How to not be anxious in anxious times

Overcoming-fear.jpgWe are certainly enduring unprecedented days.  During the last six weeks, most of us have experienced a kind of chaos that was not only unforeseen when the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, but also one that is having devastating effects not only on people’s health, but also our economy for months and years to come.  Economic uncertainty, isolation mandates, and invisible viruses that can strike from anywhere at anytime create a stew that is certain to boil over into anxiety for many of us at any time.  Perhaps since most of us have been spending several weeks in this “new normal”, we’ve started to settle into some routines that are hopefully easing the anxiety we all felt at the beginning.  How can you not help but feel anxious when there’s no toilet paper in town whatsoever!  I am not one who normally gets stressed or anxious easily.  However, I remember taking a trip to Walmart one Friday morning right before the state-wide “stay-at-home” mandate in my state was ordered.  I went to simply pick up a couple of things I needed for dinner that night.  But as a tried to navigate through an incredibly crowded store and stared at shelves with large barren spots, I felt a sense some tension and worry begin to rise inside of me.  I went there to buy what should have been $25 worth and instead spent $140 just to make sure our family had stuff to eat for a few days.  I must also admit that when I watched as my retirement account dropped almost a third of its value in just over three weeks that I felt a great deal of anxiety and concern.

So, how can we lessen anxiety in the midst of anxious times?  How can we navigate the onslaught of discouraging news and uncertainty about tomorrow with a sense of confidence and sanity?  First, let me say that I am no expert about this subject or about how to control the thoughts of the human mind.  In addition, I want to clarify that I am not speaking about those who suffer from a clinical and chronic form of anxiety and/or depression for which they must seek medical help.  That is a real and painful condition that many people suffer with every day of their lives.  I am simply talking about that tendency that some people have which causes them to default to worry, stress out, and become anxious whenever something unforeseen appears on the horizon.  I am speaking about the kind of personality that takes a level 3 concern and makes it a level 9 issue simply because they are easily prone to become anxious.

First, let’s understand that the Bible makes clear that anxiety is to be avoided by children of God at all times.  Whenever the Scriptures present anxiety, it is always presented as something negative that needs to be corrected or avoided.  Paul said in Philippians 4:6-7 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Paul’s words are given to believers to let us know that we are to replace anxiety with a sense of God’s peace by taking our concerns to God in prayer.  When Jesus was at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, he observed that Martha was overly-anxious with all the details of serving such a large crowd while her sister Mary just sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him teach.  She demanded that Jesus make Mary get up and help her and Jesus answered, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42). What Martha saw as appropriate concern, Jesus saw as unnecessary and distracting anxiety.  

One of the most appropriate texts about dealing with anxiety comes from the Lord Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Let me give two clarifying truths about anxiety that I hope will be helpful.  First, anxiety is not the same thing as being concerned about difficult circumstances or making wise plans for today or the future.  Often when I speak to people who are experiencing anxiety, they will respond, “Don’t we need to be concerned about these things?” or “We have to make plans for the future.  We can’t just fly by the seat of our pants all the time.”  While those statements are true, they are poor and inadequate excuses for anxiety.  Certainly we should be concerned and seek to exercise wisdom in the face of a global pandemic.  We should feel concern when we are going out into public places and touching surfaces which we do not know who else has touched recently.  Certainly we should feel concern when we have a loved one who receives an unseen and potentially difficult diagnosis.  Certainly we should have concern about our retirement years and make appropriate plans to save and invest in such a way that we can have our needs met.  But being concerned and wisely planning are not the same thing as anxiously worrying or being crippled with fear. Anxiety is not appropriate concern. Anxiety is an obsessive worry about things either today or in the future that we ultimately cannot control.  And that lack of control can grip us in a state of constant fear and dread.

Second clarifying statement: Anxiety never adds value or quality to our lives – it only subtracts those things.  Jesus asks a prescient question in Matthew 6 “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”  The answer is obviously nobody.  There is never a situation where anxiety ever added anything of value to our lives or increased the quality of our lives.  Anxiety and stress has been repeatedly linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers, breathing problems, and many other health concerns.   We may come out of a season of anxiety with relief that the problem we were worrying about is solved.  But we often also come away with a sense of embarrassment or regret for how much we worried about it in the process.  Jesus’ words above are directed at our tendency to put too much worry on things that may seem important for a season, but are general concerns that everyone experiences at one time or another and which God has proven faithful over and over again.  In reality, our tendency to get anxious over these things doesn’t actually make them come to fruition faster or more smoothly.  It simply directs a lot of our energies towards the fact that they have done so yet.  

