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The Purpose of Prayer

Last month I wrote about making prayer a priority in our lives. I continue to explore the mystery of prayer. I wonder why God created prayer in the first place. Why did he make a way for us to communicate with him? Why does God want us to pray? It is hard to comprehend.

A few nights ago I was settling in for the evening and reached for the remote to the TV. I was tired from the day and looking forward to a relaxing evening catching up on my favorite shows. I was about to press the power button when I sensed God speaking to me, calling me to spend some time with him in prayer. I paused and set down the remote. It was odd. I had no needs. There was nothing pressing in my life. I wasn’t stressing over anything. But I clearly felt God’s pulling me aside to connect with him. Why was God calling me aside to pray when there was nothing I needed to pray about? This was the moment I realized I was looking at prayer from my own perspective. What if I were to look at prayer from God’s perspective?

We tend to think of prayer as our way of communicating with God. We know God wants us to bring our requests to him. Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, ESV). John further encourages us to bring our requests to God when he wrote, “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). So, yes, we should bring our requests to God.

But what if we were to look at prayer from God’s perspective? Why did God create prayer? Is it merely for us to bring our requests to him? Is it only for our benefit? What if God created prayer for his benefit? What if he wanted to reconnect with the creation he loves?

It is helpful to consider the idea of prayer in the context of our relationship with God. God loves us. He loves us even when we are separated from him by our sin. Because he loves us so much, he sent his own son to pay the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross. When we accept this gift of forgiveness for our sins, we begin a relationship with God. Yes, God does this for our benefit. We benefit greatly! But what if we were to view salvation from God’s perspective? A relationship benefits both parties. What if God does this for his benefit as well? What if God created a way to forgive us for our sins because he longed to reconnect with us?

How does this relate to prayer? Again, our natural tendency is to think prayer is all about us. It is our way of bringing our requests to God. But what if we were to look at it from God’s perspective. What if prayer were also for God’s benefit? What if God created prayer so he could commune with his creation until we were finally together face to face? What if God calls us aside to pray not because we have something we need, but because he wants to spend some quality time with us?

When we view prayer only from our own perspective, it reveals a flaw in our understanding of our relationship with God. Imagine a husband and wife settling in for the evening. The wife leans over to her husband and says, “Can we leave the TV off? I want to talk.” The husband pauses and says, “Why do you want to talk to me when I don’t need anything?” Ouch. I do not recommend this! Clearly, this relationship is in trouble! But when we consider our relationship with God in this context, then we understand how silly it is if the only time we speak to him is when we need something.

In this situation, we pray because God enjoys the time with us. We commune with him. We sit with him as lovers sit together and enjoy a sunset. We enjoy his presence and relish his love for us. We tell him how much we love him. We sit in silence and listen for his still small voice in our spirit telling us how much he loves us. We have no needs because of his kindness. We thank him for his faithfulness and kindness to us. And on and on.

That evening, when God called me aside to pray, it was a precious time with him. I relished his presence. I loved on him for his kindness to me. I enjoyed the time with him immensely. I suspect he enjoyed it as well.

I challenge you to carve out some time when you can spend time with God without asking him for anything. Use this time to tell him why you love him. Yes, God wants us to bring our needs to him. Do so. But sometimes God just wants to spend time with the ones he loves. Spend time with him today.

I always enjoy reading your comments. Feel free to post your thoughts below.

God Is Completely In Control

In July, I wrote we are freed from anxiety when we understand God owns everything, and we are merely the stewards of what he gives us to manage. As you know, the day after posting the article, my sailboat went aground in Lake Okeechobee. The rudder was severely damaged, and the vessel currently sits in long-term storage at a marina waiting for the repair. I am excited to see how God is at work in the situation. A few weeks ago I was asked to do a kitchen remodel for friends of mine. Another friend asked if I would help with their guest house remodel. Yet another friend asked if I would remodel their guest bathroom. Suddenly I had weeks of work lined up! God moved quickly to provide the work. This is the type of work I have done in the past to supplement my ministry income. Through the years, I’ve gutted two different personal properties and rebuilt them, so I have a lot of experience from which to draw. I am grateful God seems to be providing for the rudder by providing this work for me.

