Tagged ‘Matthew‘

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.)

Olympic Moments

It was a stunning moment in the U.S. Olympic trials on June 23, 2016. The Men’s 10 meter platform synchronized diving trial was dominated by Olympic Gold medalist David Boudia and his young, relatively inexperienced teammate Steele Johnson. Their six dives electrified the audience. They scored higher than previous Olympic Gold medal teams, setting up an expectation for a possible medal in this year’s Olympics in Rio. After completing their final dive, Steele Johnson swam to the side of the pool and wept with the realization that he had made the Olympic team. His family wept. Many were deeply moved by the moment.

Finally, the NBC commentator interviewed the diving duo. Turning to Johnson, she said, “Steele Johnson, you are going to the Olympics. We see the emotion. Describe what’s going through your mind.”

Johnson shook his head in disbelief. “I’ve been working for this dream for a long time,” he said, “and honestly I never thought the day would come. And I feel like I just blinked and now I’m on the 2016 Olympic Team. But it’s cool because, this is exciting, this is fun, but this is not where my identity is going to be for the rest of my life. Yeah, I’m Steele Johnson the Olympian, but at the same time I’m here to love and serve Christ. My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we’re doing.”

This was the moment. I sat stunned on my couch staring at the screen. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

Now please hear me on this. I don’t think it is necessary to give a shout out to Jesus when you win. I believe you can glorify God just by doing something well. It was a bonus that Johnson said what he did. What I loved was that he had figured out where his identity lies. Have you?

Where is your identity? Think about this for a moment. Is your identity based on your job? Is it based on your accomplishments? Is it in being a mother or father? Is it in being a husband or a wife? Is it in being young and healthy? Is it based on being an athlete? Where do you find your identity?

If you are a follower of Jesus, your identity is that of a son of God. You have been adopted into the family of God. As such, you are a son or daughter of God. This is who you are. You have all the rights and privileges of being a child of the most powerful, loving father ever. Paul wrote about our identity as children of God in his letter to the church in Galatia. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV).

That is an exciting truth! In fact, it is so exciting that Satan will try to get you to question your identity at every turn. He even tried to get Jesus to question his identity as a son of God. Can you imagine?

Jesus had just been baptized by John. “When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17, ESV).

God made his announcement to the world. “This is my Son!” What happened next? Jesus fasted for 40 days. Then the enemy came to him to tempt him. Notice how the enemy begins. The very first thing Satan does is to try to get Jesus to question his identity. He says, “If you are the Son of God…” (Matthew 4:3, ESV). It is remarkable. God had just said, “This is my Son,” and yet the first words out of Satan’s mouth were, “If you are the Son of God….” If our enemy would attack Jesus in this way, don’t you think it is possible that he will attack you and me in the same way? And why would he choose to attack this aspect of our lives?

Our identity as sons of God is crucial because all the rights and privileges of a son are granted to us by God. We are no longer in bondage to the enemy. We are not slaves. We are children of God. Satan has no authority over us. We have been set free! When you understand that you are a son of God, then the ups and downs in life have little significance. It truly matters not if you win or lose, you are a son of God.

It may surprise you to know that my identity is not in being an itinerant minister or a conference speaker or an author. My identity is not in my songwriting or singing. My identity is solely as a son of God. Period. The beautiful thing is that when my identity is rooted in Christ alone, no one and nothing can take it away. I am his and he is mine. Nothing can change that. The world may change. My position may change. I may grow old and feeble. But my identity stays the same.

When the Olympics begin in the coming days, we will gather with friends to watch and cheer on our home town heroes. Some will receive medals for their achievements. Others will receive hardly a mention, only to fade into obscurity in coming days. But for those who understand where their identity lies, the true reward will always be held closely. “I am a son of God.”

That, my friends, is an Olympic moment.

This article was originally published in the August 2016 Newsletter.

