Tag Archives: Holiness

Marked by the Almighty

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29–35 ESV)

God instructs Moses to cut two stone tablets (like the first ones that he broke) and to bring them up the mountain (Exodus 34:1) for their second face to face meeting.  The people feared God and appointed Moses as their mediator (Exodus 20:19).  Once Moses had climbed the mountain, the Lord descended from heaven and passed before him and revealed his majesty and glory to Moses (34:5-7).  The result?  Moses bowed his head and interceded on behalf of himself and the people (v8-9).  Moses worshiped and pled for mercy.  Being in the presence of the Almighty always brings a sense of awe, reverence and personal smallness.

Interestingly, when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets, he was glowing.  His face literally shone with the glory of God.  It caused the people to be fearful so he wore a veil over his face.  He would remove the veil when he met with God and he would replace it when he met with the people.  The glory of the Lord was too much for them.  Moses had been marked by the Almighty.  His experience with God marked him – spiritually, emotionally & physically.

Being in the presence of the sovereign God of the universe always marks us – it leaves us changed, transformed.  Think about Isaiah’s experience with God in Isaiah 6.  Think about Psalm 73 where the psalmist wrestles with the prosperity & blessing of the wicked.  He wrestled with what he saw, “but when he thought how to understand this, it seemed to him a wearisome task, until he went into the sanctuary of God; then he discerned their end” (Psalms 73:16–17 ESV).  Though the psalmist wrestled with real world questions, he was marked by meeting God in His sanctuary and, as a result, his perspective changed.  David is another example.  In psalm 51:1-12, David is wrestling with his sin and being laid bare before a perfectly holy God.  Something interesting happens in verse 13, though – David is so marked by the forgiveness that he has received that he vows to “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalms 51:13 ESV).  David had been so marked by the forgiveness of God that it changed him to the core.  When Job encountered the Almighty face to face, he proclaimed “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” Job 42:5.

The same was true of Peter and John when they were gathered before the elders in Jerusalem.  Luke tells us, “now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 ESV).  They were filled with the Spirit (4:8) and His presence marked them, transformed them and empowered them.

Let us goto out bibles intent on seeing God. Let us not search for trite formulas to make our lives work better in order to cope with living in this fallen world; let us not primarily focus on what we must do until we have spent plenty of time focusing on who He is and what He has done to forgive us, save us and adopt us into His family.  Let us seek to see Him and beg him to show us His glory.  We far too often approach the bible as a way to fix our problems, rather than a story that reveals a powerful, just, merciful God that redeems a rebellious people.  How we read our bibles matters.  Lord, help us to see you and savor you as supreme.  Help us to believe that “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11 ESV).

 

Advertisements

Truly Transformational Small Groups & Relationships

We’d rather work a formula than submit to a process that will be scary and unknown, even if it will ultimately change our hearts and character. So don’t give in to the temptation to just “do” something else, to come up with a new plan, a retooled strategy, alone—again. There are no shortcuts to believing the difficult but life-giving, heart-changing, and joy-enhancing truths I’ve shared in these chapters.

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 122

“Unfortunately, I’m finding more and more accountability groups to be pretty ineffective. If people are not careful, these groups can become nothing more than places where people unload and confess but do not change. In many cases the confidentiality, safety, and security of such groups become the highest goal of the group, inhibiting group effectiveness. Now, of course, you need these elements in a group—that’s a given. But when the dynamics of the group primarily center on the commonality of the struggle itself, then what can happen is that the expectation of change—and more importantly, how it happens—can get lost. Then the group will become ineffective and eventually collapse in a spirit of defeatism and hopelessness. Maybe you’re in a group like this and know what I’m talking about.

Not long ago I was talking with a guy who had been in such a group for several years. He told me, “John, the problem is that no one in the group is experiencing any type of breakthrough or change.” He went on to say that there is something of a “spiritual” basis to the group. A Scripture portion is read each week. Songs are sung. People share challenges, falls, and similar information. There’s lots of camaraderie. But, he added, “The common denominator of why we’re all there seems to be the problems themselves and the difficulty and shame of the struggles we share. This seems a more powerful glue to the group than does the hope and expectation that Christ will show up and actually do something.” The expectancy that God would work in hearts to bring about new steps of faith and repentance had been “dumbed down,” as had been the call to serious holiness. People in the group just weren’t that hopeful that they would ever change.

This can happen so easily in a group. It’s the natural path groups sometimes take if they turn inward and the essence of the group becomes the struggle itself. Ultimately, that’s the wrong “content” to focus on so exclusively. The commonality and the camaraderie are important, but effective change groups must put the application of God’s Word front and center. The Scriptures, carefully applied to real-life situations, must take priority and be highly valued as part of any group meeting. Otherwise, the group will remain comforting and safe but will lose its power to be an agent of change. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of groups. I believe in them. Part of our ministry’s mission is to help churches begin partner ministries, and I’ve seen groups used powerfully in the lives of hundreds of people over the years. I would say that groups can be used of God in ways that individual counseling can’t match. Something happens in groups that can become a very significant part of how Christ meets people in a new way, giving them the hope of the gospel, as well as being a tangible symbol of God’s love and care expressed through the group members.

