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The importance of humility

Sometimes the Holy Spirit speaks so clearly and directly that it is shocking. I’m not referring to an audible voice, but a word to the soul that is precise and irrefutable. Such was the case on day two of my time in San Francisco.

Our group and a couple of leaders from Church Intensive met in the living room. We had finished an extended prayer session and had returned from a break. I settled in with a fresh cup of coffee as we continued our discussion on the importance of humility. I listened as individuals shared, but something was bothering me. I felt frustrated. I wanted to share my experiences over the past thirty years of ministry, but the conversation was dominated by others in the group. I was slowly growing annoyed. This was the moment when the Holy Spirit spoke to me.

“Tim,” he said, “You know why you are frustrated? It’s because anytime someone else is speaking, no one is paying attention to you.”

Ouch. The irony was rich. I was in a discussion on humility, and I was frustrated because no one was paying attention to me. That’s pretty rough.

As God would have it, we took a break for 20 minutes to spend time in personal prayer. No one else was aware of what the Holy Spirit had just spoken to me. I retreated to the back bedroom, closed the door, and got down on my knees beside the bed. I was appalled. Shocked. Silenced. Stunned. I hardly spoke to God, but when I did it was in profound recognition of my sin. I repented. Most of the time I just knelt there in silence. I saw my sin as sin – horrible, terrible sin.

After a time, we returned to the group meeting. We continued our discussion. I sat there silently, still groping with the reality of my sin. Finally, there was a pause, and I shared with the group how dismayed I was by what the Holy Spirit had just revealed to me. As I shared, the Holy Spirit completely broke me. I covered my face with my hands and wept.

An awkward silence settled on the group. I didn’t care. I saw my sin as God sees it. I repented. I was broken. I couldn’t look up. I was ashamed, but it was a deeply cleansing moment for me. At that moment, the Holy Spirit showed me what humility looks like: deep, profound, repentant humility.

Strangely, it was a highlight of the trip for me. It was a revival in my heart. Afterward, I felt renewed and refreshed. My heart was aligned with God’s heart. In the sessions that followed, God deeply ministered to me.

I share this story as a reminder of the importance of humility. Humility and godliness are essential attributes of a follower of Jesus. They are essential for a leader in the Church. They are also essential within the congregation. When humility and godliness are present, we can work through any differences in theology or preference in application. When these attributes are present, there is unity. When these attributes are missing, we have chaos, strife, and division.

I share my story with you because I suspect this is a larger issue within our churches than just myself. It affects leadership. It affects those who are not in leadership but wish they were. It affects us all. Think about some of the conflicts we’ve witnessed in our churches. How were they resolved? Did we witness lives characterized by humility and godliness? Sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule. Usually, we try to fix the problem by debating theology or our preferences. Instead, we need to address the heart problem of a lack of humility and godliness.

Humility is a key component of following Jesus. Consider these passages:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3, ESV).

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3, ESV).

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5, ESV).

It saddens me when I see individuals in an online debate over non-essential theological positions. Most are deeply knowledgeable but evidently lacking in humility. It fosters division. It cannot be of God.

Paul addressed this in his letter to the Corinthians. This is what he wrote:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, ESV

Sometimes we forget the body of Christ in North America is made up of millions of people. People like you and me who read the word of God and sometimes draw different conclusions. Good men believe differently. When there are differences, humility saves the day. When there are differences without humility, there is strife and division. The problem is not our differences in theology or application. The problem is a lack of humility.

In thirty years of ministry, I’ve made many friends across denominational lines. The one thing we have in common is a deep love for God and gratefulness for the forgiveness for sins we receive through his son Jesus’ death on the cross. Beyond that, differences abound. When we live together in humility and godliness, there is unity in the body of Christ. It is beautiful to witness. But when humility is lacking, there is strife.

Looking back, I see times when I was not humble in my relationship with others in the body. I’ve sought forgiveness when possible. I also imagine I will address this issue in my life in the future. I continue to grow in my relationship with God, and I have many lessons to learn. But I experience the refreshing work of the Holy Spirit when I acknowledge my sin and repent, and that has made all the difference.

