God, Our Contender

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

Jacob and Peter seem like spiritual brothers in my mind. Both carried a profound calling in their lives but didn’t quite grasp the process it would require to develop them in order to maximize it. Thus, we read about their lives with fascination and some puzzlement, at least I do.

Jacob, with a godly heritage, is that guy in every church who respects God and spiritual things but resists the calling he knows is on his life; he isn’t quite ready to give up his game. It’s not his M.O. right now—“I’m not ready for all that”—that is, until God has to get in his face.

Is not that encounter at Jabbock one of the most riveting accounts in scripture? All of Jacob’s years of impartation and resistance come to a singular moment of judgment. I believe the fight actually occurred, but it isn’t difficult to allegorize and deem that here was a moment of crisis in which God gripped Jacob’s heart and gave him the psychological and spiritual fight of his life.

Have you ever fought to the death of your will? Has the call of God ever overwhelmed you…pinned you to the wall?

But what grips me about the story is Jacob’s surrender. In a flash he goes from self-reliance and stubbornness to “I won’t let you go until I have all of you!”

Do You Love Me?

Sounds a little like Peter—“Then wash my hands and head, Lord, not just my feet!” This is Simon whom Jesus renames Peter, don’t forget that. (Didn’t that happen at Jabbock, too? Hmm.)

I really cherish Peter in the scriptures. Some people find their own humanness in the Psalms, Paul’s transparency, and elsewhere; but I discover myself in Peter. I’m not sure if there is a more honest biblical character. I read about him and think, I am Peter.

Peter spent a few years as the closest to Jesus of the disciples. Yet he reminds us of a toddler just learning to walk, sometimes standing, even running, other times stumbling and falling. Peter shows us glimpses of enlightenment—“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and “If it is you, bid me to come”—and equal measures of ineptitude and failure—“Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will!”

Still, Peter may have had one of the deepest loves for Jesus.

I recall him outrunning John to the tomb after the report of Jesus’s body being gone. Then, while he and a few of the disciples fished, John identifies the resurrected Christ by his instruction to them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat: “It is the Lord,” John says.

And at that this rough-hewn fisherman wraps his garment around him, leaps out of the boat, and swims to where Jesus stood. Although Peter was at times unstable and insecure, Jesus had made an indelible impact on him.

God’s Will with Our Pain

Like Jacob and Peter, I’ve discovered that the life of faith is not convenient, especially to the imperfections of my heart that ultimately resist the best God has for me. Sometimes I wonder, however, if God doesn’t allow the disappointments and internal conflicts to surface in us to bring us to a place of surrender.

Hosea says, “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (6:1). Only if you’ve gone through such hardship yourself or with others can you understand how a person’s insolence and weaknesses may actually accomplish the will of God.

After denying the Lord the third time, John relates that the cock crowed and Jesus turned and looked straight in Peter’s face. That had to be the worst moment in Peter’s entire acquaintance with Jesus—and he runs away and cries his eyes out.

But where we might ridicule and excoriate him, God is getting his way with Peter. In fact, he just might have him…and Jacob…and your brother, daughter, or co-worker exactly where he wants them—broken and in submission. They have wrestled with God long enough and now God will wait no longer to prove his sufficiency for them. God gets the best of us to get the best out of us.

The late Dr. Adrian Rogers used to say, “The will of God is the thing we would want for ourselves if we had the sense to want it!”

Thank God that he’s patient with us and uses even our mistakes and hang-ups, our malice and carnality to break our own hearts and wrestle us into submission, as only he can. Our assurance lies in a grace that rescues us from ourselves.

So we can have hope that our friends and loved ones, perhaps out of control right now, are, by prayer and the mercy of God, being steered into the very heart of the kingdom.

Read more on the topic: John the Baptist

The God We Cannot Hear

CC BY-NC, davidgsteadman, Flickr

CC BY-NC, davidgsteadman, Flickr

I drew comparison between a parable of Jesus and an idea being debated in a group discussion. A person quickly replied, “You can easily use a scripture to justify your own point.” It was the last statement of the session before we all dispersed; however, I left a little irritated.

