Tagged ‘1 John‘

Sounding the Alarm

I was drifting off to sleep when it happened. The heavy fog of slumber had settled upon me, and I welcomed its warm embrace. I had been lying in bed for an hour, fitfully tossing from side to side. I was weary from trying to go to sleep. Finally, I could sense the moment had arrived, and I smiled as the curtain of sleep began to descend. Suddenly a piercing squawk jarred me from my slumber. Startled, I was instantly on high alert. It was a chirp from the smoke alarm in the hallway.

I was so tired. I just wanted to lie there and go to sleep, but I knew that if I did, it would only be a matter of time before the alarm would sound again. The smoke alarm has a built in system to let me know that the battery needs to be changed. It sounds a short, intermittent, ear-piercing chirp. For some reason, it seems the notification never sounds during the day. It’s as if it intentionally waits, watching to see if I am asleep, and then with glee sounds the alarm just to watch me jump in my bed. But I digress. As I lay in bed, I considered putting a pillow over my head. Perhaps that would drown out the noise. Maybe two pillows would work. In my heart, I knew it would be futile. With growing frustration, I tossed aside the blanket and crawled out of bed.

I stumbled to the garage, found a step-stool, and then retreated back to the hallway. I stepped up on the stool and unhinged the smoke alarm from the ceiling plate. Bleary eyed, I walked to the living room and fumbled through the drawer where I keep my batteries to find a fresh 9-volt battery. I was still in that fog of slumber as I pulled the old battery out of the smoke alarm and put the new battery in its place. I tested the new battery by holding the button on the unit. Thankfully, it was in good working order.

Tired or not, it was crucial that I replace the battery. The heart of the unit needed to be changed. The smoke alarm is not able to fulfill the purpose for which it was created without a new battery. The entire house would be at risk if I ignored the warnings and just let the battery die a natural death. The consequences could be disastrous.

The next morning I sat on my couch and pondered the experience. It occurred to me that the Holy Spirit has been sounding a similar alarm in our churches in North America for some time. He has been sounding the alarm that our heart needs to be changed. He has been sounding the alarm through our declining membership. He has been sounding the alarm through a record number of church foreclosures. He has been sounding the alarm with the rapid increase in immorality in our country and, sadly, within our churches. He is shouting to us, “The heart of the church needs to be changed!” But we seem to have chosen to ignore the warnings.

We tried better buildings and better programming, hoping it would muffle the alarm, but the alarm continued to sound. The church continued to decline. We built buildings believing it would give us credibility in our communities. We taught people to follow rules, but did not model relationship with God to them. Now our buildings are in disrepair, decrepit, and falling apart. Our communities are godless. People are walking away from the church in record numbers because they have little or no personal relationship with God. The few remaining members of our churches sit shell-shocked in the pews unable to comprehend why the church is dying.

Meanwhile the alarm continues to sound, and we continue to ignore it. It boggles the mind. We have disregarded the alarms, hoping that we can just continue in our slumber a little longer. Like the battery in the smoke alarm in my home, the heart of the church needs to be changed. We can no longer ignore the warning. Without a new heart, the church in North America will not be able to fulfill the purpose for which it was created. If we continue to ignore the warnings, there is little hope for us. The consequences will be devastating.

Personally, I am hopeful that we will change. God seems to be raising up a new generation of leadership in our churches who are desperate for change. Maybe you are one of them. I hope that you are.

Where have we gone wrong?

The core of the issue goes back to our neglect of the two commands Christ said were most important: to love God with utter abandon, and to love others selflessly. Until the church is willing to acknowledge that we have sinned by ignoring these commands, there is little hope for change.

Not only does Scripture teach us what we are supposed to love, it is also very clear what we are not to love. John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15, ESV). That is a very explicit statement. When I exhibit a life that mirrors the materialism of North America, I should question whether or not I love God with all my heart. Is there a part of me that loves this world and the things that are in this world? I frequently question my own heart in this area. And to be honest, I frequently find myself repenting of this sin. It is a subtle yet dangerous trap.

The problem is that I can’t have it both ways. It is an all or nothing proposition. Either I love God entirely, or I am disobedient. If I love the world or the things that are in the world, the love of the Father is not in me. Period. End of story.

