In 1987 I was a young seminary student in Chicago. Each of us was assigned an advisor to help make decisions about what classes we would take and the choices that would determine the direction and focus of our course of study. As a result, I found myself sitting with Dr. Robert Coleman, face to face across the desk in his little office. I remember feeling somewhat in awe of him as I had read some of his books and had heard stories about the strength and uniqueness of his personality. I also remember that he didn’t seem very concerned about my choice of courses, but instead was intent on having me come and join a small group of students that he led in prayer in the early mornings. Although I had many other interactions with Bob during my time there at Trinity, for whatever reason, I never saw fit to become a member of what I now realize was his personal band of disciples. In all honesty, I’m still kicking myself for not taking advantage of this incredible opportunity. Instead of availing myself for a relationship with Dr. Coleman, for the next several years, I spent most of my time doing what I apparently deemed more important… vocational ministry. What a knucklehead!
Although I’m sure serving as a pastor during that period of my life produced some good fruit for me personally and hopefully in the lives of a few others, I wish I had seen the value in being discipled by the guy who, in my opinion, literally wrote the definitive work on discipleship. To this day, Dr. Coleman’s “Master Plan of Evangelism” stands head and shoulders above all other books written on the topic of how to make disciples. Had I understood then what I do now, I would have jumped at the chance of sitting at his feet, and not just sitting there listening passively in his classes.
In the next reformation, we have to somehow recapture the vital nature of discipleship and spiritual parenting as it pertains to accomplishing the ultimate objective of the local church. We can get so busy doing other “church stuff” that we lose sight of what is, for all practical purposes, the fundamental reason for our being left here on earth. Think about it, Jesus said that our lives should be given to loving God and loving our neighbor. Could we not accomplish the first half of that equation more completely if we were whisked away to heaven right after being saved? In his manifest presence we will be entirely consumed by his love. So it stands to reason that we remain in this realm primarily for the sake of others.
Recently, while shopping at the local mall with my wife, I was approached by a young teenage girl with a “bible tract” in her hand. She was with an older lady and another girl about her age. It was obvious to me that they were out “evangelizing” and I apparently looked like a promising candidate. She said nothing to me, but offered me the little tract as she walked on by with the other two without ever breaking her stride. I took the pamphlet and said “thanks” as I saw a look of relief come over her face. It was as if she was saying, “There. I’ve done it!” After reading its contents, my heart just sank. Like most of the publications of this genre, I was quickly reminded of what a complete wretch I am and how I was bound for eternal torment if I didn’t get my act together pronto. Page after page of cute little illustrations depicting what a total loser I was, all supported with scripture of course. I thought to myself, well… so much for the “good” news.
As the years roll by, I find myself becoming more and more of a pragmatist. I’ve wasted way too much time on methodologies and good ideas that simply haven’t worked. No matter how far away I might roam, I always seem to come back to this simple truth, the greatest impact of our life will be made one person at a time. The great commission will not be fulfilled programmatically, but rather in the context of personal relationships.
Many years ago I had an experience that will forever illustrate this revelation in my thinking. We were leading a ministry that was experiencing nothing short of a modern-day revival. I’m not talking about a bunch of meetings where a gaggle of believers get all hyped up for Jesus. We actually were seeing spontaneous salvation and deliverance taking place among many of the lost and addicted young people of our city. The Lord was doing something far beyond our efforts or understanding, and we found ourselves scrambling to try to hire staff and to find people to take care of all the new believers that were coming to our church. At that time, our Sunday morning service was gaining a reputation for being one of the best shows in town. The atmosphere was very informal, the building we were meeting in was virtually devoid of religious icons and artifacts, and we had a really tight rock band leading our worship. Our overall vibe was very lively and light-hearted, a great first experience for many of those who were new to the practice of “going to church.”
At the end of one of our services, I asked for anyone who wanted to give their life to the Lord for the first time to come to the front of the auditorium. I don’t remember how many came forward that morning, but it was a good number. We led them all in the prayer of salvation and then concluded the service. As was our routine, we asked the group of new believers to follow us back to one of our smaller rooms at the back of the building. Once gathered, I said a few words and we began to hand out bibles to those standing side by side, all facing inward in a big circle. Suddenly and without warning, I burst into what can only be described as uncontrollable weeping. I’m not exaggerating, I completely lost it. Here I was, trying to say something profound and comforting to this wide eyed group of new believers, and I self imploded right in front of them. So much so that I had to quickly hand the meeting off to one of the other staff members so I could go hide in my office.
As I waited for the building to clear out so as not to frighten anyone with my disheveled appearance, I began to ask, “What the heck was that Lord? These aren’t tears of joy, I feel like I’m dying here!” It made no sense to me that I was so grieved over what is supposed to be such a joyous occasion. Maybe the angels were rejoicing, but I was overcome with quite the opposite emotion. On the drive home, the Lord reminded me of how sad it is when irresponsible men impregnate young women only to leave them once the child is born. In an instant, I understood what had happened to me in that back room. Somehow, I had been allowed to feel just a small portion of the Lord’s heart for spiritual orphans. We had just created another fresh batch of babies, and I knew there was no way we were going to be able to adequately take care of them. We had only a handful of relatively mature believers in our ministry, and even fewer who were actively trying to disciple anyone. My wife and I had been meeting with a small group of new believers in our home, but I knew our ability to provide any kind of individualized care was completely maxed out as it was.