When the centrality of the gospel is at the heart of a group, then the other elements of the group can be made more effective. There are three life-changing activities that must take place as part of any successful biblical support group. The first crucial element is accountability. Accountability happens when I speak honestly about my temptation, my sin, and the condition of my heart with other Christian brothers. This requires ruthless honesty about the destructive stuff that fills and fuels my heart and speaking of it with other men. Discipleship is the second, central element, which I have already mentioned. As a group member, I am growing in faith and in God’s truth and grasping more and more who I really am as God’s child because of God’s love for me. I can expect to see step-by-step move- ment (even if they are only small steps) and growth as I take hold of the reality of the gospel. Discipleship happens where I am and helps me apply the gospel to all the chaos, conflict, and confusion in my own heart, in order to make me a new and different person. Effective discipleship also enables me to get out of myself; to begin to love and serve others with my time, energy, and resources—because of what God is doing in me and what Christ is coming to mean to me. Third, there’s the important element of transparency. Transparency is when I commit daily—with everyone, and not just with the members of my group—to living openly and without deceit, offering my life and the motives of my heart to the examination of others! Transparency may seem like accountability, but transparency is when I begin ruthlessly speaking the truth about everything I do, on a day-to-day basis. Because my sexual struggles and sin have been hidden for so long, I realize that lying and deceit have become a part of my daily habits. Now, by God’s power, I learn to walk in the light and no longer in the darkness.

Do you see how the ordinary “accountability” group may fall far short of being an effective agent of change? That’s because the element of accountability is only one of several things that are needed, and it’s not even the most important one. But we often mistake it as such, omitting other crucial building blocks to wholeness.

I know that when it comes to that last ingredient, transparency, you may be thinking, John, that seems like death! The accountability part is hard enough, but transparency, with everyone? Believe me, it may seem like death, but it’s the way to real life! It’s the way to a clear conscience and to knowing God’s love and acceptance through others who are on your team, rooting for you! There’s nothing like it. If you’ve not experienced it, you may just have to take my word for it. Small groups and one-on-one-or-two-or-three connections like this are what have helped change my life for over forty years now. Having relationships like this, where I’m reminded of the gospel through others, is what’s often made it possible for me to preach the gospel to myself in challenging situations, when my heart could easily head “south” into dark and destructive places.”

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 127-130

Glory and Grace Must Be Experienced

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
(Isaiah 6:1–8 ESV)

Our church is preaching through the book of John this year with an emphasis on the glory of God.  I can’t think of a better book to display God’s manifold beauty, wisdom and power.  Glory, however, is a difficult word to define – it is like beauty.  Beauty is something that must be beheld to be fully understood.  Like the beauty of a sunset, the grand canyon or a beautiful woman – you can try to describe it, but mere words do not do it justice.  Glory is the same way, just describing glory falls short – to fully understand glory, you must behold something glorious; you must experience it, you must be in its presence.  It is important for us to understand this or else we will spend countless hours trying to define or describe something that is best understood when it is experienced.  John Piper helped me in understanding this in one of his “Ask Pastor John” podcasts (see the link and audio below).

Let’s walk through Isaiah 6 together because it is helpful in understanding how we experience glory and grace.  Neither grace nor glory can be explained – they both must be experienced.  In this passage, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple that is pretty spectacular because the train of His robe fills the entire temple and there are two heavenly creatures (Seraphim) that are crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.”

The Seraphim are fiery (the Hebrew means flames) heavenly beings that are super powerful.  They have six wings and can talk.  But even these powerful creatures cover their faces in the presence of the Almighty.   They cry out, “Holy, holy, holy,” which means that  God is in a class all His own.  He is infinitely more perfect, good, worthy and powerful than anything else in all of creation; He is distinctly different and morally perfect.  No improvement can be made on God.  This is what Isaiah is experiencing as these creatures cry out, “holy, holy, holy is The Lord God Almighty.”  We might expect them to say that the whole earth is full of God’s holiness, but that is not what they say.  They say that the whole earth is full of His glory.  Glory is related to seeing God’s holiness – glory is related to seeing and experiencing God for who He really is; glory is connected to being in the presence of the Almighty.

Glory is a technical term for God’s manifest presence with His covenant people.  We see His presence (glory) in the cloud in the desert (Exodus 16:7 & 10), in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and also in the temple (1 Kings 8:11).  Worshipers experience His glory (Ex. 29:43; Ps. 26:8; 63:2) and there is coming a day when the whole earth will be filled with His glory (Num. 14:21; Ps. 72:19; Hab. 2:14; cf. Isa. 11:9).  A major theme in the book of Isaiah is the anticipation of a day when God’s glory increases and is manifest over the entire earth (11:10; 35:2; 40:5; 58:8; 59:19; 60:1–2; 66:18).  The Seraphim seem to be longing for God’s glory to fill the earth because this passage can also be translated, “may his glory fill the whole earth.”  This same glory was present with Jesus (John 1:14).

