How great is our commission?

Recently at our staff meetings we have been talking about evangelism. My confession to you is how abysmally infrequent my efforts to share the gospel have been since becoming a resident at The Austin Stone. Through various mind-hoops I jumped to rationalize my lack of faithfulness to talk about Jesus.

“All of my co-workers are believers; who else could I share with?”

“My job is to write Sunday school lessons; surely that counts as sharing the gospel.”

“No one will listen anyway; it’s weird to just approach strangers.”

My excuses were numerous and some might sound familiar to you, but all of them fall down when held to the standard given in scripture. What I find particularly interesting is how often we cite The Great Commission as being Matthew 28:19-20, skipping over the preceding verses. To do so, in my experience, strips the passage of much context.

For starters, verse 17 tells us that some of the disciples still had doubts. If the very men who were among the first to see the resurrected body of Christ still had doubts, is it any wonder that we often doubt our calling as well? It comes as no surprise to me that we struggle to share when I read this verse, but luckily, Jesus had planned for their doubt.

Verse 18 has Jesus speaking to His followers, but He doesn’t start right out with a command, but rather with a reminder: “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.” What a statement! There is no single thing in all of creation over which Jesus has no authority. There is no person to whom Christ’s commands do not apply. There is no event that can occur without the knowledge or permission of Christ. There is no place in the physical or spiritual realm in which Christ does not have jurisdiction.

On the one hand, this verse serves to rebuke the excuses we may contrive by telling us that we are compelled to obey Christ. However, it does more than just that; it also speaks into our fears and doubts, just as it spoke into the doubts of the disciples, and comforts us with knowledge of who Jesus is. His authority is limitless in scope and in scale, meaning that each encounter you could possibly have with an unbeliever is subject to His oversight.

Reading this passage in this new light should inspire us to shift our view of failure. We tend to view successful evangelism as an instance when a sinner hears the gospel, repents, and believes, and it is. However, when a sinner hears the gospel and refuses repentance and belief, that is success, too. The only failed evangelism comes from us forgetting who is sovereign over our relationships and interactions, and choosing not to preach the gospel at all.

Remembering Christ’s authority is primary, and combined with a secondary method to overcome the obstacles of evangelism can be very helpful. In addition to fixing your theology, it is always good to have a plan of what you can do with that better understanding of God. So, here are a few ideas that helped me rediscover my love of sharing the gospel.

Evangelism is a little like public speaking. It can be really scary, but it will be a lot scarier if you don’t know what you plan to say. Come up with questions you might ask a new friend to direct a conversation toward Christ. Practice asking them. Think about the layers of a person’s life (surface level likes and dislikes, deeper levels like family background, hopes and fears, and ultimately their belief about God) and think through ways you might be able bring those up in a conversation. However, keep in mind that…

Evangelism is NOT public speaking. Don’t just talk and talk and talk. What you have to tell the person you intend to share with is vitally important, but you need to take time to listen to them as well. In general, you are probably better off having a spiritual conversation than offering a spiritual presentation. A quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt captures this idea nicely: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care,”

And my last little tip flows from the last. Everyone is a sinner, but not everyone sins the same way. Don’t get too caught up in what a person’s sin may be. A general rule of thumb is that our opinion of their sin doesn’t matter compared to their opinion of Christ. You will be much more winsome with the gospel if you focus on humanity’s brokenness before God than if you try to get a person to specify their personal brokenness.

And remember, our commission is more than good, it’s great.

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Creepy crawlies

Infestations always start with something small and totally manageable. Before your house can crumble from the damage of a million termites, a single termite queen must begin laying eggs in the walls. If you could find the queen before the eggs are deposited, you would avoid the entire ordeal with no more effort than a quick stomp of a shoe.

Sin is the same. Before your life dissolves into a puddle of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, a single act of the flesh must be ignored (or even justified). The tiniest little sin, something that doesn’t even feel wrong or trigger your conscience, can lead to all kinds of deep-seated issues. Additionally, sin can be like an infestation in the sense that sometimes the damage is such that you have to start by doing a little deconstructing of your own before you can start over.

