The Thin Line Between Faith and Foolishness

Someone, somewhere once defined “insanity” as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results.

True enough.

At some point, when you are in a rhythm and cycle and you’re not satisfied with the results, you have to go back and look at the way you are doing something, or the assumptions you had in doing that thing to see what needs to be corrected:

  • If you’re launching a business or a product and people aren’t buying in, then you need to examine your messaging, pricing, or the perceived need for your thing.
  • If you’re trying to lose weight but can’t, you need to examine your diet, your exercise level, or both.
  • If you find yourself spending more money than you’re making every month, you need to examine your expenditures one at a time to see what’s not lining up.

In all these cases, the unsatisfactory results demand a second look at what you’re doing to try and achieve those results. Only a fool would continue on the same path, doing the same things, with the same assumptions behind those things, and expect that someday, like magic, the results will be different. Something has to change. And while that philosophy works great in many areas of life, it runs contrary to the Christian faith. In the Christian faith, we are called to keep doing the same things over and over again in spite of  the apparent results. Here’s a few examples from the Book of Hebrews, a book that constantly drives home the point of perseverance:

  • For we have become companions of the Messiah if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start (Hebrews 3:14).
  • Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).
  • For you need endurance, so that after you have done God’s will, you may receive what was promised (Hebrews 10:36).
  • Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Keep running. Keep enduring. Keep holding. Keep doing the same thing, over and over again. But here, in this aspect of life, we must keep doing the same thing over and over again despite the results before us. In faith, there is a higher value than pragmatism, and the higher value is Jesus.

See, in the earlier examples, it’s foolishness to continue on the same path. But here, the focus is not on the seen, but the unseen; it’s not on the results, but on the One behind the results. The temptation, though, is to take the same pragmatic attitude we have with other areas of life and apply it to our faith. Our beliefs must evolve. Our understanding of truth must change. Our deep held convictions must be softened. And why?

Because they’re not working any more.

To this, the Bible would say, I think, something like, “So what?”

Walk the line, then, between faith and foolishness, but walk it with your eyes not on the results but the One who makes the fool to be wise and wise to be the fool:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.”

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was please to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).

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The Limited Power of Observation

It’s been hot in Nashville. Hot and humid. Like the kind of hot and humid when you walk outside and it feels like someone threw a bucket of chili in your face. So I was none too pleased a few days ago when I went upstairs to our kids’ bedrooms and found that our air conditioning unit had stopped working.

My limitations in home improvement have been well documented, but nonetheless, I told my wife and kids that I would “take a look”, and so take a look I did. Armed with my trusty head lamp I went outside in the backyard to take a look at the air conditioning unit.

Yep, it was there. So far so good. I bent down and looked behind the unit and I found a 3 inch encasing of ice around the area of the back where some pipes came into the unit. When I saw the snowball at the base in the midst of the chili-like atmosphere, I had the profound thought: That doesn’t look right.

Now there were two options for me at this point, having discovered something that was clearly wrong. Option 1 involved me going to the garage, getting a bunch of tools, and starting to mess with things armed with a screwdriver, my head lamp, and my phone with which I could call up a few youtube videos to see if anyone else had diagnosed and dealt with the same issue.

Option 2 involved me calling for someone to help me.

With my own powers of observation, I was able to tell there was something wrong, but I wasn’t able to fully diagnose the issue. Further, even if I could fully describe and identify the problem, I don’t have the expertise and knowledge to know how to make what was wrong start to be right again. That’s the limitation of observation. We might be able to see something that’s not how it should be, but we need an outside source of truth and knowledge to help us not only know just how wrong something is, but then to correct it.

It’s not unlike the pattern we see in Romans 1:18:

For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth, since what can be known about God is evident among them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made…

This is the power of observation. We can walk outside and observe some thing about God. We can see His creativity, His power, and His expansive greatness. But we can also see from observation that something is not as it should be. There is a certain “wrongness” we can observe by looking not only at a world of chaos, but also the chaotic longings of our own heart. It is wrong. We are wrong. But that’s where our powers of observation end, and we have one of two choices.

