Um, Shouldn’t You Be Attacking Right Now?

That’s the feeling you get as you flip the page from Joshua 4 to Joshua 5.

It had been a long road for the Israelites to get across the Jordan River. 400 years of slavery. Then the miraculous deliverance from Egypt. Then 40 more years of wandering in the desert until the last of the unbelieving generation had died off. Then, finally, under the helm of General Joshua Son of Nun it was time.

Time to go in.

Time to possess the land.

Time to take what God had promised centuries earlier to Father Abraham.

And no doubt God was with them. Though the Jordan River was in its flood stage, the Lord blocked blocked the rushing waters so they piled up in a heap while His people walked across. That’s round abouts of 2 million Israelites walking through the mud into an already inhabited land, completely convinced that it belonged to them.

Add to that a God that build invisible, river-stopping dams, and you’ve got a recipe for success. Or at least that’s what the people in the promised land thought:

“As soon all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel” (Joshua 5:1).

This is where the experienced leader would step in, like a coach of the football team who had just intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter, and rally his troops: “We’ve got ‘em on the run now, boys! It’s time to strike while the iron is hot!”

And of course, it was. No doubt these kings were already somewhat intimidated by the size of the army, but they had time to prepare, right? They could fortify their cities. They could draw up battle plans. They could strategize and form alliances because those two million people would have to wait for weeks – maybe even several – to get across the river.

But then as quickly as those waters ceased to flow, the hearts of the kings melted in fear. What kind of army was this? And what kind of God did they have with them? There would be no time for battle plans and clever strategies; only time to consider the options of when and how to best surrender.

“At that time, the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the sons of Israel a second time” (Joshua 5:2).

Huh? Um, shouldn’t you be attacking right now?

Conventional wisdom would say yes. There would be no better time. But instead, the Lord orders His people to take a break for a religious ceremony. And this particular kind of break would require a good bit of recovery time afterward before anyone was ready to fight. To make matters worse, God also said they should take a little more time and go ahead and celebrate the Passover (vv. 10-12).

A bit unconventional as far as battle plans go. But surely – SURELY – there’s something in this pause for us to see about what God is really after.

Here is a group of people who want to do great things. And want to do great things for God. And God wants them to do great things. But more than the great things He wants them to do is His desire that they remember who they are. In other words, sometimes it’s better to remember than to attack.

That’s a good word for us in our action-oriented culture. Get out there – make your mark – chase your dream – attempt greatness – all that stuff. But sometimes, before you head out throwing your sword around, you need to pause and remember. Remember where you came from. Remember what has happened to you. And most importantly, remember WHOSE you are.

That will be important when we do finally head in. We need to go into the battle not confident of our battle plan, not sure of our strategy, but instead armed with the knowledge that we are marked as the sons and daughters of God. So shouldn’t you be attacking right now? Perhaps not. Perhaps you should instead be sitting down for a little while and recalling that no one crosses over the Jordan based on their own merit in the first place.

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Why Might We Give Up Meeting Together?

The writer of Hebrews gave a very practical instruction in Hebrews 10:24-25:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Don’t give up meeting together. Translation?

Keep going to church.

Which when you say it like that, sounds pretty dumb, right? Of course we know that we should keep going to church. But if it’s it that simple, then why give the instruction? In other words, what might keep us from meeting together?

For the Hebrews, it was persecution. This letter was written to a group of persecuted Christians who, based on what we read in the letter, were teetering on the edge of going back to their former way of life. That’s why you find such a strong emphasis on perseverance – it’s because those who persevere to the end show their faith to be true and authentic. For these Christians, then, one of the ways (and maybe even the primary one) that they demonstrated their lasting commitment to faith in Jesus was the fact that they were willing to keep showing up.

This was no small thing for them.

Showing up and meeting together marked them as a community of believers, and when they were marked they were targeted. Property was seized; prison terms were handed out; jobs were lost and livelihoods were in jeopardy. But on they came.

