Tagged ‘Obedience‘

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.)

Ishmael Moments

Abram sat in the door of his tent and pondered the idea. His wife Sarai had come to him earlier in the day with a radical thought. She was barren and longed for a child. She also had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. What if Abram took Hagar as his wife? She could be a surrogate mother for Sarai. It made sense. It was logical. It also interested Abram because ten years earlier God has promised him that he would be the father of a great nation. At this point, he was childless. Perhaps this was a way that he could see the fulfillment of the promise. It was an intriguing thought.

After much internal debate, at last he consented. It made perfect sense. It would solve so many problems. Abram took Hagar as his wife. In time, she bore a son. The son’s name was Ishmael. The world would never be the same. Unfortunately, this child was not the fulfillment of the promise God had made years earlier.

Abram would later be renamed Abraham. Sarai would later be renamed Sarah. Twenty-five years after the original promise, Abraham and Sarah saw the true fulfillment in the way God intended. Against all odds or human reasoning, Sarah gave birth when she was ninety-one years old. They named the boy Isaac. The nation that would come from their union would become the nation of Israel today.

Today, the religion adhered to by most of Ishmael’s descendants is the fastest growing religion in the world, Islam. Ishmael’s descendants fill the ranks of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Hamas. If only Abram had been willing to wait on God! How different would our world look today?

In Abram’s reasoning, he had figured out a way to help God. I call these moments “Ishmael Moments.” They are the moments when we debate giving God a hand in fulfilling his promises. They never end well.

Last month I wrote about the idea that when we follow God by faith, sometimes faith and obedience go hand in hand. We obey in faith when we have a clear directive from God. But what do you do when the path forward is not so clear? You’ve been praying and seeking God’s direction. Perhaps you think you have figured out a way that you can help God fulfill his promise. It makes sense. It is completely logical. Be very, very careful. You may be experiencing an Ishmael Moment.

Let me be very clear here. God does not need my help in fulfilling his promises! Obedience? Yes. But God does not need me to figure out how I can make his promise a reality. This is where I think many of us struggle. I know I do.

I have a situation in my life right now. I have prayed about it extensively. I have seen God at work in other areas of my life, so I know he is aware of my circumstances. I believe his promise regarding the situation. But I feel stranded in the Valley of Wait. As I waited, I figured out a possible solution. Then I brought my idea to God. I prayed, “Hey God, what if I did this? What do you think?” All I got in response was silence. Undeterred, I continued to pray about my solution. After all, it just made sense. So I repeatedly asked God about my idea. I sought counsel from other godly friends, but no one had any clarity on the issue. I read the word of God looking for advice. Zip. Nada. Nothing. Still I continued to pray! Surely my idea had merit. Surely it would be a blessing if I helped God out. It was so logical, but it was not from faith. It was an Ishmael Moment.

So why does God cause us to wait? Why does God drag out the fulfilling of a promise in our lives? Perhaps he is waiting for us to learn a lesson.

Thousands of years after that pivotal moment for Abram, Paul faced a great trial when he was ministering in Asia. He briefly mentions it in his second letter to the church in Corinth. This is what he says:

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, ESV).

That is quite a trial! The affliction was so severe that they felt completely helpless. They had even lost hope that they would survive the situation. In their minds, they felt like they had been sentenced to death. This is no small trial we are talking about. Perhaps you can relate.

What is important to note is Paul’s understanding of the value of the trial. He says, “But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9, ESV). God’s purpose in the situation was to bring them to the point where they understood their reliance must be in God alone, not in their own abilities. This is very important.

When you and I face Ishmael Moments we have a choice to make. Will we figure out a way out of the situation, or will we rely on God alone?

When I read Paul’s words the other day, it was a moment of clarity for me regarding my own challenge. I immediately saw what God was trying to teach me through this time of waiting. My reliance must be in God alone! There is no room in this equation for me to help God out with my own great ideas. It must be God or nothing. Either God will come through, or I will continue to wait until he does. For me, learning to rely on God alone is far more important than a resolution of my situation.

My friend, what is your Ishmael Moment? What is in your life right now that you are trying to figure out? The situation has dragged on and on. It feels like God has forgotten you. As time has worn on, you’ve come up with a solution that you think will help God out. Right now you are debating whether to move forward or not. For some reason, however, there is no clarity, no clear word from God on what you should do. It may be your Ishmael Moment. You have a choice to make. Will you wait to move forward until you have a clear word from God? Will you rely on God alone, or will you try to give God a hand? Choose carefully my friend. The consequences could be more devastating than you could possibly imagine.

This article was originally published in the February 2016 Newsletter.

Go Fish

It was another hot day in Capernaum. Peter was in his front yard working when the tax collectors from the synagogue approached him from the other side of the street. Lifting his eyes, he saw them drawing near and braced himself for the question that was sure to come.

