Good questions for a new year

its a brand ne w year is it the same old you_tIn my reading this morning I came upon a startling quote by Jim Elliot, who,  this week in 1956 was killed by the Auca indians when he was attempting to share the gospel with them. Knowing that his venture into the South American jungle was dangerous, he was reported to have said, “When it comes time to die, make sure all you have to do is die.”

Perhaps you, like me, struggle with putting a few things off. Elliot’s 15 words are a wake up call. Would you live this year differently if you knew you didn’t have this entire year to live? Here are  10 questions from Don Whitney to alert you to where some changes need to take place.

1. What’s one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God?
2. What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?
3. What’s the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year?
4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it?
5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year?
6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church?
7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year?
8. What’s the most important way you will, by God’s grace, try to make this year different from last year?
9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year?
10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in 10 years? In eternity?

I’m looking to find some time alone and prayerfully consider these questions. Perhaps you should do so as well.

Living life from the center of the story

I’ve often wished I could crawl into H.G Well’s time machine. Perhaps you have too, but our bodies anchor us to the present. Moving back in the past or getting a peak at the future is only available in science fiction.  Yet while we are physically bound within the limitations of time, our thoughts, emotions, and choices are not.

For instance the Christian is to be grateful that his sins of the past have been forgiven (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Likewise, he is to live his life with the end in view.

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you (Philippians 3:13-15).

You and I tend to live our lives from the center of our story. Such a temporal perspective will cause us to feel trapped by our circumstances. For instance, when things are going well, that’s great; but when things are difficult it’s easy to get discouraged.

When we read about biblical characters it’s easier for us to see the end of the story.

Here are a few examples:

  • We know that Moses will be used to split the Red Sea, and victoriously lead the Israelites out of Egypt; but we forget that he cared for sheep in the desert for 40 years first.
  • We read the letters of Paul, and know that they have ministered to millions of people, but we forget that they were written when Paul was facing beatings, danger, toil, and hardship (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

We live life from the center of the story, but our thinking is not trapped there. We must learn to set our eyes on the end of the story. When life is challenging today, remember God’s promises for tomorrow. Here’s one:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Lessons learned from the other side of the world

Yesterday I woke up further from home than I had ever been before. God had graciously provided for me the opportunity to teach for a week at a Bible School in South Korea. Jeju island is located off the coast of South Korea. The highest point of the island  is mount Halla, an extinct volcano that sits precisely in the center of the island.

Here are a few lessons I am learning on the other side of the world.

God was and is at work here. While I know that theoretically, it was great to be reminded experientally. When I attended the local church on Sunday, people worshipped God passionately.  They were friendly and extended their fellowship to me, even though I was a stranger to them. When I taught the Word they listened attentively, and took notes, just like they do back home.

I heard miraculous stories about how God had worked on their behalf to provide the Bible school that is located here. Just like he had worked on our behalf to grow a church in New Jersey.

That’s because God is at work on the other side of the world.

God is at work long before I get up. I’m now 13 hours ahead of most of my friends who are residing on the east coast of the United States. While they sleep, I’m awake. While I sleep, they’re a wake. Not so with God. He never slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:3, 4).

In fact, in a most interesting ordering of words Genesis records that “there was evening and there was morning the first day (Gen. 1:5). I always thought the day started with the morning, but God has it starting with the evening. Maybe that is to remind us that when we get up in the morning, God has already pulled a night shift.

I shouldn’t assume that the day started with me. It started with God half way around the world from me. He graciously invites me to join him in his work.  He is not dependent upon me to get the work done; rather, I am dependent on him.

If only I  can keep that truth in mind when I return home. . .or when I finally wake up.

The benefit of waiting: Dependence

Next time you feel like you’ve waited long enough for God to do something, reflect upon the characters of the Bible. Author Joann Weaver is bold enough to say what many of us were thinking when we read these stories.

Was it really necessary to leave Joseph rotting in an Egyptian prison cell for such an extended period? Was it vitally important that the Israelites wander in the desert for forty years and Noah drift on a flood for months in a boat that took perhaps a century to build? Were twenty-five years really necessary to move Abraham from the promise to Pampers? Surely there had to be simpler, not to mention faster, method by which to fulfill God’s purposes (Lazarus Awakening, p. 61).

We deeply desire independence. As we enter our teen years we crave it, and in our senior years we fear the loss of it. Perhaps it is because we long for that independence so much that God has us wait, even for a lifetime, for some of the things we desire. Waiting, like fasting, has the potential of developing a greater sense of dependence on our God. His leading. His plans. His purposes. If we respond properly to the waiting process we end up desiring our will less, and God’s will more.

With that understanding consider the following Scriptures.

Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10)

May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you (Psalm 25:21)

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:14)

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices . . . For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land (Psalm 37:7, 9)

But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer (Psalm 38:15).

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry (Psalm 40:1).

