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.

The Promises of God

When I look at the state of the world I cannot help but wonder “What are you doing, Lord?”

With the Islamic State, the Ebola virus, the Houston subpoenas, the droughts permeating the American Southwest, and a myriad of other social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental issues facing both the United States and the planet as a whole, it’s so easy to throw up my hands and despair.

Last night, I felt close to that point. While sprawled across my bed at home, a deep anguish began to settle over me, thicker, even than the comforter on which I lay. Stephanie, my wife, entered and saw me, and knew right that I felt burdened.

I remember saying “I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just feel sad.” Her response demonstrates why I fell for her so easily and completely.

“We should have some prayer time tonight.”

I want to share with you some of what we prayed.

Psalm 46 popped into my mind, as it so often does in the midst of strife. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but a few verses that struck me right away were 1-3

“God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

I felt a touch better; just remembering that God is here with us. He isn’t a distant God who we hope will get here in time to save, but a “very present” God who by our sides, walking with us through even the worst suffering our broken world can throw at us. And this Psalm ends with a promise.

I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” God says in verse 10. It’s not a question of if God will be totally and unquestionably honored and worshiped, or even where He will be. It will happen. It will be throughout the world.

Then Stephanie and I read II Chronicles 7:13-14.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Though I don’t know the state of locust populations in the US, we have drought, and I’d call Ebola pestilence. This verse, though technically directed to Israel, spoke volumes to me last night, and convicted me that I never pray for revival. I do try to repent, personally, when I know I need to, but I rarely if ever ask God to stir the hearts of this nation (much less this world) and bring revival. What would it look like to see large-scale repentance and a deep, abiding desire to know God more and worship him fully? I confess, I cannot even fathom what that would entail. But I know what would cause it: The Holy Spirit moving in our lives. And there, once again, is a promise of God: “I will hear… forgive… and heal.” If I really believe we need forgiveness and healing, why am I not praying for and seeking revival?

Then the Lord lead us to Revelation 21 and 22. Again, I recommend reading the whole thing when you have time. Here’s the verses that I want to focus on:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”

No matter what, regardless of what happens with all the pain and sickness and persecution and disobedience, God has promised us that a day is coming when those things will end. He makes all things new. His promises are trustworthy and true. We have nothing to fear from this world because the worst of the worst that Satan can dish out is dwarfed by the goodness of God.

As Stephanie and I prayed through these promises of God, we praised Him for His goodness. We asked Him to remember what He has said He would do, and petitioned Him to do it in our time. To be quite frank, I had never really prayed for that; at least, not in a way that was genuine or full of faith. We asked Him to strengthen our faith, telling Him we do believe while asking Him to help our unbelief.

And during our time of prayer, I thought of Acts 4:27-30, where the church, faced with persecution and revulsion, asks for boldness and to see God move, not for a decrease in pain or suffering. My heart broke as I thought of how often I’ve prayed for my comfort and to avoid troubles. Another promise of God bloomed in my mind: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

I want to exhort you, whoever you are reading this, to think over these promises of God. Understand that God’s promises will be fulfilled. God is sovereign and we have no need to fear the future. We do not serve a god of “oops” or “darn-it” or “uh-oh.” We serve the One, True, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Eternal and Benevolent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And with the knowledge of who God is, I ask you to consider and pray over the final promise of our Lord, recorded in Revelation 22:20 -“I am coming soon” to which we ought to respond, as John did, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

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.

Hedonists!

In my most recent update letter, I mentioned that I have been learning about Christian Hedonism, the idea that it’s actually good to seek pleasure because God is the greatest pleasure there is. We are called not just to obey God, but to enjoy obedience! We should delight in the Lord!

Frankly, I often stink at this. It’s common for me to be trudging along, desperately trying to obey when everything in me feels very rebellious. Over the last week or so I’ve found myself feeling especially disconnected from the joy that is, according to scripture, supposed to come with obedience to God.

Today, while reading in Psalms, I came to Psalm 116, and God revealed Himself to me there. In this chapter, the psalmist explicitly states that he loves the Lord because the Lord hears his prayers. The writer was tangled up by death, and God responded when he cried out. God rescued him, thus he loves God.

