Assume God’s responsibilities and you’ll neglect your own

One of the common themes I’ve observed as a pastor is that people often fail to do what they should do, because they’re trying to do what only God can do. We are not equipped to carry out God’s role, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.  Here are some examples:

  • God sees the future; we can’t see it, so we worry instead (Psalm 139:16)
  • God knows a person’s inner desires and intentions; we can’t know them, so we develop a judgmental spirit questioning their motives (1 Corinthians 4:5).
  • God can change a heart; we can’t, but we try; we seek to control and manipulate others through our words and emotional responses (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Titus 3:5-6).

When we attempt to do God’s job we end up defaulting on our own. Look back at the emphasized words in the previous points. God told us not to worry (Phil. 4:6), not to judge the heart (1 Cor. 4:5), and not to control and manipulate others (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When we attempt to do what only God can do, we fail to do what he asks us to do. The Bible teaches we are totally inadequate to carry out God’s responsibilities (Romans 11:33-34).  This is why we not only do them poorly but complain because the burden is too great to bear.

This is prime territory for self-pity to grow, as God’s dialogue with Moses revealed (Num. 11). So how do we overcome this tendency? By trusting God with those less than desirable circumstances and believing that he can accomplish something purposeful through them (Romans 8:28).

This was a truth that carried Joseph through betrayal, slavery, false accusations, and nearly ten years in prison.  At the conclusion of his story he reminds his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20)  Joseph had grown in contentment. He didn’t need his brother’s approval to feel successful. He found it easy to love them and forgive. He didn’t need pleasant surroundings or positive conditions. It’s not our circumstances that make us prone to self-pity; it’s our dissatisfaction with those circumstances. Self-pity takes root in the soil of discontentment.

Taken from Dead-End Desires: biblical strategies for defeating self-pity.

Available November 2012 through


What we can learn from Jonah about anger

Jonah had an anger problem.  A really big one. Sure he could push it down for a chapter or two (his book only has four chapters), but before long it would come roaring back again. The final chapter closes with Jonah sitting on the side of a mountain, being good and angry at God’s gracious ways.

It actually appears that a bad case of self-pity brought it on. You see, Jonah wanted the Ninevites destroyed, but God granted them a stay of execution. Something that’s allowed if you’re the judge and your heart is gracious (Ps 100:5). But Jonah wanted their punishment bad.  Wanted is the key word here.  When we struggle with self – pity it is always our unmet desires that push the door open; before long we can’t get the focus off of ourselves, no matter how hard we try. 

Self pity says, “I believe that something I wanted and deserved was unfairly kept from me” (Jonah 4:1).

This is where Jonah finds himself. He believes he deserves to see the Ninevite’s destruction. With the destruction of nearly 50 Jewish cities on the Ninevite’s resume, Jonah figures they had it coming. Notice Jonah’s words when God backs off on the initial plans for destruction.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? . . . for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:1-2).

Jonah believed that something he wanted and deserved was unfairly kept from him. Think about the word deserved. Did Jonah really deserve to see their destruction? Was he really given the role of both judge and jury?  Had God called him to  prophesy the message and mete out the justice too? The after-effects of a bout with self-pity are anger and the controlling of others.

Because self-pity has its underpinnings in pride its helpful to contrast it with humility. The change of words in the definitions is subtle but essential.

Humility says, “I believe that something I didn’t want, but deserved was graciously kept from me” (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

Paul points this out in 1 Corinthians. He writes,

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:9-10).

Because humility believes it doesn’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness, its after-effects are gratitude and the serving of others.

I don’t want the last chapters of my life to read like Jonah’s–stuck on a mountain and seething in anger. I want them to read like Paul’s–free, though in prison, and thankful for God’s grace. I’m betting you do too.

Trade in pride for humility

Millicent Fenwick understood loss. Born in 1910, she lost her mother five years later when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Fenwick went on to serve as the editor for Vogue magazine and as a New Jersey congresswoman. She gives the most colorful statement about self-pity you’ll ever read:

Self-pity . . . the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.