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

When God uses my sin for good

Do you ever rehearse some past sin in your life, replaying in your mind what you said or did, wishing you could go back and make a better decision than the one that led you into sin? I have. My goodness, I have blown it so many times. But did you know that God can use even your past failures for good? It’s true. A few days ago I was reading one of Paul’s letters to his friend Timothy, and a statement he made in this regard really stood out to me.

The Apostle Paul is one of my favorite biblical characters. I appreciate the way he acknowledges his past while focusing on his future. Again and again he writes about the wonder of understanding the grace he has been given for his past sin. Remember, he was the one who had persecuted the early believers. He was responsible for imprisoning many followers of Christ. Many died as a result of his actions. To carry the thought of that sin surely must have been a heavy burden to him. Yet he had been forgiven and set apart by God to carry the message of forgiveness to others who also needed forgiveness for sin.

This is the beauty of the gospel. God’s grace gives us forgiveness for our sin. Then, when we are aware of the forgiveness that we have received, we want others to know that they can be forgiven as well. Those who have been set free from the bondage of sin want others to be free as well.

One of the ways our enemy tries to silence us is by reminding us of sin we have committed in the past. Our focus is on the shame we feel from the sin we have committed. But when our focus shifts to the wonder of God’s grace and mercy, then we view our sin in a whole new light. The focus shifts from what I have done to what God has done. It is God’s grace and kindness to me that overwhelms me. His faithfulness humbles me when I consider my unfaithfulness to him. Always I am in the debtor’s corner.

But here is the amazing part. God redeems our sin and uses it for good. How can this be? How can God take the sin I have chosen in my past and use it for good? He does this in a couple of ways.

First, he uses my sin to help conform me into the image of Jesus Christ.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, wrote, “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 8:28-29, ESV). God’s idea of all things working for good is not for my comfort, but for my conformity. When I am in a relationship with him, learning to love him more and more, he will use everything in my life to help conform me to the image of Jesus Christ. That means even the sin I have done in my past can be used to help me look a little more like the person of Jesus Christ.

For me, it is the awareness of the sin I have done that keeps me humble before God. God has given me great grace in forgiving me of my sin. God gives me this grace, not because I deserve it, but because it is his character to do so. It is part of who he is. Therefore, when I am aware of the grace I have been given, even though I do not deserve it, then I can give grace to others who also don’t deserve it. When I do that, I become a little more like Christ. I am being conformed to his image. In this way, God uses my past sin to conform me into the image of Jesus Christ. What a powerful thought.

But not only does God use my sin to conform me into the image of Jesus Christ, he also uses my past to encourage others in the body that may be caught in sin today. Through my example and the evidence of God’s grace in my life, others will come to understand that they can be forgiven as well.

Paul wrote about this idea in his letter to his dear friend and fellow servant, Timothy. This is the phrase that really stood out to me as I was reading the other day. “The saying is trustworthy,” he wrote, “and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16, ESV).

Please don’t gloss over those words! This is important stuff! Paul says that even though he was the worst of sinners, he received mercy so that his life could be an example of the patience of God in drawing all men unto himself for salvation. What hope! What encouragement for those of us who have also blown it, who know the grace of God and forgiveness for sin. Your past failure does not have to be for naught. God wants you to know that your life is a testimony of the grace of God. Again, the enemy wants you to focus on your shame; God wants the focus to be on himself and his grace. The focus is on God’s ability to forgive, not my ability to sin. When we understand this, then even our past failures can be used for good. Imagine that!

Friend, perhaps today the enemy is haunting you with some sin that you committed in the past. You know you have been forgiven, but the reminder of that sin has kept you in the bondage of shame. Today, God is speaking to you. He wants you to know that he can even use your past sin for his glory. You are a testimony of the grace of God! How wonderful to know that God can use my failures to show how great he is.

Paul wrote, “for those who love God, all things work together for good.” Yes, my friend, God can even use your past sin to work together for good. God can use it to conform you to the image of Jesus Christ, and he can use it to encourage others who have sinned as well. Today, keep your focus on the one who forgives, not on your past. Like Paul, you also have been forgiven and set apart by God to be an example of God’s grace and to carry that message of forgiveness to others who also need forgiveness for sin.

This article was originally published in the November 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.

