Unity, Apart from the Gospel, is Self-Exaltation

God loves unity.

In John 17, Jesus’ high priestly prayer just before His death, He could have prayed many things for His followers, and He did. But one of the recurring themes in that passage of Scripture is unity:

  • “…protect them by Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one as We are one” (v. 11).
  • “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You” (v. 21).
  • “May they also be one in us, so the world may believe You sent Me” (v. 21).

But unity is not an end in itself. In fact unity, apart from the gospel, is self-exaltation.

There was another group of people, years and years earlier, who were unified, but they were unified around the wrong things:

“At one time the whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:1-4).

These people had all the ingredients any marketing consultant might tell you are essential for a group to accomplish great things together. They spoke the same language, they had a big goal, and they were motivated to take action. The problem was they were unified around the wrong thing, and when you come around something from the gospel the end result is always going to be self-exaltation.

All in all, it’s good and right that any group of people knows who they are and what they’re going after together. But if we want it to last, we should do well to make sure we aren’t worshiping the goal:

“So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city…” (Genesis 11:8).

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3 Surprising Ways to Boast in the Lord

What does it mean to boast?

Even if you can’t quote the definition, you know it when you see it, just like our kids do. There is a certain way you tweak your voice, a certain way you hold your head, and ultimately a certain way you view yourself that is boasting. Through all those signs, whether they are explicit or implicit, boasting is an inflated view of oneself and one’s accomplishments. But according to Paul, boasting has a good and right outlet.

It’s like that with a lot of things. Sex is not bad; it’s a question of how our sexual desire is expressed. Neither is study, neither is eating, neither is zeal. The desire or inclination isn’t what’s bad; these desires become sinful when they’re expressed in the wrong ways. On the subject of boasting, Paul finds room for it, but only when the cross looms large in the background:

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,  in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

What does it look like to boast in the Lord? There is, of course, the most straight forward meaning – that boasting in the Lord is not being proud of your own accomplishments, but instead sharing freely and loudly what Jesus has done on the cross. It means a vocal testimony of the grace of Jesus in your life – that you were dead in your transgressions and sins, but by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone have been made spiritually alive and brought into the family of God. But is that the only way to boast in the Lord?

Maybe not. In fact, here are three other surprising ways that we might also boast in Jesus:

1. Through silence.

If you’re a parent, maybe you know the feeling of reading the proverbial bumper sticker that says that another kid is an honor student, or on the travel ball team, or knows how to eat all their vegetables without complaining. When you’re in a conversation with other parents, and the conversation turns toward the children, there is this thing that rises up inside you to compare. To say something better. To make sure that other person knows that your kid might not do the thing their kid is so awesome at, but he or she does some pretty great stuff, too.

That’s boasting. But it’s boasting in an inappropriate outlet. That’s the kind of boasting that comes from a compulsion to validate your own parenting or your own child. At the root, then, it’s insecurity. Boasting in the Lord means, sometimes, just being quiet. It means being able to allow someone to enjoy their moment in the sun and congratulating them on what they’ve had happen instead of making sure to get your own stuff wedged into the conversation.

2. Through peace.

Anxiety is one of those things that runs rampant in our lives; it seems we have an endless capacity for worry. For me personally, anxiety invades my heart even on the best of days and during the best of times. Tomorrow is always out there, and there’s always something to worry about. But every so often you come across that very rare person that seems to live in a much more free way than you do. It’s not because they have less things to be anxious about; it’s because they are anxious about less things.

Where does that lack of anxiety come from? Well, in the best case scenario, it’s because that person truly takes Jesus at His Word when He says not to worry about tomorrow because God will take care of you then, in His way, just as He took care of you today in His way. The presence of that kind of peace, which does indeed surpass understanding, is one of the ways we boast in the Lord. We brag about a Father who can take care of us despite all the evidence in the world that might make us wonder whether He will.

3. Through honesty.

Truly owning our sin is extremely difficult. Even when we know we are in the wrong, even when we know we should apologize, even when clearly the fault is ours, we want to find some wriggle room. We leave ourselves a back door with apologies framed in terms of “…but”. We practice the art of self-protection by making sure that everyone knows how much stress we are under or how great the pressure of life is so there’s some understanding for why we have done what we’ve done.