Everyone knows that making babies is always going to be fun. It’s exciting and enjoyable. But taking care of those babies we’ve made is quite the opposite. It’s hard work. It requires personal sacrifice, an unwavering commitment, and a relentless consistency to raise a child to the point of self sufficiency. So it is with spiritual parenting. In the local church, we often take great pride in the number of babies we’ve made. But I have to wonder how many of them have been virtually abandoned shortly after birth? In our pursuit of “getting people saved,” how many spiritual orphans have we created?
For though you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers… 1Co 4:15
In the next reformation, church leaders must somehow prioritize the value of spiritual parenting and discipleship. So many believers seem to remain in perpetual spiritual immaturity for the simple reason that so few are willing to invest in the kind of up close and personal relationships that Jesus clearly modeled for us in the Gospels. If your church’s evangelism mentality is all about getting people to make a decision, so you can quickly move on to the next person, and so on, then it may be time for a new paradigm. If you’re mantra is, “some will, some won’t, who cares, who’s next?” you might be under estimating the length of process that most people go through when searching for truth.
Dr. Coleman used to look out over us as promising seminary students and exclaim, “It’s good that you’re planning to enter the ministry, now where are your men?” That question has been ringing in my ears ever since. Where are your men? Whose life are you intentionally investing in right now? Is anyone counting on you for care, or guidance, or prayer support? If we fancy our self a spiritual leader and we’re not really that involved in the lives of any specific individuals, it might be time for a gut check. Are we really in the ministry, or just in denial?
Or maybe you’re not in a leadership position in your church, but you know you’ve been a Christian long enough that you could be helping others along their way. Sometimes, if you want to know who to lead, all you have to do is turn around and see who’s already following you. Maybe it’s your kids. Maybe it’s a co-worker who you know listens to what you say. It’s usually not about going out and trying to find someone to disciple. Spiritual parenting often begins with a simple decision to be a bit more intentional with the relationships we’ve already established. Take the time to read The Master Plan of Evangelism. I think now it’s actually called the Master Plan of Discipleship. The question is not “What Would Jesus Do?” but rather, “What Did Jesus Do?” while he was here with us. The answer is painfully obvious, he made disciples, and he commissioned us to do the same.
In 1803 Thomas Jefferson purchased a huge portion of North America for $2,500. Interestingly enough, no one really knew what he had actually bought because, at the time, the Louisiana Purchase was largely uncharted territory. In 1804 Lewis and Clark, along with the little team they named “the corps of discovery”, were given the task of exploring and documenting basically all things West of St. Louis. Their journals reveal that they were repeatedly shocked and amazed by their discovery of landscapes, species, and peoples previously unknown to the culture from which they had come.
In much the same way, there seems to be a growing sense among many Christians that there is a lot more “out there” than we’ve had the opportunity to experience as of yet. We know the land has been bought and that we really need to explore and enjoy all that this new frontier holds for us. And yet, each time we step out on our journey into the unknown, we encounter certain difficulty and resistance at nearly every turn. Somehow, we have to stop being surprised and shocked when this happens. This is the lifestyle of a pioneer. The next reformation is calling.
For the most part, the way we “do church” has not deviated from the model set forth several hundred years ago. Though hymns may give way to choruses, pews might be replaced with chairs, and the altar is now called “the stage”, the basic Sunday morning format has really not changed in any significant way in all that time. As a result, there seems to be an attitude growing among the faithful church going masses of “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt… big yawn”. At least from my perspective, it seems painfully obvious that it’s time to go farther up the river and see what else there is to see. Though many pine for the restoration of the early church depicted in the New Testament, I would propose that going backward is not God’s desire for us. True, for the most part the first century church was clearly at a better place than we are currently, and we can certainly learn from our history. But the scriptures indicate that there’s much more territory available to us than that which we’ve previously experienced or even read about. Because His Spirit lives in us, there is literally unlimited potential in every Christian, and so there is no place that’s unreachable or goal unattainable for us.
Why is it then that we’re apparently afraid to move past the three songs, three points, and a poem mode that we’ve been stuck in for so long? Is it because we just can’t seem to come up with anything better? Are we afraid that we might disturb or disrupt something truly sacred? Granted, the lifestyle of a pioneering explorer may not be for everyone, but the restless discontent that many of us are feeling may actually be there by design and thus may also prove more compelling than we first thought. It’s time for the typical local church paradigm to change. We are no less in need of a reformation than the church was when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Uncontested boredom has grown into apathy, and as a result we have somehow accepted our sorry state as being normative. The church has been lulled to sleep and thus has become fundamentally immobilized. God help us, the next reformation is calling.
