Sunday, February 22, 2015

Facing Temptation

            Jesus was thrown into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism (Mark 1:9-15).  The forty days of fasting and being tempted by Satan were a necessary preparation for Christ’s upcoming ministry.  We all, likewise, need a desert spirituality which has been formed in the crux of testing and strengthening our faith.  Here are some biblical lessons I have learned from my own experiences of God forging faith in my life:

  1. Know your weaknesses; know yourself; know the temptations of Satan directed at you.  Three top temptations we all face are worry, procrastination, and gossip.  The demonic whispers come often in relation to a perceived need of perfectionism.  We worry about the future and not saying or doing something perfectly.  We procrastinate for fear of screwing up and not being perfect.  And we gossip to others about their faults and weaknesses because it maintains the illusion that our perfectionism is intact, at least as compared to others.  Perfectionism is slavery.  Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
  2. Understand the importance of timing.  When are you at your weakest?  When are you most vulnerable to temptation?  What triggers you to sin?  Parents know that when kids act up that they are likely tired or hungry or have some other need.  It is the same with us.  Carrying a massive sleep debt, skipping meals or eating junk food because we are constantly in a hurry will set us up for temptation.  Elijah faced down four-hundred prophets of Baal, and then completely fell apart when one woman, Jezebel, went after him (1 Kings 18-19).  He was exhausted.  God gave him food and rest. 1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith….”
  3. Look to God and others.  Do not rely solely on your own willpower or think in your pride that you can resist temptation all by yourself all the time.  Even Jesus looked both to his Father and his disciples.  Listen to him on this, from Matthew 26, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me….  Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping.  ‘Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?  Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.’”
  4. Have a plan.  Flying by the seat of your pants will not always work.  Proverbs 22:3 says, “A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.”  One of the major ways I personally resist temptation is by having a daily plan of worshiping God, praying, and reading Scripture at set times throughout the day.  I know that this is not for everyone, but for me it is significant to have much more than a few minutes of a ‘quiet time’ in the morning.
  5. Overcome evil with good.  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).  If we apply this to our top three temptations that people face, that means the worrier will love his/her enemies and pray for those who persecute.  It means the procrastinator will take intentional steps of faith and risk, being real and vulnerable with others through accountability relationships.  It means the gossip will seek to speak words of encouragement that build others up.
  6. Know that you are never alone.  Angels attended Jesus in his desert temptations.  Even the Son of God was never really facing down temptation by himself.  Whatever it is you are facing is likely not unique to you.  Others face the same thing.  Our brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of problems when they seek to walk with Christ.

Let God’s decision to toss you into the desert shape and strengthen your faith.  If the Holy Spirit has thrown you into a dry place, then instead of bucking the situation and complaining about it, learn all you can about resisting temptation so that you can come out the other end a stronger, more faithful follower of Jesus Christ and ready for a life of service to the church and the world.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Getting Rid of Gossip

            Taking stock of our lives and how we live day in and day out is especially pertinent during Lent.  Our speech and how we use our tongues is of utmost importance to God.  So, having a heightened realization of the words that come out of our mouths might just be the best place to begin in living the repentant life of Lent. 

One of the leading temptations of people (in both the church and the world) is gossip.

            Scripture speaks with clarity on the subject of gossip.  Gossip is included on lists of evil behavior (Romans 1:29; 2 Corinthians 12:20).  It is to speak against another person behind their back, without their knowledge.  The New Testament word for gossip can literally be translated as “whisperings.”  In other words, anything that needs to be whispered and not said out loud is likely to be something that should be kept to oneself.  The Apostle James was straightforward in exhorting the church that “with the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:9-10).

In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, which is the place to find short pithy statements of experiential truth, we see the damage and destruction that our tongues can wreak through gossip.  Here are just a few:  “A gossip betrays a confidence….”  “…a gossip separates close friends.”  True repentance does not only identify and confess wrong speech, but adopts new patterns of speaking that kills gossip. 

To avoid gossip we must:  be trustworthy by being people who keep confidences (Proverbs 11:13); and, steer clear of people who talk too much (Proverbs 20:19).

We even get a glimpse in Scripture of why a gossip uses his/her tongue in such a way.  The Apostle John found it difficult to minister in certain places because of Diotrephes’ wagging tongue.  He maliciously gossiped about John because Diotrephes loved to be first (3 John 9-10).  Indeed, much gossip comes from a feeling of superiority or power over another.  Gossip inevitably, as in the case of Diotrephes, leads to a lack of hospitality and imitating evil behavior instead of loving words and actions.

