Are We Ready?

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:8 NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10 NIV)

This morning I heard a bit of Ed Stetzer’s Saturday morning radio show, Ed Stetzer Live.

Like most radio shows of late, the topic was all about the COVID-19 crisis. Most recently, Stetzer has been heavily preoccupied with helping the church prepare for the flood of ministry, service and evangelism opportunities that will come our way as a result of the pandemic.

(For those who have never heart of Ed Stetzer, he holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.)

A regular component of Stetzer’s show is giving people the opportunity to call in to ask questions. And today, some of the questions presented by a few people concerned me. My impression was this: many Christians are simply unprepared to be salt and light in the midst of a global disruption.

One segment of the show focused on how believers should take full advantage of the present COVID-19 crisis to connect with and care for our neighbors. It was a challenge to be Christ’s hands and feet, taking the love of Jesus to those within our immediate sphere of influence. In response, one caller (who identified themselves as a Christian) came on the air frantic, fearful and flustered. They wondered how they could ever demonstrate love toward a particular neighbor they didn’t get along with. Wisely and graciously, Stetzer took the next five minutes of the program to talk about the basic Christian practice of forgiveness, along with the scriptural mandate to show kindness to others even if they don’t do the same to us.

I found it tragic that rather than being ready for ministry opportunities, this caller was in retreat. They were mystified, not mobilized.

When crisis strikes, Christians are provided opportunities to shine like lights and season like salt. But if we have not prepared our hearts and minds for “a time such as this,” our impact will likely be minimal.

Discipleship is certainly about what one knows about the faith, but I would contend discipleship is even more about how we respond to life with our faith.

James wrote about how faith is translated into action when need arises:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 4:12-20)

James point was this: faith isn’t something we treasure like a museum piece; rather it is more like an tool we apply to life. Our faith is not just something we possess, it is something we practice!

Just like an athlete’s training program or a soldier’s drills, we too must apply ourselves to growing in the faith so we become readied for the tests that come our way. Such training comes through deliberate practices such as:

  • Time in the Word (reading, meditating, memorizing)
  • Time in prayer
  • Fasting
  • Worship
  • Serving
  • Learning from mature believers
  • Generosity
  • Yielding to the Spirit

If we neglect such practices, we will almost assuredly miss out on opportunities. Like a person who tries to run a marathon without any training or preparation, we will fall miserably short.

I appreciate the attitude displayed in these lyrics from a song called Get Me Ready by the Lost Dogs:

Get me ready for hate and love
For a devil or an angel
For the vulture or the holy dove
For the banquet or the empty table

For long life or early grave
For the cross or for the bliss
To be a free man or a shackled slave
For helping hands or the Judas kiss

Get me ready for the signs and wonders
For the absence and the silence
For the sunshine or the rain and thunder
The age of peace or the times of violence

For doubt and faith, for fear and hope
For the curses and the blessings
Smooth sailing or the sinking boat
For the trials and the testings

Get me ready for the brokenhearted
The down trodden, deaf, blind, dumb and lame
The growing numbers of friends departed
For those who love you
Or those who curse your name

But here’s a sobering reality. With the impact of COVID-19 growing every day, we need to be ready now. There’s little time for preparation.

 

Feed the (Right) Dog

Perhaps you’ve heard this short but incisive analogy:

There was a man who had two dogs. The dog he fed most became the biggest and healthiest.

Likewise, every follower of Jesus has two natures: Spirit and flesh. Whichever one we feed will grow to be the biggest.

In all we do, whether it be our thoughts, attitudes or behaviors, we are either feeding our Spirit or feeding our flesh. Our practices and disciplines provide nourishment to either the Spirit-side or the flesh-side of our being. If we pour most of our energy into earthly entertainment, amusements, pleasures and distractions, we are likely feeding the “dog” of our flesh.

The flesh is that part of us that is natural, and is typically marked by selfishness. The flesh has one goal: to make sure we are pleased.

Another aspect of the flesh is that is is opposed to the things of God and the spirit. Rather than having a bent towards good and holiness, the flesh craves sin and evil. Simply put, our flesh is rebellious to the things of God. On the other hand, the things of the Spirit draw a person toward God.

When a person puts their faith in Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in them. Meaning, before Christ we had a single tenant: the flesh. But after responding to Christ, we hold both Spirit and flesh.

And that’s where the analogy of the two dogs comes in. How we grow and who we become depends on whether we will feed the flesh or feed the Spirit.

Paul wrote these words regarding the proper approach to dealing with our ingrained flesh and the indwelling Holy Spirit:

ROMANS 5:8-11 (ESV) ~ For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.  Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

If we consistently fill our minds with fleshly thoughts, it stands to reason that we will, at least to some degree, act in accordance with our mental preoccupations.

Know this: the flesh is always hungry and will goad you to feed it. But to feed the flesh means we starve the Spirit. It’s simply impossible to feed both. They weren’t made to peacefully coexist.

In the book of Galatians, Paul offered this teaching:

Galatians 5:16-17 (ESV) ~ But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

The flesh desires sin. The Spirit desires holiness. The result? They are categorically opposed to one another! Thus, the we have only one option regarding the flesh: we have to starve it! And at the very same time we are starving the flesh, we are to nourish ourselves by chasing after those things that draw us closer to God.

It could be through Bible reading.

Or prayer.

Or going to church.

Or fasting.

Or serving.

A life of spiritual pursuits is one of the best ways to smoke out the cravings and influence of the flesh.

