The Spiritual Wilderness

What do you do when you don’t feel like God is there?

To be honest with you, there are times where I don’t feel super fired up, spiritually. I love Jesus, I’ve embraced the gospel, but I’m just having a hard time.

I think it’s easy for many people to compartmentalize. If you’re having a bad day, you set it aside, go to school or work, do your job and deal with it when you get home.

One of the difficulties with being in ministry is you can’t really set aside your faith and then go to work, exchange time for money and then come back and work on your spiritual life, because it’s all so interwoven.

As a pastor, especially, if I’m feeling good or bad spiritually, if I’m having a good day or bad, if I’m doing well with my wife or not, I still have to teach tomorrow. And with my personality, I want answers. I want solutions. I want to fix it.

But maybe God wants me to just sit in it.

Regardless of whether you’re in ministry or not, some days are just tough. When you’re in a wilderness experience with God, when you aren’t feeling it or feeling Him, what would it look like for you to just allow yourself to be with God in the darkness? Just be with God in the wilderness. Just enjoy God there. Because theologically, God is with you. And theologically, even in those wilderness times, God is going to show you things about His character that you would never learn if life was awesome all the time.

What if we could learn to be with Him and abide in Him – in all circumstances?

Keeping Him in Our Sights

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord seated on His throne with the train of His robe filling the temple, and he has an interesting reaction. In the presence of holiness, Isaiah recognizes the lack of holiness in himself. He falls on his face in confession, in worship and in an acknowledgment of his own depravity as he says:

“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

Then the Lord reaches out, purifies him, makes him righteous and asks, “Whom shall I send?” In brokenness, Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!” And the Lord sends him out in ministry.

What struck me in this passage was Isaiah’s recognition of the Lord. I think it’s easy for us to get so caught up in what we do that we fail to see Him in His holiness on the throne and have a proper response to Him. We can go all day and not even think about the Lord. It can be really easy to do our jobs but lose sight of Him.

What would it look like if we kept Jesus before us? Could we keep His holiness and His righteousness before us so that as we’re doing what God has gifted us to do, it’s more of an expression of our gifting out of response to the Lord and not just doing our job?

Whatever you do, keep the Lord your focal point. As you go about your day, continually think about Him and turn to Him. If you get a minute, read and reread those few verses of Isaiah’s interaction with the Lord. Let’s put ourselves in perspective before Him as we do what we do today, serving the Lord in whatever we do in response to the bigness of Him, giving our time and energy and effort all for His glory.

My Challenge to Our Church Staff

One of the concerns I have as a pastor and leader is that conversations can very quickly move toward borderline inappropriate. One minute you’re talking and having fun, and the next thing you know, the conversation turns and it’s no longer edifying to the Lord. It starts as a little off-color joke here or a little off-color comment there, and it can go there very quickly, because if we’re not careful, there’s a tendency for things to move toward the ungodly.

You may assume that a church staff is godly just by way of definition, and that may be true sometimes, but that assumption may also be just that: an assumption. It may not be substantiated by how we live, because we’re only as godly as we are moving ourselves toward Him. Your individual time with the Lord needs to cultivate a heart that’s submitted to God, and that will ultimately be reflected in your professional life.

If you’re on staff at a church, the standard is high. This isn’t a normal job. Godliness has to be part of who you are. In the name of spiritual trust, we need to honor the Lord in what we do and in what we say in same-gender and mixed-gender conversations, in what we talk about behind closed doors and in how we interact behind someone’s back. We need to be mindful of our tongue and not allow ungodliness to come out of our mouths.

My challenge to our church staff is we need to be part of the solution of moving our people toward godliness. We need to be the ones setting the pace in the church, personally reflecting Him, squashing conversations if they’re going sideways and speaking the truth if something isn’t right. It can become too easy to just go about our days and not have those iron-sharpening-iron conversations, but we need to always be mindful of who and what we are reflecting. The time we spend with one another, the conversations in our meetings and all our interactions need to be godly. We need to be champions for holiness, for prayer, for personal devotion with the Lord, for listening to the Holy Spirit stirring in our lives, for living in obedience to His Word.

If there were rumors on the street about our team, I would love for them to be that we handle information well, we treat one another with respect, we have appropriate interactions with the opposite sex and we live in a way that honors Jesus. I would love the reputation of our staff to be that we’re godly.

High Places and Action Figures

Psalm 78 is a look back at Old Testament history. There’s so much in this chapter about clear obedience and clear disobedience. Yet through these verses you continue to see the presence of small compromises in the form of high places.