The comment offended me for a few reasons. First, it came from a person who knows me very well, my love of the scriptures and diligence with them. So it peeved me that he could think that I should be guilty of sloppy study and a sleazy hermeneutic. His comment was a slap in the face that charged, “You’re like the rest of ‘em, twisting God’s words to prove your own point.”

Second, I recognized how that attitude renders Holy Scripture an abstruse, even esoteric, text irrelevant to 21st century life and modern thought. For either we believe as Solomon said—“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—and accept that moral and ethical values have been fairly consistent throughout history, making the wisdom of the Bible very much relevant for us today; or we deem life now and ourselves to be exceptional and devalue the Bible and all historical wisdom since they cannot make sense of our experience.

In that case, my only advice to my friend would be, “Okay, just make sure you never use the Bible or some ancient proverb to make a point”—or to live by. We cannot have it both ways, or feel that God’s words comport with any measure of moral relativism.

The truly frightening thing is the possibility that some of us have made the scriptures to say only what we’ve cared to hear. Yet in so doing, we would have merely elucidated falsehoods, which is something Jesus tackles in his Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard it said”—because oral tradition, reinterpretation, and commentary had altered and appended God’s own words to claim something he had not said—“but I say unto you…” Jesus’s point stands: don’t misconstrue God’s sentiments. And don’t use him to push your own program but chafe when the Word finally judges you.

The real issue here, in the remark made to me, is certainly not my agenda with scripture, but rather the glaring admission of a poor spiritual foundation and lack of deep study.

Friends, we are not charmers or peddlers of a religious snake oil. We haven’t died to sin and reckoned ourselves ready to die for Christ’s sake for a false hope. No, God’s words are true and powerful, very relevant to life, and will forever stand.

Caring Enough to Correct

CC BY-NC, FreddieBrown, Foter

CC BY-NC, FreddieBrown, Foter

In college I started a Friday night event on my wing called Midnight Monopoly. It was a leisure outlet for those of us who didn’t work or have other entertainment to make fete of an otherwise boring evening. It was always a fun time.

One night roommates joined the game; as we played, one made an innocent joke about the other. It was not received well, however, and the other guy spitefully and openly countered with the sharpest, crudest remark he could muster. Everyone quickly overlooked the comment, but I sat there appalled. I was the wing chaplain and decided to let it pass and confront the guy once the game ended.

In my room with him, I addressed the comment—how ugly and unchristian it was and expressed to his own roommate and spiritual brother. How could he say such a thing? I explained that he needed to apologize and simply repent. I wasn’t trying to be a dad, but it sure felt like it. The comment had offended and angered me.

Well he didn’t like it. He left abruptly and said nothing to me for two weeks—that is until a knock at my door one evening. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” He explained that he had thought very much about what I had said to him and felt convicted. He acknowledged his wrong and thanked me for having the courage to challenge him. He also stated that he had apologized to his roommate.

The Profitability of Correction

Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Challenging others is never easy, even when done lovingly. Some people let offenses and bad behavior go unchallenged rather than making folk accountable for them. But this is wrong and unloving.

It is also a false conception to think we can become successful or mature individuals, even good Christians, if we fail to submit to correction. Accountability safeguards character by cultivating wholesome traits and challenging negative ones. Correction, a form of accountability, is essential to personal growth and also God’s plan for us. Being non-teachable and prideful, however, causes us to miss valuable lessons and costs us in the end.

Hosea graphically expresses the need for correction and repentance: “Come, let us return to the Lord. For He has torn us, but He will heal us; He has wounded us, but He will bandage us” (6:1-2, NASB). Here is the idea of purposely wounding, perhaps to set a fracture or to clean away infection.

And sometimes we don’t see that our lives have defect or fester with some sin, so seeking accountability is a positive and proactive move to ensure integrity and godliness. Moreover, godly reproof is a grace and sign of God’s ownership. We should welcome it and not resist it, lest we accept the charge of Hebrews 12:8—“you are not legitimate children at all.”