The only way to overcome anxiety is to rob it of its power to control our lives.  But how do we do that?  How do we take away the power of worry and anxiety to control our lives?  From this text that Jesus teaches us in Matthew 6, I see two ways that we rob anxiety of its power.  First, anxiety loses its power when it’s replaces by a trust in something (or someone) bigger.  When I was a child,  I would sometimes wake up at night in deep fear.  Sometimes this fear would lead to a sudden and deep anxiety as I would be scared because of something I had watched on television or a story I had heard.  I would try to go back to sleep, but the more I tried to stop thinking about whatever woke me up, the more I would think about it and the greater the anxiety I would feel.  Inevitably, the answer was always the same.  I would go to my parents bedroom and take my covers and pillow and lay down at the end of their bed.  Usually within just a few minutes, the fear would be gone and I would fall back asleep.  Why?  Because the fear that I was experiencing felt bigger than me but it didn’t feel bigger than my dad.  I knew that nothing could get to me unless it went through my dad first.  That anxiety instantly lost its power because I was exercising trust in someone bigger than me.

In similar fashion, when I first became a pastor, I would often wake up at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning with incredible fear in my heart and my mind racing with thoughts.  Questions filled my mind about why people had left my church, was I a good leader, did my preaching make any difference, and whether I actually had what it takes to pastor a church.  The more I tried to erase those thoughts, the more anxiety I would feel.  I found that the best thing to do was to get up and go read a few pages of Scripture and spend about 20-30 minutes in prayer.  Usually, after about an hour, I could go back to bed, close my eyes, and fall asleep within a few minutes.  When I woke up later, those problems that seemed huge to be at 1:00 AM didn’t seem as big at 7:00 AM. Why?  My fears of inadequacy had been replaced by trust in someone bigger than me.  I rested in my Heavenly Father’s love for me and that whatever situation He decided to place me in that He also had given me the resources to accomplish the task.   Fear and anxiety lose their power when they are replaced by trust in something or someone bigger than that which we fear.

Secondly, anxiety loses its power when we remember God’s past faithfulness towards us, even in the smallest areas of our lives.  This is Jesus’ point in Matthew 6 when he directs our gaze from our pressing concerns to look instead at the birds and the flowers.  Think about how crazy that is for a moment.  If you came to me and said, “I am feeling a lot of anxiety right now about getting this virus, or about losing my job, or about feeding my family.  What should I do?” and I answered you by saying, “Go outside and do some birdwatching and walk through a field of flowers”, you would likely dismiss me as a moron and never come to me for advice again.  So what is Jesus doing?  Jesus is helping us to cut the power of fear and anxiety by directing our gaze at the continual and ever-present faithfulness of God in even the smallest areas of life.  Jesus reminds us that God’s sovereign care extends even to the birds in our backyard.  They didn’t wake up today feeling stress and anxiety in where they would find food.  They simply and instinctively know that food is available whenever they need it.  They still have to go work for it.  But a faithful God provides the food they need every day.  Likewise, the flowers of the field bloom and blossom with vibrant colors because the ever-faithful God sends the sun and rain they need in season.  Then Jesus reminds us that you and I are of infinitely more value to God than birds and flowers.  We are his image bearers in this world.  He didn’t choose to place his image in birds, or dogs, or bees, or aardvarks.  He chose to place his image in you and me.  He didn’t send his Son to die for the transgressions of baboons and   beluga whales.  He sent his Son to die for your sins and mine.  So while we may have real and very powerful concerns that are facing us at this moment, we don’t have to be crippled or sidelined with fear and anxiety because we remember that God has repeatedly demonstrated his faithfulness to us over and over, hundreds of thousands of times in our life up to this point.  Because he is the ever-faithful God who feeds birds and clothes flowers, he will be faithful and demonstrate his love, power, and wisdom to us in this season of life as well.  Anxiety loses its power when it remembers the past faithfulness of God and is replaced by trust in someone much bigger than our present dilemma.

