Friday, December 30, 2011

Turbo Charge Your Devotions in 2012

Would you like to make 2012 a particularly fruitful and rich year of growing in the Lord?  Here are three simple suggestions to spice things up a bit.

Add a Daily Devotional to Your Current Reading Plan
One of my all-time favorites is Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  Another classic is A.J. Russell’s God Calling.  What I like about both of these is that the entries are so short I still have plenty of time left over for other study, and yet both prove consistently helpful. I have to be honest here, though—while I appreciate Russell’s work as a writer and the movement out of which he wrote, I have a difficult time with writers presenting God (or Jesus) speaking in the first-person. It seems presumptuous at best, and that format alone can be enough to make the experience uncomfortable. Still, there are some nuggets here worth holding on to.  If you’re looking for something more contemporary, Zondervan recently released a daily devotional culled from 12 of my books entitled Simply Sacred.

Get Inspired with Spiritual Biographies
I’ve been reading through James Gilchrist Lawson’s (100 year old) Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians and am loving it. It’s so inspiring to read accounts of how God used some of the most common, simple people imaginable to spearhead great movements of the Spirit. The book has plenty of weaknesses. It’s not the most theologically precise, to say the least, and there’s at least one howler, when Lawson calls Charles Finney the greatest theologian since the apostles. But please don’t let that rob you of benefiting from a heart-inspirational recounting of how God has moved so powerfully in so many lives. It has given me increased desire to see God move afresh in our own day and age. I’m on the teaching team of one of the largest churches in the nation that saw over 3,000 people baptized this past year. While that’s amazing, these stories remind me that God can move even more powerfully than that.  Another suggestion is to wade through John Wesley’s Journals, which, frankly, tires me out just reading it (but in a good way).

Try Something New
It’s easy to fall into a spiritual rut. We do this in our human relationships (most notably, in marriage), and we do it in our relationship with God. Find some fresh ways to meet with the Lord, read about some new devotional exercises, make a point of intentionally cultivating a dynamic and growing devotional time with the Lord. If you haven’t read my book Sacred Pathways, consider doing so. It features nine different spiritual temperaments, all spoken of in Scripture, and all practiced throughout the history of the church, representing different windows through which Christians have beheld the face of God. If you have read Sacred Pathways, you might consider following up with What’s Your God Language? by Myra Perrine. Myra takes the Sacred Pathways model and updates it with some helpful exercises.
Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some Favorite Reads in 2011

So many books, so little time… But here are a few of my favorites that I read in 2011, in no particular order.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan.  I thank God for Francis. He has an infectious faith and a committed spirit and this book truly inspires and delivers. I asked each one of my kids to read it this year.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. What a great, gripping read. Even if you don’t enjoy the sport of running, you’ll be caught up in this tremendous, true tale. And if you’ve ever wondered why those funny looking toe shoes became so popular, this book is the main reason why.

A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. Just about every Christian should read this contemporary classic about facing life losses. Jerry lost his wife, mother and daughter in a single car accident. His reflections are mature, pastoral, and immensely helpful.

 Marriage Matters by Winston Smith.  I’ve read many marriage books. This is among the best. Winston trends toward the Sacred Marriage approach—exploring the soul-transforming aspects of the marriage relationship.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  An almost impossibly great book. As a writer, I don’t think I’ve come across any contemporary author who writes with such skill, who displays such amazing capacity for research, who plays the English language like a master musician plays the violin, and who manufactures a gripping narrative far better than any screenwriter working today. Though her output has been relatively sparse, Hillenbrand is quite possibly the finest contemporary writer working today.

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright. Even if you have issues with Wright’s work on justification, please don’t avoid this masterpiece on sanctification. It’s brilliant.

The Invisible Woman: When Only God Sees by Nicole Johnson.  A very short, but very powerful, inspirational giftbook for women. Women, if you feel taken for granted, this book will prop you right back up.

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll.  Of course I’ve got to read a lot of marriage books. Though this one will certainly be controversial when it is released in a few weeks, I believe it’s a bold statement and an important book. You and I might draw different lines than Mark and Grace do (which is what, sadly, the controversy will be about), but this is a thoroughly biblical, challenging, and shockingly honest portrayal of Christian marriage.  It took a lot of guts for Mark and Grace to write this book and I think it can spawn many productive conversations and thoughts.

