Finding Refreshment in Small Changes

 Hello Church
 
Yesterday some of the McConnell children decided to rearrange their rooms. Mostly on their own, they spent the afternoon moving around furniture, posters, baskets, and toys. They threw out some clutter, and put new items on their shelves. When I got home from work they practically knocked me down at the door, so excited to show me what they had done. Of course I’ve seen their rooms every day for the past year that we have lived in this home, but I will say that the difference was tangible. The biggest change was the enthusiasm level of the kids for their little bit of space in the house. What was boring the day before, now seemed to be revived. Of course many of us adults have experienced this phenomenon. It’s the same furniture, and same material – yet everything feels somewhat new just by moving it around! It is really quite stunning how refreshment and energy can come from a simple, new arrangement.
 
This morning I was contemplating how this could be helpful in our relationship with Jesus. The bible tells us to ‘not grow weary of doing good’ (Galatians 6:9), yet the very presence of the command tells us that it is possible to do just that. Christians who are maturing in faith will often find themselves in ruts along their path. In these times, doing what is good could seem like a chore. Perhaps we do it anyway, trying to push through; or perhaps we wake up one day and realize we have drifted away from where we started. Let me be clear, I believe that spiritual life comes from the Father and His Spirit living through us, because of faith in Jesus. So in a dry place, the critical task is to seek the living water of Christ (John 4:14). But when you recognize that your energy to even seek what is good is waning, allow me to encourage you that it may be time to seek refreshment through a new arrangement. A few small, simple changes may be exactly what you need to energize your walk with Christ. Maybe it is beginning something new, like getting up a bit earlier to meet with the Lord before the chaos of the day. Perhaps you just need a change of scenery for your bible study, or a new place to walk while you talk with God. It could be that you need to make a way to take a short daily retreat, try fasting a meal, or begin meeting with someone once a month for coffee and fellowship. Or maybe you need to try taking the last 15 minutes before bed to worship and pray with your spouse and children.
 
The point is – if you find yourself growing weary in your walk with Christ, consider how even the smallest of changes could refresh your journey. As a church, we aimed to do something new this year by joining together in a bible reading plan. We have not mentioned this in several weeks, but I hope those of you who began this work have not grown weary. But if you have, today is a great day to restart the process. I have fallen behind several times, but have pressed onward and found that God has spoken to me clearly on many occasions. Verses that I have read dozens of times, are jumping off the page at me with new revelation. So let’s keep moving forward in the word together, trusting God’s Spirit to grow us as a church.

I love you all in Christ

David

Setting the Pace for Our Children

Growing in the likeness of Jesus is the clearly defined will of God for the life of a Christian (see Romans 8:29). Our obedience to this will requires intentionality to join with God in His work of grace on our lives. We see negative examples throughout the New Testament of Christians who had apparently put aside their deliberate pursuit of Godliness. One such passage is Hebrews 5:11-12, where the first century Jewish-Christians are told, ‘…you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again’. Just like timely development is a sign of physical health, progress in Godliness is a sure marker of spiritual well-being in the Christian.

Of course, one of our great challenges is that the world we live in offers so many prospects for our attention to be diverted. While I firmly believe that setting aside time to just relax and enjoy God and your family is both good and beneficial, I do not think the bible commends giving ourselves over to large amounts of time spent on worthless pursuits. Jesus told the church through the Apostle Paul: ‘Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil’ Ephesians 5:16 In reality, the world is full of opportunities to engage in that which is unfruitful, pointless, and without lasting value. And for us to avoid falling into this pit we must continually examine how we use our time. In 2016, hours upon hours of entertainment is readily available to us at a moment’s notice. How often do we lose track of time on our favorite social media app, watching countless hours of our favorite videos, or ridding the world of the zombie apocalypse on our smart phone? None of those things are sinful in themselves, unless they pull us from the greatest pursuit of this life: Christ and His Kingdom. Our flesh desires to be entertained, and the culture is ready to satisfy that craving in countless ways. Yet all the while we run the risk of becoming people who have stopped trying to understand the word of God, and are failing to grow in his purposes for us.

Most of us know that any endeavor we wish to become good at, will require training. Even if we have a natural ability inside of us, we must still work to perfect it. And this is no different with growing in godliness. Paul mentored his young protégé Timothy, telling him to ‘Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness’ 1 Timothy 4:7. In the original language, the word Paul chose here is Gymnazo, which rightfully takes our mind to the word gymnasium; a place where you would put your efforts toward being in good physical condition. And Paul uses this word to urge Timothy to use the same physical and emotional force toward training for spiritual growth. And just like going to the gymnasium for a workout is hard, likewise it will be a challenge to discipline ourselves for the purpose of Christ-likeness. But by God’s grace this pursuit will bring long term results – even more beneficial than physical exercise.

