Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Weakness and Failure Will Build Your Faith

Sat, 01/27/2018 - 8:00pm

There are so many things I wish someone could have told me at thirty, because at thirty I thought I had life figured out.

I didn’t.

Life turned upside down quickly. I wish someone had said to me,

You are holding onto meaningless things, and you are believing in yourself for the wrong reasons. Stop judging your life by your achievements or “blessings,” whether material or relational or reputational, because none of them will last. What you now consider blessings will be taken away, and when they are, you will discover that being blessed is deeper and more lasting than you can imagine.

There is no way I could have prepared my thirty-year-old self for what lay ahead. How does one prepare for the unknown? I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming, but I wish I had known that while God was taking away my earthly treasures, he was giving me something that could never be taken away — he was giving me himself.

I wish I had known that trusting God would never be a mistake and that he would use every ounce of my pain for my good and his glory. And I wish I had known that life in Christ would continue to get better, because Jesus always saves the best wine for the end.

The Cost of a Successful Career

My late teens and twenties were marked by unmitigated success. Named valedictorian of my high school class. Accepted at every college I applied to. After college, worked for a prominent financial institution. Earned an MBA from a prestigious university. Met and married a business school classmate. Flourished in my work as I climbed the corporate ladder.

Life was glorious from a worldly perspective. I was denied nothing my heart desired. I had everything I wanted. But it came with a price.

My once-vibrant faith from college took a back seat to my career. My quiet times were mostly on the run, if they happened at all. My friendships were superficial, but I was too busy to care. My faith was shallow, but it seemed good enough.

Then I hit my thirties. A serious marriage struggle put us in counseling for years. Our infant son died. I had four miscarriages. I was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, though the symptoms were just starting.

Stay-at-Home Achiever

My seemingly perfect life had taken a huge turn. I had decided to stay home full time after our first child was born. I shifted my focus from my career to being a devoted wife and mother. I made gourmet meals, took photographs of my children’s every breath, and made scrapbooks to commemorate every occasion.

I prayed for my husband and made time to be together. I planned regular family nights and homeschooled our children. I had consistent quiet times, taught women’s Bible studies, and mentored women on marriage.

My struggles forced me to lean on God, and I learned to adjust to a different life — one that was less in the limelight, but still felt accomplished. Just different priorities and accolades.

Nowhere Else to Turn

But midway through my forties, it all fell apart. My husband left for another woman, citing my inadequacies as a wife. My children walked away from God in anger, highlighting my failure as a parent. Our home became a place of rage and regret, the opposite of the sanctuary it once was. My arms began failing because of post-polio, and so I had to stop cooking, scrapbooking, and hospitality to concentrate on self-care.

Everything I worked for was gone. The things that I had valued disintegrated. There was not a shred of accomplishment I could cling to.

Those days were more painful than I can put into words. My friends and family rallied around me, but inside I was dying. Nothing I had accomplished seemed to matter.

I clung to God as I knew there was nowhere else to turn. And from that desperation came an unexpected delight in God. I craved fellowship with him. His word revived me daily. I prayed more earnestly.

And my relationship with others had a newfound authenticity. There was nothing to hide behind. I had no appearances to maintain. Everything was laid bare.

And I slowly realized this epic failure was a huge gift.

Identity and Security

As my life was tested by adversity and failure, I gained a truer sense of who I was. It was not based on my achievements. What people thought of me. What I did or had done.

My identity was based on Christ.

My successes in life never gave me security. Quite the opposite, they pressured me to keep succeeding.

But failure gave me an inner confidence. It has taught me about myself. What I could lean on. What could and would be shaken. And what was unshakable.

Amidst my failure, I understood more clearly what constitutes true blessing. True blessing always rests in God himself.

God Builds on Our Failures

The Bible shows us how God uses our failures and frailties. David sinned against God when he decided to take a census, counting his people instead of counting on God. God punished him, and in David’s repentance, he built an altar on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. And it was on that very ground, the place of David’s failure and repentance, that the temple of the Lord was built.

God’s temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place where he would dwell on earth with man, was built on the ground of human failure.

We offer nothing to God. He isn’t after our success. He wants our heart. Our repentance. Our dependence on him.

Now God does not dwell in a temple made by human hands. He dwells in us. And in the same way, God’s greatest work in us is built on the ground of our failure. God does his most extraordinary work when we rely on him alone.

To Me at Thirty

What would I tell my thirty-year-old self?

Trust God. He is going to use everything in your life to draw you closer to him. Don’t waste your suffering, for it will be the making of your faith. And one day, as your faith becomes sight, you will be grateful for it all.

If God Doesn’t Heal You

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 8:03pm

Weeks of chemotherapy eroded the lining of her mouth, mangled her immune system, and culminated in an hours-long surgery to carve out a tumor the size of a grapefruit.

Throughout, friends and loved ones lifted up a heartfelt but singular prayer: Heal her, Lord. She wrapped herself in their words as if girding herself in armor. Afterward, she pointed to a line on the pathology report that described dead cells at the center of the tumor, and she praised God for his mercy. She reasoned that the chemotherapy had killed the tumor before her surgeon ever put knife to skin, and the healing for which she prayed was at hand.

But those dead cells didn’t promise cure. Rather, they indicated a cancer so aggressive that blood vessels could not tunnel to its center. The tumor was growing so rapidly that it could not support its own middle. Months later, the cancer not only returned, but spread, clogging her lungs and dotting her brain.

Reeling in Grief

As the delicate balance of her organ systems teetered and collapsed, prayers for a cure became more ardent, from her church as well as from her own lips. Her doctors recommended home hospice, but she clung to her conviction that God must melt away her disease, and insisted upon last-ditch chemotherapy instead. Still, the cancer continued its deadly march. Fluid ballooned her limbs and saturated her lungs. One awful night, with ICU alarms sounding her elegy, her heart quivered and lurched to a stop.