Understanding God’s ownership is the first step to overcoming anxiety. The next step is to understand God is fully in control. Not only does he own everything, he also controls everything. Nothing takes him by surprise. He is always in control of our circumstances. In theological terms, we call this the sovereignty of God. This one thought has saturated my mind in the past two months. God is sovereign. He is in control. I am not. And this is fine with me.

Let’s let God speak for himself in regards to this important truth. This is what he says through the prophet Isaiah:

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it. (Isaiah 46:8-11, ESV)

Pause for a moment, and let those words saturate your soul. God declares of himself, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.” He is above all and over all. There is no one like him. He is supreme above all.

When we understand his sovereignty, we get a better picture of ourselves. We are not God. Our ways are not like his. We are created in the image of God, but we are not at all like him. We do not think like God, but we like to think we can understand him and his ways. Herein is where we struggle. We want to understand why trials fall upon us. We want to understand God’s purposes. We want to understand God. But is this even possible? I think not.

It is better to love God than to try to understand him. Perhaps this is where we fall short. We spend our days trying to understand him instead of just crawling up on his lap and enjoying him, loving him, pressing into him. Far better to enjoy his presence than to weary ourselves trying to understand what cannot be understood. In the end, he is God and there is no other. His ways are higher than ours.

God also declares his ways and purposes cannot be thwarted. He will do what he has set out to do. Nothing and no one can change this. He proclaims, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose… I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:10-11, ESV).

Ultimately, God’s purpose for my life is for me to love him with all my heart. This is his greatest desire for me. How God brings this about in my life may vary from one moment to the next. Sometimes there are seasons of favor when all is well. We celebrate these moments of the excess of God’s kindness in our lives. In the blessings, we are drawn closer to him. Other times he brings great trials, and in our brokenness we turn to him for comfort. God can use both seasons to draw us closer to himself. Whether he chooses to bless or to burden is not for us to know. It is only for us to know he waits with open arms to draw us to himself in either circumstance.

When God provided the sailboat for me, many remarked that it was the favor of God. What happened to God’s favor when the sailboat went aground? Was not this a moment of his favor as well? We recognize God’s favor when times are good, but when trials come, we are quick to forget he is always in control. What if God shows us the highest favor by allowing great trials into our lives, knowing they may draw us closer to himself?

Our trials bring great pause, because they contain the greatest choice we have to make. Will we choose to let the trial push us away from God and our relationship with him, or will we choose to crawl unto his lap instead?

I choose his lap. I am a child of the sovereign God. When I’ve skinned my knees, I just want to be held by him. And so I run to him. He pulls me up onto his lap, and holds me close to himself. This is enough for me. In that moment, I am loved, and I love him for it. I don’t even care if he tells me the greater purpose he is working out. I rest in the knowledge that he is sovereign. He is fully in control. I do not have to understand him and his ways in order to love him and feel loved by him.

My friend, are you in a season of favor, and all is well? Draw closer to God. Are you in a season of trial, and struggling to get through the day? Draw closer to God. Stop trying to understand what cannot be understood. Just love him. Let this be enough. God is sovereign, and he is also good. His purposes will not be thwarted, and neither will his love for you.

God is completely in control.

As I sit at my desk and write this, I am aware there is a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean grinding its way toward my home. It will be interesting to see where God directs it. After all, he is sovereign.

I enjoy reading your thoughts. Please write your comments below.

The Anxiety Cure

If you have not heard, God recently gave me a sailboat, and by fall I hope to live aboard the vessel. I wrote about it in a recent blog post. As you read this, I am aboard the vessel, working my way home from St. Augustine, Florida, down the Intracoastal Waterway, across the Okeechobee Waterway, and north from Fort Myers to home. It will likely take a week to motor it home.

A strange thing happened the night I took ownership of the boat. In the process, I was reminded of a simple truth I’ll share with you today.

I purchased the vessel in an online auction through a charity. The boat was donated to the Christian ministry, and the ministry auctioned the boat. I was thrilled when I won the auction. As a bonus, all the funds I spent for the boat went to a Christian ministry. I made arrangements to drive to St. Augustine, Florida, to meet the donor and to inspect the vessel. Everything was better than it looked in the auction pictures, and soon I was driving home with the title and keys in hand.

I had dreamed of this day for many years, but honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed. The reality of owning a thirty-foot vessel settled in. Though I have some experience as a first mate aboard a charter sailboat, this was the first time I was responsible for everything.

