their faith in Jesus and the hope of eternal life. Aleppo has ancient roots in Judeo-Christianity. The Aleppo Codex (“The Crown of Aleppo”) was housed there for half a millennium, which significantly contributes to our understanding of the Hebrew Bible. Did you know that Aleppo is only an hour and a half drive (65 miles) from Antakya, Turkey? Antakya in the book of Acts is known as Antioch—the mission center from which the Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey. But today, Aleppo is in ruin and misery.

Remember that time Jesus chose to praise a Syrian over his own worshippers? In case you don’t, here’s the story for you,

“And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” When they [the residents of Nazareth] heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him [Jesus] out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.

(Luke 4:27–30 ESV)

Jesus’ praise of the Syrian caused such anger in his own people that they were ready to kill him. The message of course is clear — just as Naaman rather than the Israelites experienced God’s power, so would others rather than the residents of Nazareth experience the power of the Son of God.

You can read more about Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1–14. His name means, “one endowed with beauty” or “pleasantness.” It’s kind of an ironic name for a tough, military commander. It’s also an ironic name for a leper. There’s nothing pleasant or beautiful about war and leprosy.

Elijah and Elisha prophesied in Israel during an era when it was a spiritual wasteland. Oh, there was plenty of religious activity going on—plenty of prophets, plenty of sacrifices, plenty of altars, plenty of worship, plenty of gods, plenty of offerings, etc. Yet, it was very rare for a person in Israel to have an undivided heart for Yahweh, the true God of Israel. Hence, we have a number of stories from that era in which those outside of Israel graciously receive the miracles and the word of God. Naaman was one of those recipients.

God sprinkled his grace all over the story of Naaman. First, 1 Kings 5:1 reads,

. . . through him the LORD had given Syria military victories.

Wait, what? The God of Israel gave military victories to a Syrian commander? Yep. Paul House writes,

At first this claim may seem startling because Naaman is not an Israelite. However, 1, 2 Kings emphasize repeatedly God’s sovereignty over all nations and all people (271).

Second, God raised up help for Naaman from unknown, common sources. Elisha the prophet may seem to be the obvious hero in this story, but really, I think it’s the unknown servants who point Naaman to God’s healing power. The young Israelite slave girl shares the knowledge Naaman needs (1 Kings 5:2–3). Her suffering at the hands of a Syrian raiding party led to Naaman’s deliverance. She was like Daniel and Ruth—seeking the blessing of those around her despite their own sorrow. Later on, other servants approached him after the words of Elisha provoked his angry pride. They steered him away from pride and toward common sense—

“O master, if the prophet had told you to do some difficult task, you would have been willing to do it. It seems you should be happy that he simply said, ‘Wash and you will be healed.’” So he went down and dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the prophet had instructed. His skin became as smooth as a young child’s and he was healed.

(2 Kings 5:13–14 NET)

Lastly, God healed Naaman. He didn’t merely heal his skin disease; he converted his soul. He said in 2 Kings 5:15,

For sure I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel!

He responds to his new faith in the God of Israel by modes of generosity and worship (2 Kings 5:15b–17). He also has the insight to request forgiveness for the idolatrous duties wrapped up in his vocation (2 Kings 5:18–19), and recognizing the rare sincerity of his faith, the prophet tells Naaman to “Go in peace.” Such a discerning faith was not common in Israel during Elisha’s day.

Human Rights Watch reported yesterday, December 12th, that residents in eastern Aleppo have not received aid since July of this year. Civilians caught in the fray between opposition groups and Syrian forces are starving to death and are not receiving necessary medical treatment. Now, house to house executions are reported to have completed. One resident was reported as saying,

Massacres are happening and the world is watching.

This afternoon, news sources are now reporting that the Syrian forces have secured Aleppo and reached a ceasefire with the rebel opposition. Supposedly, the Bashar Al-Assad regime is ready to make way for overdue humanitarian aid.