And Isaiah 40:30-31 remind us,

Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

I once saw an eagle ascend on hot air thermals when I was fishing the Madison River in Montana. He continued to ascend effortlessly until he disappeared from my vision. In the five minutes that he was within my view, I never saw him beat his wings. He simply rode those hot air currents higher and higher. He was dependent on something other than his own strength.

The waiting period was intended that you and I might sense our weakness, inability, and frailty, and depend wholly on the Lord.

Desiring God most of all

I enjoy reading the works of John Piper. In His book Desiring God he makes an especially excellent statement. Here it is:

Saving faith is the heartfelt conviction not only that Christ is reliable, but also that He is desirable.  It is the confidence that He will come through with His promises, and that what He promises is more to be desired than all the world.

That is a statement worth thinking back over and meditating upon.

Of course the Bible is filled with statements that faith is the only way that one attains eternal life. Remember John’s words in the opening of his gospel?

As many as received Him to them gave He the power to become the sons of God, even to those who believe (i.e. place their faith in Christ) in His name” (John 1:12).

And did not the apostle Paul express that same thought?

For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . (Eph. 2:8).

In fact, the word faith is used in the Bible nearly 250 times. But what Piper is talking about is the nature of saving faith, and I appreciate his clarification. He is saying that true faith is more than a ticket to heaven. We don’t place our faith in Christ only because He is reliable and trustworthy (even though He is). But we find in our moment of faith that he is desirable. To express it in simpler terms: We love Him.

Paul makes the point again,

But if any man loves God, the same is known by Him. (I Cor. 8:3).

Therefore, the Christian finds Jesus Christ to not only be reliable but also desirable. The believer will find that he not only trusts the Lord, but that he also loves the Lord.

Do we trust Him more than the things of this world?

Do we love Him more than the things of this world?

Improving my listening by focusing my thoughts…

My mind has a tendency to wander. Perhaps yours does too. So when I silence my cell phone in a service I want to attempt to shut off my mental day-timer too. Letting the day’s events run through my mind is not conducive to hearing what God desires for me to learn.

It often doesn’t feel like I’m in control of my thoughts because they are so hard to control. But the Scripture states that by God’s strength I can control them (2 Cor. 10:5), and he commands me to as well (Phil. 4:8).

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8).

I find this personally challenging in ministry. Whether racing to class or Sunday services my mind is racing too. I am looking for people I need to see. I’m remembering commitments I need to keep. It’s hard to limit my thoughts to God’s Word in those moments so that I might be attentive. But it is so necessary. And while it may not feel possible, God’s Word promises me it is.

I like the picture my brother-in-law shared with me of Chuck Swindoll who, prior to speaking at a chapel service at Dallas Seminary, was talking to his daughter. It was as if everything else was background noise. There were students pressing in for books to be signed. There was music being played, but none of it seemed to matter. Swindoll was focused on hearing his daughter. His eyes were glued on her as she spoke to him. He was listening…intensely.

That is the focus you and I need to bring when God’s Word is being taught, or when we are simply opening a Bible for our quiet-time. We need to limit the other thoughts so that we can truly listen to what God is saying. Don’t try to multi-task with God. Give him your undivided attention. You’re sure to hear his voice more clearly.

Listening and obeying

The Bible says a great deal about listening to God’s voice. When we read his Word we need to be attentive listeners. When we hear his Word taught we need to be asking “How can I change because of what I have heard?”

Author Ken Ramey captures this truth well,

Listening is hard work because application is inherent in it. You have to connect the information to your life, and do something about what you hear. . .”

 He goes on to explain,

A proper response to God’s Word begins by having an open, receptive heart. But it is not enough to just humbly and gladly accept the Word. You must act on it. You must be reactive to the Word. A chemical reaction is when chemicals undergo change. Perhaps you remember those high school chemistry experiments, when the test tube boils over after mixing two chemicals together. When you hear and receive God’s Word, it should immediately elicit some kind of reaction. It should produce some change in you.

There is an inseparable relationship in the Bible between listening and obeying. Throughout the Scripture, listening is equated with obeying. In many passages, a direct connection is clearly made between listening and obeying (Exod. 15:26; Deut. 6:3-5; Luke 6:47; 8:21; 11:28). They are like two side of the same coin. They are synonymous terms. In fact, there is a direct lexical link between the words “hear” and “obey” in both the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament word for “hear” is sama. This is the same Hebrew word used for “obey.” There is no separate word for “obey” in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Greek word for “hear” is akouw. The word for “obey,” is hupakouo, which literally means “to hear under,” is a derivative of the word for “hear.” The implication is that, in God’s mind, hearing and obeying are one in the same.1

Connecting listening with obeying is essential.  Understanding the meaning of these words is so helpful. Hear again the author’s conclusion of his word study:  The implication is that, in God’s mind, hearing and obeying are one in the same.