So, while I have no idea when we are getting out of this pandemic, or when we will be able to have gatherings at church once again, or what the long-term economic impact of this crisis will be on families in our church or my retirement account, I do know that I trust in an ever-faithful God who has shown me over and over that while I don’t know what’s in the future, I do know Who is in the future.  And I know that I have no reason to be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, I can present my requests to Him and know that the God who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers will give me a peace that passes understanding that will guard my heart and mind here and now.

Why You and I Need “Good Friday”

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Today is the day traditionally set aside for Christians to remember and celebrate Good Friday.  Together with Easter Sunday, celebrated three days later (actually two on our calendars), they represent the crescendo of what has come to be known as “Holy Week”.  Christians celebrate this day in many different ways.  Some choose to remember with quiet reflection and mediation on Scripture.  Some Christians remember by posting cross-related message on their social media feed. Some churches usually have a “Good Friday” service with songs about the cross and Scriptural mediations.  However, with social distancing limitations this year, those offerings are being offered online.

I have often reflected as a believer on the question, “What’s so “good” about Good Friday?”  To an unbelieving world, it’s often puzzling why Christians would celebrate a day in which the founder of the faith was brutally murdered on a Roman cross.  Why would we label something as “good” that is marked by such brutality and filled with gruesome images?  Why would Christians sing about their love for and appreciation of “the blood of Christ”?  I grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt, going to church from an early age in a strong Southern Baptist church.  I always enjoyed Easter services because they were so crowded and because the music was so celebratory.  However, as one familiar with the church from my earliest days, I don’t remember having much of a fundamental understanding of Good Friday.  When I asked, I was told, “That was the day we remember that Jesus died.”  But that didn’t sufficiently explain the “good” part.  I couldn’t understand until I actually repented of my sins and trusted Christ later in my teen years.  It wasn’t until I actually became a Christian that I began to feel really understand the “good” of Good Friday – that Jesus Christ did this for me.

Each year, I try to take some time on this day to sit in quiet reflection of what Jesus did for me.  Sometimes I try to watch the movie “The Passion of the Christ” to remind me visually of the price that Jesus paid for my sins.  This year, I prepared a journey though Scripture and prayer for my church members as a reflective exercise.  I also wanted to put down at least five reasons why you and I need to be reminded of and celebrate Good Friday each year.

We need “Good Friday” as a periodic reminder of the devastating consequences of our sin.  It’s impossible to truly understand Good Friday without seeing and feeling the bloody and brutal consequences our sinful choices brought upon Jesus Christ.  Some in the contemporary evangelical culture have tried to tone down some of this by denying the doctrine of penal substitution, which teaches us that Christ’s sacrifice won atonement for our sins by enduring the wrath of God that was reserved for us. Jesus was our substitute, bearing a punishment on the cross that should have been reserved for us because of the sinful choices we have made.  Sin must be punished and with a wrath that is equal to the offense of that sin before a holy God.  So, as we reflect on the bruised and bloody Savior, we are reminded, in a gracious way, that sin is more than just a mistake or a misstep.  Sin is a terrible offense before our holy Creator.  Sin’s consequences go much further than just in the moment and are not dismissed with a simple “I’m sorry.”  Contrition for our sin is vitally necessary.  But so is atonement for them. As long as we are blind to or refuse to see the full and bloody consequence of our sin, we will rarely, if ever, seek to make a break with the pattern of sin in our lives.  We need “Good Friday” to give us a regular reminder that the price of our sinful choices is deadly.

We need “Good Friday” as a powerful reminder that God’s love for us isn’t an empty sentimentality but something deeply costly.  The “love of God” for his human creations is the most popular notion of the Christian faith in contemporary culture.  John 3:16 is a cultural foundation.  Everyone knows “God so loved the world”.  But few people really understand the why behind “that he gave his only beloved Son”.  To most people, the “love of God” is little more than the kind of sentimentality your might find in one of the thousands of  Hallmark Channel movies or on the front of a greeting card you might get at Valentine’s Day.  It’s almost as if Jesus is there with a “Be Mine” next to his face.  Yet, the love of God is deeper than the shallow mushiness that popular culture often attaches.  The love of God for us was deeply costly endeavor.  He “gave” his only Son.  He didn’t just “give” Jesus to us to be our moral example.  He “gave” him to us to be our atoning substitute. Romans 5:8 says, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  The cross is the symbol of God’s love to the world.  You cannot understand the love of God without going through the cross of Jesus Christ.  And when our experience of God’s love comes at no cost to us or to the Lord Jesus, then it isn’t a love that can be fully appreciated and it isn’t a love that can do anything to actually save us.