The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ by Alphonsus Liguori.  Can you make room for an insightful though often ignored, Roman Catholic writer on spirituality? This is a profound spiritual read. As an Evangelical, I’m sometimes amazed how Liguori can give one of the best presentations of the Gospel I’ve ever read, and then end the chapter with a shout out to Mary… If you can get past that, there is so much to benefit from here.                                                      

The Great Omission by Dallas Willard
Dallas remains one of my favorite contemporary writers working on spiritual formation. This is such a good book, even though it’s cobbled together from various articles and speeches. If Willard takes the time to write it, it’s worth it for all the rest of us to take the time to read it.

And, for those of you who noticed I didn’t have a new book published in 2010, I hope you did notice that there were four Gary Thomas book releases in 2011 and one new curriculum.  They were:

Thirsting for God   This is a completely rewritten and updated version of my first book, Seeking the Face of God. I just about doubled the number of classics that I drew upon when the book was first published in 1994, threw out some of the more obscure sounding quotes, packed it full of newer material and quotes and hopefully produced a book that will pick up where Seeking left off. If you want a primer to become familiar with the Christian classics and an introduction to Christian spirituality through the perspective of the greatest writers of the past 2,000 years, this book just might be the one you’re looking for.

Sacred Marriage Gift Edition  So many people were giving out Sacred Marriage as a wedding gift but wanting something more substantial (a hardback instead of a paperback) that Zondervan put together this special gift edition with a wedding appropriate cover, and added Devotions for Sacred Marriage to the end—two books in one. We sell out of these every time we bring them to an event. Not only is it more economical to get the “two for one” deal, but people just love the packaging and they love the thought of giving this material to others for a wedding or anniversary gift.

Sacred Parenting DVD Curriculum  Finally—7 years after the book came out—we’ve got a curriculum for small groups to study the concepts of how God can use parenting to shape a parent’s soul. This isn’t a how-to look at parenting; instead, it explores how soul-forming the journey of parenting is for the parent. People appreciate the fresh approach and we’ve been encouraged by the comments received so far. There’s a participant’s guide that will take you through the 6 video sessions.

Simply Sacred
Zondervan went through my previous 12 solo books, pulled some of the most impactful excerpts, and put 366 of them together (we’ve got leap year covered!) for your daily inspiration. These are short entries—a page each—and are rather varied in theme, given that they’re pulled from so many different works.

Every Body Matters
My first completely new book in a couple years, Every Body Matters examines the connection between physical and spiritual discipline, what it means to honor God with our bodies, how we should view our bodies as instruments of spiritual service rather than ornaments, and offers a (I hope) compelling call for Christians to take body-care more seriously. Secular books tackle this subject with all the wrong, me-centered motivations—primarily, to look and feel better. EBM provides spiritual motivation: our bodies are not our own, they were bought with a price and so we’re called to honor God with our bodies.  “Seeking first the Kingdom of God” includes surrendering the kingdom of our physical bodies.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Simple Things: A Devotion for Advent