We often grossly underestimate our ability to say unkind words of gossip to others. 

If a person cannot go twenty-four hours without drinking liquor, we would say that person is addicted to alcohol.  Likewise, if one cannot go twenty-four hours without saying unkind words about others, then that person has lost control over the tongue and repentance is in order.  There is absolutely no place for backbiting in the church; it is the one institution on earth that ought to be a gossip-free zone. 

What destroys churches is not lack of members or funds, or government oppression or anything else; what kills congregations is gossip.

The way to overcome gossip is to talk with the person who slighted you, ignored you, or hurt you.  There cannot be a healthy culture of encouragement, help, and forgiveness unless there is an equal commitment to avoiding gossip through speaking to the one who caused damage.  Such persons are called peacemakers by Jesus.  Listening to gossip is like eating a wormy rotten apple; it will always leave a bad taste.  But having an environment free of gossip brings a feeling of health right down to the bones. 

For gossip to dry up in the church there must be a shared value and commitment to do away with it.

Yes, Lent is a season of repentance.  It is a time to realize sin and turn from it through embracing godly words and actions.  If there is to be the joy of Easter and new life, there must be the hard work of repentance during Lent.  There are no shortcuts.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and treks the next forty days to the climax of Easter Sunday.  Associated with this time are spiritual disciplines such as fasting.  True fasting does not abstain from food just to get noticed by God, but has as its purpose a generous spirit and a giving heart.  Both abstinence and generosity are necessary in the practice of fasting (Isaiah 58). 

            Fasting is such a neglected spiritual practice today that we need to make sense of the reason to do without food for a set amount of time.  Fasting ought to put us in touch with our vulnerability and should remind us of our mortality and our frailties. Through fasting we remember that if we are not fed we will die.  Standing before God hungry, we realize we are dependent and desperate before him.  We discern through fasting that we are actually poor, called to be rich in a way that the world does not understand. We are empty, called to be filled with the fullness of God. We are physically hungry, called to taste all the goodness that can be ours in Christ as we get in touch with a hunger for God.

            But fasting does not end with only abstinence from food.  In other words, fasting is not just a private individual thing, but is meant to open our eyes and our hearts to the truly needy among us and in the world.  We are to be open to both the spiritual needs of people, and their very real material needs.  In addressing the spiritual needs of people, St. Jerome said in the 4th century concerning fasting that “When you see people freezing outside in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home to the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.”

            True fasting, however, addresses not just the spiritual but the quite real daily physical needs of people for the basic necessities of life.  Fasting abstains from food in order to provide.  For example, fasting and prayer can go together so that we stop eating in order to take that time to pray; giving up a meal can be done in order to put the food that would have been eaten into the pantry for the needy; fasting from lunch at our jobs can be done not just to get more work done but so that we might share both our food and our friendship with those in need.

            There are intimate connections between worship, fasting, justice, and reconciliation.  We cannot separate these out as if they do not relate to one another.  All of this is really designed for us to get back in touch with the real meaning of repentance, which is what the season of Lent is all about.  To repair a broken relationship with God or with another person; to grieve over the state of a certain situation; to devote oneself to service are just some ways that fasting leads to repentance which leads to new life.

            It is a good idea to use this season to deal honestly with our own complicity in the sins of our world, our nation, our church, and our families.  The worship that God desires is inescapably corporate as well as compellingly personal.  To ensure that all people around us flourish as human beings is not merely an obligation but is necessary to our collective fulfillment as God’s people.

            The result of true fasting is repentance from sin that has the fruit of renewal and restoration because fasting connects us to God so that we seek to repair and rebuild what has been torn down. 

            We fast during Lent in order to practice repentance, attach ourselves to God, and become more generous toward others.  For most of the history of the church Christians were expected to observe regular fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays every week year round.  When the season of Lent came the church was united in their commitment to use the forty days as a time of introspection, confession, and fasting in order to prepare for the miracle of forgiveness on Good Friday and its life-giving power on Easter.  It was understood to be a time to respond to sin, to be purged of bad desires, to yearn for forgiveness, and to develop godly habits of living. 

            When the Reformation came, no one feared the danger of empty ritual more than the Reformers, especially Luther.  Yet, they were still all agreed that fasting ought to be an outward Christian discipline practiced at regular intervals.  As for me, I think the least I could do is fast two meals a week – one on Wednesday and one on Friday, to not only be in solidarity with the faithful that have gone before us, but in order to let the season of Lent do what it was intended to do.