We need “Good Friday” as a gracious reminder that penalty for our sins has been fully paid.  One of the most glorious truths of the gospel is found in Romans 8:1-2, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  When Jesus shouted “It is finished!” on the cross, it was an announcement that God’s eternal plan of redemption had been accomplished.  The price of sin had been fully paid.  The wages of our sin is death.  Not just that we physically die, but that we are born in spiritual death and that we will experience eternal death if our sins are not atoned for.  But because Jesus went to the cross, his death is our death.  And his life is now our life.  Jesus not only bore the wrath for our sins, but he cancelled the record of them over us.  Paul says in Colossians 2:13-14 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  Good Friday is a gracious reminder each year that the penalty for our sins has been fully paid and God does not hold us in condemnation any more.  

We need “Good Friday” as an encouraging reminder that the separation from God that we created has been reconciled. One of the effects of sin is that it separates us from God.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, enjoyed full and complete fellowship with God in the garden before the Fall.  However, because of their sin, they were cast out not only from God’s perfect creation, but from his perfect presence.  Like them, sin creates distance between us and God.  We are still image bearers, but God is a distant deity, far removed not only from our spiritual eyes, but also from our hearts.  But by way of Jesus’ cross, the separation from God that we experience has now been bridged.  When Jesus died, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  That veil was a continual reminder to God’s people that God was removed and separate from them.  Anyone who entered behind the veil did so at the cost of their life.  Now Jesus, our perfect high priest, has gone behind the veil to present a perfect and complete sacrifice and to take down the separation between us and God.  Now God’s Spirit dwells in us.  Now we can come to the Father not as guilty sinners, but as fully redeemed and adopted children.  We need Good Friday to remind us each year that by faith in Christ, we are no longer separated from our Heavenly Father.

We need “Good Friday” as a motivating reminder that God’s offer of salvation is still available for those who will humbly receive it.  Finally, we need Good Friday as a reminder to the church that while we know and experience all the benefits of redemption this day, there are still billions of people on our planet who do not have what we have and do not know what we know.  There are billions who have no access to this glorious gospel truth.  There are thousands in our city who have never truly trusted in the gospel.  They may recognize today as a religious holiday, but the impact of it totally passes them by.  They don’t know the “Good” in Good Friday because they don’t know the “Christ” of Good Friday.  So while we Christians enjoy the blessings of God’s grace today, let us also remember to pray for those who don’t know Christ.  Let us look for opportunities to share with them the “good” that we know.  Let us remember that the gospel is still the power of God to salvation for all who would believe.  Let us remember that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus so “that whoever would believe would not perish but have eternal life.”  Let’s use this weekend as a tool for evangelism and share the hope of Christ with a lost world that is looking for true hope these days.

Church and Ministry Amid Coronavirus Chaos

I have been convicted for several months right now that I have not been doing enough writing or any blogging.  The daily grind of ministry coupled with my own personal lack of discipline have caused me to neglect using this platform to record my thoughts and to encourage others.  As of the time of this writing, our nation is going through the worst week of the 2020 Coronavirus crisis so far.  In my own state, the pandemic has grown rapidly and the governor issued a “shelter in place” mandate last week.  So, since most of us are home more than usual, it’s time to start doing those projects that we’ve been neglecting for far too long.  For me, that’s writing and blogging.  I am working on some topics to blog about over the next few weeks.  I would welcome any ideas or questions that you have that you would like for me to address.

To get kicked off, I will give you this video of a pastor’s roundtable I was a part of last week with three local pastors.  Together, we are talking about some of the challenges facing us as church leaders in these days, what ministry may look like in the future, and how to encourage Christians to trust in God’s word more than negative news in these days.  I hope you find it encouraging.  I appreciate each of these brothers and our collective partnership to reach our city with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

When your broken spirit causes you to grow deaf to God’s word…

“Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”  Exodus 6:9

I came across these words in my Bible reading this week.  I hadn’t noticed them before as I read the Exodus story.  But, as I came across them this time, it brought a lot of sense in my personal life as well as my ministry.  These words take place in the beginning of the story of the exodus of God’s people from Egypt.  They had resettled in Egypt several generations before to escape famine.  Their forefathers experienced Egypt as a place of God’s provision.  However, God’s ultimate purpose for his people was Canaan, not Egypt. What was initially a very favorable situation eventually became a place of bondage as the subsequent kings of Egypt made the Hebrews slaves.  They were in a place that was not really their home and were powerless to change their circumstances.  They cried to the Lord again and again to deliver them.  God answered their prayers by sending them Moses.