Glory is the manifest presence of God’s holiness and beauty.  It is the sum total of who He is.  God is glorified when we are able to get a glimpse of who He really is – to be in His presence.  To glorify God involves seeing God in all of His “godness,” beauty and greatness.

Let’s keep going though.  What we see in the passage is an experience in Isaiah that we all should long for.  The presence of the immensity of God caused the foundations to shake and the temple to be filled with smoke.  It is terrifying to be in the presence of the Almighty (see Exodus 19:16-20); the Israelites recognized this as they determined that the needed a mediator (Deuteronomy 5:24–27) because God’s glory & greatness is frightening to sinful humans.

 Something beautiful happens when Isaiah encounters the Almighty in the temple – he cries out “woe to me.”  Seeing God causes Isaiah to see things more clearly, he sees himself as  an unclean man dwelling in midst of an unclean people.    He is unfit to be in the presence of God – a stark contrast to the Seraphim who are in God’s presence.  Experiencing the holiness and presence of the King seems to be a death sentence for sinners like you and me (Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:20; Isa. 33:14) and Isaiah’s words verify that the prophet is feeling the same way.

We spend so much of our lives trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are ok, that we aren’t really that bad, that we are worthy.  Isaiah was a prophet, which means that he was a lot “better” than those around Him – he was a holy man.  But when Isaiah encounters God and all of His holiness and glory, he sees clearly.  Seeing ourselves, and our condition clearly is the first step in walking in freedom – and it always involves seeing ourselves against the backdrop of who God is and knowing that we are woefully lacking.

Isaiah didn’t resolve to try harder or to deny His deficiencies.  There was no ritual, resolve or sacrifice that Isaiah could offer that would remedy the situation.  Grace was the only solution.  God delivers grace via the Seraphim so that his lips would be clean.  Isaiah’s sins have been atoned for by one simple touch from God.  God’s grace is applied.  In a moment Isaiah goes from unclean to clean, outsider to adopted son, enemy to friend.

Now Isaiah’s heart turns to living a life of mission.  He longs to proclaim the glory and grace of God.  He will go and proclaim God’s glorious grace, but the people will not receive it because their hearts were hard, ears were closed and eyes were blind.  Isaiah was called to a very frustrating mission of proclaiming God’s glory and grace in which no one would respond.

We often times want to proclaim grace, but when grace is disconnected from who God really is it falls on deaf ears.  Good people don’t need grace.  The answer is not more grace, more grace more grace.  The answer is that we need to see God more clearly; we need to be ushered into His presence so that we see His immensity and our smallness.  We need to raise our gaze.  When we experience His glory by being in His presence, we experiencing His grace by Him atoning for our sins and allowing us to boldly enter the throne room of grace – and live!

We experience God’s glory as we get glimpses of Him.  We will be looking at ways to behold Him more clearly in coming posts!

http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-god-s-glory#

Confronting Sin

“And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” (2 Samuel 12:1–9 ESV)

The Lord sends Nathan to David in order to confront him on his sin. The strength it took for Nathan to confront the king is incredible.  His hope was not in David’s response or even in the hope that He was a man after God’s own heart.  He could have been killed for confronting David.  Nathan feared God more than He feared man.

Nathan started by telling David a story of a poor man who had a prized lamb and a rich man who took it, killed it and served it for dinner for a guest.  It’s a tearjerker.  We, like David, can have so much empathy for others and be so blind to the ones close to us that we have offended; sin always blinds us.  David’s empathy and zeal for justice is real, but he is blinded to the parallel in his own life.  Sin always blinds us.  David starts rolling out how to make restitution.  David took Bathsheba just like the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb.

Nathan is not afraid to call sin what it is – SIN!  He boldly confronts David, proclaiming that David is the man who did this thing!  We don’t like to call sin, sin.  We have more sophisticated words for it today – like dysfunction – words that are less offensive and harsh so that we won’t feel bad about ourselves.  By doing this, we dumb down the justice of God and make His grace less than amazing.  In order for grace to be amazing, we must feel the crushing weight of our sin under the perfect standard of God’s law.

In verses 7 & 8, God reviews His grace to David.  God anointed David king, delivered him from Saul, gave him Saul’s house, wives & kingdom.  And God adds a comment on the end:  “And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.”  God had been good to David.  Remembering God’s grace and goodness is important in walking uprightly.  We have nothing that we have not been given (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Nathan calls out David’s sin for what it was – murder and adultery.  How did Nathan know this?  Was there a group of people who gathered together to strategize how to confront David?  No, there is profound rest in believing that Yahweh sees all, knows all and rules over all so we don’t have to.  The specifics of David’s sin is no match for the Sovereign eye of the Almighty.

