Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fasting, self-control, and useless knowledge

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:22b-27 (ESV)

A couple of months ago, the speaker at our monthly men's dinner said three things that significantly changed my understanding of the necessity of fasting in my walk. One, he mentioned at one point that he used to be addicted to food. He once sat and ate two half-gallons of Blue Bell ice cream in one setting. Two, he quoted 1 Corinthians 9:27. And three, he mentioned numerous times throughout his talk how he fasted on a regular basis. At one point, he even completed a prophet's fast, 40 full days with nothing but water!

I honestly don't remember the context in which he mentioned all these things, but God used those three things to form a coherent train of thought in my mind. God convicted me that I was addicted to food myself. There's no other way to describe the self-destructive behavior of knowing in my mind what I needed to do to be healthy but being unable or unwilling in my flesh to act on that knowledge. For reasons only God knows for sure, something clicked in my spirit that told me I had to start fasting on a regular basis, both as a matter of health and as a matter of spiritual discipline.

I had had a spotty history with fasting, well, more non-existent, really. At a church I used to attend several years ago, many of the leaders there fasted regularly, and they encouraged the congregation to do so. I tried it once, fasting through breakfast and lunch. It was extraordinarily difficult. I remember sitting down to dinner with my wife that night and announcing that dinner was the first meal that I had had that day. Being very proud of myself, I fell into the very trap that Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:16-18. Having "tried it", I decided that it "wasn't for me", and coupled with the fact that the Bible doesn't command us to fast, that was that.

Just last December was my second experience with fasting. As I was contemplating leaving my old church (a different one than the one above), I had asked the pastor a couple of questions, and I was waiting on his answers. I prayed that if God wanted me to stay, the pastor would answer one way, and if not, he would answer the other way. I wanted to fast as I was praying, as it was only going to be 2-3 days before he gave me an answer. But like a couch potato who tries to jump up and run a marathon, I wasn't prepared mentally or physically to rise to the task. I fasted through breakfast two days in a row, and by lunch each day, I felt like I was starving.

Paul describes our christian walk as a race we are competing in, and just like an athlete, our "competition" requires training. He tells us to run in such a way as to receive the prize, not running "aimlessly" or boxing "as one beating the air". The first part of verse 27 literally means "I pummel my body and make it a slave". Part of the training we need to be engaging in as believers is the discipline of denying ourselves.

Then He said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, 
he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
Luke 9:23

By God's grace, after that April men's dinner, I began fasting on a regular basis. Over the last 2 months, more often than not, I have abstained from at least one meal a day, sometimes two or three, and a couple of times as many as 5 or 6 meals in a row. And when here recently God prompted me to fast specifically to seek Him in prayer and in His Word over the course of two days, I was physically able to do so because of the training I had engaged in previously. God has grown the fruit of self-control tremendously in my life over these two months. And during that time, I have continued to meditate on 2 Peter 1:5-8.

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I have written before, there is a logical progression in the characteristics Peter lists should be present in the believer's life. I have also written about this verse in the context of using the specific test that Peter lays out to measure growth in your walk, namely are these characteristics increasing in your life (i.e. Are you more Christlike today than you were yesterday?) Two more things bear mentioning, though, and God showed one of them to me within the context of fasting.

One, there is a danger in failing to pass the test that Peter outlines. Having these qualities will keep us from "being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ", and without them, we are "blind and shortsighted". And in this progression, Peter says we should seek to add to our knowledge self-control. My knowledge of how to be healthy was useless and lacking in any fruit because I did not seek to employ that knowledge to produce self-control in my life. More broadly applied, one of the major themes in James' letter is that if the faith that you claim to know in your mind does not change who you are in word and deed, then your faith is worthless and will not save you (James 2:14-26). Even for those of us who are true believers with a saving faith, to have knowledge of what we "should" do without actually doing it is in itself sinful. (James 4:17)

Two, Peter's progression tells us that the road from faith and good moral character to godly devotion and love is paved with knowledge, self-control, and endurance. It's not enough to simply know the Word in your mind. You must do what it says and stay the course when times get tough. That's what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

19 My dearly loved brothers, understand this: everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, 20 for man's anger does not accomplish God's righteousness. 21 Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil excess, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror; 24 for he looks at himself, goes away, and right away forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who acts-this person will be blessed in what he does. James 1:19-25

Friday, May 23, 2014

Faith and Insecurity

This is kind of the other side of the coin to my last post. Maybe it should have been first, I don't know.

I have taken probably two dozen different spiritual gifts tests over the years, studied spiritual gifts extensively, and even written my own test to try and address common shortcomings I saw in the standard approach to testing. So when I took another one a couple of months ago at my new church, I wasn't expecting to be surprised by the results or really to learn anything new.