For some of us, the discontent may run even deeper. When I was a teenager, I decided to take the course required to get a scuba diving license. Shortly after being certified, I went on a ten day diving trip to the Cayman Islands. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it, but these islands provide some of the best scuba diving on the planet. The water is so clear that you can swim on the surface and see everything a hundred feet below you as if you were flying. Hour after hour I was able to explore countless coral reefs, an unlimited variety of vibrantly painted sea life, and even some fascinating ship wrecks. This was truly a dream come true for a novice diver like myself. Sadly, for the next twenty some years, the only scuba diving I was able to do was in the muck ridden, muddy watered lakes of the mid-west. Here, everything is brown and green and the only hope of any excitement is seeing an unusually large bass or maybe a sunken pick up truck or something. Even when I got back to the relatively clear water of the Florida Keys, I found myself having to come up with ways to amuse myself. I tried floating upside down, chasing big barracudas to see if they’d turn on me… I even grabbed the tail of an eight foot shark just to see what would happen. It was like enough just wasn’t enough anymore. This is exactly the way many believers currently feel about their local church experience. At some point they’ve tasted of the Lord’s awesome nature and they want more of it. Just one powerful encounter will leave us hungry and unfulfilled by anything less than the spectacular. It only takes a tiny taste of His supernatural love and acceptance, power or authority, and we’re ruined for life… spoiled by that which can only be found in a personal, first hand experience with God himself. There’s just simply nothing comparable.
Lewis and Clark spent well over a year gathering supplies, recruiting, and training before their boat even hit the river. The members of the corps of discovery were hand picked for their particular expertise and trained for the specific task required of their expedition. These men were not just along for the ride. They were in the boat with a well defined purpose and intent. In much the same way, our focus as church leaders may need to shift from, “let’s see how many people we can get in the boat” to “let’s really get to know each other so we can utilize that which each of us has to contribute to the effort”. The spectator mentality has run its course. We weren’t created to sit on the sidelines and watch the professionals do their thing. It’s no wonder so many of us have bounced around from church to church. It’s like we’re channel surfing in hopes of finding a program that will hold our interest. Now… there’s a lot more than “57 channels”, but it seems like there’s still “nothin on”.
By the grace of God, we’ve been able to be a part of several local church plants (start ups) over the years. Somehow, we’re still driven by the belief that there’s much more out there than what we’ve been able to fully explore or experience thus far. We’ve also become increasingly aware that we will not get very far, let alone survive the journey, without having the right crew along with us. Exploring the untapped potential of the local church requires a ridiculous amount of intestinal fortitude and a unique brand of internal resolve. In other words, “you gotta want it” cause the river will be treacherous and the opposition fierce. But the dissatisfaction level among believers seems to be increasing exponentially as the years go by and the law of supply and demand will eventually take effect. People are looking for a new place to live. A place that will provide them with opportunities to explore who they really are and encourage them to utilize the specific abilities they possess for the sake of the expedition. Most of us want to know and be known in a community marked by the genuineness and transparency of its people. We long for a place where we can pursue deep, sustained relationship with God and others… a functioning local church that is identified by the uncharacteristic affection that its members have for one another. We’re searching for something. New wineskins that will be able to stretch enough to contain and dispense whatever the Lord wants to pour out on us…. Alas, I wax poetic.
In short, I think most of us are tired of all the hype and event oriented nonsense we’ve come to accept as normal church life. Haven’t we been to enough rock concerts, lectures, and musical theater performances by now? God knows I’ve been responsible for promoting and facilitating my fair share of them. But these days you’re not going to rock me hard enough or amuse me sufficiently to get my juices flowing. I’m searching for more. The local church can be more. The time has come to man up and head into the wilderness with each other… to start doing real life together. St. Louis has become blasé. Let’s go find our L.A.! The next reformation is calling.
In Part 1 of The Good Life, I briefly shared about a couple of the lessons learned during a five year period of my life in which God seemed to be a million miles away. After functioning for many years with what I thought was a relatively significant sphere of influence, my faith journey suddenly took an abrupt turn down a treacherous road that led me to a very dry place on the backside of nowhere. Like most American males, my identity was closely tied to my job and my perceived status in the proverbial pecking order. I went from overseeing a gifted ministry staff and weekly having the attention and esteem of hundreds of people, to being the lowest man on the totem pole in a dead end job. Any inflated impressions I may have once had of my self quickly became little more than a distant memory. Now that I was no longer “The Pastor” I began to question my place in the world and what purpose my life might have apart from my calling and ministry abilities. More importantly, what value was I to the Lord if I could not even hold onto the position of “full-time” Christian servant? The answer to that question came as a result of an elongated wrestling match with God that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. But hopefully, by learning from my boneheaded stubbornness, you can fore go a few of the painful face plants and mat burns that accompany any form of confrontation with an omnipotent being.
