Why porn doesn’t work (and what does)

In recognition of the passing of Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy Magazine, here is a repost on why porn doesn’t work.

You’ve heard the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? Whole papers have been written on that question; doctorates in philosophy earned. They set up recorders in the forest to answer the question. Turns out, the answer is yes. Both for trees, and for us.

What we do reverberates.

Now, you’d have to be pretty ingenious to invent a sin.  Paul, the writer of Romans, mentions “inventors of evil,” but the writer of Ecclesiastes says there is nothing new under the sun. If there is any difference between his day and ours, it is that today many of our compulsions can be satiated almost immediately.  As close as the next click.

Since no one is around when we feed those temptations, does it really matter? Do private sins have public consequences?  As with trees in a forest, the answer is yes.

When we look at porn, we participate in an industry that is intimately connected with drugs, violence and illegal activity. When we look, we support an industry that keeps many women and men in spiritual prison. Every time we look, the body of the one we look at becomes just a little more valuable in the marketplace.

When we look, we hurt the ones we love. Not only is porn a form of adultery and idolatry (not to mention a form of disability, since it alters libido), but also a form of delusion. We set a mental standard for bodily perfection that can only be achieved with an airbrush.

Who can compete with that?

When we look, we hurt the community, because what we feed our spirits affects everything —  motivations, attitude, mental health, everything.

And when we look, we hurt ourselves. Porn is idolatry, and idolatry is always a roadblock to spiritual health. When we seek pleasure in things that are not eternal, it numbs the conscience. There is no love in those looks, nothing that lasts. That’s why we keep going back; the effect doesn’t last.

Porn doesn’t work. A choice to have it in our lives is a choice to remain stuck spiritually, emotionally and physically.

So how does a person who has become addicted to porn get free? I get that its complicated but I can think of three good starting points: decision, confession and accountability.

Decision: When Paul comes to the end of yet another list of sins in Colossians, he makes an interesting statement. He says, “You used to behave like that, once, when your life consisted of that sort of thing.” That line is full of hope and potential. Paul acknowledges reality, then casts a vision for what can be. You can decide now not to let your life consist of that any more. This echoes a recovery slogan: “Fake it till you make it.” Every sober life begins with a decision to live differently.

Confession:  Choices usually need to be heard to become real. This is why confession is a means of grace. John, chapter three, tells us that everything left in the dark belongs to the enemy; everything brought into the light belongs to Jesus. If the enemy has had control of your mind and emotions long enough, then tell someone and pull the rug out from under the enemy of your soul.

Accountability: Healing happens in community. Any group that values transparency, that knows how to celebrate sobriety milestones, that will hold you accountable for progress, that will challenge you toward honesty … is a great place to heal. One guy made a group out of his Facebook friends — all of them. He regularly reported the number of days he’d been porn-free, and we all rejoiced at his progress. Remember that there is no shame in Christ. The only shame is in not getting the accountability needed to get final freedom.

Private sins have public consequences. Freedom is a choice. That’s something I used to do, but not any more. Because after I came to Christ, I came to. What I couldn’t see then, I see now.

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How to lead people into an encounter with the Spirit

What are you doing, spiritual leaders, to lead those who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?*

By and large, I’m not sure most spiritual leaders (lay or pastor) have been conditioned to move people along on the spiritual spectrum. We know how to recruit volunteers but not so much how to walk people into deep spiritual waters. Our culture doesn’t prepare us for the long, hidden work of the spiritual process of sanctification. We have not been conditioned for the waiting that so often comes with spiritual growth, nor are we comfortable with the sometimes instantaneous work of Spirit-empowered healing.

If we were raised in a more conventional protestant setting, we don’t have built-in permission to be unafraid of the things of the Holy Spirit. We tend to shrink back because we don’t want to run the risk of becoming like “them” — the crazy, emotional, undisciplined ones. To protect ourselves against that (you probably have a mental picture of what that is), we over-intellectualize as a reaction against the anti-intellectualism of more fundamentalist cultures. As a reaction against manifestations we become the frozen chosen. Pentecostal vocabulary becomes a trigger for us. I wonder how much of my ministry has been wasted on trying to protect people who deeply, inwardly hunger for something more … but who were never given permission to test the spiritual waters of the Spirit-drenched life? How much of my ministry has been tentative, when what someone in my care really needs is an authentic, healing encounter?