The wing mate I confronted serves the Lord today around the globe sharing the love of Jesus with orphans and the distressed. I consider what I did a small but necessary part of preparing him for the ministry he performs today.

What might we be leaving untended in the lives of others God is burdening us to correct? And are you asking the Lord to reveal the places in your life in need of correction? Just own enough humility whether you’re correcting or being corrected. It helps to remember Jesus’s words that we bear abundant fruit when we are pruned (John 15:2).

How We Engage the Lost

CC BY-NC-ND, [phil h], Foter

CC BY-NC-ND, [phil h], Foter

The Holy Spirit awakens sinner’s hearts to God, but he employs the righteous in bringing them to Christ. It would be easy to say God needs none of us and can save those who choose him independent of us—then sit back and do nothing. Yes, he could but he has obligated himself to need our help, to use sheep to produce new sheep.

And then I wonder… Is it possible for me to cause an awakened soul to reject God—and before you discard the notion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship, warns us about the danger of offering “cheap grace” to sinners that converts them but strands them inside salvation’s gate without suggestion of further discipleship.

If the quality of our teaching and preaching can inhibit spiritual growth, could it not also be possible that we or our presentation of Christ turn some away from Jesus except the Holy Spirit rescues them? Conceivably yes and it’s a sobering thought. We possess a grave responsibility laboring with God for the lost, and it should cause us to examine our lives, beliefs, and spiritual competence.

Jude on Evangelism

The final verses of Jude convey some remarkably rich and practical wisdom about how to approach the lost: “And you must show mercy to those whose faith is wavering. Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives” (vs. 22-23, NLT).

According to Jude, a one-size-fits-all evangelistic approach doesn’t work, and he’s right. Many of us grew up in the “fire and brimstone” days and in either-you’re-in-or-you’re-out folds. And I’m not knocking these people and this heritage because, well, it’s still holiness or hell.

But I also understand that times have drastically evolved. Speaking the “unchanging gospel to an ever-changing world” is different from what it was just twenty years ago, and it’s something we really need to think about more deeply, especially as it relates to our methods, involvement, creativity, and content.

Seekers and Scorners

Jude shows us three types of people we will encounter in evangelism. The first are those with doubts or whose faith wavers. I’ll call them seekers, although they may or may not be in search of God. These people will hear the gospel without resistance and may be searching for spiritual significance. They sometimes have weighty questions about life, personal significance, spirituality, and philosophy, which deserve to be heard and answered well.

Jude explains that we should be gentle and patient with this kind. In fact, some may need coaxing out of timidity and to be loved or shown truth and led away from false teaching. They are not yet entrenched in doctrine or vices that would cause them to fight the gospel or regard the church with disdain. Show these individuals compassion.

The second type of people, whom I’ll call scorners, is the opposite. Their sinful hearts are proud and resistant to the gospel, perhaps antagonistic. The patience and wooing that characterize converting the seeker is impossible with the scorner. Jude explains that this kind must be rescued from their own ignorance.

Although we must never frighten people into a decision for God (and certainly no genuine decision), scorners must be warned and shown how their sin and defiance offends the Lord. They have no clue that they are walking off a precipice into hell and must be mercifully yanked away from destruction…snatched from the fire.

Keep Yourself Untainted

The third type of people I will call the shameless. The implication from Jude is that these folk have lived in an unrestrained, or licentious, way. Jude’s instruction is to again show mercy, but he includes a warning to the laborer about the extent of the mission with these individuals. It should not involve one’s enticement to or participation in a person’s sin or with that person. We should genuinely love one while hating the ravaging effects of their sin, yet we must never cross the line and defile ourselves.

It is easiest to minister to people with whom we once associated because we understand their lifestyle and can access them. But ministry to our old friends and acquaintances is prohibited if it provokes the slightest temptation.