When my wife and I teach parenting classes through Lifeline’s Families Count ministry, we continually remind the moms and dads that we, the parents, are setting the pace for our children when it comes to spiritual development. The environment that we create, is not only the one that our children are growing in now; but most likely the one that they will emulate in their own homes later in life. I believe it is critical for our own spiritual well-being to often lie down, turn off, and put away those empty pursuits which we find ourselves routinely succumbing to, and relying fully on the Holy Spirit to replace those with deliberate spiritual searches, that include goals for growth in Godliness. And in the process, we are giving an example for our children to follow by displaying the immeasurable value and beauty of Jesus, and the worthiness of the pursuit of His image.

The Blessing of Weakness

In our culture, we greatly admire strength. We celebrate, sometimes even idolize, the talents and skills in others. Our respect goes to those who can overcome difficult circumstances through sheer will-power. In business, we greatly value the self-made individuals who transformed their abilities into great achievement. When it comes to our entertainment, nothing sells better than a powerful hero who wins the day. And in today’s turbulent world, many seek security in the strength of their personal economy and environment.But there are at least two unfortunate by-products created by a fixation with strength. First, it can cause us to despise the weaknesses we see in ourselves or in others. Weakness is a quality of a person ‘regarded as a disadvantage or fault’. With so much admiration for capability, it stands to reason that we would try to hide our deficiencies out of shame. When faced with inability to overcome a problem or accomplish a task, many just remain silent because of the dread they feel when admitting they need help. In a world that so highly values self-reliance, we become adept at hiding our problems, our fears, our addictions, our temptations, and our sin. We reason that if people really knew of our inadequacies, perhaps we would be marginalized or rejected.

Secondly, an over focus on strength will lead us to place too much confidence in ourselves when it comes to setting and accomplishing goals or overcoming difficulties. The overly self-reliant are quick to assume that their plans are correct. And often when they find themselves in a season of despair they endeavor to overcome quietly in their own power, rather than reach out for help. Even in our churches we have developed statements of encouragement for those who are struggling that expose a subtle over-emphasis on self-reliance. We say things such as, ‘God will not give you more than YOU can handle’. Or ‘God only gives the greatest battles to his toughest soldiers’. And while we would not deny the well-meaning heart behind these sentiments (let’s be honest, we have all said them), the focus is still misplaced.

 The Bible teaches us that what human culture sees as wisdom, is actually quite foolish to God. Scripture often overturns social norms by presenting an entirely different way to view life. When it comes to how we navigate our weaknesses, this is what the Lord says in Jeremiah 17:5,7-8: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh…but blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water…It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit’. Most of us know what it is like to go through the heat that life can bring or live through a season of drought. And God uses this imagery to teach us that there is a way to order our days so that we can always flourish and be full of life. That way demands that we disregard the cultural pattern of relying on ourselves. Nothing good will come from placing trust in our own abilities. You will not bear fruit at all times by being confident in your ways, your wisdom, or your strength. Rather, a blessed life will be found when we realize our absolute dependence on God for everything.

The Apostle Paul came to realize this truth, and even wrote to the church in the city of Corinth that he had chosen to approach his weaknesses with gratefulness (2 Corinthians 12). Even in his day, this was a shift from the social norm of highlighting your strengths, and hiding your frailties! But Paul told the church that he had come to recognize that when he was weak, Jesus Christ would supply His power, His wisdom, through His Spirit, and the qualities of Christ were far greater, and far more satisfying than his own.

As moms and dads, husbands and wives, leaders and friends – we could do no greater service to one another than to live unashamed of weakness. Our legacy can be certain if we will decline fascination with our own competence; opting instead for a radical confidence in the power of God. May we celebrate our talents for what they are: gifts from above to be used for God’s glory and in service to other people. And may we be willing to speak of our weaknesses boldly, knowing that they are paths for God to deliver his power in unique and anointed ways.

 

Why We Must Not Forsake the Gathered Church

A few weeks ago we spent time together in Romans 12, in a message titled Living as a Gospel Centered Church. This message followed several others that were focused on the spiritual life of Agape in a corporate context. The purpose of this letter is to go a bit deeper into the passage, and finish up some of thoughts on how the word calls us to live together as a church.