We can continue onward with the tools we have at our disposal. We can tinker with our environment, with our hearts, with our lives, and in so doing assume that we are fully capable of “figuring it out” on our own. That we have the power and the intellect and the moral capacity to create an environment that is right. This, however, is the path of supreme arrogance; it’s the path of assuming that all the answers for what’s wrong can be found inside ourselves; it’s the path of assuming that we are god, and our potential must only be unlocked.

Or there is option 2. We can recognize the limitations of our own observation and look outside ourselves for truth. We can refer ourselves to greater things, greater people, who can not only fully diagnose our issues but also provide the true pathway to wholeness and restoration.

The end of the story is that my air conditioner is now working. But it’s not working because I “observed” my way into a solution. It’s working because we called in an outside source. In the case of the air conditioning unit, we had to look outside ourselves for truth and answers, because observation can lead you to the problem but not fully to the answer. and in the case of the air conditioner, and perhaps with all of life, the core question late that night when I found the snowball was this:

How much am I willing to stake on my own abilities? Not much when it comes to my air conditioner. Even less when it comes to my soul.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith (Romans 1:16-17).

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Work and Worship

Work is not a bad thing. I know, we typically think of work as a means to an end – we work for the weekend, we work for retirement, we work to go on vacation – but work is threaded into what it means to bear the image of God.

Two terms are used in Genesis 2:15 to describe the job God gave to Adam: “The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it.” In the Old Testament, the words “work” and “watch over” are most frequently used in discussions of human service to God, rather than describing a farmer’s job. Surprisingly, these words are often connected to worship, or even the actions of priests serving in the tabernacle of God.

If Adam had a business card, it would have read “Gardener.” Nothing exciting there. And yet the words God used to describe his job are anything but ordinary. Perhaps, at least in God’s mind, there isn’t such a wide divide between those things as there is to us.

Think of it like this: God could have, if He wanted, filled the whole earth with human beings in the same way He fashioned Adam—from the dust of the ground. But rather than taking that approach, He looked on Adam and gave him and his wife the responsibility and privilege of populating the earth. It’s still controlled, upheld, and blessed by God, but He chose in His sovereignty to use regular people as the means of establishing His intent on earth. Work can be seen much in the same way. Through work, God is using regular, ordinary people as His means of providing for His creation.

As our perspective on work changes through the gospel, we begin to see that the menial tasks we find ourselves involved in day in and day out are actually—and amazingly—infused with incredible meaning. They are the sovereignly designed means by which God is caring for the people of the earth. He has ordained that we, as human beings, exist in a state of interdependence on each other. That doesn’t mean God has isolated Himself from the world; it simply means that God is providentially using the talents, opportunities, and regular old jobs of regular old people to provide and care for humanity.

Think of that. As we work, we are the means of God. We become like the rain that falls on the just and unjust alike—the means of common grace through which human life and well-being is sustained and provided for. When we see it like that, a sense of great wonder and awe returns to our everyday working life, for we come to see that God is channeling His love through us as we work. He doesn’t just work through people involved in service industries, whose mission statements are written to benefit mankind. He channels His love through the man who collects the garbage on the streets early in the morning so that a community can be clean and free of disease. It happens through the farmer who raises crops that can be turned into clothes to keep children warm. It happens, as Martin Luther said during his time, even through the most humble functions and stations of life: God Himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.

Centuries later, Luther’s namesake Martin Luther King Jr. would say something similar: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

Not only should we look at our own jobs with a renewed sense of awe as we are being used by God for the ultimate good of others; but every single job deserves our respect and gratitude. It’s these common, everyday, run-of-the-mill jobs that channel the love of God and therefore are a sacred means of bringing great honor to Him. When you stop seeing your job as the means to a paycheck and start seeing it as a means of glorifying the providing God, it changes the way you flip burgers, change diapers, or put together a report…

Taken from my book Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in and Ordinary Life.

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The Gospel Compels An Available Posture

The word posture is defined like this: “position, condition, or state, as of affairs.”

In a physical sense, your posture is how you generally hold yourself. It’s not a static term, meaning that you always are sitting or standing or bending. All of us do those things a thousand times a day. Your posture, though, is the general position. In fact, it’s your posture that influences the way you hold yourself in all those other movements. It determines just how you stand or sit or bend.