OK, so you don’t feel like you’re fulfilling what you know the Lord has called you to do. Or maybe he’s made promises to you about your future that don’t seem to be getting any closer to being realized. Perhaps you’re currently experiencing an unprecedented level of situational difficulty. Money problems? Broken relationship? Shattered dreams? Poor health? For the overcoming Christian, it all eventually leads to the same outcome… an unconditional surrender of our will, followed by a decision to trust in the kind and gentle nature of our Heavenly Father. One of the most crucial truths I learned in the wilderness is this; never put your hope in an outcome, instead, put your hope in the Lord. We often hear the fist half of Proverbs 13:12 quoted; “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” But that’s not the end of the verse. It continues with “a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” If we find ourselves sick at heart, it might be because our hope has been misplaced. Real life begins, and our deepest longings are fulfilled when we can authentically breathe the ultimate prayer of surrender, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Please trust me on this my friend, God will do what he wants, when he wants, however he wants to do it. In fact, if experience has taught me anything, the what, when, and how of God’s plan for us often ends up looking completely different from what we might have envisioned or hoped for at first. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:9) If we can’t be happy unless God does what we want him to, or we somehow withhold our affection unless he does it the way we think he should, then we might as well prepare ourselves for an extended stay in the Heartbreak Hotel because we’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Simply put, man plans and God laughs. We might as well get used to it because that’s not gonna change. Lordship ultimately requires us to give even the good things he’s given us (words, promises, dreams, callings) back to him. God allows in his wisdom what he could easily prevent by his power.
Now here’s the good news. Those promises we have from the Lord don’t lose any of their potency or potential with the passing of time. I don’t care how long it’s been, he will do what he said he would do. He is completely faithful to his word and worthy of any amount of blind trust we can muster. Our job is to live in obedience one day at a time. Each day God will give us the grace to do what he asks us to do. If we ever find ourselves being anxious about our future, then in essence we’re trying to borrow from tomorrow’s grace. Learning to live by faith is a lot like collecting manna. If you try to get enough both for today and tomorrow you’ll end up with something rotten. “Tomorrow has enough worries of its own.”
After a long wander through the desert, I am slowly learning to enjoy my life in whatever form it takes. Many times this begins with little more than a quick acknowledgement of the Lord’s goodness. Sometimes it’s more of a conscious decision to be grateful. All in all, the quality of our life has everything to do with our demeanor toward God. If we stay mad at him, or question his goodness for too long, we’ll find our selves stuck in the dry places. When we choose to believe that he loves us and wants nothing more than to bless us, then the good things he has for us begin to flow again. Truth be known, my situation hasn’t changed all that much since I entered the wilderness. I’m still working the same job for the same pay. My sphere of influence and ministry remains small in comparison to what it used to be. I’m not really in a place where I can do some of the things I know I’ll eventually get to do for the kingdom, but for the first time in my life, I’m starting to find peace and fulfillment in a way I’ve never experienced. Little by little, I’ve been getting the revelation that I don’t really have to do or be anything to earn the Lord’s approval or affection. I’m his beloved son and he likes me just the way I am. I like to hunt, collect stuff, hang out with friends and eat really good food. That’s the way God made me… and that’s enough.
Lord please help us to submit to your will for our lives. Please forgive us for holding back our affection when things don’t turn out the way we want them to. You are so kind and patient with us. Help us to keep our eyes on you and on all the good things you have given us to enjoy. Forgive us for comparing ourselves to others and help us to accept who you have made us to be. You are good and your mercies endure forever. Amen
You don’t have to follow the Lord for very long before you realize that he may sometimes lead you into places you really don’t want to go. In truth, most of our spiritual growth is the result of trial and error and is discovered in the context of difficulty. All parents will eventually figure out that in order for a child to mature, they must learn to endure and overcome tough situations. For example, you would not even be able to understand the content of this article had someone not required you to stick with the process we all go through in order to learn how to read. Put simply, all things of value come at a price and often after having to push forward when the going got rough. This is especially true in the realm of the spirit.
I remember when I was learning how to drive, my Dad would sometimes offer words of advice as he was riding along beside me in the front passenger seat. At one point, we found ourselves on the interstate in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. The rain was coming down so fast that you could barely see past the hood of the car and the water level on the road was rising rapidly. I noticed that several people had stopped on the side of the road and turned their emergency blinkers on. Being a new driver, and already being a little unsure of my ability to navigate in these kind of conditions, I decided that pulling off the road and waiting for the storm to pass was probably our best option. Just as I was about to slow down and veer onto the shoulder, sensing my uneasiness, my Dad very calmly suggested “you know ten miles and ten minutes can make a world of difference in the weather.” At that point I knew the decision was up to me and the adrenaline really began to flow. Do I play it safe and follow the lead of the curb huggers? Or do I press on wide eyed and white knuckled and hope for the best? In retrospect, I’m so glad I just kept rolling, because sure enough, in no time we drove right out of the storm and into the sunshine with miles and miles of dry pavement in front of us. You see, my Dad was a traveling salesman when I was a kid, and I knew he had pounded out hundreds of thousands of miles across the highways and byways of the mid-west. So that little nugget of driving wisdom carried a lot of weight with me.
So it is with the spiritual journey of the Christian. Time and time again we will find ourselves faced with that proverbial choice when dealing with a difficult situation. Do we keep moving forward, or do we pull off the road in a panic? I submit to you today that if we feel like we’re not making much progress in any area of our life or faith, it may be because we’ve simply ceased our forward momentum and declared that we’re in a state of emergency. In truth, I am appalled by how much time I have wasted as a believer wallowing in my own passivity and indecision. So many well meaning Christians seem to be paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decision, or mishearing the Lord. What if I go the wrong way? What if that wasn’t really the Lord? Should I take this opportunity or wait for another? What if my motives are impure? What if, what if, what if … and the list perpetually goes on. Meanwhile, because of our limited vision and the fear of what may lie ahead, we sit there on the roadside letting the storm beat the tar out of us.
