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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Women of Worth: Calling out the Best in People

Do you remember how, in the movie called The Help, Abilene would speak to the little girl she took care of? She would say, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Abilene was brilliant. She understood that women are better to themselves and the world around them when they know their worth.

I learned this through a decade of struggling to understand my place as a pastor and leader. After years of struggling against my own wounds I found healing, and find myself now energetically interested in helping other women find their worth. To that end, Mosaic Church has created a project called Women of Worth. We are pairing women who are ready to pay it forward together with those who are ready to move forward with their lives, so we can encourage women with the confidence that they are smart, they are worth it, and their future is more important than their past.

Take Heather, for instance. Heather was an addict for decades who finally ended up doing 18 months in prison. She emerged from that experience as a transformed person, ready to take responsibility for her life. But no one was giving a job to a felon, so eventually we hired her part-time and watched her succeed. Because Heather is smart, and kind. She is a great worker. She quickly moved from part-time to full time, and then from full-time to a director’s position. She got an associate’s degree, then with a lot of coaching and encouragement from women who believe in her, she applied for a Master’s degree at a first-rate institution that would exempt her from completing a Bachelors. They give just a few spots to qualified applicants every year, and Heather was awarded one of those spots. This week she began her Master’s program! She is succeeding because a few women in her life helped her believe her future is more important than her past.

Toni is our poster girl for Women of Worth. She has a couple of felonies, a GED, and a three-year old boy. She is determined to make life happen without public assistance so she landed a job in the kitchen of an upscale chain restaurant. Toni is sharp, with a ton of potential, and her managers saw that in her. They placed her on their leadership development track, but that’s when her felony record made it to the corporate office. The prevailing policy would have required her to leave her job. Because Toni’s life up to that point had taught her things don’t turn out well for her, she was ready to walk away. What Toni needed was not someone to advocate for her, but someone who could encourage her to advocate for herself. She went back in there and asked managers who believed in her to go to bat for her. It worked. She not only kept her job but is still on track for a management position. Toni just needed someone to believe with her that her future is more important than her past.

When life circumstances steal that message, what an opportunity we have to help women hear again that they are smart, they are worth it, that their future is more important than their past. That’s what Women of Worth is about. We invite women in our community to partner with us to empower others by pairing those who have experience and can pay it forward together with those who are ready to make the most of their future. Women of Worth offers training, coaching and mentoring … by women for women.

If you know someone, or are someone, who could use some encouragement and coaching to take it to the next level, we’re here. Let’s get started.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part two).

In a previous post, we explored the damage caused by the demon of regret. We noted that the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them. This fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality. Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart, by tempting me to hold out hope for something that doesn’t actually exist as a possibility. What damage we can do to ourselves and our relationships when we refuse to live a wholehearted life!

Want to tackle the demon of regret? Think honestly about how you view your life choices now, and where you’re giving in to regret rather than owning your reality in partnership with God:

Don’t let the numbers fool you. One of the ways the enemy tempts us toward regret is by using numbers to taunt us. We look at our age and wonder, “How did I get here?” We feel time slipping by and wonder if we missed it on marriage, on children, on career, on health, on … name your time-bound regret. It makes sense that this would be the voice of the enemy and not the voice of God because while God is eternal, the enemy feels the rush of time. He knows that for him and all who follow him the end is coming. Eventually, he will be obliterated and Jesus wins (this is good news, folks!).

The enemy has a vested interest in convincing humans to feel that rush of time — to experience life not as heading toward the Kingdom but of slipping away and being lost. In the practical outworking of your life and thinking, the enemy of your soul wants you to deny the power and promise of eternal life. Toward that end, he will feed your anxiety over all you’ve “lost” by inviting you to give full expression to your doubts in a hopeful and endless future.

Listen: The antidote to regret is to remember it has not all passed us by. To the contrary, we just got started. We who follow Jesus have endless opportunities before us. If you want to stifle the voice of regret in your life, start practicing hope in an endless and joyful future, most of which will be lived out in the unhindered presence of Pure Love.