Doing what God’s Word says is not optional if we are to grow in Christ. It is far better to think of the doing part as the examination at the end of the instruction to determine if you have learned what God is teaching.

For additional study consider: Deuteronomy 8:1-3; 11:13-15; Isaiah 55:1-3; Proverbs 1:33; Luke 11:28

1. Expository Listening by Ken Ramey

Questions for a New Year

Questions cause us to think.  Sometimes they cause us to evaluate our lives. In our fast-paced society we don’t seem to make enough time for either of those pastimes. We wonder who has time for thinking and evaluating when our days are an attempt to play catch up only to feel like we are falling farther behind.

Yet, as you round the corner and anticipate the New Year, here are some questions that may prepare you for what’s coming.

Question # 1: Did I have a proper emphasis on my family this past year? It is one of the rare ironies of the world, in which we live, that we have routine performance evaluations at work, but rarely at home. We will all face retirement one day, but our family we will likely have with us as long as we live. So maybe it’s time for a “family evaluation.” How are you doing as a Dad? As a Mom? Are you properly fulfilling your role as a husband or wife? Before you enter the New Year evaluate your performance for the past one.

Question # 2: Did I have a proper emphasis on my relationship with God this past year?  As a pastor you know I’m going to bring that one up.  Yet, this is the relationship we often forget when things are going well, and attempt to lean on when we are experiencing a crisis. And like every other relationship its strength is dependent upon the quality of time we spend together with God on a regular basis.  Through prayer and reading the Bible we daily grow in our relationship with Him. Unfortunately, when we only run to God in crisis we will not have much confidence in that relationship. When we are attempting to know His heart during the non-crisis times, it better prepares us for the crisis times.  Our two relationships that are most important are often the two that are the most neglected. Let’s make a commitment to make this New Year different. It’s a commitment that may change your life.

Heaven is a real place…

As a pastor a portion of my life involves the home-going of our people. I mean by that their entrance into heaven. From a human perspective we think of death as the end. But for the Christian (the one who has placed their faith in Christ for salvation) death is spoken of as a beginning. That is why Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). That is also why Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6)

Nonetheless, death is painful. It hurts those it leaves behind. From grandchildren to grandparents – death honors no age boundaries.

In the midst of walking through this pain with a family once, it was a five-year old boy’s smile that reminded me of the reality of heaven. I’d entered his home to speak to his step-mom about the passing of her mother. Her emotion was understandable. Even when we think we are prepared for the death of a loved one, we are never quite ready. I assured her, through her tears that I would stay with her step-son until the father returned from work so that she could go see her mother a final time. She had hardly left when the father returned home, and together the two of us sat down to explain to the five-year what had happened.

From the Bible I began to share what heaven was like: that there was no pain, or death, or tears there (Rev. 21:4). The boy’s father chimed in: his grandmother wouldn’t need her cane or her glasses anymore (I Cor. 15:53-57). And for the next few minutes, we just talked about heaven. The whole deal: streets of gold and gates of pearl. The more we talked the bigger his smile grew. Heaven, you see, to this five-year old, was a very real place. It wasn’t the figment of someone’s imagination to ease the fear of death.

Sometimes as adults we say that children don’t fully understand, but I wonder if they understand better than we do. You see, Jesus said heaven is a real place (John 14:1-6). Sometimes it just takes a five-year old to remind us.

Gettin’ ready for Sunday on Saturday

I started reading a book by a good friend of mine last night. The book is by Ken Ramey and is entitled Expository Listening. In a section entitled: Anticipation: The Listener’s Responsibility Before the Word is Preached, my friend offers this helpful advice:

  • Spend time reading and meditating on God’s Word every day (personal quiet time).
  • Men, lead your wife and children in regular times of worship throughout the week.
  • On Saturday night or Sunday morning, take time to get your heart ready for worship.
  • Read a portion of God’s Word that focuses on worshipping God and/or personal cleansing from sin.
  • Thank God that through Christ you can come boldly into His presence to worship Him.
  • Seek God’s forgiveness for any sins you have failed to confess and repent of during the week.
  • Express to God that you understand that your best, most fervent attempts at worship are nowhere near what He deserves, and beg Him to help you worship him wholeheartedly in spirit and in truth.

Ken quotes that great preacher C. H. Spurgeon as saying,

We are told men ought not to preach without preparation. Granted. But we add, men ought not to hear without preparation. Which do you think, needs the most preparation, the sower or the ground? I would have the sower come with clean hands, but I would have the ground well-plowed and harrowed, well turned over, and the clods broken before the seed comes in. It seems to me that there is more preparation needed by the ground than by the sower, more by the hearer than the preacher.

It got me thinking. Maybe one of the reasons we’re not getting more out of Sunday sermons, is because we aren’t starting our preparation to listen early enough.  So what are you doing this Saturday night? Are you gettin’ ready?