What are we doing, spiritual leaders, to lead people who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?

Let me give you four ideas that might get you started.

1. Normalize the Holy Spirit. Help your people understand, my Methodist friends, that the Spirit-led life is a normal part of the process of sanctification. This is our spiritual heritage, and we must teach the doctrine of sanctification over and over and over. It is the process of giving more and more of ourselves to more and more of Him. Help your people shake loose the vocabulary and culture of spiritual growth that scares them, so they can see sanctification for what it is — biblical living. Help them shake loose the culture of other traditions so they can see what that kind of living can look like for this church, for these people. Give folks safe spaces to talk about the things of the Spirit. Education and experimentation should go hand in hand.

2. Passion follows posture. Give safe spaces for people to ask questions, share experiences and feel safe enough to experiment. Give your people permission to linger after a service if they’d like healing prayer. Or at the invitation, invite people to kneel right where they are. Learn to use language for the Holy Spirit that doesn’t set off defensive triggers. Shake Him loose from the culture in which He has been bound and simply invite your people to go someplace spiritually by changing the way they physically approach him. Changing posture is a biblical practice. Abraham fell on his face, Moses took his shoes off, Isaiah cried out. Changing posture often helps us to express something within in a more authentic way. It shakes us loose from passivity.

3. Worship culture follows worldview. When it comes to matters of the Spirit, it is more important to help people develop a worldview than it is to develop a worship culture. Both are important but in the church world, we tend to put all the emphasis on the worship culture when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what God is speaking in to the world and doing in the world. This is the worldview we are looking for.

So much of what we think and do springs from a wrong worldview. We come at life from the bottom up, thinking we have to fight to get “up there” where Jesus is. But Paul tells us in Ephesians that in some very mysterious but real way, we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realm. I’m convinced that if we can absorb that perspective shift it will change everything, including the power of worship.

4. Hunger follows hunger. If you want your people to go someplace spiritually, then lead them. Take responsibility for your own spiritual life and take authority over your ministry. Pursue the deep end for yourself. Hunger attracts hunger. The fact is, lots of people … lots of pastors … believe in Jesus, but not as many are willing to follow Jesus into the Spirit-filled life. Not many have that kind of spiritual courage, nor the integrity to match. Not as many are willing to die to who their own comforts so they can experience the whole gospel. Not many will hunger and thirst after regular encounters with the Spirit — which can happen when we are intentional about seeking the things of God.

Being baptized in the Holy Spirit is about getting immersed in the whole gospel, not just the part that gets us to heaven but the whole gospel. What are you doing to lead those who are open into that kind of encounter with the Holy Spirit?

 

*I’m grateful to Mike Barr, who helped me shape this question and process these thoughts for a talk delivered at New Room.

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Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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Growth is hard (and other things we know but don’t like)

“I want to bridle you,” God announced, to which I replied, “But God, won’t that destroy the person I am?”

And God said, “Yes.”

Which did not seem at all like good news to me.

I happen to like my unbridled life. I like being able to go where I want to go and do what I want to do. I don’t live in open rebellion; there are no big, obvious sins. I just like doing things the way I like doing them. I have yet to figure out what a full plate means (can’t you just get a bigger plate?). I might whine about my frenzied activity and run a few people over in the process but I happen to like my life.

What is so wrong with that, God?

To which God reiterated, “I want to bridle you.”

All I could think of was one of those horses at the fair attached by a chain to a metal pole, forced to walk in circles while scared children get their pictures taken on them. Please, God … not that.

But God didn’t seem phased by my concern, so now I’m having to learn what this means. It turns out that good bridle training isn’t about control at all. Good bridling doesn’t work against the horse but in partnership with him. A bridle is what creates the relationship between a horse and rider. Without a bridle, there is no relationship, no ability to guide the horse in the direction you want him to go.

A webpage about bridling sounds suspiciously more like discipleship than horse training: “The principle foundation in a true bridle horse is spirit, heart, and relationship. While nature takes care of building the spirit and heart in a horse, the horseman is responsible from birth for the relationship … A true bridle horse is a true partnership, where both the horse and the rider understand each other well enough to work as a single thought.”

Let that sink in: Good bridling is a true partnership, where both partners understand each other well enough to work as a single thought.

