Bell Creek Community Church

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

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Open Both of God’s Books: Wisdom in His Word, Wisdom in His World

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 8:00am

Without God’s word, we couldn’t think properly about his world. But through the lens of the Bible, we can hear God speak in everything he has made.

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How Does God’s Sovereignty Not Violate Our Decision-Making?

Wed, 05/09/2018 - 5:32am

How does God’s sovereignty not make us robots? Pastor John explores the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the human will in seven steps.

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Is My Reformed Theology Sick? The Best Test of Spiritual Integrity

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 8:02pm

We will not experience real life and hope and happiness without good theology. And yet, because of our wandering hearts, we often love what we have learned about God more than we love God himself. We often know more about him without knowing and enjoying him more. A disconnect easily emerges between our head and heart, and if left unchecked, it can grow the more we know and learn.

Increased knowledge about God — more theology — can fill our faith with greater affection and devotion and wonder. Therefore, theology is priceless. But when pride and greed and fear get a hold of knowledge, that same knowledge can blind and dull and puff us up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Instead of bringing Jesus into higher definition, our knowledge of him, wielded sinfully, makes us want to watch something else. We change the channel of our hearts. Usually to something more about us, something that makes us love ourselves a little more. Therefore, theology also can be dangerous.

We ought to give every day we have here on earth to getting to know our big, sovereign, glorious God more — to learning good theology. And everything we learn should make us a little more humble and a little more in love with him.

The Best Test

If learning more about God means we pray less, we may be reading and learning and knowing, but not with our hearts. Does greater knowledge of God — more sermons, more books, more podcasts, more classes — lead you to pray more?

Perhaps the surest test of whether our theology is full or empty is whether it produces greater intimacy with God in prayer. No one needed to correct Jesus in anything about his knowledge of God, and yet that didn’t diminish his need or desire to pray. Mark writes, “Rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). He prayed more and more passionately, not less and more casually.

Tim Keller says,

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life. Many people will pray when they are required by cultural or social expectations, or perhaps by anxiety caused by troubling circumstances. Those with a genuinely lived relationship with God as Father, however, will inwardly want to pray and therefore will pray even though nothing on the outside is pressing them to do so. (Prayer)

The more we know and love this God, the more we wean ourselves off the things of this world and center our hearts, our ambitions, and our longings on him. The more time and energy we give to hearing him and seeing him. The more we pray.

Does what you know about God draw you closer to him?

The Eyes of Your Heart

If we begin to sense a disconnect between our head and our heart — between our learning and our praying — the solution is not simply more head. Read more. Take more classes. Google more definitions and explanations. Knowledge about God is important, but it is not the key to reviving our hearts. God himself is. Knowledge alone doesn’t open eyes and ears. Knowing God does.

The apostle Paul prays,

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened. (Ephesians 1:16–18)

Paul doesn’t say put away God’s revelation, or neglect theology and learning about God, or disregard difficult questions in the Bible. No, he simply prays that God would set all of that thinking on fire in our hearts in knowing him.

God does not want you to feel guilty about the books you have read, the courses you have taken (or taught), or the Bible you have memorized. But he is not honored by our knowledge about him, unless our knowing is filled with loving. Paul says, “[If I] understand all mysteries and all knowledge . . . but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). All mysteries and all knowledge — and nothing. The point of our theology, then, is not knowledge in itself, but knowing and loving God.

Wider Hearts, Deeper Joy

If we are serious about reality and eternity, we do not want to read the Bible for another ten years, and end up being a little more bored with God. We don’t want to simply settle into church Sunday after Sunday, and secretly wish we were somewhere else, doing something else. We don’t want to go to God in prayer tomorrow, and have it feel more like doing chores than spending time with your Father in heaven who loves you. We don’t want to learn more about “the mission of the church in the New Testament,” and keep ignoring and avoiding the lost living next door. We don’t want to understand another difficult passage, or be able to explain another difficult doctrine, and have a little less awe and wonder toward God.

We want our theology to be healthy and alive. We want every single thing we learn about God this week, and for the rest of our lives, to widen our love for him a little more. And intensify our joy in Jesus a little more. And break our heart over sin a little more. And grow our compassion toward others a little more.

Pharisees (in the New Testament and today in our churches) know what to read and say, but the truth is lost on them — the good theology is fenced out of their hearts. What Pharisees fail to see is that the Scriptures were written to help us love Jesus. Jesus said to them, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). We have to look deeper than the Pharisees were willing to look — into ourselves, and into the Bible, and into our great God. If we’re not looking for more of Jesus when we’re studying the Bible and learning theology, we’re missing the point, and not just wasting our time, but being worse off for it.

Learn for love. Read to know him. Study to enjoy him. Memorize to love him. Do it all for the surpassing worth of knowing him.

How Does God’s Sovereignty Not Violate Our Decision-Making?

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 8:00pm

How does God’s sovereignty not make us robots? Pastor John explores the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the human will in seven steps.

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Philippians 2:5–8: God Became Human

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 8:00am

God did not become an angel to save angels. But he did become fully human to save humans.

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Look Up from Your Lists: Letter to My 30-Year-Old Self

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 8:02pm

You alone will be exalted in that day.
And worthless goals will be exposed
As idols that we’ve made. (“All Is for Your Glory”)

It was a common pre-employment test in the days when a desktop was actually the top of a desk.

At one corner of the desk was something that looked like a leather cake pan stacked to overflowing with hardcopy documents: letters, memoranda, recently received mail, newspapers, magazines, government notices, invoices, statements, personal written requests, “While You Were Out” phone message slips — all pre-digital forms of information that flowed into a tangible “In Basket.”

A prospective managerial employee would be asked, “Show me how you would handle this basket.” In more instances than not, the eager young job prospect would dive in and dispose of matters in serial fashion, one document at time, until the test proctor (less sensitive in those days to a job-seeker’s self-esteem) would interrupt with, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Those who passed this test would, rather than undertaking serial disposition of the documents, render serial judgment by immediately dividing the larger stack of documents into smaller stacks based on the relative importance and urgency of action required. The prodigious recruit then would say, “I would start here,” and the recruiter would say, “When can you start?”