When we went into Romans 12 we read this: 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will. Rom 1:1-2. The mercy of God toward a believer is the foundation for Paul’s appeal on our lives. The internal experience of God’s compassion, always precedes behavioral commands. The Gospel is both the power for our salvation, and the power for our transformation. Paul described this in the opening of his letter to the church in Thessalonica when he said: Our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. 1 Thess 1. It would be useless for us to try and build behavioral change in our lives or in the lives of others, without first having the foundation of God’s mercy. None of us are able to make any spiritual progress without him. At the same time, it is poison to our soul to believe that you can have a saving attachment to God, without experiencing the conviction to turn from your sin. Saving belief in the Gospel compels us to obey verse 1 of Romans 12 by viewing our very life as an instrument of worship.

And this Gospel transformation does not occur in isolation. The gospel builds us into a church. Any notion that a person can love Jesus yet hate His gathered people is a falsehood with no biblical justification. Paul continues in Romans 12:3 I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Romans 12:3-6 [ESV]. According to this passage, God grants faith and gifts in a variety of measures. When coming to Christ not everyone receives the same spiritual gifts, nor the same measure of faith right away. But whatever gift and whatever measure of faith you do have, you have received it for the common good of the church. In His wisdom, God has chosen to heal and sanctify sinners by His Spirit operating through His people.

In light of this, we would do well to put some thought toward our role in the church. How will people be impacted if we are not there to participate and minister with the gifts that God has given us? Yes, we will be weaker if we forsake the gathering of the church, but so will those around us. In Christ we are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph 2:22). What God is doing in your life, directly impacts what he is doing in the life of your church. And this is why I believe that God has Paul follow up His definitive commands to be transformed by the gospel, with relational instructions for the church. Romans 12 continues 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Romans 12:9-18 [NIV]


The battle to preserve spiritual passion is a battle that the church takes up together.
God has designed it so that we need the gifts and faith of others to build us up. When Jesus spoke to the churches in Revelation, he spoke to them corporately. When he warned the church at Ephesus, ‘You have abandoned the love you had at first’, this was an observation about the spiritual health of the church as a whole. We stand together – seeking to be zealous for God and His kingdom. And we help each other, in part, by serving with our spiritual gifts. Verses 6 – 8 in Romans 12 could be summarized this way: Use your Gift(s)!! The God of the universe has granted you a manifestation of His Spirit, for the purpose of serving the people around you. And God knows that serving is not always easy for His people who daily live with a nature bent toward self-focus. Thus, God commands his church to Honor one another above yourselves. We have this high calling from Christ to honor the church, which means to treat it as valuable, even if it means we sacrifice our own interests in the process. Young parents, we are setting the pace for our children: Will our parenting lead them to grow up and treasure the church with their own families? Older mentors, will the younger people in this church be taught to treasure the church by what they see in your life?

Of course whatever God is doing among His people, the enemy looks to stifle. Satan delights in sowing disputes and disagreements among those joined under the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, our church will always be in great need of peacemakers. We will probably always struggle with a temptation toward conflict because of the self-focused nature that was just mentioned. People will say or do the wrong thing, harming us, accidentally and sometimes purposefully. And because of this we will be tempted to gossip, or slander by venting to others angrily. In light of this, God commands His church, 14…bless and do not curse. 16 Live in harmony with one another. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Church, refuse gossip. Handle conflict face to face, with truth and grace. Be devoted to each other in Love. When harm comes, forgive. Do not harm back. Jesus was willing to be treated unfairly for the sake of sinners– so likewise honor others above yourself, even when they do not deserve it.

A church battling for spiritual fervor is one whose people are using their gifts, honoring each other, and praying to be daily bent toward peace. May we be that church, Agape!  

I love you all in Christ. 



David

Confronting Sin with Calmness

 In a class my wife and I lead for a local ministry, we teach parent’s about a concept called learned behaviors. In my words, these behaviors are ones that you acquire in your lifetime through interaction with your environment, or by being taught. Often these are not taught through sit down lessons, but rather by being immersed in an environment where a behavior unfolded consistently and frequently. Eventually, it becomes a normal way to conduct yourself. We may even recognize family patterns of learned behaviors- actions that have been passed down from parent to child for several generations. Of course, some learned behaviors are negative and it is important for us to identify those so that we can make changes. This is especially critical to us as parents, because we are now the ones creating the environment where OUR children are being developed.