If you’ve seen a squirrel cage you understand the analogy. I remember seeing one at my aunt’s homestead years ago. It had a small box for sleeping and a large rotatable cylinder for exercising (kind of like a treadmill for squirrels). If the squirrel accelerated, the cylinder would spin faster. The squirrel would burn up energy, but never get ahead. This makes the cage a great analogy for trying to overcome self-pity on your own. You feel like you’re running in place; lots of energy expended, but when you stop there’s no progress.

If you could take a spiritual MRI of someone who is struggling with self-pity you would find pride as the stimulus. Pride whispers “you’re entitled.” When you don’t get what you think is deserved you feel sorry for yourself.

The solution is to change your way of thinking; then connect your thinking to your actions. This might sound simple enough, but it’s not. Feelings keep getting in the way. Our emotions tell us to crawl back in the squirrel cage and run a little faster. It’s just us and the cage, and no way out. With our thoughts consumed with self, we don’t know how to think about others. We just keep running.

Fortunately, we have Jesus as an example. He surrendered his sense of entitlement, and chose a spirit of humility instead. Paul captured it this way,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

The ESV Study Bible helps us understand the meaning,

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God . . . “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God . . . and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) . . . Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2283). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles).

As God, Jesus had the right to rule. We were his creation, not vice versa. But Jesus didn’t grasp that right, he surrendered it. In so doing he put on humility, thereby finding it possible and preferable to serve others with the best of attitudes. Like Jesus, we can choose the spirit of humility over the sense of entitlement.

Genuine humility shines brightly when pressed into service; self-pity will not endure. The genuine article will always outshine the knock-off.

So today, serve others with a spirit of humility. Stop running in the squirrel cage of your self-centeredness.

13 Ways to Submit to Imperfect Authorities

Each of us has authority figures we struggle with. If you don’t have one now, you will sooner or later. What do we do in those situations? We know its easy to complain, or resist, but is that what’s best? 

I first met Dr. Robert Smith when I was having my own struggle with authority. I had been told how he had sweetly submitted his preferences to his spiritual leaders in a situation he would not have chosen for himself. That’s why I wanted to meet him. I desperately wanted to know how he did it.

Ultimately, God arranged our meeting. While attending a conference of several thousand people we broke from the plenary session to our seminar locations. As the seminar started an older gentleman slipped in and sat next to me. As I looked up to greet him I realized I was looking into the eyes of Dr. Smith. I could hardly wait for the seminar to finish so that I could start-up a conversation with him.

I recounted my struggle with authority, and what I had heard of his spirit of submission in a similar challenge. Then I asked him how he did it. He recounted that years earlier he had written a biblical paper on how you submit when you’re frustrated by your authority. He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I could either submit, or go back and overturn everything that I’d taught and believed. I chose to submit.”

Dr. Smith’s paper was later published as the booklet: Authority Issues: When it’s Hard Being Told What to Do. I have given away hundreds of his booklets. Here are a few of the highlights:

Those in authority often make life very difficult. What should you do when it seems that wrong or unjust decisions are being made? What can you do instead of resisting, complaining, or becoming bitter and angry?

  • Go to God with your struggles and questions (Hab. 1:1-5).
  • Remember that God is in control (Prov. 21:1).
  • Recognize that God can use the leader’s failures for your good and his glory (Rom 8:28-29; Gen. 50:20)
  • Recognize that the difficulty will not be too much (1 Cor. 10:13).
  • Thank God for everything, including the leadership over you (Eph.  5:20).
  • Place your trust in God, not the authority (Hab. 3:17-19).
  • Depend on God’s grace to help (2 Cor. 9:8).
  • Be an example of a godly response (Phil. 2:5; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
  • Pray for those in authority over you (1 Tim. 2:1-2)
  • Honor those in authority because of their position (1 Pet. 2:17; 1 Tim. 6:1-2).
  • Concentrate on your responsibility (Matt. 7:3-5; Rom. 2:1).
  • Respond as Christ did (1 Pet. 2:21-23).
  • Return good for evil (Rom. 12:21).

 You may acquire Robert Smith’s booklet through

Whose words have the power to change?

