Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hope in Christ

I'm continuing to plod my way through an excellent book, How People Change, by Lane & Tripp. I say "plod" because I haven't had much time to read lately. Many are the distractions these days...but all good.

In the opening chapter, the authors talk about five gospel perspectives that drive the book. They are:
  1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin
  2. The Centrality of the Heart
  3. The Present Benefits of Christ
  4. God's Call to Growth and Change
  5. A Lifestyle of Repentance and Faith
These five perspectives pretty well encapsulate the gospel life. Let me share with you what they write about the third perspective, The Present Benefits of Christ.
The Christian hope is more than a redemptive system with practical principles that can change your life. The hope of every Christian is a person, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. He is the wisdom behind every biblical principle and the power we need to live them out. Because Christ lives inside us today, because he rules all things for our sakes (see Eph. 2:22-23), and because he is presently putting all his enemies under his feet (see 1 Cor. 15:25-28), we can live with courage and hope.
Our hope is not in our theological knowledge or our experience within the body of Christ. We are thankful for these things, yet we hold on to one hope: Christ. In him we find everything we need to live a godly life in the here and now. Paul captures it so well: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).
A friend of mine went to hear Shane Claiborne speak a couple of years ago, back in the previous electoral cycle. The other speakers (all Christians) were trashing George W. Bush up and down, assuming, I suppose, that Claiborne felt the same way they did about Bush (hate) and Obama (love). When Claiborne took the podium he said this: "Last night, on David Letterman, Barack Obama said, 'America is the hope of the world.' I thought Jesus was the hope of the world." Stunned silence.

We put our hope in a lot of things that are not God and a lot of people that are not Jesus. I know too many single women who put their hope in finding some man to marry. I know too many men who put their hope in success. And I know too many people who live shattered, cynical lives because they placed their hope in things that are not God and people that are not Jesus.

Jesus is your hope. He is my hope. He is the only one who, when all is said and done, will come through for us. He is the only one who can rescue us from the evil that lies within our hearts. He is the only one who can change us by transforming our hearts, by changing that which we desire.

Don't be allured away from Jesus by shining, beautiful things. Don't trust in the strength of things determined by the values of the market. Don't put your hope in yourself. Jesus rules over everything for your sake, and he his conquering all of his enemies, and he lives in your heart by faith. He is your hope.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Reflections

Jesus was right all along. That's what Easter means. He is who he said he was. He did what he set out to do. And God vindicated him in the end by raising him from the dead. What does this mean?
  • All of your sins are forgiven. All the garbage in your life is cleaned up. You are declared innocent in Christ.
  • Jesus is King. He has defeated our worst enemies--evil, sin, and death--by rising from the grave. He is the most powerful force in Creation, the true King over all.
  • You have real hope beyond the grave. The hope of the Christian is that, one day, we will also rise from the dead and enjoy real, embodied fellowship with Jesus.
  • Death has lost its sting. Death lost. Jesus conquered it. It holds no power over us anymore, and we need not fear it. Yes, it will come to each of us, but it no longer has the final word.
  • The One who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you and with us. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, and now the Holy Spirit lives in you by faith in Jesus Christ. You have resurrection power within you.
I'm sure this list could go on and on with more good news. Rejoice! Jesus Christ is the first of us to be raised from the dead, and he will never die again. He is praying for you right now, sitting at the right hand of the Father. So rejoice and be glad, for the King Over All is your risen Lord and Friend.

He is risen!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reflections

I suck. There is a lot of garbage in my heart. I worship idols like money, ease, and food. I have a massive ego that is never satisfied, an appetite for praise and accomplishment that can never be satiated. I am proud and arrogant, thinking of myself far more highly than I ought, and desperately wanting others to think as highly of me, too. My sense of entitlement is out of control, and so I want personal greatness at the cost of mediocrity. I sin. I am sin.

People like me make this world a horrible place to live. I spread darkness and wickedness. I encourage the worship of idols. Because of me, and others like me, God is despised, forgotten, and rejected. Nobody pays attention to God, least of all me. I'm taken in by the distracting entertainments of the world--the false gods of fame, celebrity, and leisure. In this idol-infested world, which I helped create and which I perpetuate, there is no room for God.

And yet God made room for himself. The Son of God became just like us, and lived a life like ours, only much harder and far less comfortable than I could ever know. Except that he wasn't like me at all. He was perfect. He didn't spread the darkness. He didn't worship idols. He didn't cower when the moment called for courage. He didn't despise God or anyone else, for that matter. He didn't run from unclean people--he healed them. He didn't condemn sinners--he saved them. He didn't despise rich people--he loved them.