People over Productivity

“Time management” was a practice that commanded my attention nearly all of my thirty-year career in business and politics. I read every guru and embraced every new tool. I graduated from to-do lists on legal pads, to photocopied planner pages of my own design, to the still-available Executive ScanCard system, to the Franklin Planner, and then — “Katy, bar the door” — to a years-long parade of new software, online, apps, and cloud-based solutions. I was not unlike a fellow executive who once said, “All that I learned about time management, I learned by copying my tasks into a new to-do app.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I now discern that the integration of digital-age work tools with our collaborators, social networks — indeed with all of the world’s information that Google sought to organize and make universally accessible — worked like an opioid on my heart, causing an addiction to tasks that starved and depleted my relationship accounts of more capital than efficiency or productivity ever deposited.

Addicted to Tasks

It isn’t just about devices. The gadgets are only accelerants of a species of sin. I can remember a moment in marriage, pre-smartphone, when debriefing with my wife about my own day’s productivity and the immediate plans that I had for moving forward in my work. It became such a detached soliloquy that I looked up to find her, whom I professed to love, waving her hands and saying, “Hello, do you even remember that I am sitting here?”

Focus on tasks had become more than just enthusiasm for my work. It is when I began to discern that zeal for efficiency and productivity, especially in our service and information-based economy, is a viciously enslaving idol.

The object of our work is not the task; it is God and other people. How often with blinders on, head down, on task did I fuss and grumble when someone dared to interrupt my work? Assigned by God to tend sheep, I mowed right over them in zeal to trim the pasture — and I left bloody wool all over the place. I so often needed to look up from my lists.

Task of Tasks

There are two great commissions in Scripture. The first is found in Genesis 1:28 where we are told, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over [it].” The second, of course, is found in Matthew 28:19–20, where Jesus tells us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Were every one of the tasks required to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the to-do lists that would be crafted, by believers and unbelievers. But when pressed for a Greatest Commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39).

Nowhere did he propose a Great Commissions Scorecard with reported metrics of fruitfulness, multiplication, filling, subduing, dominance, disciple-making, baptisms, or lesson plans. There may be all manner of tasks, but work is aimed by God, at God, and at other people. And that work is love — not productivity, not efficiency, not accomplishment, renown, awards, championships, publications, profits, patents, or promotions.

We who have received him and believed in his name will never run out of time, but will exhaust our momentary opportunity to reach those who have not.

You Work Among Immortals

Even if the greatest earthly accomplishments did not pass away, as we are promised they will, they would be little more than a pie-slice-sized sliver from a period at the end of a footnote at the bottom of one page in one volume of the infinite library of the story of God’s redemptive work in the world. The work that reverberates from here to eternity’s most distant moments is the worship and love that we show God, and the love we extend to other people.

Had I the chance to do it all over, I would heed more carefully C.S. Lewis’s suggestion, and people would become the unrivaled objects of my fascination and service in all of my work.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (The Weight of Glory)

There is still time for me to finish, if not well, at least better in this regard. As I do so, I am grateful for a letter to my 61-year-old self from a 91-year-old friend:

First, live for God one day at a time. Whatever long-term plans we may have, we need to get into the habit of planning each day’s business in advance, either first thing each morning or (better, I think) the day before. Glorifying God should be our constant goal, and to that end we need to acquire the further habit of reviewing before God as each day closes how far we have done as we planned, or whether and why and how far we changed the plan to fit new circumstances and fresh insights, and in any case how far we did the best we could for our God, and how far we fell short of doing that. (J.I. Packer, Finishing Our Course with Joy)

Will You Become a Fool for Christ?

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 8:00am

To become truly wise, you must become a fool. God’s wisdom might not fit our culture’s, but only his God’s wisdom lasts forever.

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If I Were 22 Again

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 8:02pm

“What would you do if you were 22 again?”

I was recently asked that question as part of a conference on world missions. I turned 22 in the middle of my senior year at Wheaton College. I was an English Literature major and headed to Fuller Seminary. I got engaged to Noël five months after I turned 22, just before I graduated. God’s call on my life, as I discerned it, was clear but broad: I felt called to the word of God. What I would do with it, I had no idea.

As I asked myself this question, I pondered whether to go in the direction of, “What would I do differently?” But that didn’t seem helpful because what I would have said was, “I would try to do everything better” — pray better, worship better, love my wife better, witness to unbelievers better, study better. So instead, it seemed to me I should go in the direction of, “What are the most important things I would do at 22?” Not in the abstract, but the real me where I was and who I was in 1968. What if I started over with all the same circumstances in place? Well, I would do six things.

1. I would marry a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus, world-Christian woman. In fact, I would marry Noël Henry.

Not long after we met, when I was 20, and we were head over heels in love, and already thinking about marriage, I asked her, “If God called me to be a missionary to Africa, would you go with me?” She said, “Yes, I would see myself called to be by your side and support you.”

We married when I was 22, and my first job was teaching for six years in a college in St. Paul. But when I was 33, God made his call into the pastoral ministry irresistible, and I asked her if she would support me in this. She said yes.

One year into that pastoral ministry, I was so discouraged one Sunday afternoon that I put my face in my hands and said out loud at the dining room table, so that she could hear me from the bedroom, “I think I’m going to go to Africa.” Without missing a beat, she said from the bedroom, “Tell me when to pack.”

Four years into that pastoral ministry, God touched us powerfully for the cause of global missions and I asked her, “What if we invite everybody in the church who’s seriously interested in pursuing missions to join us in our living room Friday night?” She said yes. And twice a year (usually) for the next 20 years we had around 100 people packed into our living room and dining room with all the furniture moved to the bedrooms upstairs.

So if I were 22 again, I would marry this woman.

The lesson for you: Pray that your future spouse, or your present spouse, be a radical, risk-taking, go-anywhere-for-Jesus world Christian.

2. I would take that young wife of mine and join a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church.

I would attend the corporate worship of that church with my wife every Sunday.

We would seek to throw ourselves into the ministries of the church in the hope that this community of believers would guard and grow our faith, and would help us identify our spiritual gifts and our calling, and would catapult us into a lifetime of ministry.

At age 22, as newlyweds, Noël and I joined Lake Avenue Congregational church in Pasadena, California. Noël discovered a gift for working with mentally disabled young adults. And I discovered a gift for teaching as I taught seventh grade boys, and then ninth grade boys, and then the Galilean young adult Sunday school class.

Where is your calling to ministry or missions confirmed and nurtured? In the local church.