When it comes to our communication with others our words are to be gracious and forgiving.  Note Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 4:29, 32

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. . . Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Eph 4:29, 32).

So why aren’t our words gracious and forgiving? Why do we feel the need to say more? Why do we feel we must shout the truth instead of whisper it? Why do our conversations go so quickly from gracious and forgiving to manipulative and harsh?

We might say we’re just trying to get our point across, but I’ve been wondering if the underlying cause is too much confidence in our words and too little confidence in God’s Word.

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12).

If God’s Word is sufficient to discern the thoughts and intents of another’s heart, then my role is nothing more than to dispense the truth; depending on the Holy Spirit to use it to bring about change. Certainly I should communicate it in a way that is winsome and gracious with a readiness to forgive. The point is: I am not the instrument of change in another’s life. God is.

How might my speech be altered, if I really believed that a Bible passage had more power to bring change than my words, my argument, my logic, my passion, my sarcasm, my silence? Here are three acknowledgments of this truth:

I don’t need to bring harsh words.  Words are like scalpels. They can be beneficial in a surgical procedure, but they can also cut, and cut deep. As I have studied anger in the Scriptures and examined it in my own life I have found it to be manipulative. It isn’t a healing element. It is a manipulative one. Harsh words are used to convince another how they have hurt us, and how they need to change for our sake. Let’s see, we hurt them, so that they will stop hurting us…hmmm?

I don’t need to speak exaggerated words. Sometimes we stretch our words, or conveniently leave something out to make a stronger case. Do we really mean that a person does that ALL the time? While it might be true that they lied to us does that make them a LIAR? If I call them a name, am I not saying I believe they’re characterized by the action? Is there anything gracious about name calling? The power to change another is not in the exaggeration of my words, but in the clarity of God’s Word appropriately applied.

I don’t need to have the last word. I don’t need to send one last salvo as I walk away from the conversation. I can give the Holy Spirit time, and he will continue working on the heart even in my absence. Perhaps when I insist on the last word I’m only sending notice to the Holy Spirit that what I have to say is more important than what he has to say. Might it be better to close the conversation simply with “I’m praying for you”? And mean it. And do it.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind…correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to knowledge of the truth . . . (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Submission and the will of God…

Whenever I begin a message on submission, I remind my audience that this a very simple message to preach. It’s just a really hard message to live. I can preach it in ten minutes, but it will it take a lifetime of moment by moment surrender to learn it.

If you could leave all of your preconceived ideas behind and simply study the word submission, you would immediately notice it’s comprised of two  ideas: sub and mission. The prefix “sub” means “to be under.” We hear it in the word subway or submarine. But vehicles that travel underground or underwater don’t find their path nearly as difficult as the human soul that attempts to submit its will to another.

Simply put, submission means to place my desires under the purpose of the mission.

No one ever lived out this principle as definitively as Jesus.

In the final week of his life, Jesus spoke with great transparency of his soul’s emotional condition. On Tuesday of the passion week, one of his disciples brought to him a group of non-believers. The teaching moment prompted Jesus to speak about his death. In so doing, he opened up a private window into his soul.

He began by telling of a grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies that it might bring forth much fruit (John 12:24). The conversation reminded him of his own impending death.  And he responded by saying “now is my soul troubled.”

There is such strength and violence in the word troubled.  It’s meaning eludes our English language.

The root word tarasso is used elsewhere in the Bible to reveal one’s condition at the loss of a loved one (John 11:33; 14:1, 27).  As a pastor, on more than one occasion, I have been the bearer of the news that a loved one has died. I have heard uncontrollable wailing. I have seen sheer terror in the eyes of a the young boy at the news of his father’s death. I have seen the body shake uncontrollably, as emotions refuse restraint. When a parent loses a child, sometimes the soul refuses to be comforted. I have heard of people that responded to this kind of news with vomiting or losing consciousness.

Here is the point: Jesus chooses that word to describe what his soul is doing as he nears the certainty of the cross.

Because prayer has been such a vital resource for Jesus, it shouldn’t surprise us that he bursts into prayer in that moment of terror — as if oblivious to the crowd that has gathered.

