The toughest test of faith?

8 09 2007

>In this blog, I have focused on deepening faith by placing all trust in God. If you are like me, there are areas where it is relatively easy to let go of the wheel and let God take over. And then there are areas where flesh takes hold and makes it more difficult to let go and let God. Perhaps the toughest area for me involves those I love. I have a terrible tendency to worry about loved ones and take a tack that involves me trying to labor. I do pray for God’s will in these situations, but I find myself doing more than praying.

This is a particular issue with my kids. I deeply want only the best for them — the best experiences, good health, self confidence, success in school, athletics and life generally. And, most importantly, I want them to grow to love the Lord, and soon — without reservation. Too often, worry about my kids creeps in and I find myself working before praying – or simply focusing more on my role rather than giving my concerns up to God. It is all too easy to justify my fleshly approach because, after all, I am their dad. And this translates to any situation where my emotion drags me away from faith to flesh. It could be worry or anxiety, control, depression, secular fixes… Whatever, it is flesh and not faith. In these situations, I have to let go of the wheel, get out of the driver’s seat and trust fully in God.

But what does this really look like? It does not mean that you stop acting completely. That you stop teaching your kids or that you do not seek counseling or engage with someone who is lost. What it means is that you go to God first — and listen. That you do not stress over the matter. After all, a full faith in the Lord does not leave room for stress, anxiety or worry. Paul tells us in Phillipians: Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6, HCSB)

I recently came across an interview with Tullian Tchividjian, pastor and Christian author – and also Billy and Ruth Graham’s grandson (a link to the full interview is at the upper right of this page). Tullian is a committed man of God, but this wasn’t always the case. He went through a period of his life in which he wandered away from God and into drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. It was this question and answer that really hit home…

I’m curious—your grandfather, Billy Graham, is one of the most famous evangelists in history. And your uncle, Franklin, is not only a well-known Christian leader, but also went through a season of deep rebellion? Do you recall anything in particular that they said to you during your time away from the Lord?

Interestingly, because my grandparents knew that my parents had laid such a solid foundation, teaching me the Gospel from the time I was born, they never preached to me during my wilderness wanderings; they never sat me down and gave me a lecture. They always told me they were praying for me, that they believed God had his hand on me, and that if I ever needed anything, not to hesitate to let them know. Their unconditional love for me during that time was stunning. In fact, from a human perspective, one of the tools God used to bring me to himself was the attractiveness of my grandparents (and parents) unconditional love. Because of my upbringing, I had always known the content of the Gospel but it was the “preaching of the Gospel without words” through my parents and grandparents which helped me to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Can you imagine being in this situation (maybe you have been, or currently are, in this situation)? Seeing someone you love walking away from God and into fleshly trouble. Does anyone doubt how the enemy will work to try to derail a family that has committed itself to following God? I can think of a lot of things that I might do from a worldly perspective. Maybe working overtime to show the loved one the error of his ways, trying to convince. Maybe tough love. Maybe just worrying and feeling unease at my core. But what the Grahams did was pray and show unconditional love. Don’t be fooled, I don’t think they took this tack because they lacked concern or because they did not want to take the reins and muscle Tullian back to the narrow path. I think their approach shows a strong faith. They knew that Tullian was God’s son first. They prayed. They trusted that God was working in this situation. And, guess what, He was. Through their prayers and unconditional love, God impacted Tullian in a way that all of the muscle in the world could not have.

My takeaway from this is that in every life situation, we have a choice. We can trust in God or we can trust in the world (whether ourselves or some worldly approach). We can worry or we can give our concerns over to an all-powerful God. In Philippians, Paul follows the verse quoted above by letting us know that when we turn our concerns over to God, He gives us a sense of peace that does not make earthly sense. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7, NLT)

Do you have a worry with a loved one (or anything else for that matter)? Go to God, give it to God — and know that His peace will wash over you. Still stressed? Still sitting in the driver’s seat? Stop. Go to God right now. He wants you to communicate with Him without ceasing. The Psalms are full of great prayers that echo this fleshly issue. Take a look at Psalm 40 for a start — meditate on God’s word and then use it as a you speak to God about your own concerns.