Disciples Make Disciples

Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? Be careful before you answer. I’m not asking if you call yourself a Christian. I am not asking if you attend church. I am not asking if you read your Bible. I am not asking if you pray. I am asking if you are a disciple, and that is a very different question, because a disciple always makes another disciple. Disciples make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.

One of my hobbies is propagating plants. I’ve been doing it since I was a child. Growing up in the tiny town of North Adams, Michigan, my family lived in a two-story brick home that was built in the 1800s. My brother and I shared a bedroom in the upstairs. I remember taking slip cuttings of house plants and rooting them in soil in little pots in that bedroom. I loved watching them develop from a single cutting, slowly developing roots, and then growing to maturity. I continue to be fascinated with the process today. I now live in Southwest Florida, and my back patio is filled with potted plants in various stages of development. I started most of them from seed or cuttings from other plants.

One of my favorite plants in my yard is from a family of plants called Bromeliads. One of the interesting aspects of bromeliads is that when they mature they birth new baby plants from the base of the mature plant. The babies are called pups. Once a pup grows to about half the size of the parent, you can cut the pup off at the base and transplant it to another area of the garden. The pup will have the same characteristics as the parent. Then, when the plant grows to maturity, it will also produce pups from its base. I started with one plant, and today I currently have dozens scattered around my property. They just continue to multiply. It is part of their DNA.

But here is where it gets interesting. Did you know you can buy fake bromeliads? You can. They are artificial plants. They look like the real thing. They are very similar in appearance to their live counterparts. They have a beautiful looking flower. They have long slender leaves just like the real ones. Some are so realistic that you could put them in your garden, and from a few feet away most people wouldn’t even notice they were not really bromeliads. The only problem with the fake bromeliads is that they never reproduce. They just sit there looking pretty, but they never make another copy of themselves.

I propose that you and I could learn a lot from the humble bromeliad.

This tropical plant shows us why discipleship matters. If you have never made a copy of yourself, at some point you need to ask yourself if you are really a follower of Jesus or just a fake follower. The real one always reproduces. Disciples always make more disciples. It is part of the DNA of a disciple.

Fake disciples look like the real thing. They are very similar in appearance to their live counterparts. They have a beautiful looking appearance. They dress the part. They may attend church regularly. They may give money to the church and other good causes. Some are so realistic that when they plant themselves in a pew on Sunday you would swear they are the real deal. The only problem is that they never reproduce. They just sit there looking pretty, but they never make a copy of themselves. They are artificial disciples.

You could argue that only the mature bromeliad produces pups, and that is true. But if the issue is maturity, why do we find it acceptable that ninety-nine percent of the people in our churches are so immature that they have never made even one disciple?

Recently I was reading the end of the gospel of Matthew where he tells about Christ’s final instructions to his disciples. This is what Jesus said: “Go therefore and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19, ESV). Notice he did not say, “Go and build churches…” No, he had already established that he himself would build the church (Matthew 16:18). So let’s be clear about the responsibilities. Jesus’ responsibility is to build the church. Our responsibility is to make disciples.

I return to the original question with which I opened this article: Are you a disciple of Jesus Christ? If so, there should be evidence of that in your life. If you are really a disciple of Jesus, you should be making more disciples.

Perhaps as you are reading this, you look at your life and acknowledge there is no evidence that you are making any disciples. You are not alone. What do you do? I suggest that you begin with prayer. Talk with God about your relationship with him. Acknowledge there is no evidence that you are a disciple of Jesus. Ask him to guide you through the process of becoming a real disciple of Jesus Christ. Let him lead you to Scripture that will speak to where you are in your relationship with him. Seek out a true disciple of Jesus Christ and ask them to disciple you. When you do this, I am confidant God will bring you to maturity in Christ so that you too can duplicate yourself.

After all, disciples make disciples.

This article was originally published in the May 2015 Newsletter.

Celebrating Christ

Merry Christmas! I hope you are enjoying this Christmas season. But if you are like me, this can be the most chaotic time of the year.