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.”  Luke 2:4-7

            The storming of the Bastille was the seminal event that unleashed the tumultuous French revolution; Europe would never be the same.  And yet, astonishingly, King Louis XVI’s diary entry for that day was “14/7 1789: Nothing”.
            Sometimes the greatest historical events are missed by contemporary observers, and that was certainly the case with the birth of Jesus. A relatively poor husband, a soon-to-be mother, and an unborn child stood poised to change the course not just of history, but of eternity, yet there was nothing to mark the grand occasion--no parades, no banners, no reporters, not even the most basic comforts.
            Martin Luther writes, “Behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village.  No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears, she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town….  Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.”
            If you were writing People magazine during the first century, there would be thousands of couples you’d include before you would mention this one.  Mary was from the segment of the population that would never be featured in People magazine.  Luther goes on, “There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances.”
            How much we miss when our eyes follow glamour instead of substance, and romance instead of love!  “They were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord.  No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable… See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.”
            This Christmas season, let’s remind ourselves that the values of God’s Kingdom bear little resemblance to this world’s.  This ignored baby would one day teach His disciples, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  But even at His birth He demonstrated, as Luther writes, “the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes.” 
            As followers of this humble baby, we are called to notice those whom a world lusting after glamor often ignores. We are to prize character over immodesty, generosity over affluence, and humility over power.  We are not to value people because they have fine clothes, expensive cars, or famous faces—God’s greatest heroes are often nondescript, anonymous, and less than pleasing to the eye.
            Luther reminds us, “Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men…  The angels [couldn’t] find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth… See how utterly God overthrows that which is lofty!  And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty honor, as if we had no honor to seek in heaven.”
            This advent, what do you find yourself seeking--approval from the world, success in society’s eyes, or obedience to the King of Kings? 
            If God has placed you in a high place, good for you—be faithful where you are.  If God has called you to an entry level position, or one of utter anonymity, concern yourself with the applause of heaven, not being mentioned in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, or USA Today.  What I love about worshipping at Second Baptist in Houston is that a CEO sits next to the receptionist; a business owner passes the communion plate to a customer; the banker studies Scripture with the mortgage holder. 
            What binds us isn’t our status in the world, but our union in Christ.  Those who seek glamor and fame would have missed Jesus while panting at the feet of Herod.  May we not make such a foolish mistake.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

300 Pound Pastors? Let's Start the Conversation (for leaders only)

When Mark Bejsovec, a youth pastor, saw the scale creep over 300 pounds, he gulped.  During his high school football playing days, he carried just 186 pounds on his six-foot-two frame.  In his early thirties, however, Mark started gaining weight steadily. At first, he rationalized it and even began using it like a tool. It made him seem funnier. He could push out his stomach until he looked like he was pregnant, and the kids in his ministry would laugh: “You look like you got twins!”

When he hit 300 pounds, though, Mark began to sense God speaking to him about his physical condition.

“I looked into Scripture, specifically at the men in the Bible who assumed leadership roles, and wondered how they must have looked. I couldn’t find anyone in leadership who was overweight.”

This wasn’t about vanity, but rather about being a better steward of his body and his calling: “If I was addressing only spiritual issues but not the physical ones, I considered I would be less useful to the Lord in my ministry. If I was going to remain in ministry, I needed to honor God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and also all my body.”

By definition, we can’t be a leader in secret.  Somebody is following us.  And the bodies we are leading with aren’t hidden.

A friend of mine, who works as a senior director for a major Christian development organization, recently shared with me the battle he faces with eating and exercise.  On a recent business trip, he ate twenty-four restaurant meals in a row. He’s concerned about his health habits, and like many, he lives with a constant sense of failure that he could be doing more about his weight. What he doesn’t see are spiritual leaders taking this struggle as seriously as he does.  “We’ve been taught in the evangelical tradition about adultery and lying and stealing and coveting,” he says, “and about lust and alcoholism and smoking and drug abuse. But many evangelical pastors who preach against these things are visibly overweight or obese. I don’t say this to judge them—I struggle with the same thing. But sometimes I wonder. Sure, they may have conquered the online porn, but it seems like they’re ‘medicating’ with food; I get that, because I do the same thing.”

For his part, Mark decided to quit his former eating habits cold turkey. When his weight started coming off, Mark experienced a rush of positive energy. “I started feeling more affirmed, my self-esteem went up, and my relationship with God grew. It’s not that my previous life didn’t honor God, but now it felt like I was living like God designed me to live.”

When I asked Mark what changed most about his life since he lost seventy pounds, he responded, “Let’s be honest: there were times I was discredited because of the way I looked. When I talked to kids about self-control in other areas, they could look at me and understandably ask why I wasn’t addressing my issues with food. But now, when I share my story, there’s an added inspirational element. If I can do it, anyone can do it, and my weight loss has become an effective tool in my ministry.”

As a writer whose most prominent books relate to marriage, I take it as a personal challenge to maintain the integrity of my own marriage.  I can’t write and teach on marriage if my own is falling apart.  As a pastor, however, when I talk to the church about self-control; when I preach on the necessity of personal discipline, good stewardship in all areas of life, and, above all, when I teach out of 1 Corinthians 6:20: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” I am going to completely undercut my message if I’m preaching out of a body that denies this.