Faith and difficult social or relational situations

30 08 2007

>Are there relationships in your life that are, at best, difficult to maintain? But because of circumstances they are necessary for you to maintain nonetheless? I am thinking about acquaintances, co-workers, or even relatives. Or, do you have times that you have to interact with others but just do not feel up to it? Either I am odd, or this is something that we all deal with from time to time.

But what do you do about it? Do you suck it up and try to put a smile on your face, make small talk and get through it? Do you think…what would Jesus do? And then forge ahead once you’ve decided that Jesus would be cordial? How has that worked out? If you are like me, I bet not very well. I can think of times that I have not been up for social events, business-development events or even gatherings with extended family. The worst result comes from not giving thought to changing my attitude and heading into the situation. When I do that, I am miserable and the people I interact with know it. If I resolve to do what Jesus would do, I may be able to put on a better face (at least in the beginning), and others may not realize that I am none to psyched to be there — but I usually don’t feel much better.

What to do?

The trouble here is what’s inside of me. The trouble is in my heart, which in the biblical sense means my heart, my soul, my consciousness. The trouble is the hardness of my heart.

Proverbs 28:14 sheds some light on this:

Happy is the one who is always reverent,
but one who hardens his heart falls into trouble. (HCSB) 

Wouldn’t you like to be happy in those times when your flesh is trying to convince you that you are not? The concept of reverence used in the HCSB translation is translated as “fear the Lord” in other translations. The “fear” is not really what we would think of as fear, though. Matthew Henry, in his commentary, puts it this way:

Happy is the man who always keeps up in his mind a holy awe and reverence of God, his glory, goodness, and government, who is always afraid of offending God and incurring His displeasure, who keeps conscience tender and has a dread of the appearance of evil, who is always jealous of himself, distrustful of his own sufficiency, and lives in expectation of troubles and changes, so that, whenever they come, they are no surprise to him. He who keeps up such a fear as this will live a life of faith and watchfulness, and therefore happy is he, blessed and holy. 

That’s a fairly long-winded way of saying, live in faith and do not for a minute rest on your own abilities. God can, and wants to, change your heart. But you have to turn to Him to do it for you. So instead of using your own faculties to determine what Jesus would do and then setting your mind to doing it, ask God to change you from the inside out.

Here is a prayer from Psalm 51 that gets to this point. Note that the mention of “teach the rebellious” certainly extends to our actions and not just our words. When you’re in a difficult social situation, let God’s light shine through you and stand back and watch the impact on those around you.

God, create a clean heart for me
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not banish me from Your presence
or take Your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore the joy of Your salvation to me,
and give me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways,
and sinners will return to You. (Psalm 51:10-14 — HCSB) 

Lessons from lifeguarding

17 08 2007

When I was in high school, I spent my summers coaching a swim team and working as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool. One of the prerequisites for those jobs was that I be certified as a lifeguard, which meant taking a lifesaving course before the summer started.

As part of the course we were required to perform mock rescues of fellow participants. One of the things the instructors tried to get across was just how much more difficult it is to save someone who can’t swim but is flailing around trying to save themselves. In the drill, the instructors encouraged the person being rescued to thrash around at first. So you swim up to the “drowning person” and try to get them to calm down and trust that you will get them to safety. If they calm down and let you work, you can pretty easily employ the proper techniques and get them to the side quickly (even if the person is substantially bigger than you). But if they continue to struggle, it becomes much more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to save the person. In fact, part of the technique that is taught is to push away from the person if they are thrashing around so much that they are bringing you down too.

You can probably see where I am going with this. We are all drowning in this life. We were born into sin and we face constant battle from Satan, who rules over this world. We have a choice to make, we can work really hard to try to save ourselves or we can let God do the work. The Bible is clear that the only way that works is the latter. And I think we all understand and agree when we are talking about eternal salvation — that only faith in Jesus Christ can save. But what about being saved from this world every day? What about increasingly living a life that is fulfilling and bears fruit?