These high places are sneaky little things. They don’t seem like much at first, but they slowly grow to woo the hearts of the people away from undistracted devotion to the Lord. Though the people seem to serve the Lord with all of their hearts, they also offer sacrifices on these high places.

It has been said that big things are just the accumulation of the little things. In this case, that may be right. As these high places take root in the hearts of the community, the larger sins of idolatry soon follow. Not only do the people of God find themselves offering sacrifices on these high places, but now they take idolatry to the next level and begin to worship graven images and action figure gods.

Of course this brought about the judgment of God who, by His very nature, does not share His glory with anyone or anything. Their small compromises multiply into wholesale departure from the Lord. In return, the Lord was “filled with wrath and greatly abhorred”[1] them. That’s powerful!

So what are the high places in your life? The little things. The small compromises. What are the areas of your life that have subtly led you away from devotion to the Lord?

What about the large departures? Have you allowed anything in your life to become an ultimate thing? Have you bestowed ultimate value on anything, putting it above the Lord?

Big or small, repent and turn to Him for forgiveness. God is merciful and gracious but will not share His glory with anyone or anything. We must diligently fight to keep Him as ultimate in our lives. It doesn’t matter if it is a high place or a graven image; both bring dishonor to the Lord and should be repented of immediately. But if/when you turn to Him, you will find grace and mercy.

[1] See Psalm 78:58-59 (NASB)

Being a Parent

If you have children, you have a high-intensity, high-risk, high-reward discipleship environment right at home with the little ones God has entrusted to you.[1] As a parent, you have live-in disciples who are going to become just like you – whether you like it or not. Sometimes I watch my kids when they start misbehaving and wonder where they picked that up. Then I look in the mirror and realize they learned that from me!

When it comes to discipling kids, parents need to recognize the priority of their role in this regard.[2] The Scriptures teach us that parents should be the hub of discipleship in the life of a child. At the breakfast table, when driving the kids to soccer practice, when making their lunches, when they’re getting ready for school, parents should take point on the spiritual development of their children.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that outsources. We hire out services and assume that by paying the professionals we are taking advantage of their expertise, and thus receiving a better product. So we hire a mechanic, hire an electrician and hire a pastor. But God does not care about your ability to change your oil or rewire a GFI plug. He is, however, very interested in your investment into the spiritual life of the children He has entrusted to you. Children are a gift from the Lord[3] that He has graciously placed in your care. We are to train and discipline our children that they might be more like Jesus.[4] We cannot outsource this responsibility.

So invest in the spiritual life of your child. Share with them what you are reading. Pray for them. Show them what God is teaching you in His Word. Help them come to understand the gospel (grace alone, faith alone, in Christ alone). Model for them faithfulness to your spouse. Attend church regularly as a practical discipline of experiencing community together. Let them see you living in relationships with others who hold you accountable and support you in your walk with the Lord. Invest your time in the things of God and help them reorient their lives toward others as well.

These are all powerful deposits that are made into the life of a child. You don’t need to have the answers, but you need to help them see Christ in you. That is your responsibility. That is being a parent.

[1] Psalm 78:1-8
[2] Deuteronomy 6:6-9
[3] Psalm 127:3
[4] Psalm 22:6

Watch Over Your Heart: A Closer Look at Proverbs 4

What does it mean to watch over your heart? Proverbs 4:23 tells the reader to do just that:

Watch over your heart with all diligence,
For from it flow the springs of life.
– Proverbs 4:23 (NASB)

The heart is the root of emotion. It is the seat of desires. It is the place where passion is born and where every action finds its origin – thus the admonition to watch over your heart.

Your heart is influenced by input. The things you watch, listen to and interact with directly influence the state of your heart. From a spiritual standpoint, what’s going on at the heart level will eventually show in life. It cannot be hidden or covered. It will eventually come out.

If your heart is full of the things of God, that cannot be hidden either. If your input is godly and your heart is full of the Lord, then your life will reflect that.

As in water face reflects face,
So the heart of man reflects man.
– Proverbs 27:19 (NASB)

However, our steps are not guaranteed to be honoring to the Lord. Obedience is still a choice and the outworking of the heart is often full of challenges.

Proverbs 4 continues, challenging us to be diligent to watch over our hearts, but then to also watch over the outworking of the heart in life. And from this guarding of the heart, three cautions arise:

  1. Watch what you say.
  2. Watch what you see.
  3. Watch what you do.[1]

Not only do these reflect the state of your heart, they also serve as potential inputs. If you want your life to reflect Christ, being mindful of these three potential inputs is a great place to start. They serve as indicators and warning signs. If what you say, see and do are honoring to the Lord, it indicates a right heart. However, if what you say, see or do is dishonoring to the Lord, it reveals a heart in need of the transforming power of the gospel.