It would be convenient if being a leader didn’t require also being an example, but that’s not the case.  Paul writes, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

Leaders, let’s ask ourselves, “Is my body serving or thwarting my message?”  If you’re a pastor, you may well have accepted financial sacrifice for the privilege of being in the ministry; if you’re a leader of any type, you have readily accepted the sacrifice of your time, tranquility, and even reputation, as leadership assaults all of these.  But will you also accept bodily sacrifice—watching what you eat, and putting in the effort to get appropriate exercise? Will you recognize that the body out of which you lead can either support or undercut the message that you carry?

I am not suggesting that we pick leaders by how thin they are, or that we make a direct connection between a person’s BMI and his holiness. That would be ridiculous, ignorant, and unfair—some bodies aren’t designed to be thin, other bodies seem to naturally stay thin regardless of how they are cared for or fed, but leaders, we know our own journey, we know whether this area of stewardship is feeding or hindering our maturity and ministry. Don’t all of us feel better, stronger, more energetic, when we’re being faithful in this area?  And don’t we all know that there are negative consequences when we get careless?

So, in a spirit of encouragement and grace, let’s admit that this is something we need to start talking about. Just as we seemed eager to denounce the opulent affluence and money-raising scandals of the 1980s televangelists, let’s not be blind to our own contemporary challenges at the dawn of the 21st century.

For more on this topic, check out Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Your Family Is Really Hungry for This Thanksgiving

            This Thanksgiving, your family and friends are hungry for more than turkey and pumpkin pie; more than they want to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys take on their annual opponents, whether they know it or not, they are hungry for…God.

            Maybe they know God but have lost their way and are stumbling around.  Maybe they’ve tried everything but God and are facing the bitter consequences, wondering if they have wrecked their life beyond repair.  Maybe they just need a listening ear, a word of encouragement, a rest from the chaos of their life.

            They may arrive in garish sweaters, various states of sobriety and fashion, but what they secretly want is some visit, some sign, some evidence, that God is really acting on this world, visiting this world, impacting this world.  We all want to see God’s power, God’s reality, God himself break through and show us that He exists. We hunger for splashes of heavenly glory on this earthly stage, because God planted that hunger in our hearts.

            Here’s the good news: God is just as hungry to show Himself to you, your family and friends, and the sobering news is, this Thanksgiving He wants to do it through you.

            Living a life of “holiness” isn’t a life defined primarily by piety—what we avoid doing, etc.—it’s a life of availability.  Holiness literally means “set apart,” which assumes we are set apart for something—in this case, to be used by God to show His presence and glory to others.

Once we surrender our bodies in this way, we become living and breathing centers of possibility—a force that God can use to impact the world. This truth teaches us to see our lives as a call to represent Christ wherever we go, whether it’s at a high school basketball game, a Thanksgiving dinner, the dreaded Department of Motor Vehicles Office, or even standing in line on “Black Friday.” Regardless of our location, we can live with a sense of offering ourselves up to God so that he can encourage his children and reach out to the lost. “Availability to God” is all about being in tune with God, ready to be used by God, and living for God on a moment-by-moment basis.

            Will you make yourself available to God when you least expect to be called upon this weekend?  Instead of simply surviving the weekend, or bracing yourself for the usual onslaught of family dysfunction or triviality, why not see if God will break through in an extraordinarily new way? Just because we make ourselves available to God doesn’t mean we’ll experience an unending string of miraculous encounters and exciting celestial conversations. God moves as he wills, where he wills, when he wills. But it is still an appropriate and necessary act of worship to present ourselves before God, saying, “Here I am. If you want to do something through me, I’m ready.”

            This weekend, before you get in the car, hop on a plane, or open your front door to the rest of the family, pause for a moment and pray, “Lord, make me sensitive. I’m offering my ears, mind, tongue, hands, and eyes. Fill them with your presence so that I could be your servant. Let me see what’s really going on. Let me hear what’s really being said. Let me care the way you care. And give me a tongue that will say just what you want said.”

            Maybe something will happen; maybe nothing will.  But making yourself available is so pleasing to God, in and of itself.

            Will you do that?  Will you make yourself available, and lose the mindset of simply “surviving” the family gathering?

            More than an obligation, this is the threshold to an exciting and fulfilling life and a wonderful holiday. It’s exactly what Paul was talking about when he called Christianity “the only race worth running.” When every moment becomes pregnant with divine possibility, and when each situation provides opportunity for God to manifest himself through us, there’s nothing else like it.