I came under the care of the deacons at Lake Avenue Church, and was set on a path toward ordination. Glenn Dawson stayed in touch with me for three years during seminary, and for three more years during graduate studies in Germany, until in 1975, seven years later, when I was ordained to the gospel ministry in that same local church. An amazing relationship.

The lesson for you: Find a Bible-believing, Bible-preaching, Bible-structured, Bible-obedient church. Join it, serve it, discover your gifts, and be accountable to the community as you follow God’s call.

3. I would go to seminary.

I would go to seminary and spend three or four years totally immersed in the most rigorous study of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, with a view to laying a foundation for a lifetime of seeing the glory of Christ in his word so clearly that I would never waver in my commitment to believe and speak whatever the Bible teaches, wherever in the world God puts me.

I would not prioritize practical courses, but every chance the curriculum gave me, I would prioritize exegetical courses, on the assumption (which I still believe at age 72) that, in general, practical skills are learned better on the job in the church; but the deepening and sharpening of exegetical skills for a lifetime of fruitful reading are best accomplished in the rigorous give-and-take of a class, under the watchful eye of a skilled teacher.

I would put the highest priority on learning how to penetrate to the original meaning — the original intention — of the biblical writers, because those are the very meanings and realities that will be relevant among all the peoples of the world — any time, all the time. My ideas about the modern Western world, and my assumptions about the application of these meanings to my situation, are not the main issue when God puts me in a people group with a radically different culture than mine. But the original meanings of the paragraphs of the Bible are of paramount importance. This is what I would pursue above all things.

The lesson for you: Whether you attend seminary or not, become as Bible-saturated as you can, putting yourself under the influence of the most insightful Bible-teachers, dead and alive.

4. I would resolve to read my Bible every day for the rest of my life.

I would make Bible reading more important than eating, and getting exercise, and kissing my wife.

There have been about 18,340 days since I turned 22, and I think I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have eaten. I have certainly read my Bible on more of those days that I have watched television or videos. I have read my Bible on more of those days than I have kissed my wife, because I have been away from my wife often, but I have almost never been away from the Bible.

But I have learned a few things about reading the Bible, and if I were 22 again, my Bible-reading resolution would sound something like this:

  • I resolve every day, in reading my Bible, to push through the haze of vague awareness to the very wording of the text itself;
  • and I would push into and through the wording of the text to the intention of the author’s mind — both human and divine;
  • and I would push into and through that intention to the reality behind all the words and grammar and logic;
  • and I would push into that reality until it was an emotionally experienced reality, with emotions that correspond to the nature of the reality;
  • and I would push into and through this proportionately emotional experience of the reality behind the text until it took form in word and deed in my life;
  • and I would push through this emotionally charged word and deed until others saw the reality and joined me in this encounter with God’s word.

Nothing is revealed more quickly on the mission field than a superficial encounter with the living God and the glorious realities he has revealed in Scripture. Superficial Bible reading that does not penetrate through the words to the intention to the reality to the experience to the deed will be of little use when faced with the massive demonic forces of unreached peoples.

The lesson for you: Read your Bible every day of your life. If you have time for breakfast, never say that you don’t have time for God’s word. Don’t get your Bible-reading pleasure from the fact that your conscience is clear when the Bible box is checked, but get your pleasure from the living, supernatural encounter with God-revealed reality in Scripture.

5. I would become a Christian Hedonist.

That is, I would seek to find more joy in God than anything else in the world, for the sake of personal holiness, perseverance through pain, and the promotion of the glory of God.

I would get clarity and certainty around the sentence: God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him.

Which means that, by means of savoring the sweetness of the promises of God, I would put to death every rising quiver of pride, and self-reliance, and lust, and greed, and fear, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, unless these sins die, I will be dogged by fruitlessness in this life, and damned in the next.

I would recognize at age 22 that the fight for joy in God, through every bright and dismal circumstance of life, is the essential key in my mission for a life of authentic holiness, and fruitful perseverance, where God gets the glory.

The lesson for you: Become a Christian Hedonist, whether you call yourself that or not. Don’t aim at fame. Don’t aim at sexual gratification. Don’t aim at wealth. And don’t aim at safety. Aim at all-satisfying joy in God which will empower you for humility, and chastity, and simplicity, and risk-taking, sacrificial love.

6. I would recognize that I am not my own, that I have been bought with a price, and that I belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ for his use and his glory in this world.

And I would offer myself up to God and tell him that he may do with me anything he pleases, at any time he pleases, anywhere he pleases.

And I would memorize Psalm 25, and trust the amazing promises of guidance that are given in those precious verses.

Good and upright is the Lord;
     therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
     and teaches the humble his way. (Psalm 25:8–9)

The lesson for you: Memorize Psalm 25. Pray it as your own. Give yourself wholly up to God and his mission. And trust him.

My Body: Friend or Foe?

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 8:00pm

True freedom from body hatred does not come from finally liking what we see in the mirror. It comes from being swept up in the greatness of God.

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‘My Declaration in My Darkest Hour’: The Forgotten American’s Song in Prison

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 2:00pm

Tomorrow Andrew Brunson, an American missionary to Turkey for the last 23 years, goes on trial a second time after being falsely imprisoned more than a year ago. He has been called “The Forgotten American in Turkey.”

On October 7, 2016, Andrew hoped to receive permanent citizenship into Turkey. As a Christian pastor who had already been in the country for two decades, deeply committed to loving Turkey and its people, he believed this moment would give him the opportunity to continue leading God’s people faithfully at Izmir Resurrection Church.

Instead of receiving permanent citizenship, he and his wife were held in a local police station with no charges; his wife would be released two weeks later while he remained in custody. He was held for 63 days without even a Bible, and eventually falsely accused and charged with membership in an armed terrorist organization.

A friend of mine has stayed in contact with his wife and shared more of the details of Andrew’s story with me. For the most part of his prison time, he has been in an overcrowded cell, being mocked by fellow prisoners who persistently ridicule him for his love for Jesus. The room is intended for eight people — and it houses twenty-two.