But when we are honest – when we just apologize; when we just confess; when we just acknowledge we made a mistake in judgment; and leave it at that without explanation or justification, we are boasting in the Lord. That’s because in that moment of absolute honesty and ownership, we are expressing our confidence that the true Judge has already pronounced us forgiven. Because we know we are forgiven, we are free to be truly contrite and broken instead of holding on with white knuckles to the crutch of self-justification.

Boast in the Lord explicitly. Share the gospel far and wide. And while you are, boast in the Lord implicitly. Boast in the Lord in the way you don’t speak, the way you look at tomorrow, and the way you embrace your own fallenness today.

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Security in Christ is the Only Path to Truly Loving Others

So many different things masquerade as love in our culture. Sex, loneliness, convenience, co-dependency – they can all wear the mask and pass for love in our culture. They’re not, obviously, but why are they not? What is at the core that separates all these things from love in its true and pure form?

Maybe the answer is related to the old story of how to spot a counterfeit piece of currency. There was a time when it was easy to spot a counterfeit bill, but as the fakes became better and more sophisticated, it became impossible to identify all the differences from the original. The story goes that treasury agents were trained not in spotting the fakes, but in the nature of the real. They were to become so intimately familiar with the real thing that even though they might not be able to list off all the potential ways a bill might be fake, they would still know something was off.

So, then, if we want to know what makes these fake forms of love fake, then let’s start with what makes the real kind of love real. And for that, we have not only a point of identification but an actual definition:

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

This is what love is. This is how it’s defined. And because it is, this is the gold standard, the real thing. It’s not that we loved God, but that God loved us and demonstrated that love. Now we can start to see exactly what’s off about these counterfeits. When we hold them up to the real thing, we see the true differentiation. The love of God, demonstrated by the cross of Christ, is giving in nature. It is motivated not by lack, but by abundance.

That stands in sharp contrast to these other kinds of “affection” – in each and every one of them, the insecurity of the human heart is on full display. In lust, loneliness, convenience and all the rest of the things that pass for love, we are approaching others for what we can get from them. They are, to us, only carriers of their bodies, or their needs, or something else that we think can satisfy our desires. We use then to try and secure something for ourselves.

That’s why the gospel is the only path to truly loving others. It’s because it’s only in Christ that we can be truly secure. It’s only when we are secure in Christ that we can stop seeing others only for what we can get to them. Then, and only then, can we truly and freely love.

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Be Careful of the Small Compromise Now

Once I built a retaining wall in our backyard.

We had a wall that kept the mulch and dirt out of our driveway, but it had eroded over time. It seemed like a relatively simple project. All I had to do was rip up the existing brick and put new cinder block down in its place. But, as often happens with me whenever I try to do something around the house, it got more complicated. The ground needed to be leveled; the blocks had to be sealed; and above all, they needed to be straight.

But I got frustrated. I got impatient. I only had a limited amount of time to do this because, well, I was bored. So instead of using the right tools to make sure that my lines were straight, I eye-balled it. The first few blocks in the row seemed, to my eyes, to be pretty dead on the money. But as I added more and more blocks, the retaining wall line started to drift. What I thought was a straight line at first curved as it ran along the edge of the driveway.

I compromised at the first and paid the price at the end.

Be careful, friends, of what seems like a small compromise right now. It might not seem like much in the moment, but when you make a small drift at the first it expounds into something much more noticeable later.

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Life is About Big Choices Actualized in Little Choices

Life is about making decisions. Most of the decisions we make we don’t really pay attention to; we choose what radio station to listen to, what to eat for dinner, or what movie to go see. We don’t spend hours agonizing over decisions like that; the choice presents itself and we make it and most of the time just carry on with the day.

There are those times though when the decision seems bigger – we have to choose a career, choose a home, or choose a spouse. These are the kinds of decisions that keep us up at night; they move us to seek council from others and carefully weigh out the options.

Big or small, we are always deciding something. But the big and the small are not isolated from each other. In fact every small decision is in reality a reflection of a larger one.