This blog entry was adapted from my book,  Holy Available.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Cost of Not Being a Sold Out Christian: Can You Afford It?

In his book The Great Omission, Dallas Willard presents the cost of not being completely sold-out to Jesus.  I love this passage:
“The cost of nondiscipleship is far greater—even when this life alone is considered—than the price paid to walk with Jesus, constantly learning from him.  Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil.  In short, nondiscipleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”
Willard covers so much, but can you think of anything else?  What else does not following Jesus with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, cost us?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Falling Into Love, Growing Into Divorce

While “love” is something many people think they fall into, studies show that divorce is something we usually grow into.  

William Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, provides an insightful distinction between what he calls “hard reasons” and “soft reasons” that split couples up and lead to divorce.  In Doherty’s view, “hard reasons” include “chronic affairs, chemical dependency, and gambling” in which “The person is not willing to change.  They have a drinking problem and won’t get it fixed.  They’re gambling the family money away and won’t get help.”  “Soft reasons” include “general unhappiness and dissatisfaction, such as growing apart and not communicating.”  (USA Today, Sept. 29, 2011, pt. 1-2D.)
Doherty found that most marriages aren’t destroyed by “hard reasons” but rather by “soft” ones.  In Doherty’s study, the number one reason couples gave for getting a divorce was “growing apart,” followed by “unable to talk together,” “how spouse handles money, “spouse’s personal problems,” and “not getting enough attention.”  I’m not sure how Doherty defines “spouse’s personal problems,” but at first glance, none of the top five reasons given are biblical excuses for ending a marriage.  It’s not until number six that “infidelity” is mentioned.

What this study highlights is that even when marital satisfaction reaches a crisis point, the problem isn’t the marriage, but our lack of skills. Quite frankly, on a relational and spiritual level, most of us are seriously under qualified to enter marriage.  We soon find that we’re in “over our heads” and feel like we’re drowning.  Marriage all but demands that we grow, and a lot of us either resent the implication that we need to grow or are too lazy to work towards personal growth.

When “soft issues” are the problem, divorce is a very ineffective shortcut.   Instead of finding a new spouse, we need to learn new ways to express empathy.  Instead of getting a divorce, we need to get rid of laziness.  Instead of searching for a new partner, we need to search for ways we can stay connected.  If you don’t address the lack of relational skills that caused the first marriage to fail, the second one will, too—because, again, the problem isn’t who you chose to marry; the problem is who you’re becoming (and what you’re not becoming)in the marriage.    

The USA Today article also quotes Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist who notes that marriage is a “very high-skilled activity.  If your marriage is failing, make the assumption your skill set is insufficient.”
You see, our assumption is all too often that our spouse is insufficient; therefore, the only logical solution is to get a new spouse.  If we assume that our skill set is insufficient, that there are things we need to learn about not becoming lazy in our relationship, practicing empathy, growing in humility, generosity and gratefulness, then we’ll see marital dissatisfaction as a call to grow deeper in holiness rather than a call to dissolve our family.

I’ve said it before: most couples don’t fall out of love so much as they fall out of repentance.  Persistent character weaknesses—laziness, arrogance, pride, selfishness, bitterness, a sense of entitlement, and so on—kill far more marriages than active affairs, chemical dependency or abandonment.  The answer isn’t pursuing “happiness;” it’s pursuing holiness.  By God’s grace, we can grow in each of these areas. 
Dr. Heitler suggests that if both parties “will each take personal responsibility and focus on their own skills upgrade, the whole picture turns around.  Even one person can turn the marriage around.”

Doesn’t this make sense?  What if we assumed marital dissatisfaction is usually an issue of character, not mismatching, and thus began working on ourselves instead of getting rid of our spouse and trying to find a new one?  What if, indeed, we found marriage as a call to holiness more than happiness, and then discovered that in the pursuit of holiness we actually achieved a level of happiness we never thought possible?
Hmmm.  Somebody ought to write a book about this…

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Facing Uncommon Temptations

Have you ever found yourself in a moment of intense temptation? Your heart pounds, your conscience is screaming, but you end up watching yourself, almost like a movie, collapsing into sin?