I, however, don’t live in a situation like that. Is there then any value in giving a command like this to a society where there are no restrictions on going to church and meeting with other Christians? Of course, the answer is yes, but we get to that answer by asking a similar question to the one we asked of the Hebrews:

In an affluent and relatively free society, safe from persecution based on religious preference, what might keep us from continuing to show up? Many things I suppose, but at least these two:

1. Convenience.
I know, I know – the church is right around the corner, right? Just down the road? At worst, on the other side of town? But despite the proximity and availability of local congregations, the call to meet together challenges our sense of convenience.

We live in a culture that’s microwaved; we want what we want, when we want it, and what we want is NOW. Meeting together, though, is a long range strategy interjected into a short term society. Relationships of trust and mutual sharing don’t automatically happen; they develop over time. A gospel-centered worldview isn’t formed overnight, but through the process of hearing the same thing over and over again. The ability to recall and apply Scripture to specific life situations doesn’t happen automatically but slowly over the course of listening to others do the same.

All of these things involve time, and therefore all are inconvenient. This fact all by itself might make us give up the long road of meeting together and instead just look for the DVR version of the church so we can skip to the high points.

2. Discomfort.
Meeting together – showing up at church – is (and should be) uncomfortable. That’s because truly meeting together involves a level of self-disclosure that hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot.

That’s the difference between “meeting together” and “meeting together”. In the latter, we aren’t spectators; instead, we are active participants, longing for not just a connection with others but the kind of connection that will truly help us follow Jesus. And because that kind of connection is only inspired by walking the difficult road of confession and transparency, many of us aren’t ready.

It’s just easier to stay home.

But the question, as the writer of Hebrews put it, is where do you want to find yourself as the day of the Lord is increasingly approaching?

Probably not on the couch.

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The Responsibility of Suffering

Life can change in the blink of an eye. One moment, everything is normal and the next…

There’s the phone call. Or the conversation. Or the doctor’s appointment.

And suddenly, your life has been divided before your very eyes. And though you don’t know for sure all the implications of what just happened, you do know that you’ll look back on that moment as a dividing line—there was life before that moment, and now there is life after.

When we turn to Scripture during times like these, we find pain and difficulty described in a curious way. We see that there is, much as we might not want it, a responsibility associated with these times of strain. Take a look at how Paul describes suffering in Philippians 1:

“For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him, having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have” (Philippians 1:29).

It has been given to you… as in a gift. Suffering is the gift that no one wants, and yet God chooses to give sometimes nonetheless. If you’ve sat in the middle of the muck and mire of pain and difficulty, “gifted” is about the last thing you feel. How, then, can Paul say that suffering is not something thrust upon us, but instead something granted to us? Perhaps there are at least two reasons:

1. For our own sake.

In the book of James, we find that difficulty has personal and spiritual benefit to it: “Consider it 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” (James 1:2-4).

In other words, there is a piece of spiritual maturity that can only come along with difficulty. Without those difficulties, we will never be made complete in Christ. Pain, then, in the hands of God, is the means by which He develops His character in us. But it’s not just for our own benefit that we are given difficulties…

2. For the sake of another.

Paul would say it like this: “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 afflictions, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction through the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

There is a comfort chain happening in these verses. We, as God’s children find ourselves in pain and God is faithful to bring us comfort. Then we are bound to bring the same comfort to those around us who find themselves in a similar kind of pain.

Now why is that important? It’s because our tendency to turn inward during times of trial. It’s our inclination to be swallowed in a sea of ourselves and, potentially, never to come back up for air. But here, in the midst of our difficulty, we find the Lord meeting us, working in us and working through us. And, though in the moment we find no reason in thinking it so, we come to see the gift that is difficulty, not only for our own benefit, but also for the sake of others.

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What Not to Say to Your Professor…

My dad is a professor. my mom has been a professor. My older brother is a professor. They all tell me stories. This is real.

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The Seductive Song of Self-Pity

Her voice is soft and melodic; it’s sweet to the ear and soothing to the tired heart. She whispers not during the seasons of joy, but instead during those times of trial. When you’re tired and weary. When the responsibility is great, and when busyness abounds. I feel her scratch my itching ears with her words, saying just what I wish I heard from the people around me. And here’s what she sounds like:

“No one understands what’s happening in your life.”