Is that what God is asking of me? To sync up our relationship such that I actually take on the mind of Christ? Learn to think his thoughts and then move by them?

If this is what God means, then this word is brilliant. And it gets better. There is a kind of bridle-training called relationship riding which uses a bitless bridle. That means the guidance is not pain-based or fear-based but a kind of communication between horse and rider built on trust and respect. “This is a process that builds relationships gradually—there are no shortcuts,” a website teaches. “The journey is as important as the destination … Constant feedback is a key requirement for success.”

“I want to bridle you,” God said, and that has launched me on a most remarkable season of spiritual exploration. In the process of figuring out what God means, I am discovering the strength and beauty of spiritual discipline. I’m discovering that if growth is hard, it is also fruit–bearing.

In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy. It is exactly what Jesus said: the secret is in the abiding, not in the accomplishments but in a relationship that is in rhythm with God’s ways and in sync with his commands.

It is a true partnership, where both partners understand each other well enough to work as a single thought. In this kind of partnership, the journey is no longer a fight against a rebellious spirit. It is something more like a dance. It is the best kind of intimate relationship.

Bridle me, Father, and make my life worthy of its Master.

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Three Core Values That Shape Ministry Culture

For years, our church made decisions based on someone’s willingness to follow through. If you were willing to take the lead, we were happy to make your project part of our purpose. The upshot of that way of doing church was that we ended up, missionally, being a mile wide and an inch deep.

Then we decided to put some values on paper. We called together a small group of leaders to think, pray and talk about what is most important to us as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith. From the dozens of conversations, post-it pages and bullet points, we distilled three core values that drive our life together. We sensed we were already living these values intuitively, but having them on paper has given us a kind of authority and freedom we didn’t anticipate.

These are simple values but for us, profound. To make our values memorable, we call them JAC:

Jesus is at the center of everything we do. As a church, we have the best answer to the deepest question anyone will ever ask: “How do I get saved … from my crisis, my darkness, my pain?” We have the one answer with power to offer real hope: Jesus.  Our core value, greatest strength and biggest contribution to our community is the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord and at Mosaic, we are hungry to share a fair account of that good news with everyone with whom we come in contact. If our hunger meets the world’s deep need, then why would we spend our limited time, energy and resources on anything that doesn’t have Jesus at the center? If Jesus isn’t in it, we’re not interested.

All people matter. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor, freedom for the captives and healing for those who are oppressed (Luke 4). He sent his followers out to heal the sick, cast out demons and cure disease (Luke 9). But here’s the thing:  In order to cast out demons, you have to get within spitting-distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit …). To heal disease you have to get up close and personal with all manner of sick people. To proclaim freedom to captives in any kind of meaningful way, you have to have enough of a relationship to understand what oppresses them. Jesus modeled that kind of ministry. He spent most of his time with people in the margins. He demonstrated love and honor toward those who didn’t fit into the usual molds. Since those were his people, those are our people, too. We have intentionally cultivated a welcoming spirit that helps people feel safe enough when they come so they will stay long enough to get honest about the things that oppress them.

Community is essential. At Mosaic, we often say there are no lone rangers. We promote small groups, recovery groups, mission and ministry teams, because we believe healing, mission, spiritual formation and leadership development best happen in the context of community … but not just any community. Ours is a community rooted in Christ. We as a church are bold enough to proclaim that we literally share the life of Jesus Christ by being in community. Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Christianity means community in Jesus Christ and through Jesus Christ …  We belong to each other only through and in Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who binds us together, and Jesus who gives our life together a purpose bigger than the combined total of “us.” We also believe passionately that healing happens in community, so we have no logical reason to offer anything to anyone that doesn’t include an encouragement to join us.

I believe that any church that shapes ministry around these simple values will begin to feel more like a first-century community and less like an over-burdened institution. These values call out mission and make the most of the fruit of the Spirit. At Mosaic, they are helping us love God and love others with more integrity.

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What I know about the enemy of your soul

It is easier to blame someone else than to deal with my own issues.

But if I’m going to blame someone, I ought to at least make sure I am blaming the right person. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 that the real enemy of my soul is not flesh-and-blood but a power that seeks to keep me at a distance from the God of perfect love. Knowing the real enemy makes me more effective in the battle.

So what do I know about the enemy of your soul?

