The difference between spiritual friendship and friendly conversation

Today, I give this space to Rev. Christopher Goss, who serves on our team at Mosaic as the Pastor of Worship Arts, Youth, and Young Adults. I can personally attest to Chris’s passion and pursuit of spiritual friendship. His words here are good wisdom for group and ministry leaders about the challenge to “go deep.”

A while back I saw a cute, satirical video called “Shallow Small Group.” It was a group of people gathered in someone’s home for what looked like a typical suburban church small group. As you would expect, the conversation was not very deep and there seemed to be a much greater focus on the presence of the cheese dip than the presence of the Lord. The tagline of the video is “Shallow Small Group, because when people go too deep they drown.” 

As a student and young adult pastor, I have been given the privilege of helping many young and mostly single people develop community in the church. I frequently think about the question, “What should make friendships in the church different and deeper than any other friendships?” Although there are many “right” answers to this question, the most fundamental answer must be that spiritual friendships are friendships that are, in the words of Paul, “in Christ.” 

This might be obvious, but it’s worth stating that spiritual friendships, in a Christian context, will most deeply flourish between Spirit-filled people. What seems to often go overlooked, however, is how developing your personal spiritual life gives you the opportunity to develop an incredibly rich social, spiritual life. Knowing that, how do we so often miss it?

Far too often we use what could be called an “external use of scripture.” For example, imagine you and I are in a small group that is doing a study on the Book of Romans. I skim through the study just enough to discuss what the author wrote.  Then I show up and make comments about what Paul actually meant by the word “predestination.” I like discussing theology so I would personally enjoy this conversation. If I’m not careful, however, I could learn a lot about predestination and virtually nothing about your personal spiritual life. Furthermore, by talking about “predestination” I could keep you from knowing much about my spiritual life. Worst of all, I could actually use a theological conversation to keep you from knowing that I truthfully don’t have much of a personal spiritual life. Is this spiritual friendship or a book study with some intellectual stimulation?

After our study, we might hang around and socialize a bit, but now its cool to talk about “whatever.” I’m from Georgia, so talking about “whatever” means its time to talk about UGA football. Suddenly I discover that I have a “connection” with some of the guys in the room that I did not have before. Please understand that I love football and enjoy a good conversation about the Dawgs, but this is not spiritual friendship. At this moment, I am having the same type of conversation in church that I could just as easily be having at a sports bar. 

(Not so) Side note: Tim Keller says, “Idols aren’t necessarily bad things. They can be good things that we make into ultimate things.” An idol is whatever we look to, other than God, to provide a sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment in our lives. What is almost always true, however, is that I will either get my sense of love, joy, peace, and fulfillment from God or I will inevitably search for it in another direction. That means I will either seek after God or I will seek after idols. There is no “neutral” gear in the spiritual life. 

What does that have to do with spiritual friendship? I might tell you, “I wish I had more time to spend in the word and in prayer.” But what I won’t tell you is that I would have that time if I spent less time on my ESPN app. Or that our conversation about the Dawgs might simply be encouraging our mutual idolatry. This unfortunately builds a friendship more rooted in a particular idolatry than “in Christ.” It is deceptive; because it happens in a church context it passes for “Christian fellowship” while sadly missing the mark of true discipleship. Does that mean we ought never talk about football at church? Nope. Just that I can spend a lot of time deflecting so I don’t have to confront my shallow faith or faltering disciplines. In other words, more time on cheese dip than the presence of the Lord.

So how does one build true spiritual friendships that give us the powerful intimacy for which we so deeply long? Here are a few thoughts:

Friendships that are “in Christ” are rooted in solid theology. That’s right, good friendships need good theology. Biblical friendship flows from the cross of Christ. That first and foremost proclaims we are all sinners in need of a savior. Biblical friendship believes “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and therefore it is ok to be honest about the fact that I am not ok. We need a theology that says conviction is a good thing because where there is no conviction there is no sanctification … that I’m still on the road to Christian perfection, but I am made right through the righteousness of Christ alone.