In the very least, may we pray for God’s grace upon the Syrian people. Surely, we believe that God’s omnipresence and sovereignty extends over that nation.  Maybe God will use you. May God’s grace heal the wounds — body and soul — of the people of Aleppo. Lastly, may we, the Church, pray and seek God in a way dissimilar to the residents of Nazareth in Jesus’ day, but rather may we carefully and intentionally share in suffering where we can and pass on blessing as we’re able. May God’s grace restore and endow the people of Syria with beauty and pleasantness as he did for Naaman. Merry Christmas Aleppo. Merry Christmas.

What Is Revival? Part 3

Revival

What Is Revival? Part 3

This will be the third and final part to the Messenger series on revival. The previous two parts also entitled “What Is Revival?” are available online. In this third part of the series, I’d like us to consider our cultural moment. Alvin J. Reid wrote a book entitled Firefall 2.0: How God Has Shaped History Through Revivals. Throughout the book, Reid indicates that cultural moments of upheaval and uncertainty can become moments of opportunity for the people of God to seek him for revival.

Looking out over our upcoming election and cultural climate, I feel that we Americans together must not neglect our ownership of this cultural moment. I believe that we are in such a time of upheaval and uncertainty that God’s purpose for us now is to return to him in desperate, repentant prayer. The two major party candidates—regardless of what we think of either of them—largely represent our corporate choices. They represent us. Even if they were not the primary choices of some, we all contributed to this cultural moment. Nationally, we have committed sins against God, against our neighbors, and against the weak among us. Nationally, we have neglected obedience and faith toward God, resulting in injustice, a lack of mercy, and a twisting of truth and goodness. The time has long passed for us to “argue with God” or to “defend our righteousness” before him. He won’t hear these defenses. He’ll only hear repentance. The righteousness that we offer him is stained and filthy. Eugene Peterson’s rendering of Romans 1:32 says it best,

And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!

It’s time for us to find our need for the gospel of Jesus Christ afresh.

Therefore, if these two candidates are descriptive of our general, national spirituality and character—and I believe that they are—then we must hit our knees and avoid bartering with God about a winner. There is no winner for us between these two. It’s like having to choose between Jeroboam or Rehoboam, like choosing between Ahab or Jezebel.

Here are five devotional thoughts—in no particular order—on biblical living for this current cultural moment. First, let’s agree with God about our guilt in this cultural moment. To our knowledge, Daniel lived a life that we all would describe as faithful to God. He was loyal to the point of facing death multiple times in key cultural moments for the people of Israel. Yet, read his prayer in chapter 9. In response to what he reads in the word of God, he owns the sins of his nation before God. He doesn’t excuse himself from the corporate sins of Israel. Let’s stop fighting for what we want, and start asking God what he loves. It’s an opportunity for the church to humble herself and repent and seek God afresh.

Second, pray carefully about our vote. There are many perspectives about how Christians should vote. Some say that we should vote for “the lesser of two evils.” Some see a vote cast for either major party candidate as approving a liar and adulterer on the one hand or a murderer and crook on the other hand. Others say vote for the Vice President that you prefer. Some say that a widespread Christian silence should be our voice in this election. Others say to be loyal to your party while being critical of its failures in attempts to reform from within. Some are considering starting or joining a new political party. Others plan to write-in the primary candidate that they had hoped would make it into the national election. The multiplication of our reasonings reveal the trouble in our hearts about this cultural moment. May God graciously persuade our national heart to accomplish his will—whatever that may be.

Third, pray for the candidates. Proverbs 21:1 in the ESV reads,

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.

One of them will be our president. Interestingly, the apostle Paul instructed his son in the faith, Timothy, to pray for leaders even while they were living under Emperor Nero. Christian historian, Justo Gonzalez, quotes the Roman historian, Tacitus, to remind us of Nero’s cruelty to Christians that followed his false identification of them as the ones who started the great Roman fire,

Before killing the Christians, Nero used them to amuse the people. Some were dressed in furs, to be killed by dogs. Others were crucified. Still others were set on fire early in the night, so that they might illuminate it. Nero opened his own gardens for these shows, and in the circus he himself became the spectacle, for he mingled with the people dressed as a charioteer, or he rode around in his chariot. All of this aroused the mercy of the people, even against the culprits who deserved an exemplary punishment, for it was clear that they were not being destroyed for the common good, but rather to satisfy the cruelty of one person (The Story of Christianity, vol. 1, 35).