There are common temptations, little flickers of excitement, smaller acts of compromise, that often don’t require much more than a quick dismissal or a refocusing of our hearts to resist. But there are other temptations, the kind we’re talking about here, that require a more serious defense.

One of Satan’ favorite tricks in such moments is to try to cleverly turn our truest help and ally into an enemy. His deception works like this—he wants us to view God in such moments as either our judge or a passive spectator who is looking on to see how we respond. If we fall into either trap, viewing God and treating God as either, we become helpless and are all but certain to fall. God desires to be our savior and helper.

Scripture (Psalm 70:1; Jesus in Matthew 26:41; 1 Cor. 10:13) and the ancients call us to a much different response: earnestly, consciously, even desperately admitting our helplessness in the face of temptation, and imploring God’s aid.

Alphonsus Liguori (18th century) counsels, “We must play the part of beggars…[praying] ‘My Jesus, mercy; do not let me be separated from you. O Lord, come to my aid. My God, help me!’”

Satan wants us to view God as an observer, not a participant, in our battle against these uncommon temptations. One of our strongest weapons is prayer, through which we tap into God’s active power. “We absolutely require God’s help to overcome temptations. And sometimes, in the face of more violent assaults, the sufficient grace that God gives everyone would be enough for us to resist them; but on account of our inclination to evil, it is not, and we need a special grace. Those who pray receive it; but those who don’t pray, don’t receive it, and are lost.”

There are certain temptations that a strong character can withstand; our previous devotions have rooted us in Christ, and the ammunition Satan uses against us in these common times are more like BBs than bullets. They may sting, but they don’t penetrate our hearts. However, in the face of more violent spiritual assaults, Satan brings out the armor-piercing ammo. In these moments, we are helpless unless we immediately remember God’s role as our friend; He is not a spectator, but an active defender. Such temptations are won, ironically enough, on the back of humility. We recognize we will fall on our own, and so cast ourselves on a foreign power, one God is only too willing to provide.

Instead of viewing God as watching to see if we fall, Jesus and the ancients counsel that we admit our weakness and implore God’s active assistance. When facing temptations that are bigger than us, past spiritual experience, carefully cultivated character, and even previous moments of study and worship are not strong enough to carry us through them. We need an immediate, active force, a deliverer and conquering hero. It is not our strength that is being tested, but our humility. We fight with weakness, admitting our need and learning to depend on God. The clearest sign of such humility is honest and earnest prayer.

If you view God as either your spectator or judge in these intense moments, the battle is lost. He is your helper, your friend, and savior. Go to him. Admit your need for him. Recognize that prayer is the primary way to tap into his provision. Such “uncommon temptations” are allowed to show us our ongoing spiritual poverty and ever-growing need for God’s mercy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

History is His

Sometimes, a commentator can just nail it. Such is the case with D. English when he writes about Mark 1:8:

"The gospel is meant to make us truly ‘broad-minded’, viewing the whole of life against the canvas of God’s eternal plans for us and for his world. Worship week by week reminds us of that perspective, as ought our daily devotions and experiences of Christian fellowship. In that wider sweep of God’s purposes we learn to play our limited—yet vital—part. History is his. The universe is his. The mission to the world is his. We are most fulfilled not when we seek fulfilment but when we seek to find our proper place in his never-ending purposes for this world. We are both less and more important than we think. In that on-going process, we belong to one another."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Calvin on Teachers Who, in Their Attempt to be Novel, Do More Harm than Good

“If we intend to reform affairs which are in a state of disorder, we must always exercise such prudence and moderation, as will convince the people, that we do not oppose the eternal Word of God, or introduce any novelty that is contrary to Scripture. We must take care, that no suspicion of such contrariety shall injure the faith of the godly, and that rash men shall not be emboldened by a pretense of novelty. In short, we must endeavor to oppose a profane contempt of the Word of God, and to prevent religion from being despised by the ignorant.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Harmony of the Gospels, addressing Matthew 5:17)

1. Calvin warns teachers to be prudent in their attempts at reforming doctrine, reminding them that without careful attention, in the zeal of their enthusiasm they might end up going against Scripture. In other words, in a nobel attempt to address wrong emphases we must be careful not to create additional error.