Don’t give in to shoulds and oughts. Naming possibilities is not always a bad thing. When we’re making big decisions, it is wise to pray through the possibilities to discern which options are most viable. What will lead us to God’s best? That question takes us down a very different path than regret. It feeds possibilities, not “shoulds” and “oughts.” Allowing the tyranny of “shoulds” and “oughts” to breed guilt for all we didn’t choose, or ought to choose (but don’t) will only breed regret, insecurity, fear and frustration.

Consider this: You are doing exactly what you’re capable of doing right now. If you could do more, you would. I’m not speaking to the sins in your life (because you can do better than drinking yourself to death, my friend). I’m talking about your honest efforts at parenting/working/living. You may not be happy about your pace/progress/proficiency — there may be room for growth in any of those areas — but given your reality, you’re doing what you can and God is aware of that fact. You can stop feeling guilty for not being perfect. Isn’t that a glorious freedom?

Consider the possibility that the best you can do is good enough. What we have is what we actually have, and what we choose is what we are capable of choosing. To the extent that we live under the illusion that we have access to some other reality or to an ideal we are being denied, we will live with regret and never embrace what we actually have or better yet, what God can make of it.

Let me say again that this doesn’t mean that our bad choices and sins are the best we can do. We’re all about sanctification — going on to perfection. What I’m saying is that the best way to make progress is not by passively regretting all the opportunities we missed or fretting about worst-case scenarios.

This life is not all one big test. Jesus told us he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That promise was not predicated on getting every choice perfectly right. That promise was and is predicated on grace. Jesus came to cover the gap between the best we can do and God’s best for us. His purpose for us is love, joy, peace and all the other signs of the Spirit. His desire for us is freedom from guilt, shame, and sin.

Which is all to say that God is not some cosmic hall monitor in the sky, taking names and handing them over to the demons that make us unhappy. God is not there to punish but to save and set free (he said so himself). God loves you. God desires greatness for you. And God is capable of taking the best you can do and making it beautiful.

My friends, please don’t feed the demon of regret. Conquer it, and then give yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord of Life and the Prince of Peace.

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Stop listening to the demon of regret (part one).

FoMO is a social media-induced acronym that popped up a few years ago. A Time article defines FoMO (fear of missing out) as ‘‘the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.’’ Social media has amped up this anxiety disorder by giving us constant exposure to everyone else’s “best life now.” We become anxious by reading everyone else’s awesomeness. We give in to the fear that somehow we’ve missed it (or will) if we don’t get on the stick.

FoMO is a more recent label for an ancient soul-sickness: regret. Regret cultivates a perspective that views our current reality or history from a disappointed place. Or worse, it distorts our view of the future, so that as we gaze down the road we are already disappointed or fearful of being disappointed before we even step out. That way of thinking depends on believing other options or better options exist, when in fact they don’t. Do you see how damaging that is? I’m not talking about a fatalistic worldview that prescribes a life out of our control. I’m talking about a mindset that frustrates us by constantly churning up options we never had access to in the first place. I’m talking about a mindset that makes the best we could do not good enough. And that makes us feel like victims.

In a Psychology Today article, the author writes,

The truth is, there’s no reality existing somewhere else that says, “Darn, you’re not going to get to join us over here in the happy life, where you could have ended up if you had made the right choice and picked the other path.” That other, imagined happy life is and has always been just a thought. The particular reality that would have come, had we made the other choice, never was and never will be our reality. 

Can you hear how the mindset of regret can steal our peace by casting illusions, then making us believe we missed them? The fear of missing out is not of God, and the demon of regret is just that … a demon. Its sole purpose is discontent. It makes its living by speaking empty possibilities into our minds that don’t actually exist in reality, to paralyze us or at least keep us in a discontented space. This demon uses the tactic of comparison to distort what is real by comparing reality with something that doesn’t exist. Worse still, it creates a victim mentality by convincing us that circumstances beyond our control have stolen our ideal. It keeps us from owning our choices and embracing them, not as our plan B but as the reality we live in — a reality that a good and creative God can still make the most of.

Listen: When we fail to own our choices and live them out positively in partnership with the Holy Spirit, we not only miss out on the illusions we conjure up, but also on seeing God make the most of our reality.

And as I think of all the ways regret can steal my joy, here’s what really breaks me: Regret keeps me from giving my whole heart. To the extent that I live with regret or the fear of it, I will hold my heart and my hopes out for an imaginary “better.” I will  externalize my discontent (“I never got what I deserve.”), feed my self-pity, and cause folks around me to also feel the frustration of never quite measuring up (after all, they live inside my world of regret).