I have wondered, from time to time, what my posture is in life, especially as it relates to the gospel. What is my general position? What is the manner in which I hold myself which influences all the other particular motions and movements that I might make? What is the general position that influences how I work? How I parent? How I attend worship services and go to the movies?

There are many things we might say about the posture of a Christian – that it is humble; that it is grateful; that it is confident. But we must also say that the gospel compels us to have a posture of availability. Here’s how Paul described such a posture in Ephesians 5:15-16:

“Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise— making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”

Be available. You have a finite number of minutes each day, and each of those minutes has opportunities to press the gospel further out and further in. A posture of availability recognizes this reality and acts accordingly. A posture of availability is convinced that God is active, and as His agent, we should be aware of opportunities that will come into our path.

Sounds simple enough, I know, to be available to make the most of the opportunities before you. So what keeps us from having such a posture? Here are a few things that can distort our state and make us unavailable for what is coming our way in the day ahead:

An inflated ego.

Sometimes we don’t have an available posture because we think too highly of ourselves. We don’t want to engage in a conversation with this person or that one because, truth be told, we think we are too educated, too important, or too busy to do so. Ironically, though, our inflated egos might not necessarily find its root in thinking too highly of ourselves, but too lowly. We might be convinced that we are the only ones on earth with difficulty, and because we are, we spent all our time in a spiral of self-focus, thinking only about our own lives and issues and therefore becoming completely oblivious to those around us. In either case, though, whether our egos are inflated because of our relative prosperity or relative suffering, we find ourselves in an unavailable posture because of our heightened sense of self-importance.

An overcommitted lifestyle.

A posture of availability is contingent upon, well, being available. And when we are overbooked, with our schedules and commitments running over the top of the minutes we have in the day, we cannot be available. If, for example, we constantly press and press and press and then when we eventually come home we are too exhausted to engage with our children, to talk with them about life and the Lord and the gospel, we are ignoring the opportunities right in front of us. In order to assume a posture of availability, we must take an active role in our schedules to make sure there is room. Always room.

A forgotten past.

Paul the apostle, in his teaching, seemed always intent on reminding people of who they once were. Maybe that’s because he lived with the knowledge of who he once was. This isn’t some kind of morbid fixation on the past, but rather an intentional effort to keep in mind that we, like the apostle, like everyone else, once were lost in darkness. We once were going our own way. We once didn’t know up from down or right from left. But having believed the message of the gospel, our eyes have been opened and we have been set on the path of righteousness. But when walking on that path, we sometimes forget where we came from. When we do, it’s easy to be unavailable to those on that same path.

God in the gospel has brought us into the light. And having been positioned there, it is our good and right posture to be available. To make room. To create margin. And to actively look in our availability to press the gospel further out and further in.

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Three Pitfalls of Suffering

Concerning the subject of suffering, CS Lewis famously said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Countless people, including my family and I, would affirm the truth of that statement. Pain opens the door to intimacy with Jesus. It’s through pain we grow, mature, and even find some previously unintended avenues for ministry. These are all examples of redemption – the Lord taking the broken pieces of our lives, crumbled under the weight of a corrupted creation, and creating a mosaic of something beautiful from it.

From a scriptural standpoint, there are numerous places we might point that show us the good that can ultimately come from pain. Take, for example, James 1:2-4:

“Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

Suffering produces the good of maturity which, according to this verse, is a key to spiritual maturity, which is a good, good thing. Or take another example from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

“Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is experienced in your endurance of the same sufferings that we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that as you share in the sufferings, so you will share in the comfort.”

Suffering creates an avenue for ministry, for we are able to extend the comfort we receive from the Lord to others. This, too, is a good and right after effect of suffering.

These are just two examples of how it’s supposed to work. But like all things, it doesn’t always go that way. In as much pain and suffering can, in the end, have positive and redemptive effects, there are a number of ways that our pain might have negative effects. Though there are many such pitfalls, here are three:

1. Callousness. If you go back and look at the passage above from 2 Corinthians, you can glean that pain in our own lives is meant to soften our hearts toward the pain of others. We can truly sympathize with what they’re walking through; we can shoulder the burden along with them in a very true and honest way. But sometimes we find that instead of making our hearts pliable and soft, our pain actually causes us to have a sense of callousness toward others. We spend so much time looking inward at what’s happening in our own lives that we find we have little interest, emotion, or empathy left to look outside of ourselves.