Andrew has had very dark days in prison, but he penned a song that he sings to keep his eyes on Jesus, including these two verses:

You are worthy, worthy of my all
This is my declaration in the darkest hour
Jesus, the Faithful One who loves me, always good and true
You made me yours, you are worthy of my all

I want to be found worthy to stand before you on that day
With no regrets from cowardice, things left undone
To hear you say, “Well done, my faithful friend, now enter your reward”
Jesus, my joy, you are the prize I’m running for

May the Doors Be Opened

In the midst of being persecuted, he has had to continually rely on the truths he knows from Scripture while being physically and spiritually broken. As a result, he has lost fifty pounds, and has suffered great emotional and psychological distress. He has even been denied medication for anxiety and depression while in deplorable conditions. Through it all, Andrew has remained a faithful witness to Christ while still loving Turkey and its people.

While media outlets have covered the story of Andrew’s false imprisonment, Christians around the world have prayed that God would supernaturally intervene on Andrew’s behalf and change the hearts of the Turkish government. We have read Acts 16,

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. (Acts 16:25–26).

Just as God miraculously intervened to deliver Paul and Silas, he is more than able to change the hearts of the Turkish government and deliver Andrew.

Pray for President Erdogan

In Acts 16, God changed the hearts of the magistrates in releasing Paul and Silas from prison. Since Andrew’s imprisonment, President Recep Erdogan has publicly stated that his fate is directly tied to the United States extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania who Erdogan believes was directly involved with the failed military coup in July 2016. He is keeping Andrew in prison as a bargaining chip for Gulen. Both Brunson and Gulen have denied any involvement with the coup.

Pray that God would miraculously change the heart of President Erdogan. Pray that God would help him see that what he is doing is evil and will ultimately be held against him by the nations of the world — and eventually by God himself. Pray that God would demonstrate his power to Erdogan by visiting him and transforming his heart by his grace. Pray that he might say, “Let Andrew Brunson go” (Acts 16:35).

Pray for Andrew

Andrew’s most important request of prayer is that he would stay true to Christ and his gospel, especially when he lacks a sense of God’s presence in the darkness. At his first trial on April 16, he felt supernatural strength as he expressed his love for Turkey while being questioned by the prosecutor. Despite being denied all of his medication for several days before the trial, he was able to testify for twelve hours, clearly refuting all charges against him.

In Mark 13, Jesus tells some of his disciples that at the close of the age, those who follow him will be “[delivered] over to councils” and “beaten in synagogues” (Mark 13:9). He says that when they are persecuted for the sake of his name, the Holy Spirit will speak through them (Mark 13:11). Pray that Andrew might experience the power of the Holy Spirit in such a way that the gospel would advance through his imprisonment (Philippians 1:12–13).

Along with praying for Andrew, consider signing the ACLJ petition for his release. Outside of prayer, this is the best action plan to support Andrew.

Pray for Andrew’s Second Trial

The second trial for Andrew will likely be held tomorrow, though there is a possibility it will be delayed. Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them as orphans. He promised them his peace in the midst of trials and persecution (John 14:18, 27). Pray that Andrew might rest in this peace during the hours leading up to his trial. Pray also for each person involved in his second trial — the three judges, the prosecutor, and his attorney.

Sing Andrew’s Song

While Andrew has been imprisoned, he has written this song. Consider singing this song to Christ with Andrew, who continues to sing it during the darkest days of his life.

You are worthy, worthy of my all
My tears and pain I lift up as an offering
Teach me to share in the fellowship of your suffering
Lamb of God, you are worthy of my all

You are worthy, worthy of my all
My tears and pain I lift up as an offering
Teach me to share in the fellowship of your suffering
Lamb of God, you are worthy of my all

You are worthy, worthy of my all
Adopted as a son, a brother to my King
Indeed I will share in your glory if I share your suffering
Jesus, you are worthy of my all

You are worthy, worthy of my all
But my heart faints, drowned in sorrow, overwhelmed
Make me like you, cross-bearer, persevering, faithful to the end
To stand the trial and receive the crown of life

You are worthy, worthy of my all
This is my declaration in the darkest hour
Jesus, the Faithful One who loves me, always good and true
You made me yours, you are worthy of my all

I want to be found worthy to stand before you on that day
With no regrets from cowardice, things left undone
To hear you say, “Well done, my faithful friend, now enter your reward”
Jesus, my joy, you are the prize I’m running for

You are worthy, worthy of my all
You are worthy, worthy of my all
What can I give to the Son of God, who gave himself for me
Here I am, you are worthy of my all

God Put You on the Pale Blue Dot: Why Your Small Life Is Not Meaningless

Sat, 05/05/2018 - 8:01pm

Just before NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft left our Solar System in 1989 to take atmospheric readings from interstellar space, the late astronomer Carl Sagan, then a member of the mission’s imaging team, entreated officials to turn the camera backward to capture one last snapshot of earth.

Making it known that such a photograph would offer nothing of scientific value, they complied. And what they captured was the first portrait of our planet from the edge of its Solar System, 3.7 billion miles away, an image of the earth measuring less than 0.12 pixels, a soft dot sitting in what appears to be a beam of preferential light.

Sagan later gave the image its notorious name “the pale blue dot.”

“Look again at that dot,” he said later, reflecting on the image. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

Here we find and pinpoint the centerpiece of human drama — a flickering tenth-of-a-pixel in the HiDef expanse of our limitless universe. On this pebble, all of human drama has been played out like cosmic role-play gaming: sides and forces, good and evil, pushing and pulling, winning and losing.

Greater Purpose for the Blue Dot

For a secularist like Sagan, this snapshot of the cosmos is to be brought to a precipice of insignificance and to behold the meaninglessness of everything. Our lives mean nothing. Indeed the collective lives of everyone who has ever lived, combined, add up to nothing of significance.

All the drama on this blue dot means nothing.

But unlike Sagan, we are often asked to step back and ask, In the midst of this chaos of what has unfolded on this pebble, is there a unifying purpose for all of creation? Can it all be held together by something greater than itself?

The simplest answer to the question, and the most direct response to the perplexed Sagan, is the answer of Jesus Christ. He is not a theory or a religion, but the Creator himself made man, died, and was raised from the grave (historical facts in the human story Sagan too conveniently overlooked).

If the sun is the center of our Solar System, the earth is the epicenter of the cosmic drama. God existed before this mote of dust was suspended in black-matter, spinning around a hydrogen bomb of exploding gasses to light it half a day. In him, all the dust of this vast cosmos found its beginning, finds its glue, and in him we find the end and aim of this creation all along. The whole purpose of this expansive cosmos is for Christ to be demonstrated in the full beauty of his works and person — “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15–20).

