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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A Holy Aloofness

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add a single cubit to his height by worrying? And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these! If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the idolaters eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matthew 6:25-32).

We read it, we want it to be true, and yet such a life that Jesus commands in these verses eludes us.

A life free from worry? Free from anxiety? Not only does it seem unattainable in practice; it also seems just a wee bit irresponsible, doesn’t it? At first glance, these words from Jesus seem to be advocating a life of apathy – worry about nothing, because you care about nothing. But the kind of life Jesus wants for His brothers and sisters is far from apathetic. Think of it like this:

Let’s say a child comes home from school full of anxiety because despite doing her best, she flunked her history test. She studied the chapters on the Louisiana Purchase instead of the chapters on the Revolutionary War. Or something.

And so she comes, with trembling hands, to her father to show him the test paper. And he doesn’t fly off the handle; he doesn’t yell and scream; he doesn’t immediately send her to her room bearing her history book. There are a couple of reasons why he might respond this way:

Reason number one is that he’s a terrible father. He responds like this because he doesn’t care. Her history test is her problem, and he’s got enough stuff to worry about on his own. So sign the test, put it in the folder, and then turn back to the TV. Of course, there might be a different reason.

He might respond like this not because he’s a terrible father, but because he’s a good one. He knows his daughter, knows that she is a good and caring student – that is, after all, why she’s so upset about this test. He also knows that this is one single test, and all the rest of her grades are A’s. He responds like this because he has a broader perspective than a single incident.

That perspective is the key difference. And it’s that perspective that moves us to see the words of Jesus not as advocating apathy, but instead creating inside of us a sort of holy aloofness. Like the father in the example, we can, by faith, see the bigger picture. Though there are all kinds of reasons for us to look around and feel the pangs of anxiety, but when we do, we are operating from the same limited perspective as the little girl with the failed history test. We fail to see the bigger picture.

And into that sense of anxiety steps Jesus who, with His own lofty perspective, reframes our perspective to the bigger picture, where despite all the sources of potential worry around us, we have a Father who loves us.

Christian, live with a sense of holy aloofness today built not on apathy, but on confidence in the God who provides.

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The Lion Roars, and We Are Free

Let me take you back to Narnia for a second. One of the children from earth, the sons and daughters of Adam, is a traitor. He has aligned himself with the White Witch, and though he has been returned to his brother and sisters, she now has a claim on his life. We pick it up as the White Witch comes to the children and Aslan, the great lion, seeking that Edmond be handed over…

Edmund was on the other side of Aslan, looking all the time at Aslan’s face. He felt a choking feeling and wondered if he ought to say something; but a moment later he felt that he was not expected to do anything except to wait, and do what he was told.

“Fall back, all of you,” said Aslan, “and I will talk to the Witch alone.”

They all obeyed. It was a terrible time this – waiting and wondering while the Lion and the Witch talked earnestly together in low voices. Lucy said, “Oh, Edmund!” and began to cry. Peter stood with his back to the others looking out at the distant sea. The Beavers stood holding each other’s paws with their heads bowed. The centaurs stamped uneasily with their hoofs. But everyone became perfectly still in the end, so that you noticed even small sounds like a bumble-bee flying past, or the birds in the forest down below them, or the wind rustling the leaves. And still the talk between Aslan and the White Witch went on.

At last they heard Aslan’s voice, “You can all come back,” he said. “I have settled the matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood.” And all over the hill there was a noise as if everyone had been holding their breath and had now begun breathing again, and then a murmur of talk.

The Witch was just turning away with a look of fierce joy on her face when she stopped and said,

“But how do I know this promise will be kept?”

“Haa-a-arrh!” roared Aslan, half rising from his throne; and his great mouth opened wider and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life…

Boy, I love that. The lion roars, and the witch runs for her life.

Now I know, I know – it’s just a story. But God shouts, too. Take, for example, Psalm 32. The psalm begins with the joy of someone who has been forgiven; of he who, like Edmond, knows that a great price has been paid in order to secure their release:

“How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How joyful is the man the LORD does not charge with sin and in whose spirit is no deceit!”

But then the text continues as the psalmist remembers what it was like before he confessed his sin. He recalls the burden, the guilt, the shame of bearing one’s own sin, and then the amazing relief that comes  when someone is unburdened. The burden falls to the ground, and everything changes:

“When I kept silent, my bones became brittle from my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was drained as in the summer’s heat. Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not conceal my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You took away the guilt of my sin.”