Starting in verse 12, the tone shifts and he seems to be explaining what his love for God brings about in his life. He starts by questioning what he could do to repay God’s kindness. We know from other passages of scripture that the answer is “nothing.” There is nothing we can do to pay God back. But the psalmist doesn’t say “Nothing, so I’m going to offer nothing.” In fact, he chooses to offer public vows of service, and the “sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

This is clearly a man who is finding joy in serving God. This is not a sense of obligation. He knows he cannot repay God, so we know his motivation for service is not paying off debt. So what is his motivation for serving God? Based on the delight that is evident in his words, I think it’s pleasure. The author of this psalm is serving God because he loves God and it’s pleasurable to serve Him. So here’s the question I had to ask: was I truly finding pleasure in my service to God? If not, why?

And as I re-read the text, I saw a flow: God hears the cry of the distressed, God meets their needs, they love God for his attentiveness, they begin to serve God, God blesses them with abundant joy from their service… But in my fallen perspective, God didn’t seem to be meeting my needs or answering my cries, so my service wasn’t motivated by love for Him. I was believing in a god that is inattentive to the calls of his people. But taking that a step further, the only way I could still have unmet needs is for Christ’s provision on the cross to be insufficient for all my needs. Stated in that way, my mind and soul (and I hope yours too) reject immediately the idea that Christ’s sacrifice was anything less than supremely sufficient.

The God I serve is not just attentive to my needs, and He certainly is not inattentive to them; rather God is pre-attentive to my needs, meeting them long before I even know what they are or have the capacity to cry out to Him for help. I recognize now that the reason God isn’t responding to my cries in my timing is simply that He has already resoundingly responded to every cry in His timing, through the cross at Calvary! And because He has heard my cry and responded before I cried it, I find my love for God restored, my desire to serve Him returning, and my joy in serving replenished!

Psalm 119:14, 16, 24, 35

“In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.”

“I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.”

“Your testimonies are my delight;
they are my counselors.”

“Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.”

Impetus

An unexpected chill shocked me as I stepped out into the pre-dawn grey. With nothing passing between us besides a brief acknowledgement of the cold, Kevin and I started our jog. I’d never been to “the rock” and it was too cold to waste precious warm breath making an Alcatraz joke. And so we ran, swift and silent, through the hazy glow of street lights. Soon, the sidewalk stopped, and with it, the convenient lighting courtesy of the City of Austin. Beneath the mostly barren canopy of trees who had yet to launch into their spring rituals, we trekked. What little light managed to climb over the horizon was thwarted by the woods. To me, the trail is indistinguishable from the thorny brush flanking it on either side. I see nothing but obscurity and hues of dark. Left on my own, I would inevitably be lost and injured, tangled in brambles I was never meant to encounter.

However, with my eyes fixed firmly on the one who goes before me, I mimic his movements around hairpin turns, over narrow plank bridges, onto the stepping stones that lead across the shallow stream. He ducks, and I instinctively lower my own head to avoid the unseen branch. He lifts his left hand to block wispy branches that reach out to claw his face, and though I have no visual evidence they are there, I follow suit and feel them slap harmlessly against my forearm. Each warning of “watch out for that rock” or “jump over that pothole” builds trust between us. In this world of shadows, where everything is colored in varied tones of gloom, I realized that running after Kevin, whose familiarity with the trail went far beyond my own, provides an excellent picture of the life of a Christian.

When I follow Christ, I don’t know where we are going. I don’t know what is around the next bend or on the other side of the trial I’m in the midst of. But I know that I’m following someone who does. I know that the more closely I can stick to Him the more timely His help will come, and the more able to stay on the path I will be. There will still be times when I grow weary; when each heartbeat feels like it will burst my head clean apart; when my legs feel like molten lead- dense, unsteady, and fiery hot… But in those times, I can look up and see my Savior- His pierced feet rhythmically thudding along, His loving voice sending me encouragement and warnings- and I can know that my path is known, and at the end of it sits the Rock.

1 Samuel 2:2

“There is none holy like the Lord:
for there is none besides you;
there is no rock like our God.”

Obedience

How would you react if God told you He intended to take your wife, and that you are not to grieve for her? Would you be angry? Would you be skeptical? Would you be wary, distrustful, or blatantly disobedient?