Wholly unprepared to lose her, her family reeled in grief. They agonized over how to endure without her, and struggled to reconcile this flickering out of a beloved, faithful life, against their continual appeals to God for cure. How had this happened? they lamented. Had God noticed their prayers? Had he even listened? Did they not pray enough? Was their faith too meager? How could God ignore her, when she was so faithful to him?

God made heaven and earth, catapulted the planets into motion, and assembled the scaffolding of our cytoplasm. Surely, he could also eradicate our cancer, realign our bones, or restore blood flow to areas that mottle.

A Thorn for Now

God can and does heal. In my own clinical practice, he used a patient’s improbable recovery to draw me to himself. Throughout Jesus’s ministry, he performed miraculous healings that glorified God and deepened faith (Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:40). The Bible encourages us to pray in earnest (Luke 18:1–8; Philippians 4:4–6). If the Spirit moves us to pray for healing, whether for ourselves or our neighbors, we should do so with fervor.

Yet while we pray, we must attend to a critical distinction: although God can heal us, we must never presume that he must.

Death is the consequence of the fall (Romans 6:23). It overtakes us all, and most commonly recruits illness as its vehicle. When Christ returns, no disease will blot God’s creation (Revelation 21:4), but for now, we wait and groan as our bodies wither. We may perceive our healing to be the greatest good, but God’s wisdom surpasses even the most impressive reaches of our understanding (Isaiah 55:8). We cannot bend his will to resemble our own.

Time and again the Bible depicts instances when God does not immediately eradicate suffering, but rather engages with it for good (Genesis 50:20; John 11:3–4; Romans 5:3–5). “A thorn was given me in the flesh,” the apostle Paul writes of his own physical affliction. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). God responded to Paul’s prayers for healing not by curing him, but rather by working through Paul’s suffering to draw him nearer to his glory. In the most exquisite example, through his suffering and death, Christ redeems us from our sins and pours grace out upon us (Romans 3:23–25; Ephesians 1:7).

A Heartbeat to Heaven

When we ignore God’s work in suffering, and cleave breathlessly only to our hope for a cure, we forsake opportunities for closure, fellowship, and spiritual preparation at the end of life. Research warns that those of us within a religious community are more likely to pursue aggressive measures at the end of life, and more likely to die in an ICU.

If we set our eyes only on a cure, rather than on the reality of our physical mortality, we may chase after treatments that not only fail to save us, but which also rob us of our capacities to think, communicate, and pray in our final days. We forget that if our healing is not within God’s will, we will need fortitude, peace, and discernment to endure. And if cure does not come, a single-minded focus on healing strands ourselves and those we love with unsettling doubts about the validity of our faith.

The gospel offers a hope that exceeds the reparation of our bodies. This side of the cross, even as our vision darkens and the world closes in, we need not fear death. Christ has overcome, and through his resurrection death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55–57). Death is but a momentary breath, a transition, a heartbeat before we reunite with our risen Lord (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). In the wake of the cross, death is not the end. Through Christ’s sacrifice for us, through God’s overflowing and sufficient grace, we have spiritual healing to sustain us through eternity, even while our current bodies warp and break.

Pray for More

When life-threatening illness strikes, by all means pray for healing if the Spirit so moves you. But also pray that, if cure is not according to God’s will, he might equip you and your loved ones with strength, clarity, and discernment. Pray he might grant us all peace to endure — through the pain, through the infirmity, with eyes cast heavenward even as fear drives us to our knees. Pray that as the shadows encroach, and the light within us dwindles, that the light of the world might illuminate our minds and hearts, drawing us toward himself in our final moments on this earth. Pray we would know in our hearts that our end on this earth is by no means the end.

However dark death seems, it is fleeting and transient, a mere breath before the eternal life to come.

Philippians 1:27–28: Stand Firm in Fearful Days

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 8:00pm

Standing firm in fearful days shows that you have promises in the gospel that death, nor loss, nor prison can steal.

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God Made Your Head to Serve Your Heart

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 8:00am

Your head is meant to serve your heart. Right knowledge flows into proper affections for God — otherwise, doctrine isn’t doing its job.

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“Let Your Light Shine” — Should I Instagram My Good Works?

Fri, 01/26/2018 - 6:42am

Jesus commands us to do our good deeds in secret, but he also commands us to let our good deeds shine before others. How can we do both?

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God Is More Precious in the Valley

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 8:00pm

David was trekking through the arid Judean wilderness when he wrote,

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. (Psalm 63:3–4)

David’s wilderness wandering was no “Walden” experience for him. He was not on a desert spiritual retreat to escape the busyness of life and reconnect with God. David was retreating from people who wanted to kill him (Psalm 63:9). Once again, he was trying to keep a step between himself and death (1 Samuel 20:3), and he felt its chill breath on his neck.

So, telling God that his love was “better than life” was no hyperbolic, romantic, poetic flourish for David. It was the cry of his heart while facing the fierce reality of death. It was his privation of apparent security that heightened David’s sense of the preciousness for what God had promised to be for him. And so, it was another example of the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1) writing one of his sweetest psalms in one of his bitterest experiences.

God’s Greater Gifts

That is a consistent experiential pattern in the lives of saints throughout the Bible and the history of the church. The people of God typically experience the preciousness of God more in seasons of privation — in hardship or need — than in seasons of prosperity. Which is why Christians pray strange things like this:

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision. (“The Valley of Vision”)

The valley is the place of vision? The preciousness of God is experienced in privation? At first this can seem counterintuitive. Didn’t Jesus tell us that the Father loves to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:9–13)? Yes. Wouldn’t prosperity more effectively communicate God’s goodness to us than privation? Ultimately, yes. In fact, isn’t privation the withholding of good gifts while prosperity is giving good gifts? No, not if privation is a means God uses to give us the best gifts of the best prosperity — which is precisely what he does.

The Prospering Power of Privation

One place (of many) the divine logic can be seen is in something the apostle Paul wrote a millennium after David:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

In other words, the temporary physical privation Paul and his partners experienced pointed to an eternal spiritual prosperity for Paul, his partners, and his hearers/readers. Their privations helped them all look beyond the transient seen to the eternal, infinitely prosperous unseen promised to them, and their inner selves were renewed in an unconquerable hope that could never be disappointed here, no matter what happened on earth.