When we shrink back in fear thinking we might somehow miss the Lord, we are severely underestimating how BIG he really is. Trust me, he knows we’re going to make some dumb choices along the way, and his plan for us contains plenty of latitude for that kind of thing. In fact it is arrogant to think that we’re always going to do the right thing or make the right choice. God doesn’t get mad at us when we’re trying to go the right direction but get off at the wrong exit. Those off ramps turn into on ramps just as quickly. The goal is to keep going, keep driving, keep rolling. In fact, we may actually hydroplane at certain points along the way. Learn to have fun with it! Sometimes a little dangerous out of control driving lets you know you’re still alive. Besides, we can take comfort in knowing that Dad is right there with us and he’s not worried in the least. As our revelation of the loving sovereignty of our Heavenly Father deepens, we will find that if we just trust his leading and keep moving forward, the weather will surely change and we’ll end up where we’re supposed to be. In short, don’t be a fraidy chicken, you’re covered.
Isa 43:1-2 “Fear not… when you pass through the waters I will be with you.”
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Gal 6:1-3)
When the apostle Paul gave these words of instruction, it is very possible that he had been made aware of a specific situation within the church of Galatia. More than likely, someone had been caught in a sin and now it was the responsibility of the church leaders to respond. If you have ever been in need of restoration, or you have helped someone else through the process, than you may know how difficult it often is to navigate through that particular kind of transaction. But as awkward and trying as the process of restoration may prove to be, our willingness to participate in it is essential for the overall well being of the local church. In the verses above, Paul provides some practical wisdom on the “how to” of restoration.
He first gives the scenario, “if someone is caught in a sin.” At the onset, it should be noted that the difficulty and length of an individual’s restoration can be greatly affected by whether they were “caught” or whether they came forward of their own accord. The scriptures are clear that it is always better to “confess” our sin (1 John 1:9) than to be “found out” by it. (Num 32:23) We can humble ourselves, which is never easy. Or we can be humiliated, which is always painful. If we choose to submit ourselves to another as a result of our own conviction, the process has already begun. However, if instead we are caught in our sin, and we begin to blame shift or try some other diversionary tactic, than we are in danger of removing ourselves as a candidate for restoration. Sometimes the person who is caught may prove to be unwilling or disinterested in submitting to restoration. If this is the case, than it is often best to postpone any restorative efforts and simply release them into the Lord’s hands. Like the prodigal son, sometimes our belly has to get filled up with hog slop before we come to our senses. Forced repentance is not likely to produce true repentance.
Nonetheless, Jesus showed us in his encounter with the woman “caught” in adultery that restoration is available for all who will receive it. By pausing to draw in the sand before addressing her accusers, the Lord demonstrated that judgments of this nature are not to be made hastily or without reflection. Supernatural discernment and the wisdom of heaven are essential if we are to take part in helping a fallen brother or sister back up on their feet. Paul goes on to say that it is “those who are spiritual” who should attempt to restore others. Gentle restoration is truly a learned art. If we handle someone too gracefully, we may fall into enablement and thus set them up for future failure. If we deal too harshly, they may go underground with their sin and hope never to be exposed again. This is why we must seek the Lord for His counsel in each individual case rather than relying solely on our experience or personal “know how.” Each of us is a precious commodity to the Lord and our treatment of one another should reflect that truth. By taking time to consider the uniqueness and complexity of our brother’s situation, we communicate that we have at least some sense of his eternal value. Careless judgment will inevitably lead to unrighteous judgment.
“But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” When this verse is taken in context, it would appear that the warning Paul gives here is not about falling into the same sin as the person we are helping to restore. Instead, his concern seems to be that we may be tempted to feel a little too good about the fact that we are “up” when our brother is currently “down.” Paul adds, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” The real temptation is often for the one doing the restoring to feel some sort of pride in the role they are playing. Every believer is capable of thinking that we can somehow be elevated in our spiritual position above another based on our current level of “goodness”. This was the mistake of the older brother who simply could not wrap his mind around the Father’s non-judgmental treatment of the prodigal. Although we have trouble seeing it in ourselves, self righteousness is usually easy for us to spot in one another. If we are truly in need of restoration, we would be wise to try to find a facilitator who has nothing to gain personally from our confession or failure.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Though simple in principle, biblical burden bearing requires a certain skill set and it must be accompanied by a basic level of revelation about the work of the cross. For example, a well meaning believer might attempt to serve as a scapegoat or a “sin eater” for another. Though unintentional and often subconscious, this is a common mistake. Our goal should always be to get another’s burden onto the Lord as quickly as possible. It is also common for the person who is facilitating the restoration to inadvertently minimize the seriousness of someone’s sin rather than magnifying the power of the Lord’s redemption. In our attempts to ward off condemnation, we can sometimes excuse the sin nature instead of emphasizing the need for repentance and renewal. Every believer would do well to learn how to unapologetically speak the truth while maintaining a graceful demeanor. This skill is especially needful when called upon to help others through the process of restoration.