Like so many other tests, the gift of Faith was one of my top-scoring items. And like so many times before, I dismissed the finding as being the result of a common (and in my mind, erroneous) testing methodology. After all, 1 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV) says that spiritual gifts are given for "the common good", and Ephesians 4:12 says they are also for "the training of the saints in the work of ministry" and "to build up the body of Christ".

That certainly hasn't been my response when I encounter a lack of faith in someone. I haven't tried to train others to have more trust in God, apart from what I consider just general encouragement from the Word, and I would be hard pressed to demonstrate that I have used my faith for the common good or for building up the body of Christ. My most common responses to people's unbelief, sad to say, have been either frustration or dismissal. Here recently I have graduated to trusting that God will show them in time, if He intends to. That's a little better.

But three things have happened over the last couple of months that God has used to grow my understanding. One, after taking this test, I shared (and promptly dismissed) the faith result with our ministry leader who trains people in the area of spiritual gifts. I shared the same line of reasoning with him as I outlined above, and when I said that I most often respond to people's lack of faith with frustration, he very quickly responded, "That's because you have the gift of Faith." I again dismissed what he said because I "knew" better. To his credit, he didn't argue the point further. Rather, the Holy Spirit went to work on me for a while, and I have been reminded of this leader's words at least a half dozen times in the last two months.

Two, I a have friend with whom I share a common understanding of and very solid belief in the total, absolute sovereignty of God. In fact, I always just assumed that that was where my unshakable faith and trust in God came from. Naturally, I expected him to have the same. But a few weeks after that spiritual gifts test and subsequent conversation above, my friend had a crisis of faith. I won't share the details publicly, but it traumatized him a great deal, and only now, several weeks later, is God starting to bring some real healing and understanding to his heart and mind. But the entire time he was going through it, as I would share from the Word to try and encourage him, try as I might, I really couldn't even begin to understand why he was reacting the way he was. I kept thinking in the back of my mind, "There it is in black and white (and sometimes red). Why don't you just trust what God says?"

Three, and finally, my pastor shared this video with the congregation this past Sunday:

It was a powerful message for me, but for different reasons than most people, I'm sure. I welcome the chiseling, sometimes even craving it. But his portrayal of the level of insecurity, doubt, and feelings of low self-worth that most believers apparently struggle with to some degree brought me to tears. I can't imagine having to deal with even the smallest level of something like that. After church Sunday, I said to my wife, "I really have no concept of just how insecure most people are", to which she replied "No, you don't."

As I continued to replay this video in my mind and see and hear this man's anguish, in my mind I cried out to God, "Why? Why would You do this to people? How do people even get out of bed in the morning if deep down that's how they really feel?" As gently and firmly as His counterpart in the video above, God brought this word to my mind:

My grace is sufficient for them, for My power is made perfect in their weakness.
(2 Corinthians 12:9)

I am beginning to understand that my faith is a gift in *every* sense of the word. Not just that I have been rescued from sin and death, as if that weren't miraculous enough, but that I have also been spared the loneliness, fear, and self-doubt that plague so many. And to borrow a phrase from Stan Lee, I am also beginning to realize that with great faith comes great responsibility. I don't know yet what that will look like, but I trust that God will reveal it to me in His perfect timing.

God, forgive me for taking for granted the special measure of faith
You have given me. By Your Holy Spirit, teach me to harness this faith to build up
my brothers and sisters for their good, to prepare them for the work of ministry,
and most of all for bringing glory to Your Name.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How do you measure growth?

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, 6 knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, 7 godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5-8

My wife does raised-bed gardening in some cedar boxes I built for her. This year we are trying three such boxes with a variety of vegetables. She is a bit of a tomato aficionado, so we have a couple of different varieties planted, though not as many as last year. She got the last of her plants in the ground recently, so now it is just water and wait.

The end goal of planting these tomato plants is red, juicy fruit that she can enjoy. It has been just a few days since the tiny plants were planted, so they obviously aren't there yet. But every day I come home from work, I can see subtle changes in her garden: a new flower here, a new shoot there. I swear the beans are growing like an inch a day.

Imagine if I were to go home today and say to my wife, "Well, looks like you failed with your tomato plants. We don't have tomatoes." Just a few days after she had them planted, she'd likely look at me like I was crazy, and rightfully so. Producing fruit take time. Just because they don't measure up to the standard today doesn't mean there hasn't been progress, and whether or not they eventually produce tomatoes is entirely up to God.

We all recognize how ridiculous it would be to demand full-grown tomatoes from a newly-planted seedling, and yet so many times an exhortation to growth on my part has been received as a demand for perfection on their part. As I wrote a few posts ago, a pastor I know asked me a while back why I was "impatient with imperfection." I have mulled that question over quite a bit for the last few months, and this is the conclusion I have come to: I'm not. My goal for myself, my family, and for those around me that God brings across my path is not perfection, but rather continuous improvement.