But their earthly privations were more than pointers to a future prosperity. They were producing some of that future prosperity. That’s what Paul meant in verse 17, when he said that our seen light and momentary afflictions — like being perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (2 Corinthians 4:8–9) — are preparing for us an unseen incomparable weight of glory. The Greek word Paul used (katergazetai), translated “is preparing,” means to produce or bring about.

Paul knew Jesus clearly taught that the privations his followers endured for his sake and in faith would be abundantly rewarded by the Father (Mark 10:28–30). He knew our faithful suffering would be rewarded. But Paul also knew that the one great reward worth having more than any other was Christ himself forever (Philippians 3:8–11), and that our faithful sufferings would be most rewarded with that Reward.

A Prosperity That’s Better Than Life

That was the reward David also desired most (Psalm 23:6; 27:4). It’s why he was able to say in that dry and weary wilderness, with death nipping at his heels, that God’s steadfast love was better than life to him. David did not love his earthly prosperity more than he loved God, or more than God’s purposes, or more than God’s promises.

David learned what his greatest prosperity was, where his most valuable treasures were laid up, through his many wilderness wanderings, his many desperate moments, and his many persecutions. David’s privations, far more than his earthly prosperity, prepared for him an incomparable weight of glory. And because of them, he has pointed the rest of us to true prosperity for three thousand years.

The true, biblical, Christian gospel is a prosperity gospel. It is discovering a treasure of such surpassing worth that those who find it simply aren’t willing to settle for the mud-pie prosperity of this fallen world. It is a treasure that is better than life, and nothing demonstrates the value of a treasure more than what we are willing to suffer and lose in order to have it (Matthew 13:44; Philippians 3:7–8). And this treasure is discovered and experienced far more often in the field of earthly privation than earthly prosperity.

“Let Your Light Shine” — Should I Instagram My Good Works?

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 7:00pm

Jesus commands us to do our good deeds in secret, but he also commands us to let our good deeds shine before others. How can we do both?

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Pray Shorter Prayers

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:00pm

For most of my life, two of the Bible’s most important verses on prayer have been lost on me. I must have been distracted by the more famous verses on prayer that immediately followed.

How many of us know “The Lord’s Prayer” by heart, in the King James Version of Matthew 6:9–13, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . ”? But before Jesus models prayer for us, he teaches us to pray in the two previous verses. And two thousand years of accumulated tradition and repetition may have clouded Christ’s expressed principles at work in his now-famous example prayer.

Ironically, at least for me, what Jesus says immediately before was long drowned out by the same mindless repetition he so clearly disavows in the preamble:

“When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7–8)

Against Our Gentile Instincts

As fallen humans, we can understand why Jesus would need to steer us away from heaping up empty phrases. We are prone to this. Apart from God’s special revelation to us, this is our Gentile-instinct in seeking to petition the divine. Like the prophets of Baal at Carmel, we expect that calling on the deity “from morning until noon” and limping around the altar (1 Kings 18:26), even cutting ourselves in our own ways (1 Kings 18:28), might win us an ear in heaven. And apart from God’s special work in us, we’re liable to turn the Lord’s Prayer itself into the very thing Jesus warns against in the same breath.

One aspect, among others, that’s so amazing about Jesus’s model prayer in Matthew 6:9–13 (and Luke 11:2–4) is its simplicity and terseness. Jesus manifestly does not “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” He does not pretend to be heard for his many words.

Arts, Thys, and Trespasses?

In our English, Jesus’s sample prayer is a mere fifty words, and only four sentences. Can you remember the last time, if ever, you heard a public prayer so simple, unpretentious, and to the point? And this straight from the mouth of our Savior himself.

Maybe it’s the arts, thys, and trespasses of old English that allow us to think such a manifestly simple prayer could be a kind of pagan incantation offered bead after bead on a rosary, or on bended knee before a football game. We could memorize a more contemporary version to guard us against the wrong impression. But most likely, the issue is deeper, and we haven’t yet really owned the remarkable freedom into which Jesus invites us — or deeply known the gracious Father to whom he sends us.

Free to Pray Simply

Liberty from heaping up worn and empty phrases, and from many words, is the glorious freedom in which we walk as children of the Father. When we pray — note Jesus’s when, not if — we come to a God who already has initiated toward us. We never introduce ourselves to his highness for the first time, or reintroduce ourselves suspecting he’s too important and busy to remember our name. Prayer is not a conversation we start, but a response to the God who speaks first, calls first, and claims us as his own, even before we return interest in faith and prayer.

We are free to abandon our empty, evangelical stock-phrases, and free from needing many words, extending our requests to a certain length to impress, because in Christ, we already are known, loved, cherished, and secure. We are not unknown citizens approaching a distant dignitary, but children drawing near to “our Father.”

Reverent and Spiritual

This doesn’t mean we approach with anything less than reverence. He is, after all, our Father in heaven. And if children should respect their earthly fathers, how much more we our heavenly Father? Simple, childlike language doesn’t mean flippancy, frivolity, or nonchalance.

And simple language doesn’t mean carnal petitions. What a jarring aspect of Jesus’s prayer! While his model prayer is manifestly and liberatingly simple, the content is not. At least it’s not natural. Instead of starting with daily bread, Jesus begins with the hallowing of God’s name, not ours, and the coming of God’s kingdom, not man’s. These are the longings and expressions of born-again hearts, not the whispers of the worldly.

Without the new birth, we will pray, if we pray, with pretense (and unholy length), and with the same carnal desires as anyone else in the world. But with the new birth, we will pray — not if, but when — with simplicity and profundity, with new desires for God and his honor.

Our God Loves to Give

Jesus doesn’t just warn us of empty phrases and many words, but he tells us why: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). God’s foreknowledge is no reason to keep silent. That’s not Jesus’s logic but exactly the opposite. Our Father already knowing what we need is an impetus to pray — and to use simple, direct language — because he doesn’t only know our needs, but he is our Father, who loves his children, and wants to meet our needs.