The demon of regret has one goal: to get me to hold back from wholehearted love, surrender, devotion, commitment. And that’s why I’m convinced that a pattern of regret is not of God. It is a mindset that needs healing. If you find yourself wasting mental energy on the things that could have been, or on the better choices you could have made but didn’t (keep in mind that I’m not talking about willful sin here, but about your honest, best, if imperfect efforts), or on all the reasons this path you’re on is unsatisfying, I want to encourage you to consider that maybe you’re feeding into a demon intent on your discouragement. Journal your thoughts. Seek God’s healing. Ask him to open your mind to possibilities over regrets. Confess regret as a brokenness you’re living out of and ask God to transform your mind. Ask him to help you own your reality, so you can stop living in regret over your past or your future.

Regret is a lie. Meanwhile, the most creative Being in the universe stands ready to offer you an abundant life that doesn’t depend on your circumstances, but on His presence in the midst of them.

In the next post, we will look at three common areas where we tend to let regret have a voice in our lives.

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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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How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Knowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

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A portrait of world-changing faith

The poster child for faith in the Bible is Abraham. Others had it, too, but Abraham’s faith isn’t momentary faith; this is monumental faith. This is world-changing faith. Abraham’s faith is centered not on people or preferences but on the person of God.

In other words, it is Person-centered, not people-centered. Abraham’s story has a lot to teach us about a kind of faith that is God-centered.

Faith is a kind of self-giving love. Ahahah is a Hebrew word for a kind of self-giving love. Literally, it means “I give.” The first time this word for love is used in the Old Testament is in this story of Abraham and Isaac, when the writer describes Abraham’s love for his son. Self-giving love is powerful when combined with God-honoring trust.

Faith binds us. Another Hebrew word in the story of Abraham and Isaac is akedah. The word means “binding” and it’s the word they use when they talk about binding Isaac to the altar. It teaches us that sometimes faith happens when we lay something on the altar and trust God with the questions.

Faith is not passive. It is not waiting for things to change without us having to do anything. To the contrary, God defines faith as movement. James taught that faith without works is dead.

Faith is a grace. God gives faith. It isn’t something we generate in order to get God’s attention. It is something God offers as a gift. Knowing that, faith ought to be something we pray for regularly. “Lord, give me more faith.”

Faith is a mature choice. It begins with my own decision to act like an adult so I can walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the valleys toward Jesus.

Faith exposes the great moves of God and links us to the promises of God. Abrahamic faith watches for the great moves of God and goes after them. If I want to see God’s promises before they happen, I’m going to need a faith that will hold me between the high points.

Faith invites us to “act as if.” This is a mark of faith that circumcision signaled in the story of Abraham. It was a sign that God’s people were welcome to go ahead and act as if they were a mighty nation even before the first child was born. “Act as if” faith is a display of confidence that even when we don’t see how the lines will be drawn, God is at work.

Faith is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. Which is to say that faith incorporates another dimension, making it a higher form of knowing.

Faith is the opposite of fear. Perfect love casts out fear, and faith connects us to that perfect love.

Faith teaches me who I am. But faith is not “I” centered. In fact, it helps us to get past the “I’s.” When we trust God, we are no longer tempted to defend ourselves. We let God have his job back.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me. Faith is about accepting the power of Jesus into our lives and walking that journey together with Jesus.

Faith has a “ram in the bush” mentality. It is the mentality that places all our hopes in the most creative being in the universe, who can take any circumstance we’re in and make good out of it.

Faith responds, “Here I am.” Three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac, we find the response: “Here I am.” It is the same response Moses gives when God calls to him from the burning bush. And it is the same response Isaiah gives when he comes into the unhindered presence of God. This is the response of greatness and it always leads us toward our created design, never away from it.

Faithfulness breeds blessings. Not necessarily blessing the way we’d define it, but blessing the way the Creator of the universe defines it, who wants to expose the greatness in us, who wants to see our influence ripple through generations, not just moments, who wants to raise dead things and redeem relationships and restore purpose and health.

Mature faith breeds blessings that change the world. Abraham is proof.