2. Entitlement. Pain is the great equalizer. In the hospital waiting room, everyone seems to be on equal (albeit it shaky) footing. That’s because all of us live in a world broken by sin, and because we do, none of us are immune from the effects. But when you suffer and suffer greatly, there is sometimes a temptation to think that you have “paid your dues.” You’ve done your time in the prison of pain, and because you have, God owes you some measure of peace and comfort. In a perverted kind of way, your pain becomes your pride, proof of the fact that you have been tested and tried. Having earned that badge, you are now entitled to live above such things.

3. Comparison. Suffering is relative. A scraped knee isn’t going to mean the same thing to a 35-year-old man as it does to a 5-year-old boy; that’s because that man has been though a lot more life than that boy has. That doesn’t mean, however, that a father can’t stoop low and sympathize with a boy. And yet sometimes the ugliness of comparison rears its head even in the midst of our suffering. We walk through a season of pain and then must battle the temptation to look at what others might be going through and compare their struggle to our own. We look with contempt on the suffering of others, bolstered by a sense of our own superiority because, ironically, of something that we did not control and something that caused us so much grief.

How, then, can we recognize these pitfalls and do the thing that none of us wants to do, but all of us will have the opportunity to do, and suffer in a God-glorifying and honorable way? I’m sure there are 3 or 4 good steps to doing so, but mostly, we can look to Jesus.

Jesus, who suffered more than all, and yet even with the knowledge of His own suffering wept at the tomb of His friend. Jesus who emptied Himself and befriended and had compassion on the dregs even when He was the only truly superior One. Jesus who did not compare the suffering of His cross to the suffering of others but instead willingly took it upon Himself for the sake of others. We can look to Jesus and see a Savior who did it the good and right way, and we can be humbled under the weight of His sacrifice and emboldened to feel deeply for others in light of His compassion.

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The Gospel is Not Mere Superstition

We are more superstitious than we realize. Sure, we might not think that we have to sit in a certain chair or wear the same pair of socks for good luck, but superstition is still there. And superstitious traits can thwart the work of the gospel in our lives.

  • We make sure and have an extra long quiet time on the days when we have something tough coming our way, you know, to make sure it goes well.
  • We find that things are generally going well in our lives but we don’t feel like we can truly enjoy them because no doubt the other shoe will drop as soon as we do.
  • We sin, and we are sorry, but we feel the need to do something “extra-good” in order to even the score.

Oh, it’s there. In as much as we might congratulate ourselves for having a handle on the gospel, superstition still lurks in our hearts. When we see it, we must confront it. Confess it. Root it out. But then replace it with something better. We must remind ourselves that the gospel tells us that God is in control of all things and is working those things for His glory and our good. We must remind each other that God’s love for us is not dependent on our performance, but on the completed work of Jesus. We must sing the truth that God is good, and His goodness is not dependent on our temporal circumstances.

Say it. Preach it. Sing it. Call your soul to remember. And when you think you have it down, do it again.

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Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the Foundation

I can’t lift my arms today.

That’s because my wife and I, along with some hard-working and very meagerly compensated volunteer friends, spent the vast majority of the last three days building a patio in our backyard. So far, some measure of our building party has visited Home Depot 5 different times, we’ve unloaded over a hundred bags of various kinds of sand and gravel, and dug up more shovelfuls of dirt than I’d care to remember.

Without getting too much into the technical details of the build (which frankly I still don’t completely understand, but one of our friends is an engineer, so you trust and go), we had to build a retaining wall around the area where the patio would be in order to account for the changing elevation of the yard. In regular terms, we had to dig an enormous hole so we could refill that hole.