The truth is this is a fluid process. You will have your victories and defeats, but the end goal is a greater awareness of what God is doing in your heart and how that is being played out in the world around you.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What is the status of your heart? Have you thought about that lately? If not, take a few moments and dig a bit. What do you sense on the inside? Is there an abiding peace with the Lord or are you in disarray on the inside? If you find yourself struggling, turn to the Lord and invite him into the chaos. Remember, Jesus is Lord of creation and has the ability to calm the storms of life – even the ones in your own heart.
  • What do you say? What do your language, tone and content of speech say about your heart? We are called to show love for one another and to speak in a way that builds others up. How are you doing in the battle with your tongue?
  • What do you see? Are the things you are watching honoring to the Lord? It’s worth exploring the very root of desire that causes you to “want” to look at the things that have your attention. What is driving the desire to see what you are seeing? Is it to honor the Lord or are you driven by the flesh? If what you are looking at, or the very desire to look is not brought into submission to the Lord, you are fighting a losing battle. Invite the Lord into your temptation and see if He will help move your desires to other things.
  • What do you do? Actions and environments speak volumes of the state of the heart. What do you find yourself doing and where do you find yourself going? If the places you invest your time are not influencing you toward Christ, why are you there? If the circumstances in which you find yourself are not moving you to Jesus, find other environments to invest in. If bad company corrupts good character,[2] find people and places that fill your heart with godliness.

[1] Proverbs 4:24-27
[2]1 Corinthians 15:33

 

Living With Intentionality

Print

Recently I had the privilege of doing my friend Harold Penner’s memorial service. H.P. was a church planter, a pastor at heart, a businessman, and he was a founding advisor of The Well. We built a relationship when I was a college pastor, and I started talking about this church I really felt like I needed to start. I shared a lot of the vision with him, and he really became a Jethro figure to me – a mentor, a sage and a guy who just believed in me.

The week before the first service at The Well, I remember thinking, “Holy smokes. Next week is our first service. This is dumb. This is not a good idea.” My wife was pregnant with Peyton at the time, and Harold was the guy who believed in me and the vision for The Well. He kept admonishing me, “You can do this. God is with you. Go for it!”

Harold was a very unique man. He was godly, full of joy and wisdom, and he had a mischievous way about him. He was probably the finest man I’ve ever met. He loved life and people, and was serious about his relationship with Jesus. His capacity for people was beyond reach; he had such a crazy love for folks.

He was also very intentional about what he did. Most people live for the moment. They simply take what life gives them and then seize the day. H.P. was different. He not only had the capacity to choose joy in the moment but he could snap moments together with intentionality. He moved very strategically. He invested with intent. He planned with the next several steps in mind. And this intentionality shaped those he influenced. Whether it was his business, which he was wildly successful at, or his kids, his grandkids, or his wife, he was intentional.

Having the opportunity to do his memorial service was a highlight of my ministry. It was a powerful reminder of the results of a life lived on purpose. Scanning the crowd I saw the men and women he had influenced. They were there to pay their respects, but they were also a testimony of his influence.

It made me rethink my life. What am I doing to influence others? What steps am I taking today to help point someone toward Christ? Am I setting up strategic opportunities to invest in people and help them live out their calling – with intentionality?

I want to make sure I’m making strategic investments into my marriage. I want to set a plan for my kids and work with them, as they become solid women of God. I want to lead The Well on purpose, making strategic moves and taking intentional risks to better create a culture of influence.

It also made me consider the various seasons of life that are represented in our context and how we could all move toward a more intentional life:

  • Singles: What would it look like for you to develop a theology of relationship of the right type of person? What would be different if you strategically invested your time and energy into becoming that type of person yourself?
  • Marrieds: How could your marriage look different if you strategically invested in your most important relationship? How would your time look different? What rites of passage or marked moments could you capture with your spouse? How could you make intentional deposits into their life?
  • Parents: Children are a gift from the Lord. How could you intentionally steward that gift? What steps could you take to breathe life into your kids? How could you strategically help them grow and develop into men and women of God? What schedule changes could you make to free up your time to be present with them? What would it look like to put away the devices (phones, iPads, computers, TVs) and strategically invest in the lives of your children? We are responsible to steward their growth and development, and we cannot outsource their spiritual growth.

I think the takeaway from Harold’s life is to do life on purpose. Let’s be intentional and strategic, knowing that when we plan we must plan in pencil because God still has the authority to change whatever plans we’ve worked so diligently to create. But at least we’ve planned something. If you draw that bull’s eye on the wall, it gives you a target to move toward versus doing nothing and seeing what happens. Let’s not just accidentally do life. Let’s be intentional and steward well what God has given us.