The leader of the group spoke first. “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” he piously asked, his eyes half closed as he looked down the bridge of his nose at Peter.

Peter pursed his lips, took a deep breath, and slowly closed his eyes as he considered his reply. It was frustrating to know the question was more of an inquisition than a true request for information. It was common for his master to be questioned solely for the purpose of trying to trap him in his words.

Peter paused, resisting the urge to take the bait. “Yes, of course,” he finally replied, though he knew in his heart that their financial resources were depleted. Still, it was the manner of his master to do what was required. Of this, Peter was sure. How it would happen, he could not know. Jesus was poor, and by default, as his student, so was he.

The tax collectors smirked, darting looks cast between them on raised eyebrows, and finally turned and shuffled down the dusty road.

Peter watched them walk away and shook his head in frustration. Finally he turned and went into the house. He stood in the open doorway and looked at Jesus sitting in the cool inner room. He was about to tell Jesus what had happened, but before he could even draw a breath to speak, Jesus spoke to him.

“What do you think, Simon?” Jesus asked, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”

Peter wiped the sweat from his brow with his forearm and leaned against the door frame. He smiled realizing that Jesus already knew the conversation he had just had with the temple tax collectors. Living with Jesus as your roommate was a never ending parade of confounding circumstances. “From others,” he replied.

“Then the sons are free,” said Jesus, slowly rising from his seat and looking out the open window toward the Sea of Galilee. “However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel.” Turning to Peter, he continued. “Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

Peter smiled again and nodded, catching the eye of Jesus as he winked. The absurdity of the request made him laugh as he turned to reach for his fishing pole leaning next to the door and set off down the path to the sea.

Apparently, it was time to go fishing.

(Adapted from Matthew 17:24-27, ESV).

When I read Matthew’s account of this story, it makes me laugh. I can only imagine what went through Peter’s mind as he went fishing that afternoon. When he cast the line into the clear blue waters he must have thought, “This does not make any sense.” When he felt the tug on the line and began to pull in his catch, surely he must have been giddy with excitement. And when he finally landed the fish and reached down to remove the hook from its mouth, he must have been flabbergasted to see the flash of the silver coin in the fish’s mouth. Surely he laughed all the way home, tossing the coin from one hand to the other as he walked. And how did it feel to deliver the coin to the mocking tax collector the next day? Ah, that must have been a joy.

We forget sometimes that Jesus knows all things. Jesus knew the conversation Peter had with the temple tax collectors before Peter had an opportunity to share it. Jesus also knew they had no resources to pay the tax. Jesus knew as well that he had power to provide for the need in any way he sought fit. Jesus understood both poverty and power because both were embodied in himself. He knew the beginning and ending of the situation before it even began.

Sometimes as we walk by faith, God provides in the most unusual ways. I suspect he enjoys seeing the delight on the face of his children when he surprises us with miraculous provision. However, as I consider this example with Peter and Jesus, I can’t help but think about the responsibilities of both parties in the solution to the need. Peter had a responsibility, and Jesus, as God, had a responsibility. Both needed to be fulfilled in order to see the provision.

Peter’s responsibility was to fish. God’s responsibility was to put the coin in the fish’s mouth, and to put the fish on the hook on the first cast of Peter’s line. But please note there would have been no provision if Peter had not been obedient to what he was told to do. We cannot expect God to provide what he has promised when we are not willing to do what he asks.

When we live by faith, it is often difficult to understand where the line is between faith and personal responsibility. Perhaps the problem is that we are looking for something that doesn’t exist; there is no line. Faith and personal responsibility are both required. Living by faith does not mean that I can just sit at home and wait for God to provide for me financially. Instead, it may mean getting a second job, or selling things I don’t really need. Sometimes it may mean selling things I think I do need! Often it means a great deal of personal sacrifice. It is presumptuous to say “I live by faith,” but then to expect that I have no responsibilities in the process.

Faith always requires relationship, and then obedience to a divine directive. When God speaks, I move forward in confidence that he will provide for his work. When I join him in what he is already doing, my responsibility is only that of the servant. I merely follow his instructions. The financial supply to do the work of ministry is God’s responsibility. He may lead me to get a job to provide the money to do the work of ministry he wants me to do. He may lead me to sell all that I have to do the work of ministry he wants me to do. Or he may provide the finances in a miraculous way to do the work of ministry he wants me to do. In every case, it is God’s responsibility, not mine. He is the one who decides what he wants me to do. Then, in obedience, I move forward with what he has instructed with confidence that he will supply all that I need to accomplish his will. My responsibility is solely to obey.

My friend, are you living by faith? Then get ready for the ride of your life. It may be that God asks you to go fishing today. Will you do it? Or instead will you claim that you are living by faith and waiting for God to provide? God will always be responsible for his end of the deal. Will you be responsible for yours?

My responsibility is to fish. God’s responsibility is to put the fish on the line and the coin in its mouth.