Moses was a reluctant leader.  He didn’t feel he had the power to command Pharaoh.  However, God gave him the promise of His word, backed by powerful signs, to show Moses that he was God’s instrument and that he would be sustained by God’s power.  Now, if you and I were writing this story, it would probably go like this: “Moses went to Pharaoh and commanded him to let God’s people go.  Pharaoh resisted and mocked Moses for his brashness.  Then, Moses did a miraculous sign and Pharaoh repented and gladly let God’s people go so that they went to Canaan and lived happily ever after.”  That’s the storylines we tend to write.  However, God had a bigger purpose.  God would use the stubbornness of Pharaoh’s heart and the harshness of His people’s circumstances to demonstrate the power of His redemption.  He wanted to demonstrate not only to the Hebrews, but for generations to come, that God’s redemptive power can break any bond and overcome any challenge.

Pharaoh’s initial response to the word of God was not only stubborn resistance, but increasing rebellion.  So, he made the work of the Hebrew slaves harder.  He made them continue to make their load of bricks, but without providing the straw necessary to do so.  As a result, they cried out to Pharaoh and complained to Moses.  They said ,”The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Exodus 5:21). God responded to Moses by reaffirming his plans for deliverance.  He told Moses to say, “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Ex 6:6).

Nevertheless, as verse 9 above shows us, as Moses spoke these words, the people didn’t listen.  But, notice why they didn’t listen: “because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”  The years of hard bondage and enslavement they had experienced had brought them to a point where they could hear the word of the Lord, yet refuse to believe it.  Even though they had prayed to hear these exact words for generations.  Isn’t that just like us?  We will pray to God for something only to allow the present reality of our situation to blind us to the ways God is working or to deafen us to the voice of God.  We go to church and hear God’s word preached, but it falls on deaf ears because we are too preoccupied with our present situation to hear and receive God’s promise.  We become faithless because we expect instant gratification in our prayers.  When the situation doesn’t resolve itself quick and painlessly, we fall into doubt about God’s goodness towards us, His love for us, or His sovereign plan over our lives.  I think God puts these verses in the story of Exodus and uses the increasing peril of their bondage to show you and me that when we are in the crucible of belief that we need to remember the promises of His word instead of the reality of our situation.  I think we can see a few lessons from these verses.

First, a broken spirit and the realities of our enslavement can deafen us to the voice of God.  How many times have you gone to church and silently prayed for God to change your situation?  But, even as you speak those words, you have another voice inside that says, “It won’t do any good. Nothing ever changes for me.”  This is the burden of a broken spirit.  Sometimes our present pain shouts so loud that it drowns out all other voices, including the voice of God.  However, even in that situation, you need to remember that our God is not silent.  He is speaking.  He has revealed to you already in the pages of His word that He is a gracious God, a redeeming God, and a God who is sovereign over each and every situation.  I heard someone once quote “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.”  That’s such a good word.  Spurgeon said it this way, “I would sooner walk in the dark and hold hard to a promise of my God, than trust in the light of the brightest day that ever dawned.”   So, when you broken spirit wants to reject God’s clearly revealed word, remember the story of the exodus and that God promised his deliverance and God always delivers on His promise.