When we are called to approach a brother or sister in sin, we normally experience uncertainty, doubt or fear.  In these moments, we must learn to rest in God’s goodness and His sovereignty; we must fear Him more than we fear man – this is easier said than done!  As we approach another, we must do it boldly, but with grace – never self righteously because except for God’s grace towards us, we would walk the same path.  We don’t love others well if we are not willing to help them see their blind spots and we are not loved well if we don’t have people in our lives who are willing to point out our blind spots. 

Lord, help us to see you as the greatest treasure in the world so that other things pale in comparison to knowing and following you.

Concealing Sin

So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab was doing and how the people were doing and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. And David invited him, and he ate in his presence and drank, so that he made him drunk. And in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.” And as Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant men. And the men of the city came out and fought with Joab, and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite also died.
(2 Samuel 11:6–17 ESV)

The conniving wickedness of David should not make us feel self righteous, but should serve as a mirror to us in our own sinfulness.  Unconfessed sin is never content to live by itself.  Though David had supreme rights as a king, some things were off limits – like another man’s wife! Instead of confessing and repenting of his sin, he set a plan in motion to cover it up.  Getting sin out in the open with confession and repentance is freeing.  David summoned Bathsehba’s husband, Uriah, and asks how the battle is going.  Then he sends him home to clean up – and expecting that he will have sex with his wife.  But Uriah did not cooperate!  He slept outside with the king’s servants.  David asked Uriah why he didn’t go into his home.  Uriah responds, ““The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing (v11).”  Uriah is a righteous man, he viewed this as being improper.  It is ironic that he is righteous and the king is not.  David doubles his efforts and throws a party for Uriah and gets him drunk, thinking that would do the trick.  It did not.  Uriah again will not go into his house and have sex with his wife.

David is consumed with covering up his sin.  That is what sin does, it drives us to conceal it.  But, concealed sin will destroy you.  David sends a letter by way of Uriah (ironic!) unleashing a plan to have Uriah killed by placing him in the most fierce fighting area and then withdrawing all of the troops so that he is alone.  Joab is complicent in this and Uriah is killed.  Living an upright life, in the fear of the Lord like Uriah, does not ensure a good outcome in this world.

Sin rules and reigns in this world. Don’t miss how unconfessed sin always drives us to conceal it and that we will go to great lengths to hide it.  But, just because we think that sin is hidden does not mean that it is absent.  It is still swirling around below the surface, wreaking havoc on our lives and the lives of others – destroying our communion with God.  Even in this story, don’t miss the echo of the gospel – the righteous (Uriah) dies for the sins of the unrighteous (David).  It is because of the beauty of the gospel that we can boldly approach the throne of grace.  Confess your sins and repent of them and receive the cleansing grace of God.

Forsaking God and managing behavior

“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:1–11 ESV)

The Jews were like children – heirs to the promises – but too young to have inherited them immediately.  There was a period of waiting.  This Jews had to wait for the true promise of the kingdom.  However, they were enslaved to the elementary teachings of the world.  They were enslaved because rules and laws are powerless to liberate.  If you are only trying to manage behavior then you will never be truly free, and it is for freedom that Christ has set you free (Galatians 5:1)!  

In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus in the flesh, born of a woman, under the law.  God’s timing is always perfect, even in the midst of difficulties and hardships when it doesn’t seem like He is present.  We must learn to believe and rest in the fact that God providentially rules and reigns over all things, and nothing is outside of His authority.  At the right time, God sent Jesus to redeem fallen man and to adopt them into His family.  We are adopted sons.  God redeems AND God adopts.  Our sonship is sealed with the Spirit of Big Brother Jesus – we have been given the Holy Spirit.

We are no longer enslaved to the elementary principles of this world because of our relationship with God – not so much that we know God, but that we are known by God!  Powerful!  We are known by the God of the universe, we have been declared clean and free by the sovereign ruler of the cosmos!  Amazing!  After this amazing grace laden adoption, why in the world would we return to the “elementary principles” of this world?   Why would we want to exchange our sonship for slavery?  We tend to return because it is natural for us, but it irritates the apostle because there is no power there – quite the opposite, there is nothing but bondage and oppression there.  These elementary principles are “weak and worthless.”  They say, “observe this,” “do that,” “act like this.”  When we return to our performance as the means by which we grow, we exchange our sonship for slavery.  The real power for transformation is believing at a deep level that the God of the universe, due to nothing good in you, called you to Himself and He not only saved you, but adopted you as a son.   You are not just forgiven, you are adopted as a son.  The judge took off the robe after declaring you “not guilty,” and then went outside and threw the football with you.

These elementary principles (see also Colossians 2:8, 20) are the elements, principles or requirements of a religious system that dictate what must be done in order to be acceptable to God; they are rooted in our performance.  There is something in us that longs to return to these rules and systems because they put the power to change under our control.  When we return to our performance, we are forsaking the streams of living water offered in our relationship with God and digging our own broken cisterns that hold nothing but muddy sediment (Jeremiah 2:13).