One of the best places to have your learned behaviors challenged, is the bible. Just this week I came across a couple of passages that confronted not only my own conduct, but a generational pattern that exists in my family. The first was Ecclesiastes 10:4 [ESV], which says in part ‘Calmness will lay great offenses to rest’. Very similar to this is Proverbs 25:15 [NIV], ‘Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone’. Now honestly, growing up in my home – if a great offense took place, the typical response was not calmness. And likewise, a gentle tongue was not viewed as a choice weapon by which a battle could be won. Misconduct provoked a quick response, complete with quickly elevated voices and stinging words. Arguments were typically marked by increasingly harsh tones of voice, discouraging observations, and carried along by a determination to talk over each other as loudly as possible. Today, I have an understanding that this way of exercising parental discipline and working through marital disagreements had existed in both of my parents’ families to varying degrees. And truthfully, I was not immune. I had learned, at least in part, some of these same traits. They worked themselves into my own parental discipline and relationship with my wife. I had learned through my environment that a loud voice and stinging words would win the day. And without a course correction on my part, my children will grow up to learn the same.

Of course, I do not think the bible forbids righteous anger or frustration against sin. Nor do I think a stern voice is always out of place. If a child consistently misbehaves – there should be a strong response. The bible teaches that it is out of love and a desire for good that a parent disciplines their children [Hebrews 12:9-10]. But the bible also teaches us that the heart is the wellspring of life, and ‘everything you do flows from it’ [Proverbs 4:23]. And no combination of volume and vocabulary have the ability to change someone’s heart. Our frustration – James teaches [James 1:20] – will never create right attitudes and beliefs in our children, or in our spouse. So the conclusion James reaches, in light of this, is that we should be quick to listen and slow to speak; and we should control our anger and the actions that proceed from it. Because in the final analysis, our humanity will never yield spiritual health in others.

The word calmness in Ecclesiastes 10:4, can also be translated healing. So it could be said that, ‘healing will lay great offenses to rest’. And yes, this is so true! Every offense, every conflict, every misbehavior, every wrong attitude in us, in our spouse and in our children, is a byproduct of the sin of our first father and mother in Genesis 3. That event created in us a flesh that craves self-satisfaction, which often requires rebellion against authority. And every human on earth is clothed in this flesh. And it is only by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the son of God, on the cross that this flesh can be overcome. ‘By HIS wounds, we are healed’ [Isaiah 53:5], because He has laid all of our offenses to rest. And it is a trust in HIS work, that frees us from the need to respond to sin with more sin. That trust will work itself out in prayer for our own hearts, and the hearts of our children and our spouse. And that trust will free us to confront misconduct in those closest to us with calmness, patience and with a gentle tongue. For the parent, this will be a tongue that while at times stern, will also speak healing through the gospel.

Whether our children or our spouse, their greatest need is the same as ours: to look to Jesus for healing. And it is by our own calmness that we demonstrate a recognition that the power of heart change belongs only to God.

Living God-Centered, in a Self-Centered World

In the beginning, God created…everything. And at the height of His creative work, he chose to make mankind in His image (Genesis 1:26). God plans to make a human race, patterned after his own being, to oversee the rest of creation, and to enjoy Him forever. As the first humans, Adam and Eve lived in God’s likeness, in perfect harmony. They lived in a magnificent garden, where God himself walked. There was no divide between creator and creation. And there were no divides between the human race either- specified by scripture with the phrase found in Gen 2:25, ‘They were both naked, and they felt no shame’. This was unity. Nothing clothed them, because there was nothing to hide. No barriers at all.

And at the center of this unity, was the human purpose: To live for the glory of God. His glory was the purpose of mankind’s creation (Isaiah 43:7). God had existed for all of eternity as Father, Son and Spirit, in perfect love. And out of His kindness, he invited mankind to share in His joy. Humans, living and working side by side, for God’s glory. Increasing in number, filling all of the earth with God’s image. Enjoying God, together. Adam and Eve were without dissension, because they were God-centric, as all of creation was made to be.

big dealOf course we know that the world we live in today – is not the world described in Genesis 1-2. The human race is not in unity; we are far from it. And the origin of every division and conflict we can imagine is found in Genesis 3. The enemy of God arrived in the picture with a singular temptation for the human race: to trade in their God-centric lives for ones that focused on themselves. God had given Adam and Eve all things to enjoy, except for one tree. That tree, God said, was not for them. And for a human race living to enjoy God and to find His glory precious – this was not a harsh prohibition. But Satan’s tactic was to shift their focus: Why must YOU not eat of these trees? Why should YOU be deprived? God knows YOU will be like him if you eat from it – because YOU will then have a knowledge of good and evil. And with that, the human race forsook God to place themselves at the center of their own affections. And immediately, division came. Barriers were put up as Adam and Eve clothed themselves with fig leaves, hiding from each other out of shame. Harmony was lost, not just between the human race – but also between humans and God. He came to walk in the garden, and the human race ran to hide. And the conflict grows as Adam and Eve began to blame each other, along with God, for their rebellion. Adam says, ‘I did this because of the WOMAN, YOU put here with me’. Eve responds, blaming the serpent that God had made. Mankind was now a self-centric, distorted image of God, divided and in conflict. And this bitter root of self-centeredness, would be passed to every human generation. People who love themselves, and so become boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient, ungrateful, unforgiving, slanderous and without self-control (2 Timothy 3:2-4).