And for all this, we killed him. Yes, we. I killed him. You killed him. It was us, and the crap and wickedness and idolatry and sin we carry around in the deepest places of our hearts that sent him up there on that cross. He loved us; we murdered him.

But he said something as he hung there, something that echoes still through the streets and alleyways of our modern cities. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Even while we murdered him, Jesus prayed to the Father for us, begging that we would be forgiven of deicide, of executing God. And that prayer was answered with an astounding, earth-shattering, "Yes!" on Sunday.

Be forgiven, you murderers. Be forgiven, we killers. And let the mercy of Christ cleanse your hearts and uproot your idols.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Idols of Our Hearts

A couple of days ago I blogged about David Powlison's X-Ray Questions. There are 35 questions total, designed to unmask the idols of our hearts. Idolatry is real. You may not bow down to idols made of wood and stone, but there are things you worship, hope for, and put your trust in that are not the one true God. These things are idols.

The Bible has a lot to say about idolatry. In fact, idolatry is the chief sin of God's people, and, by far, that which the Old Testament prophets railed against. (Some, today, would have you believe the primary thrust of the prophetic message was against injustice. Not so. Injustice is a byproduct of idolatry. The prophets were after the people's idols.) From God's perspective, it's far better for you to die young than live to a ripe old age as an idolator. Our idols are the revolving door by which evil and wickedness enter this world. Our idols must die.

David Powlison writes, "human life is exhaustively God-relational." In other words, everything we do is related to God either positively or negatively. "Human beings either love God--or despise him and love something else. We take refuge in God--or flee from him and find refuge in something else. We set our hopes in God--or we turn from him and hope in something else. We fear God--or we ignore him and fear something else." That "something else" is our idol(s). You cannot change until you understand that everything you do is either directed toward God or your idol, your God-substitute.

"By seeing the God-relatedness of all motivation, you see that what is wrong with us calls for a God-related solution: the grace, peace, power, and presence of Jesus Christ." The process by which we correct our idolatry is a person: Jesus Christ. Only Jesus, with his gospel of grace, can change you at the level of desire and motivation, where your idols have taken refuge. This is a long process because it is a relationship, a marriage of sorts. Victory is won not all at once, but progressively, as you choose to relate to God through Jesus in the tiny and tempting moments of life, rather than relating to your idol through sinful desire.

Go back through the X-Ray Questions and uncover your idols. Reflect on how you relate to those idols. What happened in that moment when you decided to turn to pornography? Why did you choose to eat too much? What were you really looking for when you gossiped about your friend? Learn to walk back your sin and discover that moment when you decided to turn to your idol. It's a difficult process, but you have to reflect on it. Find that moment when you chose to relate to the idol, the God-substitute, rather than God. When you have found that moment, you can be prepared for the next time, and you can learn to choose the true God rather than your idol. And in that moment when you cry out to Jesus instead of your idol, he is there. Always. He will strengthen you. His grace will teach you to cry out to the living God and to abandon the idols of your heart.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

X-Ray Questions

Since the ARC Conference two weeks ago, I've been thinking a lot about idolatry in general, and the various idols in my own life. We tend to have a rather silly understanding of idols--pieces of wood or stone to which we bow down and worship. While these types of idols dominated the world of the Bible, the Scriptures also warn us to avoid the idols of our hearts. In other words, idolatry is not localized to wood and stone statues in ancient cultures; idolatry is in our hearts.

One of the most important things we can do to follow Jesus well is to rid ourselves of all idols. But because we have such a silly image of idolatry, we are not able to intelligently identify the idols of our hearts. David Powlison has written something called X-Ray Questions: Discerning Functional Gods in which he lists 35 questions to help you discover the idols of your heart. This is an excellent resource that I've been using to help me name my idols. It's been both painful and fruitful, and I recommend it to everyone who reads this blog. I'll post a few of the questions I found most helpful here.
1. What do you love? Hate?
This "first great commandment" questions searches you out--heart, soul, mind and might. There is no deeper question to ask of any person at any time. There is no deeper explanation for why you do what you do. Disordered loves hijack our hearts from our rightful Lord and Father.

2. What do you want, desire, crave, lust, and wish for?
What desires do you serve and obey? This summarizes the internal operations of the desire-driven "flesh" in the New Testament epistles. "My will be done" and "I want ___________" are often quite accessible.

5. What do you fear? What do you not want? What do you tend to worry about?
Sinful fears are inverted cravings. If I want to avoid something at all costs...I am ruled by a lustful fear.