In the end, how we pray says a lot about how we view our God. Do we already have his attention, or suspect we need to flag him down? Do we assume he is suspicious of our needs, or that he is pressured to meet them from a limited supply in the midst of increasing demand? Is he distant or near? Is he sovereign and good? Is he just and merciful?

Even Better Than We Ask

When Christians pray, we pray as those who have been freed from praying like the world. We pray as those who first have heard from our God in his word, who have embraced his gift of unsurpassed grace in the person of his Son, and who have no need to earn his favor with our repetition, posturing, and pretense.

Rather, we can ask simply, as children. We can ask profoundly, with new hearts trained on him, not just the things of earth. And we can ask with humble confidence knowing that our Father already knows our needs, and knows them even better than we do, and is even more committed than we are to meeting them in the deepest and most enduring ways.

Most of Life Is Waiting

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 11:01am

I wish someone had told me.

Looking back now, I wish an older lady had sat me down and told me, “Most of life is waiting, Jani. Learn to wait in hope, not fear.”

You see, I grew up believing a lie — a lie I carried with me into adulthood. I believed that happiness would be mine when my dreams finally came true. And so I worked hard — really hard — to gather around me all that my heart longed for.

The Tyranny of Fear

But then, as I found myself beginning to attain some of my desires, I started fearing I might lose them. What a hard taskmaster fear was! It paralyzed me within a web of doubt and self-absorption, and robbed me of my joy.

I feared the vulnerability of marriage, and I feared the lonesome ache of singleness. I feared the pressure of success, and I feared the shame of failure. I feared infertility, and I feared pregnancy. I feared the responsibility of raising children, and I feared the emptiness of a childless home. I feared the stress of working outside my home, and I feared the isolation of staying at home full-time. I feared appearing immature, and I feared growing old. What didn’t I fear? Very little.

I hated being so fearful. I hated what those fears did to me and those I loved. I tried to out-reason and out-perform them, which only brought me to the frightening, flashing neon-sign type of realization that finally got my attention, “Jani, you are not in control. And you never will be.”

I saw that I feared my circumstances more than I feared God. I had lost sight of the reality that both trials and triumphs are part of the good story God is writing through me. I didn’t treasure the truth that he is equally with us in our laughter and our tears, our celebrations and our sufferings.

Sometimes life seems very bleak and unfairly harsh. It seems that way, because it is. We find ourselves waiting for that special man to call for a date, or to finally land that dream job, or for the lab tests to verify our longed-for “all clear.” And it is hard to keep waiting in hope, because, “What if . . . ?”

The Remedy for Our Fears

What can calm our fears? The remedy for fear is not withdrawal, or more self-control, or even drumming up more courage. The remedy for our fears is hope — hope in a God who is more than a match for anything we fear this side of heaven, a God who promises his very presence to be near and real:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

Real Hope Is a Person

Hold your fears loosely. Bring them to God and offer them to him with open hands, asking him to replace your fears with hope. Let go of your fears and hold on to him. As we leave our fears with him, he will quiet us by his love (Zephaniah 3:17), helping us to ask ourselves, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).

And what does that hope look like? It looks as satisfying and secure as God himself, because real hope is a person. Paul tells us in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” When we hold on to the God of hope, what we have then is not a psychological uplift, but God himself as our ally for every doubt and danger.

How do you hold on to God? Well, you need to get close to him. You need to get to know him better. How do you get to know God better? The same way you get to know anyone: by spending time together. What helps me most get to know the God of hope is spending time with him — intentionally and consistently coming to meet with him over the pages of the Bible. Much has changed in the world since Bible times. But God hasn’t changed. The God of hope we see on the pages of the Bible is the God we’re meeting with.

Hope Is a Choice

Hope is a choice. What guides that choice, flavors it, feeds it? Daily opening our Bibles and meditating on the God of hope. My mother-in-law, Anne Ortlund, taught me to take a passage of Scripture and, as I read, ask the same two questions that Saul did during his first encounter with Christ, “Who are you, Lord?” and “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:8, 10). Any woman, with an open Bible, can find God there and grow stronger in hope by asking these two questions.

Let’s be women who settle into God’s goodness. Let’s relish his wise care over every minute detail in his universe. Let’s hold those demands for our happiness, those dreams we can’t live without, with open hands before our King. Let’s choose hope. Then we will be able to say with David, “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you” (Psalm 39:7).

Don’t Waste Your Retirement

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 8:00am

There are no sunset years in the Christian life. Until the day you die, you have a race to run.

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How Christian Is Self-Improvement?

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 8:00pm

Many of our New Year’s resolutions fall flat simply because we do not make them in Jesus’s name. We make them in our own name — in our own strength, on our terms, for our personal gain and benefit. They fail by February because they’re so focused on us — on self.

Resolutions are so popular because they tap into something fundamental to humanity: We are by nature lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:2). Without a new heart, we spend our whole life falling in and out of love with ourselves — hating ourselves for every insecurity and failure, yet looking for every reason to excuse, promote, and praise ourselves. Resolutions make for great annual rituals and sacrifices at the altar of Me.

Self-improvement feels so exhilarating, so hopeful, so liberating — at least in theory (or in Nike ads). But resolutions can become Band-Aids we slap on to avoid really deepening our relationship with Jesus. We feel like better Christians, even though we’re no closer to Christ, and therefore no closer to addressing the heart behind our restlessness, insecurity, and guilt.

So, what role, if any, does self-improvement play in the Christian life? Is there anything distinctly Christian about self-improvement?

Flash in the Pantheism

Don Carson raises the same question when he explains (and refutes) pantheism — the belief that “god” and the universe are not separate entities but one. Pantheism deals with the problems of sin and evil not through sacrifice and forgiveness, but through introspection and personal change, slowly eradicating what’s wrong through self-improvement. Carson responds, “Self-improvement must not be confused with the pursuit of kingdom righteousness” (How Long, O Lord? 31).