In other words, life is about big decisions actualized in little choices. Here are a couple of examples:

Marriage is a big choice. At a moment, you commit before God and others to honor your husband or wife, no matter what may come. You promise to be faithful and cherish them throughout whatever life throws at you, whether rich or poor or sickness or health. That’s a big decision. But today, you have the chance to actualize that decision in a ton of little ways. Will you ask caring questions about your spouses daily activities and feelings? Will you serve them by doing the household chore they hate to do? Will you put down your phone or remote and listen to them earnestly and genuinely? All these little choices are just a reflection of the bigger decision you’ve already made.

Here’s another one. You choose to honor God with your body. That’s a big choice. But every morning, you have to decide whether you will go to the gym or sleep in. Then you have to decide if it’s going to be tacos or salad for lunch. You have to decide whether or not you will go to bed at a decent hour or whether you’ll stay up. Those are little choices, but they too are a reflection of the larger commitment you’ve made.

You can really look at any small daily choice like this. If you want to filter it through this dynamic, then just ask yourself what’s the larger decision behind the smaller choice you’re making right now? In fact, you can actually hold up this dynamic to your faith.

Believing in Jesus? That’s a big choice. The Bible puts it to us in the form of the two twin towers of a relationship with Christ. Those two towers, the foundational pillars of what it means to be right with God, are summed up in these words: Repent, and Believe.

The big choice of repentance is that you once and for all decide to repent of your self-lordship. You turn from your natural commitment to rule your own life driven by your own personal desires.

The big choice of belief is that you believe that Jesus is Lord over all, including you. You repent and believe.

But today you and I will both have a myriad of opportunities to actualize those big decisions through a ton of much smaller ones. We will choose a thousand times today whether to repent and believe in all these little ways. And each and every time we choose to repent of our selfishness, greed, pride, lust, and everything else that represents our self-lordship; and each and every time we instead choose to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord in our relationships, our finances, our homes, our marriages, and every other area of our lives; we are actualizing what it meant when we first stood before God and others to say that we are not the Lords of our own lives. Jesus is.

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Three Reasons Why Singing is Essential in the Life of the Disciple

There are certain habits that are synonymous with spiritual growth. We call these things spiritual disciplines, and they’re things like reading the Bible, praying, fasting, and others. But one habit that doesn’t make the list very often is singing. That’s a bit surprising given how many times in Scripture we aren’t just asked to sing, but commanded to do so. Indeed, it seems that in the Bible, singing is not an option; it’s a command. And maybe even more than being commanded, singing is essential for the life of the disciple. Let me give you a few brief reasons why I believe this to be true:

1. Because we are forgetful.

I’m not talking about forgetting where I parked my car (which incidentally do all the time). I’m talking about being spiritually forgetful; I’m talking about being forgetful at the soul-level. We hear about the promises of God, over and over again. We read them, meditate on them, study them, sometimes even memorize them, but then at the first sign of trouble in our lives, the questions start. We begin to doubt. We wonder if God is who we thought He was, or if there is even a God at all. That’s why we sing.

God has designed us this way. Singing, and music in general, connects with us at a level nothing else does. It lifts the eyes to heaven and the soul follows with it. Perhaps that’s why, throughout the history of Christianity, one of the greatest tools for teaching theology has been music. After all, one of the earliest Christian hymns is the great Christological passage of Philippians 2.

2. Because we are emotional.

Emotions are a gift; they’re part, I believe, of what it means to be created in God’s image. Music and singing helps connect what our minds might know but our hearts do not feel. While we can’t be ruled by our emotions, if we never engage emotionally with God, then our faith is stale. Jesus Himself told the woman at the well that a day was coming when the true worshippers would worship in spirit and in truth; that is, they would worship with the heart and the head. They would worship through their knowledge of God and their love of God.

Surely this is at least one of the reasons why we are commanded to sing; God wants a song in our hearts and our lips because of those times when our mind might remember but our hearts are forgetful.

3. Because we are prideful.

Ever get caught singing in the car? Someone looking at you from another traffic lane? Me too. It’s embarrassing. And for those of us who don’t have great voices, it can even be a little embarrassing to sing loudly and proudly with the fellowship of God’s people. And maybe that’s part of the point.