Mature, spiritual friendships are rooted in a theology that says we are beloved children of God. To be a child of God means we primarily get our spiritual “life” — love, joy, peace, and fulfillment — from God our Father. That means I am responsible for seeking out life-giving encounters with God — encounters that throughout church history have most reliably come through searching the scriptures and spending time in prayer. These encounters create a rich personal spiritual life that now make it possible to have an incredibly rich social spiritual life. 

Spiritual friendship requires a theology that says, “I’m not only saved from sin, I’m saved to a body of believers.” Like organs in the physical body, we are responsible for receiving life and then sending it on to others. We encourage our young adults to BYOSL (bring your own spiritual life). Bringing your own spiritual life means we seek God on our own and then share the fruits of that seeking with the community. We must be aware, however, that if we are not receiving our life from God, it is possible we are instead passing on the toxicity of our idolatry to those around us. 

By God’s grace, I pray you will build spiritual friendships, where you fearlessly talk about both your need for God’s redemptive grace and how God is powerfully providing that grace through the “means of grace.” As you bring your own spiritual life to your small group I believe you will have conversations that will be deep, intimate, and mature, and that will encourage you and others to grow in the art of holiness.  

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Suicide and the Enemy of Our Souls

I wrote this blog some time ago, after a friend emailed to share her grief over a family member’s loss to suicide. In the wake of recent stories, it seems appropriate to share this piece again, with the hope that it might bring some balm to those who struggle to make sense of such hard loss:

Some time ago, a friend lost her sister to suicide. She wrote to ask, “Do you think it is possible that the enemy has kept me down and in such a battle for the last year or two so he could keep me from being there for my sister?”

When devastations like suicide drop into our lives, we’re left with far more questions than answers, not to mention the guilt and so often, such a sense of powerlessness. Stretching to make sense of a tragic event, we tend to grab at answers only to find straw. This is how I responded to my friend’s question. Maybe my answer to her will help someone plagued with grief, pain and questions in the wake of such loss:

Dear friend,
So good to hear from you and good to hear your heart. I appreciated so much that you took time to share with me where your thoughts and struggles have been in these last few weeks. I’ve been praying for you and now I know how to pray more specifically. It sounds like you and your family have been under attack in a lot of ways — much more it seems, than your sister’s death. I’m so sorry.

I loved one statement you made in your note. You said that even if you and your family let your sister down, Jesus never did and even his faithfulness didn’t make a difference in her decision. That’s a profound insight…

In your question, I hear the trails of guilt. I wonder if that is an inevitable side effect of suicide. Feelings of guilt among survivors seem to be common. With all the love, respect and grace we can give to those who lose their battle with depression, we must also acknowledge that suicide leaves a huge burden for the living to carry. God, your sister’s circle of friends, your family, you … everyone grieves this loss.

I’ve praying about what is truth in your situation since that’s what you are seeking. I probably only know things you already know, but here’s where my mind has been as I’ve prayed for you.

As her sister, you would have given anything to be more than you were — or more of what she needed — in her darkest days. To know more. Anyone in that situation would feel the same. “If only we had known…” And it would be tempting to find your place in the midst of her despair, even if only to say that the enemy separated you from her when she needed you most. That’s a normal and natural thought, I’m guessing.

Be wary, though, of putting yourself into her equation. This is her story, not yours. As humans, we tend to see things with us at the center, or at least close to it. But what if the realization you’re wrestling with is not that you could have done more (“If only I’d been more present, less busy …”) but that you didn’t have power to do more? What if, no matter what your personal circumstances, your sister’s mental illness was beyond her ability to survive it? In much the same way that a cancer victim’s illness can be beyond their ability to survive it …

It boggles the mind (doesn’t it?) to acknowledge just how little power we actually have in the face of some cancers, some accidents, some mental illnesses. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus said, because the world is fallen and we’re imperfect and it is simply the case that not everything can be fixed this side of heaven.

Some things happen in spite of us and when it comes to mental illness, some things can’t be explained. Reason doesn’t apply. One plus one doesn’t equal two for a person whose mind is ill. Maybe there was no amount of time or energy anyone could have given until your sister was free of the illness that conquered her. Until we’re in the presence of Jesus, I doubt any of us will understand just how personal and complicated that battle was for her.