Second, God can our broken spirits as a canvas on which his redemption shines even brighter.  While the Hebrews did not listen to Moses because their spirits were broken, God didn’t allow their lack of receiving the promise stop His plan.  It is true for many of us that we will not be ready to receive God’s word until our personal spirits are completely broken.  The great irony of the early chapters of the Exodus is that the very thing the Hebrews had prayed for had finally come, yet they were not yet ready to trust and believe.  As we eventually see, God would use the increasing difficulty of their situation and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart to demonstrate his power through a series of ten debilitating plagues.  God showed his great power in the desperateness of their circumstances.  He would do the same when their backs were up against the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army bearing down.  When we are tempted to give up hope, that’s when the God of hope shines brightest.  So, no matter what is going on right now, know that God uses our brokenness to bring Him glory.  Remember Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”  Remember Isaiah 42:3, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”  Remember Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Finally remember that God’s promise of deliverance doesn’t usually come with immediate relief.  God will often use the increasing difficulties of our circumstances to test our faith in His word and our dependence on Him and not ourselves.  When God promises deliverance, he doesn’t always say it will be quick and easy.  As a matter of fact, it is often slow, messy, and painful.  That’s because chains of bondage and enslavement are not always easily broken.  We live in an instant gratification society where we expect the promises of God to be fulfilled like the circumstances in our favorite TV drama – “Please wrap it up nice and neatly, and all in one hour.”  Our christianized property culture is prone to see challenges, pain, and difficulty as a sign of our personal unbelief and a hindrance to God’s promise.  However, God didn’t need the Hebrews immediate belief to prove His deliverance.  God used their unbelief to reaffirm His word and remind them that all redemption is completely due to his power and not our faith or faithfulness.  So, if you cry out to God and your situation gets worse, not better, don’t doubt God’s goodness or that He is hearing you.  Instead, dive deeper into His word and see that He is a God who always delivers according to his power and for his glory.  Don’t see your chains as a sign of God’s displeasure over you.  Instead, like Paul, see them as tools for the gospel.

Whatever is going on in your life right now, don’t let the reality of a broken spirit or a painful enslavement cause you to not listen to the word of God.  If God has promised it, your redemption is coming soon.

Joseph and the Sovereignty of God…

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Too often, I believe,  as we read through the Bible stories of the OT characters, we are tempted to read them as isolated events, given to us as historical accounts and moral lessons.  Certainly, every Bible story has biblical principles embedded in them which serve for our edification and sanctification.  However, as we read the stories of these men and women, we must remember that they are not hundreds of isolated stories, but one story of One Sovereign God and the grand story of redemption that He is writing.

Take the life of Joseph as an example.  The story of his life comprises 13 chapters in Genesis – approximately 25% of the book.  It’s a story filled with continual drama – the favored son and dreamer whose dreams create jealousy with his brothers; sold into slavery and taken thousands of miles from home; unjustly thrown into prison for something he didn’t do; interpreter of Pharaoh’s dreams who is exalted to the vice-regent of Egypt; protector of Egypt and the surrounding lands in a time of famine; reunited with his brothers and father after many years.  It’s also a story about Joseph’s virtue – his commitment to work with excellence even though his is a foreigner in Egypt; his refusal to lay with his boss’s wife and commit sexual sin in the sight of God; his compassion to interpret the dreams for the baker and the cupbearer; the using of his position of power for the benefit of innocent lives instead of for his own personal ambition; his forgiveness offered to his brothers when he was in a position to enact retribution.

While each of these isolated stories are mini-dramas unto themselves and each present to us examples of the path God wants us to follow in our lives, I believe the primary reason God gives us such length and detail over Joseph’s life is to demonstrate His sovereignty in the unfolding drama of human redemption that He is unveiling.  Not only did God call Joseph’s great-grandfather from a foreign land and give him an heir in his old age; but he sovereignly persevered his grandfather, Isaac’s, life; blessed his scheming father, Jacob, and gave him twelve sons who would become the nation of Israel.  In his own life, God sovereignly used Joseph’s favor with his father and their ensuing jealousy to send Jospeh to Egypt.  God sovereignly ordained that everything Jospeh did in Potiphar’s house and Pharaoh’s palace prospered.  God sovereignly gave Joseph the ability not only to dream great dreams, but to interpret them in such a way that it revealed God’s unfolding plans.  God sovereignly placed Joseph in Pharaoh’s palace so that, as a man who was controlled by the wisdom of God, Joseph could execute a plan that would save the lives of millions.  God sovereignly used the famine in the land to create a need in the lives of the sons of Israel and the prosperity of Egypt to bring Jacob and his sons to Egypt.  He declared to Jacob in Genesis 46 that He would make Israel into a great nation, in the land of Egypt, not in the land of Canaan where Jacob expected.