Here’s where I struggle. In the midst of the Christmas season, when I am supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ, I find my attention pulled away to anything but Christ. My schedule feels crushing during this time of year, and it can easily draw my focus away from my relationship with God. Even as I sit here trying to write this devotional, the notifications keep coming in on my cell phone letting me know another email has arrived, a calendar appointment is coming up, or another text needs attention. The funny thing is that I had turned off the ringer so I could work undisturbed, but the flashing light on the phone still let me know that something needed attention. I finally had to turn the phone over so I would not be distracted. Oh the joy!

So here is my plan during the Christmas season. Whenever possible, I make time to pull away from everything and spend some quality time with the one I love most – God. I turn off the Christmas music. I turn off my cell phone. I set aside the shopping list. I put off responding to email. Then I settle into my favorite chair with a cup of coffee and talk with God. Finding the time to do this is one of the most difficult things I do during this time of year, but it is also one of the most important things on my list. I need that time with him because of the needs that are present in my life. In my mind, I see him sitting there with me as I enjoy a cup of coffee. He looks over at me and says, “I know about everything that is going on right now, but I’m here, and I love you.” And I look back at him and say, “I love you too.” In that moment, nothing else matters.

When I do this, I celebrate who Christ is. Notice I did not say I celebrate his birth. Instead of celebrating his birth, I celebrate the God who is with me. I celebrate Christ, not Christmas. Christmas is a one-day event, but I need to celebrate Christ with me all the time.

When the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the birth of Christ, he said this:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, ESV).

Consider the names that Isaiah used. Jesus is my wonderful counselor when I don’t know how to handle a situation. He is my mighty God when I feel weak and unable to cope. He is my everlasting father when I need guidance, encouragement, or support. He is my Prince of Peace when the chaos of my schedule presses in. This is the Jesus who was born in a manger, the Jesus we celebrate at Christmas.

Not only is Jesus all of these things, he is also with me all of the time. In the New Testament, when Matthew is writing the account of the birth of Christ, he quotes Isaiah and says this:

“ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Mathew 1:23, ESV).

I smile when I read the way Matthew quotes Isaiah because he doesn’t just give the quote. He explains it as well. It is like he is whispering, “In case you didn’t know what the word Immanuel means, it means ‘God with us.’” It is as if he is saying, “This is important! Don’t miss this!”

God is with us. I need that kind of God. I need a God who is with me, not just above me. I tend to imagine God far above me somewhere in the heavens, sitting on a beautiful throne of pure gold. But in reality, he is sitting beside me as I write this note. He is also beside you as you read it. He is with us. He is God with us, Immanuel.

He is with you when you feel overwhelmed. He is with you when you are disappointed. He is with you when you are wounded. He is with you when you are in financial trouble. He is with you when the wayward child leaves. He is with you when you are the wayward child. He is with you in the doctor’s office when the diagnosis is read. He is with you when the loved one dies. He is with you when your marriage is in trouble. He is with you when you feel too busy to take time for him. He is with you. He is always with you.

Friend, will you make time in your schedule to celebrate Christ? Will you celebrate who he is, not just his birth? Maybe coffee isn’t your thing, but find a way to come apart from everything that pulls you away, and spend some time with him. Consider it a gift that you give to yourself, or perhaps a gift you give to God.

Jesus, the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the Prince of Peace, and God in the flesh, he is with us.

That, my friends, is worth celebrating.

This article was originally published in the December 2014 Newsletter.

And I will give you rest

I turned off the TV, got up from the couch, and made my way toward my bedroom, shutting off lights as I went. I was tired from the day and ready for a good night’s sleep. As I walked the final few steps to my room, I spoke out loud to God. “Lord,” I said, “it has been a great day!” My heart was full of joy. Contentment had settled over me like a drowsy blanket. But then, in that very moment, an odd realization came to mind. From a human perspective, the day had actually been pretty lousy! I had endured a mild migraine headache all day long. I had the headache from the moment I crawled out of bed until about 8:00 in the evening. I had gotten nothing done. I had slept on the couch for much of the day. Yet at the end of the day, as I was preparing for bed, my first thought was that it had been a great day.

