Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Recommendation: Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies

The summer seems to be officially closing (top of the 9th inning maybe) as my kids started back to school this week. With the summer ending, I wanted to mention one of the best books I finished this summer: The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies. I am usually cautious to say there is a book that every Christian needs to read (since that should be only true of the Bible), so I will just say this book is highly recommended. 

There is not much written on the topic of biblical discernment. A lot of books are published on great topics like evangelism, church leadership and prayer; these are certainly all needed. But nothing much has been written about the topic of spiritual discernment, which is a biblical responsibility for Christians and evidence of maturity, “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).

Challies reminds Christians that we have the responsibility to “test everything” (1 Thess 5:21). If you are not certain what that means or how to do it, I suggest his book. 

Also, I highly recommend Challies blog:

His blog is one of the few that I am certain to visit often. You will find a lot of good stuff there. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Encouragement for the Small Church

This marks the end of my summer blogging hiatus. I took a few months off from writing to devote more of my attention to my kids, which will probably be my typical pattern. Thirty years from now my blog posts will be long forgotten, but time spent with my family will not. 

During my summer hiatus I have been reading Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. Most are familiar with Bonhoeffer for his heroic stand against Hitler, which ultimately cost him his life. Many have been impacted by his classic work The Cost of Discipleship. But few probably know Bonhoeffer as pastor of a small congregation. I really appreciated the picture of Bonhoeffer as a faithful shepherd to a small flock. Metaxas describes his work: 

“Bonhoeffer was responsible for two congregations, neither of which was large enough to support its own pastor. The Sydenham congregation numbered between thirty and forty...and the St. Paul’s congregation numbered about fifty, mostly tradesmen. Despite the small numbers, Bonhoeffer prepared his sermons as if he were preaching to thousands.”

Bonhoeffer approached his pastoral work, regardless of the size, with the principle that Paul lays out in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23-24 ESV). 

Hopefully this is an encouragement to all smaller congregations. I am thankful to serve a smaller flock and many of my pastoral friends in ministry are in the same boat. Many believers in Christ faithfully attend smaller congregations for decades as well, without the prospect that their church will ever grow much in size. In all of this, the Lord deserves our best efforts. I’m certain that Bonhoeffer has no regrets that he gave his.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A World Without Heroes

There has been a recent resurrection of the male role model in 7 Men by Eric Metaxas. The book gives short biographies of seven men who have significantly left a mark in history by what they did with their lives. Some of the men include George Washington, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson and Charles Colson. I was inspired after getting to know more about their lives. 

But as I thought about the world I am living and raising my son in, there seems to be a real void of the type of men that have the characteristics of the role models I read about. There are probably some exceptions, but overall I have a sense that the world we live in is a world without heroes.

Metaxas describes this problem in the introduction to his book:

“Young men who spend their time watching violent movies and playing video games aren’t very easily going to become the men they were meant to become. They will drift. They will lose out on the very reason they were brought into this world: to be great, to be heroes themselves.”

I would add that we have moved from a culture of heroes to a culture of celebrity. Celebrities are centered around popularity. Heroes never live to be popular but to do the right thing. Celebrities are self-focused. Heroes are self-sacrificing. There is a world of difference between the two.

So are we without hope? Will male role models eventually be extinct in the culture? Metaxas wrote the book (and I read it) to create an awareness of the problem and hopefully return to where men take responsibility, live courageously and sacrifice when called. 

There was one common thread among all the men that needs mentioned. They all surrendered to something bigger than themselves. Metaxas describes why he chose the individuals for the book, 

“I was looking for seven men who had evidence of one particular quality: that of surrendering themselves to a higher purpose, of giving something away that they might have kept. All of them did this in one way or another. Doing this is noble and admirable, and takes courage and it usually takes faith.” 

After reading that, I can’t help but reflect on the Lord Jesus Christ, 
“the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2 ESV). 

So I don’t believe that we have to cave into a world without heroes, since many ordinary men by faith can look to the One who modeled a mixture of selfless sacrifice with courage and triumphant joy. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pastoral Suicide

This year so far two pastors in Iowa have died by suicide. The job fatality rate is higher than the police department my dad works for, which is located in a high crime area in Pittsburgh. My heart is heavy when I hear that a shepherd is slain by falling on his own sword. 

I’m not writing to analyze what goes on in the heart of a man who chooses this end. Nor am I going to offer a list of suggestions on how to prevent pastoral suicide. There are others more qualified to do that. 

But I do want to note that pastors often struggle with loneliness in a more intense way than most people realize. In her novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson describes this reality in the fictional minister, John Ames. In his own words, “My own dark time, as I call it, the time of my loneliness, was most of my life, as I have said, and I can’t make any real account of myself without speaking of it.” (p. 44). Loneliness can be part of the DNA of the minister's life. 

I have often wondered if a pastor is called to this in some unique way in order to identify with Christ, who was “lonely and afflicted” (Ps 25:16). Or maybe it is just the plain fact that a pastor spends most of his week alone in a study preparing messages. Either way,  if loneliness leads to death it is beyond disturbing.

One small suggestion, whether you are a church member or fellow pastor: make a list of the pastors you know--including both the young and old, talented and ordinary, gregarious and quirky, small church and large church--and pray for them. Pray that they may take their loneliness and afflictions to Christ. Pray that despair does not lead to death. Pray this Psalm of promise for them, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor Me.” (Ps 50:15 NASB). 