I often tell the moms and dads going through the Families Count program, that parenting is the toughest challenge you will ever be given. And what makes the task so hard, is that we must live through the complications intrinsic to a self-centric world. And to compound this problem, both we AND our children are dealing with the nature we have inherited; a nature that is bent toward self. The good news – and there is good news in all of this – is that Jesus Christ has come to ‘destroy the devil’s work’ (1 John 3:8). God the Son stepped into His creation in order to reverse the effects of our rebellion. His work would make way for the human race to be restored to the Image of God and the harmony of living in His likeness. The night Christ was born, the Angels praised the Heavenly Father in song, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests’. This PEACE is the good news to a world filled with hostility; people drowning in conflict with themselves and with God.

Jesus is our only hope to live as God-centric people, reflecting His glory and enjoying Him forever. While our families must live in a self-centric world, we take heart at the words of Christ, ‘I have overcome the world!’ (John 16:33). Our hope and peace is found only in the centrality of Jesus! Look to Him and Seek Him with all of your strength!

So Now, We Are His Children

FathersI believe that I can say, without fear of exaggeration, that the process of adopting a child taught me more about the Gospel than any other experience I have had in my adult life. I have come to believe there is a specific understanding of biblical salvation that is graciously and uniquely granted to families who adopt. When Alyson and I brought our son home from Hong Kong we had been married for 15 years and had 4 biological children. And at the time, I thought I understood what it meant to be a dad. But, adoption drew out aspects of fatherhood which I had never seen before. It is like viewing stars from my home in a central Alabama city versus viewing them from the Gulf Coast. The sky is the same, but it is the different vantage point that allows me to see and appreciate the stars in a completely different way. Specifically, there are three facets of fatherhood that adoption has allowed me to perceive far more clearly and brightly than I did before: Belonging, Identity and Significance.

So first – Belonging. My biological children have always belonged to a father. From the moment they entered the world, I was there to embrace them and claim them. But for my adopted son, Jack, his father was gone long before he was born. And for the first years of his life he had no familiarity with a dad and no idea what it meant to belong to someone. He had never experienced simple joys we take for granted, like climbing up into a father’s lap just to be with him, or having someone look at us with pride and say, ‘That one is mine’. Fatherhood means belonging.

And belonging brings Identity. We live in a culture that teaches us to earn our identity by what we do. But in truth, identity is established by who we are. Immediately upon entering the world my first four children were known as son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew; they were recognized as grandchildren or cousins. They had a family name, a place, and a heritage – granted not because of hard work, but because they belonged. And it was the lack of belonging that caused my adopted son to be born without a firm identity. He was not born into a family. He was not a son. He was not a brother. He did not have a heritage. But when he came to belong to us through adoption, all of that changed. He was granted a new identity. He was no longer who he used to be. He now belonged to a new family with sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles – marked by a new name. Fatherhood means identity.

And this belonging and identity has a cumulative effect – a Significance. I often find myself looking at our adopted son and wondering, ‘How different would his life be if he had never been adopted?’ For Jack, everything has been radically changed. His future will be immeasurably shaped by this reality of belonging to a family and the identity he has received. Fatherhood means significance.

And seeing these truths by way of a different vantage point, I have new insights into the magnificence of my own adoption. The bible uses adoptive language to describe the Gospel – the very salvation of our souls. God our creator, chose to adopt us (Ephesians 1:5), and so we – who once had no identity as a people – now belong to God the Father in his family (1 Peter 2:10). How amazing! The act of human adoption, is merely a shadow of the divine, greater adoption that the Father above has bestowed upon us. The bible teaches that God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, into his creation to take upon his shoulders the penalties due our sin. And if we have faith in Jesus’ work we will belong to the same Father as He does (1 Corinthians 3:23); we will receive the same identity he has: a ‘Child of God’ (1 John 3:1). Our belonging is proven by the name we now carry. We are not who we used to be. We now belong to a Father, in a new family with sisters and brothers from all times, cultures, and languages. We have not earned this identity, but have received it all because of Jesus! And the significance of this cannot be overstated, because now if God is for his children, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? Our future is shaped entirely by this Fatherhood. Through faith in Christ, we now belong to the King of all the Universe. We carry His name. Once fatherless, we are now sons and daughters with a heritage. So now, we are His children.