If you add up the time we spent on this project, you’d get roughly 27 hours. But here’s the crazy thing:

24 of those 27 hours were spent on the foundation. Only the last 3 hours were spent on the visible portion of the patio. Fascinating, right? To spend so much time on what’s beneath the surface compared to so little on what’s actually visible? Given that ratio of time, I’ve got a couple of reflections this morning that relate to our life with Jesus:

1. Strength and stability lie in the foundation.

You can have the most beautiful paving stone or the most eye-catching paint color, but in the end, they don’t really mean anything if you don’t put the right amount of time into the foundation. In our project, for example, we had to dig down approximately 18 inches in order to build the retaining wall so that not only the wall but the surface of the patio would have the right shape, definition, and strength when we were all done. I’d like to think I didn’t need this experience to know that Jesus’ words were true:

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on the rock. The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. And its collapse was great!” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Still, seeing this principle lived out in front of me in a physical way made me think a lot about the amount of time we are tempted to allocate to what, in actuality, are the most inconsequential things. Like people who focus on the paint color while neglecting a crack in the foundation, we become those who choose to close our eyes to the greater issues inside of us. The battle and the work of the Christian is to be done at the heart level. And though it might not be as immediately gratifying as focusing on the surface, this deep soul work where the Holy Spirit molds and shapes you is where strength for the journey is made.

As Jesus’ words tell us, this foundation work might not be visible until the rains and storms truly come, but when they do, the private and quiet work of the soul will show forth. The structure will stand and endure.

Today, Christian, no one might know what internal fear, insecurity, or idolatry the Holy Spirit is convicting you of and walking you through. And because it’s internal, you might be tempted to put it to the side in favor of something seemingly more flashy and exciting. But don’t neglect His work. Embrace it. Because the storm is coming.

2. Most surface issues are really foundation issues if we are courageous enough to find the source.

We spent a lot of time on the foundation of this patio. A LOT. And hopefully, we got it right. But someday, there is going to be a crack. There will be some shifting. Sometimes when that happens, you can correct the issue by a surface level tweak. But if we really care about the stability of the structure we would do well to investigate the source, and that’s going to mean some hard work. It might even mean messing up the carefully crafted exterior and then putting it back together. But such is the way of building.

Similarly, think about this passage from the Book of James:

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil, and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).

Do you see the progression? Long before sin has become fully grown, it has been conceived and birthed in our own evil desires. When we see sin manifesting itself, then, and we truly want to root it out, then we should be willing to retrace that progression back to the root. That will no doubt mean messing some of our own carefully crafted exterior. It will be hard. And it will be messy. But in the end, that’s the only way to truly move forward. Otherwise, we are deluding ourselves about the supposed victory we claim to live inside of.

You are building today, whether you know it or not. In that building, don’t neglect the foundation. And don’t be afraid to re-examine it from time to time.

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Be Careful, Clever Teacher, What You Teach

“Lord, please give me an original thought.”

I’ve prayed some version of this prayer fairly often. That’s because in large part, I communicate for a living. Whether with my co-workers, through the blog here, through writing, or through teaching and preaching, most of my life is spent in communication. When you spend that amount of time crafting and delivering messages in various forms, you find yourself praying things like this, hungering for something creative and original to put before people.

It’s frustrating, then, when I begin to plan or write to realize that most of what I’m going to say has already been said by someone else.

I feel this especially since writing a work of fiction is one of my dreams. So I start dreaming about a story, a character, or a setting, only to find myself drifting into plagerism:

  • What if there was this little boy who discovers that he has magical powers? Dang it. Potter.
  • Okay. But what if the animals talked? And what if there was one great animal, maybe a lion…? Dang it. Aslan.
  • Alright. What if this story happened in the future, maybe in a dystopian future…? Dang it. Everything.

So it goes. You think you’re onto something and you start teasing it out and you figure out that someone else at some other time was already onto it, so you pray:

“Lord, please give me an original thought.”

While that might be a fine and even nobly God-honoring thought in terms of creating a work of fiction, it should cause us to have a check in our spirit when it comes to the biblical text. We might have the best of intentions in praying such a thing, and certainly we might mine the text for every nugget to be found therein, but each and every time we come across some tidbit and feel like we are the first to arrive there, we might well wonder why that is. Is it because throughout the years of church history no one has been quite as insightful, quite as clever, or quite as studious as we are? Or is it because the reason that thought is so original is because it didn’t arise from the text at all, but instead from our own idolatrous and insecure hearts that want to be the one who finally found “it.”

Beware the lure, preachers and teachers. Beware the temptation of cleverness. Don’t be willing to sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of originality. Instead, find the glorious freedom of knowing that God has spoken, once and for all. And then say the same thing again.