Thanks for sending the picture of your nieces and nephew. There is family here to love, family here to breed hope. I love that even in the midst of your grief, God is sending signs to assure you that there really is no such thing as no hope. Jesus is our assurance of that. I hope the family in that picture can look around them and see reason for hope in their love and care for each other.

Your sister may be gone from this world, but her life matters. As you continue to listen and look, I believe God will give you signs of assurance — that in ways we cannot begin to fathom, she is in his care. Suicide is not the unforgivable sin; I have to believe that God’s mercy takes special care with those who are not just bruised but mentally broken by this life. His hand is over your sister’s soul, much like his hand was over Moses as he crouched in the cleft of a rock, in search of a glimpse of glory in the midst of despair.

Be at peace. Rest in the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, and as Ranier Maria Rilke once powerfully wrote, “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart.” God will, in his time, make all things new.

Peace to you — Carolyn

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Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb but cut out the resurrection. What was left, mostly the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a penknife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

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Fetching Grace

Mephibosheth.  Sound that one out, then imagine yourself with the burden of that name hanging around the neck of your life.

Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. David found him when he went looking for a way to make good on a promise he’d made to Jonathan years before. It was a vow to honor Jonathan’s family — any time, any place. One day long into his reign as king, he goes to the palace staff and asks (2 Samuel 9:1), “Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” At the question, someone remembers Mephibosheth.

His name, by the way, means “shameful thing.”

Mephibosheth had bad feet. When he was five years old, a nursemaid dropped him or let him fall and somehow his feet were damaged. So now, here is a boy named Shameful with feet that don’t allow him to play with the other kids or follow in his warrior-father’s footsteps. After his father’s death, they did with him what they often did with kids like him. They sent him off to someone willing to keep him as a servant for the cost of room and board.

So a guy named Shameful who is labeled as Lame gets shipped off to a place called Lo Debar, which means “place of no pasture,” or sometimes, “place of no word.” No word.  No blessing.  No intelligence.  No honor.  This is where Mephibosheth lived.

Then, completely out of the blue, King David sends for him. The Hebrew word used here literally means something like “fetch.” Someone has called this act of David fetching grace. Don’t you love that? It reminds me of Jesus’ word to his followers: “You did not choose me, but I chose you …”

When Mephibosheth was presented to David, the king said, “Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father. And I will restore the land that belongs to your family.” The story ends with Mephibosheth living in Jerusalem, eating at the King’s table.

And this is the place in this Old Testament story where Jesus shows up. As I consider Mephibosheth coming to live with David, I realize there is no miraculous healing. David doesn’t hire great doctors to fix him up. Mephibosheth comes as he is and as he is he is welcome at the table of the King.

Welcomed, not as a servant but as a friend.

In that scene, Jesus says to us also, “You don’t have to be different than you are to sit at the table and be part of the things I have for you. We are not all sitting around waiting for you to be better, different, healed. You have been chosen as you are, loved as you are.”

Transformation will come in the nourishing, of course (we are Methodists, after all, who believe sanctification is the other half of salvation). But transformation begins with an invitation to the table. Come as you are.

And right here, right now, I want to thank Jesus for that word. Isn’t that exactly what he did for me? For you? After the resurrection, he showed up to this woman who would have been an outcast in her world, once crippled by demons. He showed up to her and her circle, and to those guys walking down a road toward their house in Emmaus. The story says, “He was known in the breaking of the bread.” He was known at the table, in the conversation, in the moment.

Jesus came bearing the inestimable power of friendship. He comes bearing a rare kindness, for the sake of the Father, saying things like, ““Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. ”“I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you.”

Friendship is the gift of the Kingdom. Jesus came to us as friend, and invites us to befriend people in authentic ways. This is how the gospel gets rooted. It gets rooted in the soil of community and it bears the fruit of friendship.

(This story is also part of the Encounter Jesus study, available at seedbed.com)

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Who gets to be Lord?

I was called by God to preach when I was thirteen. Forty-three years ago in Georgia, that was a strange thing to claim. I struggled to hold on to this call. In fact, by the time I reached college, I’d watered it down. I would go into Christian education since that would be more socially acceptable for someone like me. The only two problems with that were: 1) I’m terrible in a roomful of children; and 2) it wasn’t God’s call.