9. What makes you tick? What sun does your planet revolve around? ...What pipe dreams tantalize or terrify you? What do you organize your life around?
...We are meant to long supremely for the Lord Himself, for the Giver, not His gifts. The absence of blessings--rejection, vanity, reviling, illness, poverty--often is the crucible in which we learn to love God for who He is. In our idolatry we make gifts out as supreme goods, and make the Giver into the errand boy of our desires.

15. On your deathbed, what would sum up your life as worthwhile? What gives your life meaning?

21. What do you see as your rights? What do you feel entitled to?
This question often nicely illuminates the motivational pattern of angry, aggrieved, self-righteous, self-pitying people. Our culture of entitlement reinforces the flesh's instincts and habits.
These are just a few of the many questions that, if you answer them honestly, will uncover the deep motivations of your heart--the gods you worship and trust more than the one true God. Do yourself a favor and download the full document. Engage with the questions with brutal honesty. Uncovering your idols is the first step to dethroning them.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Just before I left for vacation last Saturday, I attended the Alliance for Renewal Churches National Conference in Toledo. The focus of the conference was Transformation, based on a book called How People Change by Timothy Lane. This is an excellent book, and I've put off reading Love Wins so that I can work my way through How People Change carefully and thoughtfully.

The primary speaker at the conference, Scott Pursley, frequently referred to the work of David Powlison, of whom I had not heard before. Scott quoted Powlison several times on the gravity of sin. Here is an excerpt:
Sin, in the popular misunderstanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non-Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible's view of sin certainly includes the high-handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are, and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.

Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants, and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is--madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absences of any fear of God, slavery to various passions--then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.
I so quickly forget about the pervasiveness of sin in the world, and especially in my own heart. I don't think about sin being simply how I function--how I perceive, want, and interpret everything around me. I think about sin in terms of what I do, not who I am. But that is insufficient, and doesn't take into account the deep desires that motivate my behavior. These desires are steeped in sin, driving me to participate in the spread of evil and the worship of idols. It is at the level of deep, internal, personal desire that Jesus seeks to wage war against evil, and the gospel of grace and agape love is his weapon of choice.

Are you spiritually frustrated, stuck in the same place fighting the same sins for far too long? Have you tried to change but can't? The only hope that you and I have to see real, lasting change in our lives is if our desires are transformed. Behavioral change follows transformation at the level of desire, and Jesus is the only one strong enough to change us at that deep a level.

I'll post more on this topic throughout the week. In the mean time, open yourself up to what is churning in the depths of your heart. Think about your desires and how they motivate your actions. Invite Jesus into the process to guide you into the depths of your soul.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: It

How do you write a book review of a book that is unsure of how to define it’s primary concept? Such is the conundrum of It by Craig Groeschel, a book ostensibly about church leadership. While Craig never defines (and admits being unable to) It, many of us know exactly what he’s talking about. It’s the sense that God is up to something here in a way that is not typical. It’s a spiritual attraction. A buzz. But it’s deeper than that, too. It’s Spirit-empowered joie de vivre, if you define joy and life as the spiritual fruit and eternal life, respectively. It’s the activity of shalom—that sense that all is right in this place.

Some churches have It and some churches don’t. Some churches used to have It but lost It, and now they want It back. Other churches have never had It and want nothing to do It. It is mysterious. It is dynamic. It is spiritual. It’s not something that can be observed, but you know It when you see It. It is a feel-thing.

Because this It is so hard to define, Groeschel spends much of his book talking around It. The second part of the book, which is the bulk of It, lays out the seven things that contribute to It: Vision, Divine Focus, Unmistakable Camaraderie, Innovative Minds, Willingness to Fall Short, Hearts Focused Outward, and Kingdom-Mindedness. These seven attributes of a church create an atmosphere of Spirit-empowered joie de vivre, that sense of the deep joy of eternal, resurrection life where It is practically painted on the walls.

The most poignant chapter, for me personally, was Unmistakable Camaraderie. Churches that have It like each other. They get along. They have fun. Craig tells stories of practical jokes played at the office, and he even offers a few digs at some of his friends on staff. While this type of work atmosphere doesn’t appeal to everyone, it certainly appeals to me. Ministry is supposed to be fun. Look at what we get to do! Sure, it’s hard sometimes, and you’re often walking with people through the darkest times of their life, but there is something joyous about this calling that you wouldn’t expect to find in commercial enterprises. It doesn’t exist in churches with staff cultures where strife, isolation, and competition are the norm. It is the adventure of a team moving in the same direction, and having a good time along the way.

