Resolution Wisdom

The text for my sermon yesterday was James 3:13-18, which is about seeking wisdom that comes from above rather than the wisdom of this world.  The wisdom of this world is full of “selfish ambition,” James says.   What could be more true of our resolutions for a new year? Are they not motivated by selfish ambition? This might be why so many resolutions fizzle out after just a few weeks.   When our motives are selfish, when we choose resolutions based on what seems right to us versus what God calls us to do, we disconnect ourselves from the power of God available to assist us in our weakness.  So how can we make wise, godly resolutions? Below are seven things I encouraged my church to consider as they go about making any resolutions, this week or any time.

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Resolution Wisdom

 “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”  ~ 1 Tim. 4:8

Most of our resolutions revolve around physical things:  lose weight, get in shape, stop smoking, etc.  All these are good things, but Paul says here they are not the best things.   What about making some spiritual resolutions this year?

1. Pray for wisdom with regards to what resolutions, if any, God would have you make.

  • If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. ~ James 1:5  

2.  Pray for wisdom as to how to fulfill the goals God gives you.

Both 1& 2 acknowledge that the foundation for any and all action we take is prayer.  Jesus said we do not have because we do not ask.  If we will seek the wisdom that comes from above we can be assured God will grant our request.  Before choosing a resolution because everyone else is doing it, or because it seems like a good idea, pray.  Ask God what He wants from you this new year.

3.  Rely on God’s strength to help you.

  • I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. ~ Phil. 4:13 

When we have prayed over what course of action to take, and are convinced we are being obedient to God’s direction, we can be sure He will give us the strength to complete the task.

4. Find an accountability partner who will help you and encourage you.

  • Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. ~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

Don’t do this alone.  Find a partner to pray with and encourage you.  Give them permission to ask you hard questions.

5.  Don’t become discouraged with occasional failures; instead, allow them to motivate you further.

  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.   ~James 1:2-4

Our setbacks are not reasons to give up but to learn more clearly that our battle is not with flesh and blood but with the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).   When you’ve entered the fight, know that a struggle between your flesh and the spirit is going to happen!   Allow your failures to drive you further to the Cross, your only hope for this life and the next.   (for more on fighting, check out: Are you REALLY struggling with habitual sin?)

6.  Don’t expect instant results.  Be patient.  It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. ~ Phil. 3:12-14

If Paul, a spiritual giant in my book, still felt he had not reached the goal, why should we expect instant results?

  • “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” ― Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

I love this quote from Eugene Peterson.  His book’s title says a lot in and of itself.   We are conditioned to want everything NOW, instantly, on-demand.   Our growth, both physically and spiritually, happens over the long-haul, through a long obedience in the same direction.    Peterson is saying that we cannot wait for our feelings to dictate our actions.  Rather, our actions dictate our feelings.   You want a better prayer life? Don’t wait until you feel like praying.  Pray!   You want to be more knowledgeable of God’s word?  Don’t wait until you feel like reading your Bible.  Read!

If you sit around waiting to feel like doing anything, you will do a lot of sitting.

7.  Don’t become proud or vain, but give God the glory.

  • Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun. ~ Psalm 37:5-6

As you begin to find your victories outweighing your failures, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ve done something great.   Give glory to God, for whom nothing is impossible.

Questions to consider:  

  • What is one thing about my faith that God desires to grow in 2014?
  • Who will I ask to hold me accountable in this endeavor?  

*Adapted from:  Source: http://www.gotquestions.org, CEO, S. Michael Houdmann 

A Return to Gospel Love over Sentiment

This was originally posted at another blog I contribute to called UMC Holiness. While it is certainly true that we are to love our neighbor (even our enemy), gospel love has a form and content which often gets ignored in favor of sentimentality.

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Three hundred dollars was all I needed to keep from becoming homeless.   I was about to be evicted from the apartment I rented after my wife filed for divorce over my ongoing sexual sin.  I was sure that my parents, who had the money,  would float me a loan till I got back on my feet, if for no other reason than to ensure their grand-kids would have a place to sleep on their weekend visits.

But they said NO.

I was stunned and angry.  I couldn’t believe they would deny their son something so easy for them to give and so necessary for me to have.  Within a week I was evicted. I ceased all communication with my parents.  If they had loved me, they would have helped me when I was most in need.