I tried anyway. And failed miserably.  Then walked away from my call completely.

I didn’t realize then that the call is intricately connected to faith. To abandon my calling was to play fast and loose with my relationship with God. I became an easy target for the enemy of my soul who tied my hands, kicked me down the street and threw me into the prison of alcoholism. Somewhere in there, I finished college, got married and began a career outside the church.

In fact, I quit church altogether for about ten years but let me be clear on this: I didn’t stop going to church because the church wasn’t relevant or didn’t meet my needs. I quit going because the enemy came and snatched me up and threw me into a prison that I was then unable to get out of on my own.

It would take twelve years for me to finally, fully come home to Jesus. It happened by mistake. A friend roped me into attending a Bible study and over time I got interested and involved. One day, the leader of this study invited me onto the leadership team, but told me in no uncertain terms that to accept the invitation I’d have to quit drinking.

I said, “I’ll get back to you.” Which was code for, “When hell freezes over.”

I had no intention of giving up drinking, but that invitation was the hook. Someone leading a Bible study had the guts to invite me to consider a different life and I took the bait. One day soon after, I realized the depth of the choice I’d been given: quit drinking and lead a Bible study, or keep the status quo and allow my life to continue floating without purpose.

That choice wasn’t ultimately a choice about leadership. It was a choice about lordship. The real question in front of me in that season was this: Who gets to be Lord of my life?

I had my last drink 27 years ago and that choice to quit was one of the best choices of my life.

This is the question every great story of transformation answers: Who gets to be Lord? Until you answer that question, nothing else matters. When you answer that question, everything gets redeemed.

Everything.

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The Danger of Distraction (and how to find your holy “yes”)

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought, “That’s it!” By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits like what Methodists call the means of grace, by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that the means of grace — or what you may know as spiritual disciplines — are for people who have too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disciplines are precisely for people who have too much on their plate.

Listen: Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits.

Which of these disciplines sounds completely foreign to you? Which ones might be a source of life and restoration for you? (

  • Bible reading
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • worship
  • community life (including accountability)

These are classic disciplines that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy “yes” to things that feed our life in Christ. After all, God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, right? The means of grace are ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. That’s where the real spiritual work is done — in the secret place, where deep calls to deep. Disciplines don’t promise to make our lives easier, but I can attest to this: they result in a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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To Be a Christian in Africa (or, “God is not broke”)

Some of my best lessons have been learned from Africans, who experience this daily call to follow Jesus so very differently than I. I met a Nigerian a few years ago while I was in India who leads a vital ministry and teaches in a seminary there. He lives right at the center of Nigeria, in a town called Jos. Christians in Jos consider it their call and responsibility to hold the spiritual line between northern Nigeria, where Muslims have already taken over, and southern Nigeria where they have set their sights. Living in Jos puts followers of Jesus on the front lines of a spiritual battle being waged over the souls of his country.

My friend told us that in his part of the world, “We wake up every day prepared to die.” Our brother could talk with great seriousness about their situation and yet still display such joy when we worshipped together. There in a little chapel, he led us in an African chant that I believe ought to become the anthem of the next Methodism:

I must go with Jesus anywhere anywhere, no matter the roughness of the road. I must go … I must go …

My friend led us around, dancing in a circle, singing that song so joyfully, so hopefully, all of us clapping our hands as if rough roads were a great thing to be on. And in fact, they are, because those are precisely the roads that lead us toward the Kingdom of God.

Another colleague is a professor at a seminary in Liberia. Recently, he told me his story of how he came to be a pastor. He said he’d had the call for years but ran from it. He didn’t want to be a pastor because he had a college degree and was marketable. “Money can weigh heavily on an African’s decision to follow Jesus,” he said. “There is no money in becoming a pastor. You will be poor your whole life and have no way to take care of yourself in your old age.” Then, smiling, he went on, “But God kept after me.”

During the civil war in the 1990s, this friend tells me, he was escaping from one town to another, with all he had to his name in a bag he was carrying. When he was stopped at a security point, mistaken for a rebel by a guard, he was sure he’d be killed. They forced him at gunpoint to remove all his clothes. There he was, with his bag in his hand, standing before these guards in his underwear with a gun to his head.