Then comes the shouting. It’s not from the psalmist, though – like the roar of the great lion, this shout erupts from heaven. And it is glorious in its power and its joy:

“Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to You at a time that You may be found. When great floodwaters come, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; You protect me from trouble. You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.”

What an astounding thing to think of. God, the One who paid the price for our deliverance, does not do so reluctantly, but instead surrounds us with joyful shouts of deliverance. In those moments when we think that God, because of our continued failings, is experiencing the pangs of regret, that He paid such a high price for such a half-hearted child, His shouts of joy in the gospel ring through our souls. He yells, and He yells again, “This one is mine.”

How do we respond to that? The Psalmist got it right:

“Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for you, all you upright in heart.”

We shout because God shouts. We yell because He is yelling. The lion is roaring, and we are free.

 

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Finding the Source of Discontentment

Find the source.

It’s a good practice in most area of life. If you have water in your basement, don’t just clean up the water. Find the source of where it’s coming in. If you have ants in your kitchen, don’t just spray the ants. Find the source of where they’re gaining access. If you have a pain in your body, don’t just take Advil. Find the source to make sure nothing deeper is going on.

See the problem, then find the source.

So it is spiritually. We see a behavior manifest itself, and we should be quick to focus on the mess it creates. But we shouldn’t stop there – we should find the source. And when we follow the trail of that physical behavior, we will always end up back at the heart. There, in our hearts, we will likely find some misshapen belief about God that is working itself out in various ways. We treat those manifestations, but we ask the Holy Spirit to do surgery on our hearts.

Let’s apply that philosophy to an overall issue that most of us deal with – that of discontentment in life. Let’s say that you look around your life, and you find yourself constantly thirsting and striving for more. You are living with a sense of entitlement, borne by your discontent, and you are entertaining the fantasies of the ever elusive “else:”

  • You want, and you deserve something else in your marriage.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your income.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your living situation.
  • You want, and you deserve, something else in terms of your personal importance.

In pretty much every area of your life, you are dissatisfied with the current situation. And while there is nothing wrong in and of itself in advancing your career, in these particular situations it’s an unhealthy preoccupation with that advancement. Your desire has morphed into something selfishly sinful and idolatrously entitled.

This discontentment is the symptom; but what is the source? If you and I are living in this way, there is something malfunctioning in our hearts. Our beliefs have been corrupted, and this kind of life is the evidence. Once we’re at the heart level, then, our question shifts. If we want to live a life of contentment, then that life should be fueled by what we believe to be true about God. So what must we believe to be true about God if we are to live contentedly? At least three things:

You must believe that God is in control. Did you come to this marriage, this home, this job, this life by accident? If you did, then by all means, seek something other and else. If it all happened by accident, then you should get all you can while you can. But if there is actually some kind of intentionality behind this, if God is truly in control, then there must be reason and meaning behind where you find yourself in life right now. If God is in control, then, you can pursue and pray toward a sense of contentment where you are. But that’s not the only thing you have to believe. You not only have to believe that God is in control…

You must believe God is loving. Most of us at one point or another have had a boss that loved the little bit of power and control that he or she has over us. Because they loved it, they abused it. They used that power not to lift others up and serve them, but instead to beat them down. If you only believe God is in control but are not convinced He loves you, it means that you should do everything in your power to escape from under His thumb if that were possible, because you know that He will abuse the power He has over you for His own enjoyment. But if you do actually believe God is both all powerful and that He actually does love you, then you are free to be content in the situation you find yourself in. Though it might be difficult, you can choose to believe God has placed you there intentionally, and though you can’t for the life of you see how, you know that ultimately this too is for your good. Which leads us to the third thing you must believe about God to lived contentedly…

You must believe God is generous. Now this is where it gets even more difficult, because the root of many of our choices is actually a failure to believe in the generosity of God. Think back with me to the very beginning of time, when everything was good and right in the garden. The first man and the first woman were there, and all was well. And God was incredibly generous with them – He not only provided what they needed; He went above and beyond that. He gave them every single tree in the garden of Eden to eat from. Every single tree – save one. And that’s where the serpent entered into the story.