The first step to living a truly fulfilling life and bearing fruit for God’s kingdom is to acknowledge that you do not have the power to do it. But God does, and He has promised that power to us if we will stop fighting and turn everything over to Him. The more you turn over to Him, the more His strength begins to flow through you and out into others. But you have to stop thrashing around trying to do it yourself — you can’t swim in these waters. This is easy to do, but hard to remember to do. Just like the person who is drowning, if they were standing on the side of the pool looking on, I am certain they would agree that they should stop thrashing about and let the lifeguard bring them to safety. But there in the middle of the pool, their thoughts do not work the same way. We are like that in our life. As you read this, I am sure you are saying, “well, duh.” But the key is to keep this in mind when you are faced with matters of this life. Want to inoculate yourself? When you pray, make it a regular part of your conversation with God to turn your hands over and say, “I can’t do it God, any of it. And I ask you to take over for me and guide my thoughts, my words and my actions in all that I do.” Stop thrashing about and let God take over.

A study in contrasts

15 08 2007

>Saul knew the Lord, he just didn’t know the Lord.

Saul, the Old Testament king, not the former Paul in the New Testament, knew that God was in charge. Saul was anointed as king by God’s prophet Samuel. The Holy Spirit transformed Saul and made him into a different person (1 Samuel 10:7), gifting him with the power of prophesy and enabling him to assume the kingly duties God chose for him. Saul’s story was so promising in the beginning — he was chosen by God, received the Spirit of the Lord, was made into a new person and was put on his way to be a great leader of Israel. Saul was set up to win — he had it all. But how does Saul’s story end? Saul was ultimately rejected as king and 1 Samuel 15:35 conveys to us the harshest result of Saul’s life and decisions “…and the Lord regretted He had made Saul king over Israel.” Ouch! Saul ultimately dies a tragic death, taking his own life after being overtaken by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31).

There are many lessons for us in Saul’s life as told in the Old Testament. But I want to get to the core of Saul’s erroneous ways. What happened with Saul that he wasted God’s gifts and perhaps a much different destiny? I am not going to attempt to decontruct Saul’s life in this entry, but I do believe that there is one glaring omission in Saul’s life that we can learn from.

Saul knew first hand of God’s existence, and he knew of God’s power. But Saul did not place full trust in God — Saul’s faith was not very deep. Saul’s life is characterized by poor decision making (see, for example, 1 Samuel 15 and 1 Samuel 14:23-24). At every turn, Saul first trusted in Saul and only when pushed to the absolute brink, did he “call” on God. I put call in quotes because I think a reading of Saul’s life story shows that there was likely not much conviction in Saul’s calls on the Lord. It could certainly be said that Saul believed that there was a God and that God was one, that is he believed that the God of his people was the one and only God of all. From the outside, you might not even guess that Saul was so off base in his relationship with the Lord. Saul asked for forgiveness through the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 15:25, 30), he offered sacrifices (1 Samuel 13:9), he called for the ark (1 Samuel 14:18).To the observer, Saul appeared to be doing the things that one might expect of someone who had a faith in God. But where was Saul’s heart? If Saul were alive today, can’t you just picture him sitting in the pew, nodding approvingly at the message from the pulpit, then the nodding becomes more anxious as he glances at his watch, eager for the service to end. And once the service is over, he races out the church doors, getting back to life — a life with Saul in control.

I can certainly relate to a time in my life when I treated my relationship with God somewhat similar to the way Saul did. I acted as if He was there only when I really needed him. Acting like I could handle my life just fine, until I painted myself into a corner and needed God’s hand to lift me out. But this is not what God wants for us. He wants much, much more.

The title to this entry is a Study in Contrasts. So, who is the contrast? Are you thinking it’s some nearly perfect, God-honoring, God-fearing, do-gooder. Nope. How about a murdering adulterer? That’s right, Saul’s successor, David. David was certainly not perfect and he was not sinless. But David trusted God. David had faith in the Lord.