He assumed this was his last moment alive, then they told him to run. He did. “While I was running,” he said, “I realized the only reason I was still alive was because God had a purpose for me. Right then, while I was running, I committed my life to him and have served him ever since. I have no retirement fund, and no way of taking care of myself in my old age. And you know? That used to scare me but then one day, I realized, ‘God is not broke!'”

Listening to my Liberian brother tell this story, I thought again about my friend in Nigeria, dancing in a circle with strangers in India. “I must go with Jesus anywhere, anywhere, no matter the roughness of the road. I must go! I must go!”

These men stand in the spiritual lineage of those disciples in Luke 9, who were told by Jesus himself to go out into towns and villages armed with nothing but the gospel. “Take nothing with you,” Jesus told them. Why? Because God is not broke. Because Jesus all by himself is worth everything. Because when Jesus commands us to go, he gives us power and authority enough to cover the need.

And Jesus is enough, even when the road is rough.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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The War is won in the General’s tent.

Some time ago, I was in the place of prayer and heard this word: “The war is won in the tent.”

As I heard this word I saw an army tent, far back from the lines, buzzing with the activity of strategic thinkers studying maps, positioning troops, sending out orders. The General was there, taking in the big picture, gauging the trajectory of the enemy’s movement, weighing strengths and weaknesses of the warring sides.

The tent was where the war was being won … or lost.

Before that word and that vision, I’d never given that guy or that tent a thought, but the principle I heard is authentic. In warfare, the saying goes, “The war is won in the General’s tent.” The point is that wars are won on strategy, not brute force. Planning makes all the difference in the outcome of a battle. The General may never see the front lines but his strategic mind determines the win.

In a very busy time, this came as a prophetic word. It was a warning not to neglect the place of strategic prayer. It was a call not to work harder but to pray smarter, to spend more time in the tent.

In spiritual terms, what is the “tent”?

The place of prayer: Someone somewhere has discovered that when electrons are observed they behave differently. Just the fact of their being watched changes how they act. This tells me that even down to the smallest particle, the world is designed to act according to the light-and-dark principle of John 3, where Jesus teaches that things in the dark remain under the influence of the enemy of our souls while things brought into the light come under the influence of Christ. In other words …

Behavior changes when brought under the gaze of God.

This isn’t a guilt thing. This is a law of the universe, proven at the scientific level. We are changed simply by being in the presence of God, aware of ourselves under his gaze. This makes “tent-praying” all the more strategic. When we submit to sitting in the presence of God, it changes our perspective. We think differently about our circumstances and consequently, go away from that place acting differently toward them.

The place of intimacy: I’m thinking about the tent Moses used to take outside the camp, when he was traveling with the Israelites through the desert. He’d go out there and get deeply personal with God, sharing intimately about how he felt and what he needed. In one conversation, Moses asked God (Exodus 33:12-14) to teach him His ways. Moses wanted to know how to lead these people like God would lead these people. He wanted to hear God say, “Okay, Moses. Here’s how you do it. Step one … ” But that’s not how God responded.

Moses asked for direction and God responded with presence.

Wow.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” God promised. This is the promise of intimacy. When we let God lead, whether it is into a desert or into battle, we will experience a kind of restfulness that only the Holy Spirit can produce. In that tent, a kind of confidence breeds that changes how we return to the front lines. We may not comprehend the whole plan, but we can rest in the One who executes it.

The place of spiritual warfare: I remember years ago, praying for my husband when he was going through yet another season of depression. His worst days of depression were absolutely a kind of spiritual war for us. We’d tried everything and nothing was working, so finally — out of desperation, I assure you, and not out of some heightened sense of spiritual maturity — I decided I would pray for him for twenty minutes every day. Every day, Jesus and I would spend time on the subject of Steve. For a while, I used the time to tell God everything I thought about our situation. After a week or so, I ran out of words. After that, God and I would sit there together and — in the Spirit — stare at Steve. I now know this was “tent time.” This was Jesus and me staring at a map, waiting on a strategy to emerge. Eventually, one did. Through the Holy Spirit, I saw a way forward that brought hope into our situation. It wasn’t a cure, but it was a strategy. I’m so grateful for that time in the tent and for the relief it gave in that season.