2. Teachers must be so clear about what they are teaching that they do not raise any suspicion of established truth that might “injure the faith of the godly.” It is wrong, and cruel, to create doubts about Scripture’s truth in the hearts of earnest believers.

3. “Novel” teachers must also be careful not to embolden “rash men” who will eagerly embrace novelty and cause further harm. Certain people will rush to new sounding doctrine and they will typically exercise even less caution than the original teacher.

4. Teachers should further be careful not to teach anything that creates contempt for God’s Word, or that would lead the unbelieving to question the clarity and truth of God’s Word. If what we say seems to make the Bible seem less clear and less authoritative, we are doing tremendous harm.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What are you willing to do to sustain the privilege of prayer?

Next month, I’ll line up with about 20,000 other people to run the Boston Marathon. It’ll be my third time there, and since you have to qualify each year, slower runners like me have to work hard to maintain the privilege of running there—watching my weight, keeping fit, and completing another marathon under the time limit for my age. It’s hard work, but to me, spending that weekend in Boston is more than worth the effort. It’s a privilege I cherish and am willing to sacrifice for.

On numerous Sundays, I get an even higher privilege: I’m invited into the pulpit of Second Baptist Church in Houston, a community with over 20,000 weekly attendees. Certain things are expected of me to maintain that privilege: my sermons better be prepared. The people here know their Bibles, and if I just throw something together, I’ll lose them. I’m also expected by the executive staff to maintain a certain integrity in my lifestyle.

But by far the greatest privilege of my life is to approach God in prayer. We often talk of prayer as an “obligation,” a “duty,” a spiritual “discipline,” but in reality it is a breathtaking opportunity. That we could speak to the God of the universe—that we dare even enter his presence; that we might ask him to consider our pleas, and that we might receive marching orders from him—well, the fact that he even knows who we are, much less has something for us to do, is unimaginable apart from his mercy and grace.

The doorway to prayer, of course, was opened through the reconciling work of Christ to which we added nothing. But sustaining the privilege of prayer, though always grounded in grace, does require a certain maintenance on our part. This is not adding to the finished work of Christ, but rather accepting Scripture’s teaching that there are certain things that disrupt our awareness of God’s presence and voice in prayer, and we’d be wise to pay heed to them if we want to sustain the privilege of prayer.

The “Work” of a Christian

The notion that grace precludes effort is a cancer in the church, a false understanding of the crucial distinction between justification and sanctification. The spiritual life and ministry both take enormous, persistent, and diligent human effort.

Consider Paul’s attitude: “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should stake such a view of things.” (Phil. 3:13-15)

Notice the phrase, “all of us who are mature should…” Paul isn’t showcasing his piety here, or nominating himself for a Christian of the Year award; he’s laying down a standard to which every believer should aspire. According to his inspired words, a mature Christian will “strain toward what is ahead...”

Commentator Jac Muller writes, “The verb used here is very descriptive, and calls to mind the attitude of a runner on the course, who with body bent forward, hand stretched to the fore, and eye fixed on the goal, strains forward with the utmost exertion in pursuit of his purpose.”

The great (Reformed, by the way) Puritan Jonathan Edwards was as blunt as a man could be about this: “We are nothing if we are not in earnest about our faith, and if our wills and inclinations are not intensely exercised. The religious life contains things too great for us to be lukewarm.”

He takes it one step further when he adds, “If there is a fight to be fought, or a race to be won, then it must be done with utmost earnestness. Without this there is no way of traveling the narrow road that leads to life. Sloth is therefore as damning as open rebellion.”

I mention this because many will say “sustaining the privilege of prayer” sounds like works righteousness. Maybe it might even lead to legalism. This misunderstanding will keep us immature and unfruitful.

Can we value work as Paul, the champion of salvation by grace through faith, did? I love his comments in 2 Timothy 2:6, when he tells his young protégé to “reflect” on the fact that it’s the “hardworking farmer” who gets the first share of the crops. (2 Tim. 2:6) This is such a brilliant metaphor that it’s particularly sad I’ve never heard a pastor preach on it. Much of a farmer’s work—unlike, say, that of an athlete, solider, or politician—is done behind the scenes, without any glory, applause or excitement. Ancient farming, particularly in the days before mechanized harvesting, was grueling work based largely on perseverance and consistent effort. That’s the metaphor Paul uses to describe the hard, often anonymous work of a Christian as he or she pursues God and is used by God.