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.’” (John 12:27-28).

With uncontrollable fear still rising in his soul, he placed his desires beneath the mission. He wanted the Father’s name to be glorified at all costs—even  if it meant his impending death.

Because the Father understood the battle taking place in the soul of his son, he spoke from heaven with an audible voice.

Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” . . . 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. . .  32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die (John 12:28b-33).

Having received assurance that the mission will be accomplished (God’s name would be glorified), Jesus referenced his impending death (that’s sub-mission).  Jesus provides us with a vivid reminder that our desires (whatever they might be) are to be subjugated to the mission. For Jesus, nothing matters more than the glory of his Father.

3 words to remember when you serve…

Serving others is not without its challenges. Three words describe our service to the Lord: faithful, joyful, and sacrificial.

Serve Faithfully: Are you looking for every opportunity to serve the Lord? Jesus tells a parable about three servants. The master commends two of the three because they were faithful (Matt. 25:21, 23). They had actively looked for every opportunity to invest what the Master had entrusted to them. Our Master expects the same of us. Don’t waste your life. Look for every opportunity to serve the Lord.

Serve Joyfully: Are you looking for man’s approval or heavens? John the Baptist had a growing ministry until Jesus came on the scene. Suddenly, many of John’s followers became Jesus’ followers. When John was questioned about this occurrence his response was: “Therefore, this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase and I must decrease” (John 3:30). Serving others can be challenging. It’s easy to get your feelings hurt. Find your joy in heaven’s approval, not the approval of those you’re serving.

Serve Sacrificially: Are you looking for what you can give up to serve? The Good Samaritan understood what it meant to be a good neighbor.  When he saw one who was in need, his heart opened up. He gave his time, his ride, his money, his service (Luke 10:33-36). All of this cost him. Ministry didn’t come at a convenient time in his schedule, and it won’t likely come in yours.  Prepare yourself to sacrifice. But know this: It will be worth it!

Hear the joy in Paul’s writing: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love…, my joy and crown, stand firm…in the Lord” (Phil. 4:1).

As you serve, serve the Lord faithfully, joyfully, and sacrificially. God will be honored and you will be blessed.

Hiding or Confessing Sin?

There is a word that is small, but in spite of its size it has left a significant impact. It has disrupted nations, families, marriages, and one’s relationship with God. It is discussed in nearly every form of religion, but in no other sacred book is the word treated as thoroughly as it is in the Bible. The word? Sin. Just three little letters, but its impact has touched every human being’s life. It means to violate a law of God, and that violation was so horrific that it caused the death of Christ to restore us to God. Remarkably people have always responded to sin the same way, which is to cover or hide it. The Biblical record shows this. Upon committing the first sin, Adam and Eve hid themselves from God even though they didn’t know why they were doing it  (Gen. 3:8). Upon taking spoil from a battle that he wasn’t supposed to Achan hid the gold and silver under his tent. Having committed adultery with his neighbor’s wife King David devised an elaborate scheme that included the killing of her husband in an attempt to keep his sin hidden. Yet, in every one of these attempts to cover a sin, God revealed it.

David understood that when he recorded in Psalm 32, “when I kept silent my bones grew old.” In fact David only thought he had hidden his sin. God revealed it to the entire nation. That is where David learned a vital lesson about sin. When we cover it God reveals it, but when we reveal it God covers it. He opens Psalm 32 this way, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Remarkably, when David confessed his sin to the Lord he found forgiveness! God wishes for us to deal with our sin through humility and confession. But often our pride is what stubbornly refuses to admit our guilt, and instead attempts to hide the sin. If that has been the pattern of your life please know God longs to bring forgiveness. And He is so serious about that that He may reveal your sin, just so that you would admit your need.

Diagnosing the Idolatrous Heart

John Calvin once referred to his heart as an idol factory. Perhaps you know the feeling. But he was not the first to see it that way. God, through the prophet Ezekiel, refers to men with idols in their  hearts (Ez. 14).  If you had to make a run to the ER for chest pain, chances are they would ask you some diagnostic questions. The following are meant to diagnose the seriousness of one’s idolatrous heart.