At home, as I lay in bed trying to sleep, anxiety rose within me. The boat was four and a half hours away in a marina on the other side of the state. I couldn’t check on it. What if I didn’t close it up properly? What if I left a seacock open, and the boat was filling with water? What if it sank at the dock? What if the bilge pump failed? What if…?

I felt my blood pressure rising. Anxiety spread like a burning grass-fire within. But as the angst grew, God reminded me of an important truth. As he did, peace flooded the space where anxiety had swept in. A smile spread across my face. A restful sleep followed.

What made the difference? What was the truth God brought to mind? It was this: Anxiety comes when I take ownership of things that don’t belong to me. Let me explain.

I live with a stewardship mentality. I don’t own anything. The money in the bank is not mine. The house I live in is not mine. The car in my driveway is not mine. It all belongs to God. I take care of his things for him to the best of my ability. I try to steward his resources for him in a God-honoring way. It is all about God, not about me. Sometimes this means I give away large portions of the resources I manage, whenever God directs me to do so. What fun! It also frees me from the trap of loving things of this world.

Jesus spoke about this in his first major address to the throng of people who followed him.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…. No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:19-21, 24, ESV)

At this point in his speech, most translations insert a new paragraph before the following words. But I want you to consider with me a fresh way of looking at the words Jesus says next.

He continues by saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, ESV).

Jesus seems to connect anxiety with a misplaced heart. Whenever I see the phrase, “therefore,” I look to see what it’s there for. I look to see what it is connected with. In this case, it seems it is connected with the passage immediately prior to it. He teaches us to carefully keep our love in heaven and not on things of this world. He reminds us we cannot serve God and money. Then he says, “therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…”

It seems to me the vast majority of anxiety we face is related to a failure to observe this truth. We love things of this world. Something physical, like a house, car, or, in my case, a boat, can draw our hearts away from God. Even something we cannot hold in our hands, such as a relationship or physical health, can consume our thoughts as we struggle to maintain it. A sense of security, because of the money we have saved, can pull our hearts away from God. Fill in the blank. When we love things of this world, we fear losing them. Anxiety rears its ugly head and steals into our hearts. Instead of our hearts’ dwelling in heaven, they are here on this earth. When our hearts are misplaced, anxiety is sure to follow.

Consider also the words of David: “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1, ESV).

According to Scripture, God owns all things. I may think I own something, but in the end, God can and will do whatever he pleases with the things he gives me to manage. I can choose ownership, or I can choose stewardship. The choice is mine. The consequence of taking ownership is that I bear the weight of responsibility for those things I think I own. If I am only the steward of God’s things, then my only responsibility is to manage his resources to the best of my abilities. I manage his resources as he directs me. How freeing this is! This attitude protects me from greed. It makes a significant difference in my attitude toward the things of this world. It protects me from misplacing my love for God on lesser things. My affection stays with God where it belongs.

As I lay there in bed with anxiety sweeping through my heart, I realized I had taken ownership where I should have had stewardship. Stewardship is the cure for anxiety. My heart stays solely on God. I love God with abandon. I steward what he gives me to steward. But at the end of the day, the “things” are not mine. I am just the First Mate, God is the Captain. It is his vessel. This way of thinking is so much easier.

I take care of God’s things to the best of my abilities. Knowing he is fully in control gives me rest. I am not in control. My wisdom is limited. His is unlimited. He is a far better owner than I am. I’m content to steward what he gives to me.

My friend, are you anxious today? Is something weighing heavily on your mind? Is it possible you have taken ownership where you shouldn’t? Try stewardship instead. Is your heart focused on things of this world, or the things of heaven?

Whenever we feel anxious, we should look to see if the cause is a misplaced affection. In a moment, anxiety ceases when we understand the difference between ownership and stewardship and place our hearts where they were always meant to dwell.

It is the cure for anxiety. Will you embrace it today? I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Please share your comments below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When We Hinder Jesus

The workers were installing tires on my car when it happened. My car was up on four hydraulic lifts outside the tire store. It was a hot day. I retreated to the office and the welcome relief of air conditioning. I sat in a chair next to the desk and played on my phone as a female clerk sat across the desk, also engrossed in her phone.