He is not creative. Creativity is a character trait of our Father but not of the enemy of our souls. There is no genius about him; he only knows how to mimic God just enough to deceive us. Contrary to being creative, he tends to work in very predictable, non-creative ways. He entices us with fake power, fake love, fake progress. Spiritually disconnected people will take the bait every time.

He is lazy. While our Father is dynamic (always moving, always creating, always working to transform us into his likeness), his enemy is lazy and again … predictable. The enemy’s one goal is to get all eyes off God; he will expend the least energy possible to get the job done. There is no art to his craft, no beauty. His biggest weapon is lying. He speaks lies into people’s lives and hopes for devastation or at the least, chaos.

He works within systems to generate chaos. The enemy of your soul is fond of the herd instinct. He abuses systems like racism, socialism and atheism, and even some forms of religion, but only because he has discovered that within these systems he can take down more than one person at a time. It isn’t so much that he has great forethought and strategy; he isn’t purposefully systematic. In the absence of a system, he will use whatever presents itself as most convenient but he gets big “wins” when people thoughtlessly follow the crowd.

His great lie is that there is no hope. Hopelessness is the enemy’s rearview mirror. He uses it to make us look backward while he whispers the lie that things will never get better. Hopelessness leads to fear and fear separates people from God’s love. When the enemy of your soul can get you to believe there is no hope, he gets a twofer. Hopelessness isolates in both directions. We feel isolated while others allow fear of our pain to create distance.

He breeds fear. This is the enemy’s ultimate goal — to create distance between us and God, between us and others. Fear breeds that distance. Fear kills love, so when Jesus tells us that our goal is to be made perfect in love, he is telling us that his intention is to make us stronger than our enemy. When Paul tells us that God is love and that there is no fear in love but that perfect love casts out fear, he is showing us a path to spiritual victory.

He loves the fear of conflict. One of the things he most wants us to be afraid of is conflict. It isn’t conflict itself the enemy likes. In fact, he’d rather we never raise questions, think deeply, press into issues, get passionate enough to express a dissenting opinion. Why? Because conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

That is so important it is worth repeating: Conflict has the ability to expose the glory of God.

I’m thinking about Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair. Conflict reveals truth and exposes weakness and challenges us toward our destiny. A conflict well navigated breeds grace and deepens love and honor. Meanwhile, fear of conflict creates emotional distance and inhibits relational progress. Too many people who have blown up and walked away from conflict have missed great opportunities to encounter real growth. To walk through conflict maturely and with the mind of Christ is to walk through the valley of Psalm 23 to the feast on the other side.

Clearly, that is not a stroll the enemy of your soul wants you to take.

He feeds on denial. Denial holds us in a self-defensive posture. It creates an atmosphere of blame. If the enemy of your soul can’t get you to blame God, he’ll entice you to blame someone else for the things that are wrong in your life. Remember that it isn’t healthy conflict the enemy likes, but the lies that lead us to respond to conflict in unhealthy ways. Denial speaks the language of victims, the heart language of the enemy of our souls, who would rather we never learn anything from our circumstances.

He doesn’t care what you’re thinking about, as long as it isn’t Jesus. If you want to win a battle today, meditate on Jesus. Hear the wisdom of your spiritual fathers, who taught you to talk about him when you’re sitting at home or walking among others … even as you stand up to leave a room (Deuteronomy 6:8). if you want to defeat a defeating mental loop or an angry situation, refuse the voice of the enemy and allow yourself to glory in the One who loved you first and loves you most.

Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to have the last word. That privilege must always belong to Jesus.

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Which voice do you listen to?

Two years after the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they stood with toes touching the border of the land God promised them. Two years after they’d walked out of Egypt, the silver of the Egyptians clinking in their backpacks, they stood on the brink of God’s best.  They’d seen waters part and enemies drown.  God was intimately involved with their lives.  They knew him.  They followed him.  And just two short years after packing up and moving out of bondage, there they stood on the verge of greatness, Yes, there were vicious armies and untamed wilds on the other side of that border but they had smoke and fire blazing their trail.

Then it happened.  Human nature kicked in.  They became more cautious than optimistic.  There at the edge of God’s plan, they sent twelve spies into that question mark of a promise to check things out.   When the spies came back ten of them said, “Don’t do it!  It is great real estate, but the people are giants.  We will all die if we go over there.”  The majority report was full of fear and trepidation.