My brothers and sisters, if Paul could instruct his young pastoral protege and his church plants to pray for Emperor Nero and for a Roman culture that so despised the very existence of Christians, then I think we can pray for these candidates and for our neighbors regardless of their present political views. It is this kind of peaceful prayer that commends the gospel to a watching world. Read the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah in 1 & 2 Kings and in 1 & 2 Chronicles. You realize quickly that the story of every nation is one woven by the reigns of both good and wicked leaders. However, you also learn that there is a God who intervenes, hears prayer, and acts to accomplish his redemptive purposes throughout the whole earth for his glory.  Chuck Colson famously exhorted that our hope does not come out of Air Force One. May we be found as a people praying to this end for every candidate on the ballot.

Fourth, pray for the transition of power to result in the expansion of the gospel in our own nation and into the global community. It is true that moral and ethical legislation can be a common grace to all of us, but Christians know that real change results in the new birth of the human heart. This is why we need revival. The only news on earth that effects such a change of heart is the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lift up your eyes and look beyond to what God’s interests are in our world. He’s neither a Republican nor a Democrat. He has accomplished his aims throughout history in countries ruled by democracy, socialism, communism, dictatorships, monarchies, and even nations supposedly ruled by the theocracy of a false god. What I am saying is this: be more confident in your God to accomplish his purposes in our cultural and political moment than the political imaginations of humans. If anything else, allow this election season to solidify your identity in Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

Lastly, let’s be directly thankful to God for what we’ve been given. It is difficult to locate gratitude and thankfulness in the current climate. But honestly, how bad is your life right now? Really, how bad is it? Expressing thankfulness to God has a way of softening our hearts and a way of decreasing our complaints—even in times when it is genuinely and terribly bad. Remember the old hymn “Count Your Blessings” written by Johnson Oatman Jr.,

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,

When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,

Count your many blessings, name them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Refrain:

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your blessings, see what God hath done;

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?

Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?

Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,

And you will be singing as the days go by.

When you look at others with their lands and gold,

Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;

Count your many blessings, money cannot buy

Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,

Do not be discouraged, God is over all;

Count your many blessings, angels will attend,

Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

Perhaps, the Lord will graciously give a revival to our countrymen and women like he has in times past. I am thankful to be able to vote. I hope you are too, even given the circumstances. The pastoral role in these moments should continue to point people to God. We have one God and Savior, and he unfortunately will not be on the ballot this Tuesday. However, let us not forget that it is he who truly reigns over the affairs of the world as the Psalmist reminds us,

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting” (Psalm 93:1–2).

The Lord is an ancient monarch, who establishes the earth by the permanence of his rule. He’s seen it all. May this election cycle cause a renewed longing on the ballot of our hearts for the rule and hope of this ancient King of humanity.

What Is Revival?

Revival

Growing up in Scioto County, Ohio, I remember many little churches decorating the landscape. Every now and then, you would see on the outdoor church sign something like this: “Revival! Sunday through Friday! 7pm each night! Come on out and join us!” As a kid, teenager, and young adult, I attended many of these meetings. There was a very predictable format—a special and very dynamic speaker would be invited; the revival was scheduled; many times special musicians were also brought in, and the altar calls didn’t end until somebody made their way down the aisle.

I think that I was part of a real revival once in that Appalachian country. However, it wasn’t scheduled or coordinated. It also happened at multiple places, rather than at one local church. It wasn’t the result of a solitary, drawn out altar call. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Lord may very well use all of those things—and has before—but the revival I think that I was a part of didn’t fit that repeatable, copyable, scheduled pattern employed over and over again by churches in my hometown area.