We want a list, a system or some tip to change the uncomfortable consequences of sin in our lives.  The problem is that lists, systems and tips are powerless to produce true and lasting transformation in us.  You know what you should do, but find yourself powerless to do it and yet you insanely keep returning to the same things thinking that they will change you (Proverbs 26:11).  Insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Albert Einstein).

The real problem is that there is not an utter distaste for sin, but rather the consequences that sin is wreaking on our lives.  We don’t see sin as an offense against God and utterly repulsive, instead we see sin as uncomfortable and we don’t like the dysfunction and consequences that it is causing in our lives.  When we, like David did in Psalm 51, develop an utter repulsion of sin itself then, and only then, are we in a position to be freed from its grasp.  The consequences of sin are gracious because they point us to the sin itself, but just wanting to be free of sins consequences without wanting to be free from the root of sin is a fools errand.  

Freedom is NEVER FOUND IN A LIST, SYSTEM OR SET OF TODO’S to be performed.  Freedom is only found in a Person.  And more than just a Person, but our association with and relationship to that Person.  Freedom is found in marveling in the unbelievable fact that the eternally holy Creator would forgive you and adopt you – that He would make you His child and write you into His eternal will with all of the rights of a natural born son.  Stare at that truth until it resonates deep in your soul.

The Power to Change

“You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV)

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14 ESV)

Often times, in our Christian experience, we believe that morality is the goal of our faith.  It is relatively easy to define, there are many scriptures that reinforce that we should live moral lives and we are able to accomplish morality by being disciplined; in short, morality is measurable.  We can produce morality on our own which should scare us!  There are plenty of non Christians who are very moral (far more so than I am):  they don’t cheat, steal or lie, they are benevolent, faithful to their spouses, and kind to others.  These are good things, right?  YES, they are!  Morality can be easily defined, and sometimes produced, by a list of things “to do” and things not “to do.”  We like lists because they put us in control.

Morality is not, however, the goal of the Christian life – holiness is the goal of the Christian life.  Morality doesn’t require Jesus, but holiness is built entirely upon Jesus.  Far too many have settled in to a Christless Christianity.  If morality is the target then we look to ourselves and our own power to produce it, and when we do we become very self-righteous.  Those who have a hard time producing morality are looked down on because they aren’t strong enough, disciplined enough or don’t measure up.  So should we not be moral people?  No, we should be!  But morality is not the aim.  When our target is holiness then we are driven to Christ in despair because we know that we are not holy as He is – and as we are commanded to be.  When we aim for holiness, morality is produced as a byproduct.  One is built upon us and our own efforts and one is built upon Jesus and the work He did for us.

Morality focuses on behavior and the consequences associated with our behaviors; holiness focuses on the heart’s motivations and the power of God to transform our hearts of stone.  Should we not be concerned with our external behaviors, should we just live however we want?  NO!  But we all know that managing behavior, suppressing our feelings or just trying to take our thoughts captive never results in true and lasting transformation.  Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are indicators of what we really believe down deep in our hearts – in our gut!  It is so hard to change because the root of our sin runs very deep and we seldom do the work that is required to unearth what we are really believing so we become content with just replacing our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors with less offensive ones. This is why Jesus said that our work is to believe (john 6:29).  So let us learn to do the painful and difficult work of excavating the false beliefs that are driving our sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Beliefs -> Thoughts -> Feelings -> Behaviors.
Our beliefs lead to our thoughts which lead to our feelings which lead to our behaviors.  Most people who attend church are pretty good at managing external behaviors because we know what is acceptable and what is not and we really want people to think highly of us.  So we become content with not swearing, sleeping around, drinking too much and trying our best to stay out of the ditch of the really “bad sins.”  We aren’t overly concerned that our hearts are filled with anger, impatience, angst, lust, jealousy or discontent.  All we are really doing is replacing “unacceptable” external behaviors with more “acceptable” ones like self-righteousness, self-reliance and self-control.  Managing behaviors is rooted in self.  If we are really honest, we’d far rather deal with the self-righteous elder brother’s life than we would deal with the egregiously sinful life of the younger brother (Luke 15:11-32).  This is because the consequences of the elder brother’s self righteous behavior is not as disruptive to our lives as the consequences to the younger brother’s sinful life.  Despite the fact that the younger brother is the one in the parable – and normally the one in real life – that understands his need for grace.  We prefer good behavior over contrite hearts.

Our feelings are underneath our behaviors and they are far more difficult for us to manage.  They come on like a wave and can be overwhelming.  Feelings of angst, impatience, lust, covetousness, jealousy, inadequacy, guilt, shame and discontent – just to name a few.  Who hasn’t resolved to be more patient only to find themselves stuck behind a intolerably slow driver or picking the slowest check out line at the grocery store?  Most won’t scream out the window at the driver ahead of them to “hurry up,” or yell at the clerk at the store to “put a move on it!”  This is because we have learned to manage our external behaviors, but the feeling of impatience (and probably growing angst) is overwhelming and nearly impossible to manage.  We don’t know what to do with these feelings so we try our best to ignore them or shove them down.  This is not the biblical way to handle our feelings.  Instead of suppressing them, we should follow them – all the way to the root belief that is producing them.  This takes time, energy and dependent surrender upon a good and gracious God to do this.