Sowing Seeds of Life

Sowing-SeedsMy wife and I recently had a student recount to us a literal life or death moment that she experienced in the midst of a difficult season. We serve in a local ministry to precious men and women who like all of us are dealing with sin; but for them, the issues have reached the point of threatening their ability to be able to provide a safe, loving environment for their children. This young mom was facing the common difficulties of life, like overdue bills, medical issues, busy schedules, and responsibilities. But this was coupled with the struggle to overcome the powerful effects of addiction as she strives to stay with the child that she so desperately loves. And in a moment of weakness, with all of the stress of life seeming to pile up – the thought came: Just end this. End the struggle. This battle is too much. You are not going to make it. But she shared with us that as the thought of destruction was raging in her mind, another more powerful thought entered. She heard the words of a verse that we had read together in our class just a few days earlier: Genesis 1:27 ‘God created man in his own image’. For this young mother – that scripture was just as the Psalmist described: ‘a light to my path’. The darkness told her that giving up was the answer. Yet the light had broken through to give her hope. And as she looked at us crying, she said with determination, ‘I am made in the image of God, and I know I have a purpose. I am going to keep going’.

The language of light and darkness is a theme that is found throughout the bible; the description of a battle that has been raging long before any of us were born. The bible describes God, as the ‘Father of lights’ (James 1:17) from whom every good and perfect gift comes. And in darkness is the enemy of God that has opposed Him from before the creation of the world- ‘the thief’ who comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 3:19). And I would submit that all of us have found ourselves in the midst of this battle and many of us carry scars from it. The fight rages for us and for those we love. The battleground being thoughts, affections, and allegiance. Everyone faces choices of darkness and light– clashes between deception or integrity, hatred or reconciliation, lust or faithfulness, idolatry or sacrifice. Those conflicts are continual; the outcome of each one is not of little consequence. Because even if the choice seems insignificant at the time, the aim of darkness is to entice us toward that which will bring chaos and destruction. And in this war our hope is not in ourselves, but in God the Father who has sent His light physically and spiritually into the world. He has sent the greatest gift, Jesus Christ, who came to ‘shine on those living in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace’ (Luke 1:79).

In Christ alone is found freedom from the thief’s power. Our safe haven in this conflict, is to abide with Jesus. Our first and most pressing priority is our relationship with Him. We are all hard-pressed daily with life and responsibilities, but we cannot let good things become the enemy of the best thing. We must press into Jesus and listen for his guidance. Through Christ, in the smallest of thoughts or the gravest of actions we can choose light and the peace that comes with it.

And by His grace we can help others who have been wounded in this battle, by ‘sowing seeds’ of light into people’s lives (Psalm 97:11).  If you have ever had a garden, you know that even the smallest of seeds planted at the right time, and with the right nutrients can yield a healthy and bountiful crop. As a parent, there is no greater distress than being separated from your child. And so I rejoice in the many men and women who are giving their resources to family ministries. Workers who are sowing seeds of light in parents and children surrounded by darkness, praying for a harvest of salvation, reconciliation and healing. And opportunities like this are all around us if we look. Perhaps it is giving of ourselves through service; opening our hearts to the potential of bringing light to darkness in a new and challenging way. Or perhaps it is as simple as giving an encouraging word to the grocery store clerk who appears to be having a hard day as they scan our items. In this great cosmic battle, even the smallest of actions can be used by our Father – the Father of light – to yield life in others.

Truth and Love: Two Groups of Error

Changing or suppressing truth out of desire not to wound or offend is not love, but indulgence. Truth spoken in love is always more gentle and kind than compromise and is also always more beneficial and instructive than truth that lacks any sort of warmth, compassion or care.

Broadly speaking, there are two major groups of errors in the American church today: the Compromise Camp and the Pharisee Camp. In the Compromise Camp, we find those who, in the interest of not offending or challenging the culture, water down the truth of the Bible, bend/change – or even outright deny it. They value love above all things, and correctly point out that God is love. What is missing, however, is that God is also Holy and Jesus identifies Himself as “THE Truth.” Love without truth may seem sweet, warm and inviting….but like a hamburger made out of doughnuts, is ultimately unhealthy and lacking in nutrition. You can’t live off of love that is not intermixed with truth. You might think that you are called to balance the church’s historic “harshness” in a sort of affirmative action/balancing way….but you do not have this call or duty. NOBODY does. The world does not need love that lacks truth – love without truth might be temporarily comforting, but it is not capable of rescue/salvation. Love accompanied by inaccurate truth or compromise is even more dangerous. Merely love is NOT the Jesus way. Jesus was crucified NOT because of His overwhelming kindness, but because of His uncompromising truth (spoken in love…)