I smiled when I realized what had happened. Over the past couple of months I’ve been sharing how God is helping me to understand that the presence of God is all that really matters. Being aware of his presence is becoming a natural part of my life. And now, even with a mild headache all day, I still felt it had been a great day because the presence of God had been evident throughout the day. It does make a difference!

For the past couple of months I have been writing about learning to wait on God and what it means to wait on God for direction. Many of you have responded that you find yourself in similar circumstances. It is a common issue many of us deal with.

To refresh your memory, Moses came to God in frustration seeking direction. But when God answered Moses, he did not give him any direction. Instead, he made him a promise. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14, ESV). What we learned last month is that when we focus on the presence of God in our daily lives, it changes how we respond to a lack of direction. When you’re waiting for direction, where you are going is less important than who is going with you.

The second part of the promise is also important. God said, “…and I will give you rest.” For me, that is a big deal. Often I find myself worn down from the work of ministry. Navigating airports and rental car counters can be tiresome. When I am speaking at a conference, often there are more opportunities for ministry off the platform than on. By the end of a week of meetings, I am completely spent. Multiply this out by 25 years of living on the road and you can understand why the phrase “I will give you rest” means a lot to me!

The problem is I tend to feel guilty if I take any time off. It is just the way I am wired. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to all who give to financially support the ministry. It is also deeply rooted in the North American culture that highly elevates work and diminishes the value of rest. But sometimes I wonder if I am stiff-arming God when he offers me the gift of rest, when I refuse and say, “Sorry, not right now. There is too much that needs to be taken care of.”

Meanwhile, the idea of rest is woven throughout Scripture. Consider these truths:

God rested after he worked at creating the world: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:2-3, ESV).

Rest was institutionalized in the Old Testament law: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:13-14, ESV).

In the New Testament, even Jesus had moments when he pulled away from the work of ministry to be alone and pray: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23, ESV).

Christ also told his followers to come to him, and he would give them rest. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, ESV).

In our need, we come to Christ. He is the one who gives us rest. Also, notice he did not say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will help you to work more effectively.” Rest refers to ceasing from labor, not working more efficiently. Scripture clearly teaches there is a time and place to work hard. But there is also a time to rest. Both are important. Anytime I do either one and neglect the other, I put myself in a dangerous position.

It is also important to understand that God’s promise of rest is not a promise to be free from trial or pain. Moses did not have it easy after God promised to be with him and to give him rest. Leading the nation of Israel was a non-stop challenge. Instead, God walks with us through the trial. Then, when we are aware that he is with us, we receive the gift of rest in the midst of the trial. As we walk through the journey, he walks with us and gives us rest along the way.

It is possible you are like me and find it difficult to rest. Your work ethic may be so ingrained that you feel guilty if you pull away, even for a moment. If that is you, I have good news! God has given us many gifts, one of which is the gift of rest. He stands before you today with outstretched arms with this gift of rest in his hands. His outstretched arms are an invitation to come to him and rest. Will you receive it?

I’ve been pretty transparent through the years about how weary I sometimes become with the work of ministry. At this time, I am learning to accept God’s gift of rest along the way. I look for those moments in the busy days of ministry when he speaks to me in that still small voice and says, “Tim, come to me and rest.” In those moments, I’m learning to set the work of ministry aside and simple wallow in his presence for a moment. When I do, I find peace and rest in the awareness that he is near. I am reminded of the two promises he made to Moses and claim them for my own.

“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

At the end of the day, regardless of what has transpired, may you find yourself pulling up the covers and smiling as you drift off to sleep with a single thought on your mind. “Lord, it has been a great day!”