As I travel across North America, I watch and observe Christian leaders and pastors of our churches. I’m watching to see what their lives represent. Often what I see is not encouraging. To these leaders, I give the same challenge Paul gave to Timothy: be “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12, ESV). Set the example! This applies if you are a Pastor of a church of 50 people or 50,000 people. This applies if you are the leader of an international Christian ministry or leading a new ministry in your local community. Your life should look like the life Jesus modeled for us. Unfortunately, I rarely see this. More often I see people who are trying to build a bigger platform, a bigger salary, or a bigger home. Rarely do I find someone who has turned away from materialism and status in North America. It is exceptionally rare. Even in churches that are growing, rarely is an all-consuming love for God modeled to the congregation. We claim we love God, but we also love wealth and status, and the church in North America has suffered greatly as a result.

Thankfully, God has given us a clear path out of this crisis. One night, God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14, ESV).

Never has this been more applicable than now for the church in North America. We need our leaders to humble themselves, instead of lifting themselves up. We need men and women of God to pray and seek God’s face. We need our leaders to love God with utter abandon. Our pastors need to turn back to God and lead their congregations to do the same. When we do this, God will hear from heaven. God will forgive our sin. God will heal our land. But it begins with us.

My friend, the Holy Spirit is sounding the alarm. It is getting louder by the day. Will you heed the alarm? Will you seek the change of heart for which God is calling? Will you truly love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength? Will you turn away from this world, and turn back to God? Will you repent of loving other things? I pray that you will. After all, the life of the Church depends on it. When we do, everything changes. Our lives are changed, our churches are changed, our communities are changed, and our country will be changed as well.

The alarm is sounding. What will you do?

This article was originally published in the September 2015 Newsletter.

Loving God alone

Often I write about the need to be in an authentic relationship with God. My goal is to love God with utter abandon and to love others selflessly. I write about this, I preach about this, and I try to practice it in my own life. But lately, God has been speaking to me about the other side of the coin – what I shouldn’t love.

The apostle John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16, ESV).

This passage has been haunting me for months now. I read through John’s letter while I was studying one day. I thought about how God has set me free from the bondage of the love of physical possessions. But what if this command not to love the world or the things in the world also applied to my physical body? I had never really given that any thought. I bring this up because at this time of year, many folks put their attention into getting in shape, losing weight, and the like. I am certainly an advocate for being healthy. But when I read what John wrote, it made me question if part of my desire to be healthy was actually a nice way of saying I loved the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes. I think it is an important question to ask.

In 2014, I had multiple physical challenges. One of the biggest challenges I faced was related to surgery on my knee in April to repair a torn meniscus. The meniscus was successfully repaired, but arthritis flared up in that knee as a result of the surgery. For many months I had difficulty going up and down stairs. Prior to surgery I was cycling up to 26 miles a day. At this time, I am no longer able to cycle at all. I never mentioned it in the newsletters or on Facebook because I don’t like drawing attention to myself. I bring it up now because it ties in with this idea about not loving the world or the things in the world. Ultimately, my physical body is something of this world. Some day, when I die, I will leave this shell of a body behind.

One day I was thinking about how this issue with my knee had been continuing far longer than I ever expected. It occurred to me that perhaps God was trying to get my attention. What if I had a blind spot in my life? What if I unknowingly loved the world through my focus on my physical health? I understand there is a place for being a good steward and taking care of the body that God gives me. But I think I tend to take too much concern for how I look. It is the American way! I want to be Superman and never age! I discipline myself in what I eat. I try to be consistent in going to the gym, working out to stay in shape. Cycling had been a huge part of that area of my life. Then God removed cycling, and for many months I was unable to do anything at the gym for fear of doing more damage to the knee. What surprised me was how much this affected me mentally. Sometimes it really bothered me. This was when I began to ask myself if I were guilty of loving the world or the things in the world.

God is very clear. He wants me to love him with all of my heart. He is not happy with my sharing that love with anything else. My love for God needs to transcend everything. It is not as if I love God first, and then I love things in this world after that. There is no second place as far as God is concerned. In the American church, most people would say that they love God, but they also love this world and the things in this world. They love their bank account, their home, their car, their retirement account, etc. How do I know this? Just ask someone to give any of those things away and see what kind of resistance you face. We worship God, but we also worship our bodies and our health. In short, we love God, but we also love this world.

John was very clear. He wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” That is a pretty strong statement. In the context of the rest of the letter it is even more concerning. The focus of the letter seems to be regarding how to know you are a true follower of Christ. At least ten times in this short letter, John writes phrases such as, “this is how you know…,” or “by this you know…,” and “by this it is evident who are children of God.” If we are loving the world, and the love of the Father is not in us, are we children of God? That is why it is important that we get this right.