And God would sovereignly turn Jacob’s descendants in Egypt into the Hebrews who, four hundred years later, would be suffering enslavement at the hands of another Egyptian Pharaoh and would cry out to God for a deliverer.  God would sovereignly protect the life of another young Hebrew boy – born into slavery, yet raised in Pharaoh’s palace; sent into exile in the wilderness for 40 years, called to deliver Yahweh’s people and bring them back to the land that was promised to Abraham.  And God would use all these stories of his sovereignly redemptive hand to point us to a future deliverer who would one day redeem all God’s people from their spiritual enslavement and bring us back into his family as the sons and daughters of God.

So, next time you are tempted to see a trial or difficulty in your life as an isolated incident of pain, remember Joseph and the continuing story of the sovereignty of God.  You cannot see in that moment what God is doing and you likely will not see what God was doing for many years to come.  God doesn’t just call you to mimic the virtue of Joseph, but to demonstrate the same trust in the invisible, sovereign hand of God that he did.  Who knows the impact your faith will have in the years to come.

Only that Christ is Proclaimed…

Our church is currently going through the book of Philippians, which has long been one of my favorite books in the Bible.  Our sermon series is focusing on “The Joy of the Christ-Centered Life”.  As you read through Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, it oozes with the themes of joy, Christ, and the gospel.  Everything Paul talks about in the letter emanates from these three themes.

In chapter 1:12-18, Paul gives his brothers and sisters in Christ an update on in imprisonment in Rome.  The context of the letter suggests that once the Philippians heard that Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem and transferred to Rome to await trail, they sent a love gift to him by way of Epaphroditus.  They also wanted Epaphroditus to bring them back a report on Paul’s physical and spiritual condition.  However, their friend became deathly ill while visiting Paul.  When he eventually made a full recovery, Paul sends him back to Philippi with a joy-saturated update on his situation.  Here is what he wrote:

 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  Philippians 1:12-18

As you read those words, it’s hard to picture a man sitting in a Roman prison.  Paul has the mindset of a soldier marching into enemy lines.  Far from being a tool which was hindering the gospel, Paul’s shackles are testimony of gospel advance!   From Paul’s report, we see three Christ-centered attitudes that Paul expresses which fuel his joy while he sits under chains in a Roman incarceration.

1. Paul’s first joy-fueling attitude is “No Matter What, the Gospel Comes First”.  After describing how his chains have opened doors for Paul to share Christ with the Imperial Guard and also how his critics in the church have used his imprisonment to belittle him, Paul makes the astounding comment, “Only that in every way…Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  He’s not complaining about his unjust incarceration.  He’s not expressing concern about his uncertain trial.  He isn’t going on a personal rant about the character of his critics.  He is simply saying, “If God chooses to use my chains or my critics as a tool for the gospel, that will bring me joy.”  Paul never got over his Damascus road encounter with Christ.  Ever since that day that Christ arrested Paul from his legalism and self-righteousness with grace and mercy, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ became the prevailing purpose of Paul’s life.  That is why he could rejoice in trial, rejoice in personal attack, and rejoice in times when most of us would soak in discouragement, depression, or despair. There is a parallel relationship between our experience of gospel transformation and our verbal expressions of gospel proclamation. How about you?  Have you come to a point in your journey with Christ where the stunning goodness of his grace has so overwhelmed you that you can look at your unjust and difficult circumstances as vehicles that God could use to demonstrate and communicate the gospel to others?

2.  The second joy-fueling attitude is “God’s Mission is More Important than My Comfort”.     Paul describes to the Philippians how God is using his chains as tools for gospel advance, not gospel retreat.  It reminds us of how our natural human perspectives often have wired us to see trials and obstacles as hindrances and hurdles which keep us from talking about Jesus.  Where many of us would be intimidated into silence by the presence of a battle-hardened Roman soldier, Paul was excited for the opportunity to share Christ with another fallen sinner created in the image of God.  Chains and prison locks could never diminish the missionary heart of Paul.  He knew every morning that God was bringing him someone else who had never heard the good news of Christ.  So, when you read Philippians, you do not read about the uncomfortable conditions, you read about the evangelistic opportunities.  This is because God’s mission was more important than Paul’s comfort.  Too often as believers we are pushed into gospel silence by much less than what Paul was dealing with.  Once we experience the least bit of resistance or discomfort, our mouths usually dry up.  We may begin a gospel conversation and the other person takes a shot about “Christians who try to force their morality” and we quickly transition to a different subject.  Or, we encounter a spiritual question we cannot quickly answer, so we decide to leave the witnessing up to those who are “smarter” than us and just let the goodness of our lives tell others about Jesus.  Gospel conversations are not comfortable.  When we attempt to tell others about Jesus, we are entering the arena of spiritual warfare.  Of course it will be uncomfortable.  But, the mission of God is more important than our comfort.