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The Gospel of Welcome

There are few phrases that evoke more warmth or comfort than this one: Welcome home. In that welcome, we experience all we need. We are safe. We are loved. We belong. This was the radical contribution made by first-century followers of Jesus. Their brand of religion was so much more than a set of rules. It was a people and a place — a family and a purpose to which anyone could attach. This expression of faith in God exposed His heart for people.

In the gospel of welcome, we remember that God is for us.

Seven times in chapter 9, Luke uses the word “welcome.” He gives instructions for what to do when one is not welcome, then contrasts that with a picture of the radical welcome of the Kingdom. It isn’t a picture a first-century audience would have anticipated, nor is it the one more typical of our sermonizing about Jesus’ heart for people. It isn’t Jesus with a leper or Jesus with a woman or Jesus loving on someone no one else likes. Not this time. This time, it is Jesus with a child.

The moment comes as his followers are immaturely arguing over who is the greatest. Frankly, they sound like fifth graders in this scene. You don’t get the sense they are arguing in front of Jesus; at least they know enough not to do that. They just can’t help themselves. Likely, they were tired and impatient with one another. Someone probably called someone else out as not pulling his weight and before reason could set in, they were all one-upping each other.

Like I said, you don’t get the sense they were doing it in front of Jesus, but everything eventually ends up in front of Jesus. He knew, even if he hadn’t heard. Jesus knew their competitive, self-justifying hearts so he put a child in the midst of them and said, “Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes God. And you need to make a mental note here, my friends, because you don’t have the same values as the Kingdom. What I’m about to say won’t sound logical to you, but the person you least want to welcome is the person most likely being pursued by God and the time you least want to welcome them in is probably the time God is most open to using you.”

This was Jesus’ teaching on the gospel of welcome: It happens, he says, when we least expect it and often to the person we least want to welcome in.

There is one other use of the word “welcome” in Luke 9. It is in the description of Jesus heading toward Jerusalem and his death. He sent messengers into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him but the people of that town didn’t welcome him precisely because he was heading for Jerusalem and into the will of God. Hear that: the Samaritans didn’t welcome him. Samaritans … the ones Jewish people tended to avoid at all costs. Samaritans, who Jesus used in parables to talk about people we’d walk by without thinking twice about their suffering. Samaritans, whose very land a Jewish person would avoid walking on. Samaritans were the ones who didn’t welcome Jesus, a Jew, nor his followers — the very ones who’d just been arguing over who is greatest.

If we gather up all these uses of the word “welcome” in Luke 9, we get a 360-degree view of Kingdom hospitality.

  • Welcome people when you’re tired.
  • Welcome people when you’re inconvenienced.
  • Welcome people as a way of right-sizing your own ego.
  • Welcome the ones you don’t trust, don’t like, don’t value.
  • And don’t just welcome them with southern politeness. Learn to welcome people all the way through or as Peter would later write, love deeply from the heart.
  • Recognize that even when you get the welcome right, people on the receiving end of God’s grace might not appreciate it. Sometimes the “Samaritan” won’t return the kindness, but don’t let that stop you from heading into the will of God. Don’t let your welcome ride on their response.

Hear that: Don’t let your welcome ride on their response.

That may be something you need to hear as you begin your week. You may already be tired before you’ve even gotten started, and you just don’t see the need to give more than the minimum. Maybe you don’t realize that the problem is less the other person’s distastefulness and more your ego. You may be oblivious to the callouses building on your heart toward those who matter most to God. Or it just may be that you’re giving and giving, and those on the receiving end ought to appreciate it … but they don’t.

And to you, however you find yourself today, Jesus would say: Don’t let your welcome ride on your circumstances, on your ego, or on their response. Let your welcome ride on the leading of the Holy Spirit. Welcome others into your life because Christ has welcomed you.

Amen.

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Encouragement for a spiritually dry Monday: You are not abandoned.

I’ve hovered in the doorway of doubt more times than I can count.

As a pastor, as a Christian, as a human, I’ve experienced horrifying moments of unexpected doubt. It happens while I’m driving down the road or standing in line at Kroger or sometimes even as I’m standing up to preach. I hear an unwelcome voice, whispering, “What if this isn’t real? What if I’m just a keeper of the myth?” I appeal silently to God but struggle to find him in the cloud.