            I would encourage us all to consider implementing some sort of regular fast through Lent, if for no other reason, to fulfill the spirit and intent of biblical fasting.  Let us, through fasting, connect deeply with Christ in these next forty days of purposeful Christian living.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Christ's Transfiguration

            The last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent has been traditionally observed for celebration of Christ’s glorious transfiguration.  In this transforming event we see a fuller glimpse of Jesus’ identity and his ultimate end of ascension and glorification.  It is possible that in focusing on this account of Christ’s metamorphosis that it all seems very strange, even confusing.  Maybe you just have no categories of thought to explain such an encounter (Mark 9:2-9).

            In a Peanuts cartoon Charlie Brown and Linus were lying on their backs looking at the sky.  Charlie Brown says, “Linus, do you see anything in the clouds?”  Linus said, “Yes, I do.  For instance, that one over there bears a striking resemblance to Michelangelo’s depiction of the Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  And that one, there over the school, looks like a map of Scandinavia, see; there’s Denmark and Sweden.  And that one over there looks like a helix.  Do you ever see anything Charlie Brown?”  Charlie Brown replied, “Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsey but I changed my mind.”

Perhaps your spiritual life seems more like Charlie Brown than Linus.  Compared to the experiences of others, you may not have had any defining moments of ecstasy, no shining Jesus right in front of you, or no spectacular vision of Christ.  Maybe your life seems rather mundane and ordinary in light of the many stories we have in the Gospels of Jesus doing the miraculous. 

Most of our lives are lived in the daily grind.  In the week in and week out monotony of life we need a bit of hope, maybe even a lot of hope.  In fact, we need an occasional mountain top experience because those are glimpses into the future of what it will be like someday when the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness.

The event of Christ’s transfiguration came after a hard frank discussion Jesus had with the disciples about his impending death.  Jesus clearly taught them that he must suffer, be rejected, and killed.  But in three days he would rise again.  The disciples did not want to hear that, and Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying it.

            In response, Jesus said this to them all:  “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Jesus identified himself as the Suffering Servant, as the One who must suffer and die.  However, he is also the One to be glorified.  For Jesus, there had to be suffering before glory.  And it is the same for us.  The Christian life is filled with the difficulty of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but is also punctuated with mountain top experiences that give us hope to keep doing what Jesus did.  In other words, we must listen to Jesus and follow him.  The nature of our Christian walk is up and down; both the mountain and the valley are spiritual realities; both are important.

            Moses and Elijah were on the mountain with Jesus at his transfiguration.  In the Old Testament, Moses was the person used by God to deliver the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land.  Centuries later, when the Israelites had been in the land for quite a while, Elijah was the person used by God to bring about a great repentance from Baal and a mighty revival back to the exclusive worship of the Lord.  As good as those guys were back then, having them with Jesus on the mountain meant that it gets even better with Christ.  Jesus is the Messiah, the True Deliverer, who saves the people from their sins.  What is more, Jesus is the Ultimate Revivalist, bringing the true grace and love of God to people and calling them from legalistic religion back to the true worship of God.

            Deliverance and revival were what Jesus was all about in his ministry.  And he expects all who follow him to do the same.  In the ministry of every believer, there will be suffering because we must take up our crosses; and, there will also be glory, experiencing and seeing the deliverance of sin that comes from genuine revival.         

            A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!”  If you have had a mountain top experience with Jesus, let that encounter with him give you the drive and the hope to keep carrying the bucket of suffering through the valley, without living in the past.  If you have never been on the mountain, today is the day to listen to Jesus and follow what he says. 

The answer to all that is vexing us is not to be found outside of Jesus Christ.  Let us go to him, listen to him, and obey what he says.  Let us know the Word of Christ, and bank on it.  Let us understand that our light and momentary sufferings will result in praise, honor, and glory when Jesus is revealed.  Let our churches be shaped by a vision of Jesus, exalted and glorified.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Rhythm of Jesus

            Rhythm is more than enjoying a B.B. King blues song; everything in life is done with rhythm.  Our hearts beat in rhythm.  When we walk, our gait is in a distinct rhythm.  We cannot survive without healthy rhythms of waking and sleeping.  And, of course, we could not sing or have music without rhythm.  Indeed, we cannot survive without healthy rhythms of life.

            Yet, there is something off with our rhythm.  Our busy lifestyles can insidiously drag us away from God and his ways.  The spiritual rhythms we need for healthy living have been disrupted and we may not have noticed.  Someone has said, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”  Our lives are often fashioned more by shopping for the super sale, by sporting events, or by the demands of work than by our connection to Jesus.