When I am faced with discomfort, sadness, or pain, I tend to react in one of those ways. I grow angry at God for His refusal to bless me. I begin to distrust Him and cling all the tighter the the illusion of control I have over my situation. And, sadly, I often choose to disobey the clear teaching of the Word with unflinching resolve. Clearly I wouldn’t make it as a prophet.

In Ezekiel 24, God explains that Zeke’s wife is to become an object lesson for the exiles in Babylon. He tells His prophet that by not publicly mourning her, he will be showing the displaced people what their response to Jerusalem’s fall should be. This is a hard fact to swallow. If God is good, loving, kind, gracious, and merciful, why is he taking the life of His servant’s lover? What’s more, why is it important that the prophet act as though the loss does not affect him? Athough it’s difficult to think on, the answer, I think, is that God cares much more about holiness (Both His holiness and our own) than he does about happiness. Perhaps He cares more about us being conformed to His image than he does about us being comforted?

And the shocking thing, at least to me, is that Ezekiel doesn’t whine, fuss, complain or disobey. He simply does all that the Lord asks of him. What would it look like in my life to obey so unquestioningly and trust God so completely? It’s easy to look at the trials God puts before us and despair. It’s common to see tragedy and think “no good can possibly come of this…” But who are we to judge God’s plans in our limited timescale? Ezekiel’s life and works are still teaching and giving insight about God to this very day. God, in His sovereignty and eternity, is not bound by what seems right in our finite minds, but is powerful, both willing and able to act in light of the span of human existence.

And, I must always remember, He doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices and make none of His own. In Ezekiel 24:21 God Himself tells Ezekiel ” ‘Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will profane my sanctuary.’ ” God is acknowledging His role in the destruction of the temple. God is showing His own willingness to sacrifice things dear to Him for the sake of reaching the hearts of His people. I can think of at least one other example of God using the destruction of something dear to Him to reach the hearts of His people…

John 2:18-19, 21

So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

…But he was speaking about the temple of his body.

The pot calling the kettle “god”

I’ve been reading through Isaiah, and realized that God has a lot to say about idols, and where Israel’s trust can be found. Most recently, the following passage has been sitting heavy on my heart:

9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

11 Thus says the Lord,
the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:
“Ask me of things to come;
will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?

This passage, following directly after passages commenting on the futility of worshiping things made by human hands, is especially potent to me. It takes the idea that what we create to worship has no power, and goes a step further; just as the statues and totems of false gods cannot affect our lives, we cannot presume to control God, nor do we even have a platform from which to question His judgement.

I am especially guilty of this, consistently plotting and planning my next steps in life, and expecting God to quietly and quickly acquiesce. In my efforts to manipulate God, I’ve contrived for myself a god who exists not to glorify Jesus’ perfect name, but to grant wishes; my own personal genie. And inevitably, this god that I dreamed up is powerless in the world, and merely causes stress and anger as I am met with trials that are too great for me, not to mention the fictional character I conjured. Of course, I direct my disappointment and disbelief towards the True God, but in reality, my own actions and tendency to trust in things besides Him led to my unmet expectations.

Praise the True God for His righteous word! In it I am reminded who He is, and who I am through Him. Praise Him that He doesn’t need me! Can you imagine if the architect responsible for your DNA and the structure of the Milky Way were reliant on our feeble efforts? I struggle to wake up each day, much less uphold the physical laws that govern the movements of the universe! No, it is by God’s merciful design that I am powerless without Him; the ease with which I can stray into corruption means it is altogether good that I am dependent on Him.

I would even argue that if God did need us, it would dilute His love for us. His grace and mercy to us would be nothing more than His way of coercing us to meet His own needs. As a sovereign being with no needs, His choice to pour out mercy and grace can only be seen as the result of a great and abiding choice to love.  The purest love is love that endures when there is nothing given in exchange.

My prayer this month is that we all grow to a deeper understanding of who God is, and who we are as a result of His work in the world. I pray that we would see what areas of our lives are devoted to idols, and repent of our misplaced trust. I pray that as we further our knowledge of how little we “should” mean to God, it will expand our gratitude towards Him for valuing us anyway. As that happens, I expect that it will become more and more natural to respond to trial with an attitude of trust and faith in God.