“No one knows how much you have to bear.”

“No one sympathizes with the weight of responsibility.”

“Sure, you could try to tell someone, but what good would that do?”

She sings this seductive song of self-pity over and over again. And with each beautiful refrain, I find myself nodding my head in agreement and descending further into my own isolation, insulated by the determination that no one indeed does understand the season of life in which I find myself. She sings, and I listen, and it feels really good. My resentment is justified; my sense of pride in hard work is bolstered; my superiority over others who, unlike me, aren’t awake at this hour or aren’t sacrificing like I am is built.

Self-pity is a ladder builder; she helps me construct that apparatus which I climb on so I can peer smugly over the heads of those I’ve left far below me.

And it feels so good. What makes it feel even better is, unlike so many times when you have the sense your pride is wrong and unjustified, in the case of self-pity, it feels right. That’s the best kind of pride of all.

And that’s the worst kind of pride of all.

It’s the kind of pride that mitigates any sacrifice you or I might make because it devalues those you are supposedly sacrificing for. That supposed sacrifice is only another means of bolstering our already well-bolstered egos.

Will you make sacrifices today? Will you get up early or stay up late? Will you find yourself doing things that others will not? Do you find yourself in a season of trial? If you do, then she will be singing to you, and her song will be sweet, reminding you just how special you are and how (though she would never say it like this), much better you are.

Though we might hear the seductive song of self-pity, there is another song we might play louder in our souls. We can crank up the volume on this one so that it drowns out the sappy resonance of self-indulgence. This new song is a lot older. And it’s lyrics are a lot better. The tune builds as you sing each line, and it’s focus is not on the anemic sacrifices we make but on the true and great sacrifice that was made on our behalf. It’s the song that the self-righteous and self-focused have sung for years as a means of taking their focus off of themselves and putting it where it belongs:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Play it again Lord. And I’ll turn it up.

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An Old School Scripture Memory System That’s So Simple It Just Might Work

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When to Stop Chasing Your Dream

I live in a city of broken dreams. Walk into virtually any coffee shop or restaurant in Nashville, TN, and you can find someone working hard there doing something that is wildly contrary to what they originally came to this city to do.

They didn’t set out to be a server; they didn’t plan on being a barista. In fact, they might have a demo CD in their trunk even as they are pushing food or coffee out of the kitchen. There are those who look at their present state as a stopgap, confident that at some point they will make the right contact or find the right opportunity and their music career will take off. Sometimes it happens that way; most of the time it does not. And so there are also those there who are struggling with the discrepancy between what they envisioned their future to be and the trajectory they are currently on.

And it feels to them like they are dying inside. With every cup of coffee and every plate of food, they are shriveling slowly, but methodically, into a shell of bitterness and resentment.

Dreams are wonderful things; they fill us with hope and optimism; they make us view every day with new possibilities and cause us to spring with joy at the prospect that “today might just be the day.” They are wonderful, that is, until they aren’t any more. It’s at that moment when you come face to face with the reality that maybe it’s actually not going to happen for you.

But I want to propose that there is a time when it’s not only necessary but actually appropriate to stop chasing your dream. Here’s the reason why:

Just like anything else in life, dreams can easily, quickly and subversively become idols, and when they do, you find that at some point along the line your dream has stopped being an aspiration and started being your master. Your self-worth is tied to an opportunity. Your joy is contingent upon your vocation. Your identity is linked to your advancement. When that happens, your dream is no longer the stuff of Disney movies; it’s a serious obstacle in your growth into who Jesus wants you to be.

Sometimes that’s a tough pill to swallow, and not just because it means letting go of something that we have invest so much time, energy, and emotion into. It’s also difficult because it means accepting, at a broad level, that our vision for our future is different than God’s vision for our future. But, as with most things that are difficult, this is also a great moment of opportunity.

When you make the choice to let go of your dream, Jesus is waiting there. He’s waiting, in the rubble of what you thought the future would hold, not to just give you a new future, but to remind you of who you are in the present. He’s faithful to reestablish your sense of self-worth and identity based on something way better than a dream. He’ll remind you, regardless of what else happens or doesn’t happen, that you are a child of God.