The most important chapter, however, is the penultimate: Do You Have It? Does It Have You? Craig begins with the story of how he lost It, how he got caught up in trying to be a good pastor and lost sight of the God who was his first love. Slowly and subtly, the passion drained out of his relationship with God. He found himself worshipping the Church rather than Jesus. It took him two years to kill his idolatry and get his passionate love back for his Savior. The challenge to pastors and leaders is this: If you want your church to have It, you must have It. It comes from God, and you have to return to your first love.

If I had to define It, I would do so relationally: It is God’s happy and favorable response to our joyful, humble, passionate and faith-filled response to his gracious, loving initiation of a love-relationship through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. I know that’s a mouthful, which is why the book is just called It. That’s how I read It, anyway.

Have you seen It in your church? Have you seen a church or ministry lose It? Do you have It, or have you lost It? What must you do to get It back?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Cabin

The mountain peaks burst through the clouds like massive granite daggers punching holes in the deep blue sky. A great valley stretches as far as the eye can see. In the summer a sparkling blue lake would dominate the landscape, but now all is covered in snow. The great evergreens that manage to survive up here are stooped low by the weight of the snow, barely discernible in the whitewashed landscape. The sun burns brightly, impossibly high in the sky.

At the head of the valley is a simple log cabin, the only evidence of humanity in this pristinely preserved plot of God's country. Smoke curls from the chimney, signaling the invitation and call: "Here is warmth, rest, peace, and joy. Here is shelter from the cold. Here is a drink to warm your body and a meal to renew your strength."

Maybe this sounds like hell to you, but for me it's idyllic. When I think about the lives of America's most influential pastors, this is the image that comes to my mind. It's not that I think they actually live in cabins like this, but the image is an impression, a metaphor, for their life as I imagine it. Put simply, they are living the life I want to live. They are successful in ministry . They are writing books. They are speaking at conferences. They are in-demand, famous, and well-respected. It's hard not to want what they have; it's even harder not to idealize (or idolize) them.

But here's the thing. As I enter that idyllic cabin in the mountains, as I go through the great wooden door and into the warmth and richness of the interior, as I gaze at the masculine trinkets decorating the walls and warm myself by the roaring fire, I realize something: Nobody lives here. It's not just that nobody's home, it's that this house is vacant. It's unoccupied. The idyllic life I imagine these pastors have doesn't exist. It's not where they live. The cabin is empty.

What it looks like from the outside is not what it is on the inside. Fame and celebrity are fundamentally false, and the picture they paint (or tempt you to paint in your heart) is a lie. Don't give in to their temptation, and don't be deceived. That cabin may look perfect from the outside, but inside, it's uninhabitable.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Blog Will Change World, Thinks Man Who Writes Blog

For millennia human beings have been divided over core existential and philosophical issues such as fate vs. free will, the nature of the soul, and what happens after we die. Brilliant minds have written and argued for all sides of these issues throughout history, and humanity has still not arrived at a consensus on nearly all of the most basic questions of life. All of that, according to one local blogger, is about to change.

Andrew Holt updates his blog between zero and five times each week. His posts, which many readers describe as "rambling" and "a generally incoherent stream of consciousness", are often related to the deepest questions of existence in some loose, indirect way.

"I don't want to say that I've answered some of these big questions of life," explained Mr. Holt, "but I will say that I've arrived at a framework by which we can better ask those questions." Mr. Holt paused for dramatic effect, then went on, "Have you read my blog?"

Witnesses have reported seeing a smug look of self-satisfaction on Mr. Holt's face after publishing a post to his blog. "That should end that debate," he has been heard muttering quietly to no one in particular. Local opinion coming from Mr. Holt's home is that if everyone would just freaking read his blog we wouldn't have so many pointless arguments anymore and we could get on to the business of working together to change the world.

National blogging expert, Dr. Leonard Littlejohn, has seen cases like Mr. Holt's before. "I've never heard of this guy," he told reporters, "but he sounds pretty much like everybody who has ever started a blog. Delusional. Narcissistic. Does he use his Facebook and Twitter accounts primarily to promote his blog? ...Yeah, his is a classic case. I've posted dozens of articles about these people on my online journal. Did I give you that web address yet?"

Friends have reported that, when trying to feign appreciation for some drivel that he's written, Mr. Holt would casually sidestep the insincere compliment by saying, "Really? Did I write that? Huh. I don't even remember that. Well I'm glad somebody reads my blog!"

At press time, Mr. Holt was seen staring blankly into space, possibly considering what deep issue of humanity he would futilely attempt to answer next.