Clergy have a much less dangerous job than inner-city street cops do, yet it often proves just as deadly. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Measuring Maturity

Today I picked up a book I wanted to begin reading. Often when beginning a new book, I look at the year it was published. This book was published in 1996. That year struck a chord with me since it was the year I trusted in Christ. 

Then I did the math quickly and realized it was 18 years ago.  Apart from feeling that I am jogging more away from my youthfulness each year, it also showed me that soon I will be approaching decades of discipleship. I say this humbly, knowing that it is God’s grace that has sustained me over the years. 

Now there are many Christians who have been walking with the Lord for many decades, and show tremendous growth over the years. At the same time, there are some who have been Christians for a long time and have grown only a little. And then there are those who become Christians and grow a ton in a short time. 

The interesting thing about maturity in the Bible is that seldom is there a timeframe tied to it. What I mean is that the Bible does not say a person is mature after following Christ a set number of years. Instead, the Bible puts the emphasis in a different direction. Hebrews says this about measuring maturity: 

“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish between good and evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.” (Heb 5:14-6:1b ESV). 

According to that, maturity is measured not by years or lack of them, but by how a person is responding to God’s Word and growing in discernment.  Growing in maturity as a disciple is growing in discernment and character. This is the reason that Timothy was trusted with church leadership at a young age (1 Tim 4:12). 

It is a good practice to do some spiritual self-evaluation at some point and ask a person who knows us well if they can honestly measure our maturity biblically. What do they observe in us that is evidence of growth? Do they sense that we are growing in God’s Word? Do they recognize that we are becoming more discerning? Is character evident?   

Just like it is my fatherly desire to see my small children grow in maturity, it is our heavenly Father’s desire for his children to grow in maturity. 

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation--if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet 2:2-3 ESV). 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

2 Essentials for Being in the Center of God's Will

Many people consume themselves with the topic God's will. The Bible does emphasize what it looks like to be in the center of God's will, though this will not help someone who wants to know who to marry or what job to take. Here are two biblical truths about being in the center of God's will.
God’s Will for Eternal Life in Christ (John 6:40)
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” 

So first, God’s will is to save a people for himself through the gospel

The gospel: [lit. good news] God has a plan to rescue sinners from his wrath. Every human is born in sin and under the judgment of God. Only Jesus Christ can save you from God’s wrath. The good news/gospel is that God has sent him to take your punishment on the cross--to be your substitute--to die in your place so you can be forgiven, find freedom from sin and eternal life in heaven.  

Yet there is a crucial word in this passage that some can miss: believe. The text says nothing about having Christian parents or growing up in the church. It simply says “believe.”

It is the same message that the apostles preached in Acts 10:43 “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 

So the first essential of being in the center of God’s will is to believe in Christ. Personal faith in Christ is essential. Do you have this? Have you personally turned from your sin and trusted in Jesus Christ? Are you a believer? 

God’s Will for a Holy Life (1 Thess 4:3)
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification...” 

God’s will for his children is this: “be sanctified” (that means be holy, set apart for God).

In case there is any confusion about what that looks like, the verse gets a little more detailed “that you abstain from sexual immorality.” 

If Paul’s day was sexually chaotic, ours is probably just as much if not more. Our culture has such a casual attitude towards sex and I don’t need to spend time trying to convince anyone of that. But God is looking for people who take holiness seriously. To be at the center of his will means to take holiness seriously. That is the second essential aspect of being in God’s will from the Bible. 

Yet often many people consume themselves with trying to find the right career path or right spouse to try to be in the center of God’s will.

But the Bible puts the emphasis in a different direction: believe in the gospel and pursue  a holy life. That is what being in the center of God’s will looks like. 

Again, these are essentials to being at the center of God’s will. The topic of God’s will is broad and there is much to consider with decision making and seeking guidance, like career and marriage. I would recommend the book Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung for answers to those topics. 

Finally, one of the most important aspects of being in God’s will is to make it a regular part of our praying, which Jesus taught us to do:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 5:10). 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Christ-Centered Word for the Wilderness

God often brings his people through the wilderness. He did it to Israel. He did it to his own Son (Lk 4:1). The wilderness is often characterized as a place of testing. God often brings his people through the wilderness to see what is in their hearts. And often what comes out is not good. One Psalm shows how Israel responded in the wilderness: 

“They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’” (Ps 78:18-19). 

That is not the right response in the wilderness. From my own experience and reading the Bible, it never honors God when we test and question him in our wilderness.  

Now being in the wilderness can can expose what is truly in our hearts. What do we crave in the wilderness? What comes out of our mouths in the wilderness? Those words reveal what is in our heart, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt 12:34). 

Yet there is a different perspective we can take into the wilderness. It is found in a few words in Deuteronomy: “These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing” (Dt 2:7). Those promises are always true when God brings his people through the wilderness. And in Christ there is a much richer meaning.

We can trust in his provision. We can trust that we lack nothing. In Christ we can have peace through our wilderness (Col 3:15). In Christ we can have the wisdom of God in the wilderness (Col 2:3). In Christ we can have contentment in God’s provision during our wilderness sojourning (Phil 4:11-13). 

In Christ we have everything we need for the wilderness. 

I hope that brings encouragement and hope to those who are either in the wilderness, or will begin to sojourn soon in the wilderness. Christ is with you and you lack nothing in the wilderness.