Instead, we resolve to change how we think; we resolve that we should take every thought captive to obedience to Christ (and we should 2 Corinthians 10:5) and we resolve to think on excellent things instead of those things which stir up our anger, lust, jealousy and impatience (Philippians 4:8).  So how’s that working for you?  We all know the answer to that question!  Resolving to think differently does not work because your thoughts are a byproduct of your beliefs – you are closer to your beliefs, but attempting to just change the way that you think is a frustrating and unfruitful endeavor.  We must follow our sinful thoughts to their roots of unbelief in the heart.

Just because you didn’t kill someone, didn’t steal something or didn’t honk at the driver in front of you doesn’t mean that you are free.  And make no mistake, Jesus came to set you free (John 6:36; Romans 6:7, 18, 20, Galatians 5:1).  Angry hearts aren’t free hearts, lust filled hearts aren’t free hearts, impatient hearts aren’t free hearts.  Therefore, we must learn to follow our thoughts, feelings and behaviors to their roots – we must use them to diagnose the roots of sinful false belief in our hearts.  The unbelief in our heart is the root of all sinful behavior (Matthew 12:34, 15:18-19).  We must learn to repent of the sin underneath the sin.  We must learn to ask and mine out why we are angry, greedy, lustful, selfish, rude, prideful?  We must ask ourselves, “what have I really set my hope upon, where is my treasure really?”  When you begin to ask these questions you will ALWAYS FIND that your real problem is a worship problem.  You will always find that you have attached ultimate value and worth to a created thing (relationships, marriage, success, pleasure, children, morality, service, acceptance) and this thing is not able to hold the weight of your worship.  And whatever we worship converts us in to its image.  You BELIEVE that this thing at the center of your heart will produce security, significance and happiness – it will not, it cannot.  This is why the gospel always invades the heart – not primarily the thoughts, feelings or behaviors.  As Christ begins to reign in those areas of our hearts as its greatest treasure then our thoughts, feelings and behaviors slowly begin to change.

It really is simple, it’s just not easy!  Running is not mechanically complex – anyone can run.  Running is simple, but driving your mile time to 7 minutes, 6 minutes or even less is not easy!  Just because following our behaviors, feelings & thoughts to their root of false belief & false worship in our hearts is simple does not mean that it is easy.  It requires grace driven effort.  But let us not shy away from pursuing godliness – for it is what we are called to.  If you will pursue Christ like this then you will find liberating joy, regardless of the circumstances that you face.  God is most glorified when you are most satisfied in Him.

Real Faith

“One day he got into a boat with his disciples, and he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side of the lake.” So they set out, and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, “Where is your faith?” And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”” (Luke 8:22–25 ESV).

There are things that happen in our lives – things that God ordains – that may make us feel like God is distant, disinterested or unconcerned.  We know, in our minds, that this is not true, however, if we are honest this is what we often times believe.  This is where our faith gets tested – this is where our true beliefs are revealed.  Beliefs are the narratives of our hearts; the bible views the heart as the central part of a person which directs all thoughts, emotions, and from which all of actions spring.  Indeed, the unregenerate, hardened “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)?  However, this is not true of the Christian to whom God has written His law upon their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, 32:40; Ezekiel 36:26; Romans 5:5, 6:17; Hebrews 10:22; 1 John 3:21).

We know that our work is to believe in Jesus (John 6:29), and as a friend of mine says, “it sure does feel like work!”  We all have beliefs, the core values that drive our hearts; it is just that they are often times not biblical or God glorifying – they are man exalting and self protective.  Faith is not some passive, fuzzy, ethereal thing.  True biblical faith is unbelief kept quiet, faith is active, faith takes work, faith is not automatic.  Faith is not primarily a feeling – it can’t be because we know that our feelings change.  Faith includes and envelopes our feelings, but it is more – it involves our minds, our wills and our understanding.  Faith is our response to what we believe is true.  Developing Christian faith is an activity that must be exercised, it is not an automatic or passive thing.  This is why Jesus calls it work (John 6:29) and why we are all recovering unbelievers.  Growing in biblical faith involves displacing our false beliefs with true, biblical beliefs.  Here is what is true about biblical faith:

1.  Faith refuses to be controlled by circumstances.  The disciples in the boat were afraid of the storm around them.  That is understandable, but it revealed what they really believed.  Jesus rebuked them saying, “where is your faith” (verse 25)?  They had faith – it just wasn’t set on the right things.  Their false faith, drove their response to the situation.  Biblical faith refuses to be controlled by the circumstances of life.  This is not saying that we should be robotic stoics!  We are influenced and impacted by our circumstances; we hurt, cry, beg and plead with God to deliver, redeem & restore in the midst of adversity, but ultimately we can’t be controlled by the circumstances around us.  We are affected by circumstances, but we can’t be controlled by them.  This is why Paul can say that he has learned the secret of being content in any situation in his life (Philippians 4:12).  Dr. Martin Loyd Jones says that “faith is a refusal to panic…faith means perpetual unbelief kept quiet.”  That is not what happened with the disciples in this situation, they panicked.  Biblical faith involves keeping ourselves under control so that we don’t respond to the circumstances of life out of our fear, anxiety & our feelings.  Faith keeps us under control.  