Singing, for most of us, is undignified. We don’t have trained voices; you’ll never catch us on stage with a microphone. Singing is for children; not for mature adults. If that’s true, then the choice to sing where others can hear you, is the choice to forego your pride. Singing is a choice of humility.

Let’s do it. Let’s do it loudly. Let’s do it for the sake of our souls and the glory of God. See you on Sunday.

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Smallgroup.com Launches Today

If you lead a Sunday school class or small group, I want to introduce you to a tool our team here at LifeWay has been working on for the last year. We’ve been beta testing the site for over 6 months with church leaders across the country, and finally, today is the official launch of smallgroup.com. We believe this powerful tool is going to change the way churches study the Bible in their individual groups.

Smallgroup.com is an online tool to get the Word of God to the people of God in the context of each individual group. Using this tool, any group leader anywhere can have access to a continually growing Bible study library of content and then build their own Bible study series according to their own needs. That means if a group wants to follow the same texts and topics their pastor is preaching from the pulpit or whether they want to put together their own Bible study plan based on a discipleship plan of their own design, they can do so in a fraction of the time it might take them to choose a curriculum or write the content themselves.

There are three key promises that make smallgroup.com distinct:

1. Because God’s Word transforms, the content is rooted in Scripture.

Every study available at smallgroup.com has been written by a theologically and educationally trained team. In short, we want this to be trustworthy content. When you find Bible studies at smallgroup.com, you can know they are firmly rooted in the Word of God which never, ever changes. In addition, the library of Bible studies is constantly growing. If you find a text or topic we haven’t written a study for yet, you can request that it be written absolutely free and we will write and load it into the tool for you.

2. Because every church is unique, each study is customizable.

Once you build a Bible study series at smallgroup.com, you can customize it as you see fit. That means that for the group leader, specific points of emphasis your pastor brought out in preaching or points of action that flow with the content can be seamlessly integrated into the content. The result are Bible studies that look, feel, and sound just like your church.

3. Because the task of discipleship is urgent, the tool is simple.

We’ve worked really hard to make sure that smallgroup.com is easy to use. It’s just a few clicks, and you can have Bible study that looks, sounds, and feels just like your group. Because of the simplicity, the group leader can be freed up to spend more one on one time with their group members helping those people apply individually what God has spoken in His Word.

Don’t take my word for it though – I’d love for you to try it out. At smallgroup.com, you can sign up for a free two-week preview to check it out if you’re interested. Regardless of whether you’re leading a Sunday school class, a small group, or responsible for a Bible study with co-workers, we can help you. Check it out today.

 

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The God Who Fixes… Or Doesn’t Fix… Your Problem

God is able. He’s definitely able.

And it’s really irrelevant what kind of problem you are bringing to the table right now. It can be big, or it can be small. It can be global, or it can be local. It can be an issue of health, finance, spiritual condition, or church. No matter what the question is, God is able. This is what we find the psalmist reminding us when he reflected on the nature of God in Psalm 8:

Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is Your name throughout the earth!
You have covered the heavens with Your majesty.
Because of Your adversaries,
You have established a stronghold
from the mouths of children and nursing infants
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I observe Your heavens,
the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which You set in place,
what is man that You remember him,
the son of man that You look after him?

What is this issue I bring to the throne of heaven? How small it is in comparison to the One who sits on that throne?

And yet there is another side to the majesty of God. God is truly able, and yet God is also truly wise. So though I come to the throne of heaven asking for intervention, I must also recognize that the God who can fix my problem in a moment is the same God who, in His wisdom, might choose to exercise His power differently.

I can’t take the power without the wisdom. He is the God who fixes… or doesn’t fix… our problems. But either way, how magnificent is His name throughout the earth.

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All Roads Do Lead to God… Eventually

Kevin DeYoung writes:

All paths lead to God, but only one path will present you before God without fault and with great joy.

Pick a path, any path–it will take you to God. Trust me: you will stand before Him one day. You will meet your Maker. You will see the face of Christ.

There are many ways up the mountain, but only one will result in life instead of destruction.