In the Pharisee Camp, we find church members who are frighteningly quick to point out the error in others and correct them with truth. You find people writing extensively about this or that false teaching; this or that false teacher; and this or that false doctrine. Individually, Pharisee Campers have a tendency to skillfully be able to diagnose the splinter in somebody else’s eye, while missing the log in their own eye. They are absolutely correct in their knowledge that the church is the “Pillar of truth,” and that we are called to “expose the darkness,” and admonish and rebuke when necessary (see 1 Tim. 3:15, Eph. 5:11 and Col 3:16). The issue is that these directives must be absolutely slathered in LOVE. Not in a compromising, permissive way…but in a kind, gentle and humble way (See 2 Timothy 2:25 and 1 Thess. 2:7)!

Truth delivered without mercy and love is harshness, and only beneficial to the degree that a drill sergeant’s barking is beneficial. Yes, it gives helpful information, but it builds significant resentment over time and ultimately alienates the listener, much like the church has done with homosexuals and others that sinned in a way that was not fashionable at the time (ignoring the fact that we are all sinners called to repentance by the glorious gospel of Jesus). You might think that you are God’s drill sergeant and that your tone or method of delivery doesn’t matter as long as you are spouting truth. Unfortunately, there is no such position in the Body of Christ. We are all called and REQUIRED to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15)! Truth unaccompanied by love is NOT the Jesus way.

Love without truth is indulgent compromise, truth without love is merely the cold delivery of information. One without the other is not the Jesus way; one without the other cannot rightly be called “Christianity.”

Ephesians 4:15 15 But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ.

Chase A. Thompson
Agape Fellowship

Be Fearful of Immaturity

This article is based on the sermon ‘Fearing Immaturity‘, given on December 7, 2014 from the Hebrews series, which can be found in its entirety here.

God has prepared us to face the ever changing, ever challenging, ever glorious expedition with Christ, by giving us His Word and His Spirit. I am not sure if there is a book in the NT that deals with the potential and the pitfalls of life’s journey – the way that Hebrews does. This sermon / letter builds upon the biblical mandates that teach us to ABIDE, WALK in and OBEY Christ, by giving us promises of rewards IF we do these things (see 3:6, 3:14 and 4:11). and Hebrews challenges us to these mandates by giving us warnings (see 2:1 and 3:12).

When I was 19 years old, I found myself in the midst of one of the deepest spiritual crises of my life. I had professed Christ with my mouth as a seven year old, and has spent many of my early years growing up in that profession. As a teenager, I fell into a trap of immorality that would consume my thoughts, behaviors and heart for the next 10 years. I spent several of those years with no signs of spiritual life, no interest in God apart from times of want or need. But at 19, I fell under a cloud of great conviction knowing my life was no longer lined up with His word; and that sin had consumed me. And I fell under great despair and fear about my own soul. So I began reading my bible and praying – begging and seeking for God and His assurance. And I remember one day in particular before work, I was trying to read my bible – and as I thumbed through my eyes fell to a passage of scripture – Hebrews 6:

‘1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. 7 For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned’.

In the midst of great concern about your salvation – THIS is not the text you want to come across. Because this passage – at face value – indicates there can be people who experience Christ and His Kingdom, yet fall away from it with no opportunity to return. THIS is frightening. And reading this passage that day, I cried my eyes out; I cried harder at reading this passage, than I cried over the death of my father.

Many people, good people who love Jesus, have different interpretations of this text. My intention is not to go through all of those interpretations; nor answer all of the questions surrounding it. 17 years after reading this passage for the first time, I still wrestle with what it says. But I do want us to make some observations that I pray will be beneficial for our souls & that will point us toward truth:

Observation 1: God is Greatly Concerned with Our Spiritual Maturity

More than any other aspect of our life – God is concerned with our growth in Christ. This section really begins back in Hebrews 5:11, where the writer tells the readers that He has many deep things to teach them about Christ, and the Gospel – but He has ran into a difficulty, the readers have become dull of hearing; This literally can mean ‘LAZY in UNDERSTANDING the message’ or SLUGGISH in INSTRUCTION. 5:12: For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. Surrounding this text then is the issue of spiritual immaturity: which is a failure to grow in learning and applying the Gospel; these people were bored, uninterested and lazy in the things of God – which is why 6:1 starts off with a cry, imploring them to ‘GO ON TO MATURITY’.