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Disappointment is an Opportunity to Be Reminded

Have you been disappointed by something yet today?

If not, just wait. It’s coming. Because it happens most everyday. We make our plans, with the best of intentions, and then things don’t wind up going the way we think they should. Granted, some of these disappointments are bigger than others, but imagine with me for a second that the disappointment you face today is something big. Maybe it’s a project you have put your heart and sweat into that is not yielding the results you wanted. Maybe you poured your soul into a Bible study or a sermon and only were met with blank stares. Maybe you bent over backward to create a special experience for your spouse or child and they were only mildly enthusiastic. And you find yourself disappointed.

It’s easy to see why. In your mind, like mine, what you did is good. It’s worthwhile. It was certainly difficult. And the results do not, in your opinion, match the quality of the effort.

What do you do? Cry? Complain? Give up? Here’s what Paul the apostle did:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia and were prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the message in Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, bypassing Mysia, they came down to Troas. During the night a vision appeared to Paul: A Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!” After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them (Acts 16:6-10).

Paul was visiting the churches he planted on his first mission, and all was going well. Very well. The churches were encouraged and grew in numbers. So they set out again with the intent to head into Asia, but as the text tells us, they were prevented from doing so by the Holy Spirit. Okay – not such a big deal. Disappointing I’m sure, but the world is a big place and lots of people needed to hear the gospel, and the Lord had other plans. So they set out once again with the intent to go to Bithynia probably to preach in the big cities like Nicomedia, Nicea, and Byzantium. And they were stopped again.

Again? Maybe a tinge more disappointment this time, but still, nothing to get down about. The missionary group set out once again through the backwoods country of Mysia down to Troas. That’s when Paul had the dream. And finally, a moment of absolute clarity:

During the night a vision appeared to Paul: A Macedonian man was standing and pleading with him, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us!” After he had seen the vision, we immediately made efforts to set out for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to evangelize them (Acts 16:9-10).

Surely this was a message from the Lord. A clear direction after two false starts. Go to Macedonia and help the lost who were there. So they readied themselves for the journey with all the confidence in the world they were at last going the right way to do the right thing. The text continues to tell us that their journey from Troas to Philippi was an easy one. A journey like that might ordinarily take 5 or more days, but Acts tells us they made it in 2 no doubt because of good weather.

So far so good – they have a clear vision. A clear mission. And even sunny skies to bolster their spirits. In Philippi Paul shares the gospel with Lydia and her family and all are converted and baptized. The missionary party must have been riding high, and then it all unraveled.

Acts 16:16 tells us the story of a slave girl in Philippi who could predict the future. Paul cast the spirit out of her, rendering her unable to make those predictions which had made her owners so much money. Enraged, those slave-owners dragged Paul and Silas before the local authorities. An impromptu lynch mob formed and the two missionaries were stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison.

Let’s review now. There was a clear mandate. There was a clear vision. There was a pure motive. And the results from all the travel, the faithfulness, and the effort was being locked into stocks. This is the kind of disappointment I have never faced, and it makes the way Paul and Silas responded all the more remarkable:

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…” (Acts 16:25).

How can that be? That this was the reaction to such disappointment? Perhaps the reaction stems from something deep within that usually escapes me when I find myself in a posture of complaint and despondency at the results I see in front of me. I would propose that for people like us, who often find themselves casting their gaze heavenward in pleading fashion, asking why the results are meager when the effort was so great, that disappointment is actually an opportunity to be reminded of two things, one about God, and one about ourselves.

1. God is far wiser than I think He is.

I am more likely to be the person in this story who never made it to Philippi, but instead threw up his hands at the first redirection. But when I find myself disappointed, it’s an opportunity to be reminded that God is far wiser than I am. Just because the results aren’t what I expected or wanted, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It only means that God, in His wisdom, has plans that are far more wide-reaching and encompassing than I can conceive. Which leads to the second reminder when we are disappointed:

2. I am far more short-sighted than I think I am.

If I had a nickel for every opportunity in my life that I thought everything was contingent upon, then I’d have a lot of nickels. I can think back as far as playing Little League when I thought that the results of one at-bat would determine the future of the known world. I’ve prayed for a certain set of results countless times since then – in sermons, in books, in work developments, in family life. Each time I’ve been disappointed, I can look back and see that my prayer for those results was less a result of desiring God’s will and His glory than it was a result of my own short-sightedness. I was suffering from tunnel blindness, focusing only on what was directly in front of me in the moment.