3.  A final joy-fueling attitude Paul demonstrates is “God, Use This to Christ’s Glory, Not Mine”.  Whether facing the unjust imprisonment of a Roman government or the unjust attack of those who were supposedly brothers in Christ, Paul doesn’t resort to defensiveness, retribution, or pity.  Instead, he has learned that true joy comes from seeking the greater glory of Jesus Christ over the fleeting glory of temporal lives.  Paul knows that God often uses our trials and hardships as the canvass on which he displays the glory of Jesus Christ.  Paul also knows that whether it’s 30 days or 30 years, one day Paul will be gone but Jesus Christ and the gospel will remain.  So, isn’t it better to live our lives as an arrow pointing to the glory of Christ rather than a conduit pointing to the glory of us?  This same attitude was expressed by missionary Jim Elliot in his journal when he wrote, “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God!”.  Elliot knew that the Great Commission call of Christ meant that every tribe was worthy of hearing the gospel, even the savage Auca Indians of Ecuador who had violently resisted every attempt by outsiders to engage them.  Yet, Elliot and his friends pressed on, certain that they needed to hear Christ and would one day embrace Him.  While those five men were brutally killed for being obedient to Christ, Jesus used their death and the subsequent attempts by the families of the missionaries to continue to engage, to eventually bring the gospel to them.  Whether the gospel is transmitted through prison chains or spears, Christ can use anything for his glory as long as we look to him and not the glory of ourselves.

What would it take in your life for you to develop on “only that Christ is proclaimed” mentality?  What attitudes does God need to refine in you which cause you to look to the difficulty of your circumstances rather than the opportunities to proclaim Jesus?  Where is God calling you today to walk in deeper faith and confidence in Him?

Far as the curse is found…

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“No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.”

Most of us are familiar with the popular Christmas hymn, “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts.  One of the beautiful things I appreciate about Christmas is the opportunity it provides to sing familiar hymns and songs associated with the birth of Christ.  Christmas provides a yearly rhythm where we reflect on the gospel by drawing us to sing songs that the church usually reserves for just the Christmas holiday season.   There is a beauty and a danger in familiarity.  The beauty is that the words of these songs are imbedded in our memories, and hopefully our hearts.  The danger is that their familiarity can lead us to recall and sing them without giving much reflection to what we are singing.

I was thinking this week about this particular line from “Joy to the World” and the powerful truth it proclaims that I really have never paused to reflect upon.  In the first line of the hymn, we excitedly pronounce “joy to the world” because the Lord and King has now come.  The announcement of the arrival of the King ignites joy into the hearts of those who belong to His kingdom.  Consequently, we are called to “let every heart prepare Him room”.  In order to make room for the King of Kings, you must first relinquish the right to your own throne.

When we come to this third verse, we see the powerful implications of the arrival of our King.  This King of Kings is also our kinsman redeemer.  He has come not only to establish His rule over the earth, but also to redeem us from the curse of sin that we have brought into the world and into our own lives because we rejected His rule and authority and decided to supplant His rule with our own.  The result of our sin and rejection of Him is seen in the prevailing presence of sin and sorrows in our world.  As we fell in the garden, God pronounced a curse not only to Adam, but to the very creation that he was commanded to steward.  God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Paul echoed this curse on creation in Romans 8 when he wrote, For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”  

Simply put, have you ever wondered to yourself, “What is wrong with this world?  Why does life have to be so hard?”  The answer is that this world and all its inhabitants are living under the rightful curse of the sin and rebellion of all mankind.  And the scope of that curse is universal.  Paul says that the entire creation was subjected to futility.  But the good news of the gospel, and the good news we proclaim in song, is this truth –  because our sovereign King and perfect Redeemer has finally come, there will one day be a full and final redemption in which sin and sorrow will no longer grow and thorns will one day be vanquished from creation.  Not only that, but His blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”  There isn’t one fallen molecule in this creation that will not one day experience the blessings of redemption.  What a glorious truth to sing!  Joy to the world, indeed!