The question he asked the woman in Genesis 3 went like this – “Did God really say you can’t eat from any tree in the garden?” And yet, there is a subtle but unmistakable charge at the heart of this question, and it’s a charge against the generosity of God. The charge is this: “God is holding back on you.” He’s not giving all you could have. He’s withholding what you are entitled to.”

When we continue to look to something other than what God has generously provided for us, whether in marriage, work, relationships, or anywhere else, we are believing the same lie. We are buying into the falsehood that God is not in fact generous, that He is withholding that from us which would truly satisfy us and make us happy.

Contentment is a demonstration of our faith in a powerful, loving, and generous God. When we are content, we demonstrate that we believe God has intentionally placed us where we are, out of His love, and He was good and generous in doing so. But how do we know that’s true? How can we believe it? Especially when we look around us, at the devastation, disease, and destruction in our lives and the world today which seem to tell us over and over again that God is anything but in control? Anything but loving? Anything but generous?

The pull is strong. The temptation is mighty. And in the end, to truly believe these things about God and to therefore live in the middle of what God has provided for us, we must look to the cross because that’s ultimately where we see the power, the love, and the generosity of God.

We see His power and control – “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him severely.Whenyou make Him a restitution offering, He will see His seed, He will prolong His days, and by His hand, the Lord’s pleasure will be accomplished” (Isaiah 53:10). Ultimately, it was the plan of God for Jesus to go to the cross. Though the situation might have seemed to those in the middle of it to be spinning out of control, God was not once taken aback in surprise, but instead was accomplishing His own purposes even at the hands of sinful men.

We see His love – “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be thepropitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The very definition of love is displayed at the cross, that Jesus willingly gave up His very life for us.

And we see His generosity – “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything?” (Romans 8:31-32). God gave us all when He gave us Christ. He has held nothing back from us.

Look to the cross, and let this display of God’s control, power, and generosity fuel your contentment today.

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Jesus Himself is the Answer

John 13 is full of bombshells.

After having traveled with Him for three years, the disciples likely thought they had a handle on this thing. Though they never quite knew what to expect from Jesus, they knew enough to expect the unexpected. Three years, after all, is a long time to breathe the same air as a person. But then came the trip to Jerusalem.

There was the foot washing and the objection and misunderstanding of Peter. Then it was the uncomfortable truth that there was a traitor in their midst. And then, to top it all off, was the prediction that Peter, of all people, would actually deny any association with Jesus not once, not twice, but three times that very night. The result of all, no doubt was troubled hearts. Hearts of anxiety. Hearts of confusion. Hearts of pain. And it was to those hearts Jesus spoke:

“Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. You know the way to where I am going” (John 14:1-4).

Though these words were meant for comfort, they only seemed to inspire more questions. And Thomas was the one who verbalized them for the room: “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).

Translation? “No, we don’t! Jesus, I know you say we know the way where you are going, but we don’t. I may be the only one here, but if no one else will say it, I will. I don’t even know the destination, so how can I possibly know the way?”

It must have felt a bit like driving on a country road, lost and out of the reach of Google maps, when you come upon a farm house with an older gentleman sitting on the porch. You ask him if he knows where so-and-so lives, and he responds that of course he does. And then he tells you that you actually know the way as well. The only conclusion would be that either the person giving directions has no grasp on the reality of the situation, or that he has you confused with someone else, because you clearly do. Not. Know. The. Way.

So Thomas asks, and Jesus answers the question. Sort of.

He does not give directions; He does not give a map; He does not even say, “Well, do you know where Farmer Smith used to live before his house burned down?” Nothing like that. With this question, as He is apt to do with many of our questions, Jesus points us to Himself:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

He doesn’t just know the way, He is the way. The answer to Thomas’s logical and honest inquiry was standing in front of Him.

There are still questions. Questions about life. Questions about trials. Questions about direction. Questions about the future. And with each and every one, Jesus can say, “You know the answer, for I am He.” Christians have the amazing privilege of knowing He who knows the answers for He Himself embodies them. This points us to the great truth that the better way is not necessarily knowing all the answers to all the questions we have, but doing what we can to abide in the One who Himself is the answer.

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Praying Because We Care, and Caring Because We Pray

I am a habitual garden-killer.

In the past 5 years, everything from tomatoes to cucumbers to cilantro to corn has met its demise at my hand. In almost all of these cases, the death of these herbs and vegetables did not come from violence, but instead came through neglect.