Observation 2: You Will Mature in Christ or You Will Fall Away from Christ

Immediately following this cry to go on to maturity, is the warning beginning in verse 4, of the impossibility of restoring someone who falls away to repentance. So, implicit in the text is that there are 2 options: Maturity or Destruction. You go on to maturity, or you risk falling away. To become a disciple of Christ is the most glorious, gracious gift of God. And it is a pathway that will be filled with ups and downs; Times of intimacy and seasons of trial. God is kind and compassionate and patient with us. But your discipleship is purposed in your salvation. You will be a maturing disciple or you will be a child of destruction.

Observation 3: This ‘Falling Away’ is Characterized by an Inability to Repent

I believe this is a key observation for us, because I think it is fairly common for people to read this passage and wonder ‘Have I fallen Away’? That was my fear 17 years ago when I mourned over this passage; And it is not my point to smooth over a Godly-fear, a Godly-sorrow that leads to repentance. But, so many of our testimonies involve a struggle with flesh; and seasons of our lives where we leave church; or leave intimacy with Christ; or find ourselves drowning in immorality. And so, is that the falling away described here? Notice verse 4, It is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened..go to verse 6, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance. This falling away ends with this individual unable to bring them self to repent. Repentance is a turning from sin; toward God. It is more than sorrow (feeling bad over what you have done) – it is sorrow that leads you to seek God’s presence. The individual who has Fallen Away in the Heb 6 sense, has lost the ability, maybe even the desire, to seek God and His forgiveness.

Observation 4: Maturity is Characterized by the Fruit of the Holy Spirit

Jesus teaches in Matthew 7, that you can distinguish the godly from the ungodly by the fruit of their lives – what their lives produce. ‘You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes. Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit’. Later in places like Gal 5, this good fruit is called the fruit of the Spirit and examples of it are listed out. And in Eph 4, we are given more insight, when maturity is defined as ‘attaining the the fullness of Christ’. So the maturity we are being compelled toward is Christ-like character (which is the fruit of the Spirit); So see this in Heb 6:7, ’For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. If it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned’. This compares and contrasts the spiritually mature from the immature. The mature OFTEN hear the Gospel (the rain), they receive it continually in their life (drinking it in) & the result is Christlikeness, spiritual fruit (which is the crop). The immature, don’t produce fruit. There’s no crop, just thorns.

Observation 5: There is No Mention of the Mature in Christ Falling Away

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells a parable of a farmer spreading seeds (the gospel) that he throws or rains down if you will, on the soil – the land. Same picture as in Hebrews 6. In this parable, the good soil receives the gospel and indeed bears fruit and yields a crop. That is obviously the mature in Heb 6. But Jesus says there will be those who hear the word and immediately receive it with joy, 21 yet he have no root in themselves; they endure for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises they fall away. So here is the spiritually immature. The gospel comes down, they joyfully receive it; they start a journey with Christ. Maybe they join a church; maybe they start serving; maybe they attend or host bible studies; go on a mission trip, – experience community, see miracles – raise their hands in worship – as Hebrews 6 says – taste the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come. Maybe they do this for YEARS and YEARS. But what they never do is mature in Christ-like character; they do not bear the fruit of the spirit. And at some point a trial will come, something will happen – they have no root to hold them into place and they fall away; just as Jesus says they will and just as Hebrews 6 describes. I believe these passages show us that it is possible to have an experience with the Gospel; a tasting of Heavenly things – that falls short of true saving faith. And when these people fail to move to maturity, at some point (maybe years and years down the road) they fall away – and based on Heb 6 may find it impossible to come to repentance. But the mature in Christ, those who have been drunk in the gospel, producing Christ-like character, Gospel-fruit – they are saved, and I believe they are persevered by the Lord; there is no mention in this text of the mature falling away; not in the Heb 6 sense of being unable to come back to repentance.

I realize that passages like Hebrews 6 are not on the surface encouraging and hopeful; but, we do not always need encouraging – sometimes we need to be warned. When I was 19 years old, failing to move to Christ-like maturity; steeped in sinful immorality; uninterested in the Christ I claimed – I did not need someone to pat me on the back and say IT’S ALL OK. DON’T FEAR HEBREWS 6. I needed the Spirit of God to take Heb 6 & warn my soul with the fear of judgment to GO ON TO MATURITY. A good, loving Father encourages His children & warns His children; & today I am so grateful for the blessing of the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

IF today you are immature in Christ, yet hearing His voice, then do not harden your heart. Run to Christ. Run to Him right now. Cling to Him. And even if you are the most mature Christian reading this article – Run to Christ, cling to Him and ask for more maturity.