2.  Faith rests in what is true – it works to remember, recite and rest in God’s promises.  Refusing to be controlled by our circumstances is not enough – we may be able to muster that on our own.  True biblical faith must then run to the promises of God that are revealed to us in the bible.  Faith works to remember, recite and rest in what God says is true.  This is where so much of the wrestling takes place and where so many fail.  This involves trusting that what God says really is true instead of relying on what we think, feel, see or experience (2 Corinthians 5:7).  We must remember that God’s love for us is so great that He was willing to die to have us (John 3:16), and that He did this while we were still dead & disobedient (Ephesians 2).  We must remember that we are adopted children of the Almighty (Romans 5:10) and that He has granted us His precious and very great promises (2 Peter 1:4).  Remember that He who began the good work in you will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6).  We must work to remember to cast all of our cares on Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7), that sin truly is deceitful (Hebrews 3:12-13), that every hair on our head has been numbered (Luke 12:7), that we are His beloved child (1 John 3:2), that we have been bought with a great price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), that He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that He works all things for good (Romans 8:28).  Perhaps the greatest and most encouraging declaration of scripture is that “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).  God has never once been caught off guard by anything, nothing has ever happened that He did not ordain.  He is intimately involved in all of the details of this world and your life (Colossians 1:17).  Believing these things really are work.  It takes time to remember these things, to preach them to ourselves and to beg God to have them take root in our hearts.

You must realize that no one talks to you more than you do.  The question is, what are you saying to yourself?  What are you dwelling on?  What are you turning over in your mind?  What things are you saying about, “if I only had this, or if that would only work out then life would be ok?”  Developing real biblical faith that transforms us works to remember what God says is true and then preaches that to oneself.  What are you preaching to yourself in your mind?

3.  Faith apples what is true and walks in obedience to what God reveals.  There is no replacement for walking in obedience to the commands of God.  We should pray, then we should obey.  Faith always applies what is revealed, indeed “it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it.” (James 4:17 NLT-SE).  To sit passively by and say “I’m praying,” or “I’m hoping,” but to never walk in obedience to the revealed will of God is not biblical faith.  We must bring all that we know to bear on the situation at hand and then we must apply it!  This obedience flows from a heart that understands that obedience doesn’t earn anything from God; your obedience doesn’t keep God from punishing you.  Obedience is not part of a secret formula to protect you from crisis.  No, true biblical obedience flows from a heart that knows and embraces that God is happy with you and that you are blessed based on the perfect obedience of Jesus alone.  You don’t obey for acceptance, you obey because you’re already accepted.  True obedience flows from a heart that embraces the amazing grace that has been extended to you and it becomes a joy to obey.  Joyful obedience flows from a grateful heart and it always leads to greater joy.  God created the universe and knows how it works so when He says, “do this,” or “walk like that,” it is not because He is oppressive, it is because He knows it will lead to your joy.  God is not after any kind of obedience – our begrudging submission does not glorify God – God is after joyful obedience.  Joyful obedience is always rooted in the unconditional acceptance God has given you in Christ and is fueled by marveling at His ongoing sustaining grace towards you.

Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones addresses this in more detail in chapter four of the free book, A Vision for a Gospel Centered Life.  Faith always acknowledges the situation and circumstances, however it always puts up a “but…”  It might feel like you’re all alone, but you know that God says that He will never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).  It may feel like all things are lost and hopeless, but He who began the good work in you will be faithful to complete it in you (Philippians 1:6).  Remember that God has not held you this long, just to abandon you.  He has not forgotten or forsaken you.  It is work to rest in these beliefs when our minds want to believe otherwise, but if you want to walk freely in life this is the work that you must do.  All of this is fueled by the ongoing amazement that God would love a wicked, hard hearted sinners like us.  It should shock and amaze us that God would give us soft hearts of flesh instead of our natural hard hearts of stone (Ezekiel 36:26).  When our hearts are ruled by the majesty of how unworthy we really are and how much we don’t deserve His grace, we are forever changed.  There is a shift in us from saying, “I don’t deserve this trouble or struggle,” to “I don’t deserve His unconditional love – all that I deserve is bad and yet He gives me good.”  