I wish I could tell you how the conversation began, but I don’t remember. I found out her name was Maria*. As we talked, she got up from her chair and walked over to the door, looking away and out a window to the parking lot. I do remember when she made a comment about something to do with Catholics and Protestants. Whenever someone makes a comment that is spiritual in nature, my radar goes on high alert. Most people don’t want to talk about spiritual things, so when she made the remark, I nudged the conversation in that direction to see if God were at work in her life or not. At some point, I thought maybe I was pushing things too far, and so I tried to change the subject. She immediately brought it back to the discussion about having a relationship with God. I leaned in.

She moved to my side of the desk and sat down on the top. She spoke of her mother’s illness and how she cared for her needs. What she said next haunts me still.

“My sister,” she said, “claims to be a Christian. She attends church regularly. She says she has a relationship with God. She says she talks to God like you are describing. But she won’t help me with our mother.” Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to brush them off. “How can you claim you are a Christian but you won’t even take care of your own family?”

Inside I cringed.

“Maria,” I replied, “there are many people in this world who claim to be Christian. They attend church, they follow all the rules, they may even pray, but actually they are far from God. Please, I beg you, do not let those people keep you from experiencing all that God desires for you. It is not an accident I am here today. The reason I’m here probably has nothing to do with getting tires on my car. I believe God sent me to you today to tell you that he wants a relationship with you. Please do not let those who are not living right keep you from having an amazing relationship with God.”

I hurt for her. She had a legitimate complaint. I thought back to a passage in Matthew’s telling of the gospel. I was struck by the dialog between Jesus and Peter. Here is what Matthew wrote:

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  Matthew 16:21-23, ESV

If you are like me, the moment Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” my eyes get wide, and I get stuck on the thought, “Oh my word, he just called Peter ‘Satan’.” But if we are not careful, we miss the important truth that follows.

Jesus continues, “You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Jesus taught his disciples he would be killed and three days later rise from the dead. Although they did not understand it at the time, he was explaining the gospel to them. His purpose was to die on the cross to pay the penalty for man’s sin. Rising from the dead three days later he claimed dominion over death. It was a one-two punch. All so that God could be restored in relationship with the creation he loves. Clearly, Peter was confused. Peter’s mind was on setting up an earthly kingdom with Jesus as King. But Jesus’ mind was on his father’s heavenly kingdom.

The problem is we tend to think like Peter instead of like Jesus. By nature, my focus settles on the here and now. It’s human. It takes effort to keep my mind on the things of God, and not on the things of man. What I have never considered is the consequence of this failing to keep my mind on the things of God. According to this passage, when I am thinking about the things of this world instead of the things of God, I actually hinder Jesus.

Pause right here and think about this truth for a moment. We hinder Jesus. We actually hinder Jesus from having a relationship with the Marias of this world. Doesn’t that bother you? It greatly concerns me.

How do we hinder Jesus? When our thoughts are consumed with things of this world and not on God, we block Jesus from having a relationship with Maria.

Jesus came to reconcile us to God. Because we have sinned, we are separated from God. But God wanted a relationship with us so much, he sent Jesus, his son, to pay the penalty for our sins so he could have fellowship with us again. Jesus is the bridge between earth and heaven. When we live our lives as followers of Jesus, we show others the path to the bridge. In this way, God is reunited with the creation he loves.

We hinder Jesus from doing what he came to do when we set our minds on the things of earth instead of the things of God. We effectively block others from getting to the bridge. How do we do this? We hinder Jesus from reaching our neighbors when we do not love them the way we love ourselves. We hinder Jesus from reaching our co-workers when we love status and image more than we love our co-workers. We hinder Jesus from loving the poor when we stockpile our resources for future wants instead of using them to spread Jesus’ love to the poor and the downcast. We hinder Jesus when we invest our time into lesser things of this earth instead of investing in eternity.

Now you understand why Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” This is serious stuff.

How do we set our minds on the things of God and not on the things of man? How on earth do we do this? It sounds simple, but it is not easy.

Jesus said the greatest commandment was this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37, ESV). Note the end of the command. See the phrase, “with all your mind.” The way we change is by changing our heart toward God. We confess we do not love him with all our mind. We ask God to forgive us for this. We apologize for hindering the work Jesus came to do. We ask God to help us to love him with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our minds become consumed with loving him with abandon. All we think about at work or at play is how we can love God more. As a result, the world clearly sees Jesus, and he is released through our lives to do what he came to do.