Only two of those twelve spies — two young men named Joshua and Caleb – saw more possibility than problems.  “I think we should do this,” they challenged. “This is God’s land and God’s fight.  Let God defend us!”

The people did what people mostly do.  They heard the voice of fear over the voice of potential and it cost them dearly.  That day, God turned them back from the border of promise. He sent them out into the wilderness again where he promptly promised that not one of their generation would see the land flowing with milk and honey. Fear would not be woven into the DNA in his chosen people, not if he had anything to do with it.

So the people got in the wilderness what they were most afraid of getting in the promised land.  They were destroyed by their own choice. For thirty-eight years they wandered like dead men walking before another generation found itself toe to toe with God’s purposes.

I wonder if most of that first generation even knew how close they were? I wonder if, way down the road, some of them sat around campfires and wondered aloud, “What do you suppose would have become of us if we’d listened to Joshua and Caleb? How do you suppose it would have turned out?” Did they even stop to think about it as they poked their fires or packed up their tents yet again or held their cups beneath water flowing from rocks?

Or did they even think that deeply? Did they assume, like most people, that what they had twenty or thirty years out from that decision was all there was? Did they ever stop to imagine more than mediocrity punctuated by death? Or did they simply go about their lives, making grocery lists, making beds, making do, making a living?

I wonder, knowing I am an Israelite myself. I peek over into spiritual promises and my little internal band of spies reports back, “That’ll never work for you,” and I listen to those voices of fear or laziness and I miss out on so much good stuff that way. Who knows how long I’ve wandered, unconscious of the promises I’ve turned down, while God in his mercy determines to kill off all in me that reeks of fear?

Who knows what promises I’m toeing now as I poke my fires, count my money, check my phone and absent-mindedly get back to what I know?

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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The dog ate the communion bread (or, God is enough.)

I went to church on a Saturday morning to meet a group of folks who wanted me to offer communion to their group. The first person I saw was one of the leaders. She drove right up next to me in the parking lot, rolled down her window, and said, “The dog ate the communion bread.” I thought she was joking, but she looked at me with dead seriousness and said, “No, really. How can a miniature dachshund need that much communion bread?”

What a powerful analogy for what happens to so many people in this world. Good people, intelligent people who somewhere along the way got hurt by the church, or found such hypocrisy among Christians that they couldn’t see the point of it. It is as if the dog has eaten their communion bread. It is as if Satan or life or fallen human beings or something else in the world has stolen their right to be in communion with God. The terrible result for too many of us is that we no longer trust God. We are suspicious that maybe he does not have our best interests at heart. We secretly wonder if given an inch, God would try to make us walk a mile we don’t want to walk.

After all, if God is so good, why is life so hard?enough-pic

This question baits the enemy of our souls. If he can get us to suspect God’s motives, he can yank us right down into misery and anger. All the anger, fear and loneliness we feel has a single root cause. It grows out of a basic distrust in God — in his power to provide, in his sovereignty, in his desire to do for us.

The antidote is in the names of God. We discover in his names the character of the One worthy of our trust. Yahweh: “I Am.” Emmanuel: “God With Us.”

Figuring out who God is is fundamental to how we relate to him. Thomas Merton writes: “Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

Jeremiah Smith says there is nothing more important, no higher priority in your life, than for you to figure out who God is. Knowing God affects everything else in your life. It affects your choices, your relationships, your outlook, everything.

The name El Shaddai literally means, “God Almighty,” but the Hebrew sages often translated this name as a statement from God: “I said to the world, enough.” This name of God is a precious promise to his children: “In the face of your great need, I am enough.”

That truth ought to be life-changing. The same God who brought you out of slavery to sin, who defeated the enemy of your soul, who made hope bigger than death, is enough. The same God who broke into our world through a virgin’s birth has power enough to be in the midst of your greatest struggles, defeating your enemies, reframing and redeeming everything. Because God is enough, nothing is lost in his economy.

To know God is the great quest. I believe that quest begins with the name that assures us God is enough. Whatever our sin, brokenness, problems, whatever else in our lives vies for our attention, God is enough.

El Shaddai. Enough.