While he was condemning the self-focus in pantheism, I heard him preaching to New-Year’s Christians. “New-Year’s Christians” make all kinds of resolutions on January 1 — diet, exercise, sleep, even spiritual disciplines — assuming that the Christian mission is accomplished one resolution at a time. But how many of our resolutions are not truly kingdom-righteousness, but instead some form of self-improvement?

The resolutions that will last and bear fruit will look like cross-bearing, not resumé-building. The rest will be a flash in the pan — this year, and in eternity.

Die-to-Self Improvement

You might respond, “Of course eating better pleases God. I’m stewarding the body he gave me.” Or, “Of course going to the gym three times a week pleases God. I feel healthier and have more energy when I exercise regularly.” Or even, “Of course reading my Bible for ten minutes every day pleases God. After all, I am reading the Bible.”

What landed on me with weight and clarity while reading Carson is how self-focused our spiritual growth can become, especially in a society obsessed with self-care. It can feel so Christian to take better care of ourselves, to improve ourselves in all the same ways the world coaches people to improve themselves — diet, exercise, sleep, even meditation, and probably prayer.

What makes Christian “self-improvement” any different than every other kind of health and wellness regimen? The “self” being improved suddenly becomes a servant of others — a humble, intentional, joyful worker for others’ joy in Jesus. The apostle Paul could have said, “[Make no personal growth resolutions] from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4).

Christian resolutions and disciplines are not about self-fulfillment or self-preservation, but about increasing our capacity to die to self in the name of love.

Resolved to Abandon Self

You might go running to your Bible looking for “self-improvement” verses. You will be hard pressed to find any command (or even license) to pursue your own growth and maturity in a way that does not directly and immediately affect other people.

Instead of self-care, you will find self-control and self-denial. The Christianity we find in Scripture is not about self-improvement; it’s self-abandonment. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). That smells awfully different from modern self-care.

Similarly, Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Not so that he’s not tempted to steal anymore, but so that he has something to share. It applies to work and budgeting, but it also applies to working out, eating better, sleeping more (or less), and reading the Bible. Work out to build strength and stamina to love. Watch what you eat to maintain health and energy to love. Read the Bible to fill the storehouse of your soul so that you have something to share in love.

Discipline in Jesus’s name is always servant-hearted, not self-serving.

Fruits of the Self

But what about the fruit of the Spirit? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). If you read that list, and hear “me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me,” you have totally missed Paul’s point. We don’t hide this kind of fruit in our prayer closet to enjoy by ourselves. Every single one is an expression of true Christian faith and joy toward someone else.

We know this because Paul sets these nine against another list: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21). These are not secret sins. These are home-wrecking, church-razing, relationship-devastating sins.

The fruit of the Spirit (next verse) is the opposite: the evidence of home-fortifying, church-building, relationship-strengthening grace — no hint of isolated self-improvement. This is the supernatural work of a massive God through us to a husband or wife, parents or children, co-workers, neighbors, and church family. The Spirit is making us into a farmers market, not a secret garden.

Do Your Resolutions Overflow?

If we feel greater personal satisfaction and self-esteem because of our new disciplines, but it’s not positively impacting the people around us (but perhaps even coming at their expense), then our resolutions are not saying anything positive about Jesus. Joy that isn’t overflowing isn’t loving. And joy that is not loving is not Christian — and isn’t worth what we think it is (1 Corinthians 13:3). Pursue contagious joy, sacrificial joy, overflowing joy.

The admonition is not to abandon resolutions or personal discipline or healthy habits of dieting, exercising, and sleeping. Not at all. By all means, pursue personal health, growth, and maturity — just not for your own sake. Make and keep resolutions that produce love and not just self-improvement.

Is This Life Too Short to Determine Our Eternal Destiny?

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 7:00pm

God would be just to condemn us even if we only sinned for five seconds. The time it takes us to sin does not measure the gravity of the offense.

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Hebrews 5:7–9: How Did Jesus “Learn” Obedience?

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 8:02pm

If Jesus “learned obedience” and “was made perfect” does that mean he was ever disobedient and imperfect?

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Grumbling in Paradise: How to Break Through Discontent

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 8:00pm

June 14, 2010, sticks out like a redwood tree in the orchard of my memory. For the previous two years, I had wandered through a spiritual wasteland of discontentment, doubt, and morbid introspection.

But on this summer day, God breathed a wind over my parched and cracked heart. I had just spent the afternoon reading a chapter in John Piper’s The Pleasures of God about God’s joy in his creation. As I walked out of the dim-lit, air-conditioned coffee shop into the bracing warmth of a summer afternoon, the words became real: God’s pleasure rang out in birds chirping, leaves whispering, dust motes soaring, cattails swaying. Earth and sky resounded in a chorus of praise to the God of glory, and for the first time in a long time, I heard the music.

Joy swelled my lungs and broke out in spontaneous laughter. My inward gaze exploded outward to find a universe of marvels. My discontentment fled the scene like a thief at daybreak. I discovered, in other words, a lost weapon in the fight for happiness and contentment: wonder.

Grumbling in Paradise

Wonder is that wide-eyed awareness of creation that leaves us hushed, self-forgetful, and brimming with gratitude. Where wonder reigns, contentment flourishes; where wonder is dethroned, discontentment takes root. Exhibit A: the garden of Eden.

Here’s the scene. Adam and Eve live in a garden of delights, where God has “made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” and has said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” except for one (Genesis 2:9, 16). The first couple bathes in a wonderland of spiritual bliss, marital intimacy, and created splendor.

But then a liar slithers in and opens his mouth. And in a matter of a few sentences, Adam and Eve’s world shrinks from a pleasure-packed universe to a cramped backyard. The Maker of the galaxies walks in the garden. Birds and beasts chant his praise. A world of raptures awaits discovery. Adam and Eve grumble.