I know this is true because it is in scripture (James 1: 14-15 says “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”

Unfortunately, I also know it is true because of my own extensive experience as a sinner. There is a well known statistic that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. Though I’m not prepared to defend this contested idea, I can say with all certainty that if it’s true, my 24.8 years on this earth have given me well over 100,000 hours of practice (and that is if you, rather graciously, assume I only have sin in my heart 50% of the time). So that makes me a master ten times over. But when you master sin, it’s really sin that masters you. And it all starts with a tiny little thought.

The creepy crawly sins in my life right now are materialism and laziness. Exactly where and how they started, I don’t actually know, but I’m finding it really hard to remove from my life. But recognizing the issue is not the same as dealing with it, and when the issue is laziness and materialism, it’s easy to think “I’ll deal with this tomorrow… but for now, why don’t I buy another gizmo, that will make me feel better!”

Only it doesn’t. Not that I really, deep in my soul, think it will or should. And, to be sure, I can justify my sin so easily. I’m not going into debt to feed my desires for more stuff. I’m not missing deadlines at work to watch another season of Doctor Who on Netflix. In fact, I don’t actually buy many things, I just sort of fantasize about having a newer car, a bigger TV, or a faster computer. And I don’t indulge my desire to waste time when I have no time to waste. No, the problem is not that my relationships are in shambles and I am a shell of my former self; the problem is that I have a termite queen laying eggs in my heart, and I’m questioning whether I should stamp her out now.

Praise God for the life, forgiveness, and help He gives! My prayer, right now, in this exact moment of writing, is that He would show me the severity of my sin and remind me that to leave a “small” sin un-squashed is disastrous and foolish. In fact, my prayer is that He would re-teach me the grace He showed at Calvary and help me see that He squashed sin for me. Fortunately, because I know He is good and desires to sanctify those who are His, His answer to requests for help crushing sin will always be yes.

Shame on shame

A few weeks back I posted a quote from a lecture called “Gospel fluency” to my twitter. It said “Shame is evidence that we believe Jesus wasn’t enough; that we must first feel sufficiently bad about our sin before God will accept us.” This is how God is helping me to understand what that really means.

I struggle with multiple sins, including self-righteousness, petty anger, and lust, all drizzled with a sticky shame reduction. Some of my “bad habits” I would even say are actually addictions. Recently I felt my own inadequacy, turned from Jesus to my drugs of choice, and began to spiral towards the shamefulness that so often comes with it. God in His mercy chooses to use my faults and the accompanying feelings of despair to refine me and reveal to me my own heart.

In the car, the song “Nothing but the blood” came on and reminded me oh so sweetly that “Naught of good that I have done” will bring me to reconciliation with Christ. When I began listening to the audio Bible, I started with Ephesians and was reminded that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing…” And then, when I sat down to write this post, an old Newsboys song by the title “Dear Shame” came to mind, and I decided to look it up. Though the music video is terrible (no offence to the Newsboys, who I really enjoy… but it was made in the 90s), it starts with a wonderful reminder of Romans 8:1, that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Again and again the Lord brought to my mind the wonderful and freeing realization that though I am broken, and I am filled with wicked tendencies, but I am not hopeless nor am I worthless because of my sin.

Suddenly, peace has invaded my soul and given shame the boot. My value comes from the fact that I bear God’s image. He made me unique and placed me specifically where I am with His high and good purposes in mind, and though I may (and sadly, often do) fight it, His sovereign plan will come to completion in my life. As a Christian, sanctification is the natural progression of things. An analogy (from the book You Can Change, which sounds much more “Self-help-y” than it is) would be this: We often feel that sanctification is like trying to roll a large heavy boulder up a hill, but occasionally, we slip and it falls as far as it can before we catch it to begin pushing it back up. Instead, we should realize that sanctification is the other way around. We are adopted as sons and daughters of Christ, and God begins perfecting us to His image immediately, regardless of our efforts. The boulder naturally rolls down the slope into a lush green valley, but occasionally, we decide to take it upon ourselves to try and push it back to the top; that is why sin is so toilsome and tiresome, and righteousness brings such peace and joy; one is the result of our efforts and the other is a result of the Lord’s efforts in us.

This is not to insinuate that the Christian life is easy or comfortable or that it can be accomplished through complacency. No, if I were to assert that, surely I would heap more shame onto those of you who, like me, occasionally feel the noose of addiction or other repeated moral failing tightening around you. What I am saying is that, though righteousness does take conscious effort on our parts to read scripture, meditate on God’s word, seek Him in prayer, commune with other like minded Christians, and declare the gospel to others, it doesn’t feel like work, because in truth it is the Lord who will build in you a desire to know Him more. And He is fully away of the totality of our dependency on Him. He made us to be that way. He has known since eternity past each time and each way you would rebel, and He has planned for each rebellion and squelched them all on the cross of Calvary.