            We seem to have bought into the lie that we can never slow down or take a break.  Many of us know we are out of sync with God and his ways.  We intuit that there is something amiss between our lives and the priorities of God. But we are not sure how to change our situation.  I would implore us to imitate Jesus in his way of life.

            Jesus had a rhythm in his life of outward ministry with people and inward time alone with the Father.  If Jesus needed regular, dedicated time for solitude and prayer, then how much more do we!?  (Mark 1:35-39).

            Let’s not think that we know better than Jesus on this.  If we persist in continually putting off spending generous portions of time with God, he has his ways of getting our attention and putting us in the place of solitude.  And we may not like it, which is why sometimes God is not so quick to heal us or answer our prayers because he has some things to say to us.  We might be so stinking stubborn that we refuse to slow down long enough to listen to Jesus.  For such people, human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus.  We simply cannot rush from task to task and expect to live a healthy spiritual life.  We absolutely need time with Jesus.

            Only through a healthy rhythm of life that includes solitude and prayer will we have clear direction for our daily lives, and wisdom for sound decision-making, not to mention being more relaxed and happy.  Jesus came away from his times of solitude re-connected with his purpose for being on earth.

            Both overwork and prolonged withdrawal from others is unhealthy.  To always be working and serving eventually leads to bitterness, exhaustion, and burn-out.  Conversely, to always be alone (and one can be alone even in a crowd of people) and not serving leads to a kind of spiritual constipation that makes us sick.  It might be counter-intuitive for us to break away from work, but solitude and prayer will actually help us be productive.

            What is the kind of healing and restoration you need in your life?  How might you be a part of fostering healing in another and in your church?  Do you need to make a plan for solitude and prayer?  Do you need to make a plan for ministry and service?  Let your rhythm of life be consistent with Jesus and his ways.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dealing with the Demonic

When I was in college I drove a big Oldsmobile Delta 88.  Because I had the largest car around, I could fit a lot of people into my car to drive to church on Sundays.  Since I often gave rides to people I did not know very well, one Sunday I picked up two sisters who had never been to my church before.

            Everything went like a typical Sunday morning, until toward the end of the pastor’s sermon one of the sisters began yelling and crying out in the service, maybe like the guy in the synagogue who cried out to Jesus when he was just beginning his ministry (Mark 1:21-28).  The pastor quickly brought an end to the worship service and the congregation quickly filed out of the building.  I stayed behind because, well, I was her ride.

            What happened next is a story in itself for another time.  I will just say that I saw some crazy things and that there was a deliverance that day from whatever or whomever was influencing that young lady.  Let’s just say it was an awkward ride back to the dorms afterwards.

            In think this begs the questions:  What are our expectations when we come to a worship service?  Do we anticipate that Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit, and that he will confront demons and bring deliverance to people?  Perhaps there is so little deliverance from evil in the church today because we simply do not expect it to happen.  Maybe the demons just sleep through the service knowing that their influence is not being threatened.

            I also think there are some presuppositions or assumptions that we need to take for granted when it comes to the subject of evil:

Demons are real.  The Gospels are filled with accounts of Jesus confronting demonized people.  There is no evidence that they existed only in the ancient world; they are present in this time in this world.

Jesus has authority over demons.  Jesus took charge of situations with demons because he had the authority to do so.  Throughout the Gospels Jesus is portrayed as one who came in order to decisively deal with the powers of evil.

Demons could be in our churches.  I do not mean to be creepy; I simply intend to point out that if demons are real, they are not just out there somewhere in the world.  Jesus encountered the demonic when he was teaching in synagogues.  Although we encounter dramatic stories in Scripture (because Jesus seemed to bring it to the forefront), much demonic activity goes unaware because demons do not like to be recognized; they like the anonymity of the shadows and to operate in the dark where no one can detect them.  If we knew they were around we would likely do something about it!  Just because church buildings are dedicated to the worship of God does not mean that they magically keep evil out.  We, as God’s people, must be savvy to demonic ways and take charge to use our authority in Christ through truth, justice, peace, faith, and the message of the gospel in order to live wisely and shoo the devil away.

            Jesus directly dealt with evil because he was interested in bringing freedom to people, of confronting the spiritual roots of human suffering, and giving grace to those in bondage.  We all need the deliverance that Christ provides through faith in his person and work.  Being amazed or impressed with stories of the demonic and deliverance ministry is not the same as exercising faith ourselves in Jesus.

            Whenever the church celebrates at the Table together, they are to do so with the cognizance that Jesus has won a tremendous victory over the devil and his demons.  Only Christ can give us the confidence and hope we need to confront all that ails us.  Let us personally and corporately implement that victory daily through the grace given us by faith in love.