I harbor no ill-will towards plants; in fact, I really like them. That’s why the idea of a garden has been so appealing to me. The idea of going outside, picking something off a plant or vine, and then eating it, is great in my mind. But the knowledge that seeing those proverbial fruits comes only after a couple of months of vigilance is not quite as exciting.

It’s the same thing every day – water the plants. Spray the plants. Weed around the plants. And if that’s not enough, it’s recognizing there are hundreds of critters who are more excited about my budding vegetation than I am. So then it’s build the fence. It’s repair the fence. It’s watch the fence for any sign of weakness. So throughout the last five years, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that though I wanted to have a garden, I didn’t care enough to put in the work for it.

Until this year. And this year, I got a head start, because the previous owner of our family’s home had built raised garden beds. There was already the makings of a fence there. It seemed like a terrible waste not to do anything with it. So even though I didn’t care about it that much when I started, we weeded out the garden. We repaired the holes in the fence. We tilled all the soil.

And a funny thing happened – with every single drop of sweat, I found myself caring more and more about this plot of earth.

Now I suppose that for a lot of people, it works the opposite way – they cared in advance, and the care is what drove them to action. But either way, the action is happening.

In fact, it’s a bit like a circle. Each time you do that activity, you care a little bit more. And when you care a little bit more, you keep doing the things that must be done.

Perhaps gardening isn’t the only thing like that – maybe prayer works a little like that, too. There are, of course, some things or people you care very much about. It’s that care that drives you to your knees. You love them, and out of your love, you petition God on their behalf, over and over again. But sometimes it happens the opposite way.

You don’t care about that person. Or at least you don’t care as much as you ought to. So you begin to pray, and with each petition you find your affection and care beginning to grow.

You pray because you care, and then you care because you pray. It’s a beautiful circle, isn’t it? And the simplicity is perhaps the most beautiful part…

If you care deeply for someone, then you should pray.

If you don’t care deeply enough for someone, then you should pray.

And in either case, the result is that your affection is deepened as you continue to life them before God’s throne.

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Beware the Idol of Self-Preservation

The natural progression of life is to move from dependence to independence. When you are a child, you are dependent on someone else for everything. First for even the bare necessities of life, and then into things like clothes, education, and wisdom. But you begin to grow, and you become more self-sufficient in these areas as you do. That’s a good and right thing – we are meant to progress this way as long as we do so with a wary eye on the fact that ultimately none of us are self-sufficient. But as long as we are continually reminded of our ultimate dependence on God to meet our needs, then we should move forward in this progression from dependence to independence.

There is, however, another way to look at this movement:

You move from being a demand on other people to being demanded of by other people. You were a child, and then you have your own children. You were provided for, and then you are the provider. You lived on someone else’s insurance and then you become the source of someone else’s insurance. When you become an adult, then, there comes a demand on your time, resources, energy, and attention. It comes from your employer, from the children, from your spouse, from your friends, and from the church.

When you start feeling the weight of those demands – that everywhere you turn, someone needs something from you, there is an inclination that rises up inside of you. It’s that old instinct of self-preservation. It’s the feeling that no one is looking out for you because everyone is needing something from you.

Now let’s be clear, here – there are moments, many in fact, when you find yourself (as I do) in an over-committed situation, and for the health of your family and even your soul, you need to release some of those demands. But in those occasions, you are releasing some demands so you can fully give yourself to others. It’s not an escaping; it’s a re-aligning of yourself to make sure you are giving what limited resources you have to the most appropriate places.

It’s a tricky issue, then, to walk the line between healthy commitment and responsibility and worshiping at the idol of self-preservation. It might help to diagnose the difference between the two by asking some key questions:

1. What am I planning to do with my increased margin?

This is a helpful question because it will help you see who is at the center of your desire. If you want to free up your commitments so that you can be more engaged in what you know God has called you to do, then by all means free it up. But if you are the only person who will benefit from these changes, then beware the idol of self-preservation.

2. How did I wind up feeling this compulsion in the first place?

If you’re feeling crushed by the weight of responsibility, you didn’t get here by accident. The question is how you got here, and why. Did you get here because of your pride? That you can’t say no to things, even if you don’t have the time or energy to do them well? Or did you get here because this is the road God put you on? If it’s the former, then you need to evaluate your decision-making process. But if it’s the latter, then you can rest in your faith that God will provide the means to do what He has called you to do.