In 1 Cor. 12 Paul explains that the overall health of the body of Christ is dependent on the health of its individual parts, and that “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” (vs. 26) It is likely that we are currently aware of someone in need of restoration. If we are that person, it is our responsibility to ask the Lord for the courage to seek out those who we are to submit ourselves to. He truly cares about his children and he wants each of us to have a place of usefulness and favor within the body. Maybe we know someone who has become estranged and now stands in need of an outstretched hand. It might be that the Lord is asking us to leave the ninety nine to go after the one. Either way, it is inevitable that in order for a gentle restoration to take place, some sacrifices will have to be made. Though almost always uncomfortable and time consuming by nature, we can rest assured that if we endure with one another through the process, the benefits will far outweigh the cost.
“My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)
Have you ever seen The Antiques Roadshow on PBS? Though the premise is remarkably simple, this little TV show has become quite popular. Every week, hundreds of people stand in line for hours just so that they can have a few moments with an expert appraiser who can tell them how much the item they’ve brought in is actually worth. The items that make it on the air are usually the ones that most of us would have no clue as to their true value. In one episode, a young man brings in a rusty old sword. He tells the appraiser that he and his brothers used to play with the sword when they where kids, and that they often “split watermelons and dug in the dirt” with it. Without a flinch, the appraiser quietly puts on a pair of white gloves. He then gives a pair to the young man and asks him to do the same. He proceeds to explain the origin of what is actually an extremely rare civil war relic. The painfully clueless owner finds himself rightfully stunned when it’s revealed that the old sword is actually worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. In another episode, a woman finds an old metal helmet wedged in the rafters of her attic. She later confesses that she polished it up with Pledge before bringing it in to the show. This is after the appraiser explains that the helmet is that of a Spanish Conquistador from the early 1500s and worth about a half a million dollars!
It’s hard to comprehend that items with this kind of value can be right under our noses without us even realizing it. Nonetheless, I’m starting to believe that this kind of thing happens a lot more often than we might think and in more ways than we may be aware. Hidden worth is truly a fascinating concept and one found frequently in the Scriptures. Jesus would often speak to large crowds in the form of parables only to then draw away and later explain their meaning to his disciples. On one such occasion he gave his closest followers the following two parables as further elaboration on his teaching. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46)
When we think of the word “treasure” what comes to mind? Thanks to Hollywood, most of us can easily conjure up images of an old chest full of precious gemstones, or a stack of gold bars. But the scriptures seem to indicate that this kind of treasure is actually commonplace in the heavenly realms. In Rev 21 we’re told that the very foundations of the heavenly city’s walls are “decorated with every kind of precious stone.” and that heaven’s gates are each “made of a single pearl.” John reveals that even the great street of the city is made of “pure gold, like transparent glass.” Can you imagine? The architect of heaven uses these precious materials like we use concrete, steel, and asphalt. When Jesus said that the Kingdom was like a “treasure hidden in the field” and the “pearl of great price” it seems that he was simply trying to appeal to our earthly sense of relative value. Traditionally, we take this passage to mean the Kingdom itself is priceless and worthy of any sacrifice we could ever make. And yet, like every other passage of scripture, there are undoubtedly deeper levels of truth to be found under the surface of these verses.
Earlier in Mathew, we find Jesus using a similar theme. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mat 6:19-2) At one point, I had grown very weary of serving as a pastor in the local church. Relatively low pay and years of getting bit by sheep had left a gnawing question in my soul. I asked, “Why do I do this Lord?” You see, I’m a firm believer that no one will endure hardship or make any kind of long term sacrifice if they are not clear on what the pay-off is. So as I was praying, I asked the Lord to show me the treasure that I was storing up in heaven. Almost instantaneously, he began to remind me of people I had ministered to over the years. Face after face came to mind of those I had somehow encouraged to know the Lord in a deeper way, or prayed with, or taught. Most of these people I had long since forgotten about or lost touch with. It was at this point that I began to consider the value of a single human soul.
When we learn to recognize each human life as something the Lord treasures, we cannot help but to treat people differently. The Gospels reveal this truth repeatedly through the example of Jesus. The writers of scripture have provided one account after another of the Lord intentionally associating with people that were guaranteed to lower his social standing. It’s almost as if he was somehow drawn to those relegated to the seedy underside of his culture. Although he was often pursued by the rich and the well educated, we usually find him going after the “down-and-outers”. Was it because he was more comfortable hanging out with drunkards and prostitutes? Maybe, but the fact that the Lord’s behavior is so consistent in this regard means that he was obviously trying to make a point.