What I could and would not see at the time was that this…

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Zechariah and our Father: Not a Cookie-Cutter God

For many years I had a problem with God’s dealing with Zechariah.  Every year during Advent I would read this story of a faithful, righteous priest named Zechariah (Luke 1) who would become the father of John the Baptist.  Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, is “advanced in years” (a genteel way of saying she is old) and barren, a fact which quite naturally leads Zechariah to ask a question when the angel of the Lord tells him Elizabeth will bear a son:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Luke 1:18).

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What has troubled me for so long about this story is not the question – it’s a question any of us might ask – but the angel’s response.  Acting on behalf of the Lord, the angel strikes Zechariah with muteness.  The reason given is because Zechariah did not believe.

If this were the only time anyone dared to ask a question of God and they received this sort of discipline that would be fine.   We would know not to question God, and to do so brings consequences.   The problem, however, is that this is not an isolated event.

In Genesis 15, God tells Abram that his reward shall be very great.  Abram questions God about this and reminds him that he has no offspring, no one to be an heir.   God tells him he will one day have more offspring than the stars of heaven, and Abram believes.   But in the very next scene God tells Abram that He is going to give him land to possess and Abram’s response is, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen. 15:8).   Essentially the same question Zechariah asks, but rather than being punished, God leads Abram to worship.

In Judges 6, Gideon is hiding from the Midianites when an angel of the Lord appears, calling him to lead an army to save Israel.   Gideon’s question is, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15).   The Lord’s answer is not to strike Gideon with muteness but to assure him that He will be with him.

And if this were not enough to muddy the waters, in the very same chapter where Zechariah gets scolded, Mary asks essentially the same question to the angel that came to her announcing she will give birth to Jesus!   She asks, “How will  this be, since I am a virgin?”  (Luke 1:34).  Mary gets promised the Holy Spirit to assure her.  Zechariah asks the same question and gets 9 months of silence.

Do you feel the unfairness here?

That’s what I felt for years.   Every time I read this story it bothered me that Zechariah got punished when so many others did not.

But this year is different.  This year I am seeing this as the marvelous, mysterious, merciful hand of God at work in each one of these people, and in each one of us.

What if God’s inspired word presents each of these different stories to show us that God is not a cookie-cutter kind of God and does not respond to each and every one of us in exactly the same way?     What if the Holy Spirit wants us to see that our Father in Heaven actually treats us like His children?

As the father of five I recognize that I treat each of my kids differently.   While I may love them all the same I have learned that each of them require something different from me.  One will respond well to just “the look” when he is acting in ways he should not while another will require I actually get up out of my chair.   One will be on cloud nine with simple words like “that’s awesome, son” while another will get more from a hug.    The point being, each of my children need something different from me.   My challenge as their dad is discerning what that “something” is.  I don’t always get it right.

But my Father in heaven always gets it right.    He knows exactly what I need.  He knows exactly what you need.  Every time.  And He never grows weary doing it.

Since I trust that my heavenly Father is good, and that His will for me is my sanctification (my becoming more like Christ), I can trust that what discipline or blessings come my way are God’s design for me and me alone for the purpose of maturing me in Christ.    He does not have a cookie-cutter approach to raising His children.

This year I recognized that it is the sinful nature in me that finds Zechariah’s sentence unfair.   Far too often I look at what others got or did not get based on their choices and think to myself or aloud, “That’s not fair!  Why did he get away with that?!  Why did she get that?  Why not me???!”    Far too often I compare myself with others and assume that if God is doing something in one person’s life He must do it in mine, too.    Zechariah reminds me that this is not correct.   And he does one better.   When he finally does get to speak, he doesn’t say, “Hey!  Abram and Gideon and even Mary asked the same thing I did!  What about them?”    Rather, he declares,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:68, 78-79).

 

Are you a People Pleaser?

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?  Or am I trying to please man?  If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (Gal. 1:10).

In the margin next to this passage I have written,

I still want to please others.  This makes me a servant of many masters, not Christ alone.

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Being a people-pleaser is one temptation to which I can easily fall prey.   As a pastor it is one I have to constantly guard against.   Like anyone else, I want people to like me, to agree with me, to be on my band-wagon.

Over the years this has taken on many forms.   Engineering blog posts and Facebook statuses that will attract more fans, preaching sermons that will impress those in attendance (both in the pews or online), or pursuing recovery for the sake of mending torn relationships with family and friends are just some of the many ways I have tried to please people in the past.