As Steve Harper says, “Spiritual dryness is a condition that makes prayer feel as if we are talking in the dark.”

Even the most faithful of us can find ourselves swimming in doubt — impatient with God, spiritually dry. Where there used to be rivers of living water, now there is dust. Faith that once was flowing has now ebbed. In fact, the tide has gone out so far it is beyond the horizon.

How discouraging. Especially for a pastor.

It helps me to know that it happens to others whose work I respect. It happened to Mother Teresa. It happened to Thomas and to Peter, and probably most if not all the others (even if their stories — mercifully — weren’t as widely publicized. Imagine having your worst spiritual moment published in the most popular book of all time).

It happened to John Wesley, who once wrote something to this effect to his brother: “I don’t know if I believe in God, and I don’t know if I ever have.” While that sounds like spiritual disaster coming from the pen of a spiritual master, it was very likely the opposite — not a moment of spiritual failure but of deep, longing honesty.

But maybe you’re the rare exception. You’ve never had a clear moment, much less a long season, of spiritual dryness. You’ve never once felt as if your faith was on life-support. If so, read this so you’ll have some inkling of how the rest of us feel; then, forward this to the person you’re thinking about as you read. They need to know they aren’t alone and your witness won’t be much of a comfort to them.

If you’re the rest of us — if your spiritual life sometimes feels like week-old bread or a stagnant pond, if your personal circumstances seem toxic and you’re in need of some signs of hope and life — then my prayer is that you’ll find encouragement not in a three-point “get fixed quick” blog but in the thought that maybe you’re not alone. And that maybe God even uses seasons of dryness to help us exercise our obedience muscles. Because sometimes we do this out of obedience rather than feeling. Sometimes we do this because the long story is that we’re not who we used to be, even if we’re not who we want to be right now.

There are nine clear stories in the Bible of people being raised from the dead and that doesn’t include what sounds like thousands who came back to life after Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the culmination of a thread in God’s story that ought to teach us something fundamental about his nature. He specializes in bringing hope into hopeless situations.

The story of the prophet Elijah is a strong case in point. He was among those Old Testament prophets who predicted famine in the land during days of poor leadership. In the midst of the famine, Elijah is provided for in miraculous ways as he camps out beside a stream. Ravens bring bread and meat twice a day. He has the provision of this stream. He is happy to stay here in this place and feed on this supernatural provision while he waits out the famine.

Sometimes faith comes like that. We get the parking space by the door and the check in the mail and the job we weren’t qualified for and the peace that passes understanding. And we’ve done nothing to deserve it. We’re not even consciously connected, or don’t feel as if we are.

Sometimes faith comes that way and in those seasons we have nothing to do but be humbly grateful.

Then sometimes, the brook dries up. The blessings stop coming. Sometimes the brook dries up because of our own disconnection, but sometimes it dries up because someone (not God) built a dam upstream. And in those times, it takes great faith to cling to Jesus while others wreak havoc in our lives.

In Elijah’s story, it is the dried-up brook that moves him into the flow of the Spirit. The brook dries up and Elijah — if he’s going to survive — must move on. It seems an unmercifully abrupt end to a good thing but it is in the very “moving on” that this prophet meets with his higher calling. In the process he befriends a widow who provides food while setting him in the path of God’s purposes. Here is where Elijah’s story puts him into the flow of God’s resurrection power.

Here’s the thing: sometimes dried-up brooks are moments to be weathered or voices to be ignored. But sometimes, God dries up the brook so we’ll be motivated to move on from the brook to the river. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when he said (John 12:24): “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

What creates a resurrection atmosphere? What moves God to bring dead things back to life? And how can we tap into that understanding so we can bring to life what’s dead in us?

Maybe it happens when we allow ourselves to see beyond the brook to what God is doing elsewhere. Sometimes the brooks dry up and the seeds die so we’ll be motivated to move on.

Is it possible that your spiritual dryness is connected to an unwillingness to let God do a new thing?

This song was written as a response to a message given several years ago at the New Room Conference. I am so very blessed by this song, and share it here for those who need a fresh word of encouragement. Even when you don’t feel it, he is here. You are not abandoned was written by Joel Mooneyhan. Find more about him here.

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