In the book of Luke we’re given six consecutive chapters (12-18) of Jesus teaching on the contrast between the values of men and those of the Kingdom of God. Amidst this section of scripture we find Jesus at the house of a prominent Pharisee watching the other guests jockeying for position. After publicly humiliating those who had found their way into the best seats in the house, he then addresses the host. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14) Granted, at first glance it would appear that the Lord is encouraging us to practice some sort of reverse favoritism, and certainly that idea is at least implied here. But the deeper truth must involve our tendency to place greater value on those who we think we can get something from. More often than not, most of us choose to relate only to those people who we feel might benefit us in some way. This is a sad, but very real part of all of us if we’ll be honest about it. By nature, we’re all shameless self-promoters. Jesus, on the other hand, being fully aware of his own position and value, was able to freely lavish value on those deemed virtually worthless by his contemporaries.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we began to consistently discern the treasure that is every person, regardless of how they’re assessed by others. An expert appraiser is one who recognizes value in that which most would be quick to overlook or to write off as ordinary. A treasure hunter is someone who goes to great lengths to acquire that which has been lost and usually long since forgotten. Our world is chocked full of undiscovered treasures. Though often in plain sight, these treasures are hidden from most. In Luke 16:15 we read that “what is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” Through his example, the Lord demonstrated that the transverse must also be true.
It’s often said that “you can’t take it with you.” In terms of earthly treasure, this is commonly understood and acknowledged. The things that we spend so much of our lives trying to attain will ultimately have no place in heaven. But there is something that we can take with us, something of immeasurable eternal value that we will never cease to enjoy. It is a treasure so valuable that God himself proved willing to pay the ultimate price to redeem and restore it. The treasure is you, and me, and the guy standing on the corner with cardboard sign looking for handouts. Each human life represents equal, yet unfathomable worth regardless of its current level of earthly esteem or prominence. In fact, in Malachi 3:17 the Lord proclaims that those who fear him, he will “openly declare them to be his jewels. His special possession, and his peculiar treasure.” (Amp.)
We might want to consider how we’re treating that which God values the most. Do we put on the white gloves, or do we handle one another as commonplace and readily expendable? Does it matter to us that so many of the Lord’s precious resources have been written off or left behind to decay in some forgotten dusty attic? There is only one explanation for being careless in our treatment of others. It’s that somehow we’ve lost sight of their eternal worth. In the heart of every believer there lies a God-given unction for the discovery and restoration of hidden treasure. And though it often seems to manifest in the natural, I’m convinced that this desire is deeply rooted in the supernatural part of who we are. Lord Jesus, your appraisal of us is the only one that really matters. Please help us to view ourselves and those around us as the multifaceted jewels that you created each of us to be.
Several years ago, a friend of mine shared an impression he had received about the spiritual climate of the region in which we were living at the time. In prayer, he saw a stereotypical church building with a huge three-legged stool sitting on top of it. On top of the stool sat a bride and groom figurine like the kind that would normally be seen on a wedding cake. On the legs of the stool there was writing, each leg bearing a different word. On the first leg the word “competition” was written, on the next “recognition” and on the third “suspicion”. As he continued praying, the Lord revealed that the figurine represented the union of Jezebel and the religious spirit, and that they were the antithesis of Christ and his bride the Church. Their position on top of the stool was indication that they had been given much authority in the local church in our area. The stool represented spiritual authority, and the legs were that authority’s support structure. The Lord then revealed that if only one of these legs were to be broken, the whole thing would easily topple over. I believe these three attitudes of the heart: competition, recognition, and suspicion expose some of the enemy’s most common tactics for keeping Christians from working together. More importantly, they also provide a glimpse into the Lord’s plan for unifying his body and restoring life and vitality to the local church.
Competition: If at any point we feel the need to compete with another believer or ministry, we need to consider where that desire might be coming from. Though I am convinced there is actually a kind of healthy competition that can take place between believers as we “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24) there is also an ungodly form of competition that is most often motivated by our need for validation. Let’s face it. We all want to be great and to be a part of something great. What we may not realize is that this need for greatness is a God given desire. The scriptures make it clear that every believer was created to take and to hold a place of great heavenly authority. However, we can often loose sight of this perspective in the midst of our efforts to find our place in the earthly pecking order. Most believers would acknowledge that our value is not determined by our level of outward “success” or by how we are viewed by others. And yet, we often have an internal struggle erupt when another brother or sister is openly blessed by the Lord in some significant way. Why do we sometimes grit our teeth when He makes an obvious display of His favor on a fellow believer or ministry? In 1 Cor. 12, Paul explains that “if one part is honored” than “every other part should rejoice with it.” We all know that it can be quite difficult to muster up the appropriate response when faced with that situation. Instead of being genuinely thankful for another’s good fortune or blessing, our first response may be to feel jilted or “gypped” by God.
There are many biblical examples of this form of jealousy. Cain and Able, Joseph and his brothers, certainly Jesus and the Pharisees, and even the ministry of the Apostle Paul suffered from this kind of ungodly competition. In Acts 13 we are told that when Paul was teaching in the Synagogue he began to draw large crowds of people. And “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.” (vs. 45) If we ever find ourselves wanting to discredit or disparage another ministry or a minister that seems to be having more success than we are, we need to quickly reign in our tongue and ask the Lord to enlighten our thinking. Even if a given ministry or leader may at times appear to us to be improperly motivated, we need to be mindful of our thoughts, and intentionally gracious with our comments. Being overly critical of another believer or their ministry is a sure sign of something amiss within us. And rest assured, if our judgments are truly unrighteous and without repentance, they will inevitably lead to our own humiliation.