Born to Die

As you read through the pages of the New Testament it becomes very clear very quickly that Jesus was indeed born to die. The cross was not an oops. He didn’t just get sold out by the priests of His day. He was not ambushed by the Romans. His entire time on earth was about living a perfect life, a sinless life, so that when the day came, as painful as it was, He could provide for us the greatest gift we’d ever be offered, and that is eternal life through Him.

He didn’t want it, by the way. When you look at Jesus in Gethsemane the night He was betrayed, He prays and He says, God, if there is any other way, I am totally down for that. If there’s any other way, let me know. But, not my will but yours be done (Mark 14:35-36).

And so the plan of redemption from the very beginning was faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel is actually not very complicated, but it’s incredibly powerful. It forces us to recognize we are sinners and we cannot do what we need to do to please God. There’s nothing good in us. Even our good deeds are like filthy rags to God. And it takes humility to recognize the depth of our own depravity. It takes a certain honesty to recognize we are dirtbags, and without Jesus, we are a mess.

Without Jesus, we have no hope in and of ourselves. By ourselves, we are doomed to go to hell. There are no good works in us, not even one. There’s nothing we can contribute. And when we finally come to the realization that we’re idiots and can do nothing to please God, and confess that we need Him in our life, then. Then Christ is appropriated in our life. That’s the beauty of the gift of Christ.

I remember sitting at a banquet where I came to faith in Christ. I went for free food and left with eternal life. It was the consummate Christian bait and switch. They didn’t tell me there was going to be a speaker there who was going to talk about the Bible a little bit, but the food was pretty good so I put up with it. And a guy talked about the gospel of Jesus Christ and what it meant to follow Him, and I remember coming to faith in Christ that night. But I was looking around going, if these people knew about me what God must know about me, they’d throw me out of this place.

And I’d say, friend, it’s in those moments that you understand the gospel. Because when Jesus says He came to seek and save the lost, He’s talking about us, the least of these, the most messed up, jacked up people in all the world.

But thanks be to God that who we were is not who we are in Christ. Anything good in us is Christ. Anything of redeeming value, of beauty, of noble purpose is Christ. Anything honoring is Christ. Anything we have that is endearing at all is Christ – because we’ve accepted the free gift He offers. Born in a manger. Born to die. That’s what Christmas is about.

I’m thankful that in Christ there’s newness. In Christ there’s refreshment, hope, peace, purpose, beauty and honor. As you consider the gift of Jesus, may you just sink deeply into Him who humbly became one of us, lived among us, died and rose from the dead for us. And as we celebrate Christmas, may we celebrate Him.

Reaching the Next Generation

Print

Hezekiah is a fascinating example of a guy who’s not willing to enter into the mess of the younger generation in hopes of developing, training or discipling them. Because of his pride of showing off all of his treasuries and his kingdom and his storehouse, he is told that his sons will be taken captive. Yet his response is, indeed, the word from the Lord is good. At least there will be peace in my time (2 Kings 20:13-19).

What I never noticed before is what happens after that. Hezekiah dies and his son Manasseh takes over. And when you read 2 Kings 21, you see all of the junk that Manasseh led the nation into. It’s an incredible wickedness that had not been seen in Judah to that scale previously. It had in Israel but never in Judah. Because of Hezekiah’s arrogance and selfishness of not wanting to enter into the next generation, he forsook the next generation, and the next generation took the excesses that were common in the culture and multiplied them.

When it comes to reaching the next generation, regardless of which one you’re in, the next one will always be perceived to be not as good as yours. They will always be perceived to be not as committed, not as faithful, not as biblical, etc. And yet the irony is that’s not necessarily the case. As we look at this current generation that’s now coming up, we’re really dealing with a group of people who, as we’re finding, are deeply committed to the things of God and open to the things of God. They’re just not committed to our systems or structures that people have found so much comfort in religiously.

If we’re going to reach the next generation, there has to be a sense where we recognize, yeah, I know the dude’s growing a beard, I know he’s rocking a beanie and it’s 100 degrees outside, he’s got skinny jeans and the whole hipster vibe going, okay, cool. But what’s at the heart? And if we can enter into the diversity a little bit, enter into the distinctions even of style and music and language, and recognize that this next generation is going to carry and steward the gospel moving forward, we can understand their world enough that we can get to the heart of the next generation and begin to disciple them.