The only gift that satisfies

Last night I was thinking about all that God has done for me this past year. I was reflecting on his kindness to me. He has blessed my life so abundantly, and I am humbled when I consider his goodness to me. To be honest, I am a bit uncomfortable with how he has blessed my life. I live in a home far nicer than I need. I drive a car far better than I need. I have more clothes than I need. He has blessed me far beyond my needs. I consider my brothers and sisters around the world who love God as much as or more than I do and yet suffer such loss for the cause of Christ, and it makes me feel uneasy when I realize how well I live. When I look at my life and how God has blessed me, sometimes it seems unfair.

But as I was talking with God and considering all of this, I was reminded of a simple truth. Only Jesus satisfies me. Of all of the material blessings I have been given, none of them satisfies me. Only God does that for me. I love him. He satisfies my soul like nothing else. I believe I have come to the place in my life where I can honestly say that he is all I want. Not only is he all I need, he is also all I want. A nice house is great, but it doesn’t satisfy the soul. A nice car is great, but at the end of the day it still doesn’t satisfy. Nicer furniture doesn’t satisfy. Nicer clothes don’t satisfy. Nicer shoes don’t satisfy. A bigger TV with higher resolution doesn’t satisfy. A better cell phone or tablet doesn’t satisfy. Fill in the blank. Nothing outside my relationship with God will ever satisfy.

Think about this for a moment. Can you remember the Christmas gifts you received last year? How about the year before that? How quickly our attention moves on. What seemed so important last year is now gathering dust in a closet. The challenge is to remember this when we consider the Christmas season before us. We are bombarded with messages in the media that seek to stir up discontent. The underlying message is that you will be happier if you just had __________. Sadly, many well-meaning Christians fall into this trap.

Last year I went to one of the large retailers for the day after Thanksgiving sales. I was shocked. An armed police officer stood in the center of the main aisle to help keep order. The place was packed. I could hardly navigate the perimeter of the store. It left me with a sick feeling in my gut. If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, why did everyone seem so consumed with greed, pushing, shoving, running to get the must have item of the year? I love a bargain as well as the next guy, but this was out of control.

The message of the Bible is that only God satisfies. The message from our enemy is that everything but God satisfies. Which message are you living by?

This Christmas, remember that the only gift that satisfies is the gift God gave us two thousand years ago. There in a manger, in the town of Bethlehem, a baby was born. But that tiny baby was the very Son of God, born in the flesh, given to you and me for the forgiveness of our sins.

Consider these verses:

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11, NASB).

I love the way this passage is written in this version when it says “there has been born for you a Savior.” He was born for you. He was given for you. It was all for you, this amazing gift from God. Imagine that! This baby was given to you so that you could have a relationship with God. God gave you the gift of the forgiveness of your sins wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV, emphasis added).

It is the gift of God! And this, my friends, is the only gift that satisfies.

Maybe you are reading this and you know the feeling of being unsatisfied. You know that something is missing from your life. You also know in your heart of hearts that more stuff is not going to fill that void in your life, but you don’t know where to turn. If that is you, today God reaches out to you with the gift of all gifts. It is as if God stands before you holding a baby in his arms. As you stand before him, he extends his arms to you, giving this baby to you. Will you receive him? Will you accept this gift for you? In this baby is everything you could ever want or need. This baby is Jesus, the very son of God, given to you for the forgiveness of your sins so that you can have a relationship with God. This relationship satisfies the deepest longing of your life more than anything this world could possibly give. Will you receive this gift today?

It is also possible that as you are reading this today, you have already accepted this gift at some point in your life. But for some reason you’ve set aside your relationship with God and are striving to fill that void in your life with more stuff. You’ve forgotten the gift you’ve been given. You’ve set it on a shelf in the far reaches of a closet out of sight and out of mind. How sad to be given a gift so valuable and to set it aside. Now you find yourself empty, unsatisfied, and wondering where you went wrong. If that is you, turn back to your gift today.

My friend, where are you at in your relationship with God? Is he enough? Are you satisfied with him alone? Or have you fallen victim to the lie that something else can make you happy? God gave us an incredible gift in his son. This Christmas, find your satisfaction in Christ alone.

He truly is the only gift that satisfies.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 Newsletter.