Joyful Obedience

“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”  (1 John 3:11–24 ESV)

This section is highlighting Cain’s unacceptable sacrifice with Abel’s acceptable sacrifice.  Ultimately, it does not seem to matter what their sacrifices were, but the heart behind the sacrifice.  God is after contrite hearts that offer sacrifices by faith alone (Psalm 51:17).  Actions speak louder than words and we learn that Abel’s sacrifice was offered by faith and was deemed righteous (Hebrews 11:4).  Cain was evil and did evil, for out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:43-45 & Matthew 12:34).  The difference between good and evil is seen in actions that flow out of the heart.  The redeemed will have increasing goodness flow out of them as the fruit of transformation.  Don’t be surprised that the world hates you – for it is evil.

John emphasizes the continuing ethic to love one another.  Love for one another is rooted in God’s love for us (1 John 4:19).  Love for others, and especially the saints, is a sign that we have been raised from death to life.  The one who does not love abides in death.  John sounds like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-26) when he says that those whose lives are marked by hate are murderers and no murderer has eternal life.  It is jarring, John is saying that if our lives are marked by hate instead of love then we are not redeemed.  That is a hard saying.  External compliance to God’s commands is inadequate to save.  A moral ethic of being good doesn’t require saving faith.  Jesus’ mission was not to make immoral people moral or to make bad people good – Jesus came to make dead people alive.  We should not murder (Exodus 20:13), but more than that we should kill coveting which leads to hate, anger and ultimately can lead to murder.

The love of God compelled Jesus to action.  Jesus loved us and went to the cross.  Love is active, not passive, love is not primarily an emotion.  Because Jesus sacrificed for us, we can sacrifice for Him.  He is not just our model, but also our power to love.  If we see a brother in need and callously blow it off, we are not abiding in love.  Let’s not love in talk, but in action.  True obedience involves not just our words of profession, but our obedience in love (3:18).  As we walk in a love that is rooted in His love for us, we reassure ourselves that we are His children.

When we become convicted of sin, God is greater than our heart or our sin.  He offers forgiveness.  He is greater than us.  A clear heart leads us to boldly approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).  John makes a connection between our obedience and God answering our prayers.  Is this, “I obey, therefore God gives me what I want?”  No, this is not the secret formula to get what you want.  This is a picture of an abiding, dependent man who is praying confidently before the Creator of the universe because he know that he has an Intercessor in heaven.  The commandment is to believe and out of that to love.  Our work is one of belief, one of faith (John 6:29).  Abiding produces faith which yields obedience.  We are not made right by our obedience – that is religion, but our obedience does bear witness to our transformation.  The Holy Spirit of God is the One that bears witness with our spirit.  “Abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, & transform our affections.” -Sinclair Ferguson

You make a crummy god

This is an excerpt from Matt Chandler’s Advent Message, The Promise of a Savior.

“We have been unable to fulfill our lives in away that our souls cease to chase the dangling carrot. Here’s why I worry about us. We’re never going to suffer as much as Job and we’re not going to be as rich as Solomon. Do you know where that puts us? Directly on the treadmill, running to whatever is next. If you think about your life, your whole life has been a series of “What’s next?” Where there’s not a “what’s next,” we get super restless.

We just wanted to get to high school. Then we just wanted our driver’s license. Then we just wanted to get out of high school. Then we just wanted to get into college. Then we just wanted to get out of college. Then we just wanted to find the one. We wanted to get married. Then we needed to find a job to support this marriage. Then we wanted kids. Then we wanted a promotion at work. We’re constantly punting down the field of our lives the next thing.

That glittery, sparkly little thing out there in the future continues to drive us while never satisfying us. We’re not even going to get tuned into that, because new stuff and advancement is intoxicating like a drug.

We’ll run and we’ll run and we’ll run, and there will always be something that’s next. You’ll continue to punt the fullness of life down the field of your life until your run is over. Only something that’s beyond the sun and not underneath it can solve that issue with the human heart. We need this Savior. We need the Ancient of Days to help with that.

I’ve said this for years. I just so passionately believe it. There’s always one or two who get upset when I say it. I mean not to upset you, I promise, but I want to make it very clear that I believe no one has lied to you, deceived you, and betrayed you more than you have. Despite the fact that there are mountains of empirical data that you make a crummy god over your own life, my bet would be most of us feel very confident in our “godness” over our lives and see any sort of authority or boundary as an affront to our sovereignty.

Of course, all we have is evidence that we really stink. We lie to us and betray us and trick us and don’t tell us the truth and don’t show up when we say we’re going to, but we really make awesome gods. We need this Savior to rule over our hearts .

The last thing he talks about is atoning for our sins; that this Savior would atone for our sins, eradicate sin. If we were honest, many of us in here, even now, are slaves to sin in our lives. Probably what I can comfortably say is that you have two different lives going on. You have your life at church, where you’re great and you love the preaching and the singing, but you have this whole other life that maybe one or two people know about, or maybe nobody knows about but you, and you are actively being owned and dominated by your sin.

You have bought into the ridiculous lie that you’re controlling it, that you can stop whenever you want, and you would never cross this certain line, and you have everything under control. How long have you been trying to stop? A decade? Two? Bro, you’re not in control; you’re being driven. Only this Savior can set us free from the hooks of sin that deep into the soul.”