We don’t have the option of pulling away and saying, “at least there will be peace in my time,” because what happened in Hezekiah’s day will happen in our day. If we are so uncomfortable or stubborn that we fail to enter in with the next generation, we fail to sit with them and disciple them and hear them and get to the heart of what God is doing in their lives, then the same type of excesses we saw in Hezekiah’s day with his son Manasseh, we’ll see today.

I would challenge any of you who might look down your nose a little bit at the next generation, as if somehow you’re better than them, to recognize that your calling is to serve them and disciple them and mentor them and train them and enter into their world enough that they recognize you care about them. Only then, when you’re telling them about Jesus, will they understand it’s coming from a heart of love and a heart of discipleship and a desire that, regardless of what generation we call our own, there could be a shared sense of the foundation of the gospel and of what Jesus is doing in our lives.

Are You an Affair Waiting to Happen?

Basic CMYK

Affairs don’t happen overnight. They’re not issues of lust. They’re not. At the heart, they’re issues of neglect. It’s not like a guy wakes up faithful to his wife one morning and then, all the sudden, the next day, he’s like, you know what I’m gonna do today? I’m gonna totally blow up my life and have an affair. No. It’s over time.

When you or your spouse are neglected at home and connected elsewhere, you’re walking down a very short road that ends in disaster. It’s like the proverb of the sluggard. It’s a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest.[1] It’s his neglect and it’s her neglect. And it’s not merely about neglecting your spouse or neglecting your family. It’s one or both of you neglecting your time with God.

What does your daily time in prayer and in the Word do to protect you from adultery? It guards your heart. It renews your mind. It screams of conviction. As you turn the page and you read about inappropriate relationships, as you read about being faithful to your spouse, as you read about being morally pure and holy and righteous, it challenges you. If you find your daily devotion with the Lord being something that is in the past or infrequent, you might want to check that, because that’s a symptom of a road leading to moral failure.

When I went to seminary I was in a class with Dr. Howard Hendricks. He’s now with Jesus. I remember he interviewed men about how they fell morally, and he looked for patterns in their stories. I recently came across an article that reminded me of the specific details. Of the almost 250 men he interviewed, none were involved in any kind of personal accountability, their daily time of prayer, worship and reading their Bible was practically nonexistent, the vast majority became sexually involved with another woman after spending significant time together, and without exception, each of them were convinced it would never happen to them.[2]

Friend, if you think it can never happen to you, “let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”[3] We are not immune. None of us. You are vulnerable. The pattern holds true. Be cautious. You must hold your marriage sacred at all times.

If a husband isn’t tender to his wife, and there’s conflict where he said something harsh to her but they haven’t reconciled, she is vulnerable for an affair like you cannot believe.

Some dude – her trainer, her Pilates coach, the dude who makes her wheatgrass shot at Jamba – somebody will be kind to her. And that will speak to her soul. She will hear that and eat it right up. And she’ll go back another time. She’ll drive all the way across town to go to that Jamba Juice just to see that joker again. Why? Because he’s speaking into her life where her husband should be.

The same is true for the ladies. If you disrespect your man, I promise you, somebody will respect him. Somebody will think he’s special and talented. If you won’t tell him he’s handsome, somebody will. And at some point in time, he’s an affair waiting to happen too.

I remember talking with some dear friends who had experienced this, and that’s exactly what they talked about, that this other person made me feel special, they made me feel important, made me feel good about myself. Now you juxtapose that to a home life where you don’t feel special or important, and you’ll run to that every single time.

To the singles, one of the most important things you can do is learn right now how to control your vessel, your body, in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion like those who do not know God.[4]

The patterns you create today are the patterns you bring into your marriage. So if there’s ungodliness and indulgence today, there will be ungodliness and indulgence in your marriage. A ring doesn’t change that. Who you are becoming is who you will be as a husband or as a wife. So watch over your heart, watch over your body, watch over your spiritual life.

If you’re married, there is no greater value in your life than the cultivation of your relationship with Jesus and therefore, your spouse. There’s no ministry event that’s important enough, there’s no appointment that’s important enough. And if you leave your marriage with unresolved conflict, you leave a gap, a hole, a wedge for Satan to enter into your marriage and cause division. Your spouse has got to be your priority, because if that falls, everything falls.

We have to be hyper diligent to pursue greatness in our marriages. It’s not enough for us to have good marriages. We should have great marriages. But you have to work on it. It takes time. It takes some humble pie. It takes grace. And it takes a commitment together to always be on guard and not let anything or anyone come between you.

 

[1] See Proverbs 6:9-10

[2] http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-pattern-among-fallen-pastors

[3] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (NKJV)

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:4-5