This article was originally published in the September 2014 Newsletter.

When God doesn’t give you what you want

The writing sabbatical is officially over. It will likely go down as one of the worst sabbaticals of all time! I laugh as I write this, but it is true. If I were to do one thing differently, it would be to find a place far from home to stay. I didn’t realize how involved I was in ministry on the home front. So while I did not fly anywhere for ministry events, they were showing up at my front door! It was quite interesting at times. I have no regrets, but it definitely was not as productive and restful as I had hoped. In fact, it was far from it. However, while the sabbatical was not at all what I expected it to be, in many ways it was better.

If I learned one lesson as a result of this time, it is this: God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best.

Jesus sat and taught the people who were gathered around him. Using the image of a father and child, he explained how God relates to us. Consider what he said:

“Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11, ESV).

In this passage, Jesus taught us that God is not a mean God. He doesn’t play tricks on us. Just as you would never play a mean trick on your child, God would never play a mean trick on you. This passage is not teaching that he will give us anything we ask for, but it does show that when I come to him and ask him for something, I can expect that whatever he gives me is a result of the love he has for me. If his answer is “no,” it is because he loves me. If his answer is “not now,” it is because he loves me. If he gives me something different, it is because he loves me and has something better in mind for me.

This is crucial to understand when we face disappointment. Some of you right now are facing circumstances that are not working out the way you thought they would. You’ve cried out to God for relief. You’ve waited in anticipation for him to intercede, but the trial only grew worse. In those moments of desperation, we need to understand that God doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best, and sometimes his best comes through difficulty and pain.

Last fall I welcomed the time off the road. I was looking forward to spending more time writing and hoped to complete the manuscript for the new book, but my plans are not always the same as God’s plans. In this case, God certainly had other plans, better plans, actually. God did give me rest from the pressure of being on the road, but the book remains unfinished. So much of what I had hoped to accomplish fell along the wayside. My schedule was jammed full of home-church related meetings and personal ministry activities. I can either feel sorry for myself or relish all that God did in my life during those days. So I choose to focus on the blessings that have come from this time.

I simply wanted a break from the pressures of travel and ministry and to finish the book project, but God wanted to give me something better. Unfortunately, for me that meant times of trial and difficulty, physical issues, ministry problems, etc. But through these difficulties, I watched him clarify my sense of mission and vision for the coming days. I learned important lessons about weaknesses in my personality that can inhibit me from fulfilling the call of God on my life. I saw him profoundly change me at a heart level, renewing my mind, and renewing my passion for ministry. Over and over I witnessed his providing, prodding, going deeper in relationship with himself. So does it matter to me that I didn’t get what I wanted? Not in the least! I’ll gladly keep what he gave me instead. It was so much better!

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, wrote these words:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:28-29a, ESV).

I can see how God has used this time for good in my life, even though many of the days were very difficult, but I want you to notice the clause at the beginning of the sentence Paul wrote. He says that this idea of all things working together for good is for those who love God. This promise is not for the man or woman who is simply religious and attends church. Instead, this promise is for the one who is in a love relationship with God. For those who refuse to focus on loving God, there is no promise here. This is another example of why I continue to preach the fundamentals of loving God and loving others. It matters. For me, during the days of sabbatical, I chose to focus on my relationship with God. When nothing made sense, I just crawled up in his lap and let him hold me for awhile. In the end, I found profound changes in my life as he molded me more into the image of Jesus Christ. All I wanted was rest, but because he loves me, God gave me what was best. At the end of the six months, I believe I look a little bit more like the person of Jesus Christ.

Last month in the devotional I wrote about the idea that God always gives his very best. But what we don’t always understand is that sometimes his best involves great trial, pain, or difficulty. That is because God often uses trials to mold us more into the image of Christ. It is because he loves us that he does not leave us where we are. God’s best for my life always involves conforming me to the person of Jesus Christ. In God’s view, all things working together for good means conformity, not comfort. This is difficult to grasp, but vital that we understand.