After our conversation, Maria and I exchanged email addresses. I told her I would pray for her regularly. I told her I was confident God was drawing her into a personal relationship with him. I encouraged her to pursue a real relationship with God, even if others are not. I will keep in touch to encourage her in her relationship with God.

As a side note, to show you how unusual this conversation was, I was three and a half hours from my home. Earlier that morning, I saw an ad on Craigslist for a set of used tires. Later I was traveling through the area, but the town was still a half an hour off the freeway. I decided to drive a little bit out of my way to buy the tires. I had never been to this town, and I will likely never return. Maria did not even speak English well, and my Spanish is limited. But clearly God was at work.

I also believe God orchestrated the conversation because he also wants a relationship with you and me. He is calling us to account through Maria. Will we listen? Will we turn our minds to the things of God, and away from the things of man? I hope we will.

For the sake of all the Marias in our world whom Jesus wants to know personally, I pray we would live in such a way that we would not hinder Jesus from doing what he came to do.

(*Not her real name. Her name was changed to protect her identity.)

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.

What Is Your “Why”?

I have an odd question for you. It is one that has been haunting me lately. It can be summed up in one tiny little word, but the ramifications are huge. My question is, “Why?” It affects every aspect of following Christ. For example, why do you share your faith? Why do you give? Why do you attend church? Why do you teach Sunday School? Why do you lead worship? Why do you sin? What is your “Why”?

Recently I was at a fast food restaurant getting an evening meal. Earlier in the day I had been working on clearing out the garage, and I was worn out. I slid into a seat in the corner of the dining room and set my tray of food on the table. As I ate, I quietly looked around the room. The restaurant was empty except for one other customer. One of the employees was wiping down the tables. As she wiped the table next to me, I told her how much I appreciated her service to me that evening. It was a simple thing to do, and her face lit up when I spoke to her. She thanked me for noticing. I did notice her. I had been watching her as she worked. Her face looked tired, and her gray hair suggested she was old enough to be my mother. I wondered what had happened in her world that had led her to get this job at this time in her life. As I watched her work, I felt something stir inside me, a longing I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I looked over at the other customer a few tables across from me. From the corner of my eye, I watched him as he ate, and again, something stirred inside me. I felt compassion for him, even though I didn’t know him. I wondered if he had any relationship with God. I wondered if he knew that God loved him.

I watched the workers at the counter going about their jobs, and again, a melancholy emotion stirred inside me. By this point I was starting to wonder what was going on with me. Why was I feeling these emotions when I looked at these folks? I took a sip of my drink and pondered the question for a moment.

For some reason, I loved these people even though I didn’t even know them. I cared about their situations. I cared about the events in their lives that led them to this moment.

Those feelings were still bothering me as I left the restaurant and turned left onto the road back to my home. As I drove in the darkness, I couldn’t shake the feelings I had felt in that dining room. It occurred to me that for some reason, I just loved those people. I wondered if they had any relationship with God. I wondered if they knew that God created them so that they could know him personally. I realized that I saw them differently because I loved them.

Then I thought about my life and ministry, and this is where the simple question began to mess with my mind. Why do I preach? Do I preach because I like the way it feels to be in the flow of the Holy Spirit? Or do I preach because I love people so much that I have to preach, because if I don’t preach they may not understand that God loves them and wants to have a relationship with them? Can you see the subtle difference between the two answers? One response is motivated by how it makes me feel, the other is motivated by how I already feel toward others.

I am reminded of a verse in the Bible. It is likely the first verse you ever learned as a child. It says this, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV). Tucked away in this short verse is the answer to the “Why” question. The reason God gave his son for us was because he loves us. God’s love for his creation was so great that he was willing to give up the life of his own son for our benefit. The “Why” was love, and it changed everything.

Now think back to the questions I posed in the opening paragraph.

Why do you share your faith? Do you do it because you think that is what a good Christian is supposed to do? Do you share your faith only as part of a visitation program at your church? Or do you share your faith because you love people so much, and you realize that if you don’t share with them, they may never know that God loves them and wants a relationship with them?