3. Have I stopped believing God will take care of me?

This is really the question at the core. It could be that the reason you have the need to preserve yourself is because you have stopped trusting that God ultimately will preserve you. Asking this question takes us back to one of the most fundamental and simple things we know to be true, and yet we forget so easily: God will take care of me. And if God has my ultimate well-being at heart, my primary goal is not to take care of myself. It’s to follow Him.

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The Real Reason We Fail to Pray

Prayer is one of those issues that almost all of us, I believe, have a relationship of guilt with. We know in our minds that prayer is important; that prayer effects change; that prayer is our lifeline to God Almighty; and that without prayer, we will shrivel on the vine and die. Prayer is one of the most primary means by which we do the work of abiding in Christ.

And yet…

We don’t. We can’t concentrate. We fumble around. Despite all our classes and training, all our best intentions, all our alarm clock settings that get moved to snooze, we fail to pray as much or as long or as fervently as we ought to. When we ask ourselves why we don’t pray, then, there are a myriad of reasons we come to:

  • I’m too busy. I’ve got so much going on that it’s difficult to devote a sustained amount of time to something that in the moment can feel so frivolous.
  • I’m too distracted. Even when I do sit and pray, my mind can’t slow down and focus on what I’m doing. I eventually always devolve into musings or making my to-do list for all the stuff that has to be done after I’m done praying.
  • I don’t know how. I know I should, because it should be as easy as having a conversation, but I still don’t know the best technique, the right acrostic, or how this works with the whole journaling thing.

I totally get it. I feel all those things, too. But I think there is a greater reason why I fail to pray, and maybe there is for you too.

The real reason we fail to pray isn’t because we’re too busy, too distracted, or too untrained. The real reason we fail to pray is because we’re too confident.

Ultimately, I find inside myself the lurking idea that I actually know the right thing to do and have the capacity to do it. I find the notion that I can affect real change in my life or in the lives of those around me based on my sheer will, intelligence, or charisma. I find the lie that I am actually a pretty good person with pretty good ideas and character. I find inside myself a dramatic overestimation of myself, and the result is a failure to hit my knees with the fervency I should.

I am confident in me, so what need do I have at the throne of grace? Prayer becomes an easily disposable segment of my daily routine, something that can be dropped out as soon as something else comes up to take its place.

May it not be so. May we have a “sober estimation” and “think sensibly” of ourselves (Romans 12:4), and may the result be a renewed compulsion to approach God’s throne of grace.

 

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Nehemiah’s List

I. Love. Lists.

I live by lists. In fact, I take so much joy in crossing things off a list that if I do something that’s not on my list, I’ll write it on there just for the sheer pleasure of crossing it off. It’s encouraging to me, then, when I look to Scripture and see other list-makers (maybe there’s a place for us in the kingdom of God, too).

One list-maker that comes to mind is Nehemiah. If you’ll remember the context of the book, Nehemiah was one of the children of Israel in exile; he had risen to prominence in the foreign kingdom of Artaxerxes. As the cup-bearer to the king, Nehemiah was a trusted associate charged with tasting of the king’s food and drink before he did in order to prevent assassination. The life of the king, in a very literal sense, rested in Nehemiah’s hands day in and day out. And yet this man was troubled:

“During the month of Chislev in the twentieth year, when I was in the fortress city of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers arrived with men from Judah, and I questioned them about Jerusalem and the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile. They said to me, ‘The remnant in the province, who survived the exile, are in great trouble and disgrace. Jerusalem’s wall has been broken down, and its gates have been burned down’” (Neh. 1:1-3).

It wasn’t just the walls; it was what they represented. Without the walls, the city could not thrive in safety. Without the walls, the return to the land of the exiles would never be complete. Nehemiah was burdened, and so he began to pray. His prayer, recorded in Nehemiah 1, was a humble plea. In it, Nehemiah remembered not only the love and faithfulness of God, but the infidelity of His people. He acknowledged the just judgment that had ben leveled against the people, and yet he longed for an opportunity to do something. To make a difference. For the walls to be rebuilt.

Nehemiah prayed. He also made a list.

