- 2015Jan 26
On Sunday I started a brand-new series on the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) entitled, "Teach Us to Pray." Let's remember that this is not a prayer Jesus prays, but that a prayer He offers for his disciples to pray. One of the things that really strikes me about Jesus' model prayer is just how God-centered this prayer is. The Lord's Prayer contains six humble requests, the first three are God-directed and the last three involve human needs. This is very similar to the structure of the Ten Commandments, which first begin with our vertical relationship to God and then end with our horizontal relationship with our fellow man. It's similar to the way Paul constructed his letters to the churches: he often began with who we are in Christ before fleshing out how that affects the way we live.
A.W. Tozer said this (and I paraphrase), "The first thing that comes to your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you." I hear a lot of Christian says things like, "I don't worry about theology." Well, yes you do. Everybody has a theology, whether flawed or otherwise. Sadly, most of our theology begins with me. We start our prayers with what we think we need and then, if we have time, throw in a few God cliques. But the most healthy theology begins where the Bible begins: with God. You will notice that the first words of the very first book of the Bible begin like this, "In the beginning, God."
It's easy to subtly devalue God by our prayers and our life. We say things like, "I don't imagine God is like this." Or "The God I worship doesn't do this." But if God is truly God--that is to say if God is sovereign, powerful, holy, compassionate, just--then it behooves us not to define God on our terms, but to bow before the God who is already there.
How does this affect our prayer life? Why did Jesus say to start our supplications with God? Because the way we view God affects the way we live. How much we reverence God informs the respect we have for our fellow man. And beginning with God in our prayers filters out the frivolous. It considers prayer as an act of worship, an acknowledgment that we are, in deed, not God. That God is God.
It means our prayers are in God's will. It keeps us from destructive theology. It prevents us from saying foolish things like, "God told me to (fill in the blank)" when really it was our own fleshly desires that spoke. I once had a person tell me, with a straight and somber face, that God was telling her to divorce her husband of 15 years and go marry a convicted felon. Um, God won't tell you to do something against His sovereign will.
Praying God-centered prayers takes some discipline and practice. I'll admit that this is a struggle for me. I often want to begin what I think are my own needs rather than letting my Father in Heaven shape my them. But there is something refreshing about beginning with God. It reminds us of the awesome miracle of access to the throne room of Heaven, purchased at great price by Christ on the cross. It reminds me that God takes great delight in hearing my prayers and meeting my needs, needs he knows well before I know them. It comforts me to realize that I do, indeed, have a Father in Heaven with a hallowed name.
- 2014Aug 30
Last night, Christian Twitter was alive with the ridiculous and sad clip of Victoria Osteen’s blatant prosperity gospel declaration. “We go to church, not for God, but for us.” I especially liked the enterprising blogger who affixed Bill Cosby’s “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” to the end of the clip. Well done.
But before we conservatives get too cocky in our outrage, we’d we wise to admit to our own version of the prosperity gospel, a kind of false message that creeps into our gospel proclamation.
None of us are offering people paradise like the Osteens, especially those of us who have travelled to third-world countries and have seen first-hand the crippling poverty experienced by people with faith much greater than our own. Nor would we dare to tell our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East that with just a bit more faith they might be able to outrun their ISIS persecutors. To do that would not just make us modern-day friends of Job, it would make us false prophets.
What we might be tempted to do, those of us with our airtight theology, is offer a subtler version of the prosperity message in the way we talk about sanctification in this life.
I grew up hearing that what the troubled and broken world really needs is Jesus. I still believe this, even more so now than I did as a child. But what I heard then and what I hear now about our need for Jesus is markedly different.
My ears heard then, “If only the drunkard would walk forward and trust Christ, he’d find relief for his addiction” or “If only the depressed or mentally ill (we didn’t use that word, actually) would know Jesus, they’d find happiness."
But what I hear now from the gospel is different. I hear now: “Come to Jesus and he’ll begin the process of making who you whole, but the full work of restoration won’t happen until He consummates His kingdom.”
There’s a big difference between the two. One says that upon salvation, all of the Fall’s crush upon your soul will be unraveled. Everything will be made new—now. But is this true? We know this doesn’t happen, even from our own lives. Many years after salvation, we still struggle with sins that “so easily beset us” (Hebrews 12:1). As a pastor, I saw first-hand the pervasive effects of the Fall, how the curse so gnarled up human lives. Some of those knots will be unwound in this life. Most will have to wait until Heaven to see full restoration.