Why do you give? Do you give because you think that is what a good Christian is supposed to do? Do you hope people will notice your generosity? Or do you give because you love people so much that you want to share with them all that God has given to you?

Why do you attend church? Do you attend church because you think that is what a good Christian is supposed to do? Or do you attend church because you love the body of Christ, and you can’t wait to be able to spend time with those you love?

Why do you teach Sunday School? Do you teach Sunday School because no one else would volunteer, and you felt obligated to do it? Or do you teach because you love those kids so much, and you want them to understand how much God loves them as well?

Why do you lead worship? Do you lead worship because you like to be seen or heard? Do you want people to hear how great you can sing? Or do you lead worship because you love God with all your heart, and you want others to experience his presence in their lives as well?

Why do you sin? Is it because you love your sin more than you love God?

The reason the “why” matters is that it checks our motives. Our service should be motivated by our love. Whenever we serve, but we do not love, we are not really very godly after all. To be godly is to be like God. Remember, God loved the world, and then he gave his son.

I’m considering those around me in a new way now. I’m seeing people differently. I’m looking at them through a lens of love. I see past their imperfections, and I see a man or woman whom God created and loved. I love them too, and I’ll do whatever it takes for them to know God. Why? Because I love them.

This morning I did a little grocery shopping. As the cashier rang up my items, I said to him, “Thank you for your service to me this morning, I really appreciate it.” Suddenly he stopped everything and froze still, his gaze staring off into space. Then he turned his head and looked at me. For an awkward moment we just looked at each other, and then he said, “No one has ever thanked me before.” Again he paused, and then finally he finished, “I didn’t know how to respond.”

I smiled. That simple act of love had stopped him in his tracks. For me, it was a simple act of gratitude born out of love. I genuinely appreciated his service to me, and because I loved him, I wanted him to know it. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: everything changes when you love someone.

So, my friend, what is your “Why”?

This article was originally published in the June 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.

When God Tests Your Love

The young man ran up to Christ and fell at his feet, the crowd around him pulling back at the sight. His heart was pounding and he was out of breath as he looked up into the face of Jesus. The men gathered around looked at the man with shock, for he was a ruler. To see him humble himself in this act of desperation was unthinkable. But his heart was heavy, and he cared not what anyone else thought. He had one question that must be answered, and he believed with all of his mind that this Rabbi could answer it for him.

“Teacher,” he cried, “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus looked at him and felt compassion for him. “Why do you ask me about what is good?” he replied, kindness falling from his lips. “There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” the young man replied, desperate for the truth.

Jesus answered, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Christ spoke, the young man listened intently and in that moment evaluated his own life. A sense of relief began to sweep over him as he knelt there before the Lord and for a moment his anxiety ceased. “All these I have kept,” he said to him. “What do I still lack?”

Christ looked at him and spoke gently to him. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The words slammed upon his spirit, and he reeled under the weight of them, for he had great wealth. Stunned, he slowly rose to his feet, his gaze falling away from the master. Silence hung thickly in the air. The gathered crowd nervously shuffled their feet, glancing away, for the truth had struck them as well. The young man’s heart beat anxiously in his chest, the ramifications of this request growing with each passing moment.

Finally he turned and walked away, the crowd nervously parting as he passed. As he did, a torrent of sorrow swept over him. He had gotten the answer to his question, but it was more costly than he could possibly imagine.

(Adapted from Matthew 19:16-22, ESV).

This story, repeated in three of the four gospels, is a jarring reminder that God is interested in where our hearts are in relationship with him. God wants me to love him, but he is not content for me to share my love with anything else. The first and greatest command is that I love the Lord with all of my heart, all of my soul, and all of my mind. According to Christ, this command is more important than all the others. In fact, Christ said that loving God with utter abandon and loving others as myself were so important that all the rest of the law depended on those two commands. That is a pretty amazing statement.

What is so interesting about this dialog between Christ and the rich young ruler is the point where Christ lists the commands. He leaves off the one command that he says is the most important command of all, to love the Lord my God with all my heart. Instead, Christ asks the man to do something, knowing that the man’s response would reveal whether or not he was obedient to the unspoken command. God is testing him to reveal the true condition of his heart.

Did you know that God tests our hearts? Even Moses speaks of it as he is explaining the law to the Israelites. This is what he said:

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 12:1-3, ESV, emphasis added).