Friend, as you set goals this year, consider making your first goal to love God with all of your heart. Ask yourself if there is anything in this world that you would hesitate to give away if God asked you to. Ask him if there is anything in your life that he is trying to change. Yield your life to his kind hand. Fall in love with him like never before. Love God with utter abandon. Love others selflessly.

For me, I think this was an important lesson that God wanted to teach me. I am conscious of this tendency to focus on the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions. My prayer is that I would be careful to love God alone and not the things of this world.

I do want you to know that I am now seeing progress in my knee. In the past few weeks there has been a marked improvement. Perhaps God let the issue linger so I would learn this important truth. Part of loving God with all of my heart is being careful not to love anything else.

This article was originally published in the January 2015 Newsletter.

His very best

Everything I need to know about the love of God I learned from my Mother’s bathroom closet. I know that sounds weird. But if you bear with me, I think you will understand.

I currently live over one thousand miles from my parents’ home in Southern Michigan. When I am in their region for ministry, I often stay with them. It is always a privilege to get one of Mom’s home-cooked meals, and I enjoy catching up on family news and conversation. But the best part of being there is a secret I found in their bathroom closet.

Their bathroom closet probably looks a lot like yours. One shelf has a variety of toiletries, medicines, combs, brushes, hair dryers, and hand-held mirrors. There’s a magazine on another shelf along with a pile of old towels and washcloths stacked in the back. All in all, it is a pretty normal bathroom closet.

Yet the most amazing thing happens in that closet. Somehow, every time I go to take a shower, the nicest, thickest, newest towel they own magically makes its way to the top of the stack. Most of the towels they own are well worn and thin from years of use. But invariably when I reach in the closet to grab a towel, that one special towel will be waiting for me on the top of the pile. It’s a white, all-cotton towel with thin blue stripes on it. It is lush and thick. It is the nicest one they own, and somehow it is always on the top of the heap when it is my turn to get cleaned up.

I began noticing this phenomenon some time ago and began looking into it further without my Mother’s knowledge. One time I surprised my folks and stopped in to spend a few days with them unannounced. I arrived at the house when they were gone and made my way to the bathroom closet. Opening the closet door, I looked in the back and found the magical towel way down in the pile. But later that night when I went to take a shower, with no one using the bath before me, somehow that towel had made its way to the top of the stack.

Now I know this sounds silly, and I am pretty sure I am not talking about the paranormal here. In fact, I believe there is a very simple explanation for how this towel is always waiting for me on the top of the pile: my mother loves me. I am confident that she is sneaking into the bathroom to put that towel on top so it is there when it is my turn to get cleaned up. Why? It is because she loves me.

My mother doesn’t love me because I do nice things for her, although I am sure she appreciates the kindness. She loves me simply because I am her son. It is part of her nature to love me because she gave birth to me. I can blow it and be inconsiderate. She still loves me. Sometimes I can say stupid things. She still loves me. I can hurt her without meaning to. She still loves me. I can forget to call. She still loves me. She loves me, and I love her for that. And because she loves me, she always wants the very best for me, including the nicest towel she owns.

That’s why I say that everything I needed to know about the love of God I learned from my Mother’s bathroom closet. God always wants the very best for me. I am his son. I can blow it, and he still loves me. I can stiff arm him and try to make life work on my own, and he still loves me. It is his nature to love me. It is part of who he is. It is his character to love me. He loves me, and I love him for that.

Are you aware that God loves you? Do you understand that he always wants the very best for you? It was his love for you that caused him to give you his very best – his one and only Son. It was his love for you that caused him to make a way so that you could have a real, personal relationship with him. But it doesn’t end there. When I understand in a small way how much God loves me, I can trust him more in uncertain circumstances. When things don’t seem to be working the way I think they should, I can remember the towel and know that it is all going to be alright. It is because he loves me. And because he always wants the best for me, I can rest in that knowledge when things may not seem to be going my way.

Not only that, but the love I have for God is a direct result of the love he has shown to me. I love God because he first loved me. I love him because I am aware of his kindness to me in the smallest details of my life. Often it is the little thing he does for me that causes me to pause and thank him for his love to me. I am grateful for his love. I am motivated to love him when I understand in a small way his love for me. I am humbled when I realize how often he has intervened in my life as an expression of his love for me. I am so very blessed.

Consider these verses from John’s first letter to the Church:

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11, ESV).

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, ESV).

Today, celebrate this love that God has shown to us. Look around you for those moments when God puts the towel on the top of the pile for you. Then, out of the overflow of that love, love others as well.