The war is won in the General’s tent.

Do you need to rethink your strategy? Maybe you’ve been on the front lines, battling an enemy for so long you’ve lost all perspective. You’re lobbing one grenade after another with no plan or purpose … just frustration. What if the better next step is not to lob another grenade but to find your way back to the General’s tent, where you can regain a sense of the big picture and get God’s perspective?

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Is this a test or a temptation?

In seasons like this (political, social, racial, denominational … you name it), it is easy to get confused about who is responsible for our personal and corporate pain. Our tendency is to externalize. “This is their problem. If they would straighten up, we would be fine. ”

Of course, not everything that happens to us is everyone else’s fault, even if we’d like to say so. And not everything is the fault of the enemy of our soul. I’ve ranted before about that awful line: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but some reasons stink. Racism stinks. Cancer stinks. Financial crises stink. Some things just are — because of human fallenness or my own bad choices or a myriad of factors that may or may not have anything to do with God’s best.

And then there are things that are actually initiated in the spiritual realm. Some hard things come to us from God and other things from the enemy of our soul. Depending on their source, they are designed to either build us up or tear us down.

How can we tell the difference? When we’re in the midst of a difficult season, it can be unnerving. We’re prone to “think” with our emotions (which don’t actually think), rather than our spirit or mind. It is too easy to react rather than respond.

Wouldn’t it be worth it to learn a little about the difference between a test and a temptation so that next time a bump surfaces in the road, you’re better able to diagnose and negotiate it?  Here are a few differences I can think of:

Satan tempts. God tests. That may be oversimplifying it a bit. God can do what God wants to do, so I don’t want to limit him. But my experience is that because God deals in truth, he’s not in the habit of setting us up to fail.

Tests refine faith. Temptations destroy faith. God will never place anything in your life or mine meant to tear our faith down (after all, he is the one who gave it to us; he wants us to have and enjoy strong faith). The enemy, on the other hand, will never do anything to build our faith up. At least, not our faith in God. The enemy of our soul doesn’t care what we believe in, so long as it isn’t God.

Tests reveal graces. Temptations reveal sinfulness. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, Paul teaches, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, God will always provide the grace to walk through a test. He wants to see us succeed. Satan only provides dead-ends and wants to see us fail.

Tests set us up to succeed. Temptations set us up to fail. If you’ve ever dealt with an addiction and tried to recover, you get this. Every temptation is an opportunity to relapse. A test, by contrast, is an opportunity to move forward. Tests release creativity. They inspire us to something more than we thought we could be. Temptations release frustration and when we give in, they make us feel like failures.

Tests prove strength. Temptations prove weakness. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul is describing his conversation with God in the midst of a test, and God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul goes on to say that it is when he is weak that he is actually strongest. When we rely on God to pull us through, we’re strengthened by his strength.

A test will often prove whether or not we can withstand the weight of God’s call. This was the reason for the test of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). It was to see if they were able to stand up to the weight of God’s call. It was the last hurdle before God unleashed an incredible vision into Abraham’s life. God doesn’t test us just for fun. He isn’t playing with us. He isn’t against us; he is for us. He tests us to see if we’re ready to move on to greater spiritual effectiveness.

So how do we master both tests and temptations? The answer is faith. Which seems way too simplistic, but that is the key. What Abraham instilled into the people of God is a quality of faith that is God-focused, not people-focused. Mature faith is our inheritance and birthright as children in the spiritual line of Abraham.

Mature faith leads us to better responses. Whether I caused it, God caused it, or satan caused it, a holy response will lead me closer to God and closer to my created design. Whether test or temptation, we lay it up on the altar of God and let him tell us whether it is to be destroyed or redeemed.

Here’s the thing: This thing (whether its racial, political, denominational … whatever) isn’t only valuable because of where it came from. Ultimately, it is about your response. Its usefulness to the Kingdom of God is determined by your response.

What if God wants to use this very thing to channel his glory through you? And all he is asking from you is faith enough to stay with him while he works?

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