Isn’t that interesting? Moses warns the people to be very careful. According to the law, the way they would know if a prophet were legitimate was whether his prophesies came to pass. In this situation, Moses said that when it comes to following a legitimate prophet, be careful because the Lord may be testing them to see if they actually love him with all their hearts. God was concerned about where their hearts were in relationship with him, and he might test them along the way to reveal the answer. “Do you love me with all your heart?” This is the question God asked the Israelites thousands of years ago. It is the question he asked the rich young ruler, and it is the question he asks us today.

My concern is that we appear to be failing the test.

I want to be very, very clear. I do not believe this passage is teaching that you need to stop reading this article, get up, go sell everything you have, and give it all to the poor. I am not teaching a poverty gospel. What I am asking is this: if God were to ask you to sell everything you have, to cash out your retirement account and to give it all away to the poor, would it matter to you? If God were to ask you to sell your home, your boat, your bike, or your car and to give the money away, would it matter to you? I believe the answer to that question will reveal whether you are loving God with all your heart or not.

Again, may I remind you, the command it not to love God. The command is to love him with all your heart, emphasis on the word “all.” I’m confident if I were to ask the congregation of the average church in North America if they love God I would get a resounding “yes.” But if I were to ask those same people whether they would be willing to put it all on the line for the cause of Christ if asked to do so, I think the numbers would drop dramatically.

I personally believe this is the great sin of the church in North America. We do not love God with all of our hearts. We love him, but we also love our comfort. We love our security. We love our houses. We love our cars. We love our credit cards. We love our retirement plans. We love a lot of stuff.

Over the past two years, I believe God has been testing me again and again with one simple question: Do you love me with all of your heart? Do you love me more than your retirement account? Okay, then give it away. Do you love me more than your house? Do you love me more than your car? Do you love me more than your bank account? Do you love me more than your dreams and plans? Do you love me more than a regular salary? Over and over he has said to me, “Okay, then give it away, give it up, give it to me.” To the best of my knowledge, I’ve followed him in each and every test. It has been difficult; it has not been easy. But looking back, the past two years have been some of the best times of my life because God has freed me from a divided heart. I write this knowing that God may test me more, that he may bring even more difficulties into my life, if he so pleases, to test me again. I’m okay with that. He has carried me through each and every trial. I have climbed up into his lap over and over saying “God, please just hold me,” and he has done that. His faithfulness to me is staggering. He gives me his presence to comfort and encourage me as I walk along the path he has called me to follow. At each test along the way, I have learned to love him a little bit more. If the result of my obedience to God in this way means that I eventually end up living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere, I am okay with that, because the presence of God Almighty would be with me in that box and that is all that matters to me.

Again, I want to be very clear, I am not teaching a poverty gospel. I am not teaching that we need to sell everything we have in order to be a follower of Christ. I’m simply asking if it would bother you if God asked you to do that, because I believe the answer to that question reveals where our hearts really are.

I firmly believe that God does not care how much money you have in the bank, whether it be pennies or millions. Even in Christ’s teaching during the sermon on the mount, when he said, “Do not store up treasure on earth,” he didn’t say “Do not store up money.” Instead he uses the word “treasure.” The idea of treasure is my heart attitude toward what I have. If I treasure something here on earth, then my heart is not where God wants it to be. It is always an issue of the heart. God wants me to love him with all my heart, and he knows that where my treasure is, there my heart is also. I don’t believe God cares what kind of house you live in, whether it be a mansion or the smallest of shacks. I do believe God cares where your heart lives. That is the issue that matters to God.

My friend, do you love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength? Is there anything in your life today that, as you are reading this, the Holy Spirit is asking you, “Do you love me more than this?” Please do not take this lightly. Do business with God. Be willing to put it all on the line for the cause of Christ, whether he asks you to or not. It is the most freeing thing you could possibly experience, to be set free from a divided heart.

Allow me to share one final thought regarding the story about the rich young ruler and his dialog with Jesus. In the end, the young man was deeply moved by his conversation. Those words from Jesus convicted him deeply. The Scripture says that he went away sorrowful, but there is no record in Scripture that he ever passed the test. It seems he was moved by the message, but was not willing to do business with God. How sad!

Please, I beg you, let us not be guilty of doing the same.

This article was originally published in the October 2013 Newsletter.