In contrast, if we will simply learn to “rejoice with” our brother when he is blessed, this will encourage the Lord to release his favor and blessing to us. Our Father really does want to pour out all kinds of good things on his children, but he will never reward unbridled sibling rivalry. When my kids are in strife with each other, I am often compelled to respond quickly with some kind of disciplinary action. But when they are seemingly intent on tearing one another to pieces, I will let them go at it for a while without my intervention. The result is remarkably consistent. In no time, they become truly miserable and then they come crying to me for help. My response is always the same. “I don’t want to hear about what your brother did, I’ll deal with him next. What did you do wrong?” I am convinced that this is also the Lord’s approach to resolution when we find ourselves in the midst of relational conflict. In short, the countermeasure for competition is cooperation.
Recognition: If you have ever had the opportunity to attend a meeting where leaders from several different churches or ministries had come together, you might have discovered that these get-togethers seem to have a tendency to be either wonderful or horrible. There is nothing sweeter than enjoying the heart-felt relationships shared by like minded believers, and nothing more excruciating than having to endure a room filled with posturing pastors or church leaders. Again, this need for recognition is actually a part of our God-given makeup and is there by design. The Father wants us not only to know Him, but also to be aware that we are known by Him. But when we are not in touch with the Lord’s acknowledgment of us, we will invariably resort to drawing attention to ourselves or something we have done in the hopes of getting it from each other. Jesus devoted a significant portion of the sermon on the mount to this very issue.
“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt 6:1-4)
At one point, I was asked if I would be willing to help clean up our church building after one of our events. I agreed to volunteer and showed up the next morning ready to work. Within minutes, I found myself on my hands and knees cleaning toilets and urinals. Though I immediately recognized that the Lord was closely watching my internal response to this proverbial test, there was still a part of me that really wanted someone to notice my willingness to tackle this particularly humbling assignment. Thankfully, no one really paid much attention to what I was doing or made any comments about how great I was for lowering myself to such a task. And rightly so. Throughout the Gospels, we repeatedly find Jesus trying to enlighten his disciples to the principle of unnoticed obedience. In Mark 9 he asks them this question, “What were you arguing about on the road?” Instead of responding, “they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This statement is truly profound and applies to so many different aspects of our faith. Clearly the Lord is not as impressed by our “greatness” as we tend to think he is. But the scriptures seem to indicate that there is actually huge potential for long term honor and recognition in a lifestyle of unassuming self sacrifice. Therefore, the countermeasure for recognition is servanthood.
Suspicion: Are we prone to give other believers the benefit of the doubt, or do we tend to hold them at arms length until they have somehow proven themselves to us? Even though we understand that appearances and first impressions are not always reliable, I think we often want to “size up” one another a little prematurely. If we have been a part of a local church for any length of time, then we have undoubtedly had our trust betrayed by a brother or sister in the Lord at some point. If we have not yet been thoroughly disappointed or disillusioned by the behavior of another Christian, then we should prepare ourselves for the inevitable. We should also recognize that to be disillusioned is to have an illusion removed from us. Many of us still seem to be living under the assumption that no one in the church should be allowed to hurt us. We should keep in mind that the Lord not only allows us to be wounded by others, but that his deepest desire is for us to die. Through the example of his crucifixion, Jesus demonstrated that there are times when we must choose to make ourselves dangerously vulnerable, even to those who have the capacity to inflict great harm upon us.
Of course, this is not to say that we should haphazardly throw ourselves at the mercy of anyone with a fish emblem affixed to the bumper of their van. Proverbs 4:23 says we should “guard our heart” because it is “the wellspring of life.” We should always be mindful of our alliances and discerning of those whom we embrace. But our pre-programmed misgivings toward other Christians can often end up being entirely unwarranted. Our enemy is no fool. He is very aware of the power that is released when dissimilar believers are unified in their goals and purpose. In 1 Tim 6:4, Paul warns his young disciple about those who have “an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, and evil suspicions.” Have you ever encountered someone who seems to have an unhealthy interest in controversies? Did they quarrel about words and talk maliciously about others? Unfortunately, we have all probably all been sucked into these kinds of evil suspicions at one time or another. But even worse, if we make it our habit to pre-judge or talk negatively about other believers, than we should expect to reap what we have sown. Instead, we should learn to ask the Lord to show us those divine relational hook-ups that we might normally overlook because of our own personal biases or insecurities. We might even be pleasantly surprised by the friendships that would develop as a result. The countermeasure for suspicion is trust.
It is no secret that the majority of people in this country are no longer attending church. Even many believers have become disenchanted by the notion of committing themselves to a local congregation in any significant way. I believe the Lord is deeply grieved by this trend. Though some have vowed to remain estranged, many others are sitting right beside us on Sunday morning wanting desperately to somehow be more connected. Granted, we probably will not have the same level of affinity or concern for everyone who feels this way. Some we may not want to be connected to at all, but that is the nature of the body. Still, we cannot deny that we really do need each other. So, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, but especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal 6:10)
“The Three Legged Stool” is used by permission of Don French and Kingdom SEAL Ministries.