So too with us. Every morning, the sun enters his sky pulpit to preach God’s glory (Psalm 19:1) — and we complain about the weather. Every evening, God scatters the stars like jewels across an inky cloth (Psalm 147:4) — and we murmur over the dishes. Every moment, the eternal melody between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit plays in surround sound through creature speakers (Psalm 104:24, 31) — and we sigh because of the traffic.

We have become what Augustine dubbed incurvatus in se — curved in on ourselves. Our eyes used to drink in God and all his gifts; now we’re too busy looking inward to notice either. We are Adam and Eve’s children, stumbling through a world of wonders with grumbling on our tongues.

Laugh at the Serpent

If the fall darkened our hearts to the brilliance of God’s world, the new birth turns the lights on again. When God saves a sinner — curved in on himself, blind to creation’s splendor — he opens his eyes to see divine beauty, first in “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and then everywhere else as well.

Under the happy influence of the Holy Spirit, we begin to recognize with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” — in big things like Everests and Atlantics, and in small things like squirrels and cups of tea. We gladly learn to confess that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Instead of muttering over all that God has withheld, we grow to marvel over the bounty he has given. And wonder fattens our contentment like leaven in the lump.

In a marvelous reversal of Eden, the Spirit of God teaches Christians how to laugh at the serpent. When the deceiver hisses, “Your God is stingy — he’s a withholder,” the wonder-eyed saint answers back, “Ha! My God? Stingy? You’ve got to be kidding me. He did not even spare his own Son for me (Romans 8:32), and he’s crowded the world with tokens of his love. Open your eyes! What a pleasure simply to be alive in my Father’s world.”

Terrible Excitement

Consider, for example, how G.K. Chesterton responded to widespread grumbling against monogamy in his day:

I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. . . . Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. (Orthodoxy, 55)

A man who lusts for extramarital pleasures hasn’t truly seen his wife, much less the wonder of intimacy with her. We can extend the principle: gluttons haven’t truly tasted the wonder of food; if they had, they would lay down their forks with trembling. Likewise, the covetous haven’t truly felt the pleasure of God surging through a snowstorm; otherwise, they’d laugh at how much their cups are already overflowing.

Sharpen Your Born-Again Senses

Of course, no one can cook up this sort of wonder with a simple recipe. But we can establish patterns of mind and heart that sharpen our born-again senses, and pray that the God of all wonder would make them fruitful.

First, we can meditate on the glory of Christ. Creation’s wonders are not stand-alone performances; they are scenes in the drama that the triune God is telling. We will not grasp their spectacular meaning, then, unless we remember that “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). Fill your mind with the loveliness of Christ, and you will begin to see his reflection in all that is worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).

Second, we can read authors who have eyes to see. Alongside writers who take you deeper into Scripture, read at least some writers who take you deeper into your backyard to show you all you’ve missed. For me, this means spending regular time with authors like George Herbert, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and N.D. Wilson.

Third, we can get outside. Memorize one of the psalms about creation (Psalms 8, 19, 104), and then carry on the song yourself. Perhaps join Clyde Kilby in the first of his ten resolutions for mental health: “At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.”

Finally, we can give thanks. “Give thanks always and for everything,” Paul tells us (Ephesians 5:20). “Everything” includes the forgiveness of sins as well as flannel bed sheets, the hope of heaven as well as second helpings. As you pray, give at least some time to thanking God for his created gifts and how they speak to you of him. Thank him that he provides you so richly with everything to enjoy.

And then, when the serpent whispers discontentment in your ear, go ahead and laugh.

Disabled by Design: My Abundant Life Without Arms

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 11:00am

Take a step back for a moment and imagine that you were born without arms.

You have to do everyday tasks with your feet. You write with your feet. You eat with your feet. You put gas in your car by lying down on the ground to lift the nozzle with your feet. You pay for a gallon of milk at the grocery store by carrying it to the checkout line with your teeth and then taking your debit card out of your shoe and swiping it through the credit card machine with your toes.

That’s my life. Every day is an exercise in the unusual, and the world recognizes that. I get stared at and hear rude comments on an almost daily basis. As a child and teen, being different than everyone else I knew was a terrible burden. I did not think my own life was precious, remarkable, or holy. I felt worthless and broken.

New Eyes

God rescued and redeemed me at the age of 15, and he slowly began to show me how precious my life is in spite of my disability. In particular, God used the story of the blind man in John 9 to show me the sanctity of all lives, even those with disabilities:

As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1–3)

Jesus then heals the blind man, who in turn goes on to passionately proclaim the power of Jesus. The church needs to firmly grasp the lessons from this short passage in John, especially on the 45th anniversary of the horrific Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision about abortion.

More Than Many Sparrows

What or who determines the value of human life? Is life only valuable because a human can breathe, walk, or make conscious choices? Is life only valuable if an individual’s quality of life reaches a certain predetermined level?

The beautiful reality is that God has given humans value by creating them in his own image (Genesis 1:27). In this one action, we see the Trinity establishing intrinsic value in each person. No external factors alter the value of a human being. Every person, from every race, across every nationality, is the precious workmanship of God.

You and I have nothing to fear when it comes to our meaning and worth. In Matthew 10:29–31, Jesus states,

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

May we remind ourselves and others daily that God has made us in his image. May we promote and defend the value of every human life, regardless of race, religion, or political background. May we unashamedly declare the truth of our great God, who gives purpose to every human life.

No Stitch Missed

As I tried to see the value of my own life, I stumbled over how different I was from everyone else I knew. I thought, “How can God love me if he made me so different? A loving and value-giving God would never subject a person to being born so different, right?”


My train of thought mirrored the thought of the disciples in John 9. They saw the blind man and assumed that some specific sin had caused his blindness. But as Jesus quickly corrects them, the blind man was not disabled because of his sin or his parents’ sin; he was disabled by divine design. God had carefully crafted the man to display God’s glory in his blindness. The vehicles of God’s glory can be some of the most unexpected people.

God takes great care to fashion every person who has ever lived. He makes no mistakes. He does not let a single detail escape his watchful eye. He has knit together every person into the tapestry we see today (Psalm 139:13). Just because someone is born with a mental or physical disability does not mean God missed a stitch.