When you are disappointed today, and you likely will be, perhaps it’s an opportunity for you to cast your eyes toward heaven not in complaint, but in worship of a God who is far wiser than you and in confession of your own short-sightedness. If we can do that, then we will find ourselves accepting the specific kind of daily bread the Lord has chosen to give to us on a given day, no matter what it might taste like in the moment. For we recognize that though it might not be delicious in the moment, it is indeed the best thing for us.

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The Burden-Bearing Leader

Leadership, whether of an organization or of a Bible study or of a family, is a burden. A joyful burden much of the time, but a burden nonetheless. Oswald Sanders said it like this: “The world is run by tired men. Mediocrity is the result of never getting tired. Fatigue is the price of leadership.” In other words, leading is the willingness to pick up the burden. But most of the time, we think of that burden in “strategic” terms.

If you do a cursory search on “leadership” you’ll find all kinds of resources, most of which have numbers associated with them. You can 5 Ways or 7 Methods or 14 Theories. The vast majority of these resources deal in strategy, and they should. That is one burden of leadership; you are responsible for the overall vision and perspective of the people under your care. But it can’t really stop there. As a leader, whether in the home or in the church, we bear the burden for what we are leading, but we also must bear the burdens of whom we are leading.

In pastoral ministry, for example, the burden you bear cannot be exclusively in terms of the vision of the church. The burden must take on a more personal nature. Same thing is true in a family, or even in a small group or Bible study. The burden is not only the crafting of and guarding of a clear vision; the “burden” has faces. Problems. Sicknesses. Pain. The burden-bearing leader is one who is not isolated from those he or she leads, but instead is checked into the real issues the people under their care are walking through.

It’s this kind of burden-bearing Paul described in Galatians 6:1-2:

“Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

This passage is about more than stewarding a compelling vision for an organization or a family; it’s about people, and the willingness to come alongside those people in the day-to-day lifting. It seems to me that this is not just a single moment, but instead a lifestyle of investment. To that end, here are three characteristics of the burden-bearing leader:

1. The burden-bearing leader is available.

Time is a commodity like most other things. As a commodity, it is in limited supply. And the greater the leadership responsibility, the greater demand on the time. It’s tempting, then, to want to have a very insulated leadership kind of style – to focus on the big picture and to not come into the details. Unfortunately, it’s those details that are the most representative of people. The burden-bearing leader must, then, be available. This availability is also a responsibility, and it must have limits. But the leader who is available is the one who is going to err on the side of making accommodation to their time or their schedule if they can.

2. The burden-bearing leader is long-suffering.

One of the tendencies we have in leadership is to desire quick fixes to problems. We want to have the meeting, send the email, or have the drop in conversation and resolve the issue quickly and succinctly. And while that might work in some instances, it rarely does when you consider the people involved. Instead, the burden-bearing leader makes the choice to be long-suffering. They are willing to not just a conversation once, but to actually engage in that conversation and to have it again and again. It’s this kind of long-suffering investment that will mark someone who recognizes they are doing more than leading a nameless and faceless entity, but instead stewarding some part of the lives of those whom God has seen fit to put under their care.

3. The burden-bearing leader is listening.

Nothing makes a person feel less like a person than when someone gives only cursory notice to their issue. Conversely, nothing is quite as uplifting as when you know you have the absolute and undivided attention of the person you are speaking to. For a leader, there are lots of voices, and each one needs to be heard. The tendency for us whether in the home, the workplace, or the church is to try and have as many conversations as possible in a span of time. But many times, less is actually more. The burden-bearing leader does the simplest thing that can make the most difference – they actually listen. They look and concentrate. They are fully engaged in the conversation they are having. And in so doing, they are recognizing the creature before them is created in the image of God.

Leadership is a burden. And many times, it’s a heavy one. But as leaders we can cultivate the kind of habits that will not only make us bearers of the burden of what we are leading, but of whom we are leading.

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