Look at your life. Is it a life characterized by a pursuit of/passion for God? Or is your life marked by attitudes and actions more in line the sinful flesh? Whatever you determine to be true about your life is likely based on which one your feeding.

Broken, Bitter or Better?

Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of. ~ Charles Spurgeon

Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. ~ Isaiah 48:10 ESV

We just entered the second week of social distancing due to COVID-19.

Make no mistake, this nefarious virus has done an extremely effective job of disrupting the normal rhythms of our lives.

We are experiencing severe limitations to our ability to come and go as we please.

No movies. No dining out. No sporting events. Extremely limited shopping. And NO CHURCH!

For the most part, we made it through week one with hardly a problem.

People binge watched movies, interacted on Facebook, played games and engaged in early spring cleaning to pass the time. As difficult as it was to hit the brakes, everything felt somewhat novel. Almost like a weird dream.

But now we face another week in near-isolation. And as the days pass, the pressure will likely increase. Get ready for more anxiety and frustration, which often breeds hopelessness, anger or violence.

Bottom line, we are in for a test.

For some, the response may be brokenness; the idea that this season of hardship will bring about feelings of depression and disillusionment.

For others, times of pressure and distress can bring forth a spirit of bitterness. Such bitterness manifests itself in fits of anger, blaming, mistrust and a harsh, critical spirit.

But there is one more path we might take: the pathway of becoming, by God’s power, better.

Biblically speaking, trials and tribulations hold within them the opportunity for us to be refined. Yes, they are difficult. But such challenges provide us the occasion to experience breakthroughs and transformation.

For many people, pressure causes them to fold or to fight.

But pressure can also bring about inner flourishing.

Bible author James, one of Jesus’ disciples offered this sometimes hard-to-grasp perspective of navigating tough times:

James 1:2-4 (ESV): Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

And, for the followers of Jesus, we have access to supernatural power from the Holy Spirit that allows us to turn a trial into a triumph.

Just this afternoon, I noticed this Facebook post from author and pastor Dick Staub:

TR Glover said, “the early Christians influenced their culture by out-thinking, out-living and out-dying their pagan counterparts.“ It is a reminder that our faith is seen in daily life more than on our words. John Chrysostom, a great fourth-century preacher in Constantinople, offered this advice to Christians facing troubles: “When we suffer anything, we should do so for Christ’s sake, not only with courage, but even with joy. If we have to go hungry, let us be glad as if we were at a banquet. If we are insulted, let us be elated as though we had been showered with praises. If we lose all we possess, let us consider ourselves the gainers. If we provide for the poor, let us regard ourselves as the recipients. Do not think of the painful effort involved, but of the sweetness of the reward; and above all, remember that your struggles are for the sake of our Lord -Jesus.”

As bleak as things may seem, the reality is this is our time to shine.

No, it will not be easy. In seasons like the one we are facing we will have to devote even more time and energy toward our discipleship. We’ll have to study more, pray more, fast more.

But out of such rigorous spiritual training we will hopefully see rich spiritual fruit.

Fruit like generosity, service and evangelism.

Fruit such as patience, kindness, joy, faithfulness and self-control.

Fruit marked by self-sacrifice and grace and mercy.

Be sure of this: we have a choice. We can allow the storm to knock us down, wind us up…or we can let the storm be used to refine us into a person who is more developed and more useful in God’s hands.

When the dust settles from the COVID-19 crisis (which will likely take a long time), will we be more mature, equipped and grounded than we were before an invisible but insidious virus ravaged the planet?

 

Raise the White Flag

“God always has and always will look for men and women who say to Him, ‘I trust you so much, I’m all in. I want your way not mine. I am willing to live by faith!'” Chip Ingram

Many people believe in Jesus.

Far fewer surrender to Him.

Why the gap?

Well, through belief we get a lot of things from Jesus. Which is great! Nothing to sniff our noses at.

But we would be wrong to think that getting from God is all that Christianity is about.

Surrender is about those things we give back to God.

Romans 12:1 is a great verse that reminds us of the “surrendering” aspect of our relationship with Jesus:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.

Essentially, surrender happens when we recognize that God’s way of doing things is infinitely better than our feeble attempts to navigate life.

The scope of surrender is as broad as all the ways scripture talks about how we live under the lordship of Christ.

We can surrender our thoughts to Jesus. Or our attitudes. Or our actions.

Yet many people who claim faith in Jesus aren’t at the place of surrender. They’d rather have Jesus in the passenger seat. Or maybe the back seat. (Or worse, the trunk.)

So, they keep telling Jesus “no” and keeping Him at bay.

Jesus understood that humans have a tendency to like to run their own lives, and so he said these words to His disciples:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Matthew 9:23-24)

Bottom line, life begins to make sense when we get ourselves under Jesus authority.

Jesus calls for our offering to be living and holy. Notice, God doesn’t want a dead sacrifice; He wants a living one. He intends for His people to live in joyful surrender to Him, finding our pleasure in Him, instead of worldy pursuits. Naturally, since the Lord our God is holy, an offering presented to Him must also be holy — pure and given to His service alone.

To call ourselves a Christian but resist Jesus’ instruction just makes our faith schizophrenic. As much as we try to maintain control of our lives, the reality is we become way less settled in our spirits. It may not make sense to us, but surrendering to Jesus brings a lot of inner peace.

When we surrender to Jesus, we become more useful to Him. That makes sense doesn’t it? When we let Jesus lead and we are willing to follow, things go much better.