The pale blue dot gives evidence to a living Savior. Many Christians intuitively know all this. Christ unlocks the perplexing mysteries of this earth, whether or not we can fully understand those mysteries now. But of course this is only to speak of the visible world. To understand the visible world of Sagan, we must catch a precious glimpse of the unseen world that animates it.

Why God Created the World

So why did God make this dust mote?

We know from Scripture that the Creator needs nothing from his creation to make himself happy (Acts 17:24–25). We also know that God has existed eternally in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — an everlasting experience of love given and love received; joy given and joy received; glory given and glory received. God could exist eternally in perfect love, joy, and glory. So if God did not make the cosmos and unfold human drama because he has a personal lack, why did he do it?

The short, but profound, answer is that God loves his own glory so much he must share it — share it with himself, and share it with angels, and then share it with other rational creatures, and that’s where we come into the story. The earth is a very small theater, but it is a playhouse, a God-made stage to manifest his love, joy, and glory. But not as in a cinema, as though we sit back as passive watchers and gaze at something televisual, viewing something distant and remote. The drama enacted on the theater of this pale blue dot is nothing less than the drama of us — God’s design for our sufferings, our gains, our losses, our births, our lives, and our ends.

The creation is, as you know, a fallen place of pain, and we brought this about in our sin. And yet the result of our sin, in calling forth redemption, does not shroud God’s glory, but instead sets the stage for this creation to fully manifest God’s love, delight, and joy — to fully share it with us, in his sovereign design and plan.

So this mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam, is also the centerpiece of God’s disclosed drama, the first act to an eternal story of redemption and, most importantly, a place for him to express his inner beauty, his glory. The blue dot exists for one central end Sagan missed. It is the theater for God to manifest his glory.

The Great Marriage

That is the very short story of why this dust mote of earth exists. God made it to demonstrate his awesome character, beauty, brilliance, love, and joy. He is an expressive God. And we are put here as objects of his delight, to be loved, to see the shed blood of Jesus Christ and know that there’s nothing good we need that our Creator and Father will not give to us for our eternal joy (Romans 8:32). The Creator made you. He made me. He redeemed us. He delights over us. Our praise in him magnifies him as it completes our joy.

Yes, this dust mote is a relatively small stage, but with a story as expansive as the cosmos. God’s desire to be glorified and my desire to be happy forever are married in one end which brings clarity and cohesion to all the other seemingly random and disconnected human drama witnessed by all the historians in world history.

There is meaning and purpose to life, when we look beyond the pale blue dot and see the Creator of the whole cosmos, and he moves it toward a glorious fulfillment that will bring the entire host of stars in the firmament to the praise of his glorious name. So “praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars!” (Psalm 148:3).

Praise him, child of God!

For here is your God — here is your joy — the Author of the drama enacted on this pale blue dot, a piece of sand suspended magnetically in space, a blue theater for all human drama and to awe the cosmos.

Philippians 2:5–8: Is Jesus Like-God or God?

Sat, 05/05/2018 - 8:03am

If you see Jesus like you do Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Confucius, you do not know Jesus.

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The Best Weapon Is an Open Door

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 8:02pm

If you believe that these are dangerous times, then you are right. The worldview du jour is called “intersectionality” — the belief that who you truly are is measured by how many victim-statuses you can claim, with human dignity only accruing through the intolerance of disagreement of any kind.

This has landed Christians squarely in a post-Christian world, where the highest achievement of personhood is this: the autonomous, independent individual finding meaning in nothing but himself. Thoughtful Christians know that the steady erasure of Christian tradition in the day-to-day fabric of life will mean, sooner or later, that Christians will find ourselves living like the early church in hostile Rome.

How tempting it is to withdraw. How easy it is to let fear rule our hearts as we shelter ourselves and our children from evil. How afraid we are to speak when our words, in spite of good intentions and biblical integrity, are declared hate speech. How ought we to live? Your best weapon is an open door.

But how? Especially if we have been burned before, how do we open our doors to the world?

1. Learn to Listen

Traditionally, Christians have been taught to share the gospel by starting with the good news that Jesus saves us from our sins. But we live in a world that does not believe it needs saving from sin. It believes it needs saving from its Christian neighbors.

Instead of starting with talk, we need to start by listening, and listening well. In post-Christian communities, your words may only seem as strong as your relationships. So learn to know your audience, and try to be some earthly good to them. Your best spiritual weapon is an open door, a set table, a fresh pot of coffee, and a box of Kleenex for the tears that spill. Because tears will spill.

God has written eternity on the hearts of us all, and part of that eternity is a longing for dignity. Life without the Lord is hard. It has hard edges and steep slopes. Its betrayals hold out no hope, its sufferings hold out no redemption. Only life in Christ offers redemptive suffering. Get to know your neighbors well enough to know where it hurts, and then accompany them in their suffering. Show — as well as tell — that Jesus comforts the suffering. Bear on your back the words that Jesus holds out to all who will listen,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30)

Being available to neighbors means cutting back on your entertainment indulgences, building in margin time in your day, and budgeting to feed many more people than those who share your last name. Make sacrifices for your unsaved neighbors that mean something. Go out of your way for them.

2. Prepare Your Heart and Home

Being hospitable in a post-Christian world means meeting strangers and making them neighbors and, by God’s grace, welcoming neighbors into the family of God. Our homes are crucial for this. Our homes are the bridge between the church and the world.

The first challenge is how to meet strangers. Class and time barriers work against this vital Christian work. But prison, refugee, and foster-care programs are ready and waiting for you to partner with them. Safe Families is a Christian alternative to foster care, and it is a program that many families in the church can participate with together. Christians must be intentional about seeking the stranger. We must think of our homes as hospitals, embassies, and incubators, not castles, fortresses, or museums.

The second challenge is how to direct the conversation to Christ. For the Butterfields, the nightly practice of family devotions has helped our family manage this sometimes awkward transition from amusement to eternity. How? Every night is the same routine. Dinner, followed by my husband leading us in a short Bible lesson, followed by prayer, and sometimes ending with singing a psalm. Because we do this every night, incorporating others into the practice of Christian table fellowship is normal. Without being asked, when dinner plates are passed to the head of the table to be brought to the sink, Bibles are passed around with the coffee mugs.