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Five things that make great leaders

What makes a faithful and fruitful ministry leader? Here are five things I believe characterize great Kingdom leaders*:

Jesus-loving. Faith in Jesus is the fuel that makes any of the rest of it run. This ought to go without saying … but it has to be said because some of us have forgotten why we’re in this. But listen: Unless you are completely sold out to Jesus and obsessed with seeing his Kingdom come and his will be done, none of the rest of this matters. There is no other reason to take up space in the world of ministry.

We do ministry because we are passionate about seeing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ manifested on earth, as it is in Heaven. We are not focused not on building our own church or building our own kingdom or proving ourselves so we can get past our inadequacy issues. We are focused on building the Kingdom of God because we so desperately love, honor and adore Jesus Christ and are driven to make his name famous.

Vision-centered. If faith is the fuel, then vision is the destination. Every project, ministry, group and movement needs a focus. What is it God has called you to? What specific people, what specific work? Not every good idea is God’s idea for you. Have you spent time slogging through all the possibilities to settle on the place where God’s call, your passion and the world’s need intersect?

Team-focused. After I’ve fueled up and set my GPS, then I have to figure out who is on this bus with me. My team is the people I want riding with me. What would be the point of driving an empty bus?

In the Kingdom of God, there are no lone rangers. It makes absolutely no sense that we should believe this about every other ministry except the one we’d rather do by ourselves (read, “except the one we’d rather control”). A true leader will see the team as the key to success, and will focus on building an exceptional, self-actualized, authority-claiming team that works. Every single ministry needs a team, and an authentic leader will pour into that team so the team can pour into others, so that the net for catching people is as wide and strong as possible.

People-crazy. Contrary to what we may sometimes be tempted to think, people are not the problem in ministry. People are the prize! God loves people. We know this because Jesus shows us the heart of God and Jesus loves people. He ate with sinners. He had patience for people who didn’t get it. He looked on the most desperate, difficult people with compassion.

Jesus loved people and more than anything, wanted to see them set free. And if that is what Jesus wants then that is what we want, too. That ought to be our driving passion. Everything we plan and implement and work toward ought to be with the goal in mind of seeing people set free to love and worship God. If no one gets set free, why would we bother?

Systems-minded. Effective ministry doesn’t “just happen.” Ministries that build the Kingdom require team-led systems that can bear the weight of growth. My biggest mistake as a church planter — hands down, no question about it — was not becoming a passionate student of systems from day one. I had no idea just how much this would hamper growth in the long run. If faith is the fuel and vision is the destination, then systems are the vehicle that get us from well-meaning intention to an effort-worthy destination. Systems matter and learning to build them and sustain them is the passion of any effective leader.

Do you have a system for recruiting gifted people into your team? Do you have a system for developing that team for more effective ministry? Do you have a training system, scheduling system, follow-up system? Do you have a system for taking people someplace spiritually?

Systems are the key to productivity. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Production-defined. Jesus said we’d be known by our fruit. This means that at the end of the day, a leader has to produce; otherwise, by definition they aren’t a leader. Good ideas are not the fruit of leadership; productivity is. In ministry, productivity is defined as people saved, people moving forward in faith, people connecting to community, people becoming confident enough in their faith to attract other people to Jesus …

Let’s be real here. Sabbath is a necessity. Taking time daily to sit in the presence of God and talk and listen is critical to spiritual growth. Those things are central to a growing faith, but those things are not the end product. Leaders begin there, but they don’t end there.

Faith is the fuel that feeds our productivity.

Think of it this way. What good would it do to spend money filling up your tank with gas if youleadership-bus don’t intend to go anywhere? Similarly, what good would it do to fill up your tank with gas, then drive around alone and aimlessly all day until the gas runs out? Why bother getting in the bus at all if you don’t plan to go anywhere?

Productivity matters. It defines fruitful ministry. It happens as we cast a God-honoring vision, focus on teams, get clear about the people we’re called to reach (and get our hearts broken for them), set priorities and put systems in place, and then stay disciplined in the work so God can begin to build something through us.

Jesus said it first: the fields are white for harvest, but the laborers are few. The Kingdom starves for Jesus-loving, vision-centered, team-focused, people-crazy, systems-minded, production-defined leaders who are ready to do the work of ministry.

* I want to credit Chris Hodges at Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, AL for inspiring many of the thoughts in this blog. I attended their Grow Conference this week and was moved and inspired by great teaching on and modeling of what healthy churches can be.

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