David rose from a shepherd boy to become the most renowned king of Israel. And it was through David’s line that Jesus was born. David’s military conquests are legendary. David had a deep faith. David completely sought God’s will. This does not mean that David did not stumble, he certainly did and sometimes in a big way. But the more David’s condition broke down, the more earnestly he sought God’s presence and guidance.

There are many examples of David’s strong faith. As the author of the bulk of the Psalms, David’s heart for God is clearly evident. But the event in David’s life that I want to use to contrast with Saul is a seemingly minor one on its face, especially in light of some of the more well-known stories from David’s life. In 1 Samuel 23 we are told that it was reported to David (who was not yet king) that the Philistines were fighting against and raiding a town called Keilah in the lowlands of Judah. Upon hearing the news, David first inquired of the Lord as to what he should do. God told David to launch an attack and rescue the town. But David’s men weren’t too enthused about the prospect of launching an attack against the Philistines while in Judah. You see, Saul was after David at this point and David and his men were in hiding. David’s men were afraid of making themselves even more vulnerable by attacking the Philistines in Judah. So, faced with the opposition of his men (an opposition that was perfectly justifiable in light of the circumstances), David neither acquiesced nor did he ignore the will of his men and command them to move out. David went back to God. And God told him to go at once and rescue the people of Keilah.

What I think is so cool about this story is not necessarily that David first inquired of God when he heard of the plight of the people of Keilah. What I think is so great about this event from David’s life is that when faced with contradictory logic that seemed to make practical sense, David went right back to God. Now, you may be thinking, didn’t David basically ignore God’s command by not simply telling his men that God commanded it and thus they should go? Did David not trust God enough to go on the first command? But I don’t think that is the case — that would not be consistent with what we know of David. What I think this shows is that David was in a state of relationship with God that was characterized by constant communication. You see, faith in the Lord is more than knowing that He is in control — it is constantly placing yourself in His control. And the only way to do that is by constantly staying in His presence. That is what David did. And it is very far from what Saul did. Sure, David could have taken God’s command and charged ahead, undeterred by the comments from his men. And there are occasions where David’s approach was just that. But David’s relationship with God was the type of relationship that David could, when faced with uncertainty, just take it to God.

Saul and David both recognized that God was God, and even Saul recognized some of the “religious” activities that were common among God’s people in their day. Saul, though, was going through the motions while David’s life was characterized by a constant connection to God and a relationship with God.

David’s heart was in it, Saul’s was not. And that made all the difference. God’s strength flowed through David over and over. Saul’s strength failed him, over and over.

What is the "faith" we are talking about here?

13 08 2007

>The word “faith” is generally accepted as a belief in something. You might have faith in democracy or faith that your favorite sports team will pull out a victory. When the Bible speaks of faith, what does it mean? Is it enough to simply believe there is a God? James tells us that even the demons believe that God is one, and they shudder. (James 2:19) What about believing in the historicity of Jesus? Isn’t believing in Christ more than believing that He existed in history? I think Biblical faith is something more, more than simple belief. I particularly like this definition from the New Bible Dictionary:

Faith is clearly one of the most important concepts in the whole New Testament. Everywhere it is required and its importance insisted upon. Faith means abandoning all trust in one’s own resources. Faith means casting oneself unreservedly on the mercy of God. Faith means laying hold on the promises of God in Christ, relying entirely on the finished work of Christ for salvation, and on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God for daily strength. Faith implies complete reliance on God and full obedience to God. (Wood, D. R. W. (1996, c1982, c1962). New Bible Dictionary (359). InterVarsity Press.)

What I am going to try to focus on in this blog is a concept of faith that comes through intentionally living our faith, which leads to an ever-deepening of the living waters that flow from God. It is important to note that we do not work our way into this faith, however. Instead, it is by constantly turning our focus toward God — focusing on His presence and purpose in every aspect of life — that we enable God to deepen our faith through His strength.