Shame is like feeling worried because you don’t know how you will ever pay a bill you no longer owe. When you disobey God, remember that you are not alone. You are not the first, nor will you be the last, Christian who has proclaimed to trust Christ and then walked in a manner contrary to the call. Even Paul himself admitted that “I practice the very evil that I do not want.” So then, an appropriate response to sin is contrition followed by laughing in the face of the enemy who would love to burden you with shame. Be filled with joy and lighthearted gladness that Jesus’ sacrifice has purchased you from slavery and preserved you from perishing.

Does sin carry consequences? Yes, it does.  But feelings that God has made a terrible mistake in saving me, or that I will never be worth anything, or that I cannot walk in victory over sin are no longer any of them.

Beggars and Choosers

Whether you call it support raising, fundraising, ministry partner development, or some other name, the process of inviting people to invest in a ministry is daunting. Sometimes I want to sit back and exclaim the immortal words of Inspector Gadget: “Wowzers!” Sometimes that exclamation would be out of frustration or stress, other times out of sheer awe at what the Lord is doing in my life and the lives of others though this process.

When I first started raising support, I think my attitude was that I was begging others to give their hard earned money to a ministry they knew little about. I was, by my flawed view of things, asking them to provide for me financially so I could chase a dream. I felt like a beggar. And there are many days when I still have those thoughts, and I’m sure that many people who know what I’m up to see it as that. But when I search scripture and open my heart to the truth of God, I remember that what I’m really asking people to do is trust in God with every aspect of their lives, including their finances, as I do the same thing. I’m asking people to see the importance of loving children and teaching them how to love and to help me do those things.

Jesus, when He sends out the 12, and when He sends out the 70, commands them not to take their own provisions, telling the 12 that the worker is worth his keep. Paul takes a similar stance on the idea, reminding Timothy that the ox is not to be muzzled while working and that the worker is worth his wages. When I read of the way the church supported Jesus and the disciples, and then Paul, and the way the Levites had their provision from the tithes of the other tribes, I realized that as I seek to become involved in “full time” ministry, there is nothing wrong with asking others to support the ministry, in fact, an approved workman is not ashamed, Paul wrote.

However, the way I ask, and my expectations of the responses I will receive, matter greatly. My attitude is not to be one of arrogance or manipulation. I am not entitled to anyone’s support. I am free to ask, but those I ask are free to deny. And their choice to give or to refrain from giving doesn’t change my attitude toward them. The love I have for others is dependent only on God’s love for me. I love because he first loved me. My love flows from an overflow of God’s love to everyone I come across, not from material wealth to those willing to provide said wealth.

When describing to a good friend of mine the support raising process, I compared it to any other charity; people believe in the mission and thus are willing to support it, knowing their money will not be returned to them. And to some extent that is accurate. Just as Aggies support the Association of Former Students because they believe in the mission of the organization, my ministry partners believe in mission of the Gospel to seek and save the lost, to make disciples of all nations, but there is more to it than that. I fully believe that giving to ministry is an investment. No, you won’t be leveraging God; giving to support my vision for ministry will not obligate God to return more to you. He may do that, but He may not. However, I am firmly convinced that as we seek to view our possessions as God’s possessions on loan to us, and as we seek to offer them to Him, He will return to us a multitude of blessings. I have seen this in my own life as I supported friends in ministry over the last year. Countless times I would be at work, having a terrible day, frustrated with life in some way, doubting that God was working in my life, only to have a notification on my phone that I received an email from one of the friends I was supporting. Each and every time, I would be uplifted, encouraged and reminded that God works in all circumstances, even the bad or frustrating. I can imagine God reveling at my marvel when I read about the way my small gift was helping His message of grace and truth to spread through east Asia.

I don’t just want my supporters to believe that what I’m doing is important, I want them to understand that what THEY are doing is important. I don’t want them to feel like an observer of the ministry, but an active participant, because they are. I went them to feel like choosers, not obligated to donate to a charity cause, but electing to involve themselves in God’s work in places they can’t physically be.