The scriptures remind me again and again that what ultimately matters is not the good I do but why I do it.   Motivations matter to God.  Anything done for the purpose of pleasing people is sin.   As Paul says to the Galatians (quoted above), if we are still trying to please people we are not servants of Christ.   Jesus put it this way:  You cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24).

Consider these other calls from Scripture for us to examine who we are trying to please:

  • For they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43)
  • But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. (Acts 5:29)
  • But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4).
  • Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men (Col. 3:23)
  • And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28).
  • How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (John 5:44)
  • Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord (Jer. 17:5)
  • Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice (Prov. 29:26).

These are just a sampling of all that scripture has to say on the matter, but the bottom line is this:  our desire to please people comes from a misplaced fear.   We fear (revere, esteem, regard) people more than we do God.   Proverbs says that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10).   When we have a proper fear of the Lord we will seek to please Him alone and care less and less about the approval of people.   Jesus lived this out perfectly, doing only that which his Father did (John 5:19).

For me this means that whatever I write and say, in public or private, needs to run through a filter where I ask the questions: Is this for the purpose of pleasing God?  Does it bring people closer to Jesus?  Am I seeking the glory of man or the glory of God?   It means that I check my motivations and ensure that my desire to stay sober is not solely for the purpose of keeping my wife happy but because to do otherwise would be displeasing to my Lord.  I’ve been bought with a price and therefore I shall honor Him with my body (1 Cor. 6:20).

When we confess that our desire to please people is a sin, revealing that we fear man more than we fear God,  we find there is grace sufficient to meet us in our need.  We find forgiveness for our insane (and let’s admit it, the desire to make everyone like us is insane!) and exhausting struggle to be liked by everyone and in it’s place we receive peace and rest for our souls.

  • The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe (Prov. 29:25).

For further reading on this topic I highly recommend 

When People Are Big and God is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man by Ed Welch.  

Are you Inspecting or Reflecting Salvation?

In Luke 3 the word of God comes to John the Baptist who is in the wilderness.   So often this is where God breaks through to us – in the wilderness.   Rarely will we hear it or know it in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, particularly when we think we are doing just fine and need nothing (it’s significant, I think, that Luke first tells us about all the governors and rulers – the powerful of the land –  before he moves to John in the wilderness).   People in the wilderness know they are in need.   They know that unless Somebody intervenes into their sorry state they are forever lost.  People in the wilderness are desperate.

God hears the cries of desperate people in the wilderness.    If you are in such a place today consider that it might be God’s mercy which brought you here.    He has a word for you and needs you to hear it.  Will you listen?  Will you respond?

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John responded by going out and proclaiming that lives can and should be transformed.  He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – a life that is turned completely around and marching to new orders.

He then quotes the prophet Isaiah.   As only one who has been in the wilderness can do, he points those who will listen to a God who fills the valleys and topples the mountains.    This is a God who will exalt the humble and humble the proud.

He goes on to say that God will make the crooked straight and the rough spots level.    This is good news!   I am so in need of a God who won’t leave me the way He found me in the wilderness!  I’m in need of a God  who will give me a new life with a new path to walk on while sanding down the rough spots in my life!   I can testify that God is still at work doing exactly this!   While I still have plenty of rough edges to be worked out and have much growing yet to do in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) I have witnessed the toppling of mountains in my life which at one time seemed insurmountable.

Do you have rough spots that need leveled or your path made straight?   God can and will do it!   And it will most likely be through a path you would not have picked for yourself or  imagined.   God declares,

I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.  I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.  These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them (Isa. 43:16).

Praise God!   I don’t know about you, but this gets me excited!   If we will just let go of the reigns, humble ourselves to God’s word,  and give up control God will lead us to a place of new life – one we cannot imagine!  He will not forsake this!

Finally, John the Baptist reminds us that God does all this so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).   God is seeking a people for Himself who will reflect the glory of His Son Jesus Christ, the spotless One who had no rough edges or crooked paths but only sought to do that which his Father did.   This is your calling and mine.  It is the will of God that you and I be holy and sanctified – set apart (1 Thess. 4:3) – and it is for this purpose:  That the unbelieving world, the world blinded in the wilderness, would see the salvation of God and come to believe that their rough places can be made smooth, too.   

May you be so moved by the word of God that you transition this day from being part of this world which is watching the salvation of God unfold in the lives of others to the part of God’s Bride which is reflecting the light of His glory for others to see.

Choose today to stop being a mere inspector of God’s salvation.  Be a reflector of it.  

It is happening all around us.  God is not forsaking His plan.   And it can and should include you.