Is this not what Paul was saying when he talks in 2 Corinthians 4 about “treasure in earthen vessels” that is “crushed, perplexed, and persecuted.” The treasure is Jesus, but the vessel—body, mind, soul—is fragile and broken. Christ is doing an ongoing work in us, but it’s a work that is far from finished. Our “outer self is wasting away” but our “inner self is being renewed day by day.” Sanctification—not a one-time event that happens when we walk the aisle—is an ongoing work within. There is, Paul says, “an eternal weight of glory” that awaits us. Our full, final, and complete restoration.
At first glance, recognizing and accepting that we’ll not be perfected in this life might seem cause for despair. Having to get up every single day and “run, with patience, the race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1) might cause us to lose heart.
But instead it should move us to joy, because we look not at the “things that are seen” but the “things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18). In other words, we don’t despair at the continual struggle with sin, the pervasive physical and mental effects of the fall, or the problems that never seem to unwind in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Instead, we rejoice and look to Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1), who has already secured our full final restoration. This struggle will soon be over and Christ will finish his work in us.
Understanding sanctification guards us, then, against over-selling immediate, tangible gospel effects. Yes, genuine salvation does result in life change, but these fruits may often be small in this life, faint glimmers of the glory we’ll see in the New Jerusalem. Understanding sanctification also gives us a mechanism to help others who struggle with sin, with mental illness, with sickness and pain. Rather than offering hyperbolic promises of “victory” and “spiritual success” we might enter into in their pain and walk with them in their despair, pointing them to comfort in the eschatological hope of a full, final renewal that awaits them in glory. Understanding sanctification allows us to mend the broken without expecting people to be perfectly whole in this life.
Rejecting our subtle prosperity gospels moves us from people-fixing to burden-bearing.
We should still say to the seeking, the hurt, and the lost, “You need Jesus,” because they do. But let’s not give them the false Jesus of quick spiritual fixes, but the real Jesus who guides us through the storms and walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and leads us ultimately to Himself.
- 2014Jun 24
It's a bit morose and probably an exercise in ego-massaging to consider what one would wanted inscribed on his tombstone (if indeed one has left his family enough money to buy a tombstone). But indulge me for a moment. This can be a good exercise for us in that it requires us to think through just what our lives are made of--what will the one or two sentences in the first lines of our obituaries say when we pass? I'm not sure what that would be for me, but I can tell you what I wouldn't want it to be.
I don't want to be known as the guy who takes potshots at other people.
This sounds like a no-brainer, but in our social media age, it's not a given. In fact, I think if more people considered their reputations, the weight of their words, the impact they are having on the people who follow their activity, they'd reconsider what they type or tap into the blank spaces on Twitter.
Twitter makes taking potshots pretty easy. It's not that it's Twitter's fault. It's that this medium--instant, fast, and rewarding of sharp wit--dredges up from the heart the worst kinds of things. What's more, the safe distance it gives you from keyboard to flesh-and-blood gives the illusion of courage behind a veil of insecurity.
I say all that to say this: a lifetime of worthy work can be erased in a short amount of time if you're someone who uses Twitter to continually sound off, take potshots, and be the self-appointed watchdog for the masses you think have made you their leader. This is especially true and sadly prevalent in the evangelical world. You can easily take potshots--that have all of your tribe saying comatose amens--pretty easily. You can skewer the theological tribes with whom you disagree and make a living pointing out their blind spots, hash tagging their crimes, and gathering a willing lynch mob. You can create narratives, half-true, half-false, about movements you despise and be successful, even drawing in the news media and other organizations interested mainly in eyeballs on their web ads. You can be an online bully, going after people with relentlessness and fake courage because you don't have to see them in person, shake their hand, and realize they are humans and not avatars. You can do all of this and do it well.
But again, is this what you want said about you at your funeral? Is this what you want inscribed on your tombstone? Is the thing, the one thing, you want your children to say is your most significant contribution during the years you were given, as a stewardship, by God?
This is the conversation we have to have with ourselves almost daily as we fight the carnal tendencies to react and overreact. I certainly haven't always gotten it right. I've made mistakes, said things, tweeted things, blogged things that I regret. But lately it's been this long view of life that has held me back. Because when I look at the list of spiritual gifts in the Bible, I see a lot of things, but I don't see a ministry of potshots as one of them.