And almost-daily hospitality is much easier to pull off than those micromanaged, well-planned events. Here is what this looks like. Singles from the church and neighborhood come over after work and help get dinner going. We have fun doing this. Sometimes there is laundry on my table that needs to be folded and put away (or stuffed back in the dryer). Sometimes there is a child still struggling with a math lesson. And we all behave better when it is not just us dealing with the messiness of unfolded laundry and unfinished math sheets.

Other neighbors start to show up. People with secret lives — people with secret drug addictions or dangerous relationships — cannot make plans easily. Christians need to be sensitive to this. They don’t know if they will be sober or safe three Tuesdays from yesterday. But if the invitation is open and regular, they can make it to your table on the fly. All people — believers and unbelievers — need to see transparent, Christian lives lived out in the real-time of tears and mess.

And at the table, peace reigns. We make room for everyone. We pull in extra chairs or piano benches, or some of us sit on the floor. We share what we have. We put our phones away. We bring our problems and our questions. We don’t have to worry about what our unbelieving neighbors think of us because they are here too, and they are more than happy to tell us what they think. And after dinner, we open our Bibles with our hearts. And then we pray. We ask Jesus to enter into our lives, not to stop conversations, but to deepen them and to give us hope.

3) Give Away Your House Key

We live in a world that has normalized crushing loneliness. But the Bible does not. Biblically speaking, conversion to Christ renders orphans into sons and daughters, bringing intimacy and belonging.

Christians have allowed idols (achievement, acquisition, selfish ambition) to deface the gospel. We have swapped out the biblical priority that the church is the family of God for a counterfeit that says the blood of biology ranks higher than the blood of Christ. And when we do this, we toss the most vulnerable brothers and sisters under the bus. The Christian life comes in exchange for the life (and sometimes the family) we once had, not in addition to it.

But loss becomes gain in community — or, it would if we were obedient to our Lord’s hospitality commands. Mark 10:28–30 says this:

Peter began to say to [Jesus], “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Please note what Jesus says about those who give up everything to follow Christ. They will leave everything behind. Even such necessary loss will cause grief and sadness and body memories and night terrors — all of the complex emotions that accompany counting the costs of gospel living. But this verse also promises that, in the family of God, they will receive a hundredfold now in this lifetime.

This hundredfold will not fall from the sky. It will come from you and me, or it will not come at all. This hundredfold includes warm embraces, regular, nightly meals, and prayer, bearing one another’s burdens, and doing life together as the family of God. It is organic and messy and life-giving. It includes people who are married and single and young and old and able-bodied and infirm and everything in between. It means that, in Christ, you belong to each other, and this belonging has a physical and material dimension, as well as a spiritual one.

This verse is promising something vital: you, Christian, have a family of God. You, Christian, have a place at the table. And how do you get through the front door to the table? You, Christian, have the key. The gospel comes with a house key for those who have left everything for Jesus.

What’s Stopping You?

If the world saw Christians living in vital, life-giving communities, with families and singles and children sharing a rhythm of life, with extra time and hands and energy left over to lend a helping hand to those who do not yet know the Lord, perhaps they too could “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

Perhaps our children would not live and speak and think one way in church and another way on Facebook or in school — regarding Jesus as a prop to pull out for church or youth group. Perhaps our unsaved neighbors would regard us as the go-to people on the block when trouble hits — people who they can tell their deepest secrets, who go out of their way to help people in hard situations, and who have a sober handle on the problem of evil in the world. Perhaps the transparency of our lives would help people to see how, even when Christians lose, the gospel heals and helps and advances. Perhaps our everyday lives would reveal that the hand of God reaches into the hardest situations imaginable and that nothing is impossible with God.

Hospitality is the ground zero of the Christian life. What is standing in your way?

How to Get Wisdom: Become a Fool

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 11:00am

Wisdom from God is more valuable than gold. It may look foolish to a watching world, but the lasting path of happiness comes only in the guidance God gives.

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What Makes a Christian?

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 8:00am

Decisions, doctrine, and deeds don’t define faith. Most fundamentally, Christianity is cherishing, treasuring, and delighting in all that God is for us in Jesus.

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How to Pray About What You Say

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 8:01pm

God expects us to tremble at his words, and to tremble over ours.

We Christians ought to be the most careful speakers in the world. We are to heed God’s words ourselves and communicate them to others with care, and we are to speak our words carefully since we will “give an account [to God] for every careless word [we] speak” (Matthew 12:36).

This whole talking business is a very serious business. It’s life-and-death serious: “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). I would think that anything this serious would naturally be a focus of my regular prayer. But as I’ve examined my prayer habits as it relates to my talking habits, I’ve noticed that I tend to only pray about what I say when I’m aware that a lot is at stake in what I say. But Jesus says a lot is at stake when I’m not aware and speaking carelessly: “for by [my] words [I] will be justified, and by [my] words [I] will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).

What does that mean — that we’ll be justified or condemned by our words? It means our words will witness for or against us when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). Because “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). What comes out of our mouths (or through our fingers when we type) reveals what fills our hearts. Our words reveal whether or not we truly have a “fear of the Lord” that “keep[s] [our] tongue from evil” (Psalm 34:11–13).

I must pray far more about what I say. And if you’re like me, I welcome you to join me. The following are ways I’ve turned biblical texts regarding speech into specific prayers that life, not death, will come from our tongues.

1. Teach me to tremble.

Lord, I fear I do not fear words enough. Forgive me for trembling too little over your holy words and too little over my unholy words. Teach me the wisdom of trembling, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).

Lord, teach me to be quicker to hear and slower to speak, especially when I’m tempted to speak in anger (James 1:19). For if I do not bridle my tongue, my “religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

Lord, teach me to use more restraint in all aspects of my speech, for “when words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19). And, “whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).

2. Guard my mouth from speaking death.

Lord, I believe “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), and I do not want to speak death of any kind to anyone. So “set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).

Lord, help me put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander [and] malice” so they will not pour out of me in words. Rather, help me be and speak what is “kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving” of others, just as you in Christ forgave me (Ephesians 4:31–32).

Lord, help me immediately discern when I am being tempted to be “puffed up with conceit” or have “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions.” Prevent me from marring your glory or harming any of your saints with sinful speech (1 Timothy 6:4).

“Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” — especially my own! (Psalm 120:2) For “a lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28).