Blindness, deafness, amputation, and mental disability do not detract from any person’s worth. The church must be faithful to proclaim and defend that every unborn child, regardless of disability, has a right to life. Every unborn child can display the works of God.

Yet, even more importantly, every disabled person also desperately needs Jesus’s love. That’s where we begin to ask difficult questions about ourselves and the church. Do I love my autistic nephew like Christ would? Am I serving families that have kids with special needs by praying for them or actively loving them?

The church must defend the sanctity of life for every disabled person in the womb and also in their communities. May we affirm their personal value while also proclaiming their eternal value in the gospel.

Called and Commissioned

One of the ways we love our disabled brothers and sisters is by giving them the chance to glorify God within the context of the church. The man in John 9 was blind in order to make the works of God known. I was born without arms so that the glory of God could be made known in my physical body.

How many people in our churches do we put off to the side (overtly or subtly) because they are paralyzed, blind, or autistic? If they have God-given worth, let’s do whatever it takes to find ways to serve them in the church and give them opportunities to serve as the church. They are just as much called to go and make disciples as any able-bodied person.

In fact, they may be even more qualified to proclaim the grace and mercy of God. Affliction has allowed many of them to taste the grace of God in ways few of us can understand. God gives us comfort in our hurt so that we can give that same comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4). There’s a sweet understanding of comfort and grace when someone has been enveloped in hurt, and yet can still sing of the mercy of God.

So may we labor to tell all people of their preciousness, and may we give them every chance to display the works of God.

Glimpses of God in Everyday Life

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 8:00am

God intends for us to enjoy him in his gifts. Don’t miss the Giver in the everyday stuff of life.

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Where Dead Men Lie: Letter to a Would-Be Adulterer

Sun, 01/21/2018 - 8:00pm

Dear Husband,

If you value your life, if you cherish your manliness and honor, if you love your family and your God, listen to his voice. As she whispers in your ear, as her lips yield the sweetest honey, as her speech soothes and excites, listen to his words instead. Drown her lies in wisdom.

She entices, “Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (Proverbs 7:18). She says that she can satisfy your longings. She says that no one will know. She makes you feel desired, dominant. She crowns you a king.

And she can provide some of the promised pleasure — for a time.

But mark these three words: in the end.

In the end she is bitter as wormwood.” In the end she is “sharp as a two-edged sword” (Proverbs 5:4). In the end it would have been better to sleep every night embracing a Japanese Katana or a motion sensor grenade.

In the end you will realize that what you mistook as harmless pleasure, as “true love,” as the path to lifelong satisfaction, was the coffin where your reputation, your honor, your family’s flourishing and trust and — if unrepentant — your very soul goes to die. Her chamber of secrets is a chamber of death (Proverbs 7:25–27). Her bed is a graveyard where dead men lie.

Suicide of the Senseless

She will never lead to life (Proverbs 5:5). She does not even know where to find it (Proverbs 5:6). She gives no thought to Christ, to everlasting joy, to the narrow way. If you follow her, you go as an ox to the slaughter. You will end life with an arrow protruding from your liver (Proverbs 7:22–23).

If we could exhume the tongues of her dead victims, they would warn you, as that anguished rich man in torment, to avoid their fate (Luke 16:19–31). She lied in wait for each (Proverbs 7:12), seized upon their lust with kisses, and ferried them into Sheol.

The dead would cry, Adultery is the suicide of those who lack sense (Proverbs 6:32). None who touches her will go unpunished! (Proverbs 6:29).

Place your head on her pillow, and you write your name on a headstone.

Stay Far Away

And now, O husband, listen to me! Keep your way far from her. Do not go near her bed or even near the door of her house (Proverbs 5:8). Don’t fool yourself: you’re not strong enough to harmlessly chat via email, text late at night, meet up for a friendly drink. Stay away! Can you embrace fire and not get scorched (Proverbs 6:27–28)?

In the end — oh, that dreadful end — you will realize that it was not ultimately her fault, but your own. You will groan for your lust, when your flesh and body are consumed. You will wail, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to wisdom’s voice! I did not heed my best friend’s warning! I slowly muted my conscience and cast God’s word aside in my madness. And now I am at the brink of utter ruin in the rubble of a broken existence” (see Proverbs 5:11–14).

In life, you will be a shell of a man, a skeleton. The jagged pieces of shattered hearts will be your bed. If you have any conscience left, it will become an enemy. Old relations will cringe at your name. You will be a man worthy of contempt and dishonor (Proverbs 6:33).

And in death, if you have not been washed and made new in the blood of Christ, you will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). You will forever be the adulterer. A man who, by living for himself, lit his family on fire. A man who, in the end, will himself be lit with an everlasting flame.

Your Wife, Your Choicest Wine

Rather, “drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well” (Proverbs 5:15). Rekindle the passion that carried her across the threshold.

Drink deeply from her springs to refresh your love. Has your love proven feeble? Have grand promises now hushed into a whimper? Gird up the loins of your affection and play the man! You who would wrestle every challenge to the ground, and die in battle before conceding, will you now fall to fluttering eyelids? No. Rejoice in the wife of your youth!

She is a lovely deer, a graceful doe (Proverbs 5:18–19). Look at her — she sits with a thousand more reasons to love her than when you vowed to forsake all others for her. Rejoice in her! She still is that doe, that deer. Do not trade the doe for the skunk.

“Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight” (Proverbs 5:19). This includes the first time you brought her into the bedroom, the second time she bore your child, and the anniversary where you celebrated your third decade of marriage together. At all times. Be intoxicated always in her love (Proverbs 5:19). Get drunk in her passion, be inebriated with her smile, let the room spin as she walks in. She is your choicest wine.

Choose Life

Be not intoxicated with the forbidden woman.

Why? Because all your ways — no matter how dimly lit the hotel room — are before the eyes of the Lord (Proverbs 5:21). Your wife may be away, but your Lord is not. The Judge of all the earth watches. He is there with you. And there will be a reckoning for the heinous deed — either at Calvary or in the lake of fire.