“Becoming all things to all people” has become cliché these days; however, we must also be careful for our own souls. Satan is devious and Christians can be taken advantage of by him. Yet we should not deceive ourselves and think we’re resistant to old habits when we’re not.

We would do well to heed Jude’s advice. Honestly, his counsel is basic and the least we must do to prove any acumen with the gospel. We can only better assist the Holy Spirit given the many tactics working to stop people’s salvation.

Read Reflections on Evangelism for a detailed treatment of the subject.

City on a Hill

CC BY-NC, Unhindered by Talent, Flickr

As with any drama interest in the story depends on the strength of the conflict. Humanly speaking, we’re all pitiful creatures who for some reason just cannot get along. Our relations have the tendency of the clouds: to open and display the wonders of life as well as to darken and wreak havoc. I dare to believe that life isn’t so dangerous except for the human encounters we risk.

I consider Jesus and his friend Judas one of the most intriguing twosomes in history. Have you ever stopped to think of them? Jesus was undoubtedly the man on the scene, and it was all the rage to be acquainted with him. But when he selected twelve ordinary streeters to be his go-to men, could he with his spiritual powers not have known that one of them—Judas specifically—would turn on him? Surely he did, but he and Judas still shared a very close and spiritually powerful relationship. Judas was trusted enough to be his bagman.

Some weeks after I began work abroad, one of my wing mates from college arrived. I was thrilled that he and I were going to be working together. But not long after his arrival I noticed that he began distancing himself from me. When I approached him about it, I learned the reason was over something quite silly, which only revealed to me deeper issues about him. The rift between him and me only widened. He would avoid me, backstab, and throw verbal punches when he could. Still, I considered him my friend and even availed myself to be his listening ear when he wrestled with character issues.

We all have encountered people who turn traitorous. It’s not easy to embrace people when they go to lengths to scorn you. It taxes one’s reserves to walk a moral high ground and requires maturity and much temperance, for even the most considerate and longsuffering person reaches a limit with difficult individuals. Simply put, people can work your nerves and get you downright mad. I admit that I had moments with my colleague when I felt my blood pressure rise, and he knew it, too. I’m sure Jesus had moments with Judas after he defected—and maybe even with some of the good disciples—when he bared his teeth and clenched his fists.

A rule I’ve made for myself, however, is that no matter how below par one should stoop, I must not allow his or her weakness to dictate my response. In middle school, when heated words got exchanged, there was always a meathead in the background that piped up with, “Those sound like fighting words to me!”—then the fists started flying. It’s all a lesson in maintaining control of the situation and yourself, and this doesn’t compromise one’s integrity either. At times the moral high ground might mean confrontation and at other times it could mean heaping coals of fire with kindness. Whatever it is, it is not emotional, malicious, or irrational. The point: Don’t listen to the meathead!

The notion of the good guy is that he always comes in last place because good plays fair. Based on the kind of belief system one follows, I suppose this could appear to be true. Christ’s own teachings instruct us to pray for enemies, to turn the cheek, and to bless those who curse us. If television and movies are a notion of cultural opinion, good is weak, evil always resurrects with perfect timing, and the hero must plow through hell itself to see any measure of accomplishment. But maybe all this bad talk is mere hyperbole. It would do us well to remember that the satisfaction of a good story is the plot itself, particularly, the resolution and not the conflict.

Why should wickedness and gore and vulgarity and hatred appear lasting? Maybe it says more about the core of the human heart and its incurable, even insatiable, need for misery. I believe good overcomes evil and not only eventually. When has light infinitesimal ever been extinguished by darkness incomparable? Each good deed and good action outdoes any bad deed and action every time it is performed. It may not be quickly saluted or appreciated, but it is hard to resist because true good is also redemptive.

Remember Javert—Javert of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? He was the treacherous one of the story, consumed with allegiance to his own moral exactitude that only we could see had become turpitude. But when Jean Valjean, after years of mistreatment from Javert, refused not to show him mercy, what happened? So, in Paul’s words, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).