“Christianity is narrow,” you say. “Why must we talk of insiders and outsiders?”

“Christianity is hard. I don’t like what it says. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. This kind of life, this kind of faith, this kind of commitment–they will make me unpopular.”

“Christianity is strange. It’s on the wrong side of history. No one really accepts it—the miracles, the strange teachings, the ethical demands. They don’t work anymore.”

Yes, Christianity can seem narrow, strange, and hard. Jesus was often thought narrow, strange, and hard too. But sometimes the narrow way is the only way, the strange path is the true path, and the hard life is the one that leads to eternal life (John 14:6).

There are many roads to God, but only one will make you holy and only one will bring you home.

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Be Careful When You Pull Jesus Aside

Sometimes Jesus spoke mysteriously. Through stories that seemed like riddles, Jesus talked about the past, predicted the future, and shed cutting light into the present. Very few people, even those who thought they knew Him best, understood most, or even half, of what He was saying at a given moment. But then there were moments when the fog lifted. When Jesus was absolutely positively clear. When He left no interpretation to what He was saying.

Mark 8 is one of those times:

“Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed, and rise after three days. He was openly talking about this. So Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him” (Mark 8:31-32).

No riddles here. No illustrations. No stories about virgins and temples and other such things. Here was just the plain truth of what was coming down the pike very, very soon – Jesus, the One in whom these men had placed all their hope for the future – would be mercilessly slaughtered at the very hands of those whom His disciples were expecting Him to conquer. And the clarity was too much for Peter in the moment.

“Jesus? Could I have a word with you?”

Yep – that’s Peter. Pulling Jesus aside. And what makes it even more astounding is what this same Peter had done moments before:

“You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29). That was Peter confessing Jesus as the Son of the Living God. But here He is, concerned that Jesus surely has some misunderstanding about what it means to be that Messiah. Surely the Messiah could not be killed. Could not be humiliated. Could not be be rejected. Jesus just needed a bit of correction.

And so we shake our heads at Peter – poor, poor Peter – the one who can’t seem to get out of his own way so many times in the gospels. It’s amazing, though, how many times I scoff at another only to find the Holy Spirit turning the mirror on me. The truth is I find myself pulling Jesus aside all the time. It’s during all those times when I read something He said or did, and think to myself, Surely He didn’t mean what it sounded like it meant. Or, surely this doesn’t apply to me in the way it seems to.

Ever do that? Here are three times it’s happened to me recently:

1. Because of His extremity.

As a matter of fact, if we keep reading in Mark 8, we will find that Jesus not only predicted that He would go to the cross; He said that anyone who follows Him would have to take up their own cross as well. Now I read that, and I think to myself, Sure, Jesus. I’ll be ready for that. But we both know that you aren’t really asking me to die.

Except that might indeed be what He’s asking me to do. If not physically, He’s certainly asking me to do it spiritually. Emotionally. To my dreams, ambitions, and sin. He’s commanding this death in me. For real. 

2. Because of His intrusion. 

Jesus really doesn’t do the “personal space” thing very well. In fact, He seems bent on invading the most private parts of our lives. He is intent on disturbing not only our actions, but our hearts, emotions, and thoughts. He will push Himself further and further in, and sometimes, it’s frankly very awkward. You want to do one thing, and Jesus has simply barged His way in. So you need to just pull Him aside and help Him see that you still value your independence and rights, though you are glad to be in a “relationship” with Him.

3. Because of His simplicity.

“Don’t worry.” Jesus said that, and it’s more than a suggestion. It’s a command. That means the anxiety I feel is more than a momentary feeling; it’s disobedience. But here, too, I pull Jesus aside: Don’t worry? Come on, Jesus. You can’t really mean that. I mean, look at the level of responsibility I have. And have you looked around the world lately? Imagine trying to raise a kid in these circumstances. 

Sometimes we pull Jesus aside not because His commands seem to extreme, and not because they are so intrusive, but because they are so naive. So simple. Especially given the complex nature of all our issues… right?

Unless, of course, Jesus isn’t interested in being polite and accommodating, but is instead interested in burning away the chaff of our lives with His love, no matter how awkward it might be in the moment.

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