He invites you even now to choose life, choose peace, choose obedience.

Be not intoxicated with the forbidden woman.

Why? Because the iniquities of the wicked ensnare the man who is, and he is held fast in the cords of his sin (Proverbs 5:22). You will get caught in your own web. Your family will be torn. Your name will be tarnished. And you will be bound by your own mischief.

Even the mighty Samson could not break such chains.

Be not intoxicated with the forbidden woman.

Why? Because you will die for lack of discipline (Proverbs 5:25). God will not be mocked. Because of your lack of discipline, your lack of earnest limb-cutting, lack of genuine repentance and faith, you will be led away into hell (Matthew 5:27–30).

Dear husband, forsake not your precious wife. Forsake not your honor and manliness. Forsake not your witness. Forsake not your God. Let Christ’s fidelity and love win your heart afresh to your wife. Be intoxicated with your bride. And with our Groom.

Is There a Place for Female Professors at Seminary?

Sun, 01/21/2018 - 7:00pm

Seminary professors need to be more than competent exegetes, linguists, or theologians. They need to embody the pastoral office.

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The Secret Small Churches Know Best

Sat, 01/20/2018 - 8:03pm

Most Christian churches in America are small. In 2012, the National Congregations Study found that the median Sunday morning attendance for churches in the United States was 75 people. The study also found that 43% of American churches had fewer than 50 regular participants, 67% had fewer than 100 regular participants, and 87% had fewer than 250.

Many of these small churches are located in small places. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow notes in his book Small-Town America that “there are more churches per capita in less populated areas than there are in more heavily populated places.” A recent Barna study found that in my own region of New England, 40% of churchgoing Christians live in small towns or rural areas (though, of course, some may commute to urban or suburban churches).

Small Churches in Small Places

Small churches in small places face certain realities. With 45 regular Sunday morning attenders (or 85, or 145), there will be few things outwardly impressive about your gathering. Your meeting place will likely be humble — perhaps not always well-heated or air-conditioned. You probably won’t enjoy the sound of professional-level musicians, see visually appealing graphic design, or hear preaching that generates thousands of views online the following week. The natural pleasure and encouragement of welcoming new visitors on Sunday morning may not be an experience you enjoy very often. With many in your congregation aging, your church will have lots of accumulated wisdom, but may struggle with health, energy, and a willingness to venture into new things.

Beyond these realities, there will be an ever-present awareness of fragility. You will know that if even a few of the regular attenders move out of town, tire of coming, become offended, opt for a more exciting church, get sick, or die, your church could suffer. Even if a few people stop giving, or if a few get laid off, your church likely won’t meet its budget and your pastor will need to find a part-time job. It will always feel possible that the church doors could close for good sooner or later.

Minnows in a Small Pond

Faced with these realities, you will find there are some things you can work to improve. As a church, you may patiently, prayerfully grow toward God-glorifying excellence in your facilities, your music, your pulpit ministry, your small groups, and much else. But you will eventually reach a point where you recognize that, no matter what you do, you will always be a small church in a small place. Even if God brings revival, and you double from 45 to 90 people, you will still be a small church in a small place. At the point of this realization, you will have a very important choice to make.

Some small churches and their pastors will become dissatisfied with who they are. This may manifest itself in a restless striving to implement the latest program from some big church in some big place. It may result in a pastor applying the latest terminology he has heard (in the city) to his own small context, in manifestly absurd ways (like a small-town pastor exhorting his church to “love their city”).

Or it may settle into a long, slow simmer of discontentment and restlessness and endless tinkering and yearning for something more and better. I once participated in a gathering of fellow small-town and rural pastors. We were a bunch of no-names, but passionate lovers of Jesus and of people. We met in a wealthy suburban mega-church that had a worship band good enough to sell out concerts, a sound board as big as a dining room table, and huge hi-tech projection screens. I’ve wondered since then whether this was a parable of the contemporary American church: a group of small-place, small-church pastors, lifted out of our own contexts and set down, wide-eyed, in an enormously impressive facility that bore little resemblance to what most of us knew, quietly yearning for the resources, personnel, and excellence of a bigger place.

God Tends Bruised Reeds

We have another, better way to respond to our small church’s manifest weakness and fragility. Yes, prayerfully improve what we can. Yes, plead with God for conversions. And then receive — as a gift from God — the manifest weakness of our small church in our small place.

Every church, big or little, urban or rural, is utterly dependent upon its Head. Without Christ’s sustaining grace, no church will last, or have any lasting impact. Every church must receive and reckon with this knowledge. But the particular gift God gives to small churches in small places is that their weakness is so very evident.

Your weakness cannot hide behind an excellent band, or a beautiful new building, or the excitement generated by packing 1,000+ people into a big room. It can’t hide behind a large budget surplus, or big cash reserves. And if your small, unimpressive church is plopped down in the middle of an equally small, unimpressive town, you will also be denied the pleasures of what E.B. White once called (in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York”) “the excitement of participation” — the sense of belonging to something “unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.” As a small church in a small place, you won’t have access to the illusion of greatness through proximity. Your church’s weakness will be evident to you and to all – and this is God’s gift.

In his book The Bruised Reed, the Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes reflects at length on the nature of weakness. He writes,

As a mother is tenderest to the . . . weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest. Likewise, he puts an instinct into the weakest things to rely upon something stronger than themselves for support. The vine stays itself upon the elm, and the weakest creatures often have the strongest shelters. The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing.

Will you receive the manifest weakness and fragility of your church as a gift from God? Will it make your little congregation willing to lean on Christ, and hide yourself “under his wing?” Your church (and every church, everywhere) will eternally impact people, not by showing them how big and impressive you are, but by showing them the greatness of the God who says, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6).

Hebrews 5:7–10: Jesus’s Prayer in His Darkest Hour

Fri, 01/19/2018 - 8:00pm

In his darkest hour, Jesus did not run from his Father, but boldly wept and cried aloud in trust before him.

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