I have a feeling that when my Mother reads this she will deny any knowledge of the towel mystery. She will say I am being silly. And I will just smile and agree with her. After all, it’s probably just the same aliens who do the crop circles. But when it’s my turn to take a shower, and I reach into the closet to grab that towel off the top of the pile, I will smile and say a little prayer, thanking the Lord for loving me with a Mother like that.

He always gives the very best.

This article was originally published in the May 2014 Newsletter.

For the Joy Set Before You

The following was originally published in the March 2013 newsletter.

It was the final day of installation of the new flooring in my home. I had already covered about a thousand square feet and only a small bedroom remained. I would be finished in a matter of hours. I could count the time in hours instead of days. The end was finally in sight. For the past two weeks I had worked on the floors nearly ten hours a day, six days a week, and my body was nearly broken. My feet hurt badly. Kneeling for hours at a time meant my toes were bent in a painful position. My legs hurt from countless times of squatting to work on the floor and then standing to get supplies, cut a board, or reach for more glue. My legs hurt, my feet hurt, my back hurt, my hands hurt. My body was broken. After several weeks of work, I could hardly walk when I got out of bed in the morning.

But this day was different. It was the final day of installation. I held a cup of hot coffee in my hand as the rising sun illuminated the room. The thought that in about four hours I would be finished sent a ripple down my arm. The work was nearly complete. The end was within sight.

I gathered supplies and set to work, and then a strange thing happened. A sense of joy settled on me. I celebrated each board as it was glued to the next. My body still hurt deeply, but as I rose to take another board to the chop saw, pure joy flooded my heart. It was one of the most vivid experiences of joy I have ever known. Although all the pain was still there, it was smothered by the joy that had overtaken me.

In that moment, a Scripture verse came to my mind and I paused in the middle of the floor to contemplate the thought. A passage in Hebrews describing Jesus on the cross says a very remarkable thing. “…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV). Is it possible that in the midst of the crucifixion Christ experienced joy?

As I continued laying the flooring, this thought kept haunting my mind, until finally the last board was in place. I was ecstatic! My body still hurt deeply but I danced around the room in celebration of the completion of what I had set out to do. I lifted my arms and spun around the smooth floors shouting for joy. I sent a text to several friends of mine. “It is fiiiiiiiiiiinnniiiiiissshed!!!!!!!!!! :)” I wrote. The joy was overwhelming.

I had finished the work. I had completed what I had set out to do. It was finished. I sat down and took off the knee pads one final time. I took off my shoes and rubbed my weary feet. I cannot describe how good that moment felt. I was reminded once again of the verse that had come to my mind earlier. So I looked up the passage to see exactly what it said.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).

In the past I have read this and assumed that when it spoke of “the joy that was set before him” it was referring to something in the future, as if Christ endured the cross because he knew the joy he would experience after the crucifixion and he was reunited with his Father. But that is not all this passage is saying. When it speaks of the joy being set before him, it includes the idea of a gift being laid at his feet. The object is set before you; it is given to you in that moment, for that moment. So another way to look at the phrase “for the joy that was set before him” would be to say “because of the joy that was given to him”.

I asked myself, did Christ experience pure joy in the midst of the crucifixion? Was he given joy for that moment? Did he understand he was completing the work he was placed on the earth to do? Did joy flood his heart as the hammer drove the nails into his hands? His body was beaten beyond recognition and he was weary beyond words. But in that moment, did God the Father set before him a gift of joy? When he shouted, “It is finished”, was it a moment of celebration? Was he dancing on the inside even as he was dying on the outside? I believe so.

The question then remains, does God do the same for us? Does he set before us a gift of joy in the midst of our trials? I believe he does. Consider these passages:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23b-24, ESV).

“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15, ESV).

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13, ESV).

My friend, are you in the midst of a trial today? Perhaps you are weary from the fight. You are broken and hurting. The idea of joy in the midst of your pain seems impossible. I understand, but God longs to meet you in the midst of your trial and to set before you joy, to give you the gift of joy. He gives us his presence during our difficult days. As David wrote, “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11, ESV). In the middle of our circumstances, he meets us with his overwhelming presence and we find joy. In spite of the pain, in spite of the trial, joy. Pure joy.

Perhaps today you simply need to ask God to give you joy in the midst of your trial “so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope”. I pray that you will. What if God is waiting for you to ask?

I’m grateful to have the floors finished. But I am even more grateful for the way the Holy Spirit ministered to me. I’m grateful for his presence. I’m grateful for his kindness to me. I’m grateful for the way he whispers his love to me throughout the day. I’m grateful for his presence in the midst of difficult times.

I’m grateful for the joy that was set before me.