12 Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, 14 I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. 
Philippians 3:12-15

I can't even begin to count how many times I was certain some idea I had or some advice I gave was right on target only to find out later that I was completely off base. I have said more stupid, insensitive things than there are seconds in a day. But one thing I know and one thing I do: I know that, by God's grace, I am more Christlike today than I was 6 months ago, and by God's grace, I continually put my past mistakes behind me and press on towards the goal of being conformed to the image of Christ.

So the question remains, when I encourage others to do the same, to not be satisfied with where they are but to press on towards the goal, why does it come across as being "impatient with imperfection"? I ask this because, while this pastor was off in diagnosing my intent, he was spot on in identifying a very common response.

I am sure that some of that has been my methods. I am continually evaluating my interactions with others against the goal of gentleness. But I am also convinced that part of the "you're just demanding perfection" response is raging against a message that is pervasive in scripture: 

While God loved us enough to save us as we were, 
He also loves us enough not to leave us as we are. 

Being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) is a difficult and often painful process, and when God uses a brother or sister to highlight an area that needs to be addressed, sometimes it is just easier to condemn the messenger rather than consider the message. And for some, that may be because they condemn themselves for not having reached the goal already instead of rightly evaluating incremental growth that God has likely already produced. Jesus said that when a vine starts producing fruit, rather than just leaving it alone, He cuts off unnecessary parts to produce even more fruit. (John 15:2)

I used to be in a small group with a husband and wife team (J & N) several years ago. They are wonderfully giving and caring people. One phrase N used quite often to describe persistent difficult interactions with certain people is that these individuals were "sandpaper people" for her. It's a great way to look at those interactions. They may be rough, but if we are willing, God uses them to sand off the rough edges on us, scraping away our dead flesh so that the living light of Christ can shine through us.

When you encounter those individuals that take the time to exhort you to greater Christ-likeness, I urge you not to just see someone highlighting your faults. And I especially urge you not to slay the messenger. Rather, take the time to consider the message. Maybe it really is time to take another step down the path, to sprout a new leaf or produce a new tomato bud. Don't let satan condemn you in your flesh, for there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Instead, lay hold of the promise that God will complete what He started in you (Philippians 1:6). And I bet that, somewhere along the way, He's going to use a little sandpaper to do it.

Iron sharpens iron,
So one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27:17 (NASB)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Do unto others...

"I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves." - Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card

The Ender series of books by OSC is by far my favorite fiction series. I reread the entire thing recently (some 8 or 9 books in all) in anticipation for the new movie that came out a few months ago. This is one of my favorite quotes. There is something about it that just feels true, and like a faint echo, I am always reminded of Jesus's words in Luke 6:31.

And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. Luke 6:31 (ESV)

I have spent some time thinking about this verse off and on over the last 9 months or so. Really, it has been a bit a paradox for me. One of the things I value most highly is truth. I seek, I uncover, I ponder, I want desperately to understand. One of the ways I apply that is that I want to know the truth about where my life doesn't measure up to the standard in God's Word, where my thoughts and actions do not honor Christ. So many times, it is extraordinarily difficult for me to see unChristlikeness in myself, and so I value immensely those around me having the courage to point it out to me. And therein lies the paradox for me.

Nearly every fellow believer I have ever known does not appreciate having their own failings exposed to the mirror of God's Word with the straightforwardness that I crave. No matter how true, no matter how necessary, no matter the intention of the messenger's heart, all they see and feel is the inevitable pain inherent in facing one's own shortcomings, and the messenger is proverbially slain. And so, for the longest time, I was left wondering "What do I do, then, with Luke 6:31? When I do for others what I want them to do for me, it nearly always turns out poorly, coming across as unloving and not gentle."

A pastor I met recently (a different one than the one I mentioned two posts ago) was able to see some things about me and relay that to me in a way that was exactly what I needed, and yet would have likely crushed and/or angered most people. I thanked him for it after the fact, and he shared an interesting bit of insight about his thought process behind it all. He said basically two things, one, that it felt unloving (in a general sense), but that two, he sensed that saying it as directly as he did was the best way he could show love to me, specifically.

There was a lot of Spirit-lead wisdom there, and it has helped me to see a bit more clearly a principle God has been working on in me from 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

19 Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. 21 To those who are without that law, like one without the law—not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law—to win those without the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. 23 Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.

Paul is saying here that he made himself whatever other people needed him to be in order to present them a life-saving message, namely the gospel. He did not want there to be any obstacle to his message in his methods. He kept his eye on the goal of sharing the gospel and endured whatever process was necessary to make that happen.