We know he made a list because when the king asked him why he was troubled in chapter 2, Nehemiah responded immediately. He didn’t brush off his sadness; instead, he provided a well articulated answer as to what was burdening his heart. But then, when the king dug further into Nehemiah’s troubles, the cup-bearer had a detailed list of exactly what he would need. He would need letters of commendation, timber, and a specific grant of leave from his post as cup-bearer.

The point is that Nehemiah’s list was more than an exercise in planning; it was an exercise of faith.

Nehemiah prayed, and he expected God to move and work and answer. We know he did because he made the list. And this list of Nehemiah makes this list-maker wonder whether I truly believe God to answer when I pray. This is the attitude of David in Psalm 5:3:

“At daybreak, Lord, You hear my voice; at daybreak I plead my case to You and watch expectantly.”

Nehemiah prayed, and he believed, and the expression of his belief was his list.

It’s a good reminder to us that we have a God who not only listens but also acts, in His time, and in His way. And it’s a good reminder that when we pray, we should also be making some lists of what comes next when God answers.

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Five Words that Measure the Boldness of Faith

What do the words gram, liter, square foot, parsec, minute and pound have in common? They’re all units of measurement. They all are used to set a length or weight or distance or some other quantity with assigned values so that we can have a common point of relation when we want to discuss the amount of some solid, liquid, gas, time or anything else. There is really nothing we can’t assign values like these to; even the largest or smallest known things in our universe can be measured in some way.

But how do you measure something intangible? How do you quantify the amount of that which is not a physical entity? How, for example, do you measure something like faith?

It’s not just an intellectual question; the reason it’s not is because of how important faith is. Without faith, one cannot please God (Heb. 11:6). And what are the works God requires? At the center of all of what we might attempt to do for God and His glory, the Lord is looking for the act of faith – belief in the One He has sent (Jn. 6:29). This is a sobering thought – that the center piece of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is our faith. Surely, then, we would want to do the same thing we do with everything else in the world, which is to know how much we have of that which is so essential.

But here you see the problem. How do you measure faith?

Well, one option would be to look at results. Jesus was the One who said that even with a small amount of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell a mountain to get up and move and it would (Lk. 17:6). In our minds, this looks like a focus on results. That the one with faith will be able to believe that a certain thing should be, and it will be. That’s how we know how big our faith is – it’s based on whether or not that which we can conceive actually becomes reality. But I want to propose a different measure of faith, one not based on results but instead based on something bigger and better than those results.

And you can describe this kind of boldness of faith in five words:

“Even. If. He. Does. Not.”

Remember this phrase? Three exiled Hebrews said them a long time ago. They spoke them to an angry potentate in the more dire of circumstances. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood before the gigantic golden statue the king of the foreign land had erected in his own honor. The law had been passed; every citizen of the kingdom was required to bow low and pay homage to this statue, and the king the statue represented. This was too far for these Israelites.

Sure, they had lost their home. Yep, they had been stripped of their families and national identity. Absolutely, they were living in the midst of a foreign culture. But they would not bow, and they were ready to face the consequences. In this case, those consequences meant sudden and certain death. In light of the serious threat before them, the king was curious about their resolve, so they were questioned:

“Now if you’re ready, when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, drum, and every kind of music, fall down and worship the statue I made. But if you don’t worship it, you will be immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire—and who is the god who can rescue you from my power?” (Dan. 3:15).

Can you hear the arrogance in the question? Can you see the sneer of the one who seems to hold all the cards? These three men could. And that’s what makes their response all the more remarkable:

“Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king” (Dan. 3:16-17).

This is boldness, is it not? Standing firmly in the face of an adversary, declaring the power of the unseen over that which is seen? And if we stopped right there, we might have our measuring tool. We might conclude that the measure of faith is not only results, it’s confidence that those results are actually going to happen. But the story goes on:

“But even if He does not rescue us…”

What’s that? Is it a chink in the armor? Is it a thread of doubt in this God and His power? On the contrary, this is the true measure of the boldness of faith. Faith is not measured by results; it’s measured by confidence in the God behind the results.

Even. If. He. Does. Not.

This is faith. This is looking a ruler, a situation, a circumstance directly in the eye and humbly admitting that we do not know the best outcome, but we know the One who does. And because we do, we trust the ultimate outcome to Him. Christian, don’t stop short in your faith today. Don’t assume you know the right answer. Don’t let your confidence drift into arrogance. Instead, refocus your faith not on the results but on the One behind them. And then even if He does not, we stand even still.

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