Jesus is like that – He fills up what has been emptied out. And in the moment when we finally give up, for our idols masquerading as dreams have been stripped away, to step in and whisper in our ear something that’s far more lasting and far more important: “You are a child of God.”

Read more in my book, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life.

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Breaking Out of Over-Education

Last week, I wrote a self-confessional post called “Is There Any Hope for the Over-Educated Christian?” The takeaway of the post was meant to say, yes, there is indeed hope for those of us whose knowledge outpaces our obedience, but we aren’t likely to begin to break out of the trap of over-education until we first realize we’re in it. So I tried to give us three signs to help us self-diagnose.

Today, though, I wanted to follow up with some active steps that we might take together. Though recognition might be the first step, it can’t be the last one. In other words, if we stop at acknowledging that we are intellectually bloated but do nothing about it, then we’ve only shifted the target of our knowledge. Previously, our highest end was theological fact; now our highest end is knowledge of self. And though we might congratulate ourselves for our self-awareness and new supposed authenticity, that knowledge of self is only so good as it pushes us to a greater obedience to Jesus.

So here are three practical steps we can take once having diagnosed ourselves as being the over-educated Christian:

1. Find a place to actively serve in the local church.

Preferably, find a place to serve where you will likely not be congratulated for doing so. Rock some babies. Teach some 3-year-olds about Jesus. Volunteer to clean up the grounds of the church. Whatever it is, try and find a job where you can serve without the temptation of doing so exclusively for the applause that might come from doing so. When you serve in this silent, almost secret kind of way, you are going to war with the kind of pride which craves the sense of superiority which comes from increased knowledge.

2. Pursue the discipline of requesting specific prayer.

When we are over-educated and under-obedient, we love the kind of churched environment where we can talk in generalities about deep, theological questions. We love the opportunity to show off what we know without it having to cost us anything. And self-disclosure and acknowledgement of weakness is costly. How do we fight that? Well, one simple way might be to regularly ask someone else to pray for you. And not in a general way, but for something very specific. When you do, you are acknowledging before another your weakness and need, and you are beginning to break down the carefully constructed wall that’s been built brick by intellectual brick.

3. Pray specifically for someone else for 5 minutes a day.

It’s funny what I’ve seen happen to my prayer life as an over-educated Christian. Prayer becomes largely self-focused, when it’s there at all. Very few minutes at all are spent in intercession for another, and even when it is, those prayers aren’t specific. To break out of the self-focused grip of intellectualism, one of the very proactive things we can do is commit to pray for others, not in a general way, but very specifically, and to commit to all the other things that come along with that. Things like listening. Thing like remembering. Things like pursuing relationships of depth and meaning.

These are actions we can take, but let’s make sure that we don’t treat these actions like a formula. There is no formula; there is grace. And thankfully, God is ready to grant it as we are ready to ask.

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How a Christian is Like a Little Child

Jonathan Edwards:

The tenderness of the heart of a true Christian, is elegantly signified by our Savior, in his comparing such a one to a little child. . . .

A little child has his heart easily moved, wrought upon and bowed: so is a Christian in spiritual things.

A little child is apt to be affected with sympathy, to weep with them that weep, and can’t well bear to see others in distress: so it is with a Christian (John 11:35, Romans 12:15, I Corinthians 12:26).

A little child is easily won by kindness: so is a Christian.

A little child is easily affected with grief at temporal evils, and has his heart melted, and falls a weeping: thus tender is the heart of a Christian, with regard to the evil of sin.

A little child is easily affrighted at the appearance of outward evils, or anything that threatens its hurt: so is a Christian apt to be alarmed at the appearance of moral evil, and anything that threatens the hurt of the soul.

A little child, when it meets enemies, or fierce beasts, is not apt to trust its own strength, but flies to its parents for refuge: so a saint is not self-confident in engaging spiritual enemies, but flies to Christ.

A little child is apt to be suspicious of evil in places of danger, afraid in the dark, afraid when left alone, or far from home: so is a saint apt to be sensible of his spiritual dangers, jealous of himself, full of fear when he can’t see his way plain before him, afraid to be left alone, and to be at a distance from God; Proverbs 28:14, “Happy is the man that feareth alway; but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.”