Lord, deliver me from my evil propensity to slander others, for “whoever utters slander is a fool” (Proverbs 10:18). You hate slander (Psalm 50:19–21), for it comes from selfish evil in our hearts (Matthew 15:19). So help me “keep [my] tongue from evil and [my] lips from speaking deceit” about anyone else (Psalm 34:13).

Lord, I know that my tongue has the potential to light a forest fire of sin (James 3:5–6), for I’ve ignited such fires in the past. And I also believe that “no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). I need your Holy Spirit’s help to tame my tongue, so I may reap “a harvest of righteousness. . . sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18).

3. Release my mouth to speak life.

Lord, I believe that “a gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4) and that “the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 10:11). Whatever it takes, “let the words of my mouth . . . be acceptable in your sight” (Psalm 19:14) and a source of nourishment and refreshment to your people.

Lord, help me “let no corrupting talk come out of [my mouth], but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Lord, show me how to “let [my] speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that [I] may know how [I] ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).

Lord, help me to use my words to encourage others and build them up far more than critiquing or criticizing them (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

Lord, open my eyes that I may see more clearly the injustice around me. Then help me “open [my] mouth, judge righteously, [and] defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).

Lord, help me “not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, [to] bless” those who mistreat me (1 Peter 3:9), remembering how you have blessed me incomprehensibly beyond what I deserve. Help me to trust you with all judgment, for you have said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19).

Lord, when situations arise requiring me to reprove or rebuke another, help me to speak “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) and with “complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

And when occasions require that I contend for the faith (Jude 3), help me refrain from engaging in “ignorant controversies,” to never be “quarrelsome but kind to everyone,” and to correct my opponents with gentleness,” praying all the while that you may “grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:23–25).

4. Give me wisdom and humility.

Lord, when I don’t know what I should say, help me be humble enough to admit it, to listen carefully (James 1:19) and to wisely “ponder how to answer” (Proverbs 15:28) so that I do not foolishly “pour out folly” (Proverbs 15:2).

Lord, when others bring a rebuke to me, deliver me from my defensive pride and help me listen carefully and humbly, since often “it is a kindness” and “oil for my head” (Psalm 141:5). “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

Isn’t God Most Glorified in Me When I Am Most Self-Giving?

Thu, 05/03/2018 - 8:00pm

Enjoying God and loving our neighbors are not competing goals. True love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.

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The Secret Benefit of Fasting

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 8:03pm

We’re prone to think of fasting in negative terms. It’s understandable. Fasting is abstaining. It’s going without food and drink, or some other otherwise good gift from God. Perhaps the reason so many of us fast so infrequently is because we think of fasting mainly as what we’re going without rather than what we’re getting.

But Christian fasting is not only going without. It is not simply abstaining. The goal of Christian fasting, in fact, is not going without but getting. Our abstaining always serves some greater end and purpose — some eventual gain, not loss. Christian fasting is abstaining for the sake of some specific Christian purpose, or it is not truly Christian.

Jesus did not waffle as to whether his church would fast. “When you fast,” he said — not “if” (Matthew 6:16–17). “They will fast,” he promised (Matthew 9:15). And so the early church fasted (Acts 9:9; 13:2; 14:23), and for two millennia Christians have fasted. And when we have done so in truly a Christian way, the end result has not been loss but gain. But in order for Christian fasting to become a spiritual feast, we have to rehearse its purpose and benefits.

Purpose in (Christian) Fasting

Fasting is freshly fashionable in many quarters today — which means Christians need to be all the more careful to take our cues on this subject from Jesus, and not popular culture. Just a generation ago, a growing number of voices were claiming that fasting is bad for your health. Now it’s flipped. Today, more and more dieticians are preaching, “When done correctly, fasting can have beneficial physical effects” (Celebration of Discipline, 48). But what’s the difference between fashionable fasting and Christian fasting?

The key difference is Christian purpose. We could say Spiritual purpose — with a capital S for the Holy Spirit. Not just spiritual as opposed to material, but Spiritual as opposed to natural. For Christians, an essential, irreducible aspect of Christian fasting is a Christian purpose. Whether it’s strengthening earnest prayer (Ezra 8:23; Joel 2:12; Acts 13:3). Or seeking God’s guidance (Judges 20:26; Acts 14:23) or his deliverance or protection (2 Chronicles 20:3–4; Ezra 8:21–23). Or humbling ourselves before him (1 Kings 21:27–29; Psalm 35:13). Or expressing repentance (1 Samuel 7:6; Jonah 3:5–8) or grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:11–12) or concern for his work (Nehemiah 1:3–4; Daniel 9:3). Or overcoming temptation and dedicating ourselves to him (Matthew 4:1–11). Or best of all, expressing love and devotion to him (Luke 2:37), and saying with our fast, “This much, O God, I want more of you.”

Without a Spiritual purpose, it’s not Christian fasting. It’s just going hungry.

Benefits of (Christian) Fasting

Christians might fast for dietary reasons and for the various physical benefits nutritionists now highlight. But dietary goals aren’t what make fasting Christian. Rather, what Spiritual fruit might we receive from God in response to our purposeful Christian fasting? How does God reward faith-filled fasting?

That Christian fasting is rewarding is plain, in the words of Christ himself, in a very prominent place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exhorts us to fast in secret, not for show, with the promise that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:18). God rewards fasting. But how?

First, a vital clarification. The fasting God rewards is not a declaration of our strength of will, but an expression of our emptiness, longing to be filled by him. Christian fasting doesn’t come from our own power, but from a heart that God himself works in us (Philippians 2:12–13) and strength that God himself supplies (1 Peter 4:11).

Realizing this is not about our strength or willpower, what are the rewards he gives, through his free and unconstrained grace, when we fast for his eyes, and not as a show for others?

1. Answers to Earnest Prayer

The first and most immediate answer is the reward of what our fast is for. What was the specific stated purpose as we rehearsed above? Fasting functions as a kind of assistant to prayer. It comes alongside some specific request we’re making of God, through the access we have in Christ (Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:18; 3:12), and expresses an unusual earnestness. Fasting, as a handmaid of prayer, makes some special plea to God, with an added intensity from normal, everyday prayer.

Fasting is a kind of special measure in the life of faith. Normal life is not fasting. Normal life is steady-state prayer and enjoying the Giver through his gifts of food and drink. Fasting is a special mode, for unusual prayer and for showing the Giver we enjoy him more than his gifts.