In another letter, Paul wrote this:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7-14, ESV)

I read those words this morning as I was preparing to write this article. It struck me that his sole focus was to become more like Christ. It was an ongoing process of losing so that in the end he could gain Christ. How profound! We always try to avoid losing, but in doing so we often miss what we could gain.

Let us all then, like Paul, choose to forget what is behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Remember, he doesn’t always give us what we want, but he always gives us what is best.

This article was originally published in the June 2014 Newsletter.

Practice the position

“Brace! Brace! Brace!” the pilot shouted over the intercom as the plane descended the final feet to the tarmac below. Hurriedly, I put one hand on the back of the seat in front of me, placed the other hand on top of the first, and then braced my forehead on the back of that hand. A small baby, held closely to her mother’s breast, sensed the tension in the air and cried out as her mother attempted to brace herself.

It was a clear morning in Nashville, Tennessee, as I boarded a plane headed for Albany, New York. After the routine safety speech, I buckled myself in, and the plane sped down the runway for take off. As soon as we lifted off the ground, a loud banging noise began to reverberate throughout the cabin. Something was seriously wrong. Instead of lifting into the sky, the plane slowed and began to descend. But we were not headed toward the airport. I looked at the man sitting next to me and stated the obvious: “We are going down.”

An eerie silence settled over the passengers as the realization spread that something dreadful was happening. The banging from the right, rear landing gear continued to echo through our cabin.

Finally, a stewardess stood at the front of the plane in the aisle, holding a large black notebook in one hand and a microphone in the other. “Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “I need 100% of your attention. I am about to make an important announcement, and I need to have your undivided attention. We have a problem with the landing gear. The plane is returning to Nashville and will have to make an emergency landing.” At this point, she certainly had our undivided attention.

“Everyone put your tray table in the upright position and tighten your seatbelt,” she continued. We complied. “Are there any other flight attendants, military personnel, or police officers on board this plane?” A man in the back raised his hand. “Thank you. I will need your assistance.”

For the next 30 minutes we rehearsed every detail of what we would be required to do. Each passenger had to practice the position, the position we would place ourselves in at the moment of the emergency landing. “Place one hand on the seat in front of you. Place the other hand on top of that hand. Then place your forehead on the back of your hands.” She demonstrated the position and then told each of us to practice it. She walked slowly down the aisle making sure each person in each row was executing the position correctly. It was crucial that each of us knew the position. It was a position of great security.

Now, what I failed to tell you earlier is that I am an adrenaline junkie. I love exciting events. On top of the fact that I was preparing for an emergency landing, I was also in prime real estate for an adrenaline fix. I was in the window seat exit row!

The stewardess came back to our row to explain how each of us would help her during the landing. I became assistant number one. My first responsibility was to check for smoke or flames outside my window. If it was clear, then I would remove the emergency exit door, throw it outside the plane, crawl out on the wing, and assist the other passengers out of the plane. The guy sitting next to me became assistant number two. His role was to follow me out the emergency exit, run fifty yards from the plane, turn back to the plane and begin calling to the other passengers, “Come to me, come to me.” In this way we would be able to gather the passengers together to account for everyone.

By this time the banging from the wheel well had stopped, and we all sat quietly in our seats, pondering what lay before us.

The plane banked and turned back toward the airport. The pilot announced over the intercom that we would make a low, slow approach to the airport. We would fly past the control tower so they could assess the landing gear. When we flew over the airport, it looked like a ghost town. There were no airplanes on the airstrip. Any plane waiting to land had been placed in a holding pattern. Four fire trucks, with lights flashing, waited on the tarmac, spaced at intervals along the runway. We neared the ground and passed the control tower. The pilot then brought the plane back up to a safe altitude. In the crisis of the moment, it seemed like a long time passed before the plane finally made a slow turn back toward the airport.