A little child is apt to be afraid of superiors, and to dread their anger, and tremble at their frowns and threatenings: so is a true saint with respect to God; Psalms 119:120, “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments.” Isaiah 66:2, “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and trembleth at my word.” V. 5, “Hear ye the Word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.” Ezra 9:4, “Then were assembled unto me, everyone that trembled at the works of the God of Israel.” Ch. 10:3, “According to the counsel of my Lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God.” A little child approaches superiors with awe: so do the saints approach God with holy awe and reverence. Job 13:11, “Shall not his excellency make you afraid, and his dread fall upon you.” Holy fear is so much the nature of true godliness, that it is called in Scripture by no other name more frequently, than the fear of God.

Religious Affections, WJE, pp. 360-61.

(HT: JT)

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Is There Any Hope for the Over-Educated Christian?

Is there any hope for the over-educated Christian?

I hope so. For I am one.

I live in an affluent area where the largest challenge to my faith is not persecution but instead materialism – the opposite prong on the same pitchfork. My playlist abounds with countless sermons and unbridled access to biblical teaching. I live within a stone’s throw of not one, not two, but at least three faithful, evangelical churches. The number of books by dead theologians on my bookshelves that I haven’t even cracked far outnumber the number that I’ve read. At any given moment, I can be reading, listening to, or even watching centuries of commentary, study, and reflection on any biblical text I so choose.

I am, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, an intellectually fat Christian. My mind is obese with knowledge and bloated with facts. And as I loosen the belt around my heavily churchified brain more and more day by day, I wonder what would happen if my obedience kept pace with that knowledge.

The truth is that I know far more than I obey. And that causes me to wonder if there is any hope for over-educated Christians like me, or am I destined to drown in this sea of head knowledge because no matter how much I might be puffed up by it, I am no less buoyed by it. Again, then, I would ask… Is there any hope for the over-educated Christian?

And, of course, the answer is yes. It’s not “yes” because of the merits of knowledge, but because in the gospel, there is hope for all, be they the fatly-minded or the thinly-rebellious, whether they’re the younger son returning from the far country or the older son busy working in the field.

Perhaps the first step toward that help is the recognition that help is needed; that this condition of over-education is not necessarily a mark of spiritual maturity. So, then, how do you know if you are an over-educated Christian? I’d offer three ways to help us self-diagnose:

1. If you tend to have an attitude of examination rather than participation…

If you find yourself, surrounded by the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, and the fellowship of the saints, examining the methodology of those leading rather than participating in what’s going on around you, it’s very possible that you have begun to be overtaken by your education. In a case like that, you would prefer to analyze the details of the presentation rather than dwelling on the content and the presence of God.

2. If you are more excited than grieved at finding the fault…

If during that examination you do indeed find fault, and maybe it’s something relatively minor, do you feel a sense of justification? I know that feeling, too. It’s a sense of triumph that somehow you have been able to mine through all the external fluff and find that kernel of error that simply must be exposed. And if it’s not exposed to the world, at least it’s exposed in your own heart. When we feel that, we are feeding that animal of superiority that lurks in us all, that beast which craves a higher place over all others so that we might not feel so small, even for a moment.

3. If you desire generalities over personal specifics…

If, when you find yourself in a conversation with another in the body of Christ, there is no confession of sin, no admittance of struggle, and no grace to listen to another do the same, but instead prefer to deal in hypothetical “can God make a rock so big He couldn’t move it” kind of discussions, then beware of over-education. In a case like this, we keep the truth of God and the conviction of the Holy Spirit at arm’s length because we fear what might happen to us if it, and He, came any closer. Surely something would have to change, and we can’t bear the thought of the magnifying glass of our gaze being turned inward.

And when, like me, you do recognize just how far your knowledge outpaces your obedience, don’t fall into despair. But don’t either dismiss the thought. Instead, renew your mind not to just know about Jesus but to know Jesus truly though doing so will involve far more cost (and far more joy ultimately) than mere intellectual learning.

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