Tim Keller spoke on A Biblical Theology of Revival (a.k.a. What Is Revival?) at the 2013 The Gospel Coalition Conference. It is definitely worth an hour of your time. If it doesn’t stir your heart into longing for revival, then maybe you should check your pulse! I’d like to summarize and share some of my own thoughts from Keller’s comments on biblical revival.

Since there are many descriptions and definitions out there on revival, it helps to begin with the same: Biblical revival is “the intensification of the ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit” (Keller). So, it is the Holy Spirit doing what he already does, but in a more intense way. What are these ordinary operations? There are 4 that Keller highlights: (1) conviction of sin (John 16:7–11), (2) conversion (Acts 16:14–15; Titus 3:3–7), (3) giving of assurance (Ephesians 1:13–14), and (4) sanctification (growth in holiness) (Romans 8:1–11). The Holy Spirit certainly does more than this in the Christian life, but these are the intensified Holy Spirit operations when there is revival.

When the Holy Spirit intensifies these operations of his, three things seem to happen. First, sleepy Christians wake up. Sleepy Christians are neither happy nor sad enough, Therefore, they do not experience high assurance of salvation (the Spirit bears witness to my spirit — Romans 8:16), nor do they experience deep repentance (godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation — 2 Corinthians 7:10). The difference between a sleepy Christian and an awake Christian can be illustrated in the relationship of a father and a son. A father and a son share a legal relationship. It can be declared that the son is in fact the son of the father and vice versa. I can be officially documented on the birth certificate. Now, imagine when a father embraces his son. The son is not legally more a son, but he is certainly experiencing sonship in more than a legal way.

Second, the nominal Christians get converted. Nominal Christians are those who are baptized, church attending people, but during revival they will come and say, “I was never really a Christian.” These are surprising conversions: church leaders, spouses, long-time members, etc. During times of revival, the Holy Spirit goes through the church, and this is consistent with the pattern of Scripture. When God wants to do a fresh work—be it for judgment or for redemption—he starts with his people.

Third, hard or seemingly impossible to reach non-Christians are powerfully converted. Those dear ones out on the fringes that seem beyond the reach of the church and even God encounter the long arm of God, and the Holy Spirit generously and gloriously converts their souls by the gospel. When sleepy Christians wake up and nominal Christians are converted, the Holy Spirit beautifies the church, even to non-Christians.

Revival, brothers and sisters, is what we need, because it results in both adoration and attraction. An internal shift occurs in our posture toward God resulting in changed lives. If this is what you long for, then the best thing to do is to ask God for it in your own life. Pray for God to wake up, convert, and to reach out. Better still, start a prayer meeting with others to pray for revival. If we ask, seek, and knock, perhaps the Lord will kindly unlock an entry for us into such an experience (Col. 4:2–6).

Returning to my story, once I—a nominal Christian—was truly converted, I returned to the church of my youth to discover that a number of my peers had experienced the same thing. I would describe some of the older Christians around me at that time as having been awakened from slumber! In a very small, rural church, I became one of seven men, who felt a call into full-time gospel ministry. It was very unusual. To my knowledge, five of those seven are still serving in ministry in some capacity. We wouldn’t have probably described it as revival back in those days, because revival to us was predictable and scheduled. However, looking back and knowing what I know now about revival, I think that I experienced a small taste of it, and I long for it again.

2016 WLC Pastoral Intern: Seth Larson

Getting Started

Before I started my internship with Rex Howe, I believed that a pastor’s’ role in a church is to lead the congregation that God has placed him to lead. I still believe this, but I now realize that I thoroughly underplayed the role of a pastor in a church, but I will get back to that later.