One minute from landing the pilot shouted over the intercom, “Brace! Brace! Brace!”, and we immediately assumed the position we had practiced earlier. Slowly the plane descended out of the morning sky. Tension filled the air. Bit by bit the plane drew closer to touchdown. Ever so carefully, the plane settled on the asphalt.

Suddenly, I felt the plane begin to fall over on the right side, the side of the faulty landing gear. For one quick moment I thought it was going to be bad. But then…nothing. The pilot gradually applied the brakes, and the plane came to a stop. The landing gear had held.

I later found out that what felt like the landing gear collapsing was actually the plane’s settling down on the faulty landing gear – the pilot had landed the plane on the other two wheels.

Applause spontaneously erupted from the passengers. As excited as I was to land safely, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to exit the plane via the wing. I’m quite sure the other passengers did not share my frustration.

Looking back on the experience reminds me of an area of my spiritual life that I often take for granted: practicing the position. In the procedures for an emergency landing, it was critical that each of us understood how to do the crash position. It was so important that each of us had to practice this position. In life, the crash position looks something like this: find your favorite seat in your house and kneel down in front of it. Now place one hand on the seat in front of you. Place the other hand on top of that and then place your forehead on top of your hands. You are now in the most secure position in the world – the position of prayer.

Prayer should be the cornerstone of your life. It is that time when you personally talk with God. What a privilege! But sadly, most folks neglect this vital practice. We get busy with our lives and forget that God just wants to talk with us. Instead, we should regularly talk with God because we love him. We should be practicing the position.

Consider these verses:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8, ESV).

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer” (1 Peter 3:12, ESV).

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, ESV).

This year I pray you will find the joy of talking with God, of spending quality time with him as you pursue your relationship with him. Practice the position when times are good so that when the chaos comes, and it will, you will already know how to do it. Don’t wait until circumstances drive you to your knees. Instead, practice that position daily, learning to have conversations with God about the everyday details in your life. Then you will find that, when the challenges come, you’ll know exactly what to do.

Practice the position.

This article was originally published in “Over the Edge: Personal Stories of Adventure and Faith” by Timothy Mark.

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.

From Stress to Rest

This article was originally published in the April 2013 Newsletter.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I was tired but determined – tired from having just returned from an international ministry trip the night before and determined to get a bike ride in before the end of the day. I was grateful to be home and to get some needed rest.

Before I left on that trip, at the end of a long bike ride, the sidewall on the rear wheel of my bike had come apart from the rim. Thankfully I was just a couple of blocks from the house when it happened. Now the disassembled bike sat in the garage waiting for the wheel to be repaired. My plan was to repair the wheel in the morning so I could fit in an early afternoon ride before spending the evening with friends. I would soon learn that God had other plans.

I left the house mid-morning and headed to the local department store to buy a new tire. I bought the tire as well as a few other items, checked out, and headed home. When I arrived home, I unpacked the items I had bought only to discover that the tire had not been put in the bag at checkout. All the other items I had bought were there, but not the tire. Frustrated, I drove back to the store to get the tire. Parking was a mess and I drove in circles trying to find a spot, my blood pressure rising with every turn. I finally parked and went into the store only to find the line to customer service was several people deep, and only one attendant was on duty.

At this point, I am tired, frustrated, and ready to tell the customer service lady what I think, and I am not thinking good thoughts! But I held my tongue, got the tire and finally headed home. At home I immediately set about changing the tire so I could get the ride in. The clock was ticking. In my haste I pinched part of the inner-tube between the wheel and the rim and the slow hiss of air I heard let me know I would need to patch a hole before I could proceed any further.

