On Thursday I wrapped up a week of teaching at Gull Lake Ministries in Michigan. During the second hour on Wednesday morning, I did a Question and Answer session based on questions from the audience. This turned out to be one of the best sessions of the week. We plan to post that session as a podcast soon. I thought you might be interested in reading the questions along with a brief description of my answers.
1. What is the most significant lesson you have learned in life? Of the many lessons I’ve learned, none is more fundamental than this: He’s God and I’m Not. I call this the First Law of the Spiritual Life because all spiritual reality must begin with this truth. And it’s a lesson that I learn and relearn because it’s easy to start thinking that I’m in charge of my own little corner of the universe. I often come back to Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” See The First Law: He’s God and We’re Not.
2. Do you think that there is still prophecy and speaking in tongues today? 1 Corinthians 13:8 speaks of a time when prophecy will cease, tongues will end, and knowledge will pass away. So, clearly, tongues and prophecy were never meant to be permanent gifts. But when will they pass away? As I read 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (admittedly a difficult passage to fully understand), it seems to be speaking of a time when history itself comes to a consummation at the return of Christ. There are other interpretations possible, including the completion of the New Testament canon. I think that all the spiritual gifts are possible during this era, to be given by the Lord at his discretion. But no prophecy and no gift of tongues can ever contradict or correct or amend or add to anything written in the Bible. That’s paramount. We have the written Word of God and that should be our guide today. See The Holy Spirit and the Gift of Tongues.
3. What is the best way to witness to an atheist? It’s easier to answer that in the negative. It won’t help to argue because a convinced atheist probably has heard all the arguments many times. And if you’re dealing with a Christopher Hitchens-type atheist, he may know more about the Bible than you do. Remember the words of 2 Timothy 2:24, “The Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” We’ve all been in witnessing situations where the person seems so obstinate or so arrogant that we lose our patience and get angry. It doesn’t work because you can’t argue an atheist into the Kingdom. Their basic problem is spiritual, not intellectual. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says that God has blinded the mind of the unbeliever. When he says, “I can’t see it,” he’s not making that up. He truly can't see it, and he won't see it unless God opens his eyes to see the truth.
So what should we do? I don’t think that atheists constitute a particular category of unbeliever in this one sense. It’s good to know the arguments for God’s existence but that generally isn’t the real issue. If we want to reach atheists, we must love them and show them the reality of Christ in our lives. That’s one argument they can’t refute. So love them, listen to them, spend time with them, hang out with them, and show the reality of Christ in your life. And pray like crazy for God to open the eyes of their heart. See Praying for Your Prodigal.
4. 1 Corinthians 12:31 admonishes believers to eagerly desire the better gifts. Based on this, is it possible to “progress” in spiritual gifts? If so, how do we advance and what are the greater gifts? It helps to remember that 1 Corinthians 12:31 is addressed to the whole church, not to individuals. It’s a plural command. I think it means that as time passes, the gifts the church needs will change, and the church should ask the Lord to provide the gifted people they need for the ministry opportunities they face. Sometimes the church needs gifted leaders, sometimes the church need servants, sometimes the church needs givers, sometimes the church needs evangelists. Of course, every church always needs these gifts, but suppose a congregation finds an open door to minister to Vietnamese immigrants in their city. The church should pray for people with specific gifts, talents and passion for that ministry. The “greater gifts” are the ones that enable us to speak the Word and to serve others in Jesus’ name. Since Jesus is the Head of the church, we are fully justified in asking him to raise up the gifted people we need for whatever challenge the church faces. See Unwrapping Your Spiritual Gifts.
What are the responsibilities of believers? If the church is truly a
body, what keeps us from ministering to each other? Why don’t we do a
better job of encouraging each other? Is it pride that gets in the way?
Pride may be part of it, but I am convinced the real problem
lies in the hectic nature of modern life. When I pastored in Oak Park,
IL, I looked at our congregation (filled with very good people) and
came to the following conclusions: 1) They truly did love the Lord, 2)
They wanted to serve the Lord, 3) Nearly everyone was over committed,
4) Most people were overstressed, and as a result 5) They were easily
distracted. That last one is probably an unavoidable result of modern
life–and it wouldn’t necessarily be true of a church in a village in
Cameroon. Many churches have unintentionally become extremely complex
and very busy places. Perhaps we would have better ministry if we told
our people we only wanted them to do two or three things–worship, be
part of a small group, and serve on a ministry team. It’s easy to say
that, hard to get to the reality. Most Christians
want to experience more of the “one another” but don’t know where to
begin. It has to start with the church leaders because the people will
not go beyond what their leaders model. See Rejoicing and Weeping.