The renowned John Stott warns, “This notion that Christian service is hard work is so unpopular in some happy-go-lucky Christian circles today that I feel the need to underline it…It may be healthy for us to see what strong exertion [Paul] believed to be necessary in Christian service.”

Indeed, as Stott points out, Paul gloried in the fact that “I worked harder than any of them,” explicitly referencing his hard work in 2 Corinthians 6:5, 1 Corinthians 15:10, and Philippians 2:16. Paul always ties his labor to God’s energy and provision, but never in a way that God’s provision puts Paul to sleep and certainly not as an invitation to a life of neglect.

Ministry and an intimate prayer life are a lot like farming. Much of the work that produces fruit passes unseen. No one on earth is applauding or even recognizing our efforts. But the life it creates can be used by God to bless and serve many. The “planting” is grueling; the harvest can be great.

Just a few verses later in 2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed...” (2 Tim. 2:15)

In the next post, we’ll talk about how we work at sustaining a prayer life; since work is such a suspicious element of today’s Christian spirituality, I believed I needed to first support my contention that a productive prayer life doesn’t just happen by “letting go and letting God.”

Again this might sound like a provocative statement, but I believe the biblical record is clear: sustaining a rich spiritual life of devotion and service requires persistent, diligent and even enormous effort.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reinvigorate your faith journey -

Thirsting for God sheds light on refreshing perspectives about prayer, hope, purpose, and the thirst for God and His love.

Along with Gary's personal journey the reader will delve into classic Christian writings from John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis and others.

Encounter a fulfilling, transforming relationship with God while finding companionship and the mentor-ship of great words, minds and hearts.

Find more information at

Monday, February 28, 2011

"The Most Essential of All Spiritual Disciplines"

“David is dead,” my wife said. “His parents want you to speak at the funeral. They’re burying him tomorrow.”

I had spent the day taking my kids to a local fair. We had been riding kiddie roller coasters, braving gravity-busting wheels, and digesting cotton candy. It was late at night by the time we got home, and the funeral—a three hour drive away—was scheduled to take place in about thirteen hours. It was difficult, as you might imagine, to shift gears so suddenly.

The funeral was a particularly sad one, in that David died young and in prison. He poked heroin into his veins once too often, and on a particularly fateful occasion, the HIV virus was clinging to the needle.

I struggled through the service, but was helped by the classic Christian writers who have taught me that even tragic deaths can teach us valuable truths—negatively, if not positively. In fact, these writers urge us to use death by extracting the message out of each one, thereby making death our servant.

The great seventh century Eastern Orthodox writer John Climacus called the remembrance of death the “most essential of all works” and the most helpful of all spiritual disciplines. John of the Cross, a medieval writer who coined the now famous phrase “Dark Night of the Soul” was fond of drawing pictures of skulls and literally ate his soup out of a plugged skull to remind himself that death was imminent.

More importantly, Scripture itself teaches us to keep the reality of death in mind: “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2b NIV).

The Passion Filter
Among other things, the ancients saw the remembrance of death as a filter for our passions. Pascal wrote, “To render passion harmless let us behave as though we had only a week to live.” Notice the practical element in Pascal’s teaching: remember death to take the heat out of sinful passions.

Climacus joined him in this counsel: “You cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last…The man who lives daily with the thought of death is to be admired, and the man who gives himself to it by the hour is surely a saint.”

Thomas à Kempis argued that the remembrance of death is a powerful force for spiritual growth in general:
"Didst thou oftener think of thy death than of thy living long, there is no question but thou wouldst be more zealous to improve. If also thou didst but consider within thyself the infernal pains in the other world, I believe thou wouldst willingly undergo any labor or sorrow in this world, and not be afraid of the greatest austerity. But because these things enter not to the heart, and we still love those things only that delight us, therefore we remain cold and very dull in religion."

18th century Anglican William Law adds, “Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business than the losing of a feast.”

The ancients also portray the remembrance of death as a comfort and as a help to keep our priorities in order. They suggest practical ways that we can incorporate the remembrance of death into our daily spiritual disciplines. For more on this, check out Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey, now available from Harvest House books.