I patched the hole, put the inner-tube back inside the tire and mounted the tire on the rim. Success! I glanced at the clock. It still looked good for getting in the ride. I got the air pump out, plugged it in, and reached down to fill the tire with air. At this point I noticed a sticker on the rim detailing the size of tire it would hold. A sickening feeling settled into my gut as I noticed the size marked on the rim was different from the size I had purchased. “You have got to be kidding me,” I thought. Before I had left, I had looked on the tire sidewall for the size to make sure of the correct size. The problem went all the way back to the day I had bought the bike. I bought the bike used, and whoever sold it to me had mounted the wrong size tires on the rims! Now I understood what had caused the tire to fail in the first place. But I also realized that this meant I was going to have to remove the tire and make yet another trip to the store. I glanced at the clock again, hope fading.

I drove back to the store, found a parking spot, waited in line at the same customer service desk, and returned the tire, grateful that the lady who had helped me earlier was absent from the office. I went back to the sporting goods department only to discover that they were out of tires of the size I needed. I drove to another store only to find that they were also out of tires in that size. It was like there had been a run on 26”x1.75” bike tires. The odds of that happening left my mind spinning and my blood pressure banging on the sides of my skull.

I headed back to the house, revising my plan. The original tire had worked fine for many road trips. It wasn’t until I had inflated the tire to its maximum pressure that it had become an issue. I decided to reinstall the old tire and then only inflate it to the middle of the suggested pressure zone. I could still get a ride in. I would just stay closer to home than usual.

I reinstalled the old tire, careful not to pinch the inner tube, and hooked it up to the air pump. The tire filled to about 25 pounds of pressure and then for some reason the pressure would not go up. Dismayed, I discovered the original hole patch from earlier had failed. So I removed the tire again, repatched the hole, and reinstalled the tire. I hooked up the air pump again, and this time the air pump broke. I am not kidding. It just broke. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I was broken as well.

I could not believe it. I mean, all I wanted to do was to take a bike ride. All I needed to do was to change a tire. But I felt like the entire universe was against me. My day off had become a travesty . I wanted to look to the heavens and say, “Really, God!” I was stressing out. And ironically, while all of this was happening, I was working on a message for church entitled, “From stress to rest.” It was as if God were giving me a giant sermon illustration, and I really didn’t appreciate it. “I mean, really, God? Did you have to use my day off to provide a sermon illustration?”

I gave up. I mean, I just completely gave up.

Sometimes our lives look like chapters out of the children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Our blood pressure rises, we feel like the universe has turned against us, nothing seems to work the way we want it to work. And frankly, many of us struggle with issues far greater than simply wanting to go on a bike ride. Cancer strikes. Jobs are lost. Divorce tears apart a home. A hurricane makes landfall. Children rebel. In those times, what do we do?

One of the key lessons God has taught me is this: the level of rest in my life is directly relative to the level of control I am willing to give to God. If I am willing to give God complete control, I receive complete rest. If I am willing to give God only partial control, then I receive only partial rest. And if I am not willing to give God any control, then I will not receive any rest.

So my problem had little to do with the tire issues and a great deal to do with the fact that I wanted to be in control. I wanted to do what I wanted to do! I would have benefited greatly if I had simply given the day to God at the beginning of the day and then let him be in control of everything that happened. The irony is that whether I am willing to give him control or not, he is still in control. Ouch!

Friend, where do you find yourself today? Is your blood pressure rising? Are you stressed out over something and you feel you are losing control?

Jesus said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, ESV). Can you imagine? We come to him with all our problems, all our burdens, all the weariness, and we lay it all at his feet. In exchange, he gives us rest – pure, sweet, rest. But we cannot pick up his rest with hands that are clinging to our burdens. The burdens must be laid down first. Then with empty hands we pick up the rest he has given to us.

I pray that today, wherever this finds you, you may find rest. Give God 100% control of your life and your circumstances. Come to him with open arms and receive his rest. He waits for you now.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. But it ended really nicely, full of rest, when I finally gave it all over to God. No, I didn’t get my ride in, but I did receive rest. And so will you when you finally give it all over to God and he takes you from stress to rest.