In being so direct with me, this pastor, who admitted that such potentially hurtful directness is definitely not the norm for him, made himself what I needed him to be in order to convey a message he knew I needed to hear.

This paradox of Luke 6:31 is not so unclear any more. It will take some time to work it out in practice, but I am beginning to understand that its not about the method; it is about the message. What I want others to do for me is to love me enough to not leave me as I am. I would hope that all believers want this from others as well. The key as I see it at the moment is to know them well enough to understand how it is they receive love. For me, it is simple, direct truth: "This is what I see, this is what God's Word says, and this is how you need to change." For others, as I have "learned" the hard way, it is going to be different. I must learn to love others enough to become whatever they need me to be so that a life-changing message is not hindered by imperfect methods. 

3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Godly wisdom

1 Corinthians 1:26-31
26 Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. 27 Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. 28 God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, 29 so that no one can boast in His presence. 30 But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord.

Where is my wisdom?
Where is my understanding?
I despised the Lord and pursued my own glory.
I boasted in my strength.

What do I have that you have not given me?
Did I breathe life into my own lungs?
Did I fashion the thoughts of my mind?
My life has been a foolish pursuit of worldly gain.

But You have saved me from the depths!
You protected me from the wages of my folly.
My destruction was certain, but You are my rock, my shield.
I abandoned the God of my youth, but He searched and found me!

Praise be to the God of Israel; His wisdom reigns supreme.
His steadfast love endures to all generations!

- November 20th, 2008

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I want to want...

I want to want only what You want and only for the reason You want me to want it.

13 Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace. 1 What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from the cravings that are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires. James 3:13-4:3

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 fulfill my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, sharing the same feelings, focusing on one goal. 3 Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:1-4

After speaking with a pastor I met recently, one who has been teaching and shepherding for 50+ years, he asked me to consider this question about myself: "Why are you so impatient with imperfection?" He also asked me something to the effect of "What is it that you are striving for?" Both of those questions have been haunting me for nearly a week now.

I don't know that I fully understand the answer to either of those questions yet, but I have come to realize that distinguishing between that which is objectively wrong and that which is subjectively "sub-optimal" is a lot more difficult that I ever imagined, and far too often I place entirely too much in the first category when it belongs in the second, or even in a third category of "different, yet equally as good". And the ugly truth of the matter is that I have placed some of what I have in the first category because of an attitude of rivalry and conceit, of "you shouldn't do it that way because I can do it better."

In recognizing that God has given me gifts that He wants to use for His glory, I must also realize that when, where, and how they are used are up to Him as well, and even whether or not they are used at all.

God, give me a heart of true gentleness, wisdom, and humility. Teach me to truly submit to Your will whenever it may be, wherever it may lead, and however it may look.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Long time no write

The last half of 2013 was a rough time for me. A lot of small things and a couple of big things worked together to the point where my wife and I had to leave our church. It would be foolish for me to claim that my own actions did not play a significant part in how bad things had become, and now on the other side of it all I am left with a lingering question: What was the point of it all?

A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps.
Proverbs 16:9

I know, Lord, that a man’s way of life is not his own; 
no one who walks determines his own steps. 
Jeremiah 10:23

Who is there who speaks and it happens, unless the Lord has ordained it?
Lamentations 3:37

What is it that God wants me to learn through all this? Why has He brought us through this season in our lives? 

God has been bringing this verse to mind often here of late: 

23 But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels. 24 The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, 25 instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth. 
2 Timothy 2:23-25

Something really stood out to me today, that from one perspective, "able to teach" seems out of place in verse 24. "Reject stupid disputes, they just bring about unnecessary arguments. Don't engage in these arguments, but be gentle and patient with everyone." That would seem to make more sense at first blush, so I really took notice of "able to teach" here, and I think the principle is this:

Teaching is not quarreling, and quarreling is not teaching.
They are mutually exclusive.

Anyone else who reads this may be thinking "Well, duh!", but really, it is rather humbling for me. I spent a lot of time quarreling the last 6 months I was at my former church, and honestly, at the time I really thought I was teaching.

In a sermon I heard recently, the pastor speaking said something to the effect of "Show me someone who is passionate about what he believes, and I will show you someone who has conviction in the face of hardships." He was drawing this from Peter's willingness to give God glory for his escape from prison even while knowing that he could be recaptured and probably killed at any moment (Acts 12). Even as I affirmed the truth of what the pastor was saying, God showed me something else as well: It is far too easy in my sinfulness for passion to become persecution and conviction to become condemnation.

God, please shut my mouth when all I want to do is quarrel.
Teach me to be patient and gentle with everyone I meet.