My friend, go fish.

This article was originally published in the January 2016 Newsletter.

His name is ‘I am the Lord’

What do you do when you are following God, but nothing seems to be working out right? Sometimes we think that if we are following God and being obedient to what he has led us to do, it will all turn out well. But that is not always the case. What do you do when it doesn’t work out the way you hoped? What do you do when the relationship fails and ends in divorce? What do you do when there is not enough money left at the end of the month to pay the bills? What do you do when the home you’ve invested your heart and soul into goes into foreclosure? What do you do when a loved one dies unexpectedly? What do you do when life doesn’t seem fair? What do you do?

Gratefully, God gives us many examples in Scripture of others who have struggled with these same questions. I have recently been reading the story of Moses leading the nation of Israel out of Egypt. The account is fascinating because it is loaded with scenes in which God directs and then Moses obeys, but chaos follows.

In Exodus, Chapter 5, we find Moses deeply frustrated with God. He ends the chapter with this lament to God:

“O LORD, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Exodus 5:22-23, ESV).

Can you hear the frustration in his voice? Personally, I appreciate Moses’ candor with God. I am grateful that he expresses his frustrations because sometimes I do the same. Sometimes I don’t understand what God is doing. I don’t think it disrespects God when we humbly come to him and admit our humanity. Sometimes I say to God, “God, I don’t get you. I don’t understand what you are doing. It just doesn’t make sense to me.” In those moments I am not expressing arrogance. I am expressing my humanity. I am humbly coming to God and acknowledging that I am not God. I do not think like God thinks. I think like a man thinks. But gratefully, God understands my humanity.

What follows in Chapter 6 is a fascinating word from God. It is a long passage, but bear with me as I share it with you.

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.’” Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. (Exodus 6:2-9, ESV)

I love the way God responds to Moses. God graciously explains to Moses the greater plan he has in mind for the Israelites. Up until this point, God had not appeared to the nation as a whole. He had appeared individually to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty. But even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t know God in the way he was about to reveal himself. God was about to introduce himself to the entire nation in a way that was different from anything he had done before. And when he does, the name he will use is “I AM THE LORD”. They are about to experience God in a whole new way. God is about to amaze them with the display of his lordship over every aspect of their lives. But it would not come easily. In fact, it would be some of the most difficult days of their lives.

God instructs Moses to speak a direct word from God to the people. Interestingly, everything Moses is instructed to say is contained within two identical phrases. They are like bookends on each end of the comments. “I am the LORD,” he says. It is as if he is saying, “From the beginning to the end and everything in between, I am in control. I am over all. I am aware. I know your situation. I am God over all.”

Allow me to summarize the phrases God uses in this exchange with Moses. Because I believe if you can hear what God is saying, you will find a great deal to encourage you in whatever situation you may be facing today. Here is what he said:

“I am the LORD. I will bring you out. I will deliver you. I will redeem you with my arms outstretched to you and with great demonstrations of my power. I will take you to be mine. I will be your God. You will know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under your burdens. I will fulfill my promise to you. I am the LORD.”

Friend, where do you find yourself today? Are you burdened with cares? Does life seem unfair? Have you found yourself saying, “God, I just don’t get it”? If so, I believe this word is for you. God is Lord over your situation. He knows everything you are experiencing. He has heard your cries. He is at work, even when you cannot see it. He is Lord. It is as if he comes to us in the trial and says, “Let me introduce myself to you in a way you’ve never known me before. I am the Lord over every situation you may face. I was Lord before your difficulty began, I am the Lord in the midst of your problem, and I will be Lord after it is over.”

He is Lord when you lose your job. He is Lord when your divorce is final. He is Lord when your loved one dies. He is Lord when your family is in chaos. He is Lord when you are physically sick. He is Lord when the car dies. In all and through all, He is Lord. Period. End of sentence.

On a final note, one of the most interesting aspects to the lengthy passage I quoted earlier is the final thought at the end of the paragraph. It says, “Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exodus 6:9, ESV). My heart felt heavy when I read that phrase. I felt for those people who had endured so many trials. They were so completely broken in spirit that the encouraging words of Moses couldn’t reach their hearts. They just couldn’t bear any more, and they couldn’t even hear the encouragement God was speaking to them. But God was Lord, even in their inability to hear him speaking to them. He understood their weakness. He felt the burden they had been carrying. His promise to deliver them would be fulfilled not because they trusted him, but because he cared for them.

Some of you today are broken in spirit. You may not even be able to hear the words of encouragement God is offering to you today. It is okay. God understands. His love for you is not dependent upon your ability to respond to his love. His promises remain. He will be faithful. He knows the times our knees falter. He knows when weakness overtakes us. He is the Lord, even in that.

He is our God, and his name is I AM THE LORD.

This article was originally published in the March 2014 Newsletter.