2. More of God Himself

This leads, then, to the ultimate reward of Christian fasting, and the “best of all” purposes we highlighted above: God himself. More important than God’s earthly guidance and protection and deliverance and provision is our eternal reception of and rejoicing in him.

God made us eaters and drinkers to teach us about himself. He made our world edible and drinkable so that we might better taste his goodness when our mouths are full, and rehearse that he is better than food and drink when our stomachs are empty. Fasting serves as a reminder that our God is himself the Great Feast: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).

God himself, in Christ, is the one who satisfies more than the best of foods, and quenches our thirst more than the purest of water, the richest of milk, and the best of wine. In him, our souls “eat what is good” and we “delight [our]selves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:2). He is the one who says, “To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment” (Revelation 21:6). We who have tasted and seen his goodness (Psalm 34:8) now join his Spirit in saying, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

Turn Your Aches upon Jesus

When we fast, the aches in our stomachs and pains in our gut are reminders that Jesus is the true food, not our daily bread, and that Jesus is the true drink, not our typical beverages. Christians will fast, as Jesus promised, because as people of faith, we know that believing in him means coming to him to satisfy our soul’s hunger and quench our soul’s thirst (John 6:35) — and one of the best regular reminders of it can be abstaining temporarily from other food and drink.

The great (and often hidden) reward of fasting is God himself. “Open your mouth wide,” he says, as we empty our stomachs, “and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). God rewards Christian fasting because it attunes us to the very purpose of God in the universe: to magnify himself in our desiring, enjoying, and being satisfied in him. And he rewards it not just with what we’re asking for with our fast, but ultimately with who he is as our desire, enjoyment, and satisfaction.

Christian fasting is not mainly about what we go without, but who we want more of.

God Worked a Miracle for You

Wed, 05/02/2018 - 8:00am

Before God awakens our souls from death to new life, we are stuck in darkness. We need God to shine the light of the gospel into our night.

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The Holy Spirit Will Not Preach Your Sermon

Tue, 05/01/2018 - 8:02pm

How does the natural act of thinking become the occasion for the supernatural experience of authentic worship — seeing and savoring and showing the beauty and worth of God? I will let the apostle Paul show the answer.

In Romans 5:3–5, Paul has just made the case for Christians to rejoice in suffering. His argument (and notice that it is indeed a logical argument!) goes like this: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

Then come two arguments for why hope will not put us to shame. The relationship between these two arguments carries spectacular implications for preaching and for the way natural means, like rational thought and historical observation, become the occasion for supernatural experiences of the beauty and worth of God.

When I speak of natural means, I include not only logical argumentation, but also historical observation. The principle behind how God makes natural means serve supernatural experience is the same for both logic and history. In Paul’s argument for why hope does not put us to shame, the intersection between the natural and supernatural is between historical observation and the work of the Holy Spirit in giving us a supernatural sense of the love of God.

“Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:5–6).

Supernatural Experience of God’s Love

Paul’s first argument for why hope will not put us to shame is that the Holy Spirit is present in us (“who has been given to us”); and what he does in us is make real to us the love of God. This is not a mere fact we learn from the Bible. It is a real experience that we have today. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” It really happens in our hearts. It is a sensed and sure taste of the love of God for us, because God the Holy Spirit is in us giving us that taste of the love of God.

So Paul’s first way of showing us why our hope will not disappoint us is to say that God gives us a real supernatural experience to confirm our hope. It is supernatural because it is given through the Holy Spirit, who is supernatural. This is what we are aiming at in our preaching — real supernatural, radically transforming, empowering experiences of the beauty and worth of God, including his love for us.

Our preaching is not aiming at mere information transfer, or mere persuasion of doctrinal truths, or mere human excitement about God. We are aiming at authentic, Spirit-given experience of God himself — in this case, as Paul calls it here, the pouring out of God’s love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).

Natural Ground for Supernatural Experience

But then Paul does something in Romans 5:6 that has huge implications for preaching. He gives a ground, or basis, for supernatural experience. And it is a natural ground. A historical ground. We can see the ground in the word for (Greek gar) that begins verse 6. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For . . .” What makes the ground so striking is that it is a statement of historical fact along with a theological interpretation of the fact. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:5–6). “Christ died” is a historical fact. “For the ungodly” is a theological interpretation of the fact.

How are the natural and the supernatural related here? There is a supernatural experience of God’s love given by the Holy Spirit in the heart, and there is the declaration of the ground — the foundation — of this experience of God’s love in history (“Christ died”) and theology (“for the ungodly”). The experience is supernatural (given by the Holy Spirit). The foundation is natural (a historical fact and a theological statement that even the Devil would agree with).

They relate like this: what it means to be loved by God is revealed by the historical and theological observation, “Christ died for the ungodly.” The Holy Spirit does not give this information to the heart. The Bible and the preacher give it to the mind. It is not the job of the Holy Spirit to describe the love of God to you. That is the job God has assigned to history and to Scripture — and to preaching.

Our people learn the nature and content of the love of God from the way that love acted in history in Jesus Christ. Then the Holy Spirit takes that natural truth — heralded by you, the preacher, with expository exultation — and he works a supernatural miracle with it. He causes their hearts to see God’s love as supremely beautiful and to feel it as supremely precious. He gives them the real, heartfelt experience described in verse 5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Uniting Natural and Supernatural in Preaching

Both the natural fact of history with its interpretation and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit are essential. If we make claims to have experiences of the love of God without solid foundations in history and its God-given meaning, we become cultic, emotionalistic, and fanatical. If we claim to understand what happened in history and its theological meaning, but we don’t experience the love of God poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we become barren, impotent, and intellectualistic.

The place of preaching in this process is to be the mouthpiece of the historical and theological truth that “Christ died for the ungodly.” We say all the wonderful things about the death of Christ that the text, and the reality behind it, give us to say — this is our exposition. And we exult over it with as much joy in it as the Spirit grants us to taste. That is our preaching — expository exultation.

But our aim is what only the Holy Spirit can do — the supernatural experience of the love of God in the hearts of our listeners. We aim for them to see and savor and show the beauty and worth of this love. The glory of preaching is that, even though we cannot make this happen by our own effort, since it is the work of the Holy Spirit, he will spare no effort to clarify the beauty and worth of the historical facts and the theological interpretations.

Heralding that beauty and worth is our work. It is an indispensable and glorious work.