I decided to enroll in this internship during the winter of 2015. I had been in close contact with my friend, Mitch Friestad, and he expressed that he enjoyed his time in the year previous with Rex as his intern. Once I told Rex about my ambitions to become his intern, he asked me what I wanted to get out of the internship. I had no idea. I think he could tell by my expressionless look that I was racking my brain to find an answer to a question that, to a normal person, should have required no thought . . . But I’m no normal person. Rex began listing off different things that we could go over as an internship. He mentioned things like biblical theology, pastoral ministries, missions, apologetics, and religious philosophy. My ears perked up when he said apologetics. I have always enjoyed the art of defending the Christian faith. There had been times when I was at work or I was at school, and someone would bring up their doubt or hatred of Christianity, and I was immediately happy, because that meant I had the opportunity to, “Give an answer to anyone who asks me for the reason for the hope that is in me” (1 Peter 3:15b). So, Christian Apologetics is where we decided to focus the internship.

Ministry Description and Experience

Studying 1 Peter 3:15, we discovered that there are two kinds of apologetics—a professional, academic kind and a pastoral, equipping the lay congregation kind. Because of these two distinct paths, we also decided to briefly dive into what it looks like to be a pastor of a church, on account that I would like to be a pastor some day. Through the course of the internship, we read 2 books. One titled, Apologetics for a New Generation by Sean McDowell, and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. Both of these books were amazing. We also read most of the Gospel of John. We also watched a series of apologetics videos by Voddie Baucham such as how to use apologetics appropriately and expository apologetics. Towards the end of my internship, we did a project. I asked my peers what they thought was the number one spiritual question that their peers asked. We received a ton of great feedback. When the poll was finished, the most voted question was, “How can a good God allow pain and suffering?” As it turned out, Rex has a friend named Rick Rood (author of Our Story . . . His Story) who was very qualified to answer this question. I then spent a day finding eleven sub-questions[1] related to the main question of God, pain, and suffering. We made contact with Rick through Skype, a computer software that allows face-to-face video chatting, and asked him all of the sub-questions that I developed:

  1. Does God have control over my pain?
  2. If God allows these things to happen (pain and suffering), then does he love/care for me?
  3. Is there a bigger plan to my pain?
  4. Do other religions have an explanation as to why there is pain and suffering? If so, what are they?
  5. Does God understand/sympathize with our pain?
  6. Can God take away my pain or suffering? If so, why doesn’t God take away my pain/suffering?
  7. Does God find joy in my pain and suffering?
  8. Is my pain or suffering always the consequence of something that I have done?
  9. What part do I play in rededying my pain?
  10. How does the theme of pain and suffering develop in God’s story?
  11. How do I become a blessing to those who are in pain and suffering?

We recorded the conversation. I then did a two-week bible study at West Lisbon that involved showing the youth group the footage of the video conference between us and Rick via iMovie, and the second week I talked to the youth group about apologetics. Both of these went very well.

Internship Reflections

I remember at the end of the year thinking “I learned so much about apologetics, but I didn’t learn as much about how to be a pastor.” I didn’t have many one-on-one conversations about what it’s like to be in the pastoral ministry like we did with apologetics. Then I thought, maybe he was teaching me a little differently. Then I realized, I think that he was teaching me, just without talking. He led by example. He showed me how to be a leader by never being afraid to pause our internship to help anyone that came into the church that needed to talk to him. He taught me to be spontaneous by going to subway and reading John just because it was beautiful outside. He taught me to not be afraid to talk in front of people by having me do a bible study in front of my peers for two weeks. He showed me that to do what God calls me to do, I have to be willing to do the hard things, like when he truly showed me how much he preps for a Sunday sermon and how much work that entails. And finally, he showed me the imperativeness of mentoring others and sharing your knowledge with others. He did this by being gracious enough to allow me to study under him for a semester of school and gain some of the knowledge that he holds.

So now, when I think of all of the things that a pastor does, it isn’t a once every seven day gig. It is a nonstop job that only few have been given the gifts from God to carry out. My words can’t do a justice to what this internship has done for me, and I hope and pray that I am not the last to receive all that has been given to me in the last year. And above all, I thank God and Rex for all that I have learned since January.

Sincerely,

Seth Larson

2016 WLC Pastoral Intern

[1] Rick’s answers to these questions are available and can be printed or emailed. Please contact Pastor Rex to get a copy.