photo credit: flint via photopin (license)

photo credit: flint via photopin (license)

Every believer knows what it is like to struggle in his or her prayer life. You know you need to pray and feel guilty for not praying more, so you kneel down, fold your hands, close your eyes, and then have no idea what to say. Then once words start coming out you don’t know if you are praying for the right thing or if your prayers are even being heard.

If this is your experience, here are a few practical steps you can take to reinvigorate your prayer life.

Remember the Gospel

Sometimes our hesitation in prayer is driven by our insecurities about whether or not we will be heard. In times like these allow the message of the Gospel to remind you that your audience with the Father is not conditional upon your performance as a believer. Remember that Jesus gave himself in your place after he lived the perfect life none of us could have lived. God raised him from the dead and exalted him to the right hand of God. When we trust in Christ, God gives us Christ’s righteousness and adopts us as his children. In addition, he gave us the Holy Spirit who helps us pray when we don’t know how to pray. Because God is our Father, Jesus gave his life for us, and the Holy Spirit helps us, we have every reason in the world to come to him in prayer, knowing we will be heard. When you feel like God will not hear you, remember this Gospel message.

Meditate on Scripture

Often the way we talk about our devotional lives hinders the way we pray. We often present prayer and Bible reading as if they are two unrelated halves of the “quiet time.” The greatest help to my prayer life I ever heard came from Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. He pointed to biblical meditation as a bridge between Bible reading and prayer. As we think deeply about Scripture, asking it questions and plumbing its depths for application, we think of things that will move us to pray. We will see things we should thank God for, sins we should confess, challenges we need the Spirit’s aid to conquer, and ministry opportunities for which we need strength. When we read our Bibles we need to read them with an eye towards communion with God and requests we should bring before him.

Pray a Psalm

When you don’t know how to pray, trying praying a prayer God inspired in the Psalms. The Psalms cover the whole range of human emotions and stir up our affections when we are dry. Pray Psalm 6 when you are hurting, Psalm 51 when you have sinned, or Psalm 63 when you desire to meet with God more than anything else. Let Psalms like 19 or 100 help you see the glory of God and the praise due to his great name. To aid you in this, read through the Psalms and keep a list of which ones would be helpful to pray in different times of need.

Make a List

If you aren’t sure what to pray for, stop and make a list of things to pray about. Ask yourself some key questions to get the list started. Are there sins I need to confess? What are some reasons I have to thank God for his goodness to me? What people in my life need to hear the Gospel? What Christian friends do I have who need encouragement? What are things causing me stress and anxiety? These and other questions will yield a list that you could spend a significant amount of time praying through.

Use a Book of Prayers

We can learn a lot about prayer by listening to other people pray. Often as believers we need other people to teach us how to pray. One resource to help us with this is a book of prayers like The Valley of Vision. We can read prayers other believers prayed and be drawn near to God as our hearts begin to be meshed together with the words of the prayer. Also, in our age where we are tempted to pray with a sometimes thoughtless informality, reading prayers that have been carefully thought through can give us greater insight into our own prayer life.

Walk Around and Pray for Your Neighbors

If you get confused about what to pray for and don’t want to sit in a room by yourself, head outside. Walk around your neighborhood and pray for your neighbors. If you have been in the neighborhood for a while you know their names and situations. If they are not believers, pray for opportunities to talk to them about Jesus and pray for the Lord to open their hearts. If you don’t know them well enough to have an idea of how to pray for them, pray for opportunities to get to talk to them or pray about how you can go out of your way to engage them. Let your prayers drive you to look for ministry opportunities with those around you.

Related Posts:
When You Struggle to Pray

For Further Reading:
A Praying Life by Paul Miller

Prayer by Timothy Keller

A Few Good Reads

September 14, 2016 — Leave a comment
photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

Six Reasons Why Adultery is Very Serious
Hardly a day passes without us hearing the story of another home torn apart by the foolishness of adultery. This sin breaks the marriage covenant, scars our conscience, and sends confusing messages about who Jesus is. Tim Challies helps us understand how serious this sin and its consequences can be. “Adultery is inherently secretive, inherently dishonest. It has to be because no one wants to trumpet that they are breaking a promise. Adultery loves the darkness and flees the light and for as long as it can it tries to remain a secret.”

Reading for the Rest of Us
“How do you find so much time to read?” This question has always bothered me. There’s not some time fairy who hangs around my office helping me find magic slots of time to accomplish things. We don’t magically find time to read; we make it. Sam Bierig offers some practical thoughts so we can do so more effectively. “Don’t be afraid to have multiple books going at the same time. I find that when I am reading multiple books at the same time, I finish more books—more than I do when plowing through only one book at a time. Crushing two or three small books while plodding through a larger work motivates me to read.”

How to Parent Like a Coward
We all make many mistakes in parenting, but a particular set of problems begin to creep in when we become afraid of calling our children out on their poor behavior. Michael Kelley walks through a few ways this temptation manifests itself. “As our kids have gotten older, I’ve found remnants of that old fear coming back again and again as we try the best we can to make decisions for our family. In the midst of all of them, I am finding that active, gracious, intentional, consistent parenting is not for the faint of heart. It takes strength, resolve, and most of all, faith.”

My 3 Biggest Fears as a Teenager”
We will be navigating the teenage years in our house in the near future and I want to do my best to understand how to best guide my children through these often difficult years. Because of this, I was grateful for Jaquelle Crow’s post on the fears teenagers face. “As a teen just now crossing into the threshold of adulthood, I’m all too familiar with the fears of adolescence. All that instability, confusion, and decision-making can be stressful and even painful. I’ve laid awake at night because of a melting pot of fears bubbling in my mind, poisoning my peace.”

Hidden Christmas
This new book by Tim Keller will be a great help to us as we approach the Christmas season. We always need to be reminded of the great truths surrounding the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. “By understanding the message of hope and salvation within the Bible’s account of Jesus’s birth, readers will experience the redeeming power of God’s grace in a meaningful and deeper way.”

How to Tame Your Tongue

September 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

I regret the foolish things I’ve said more than the foolish things I’ve done. The longer I have lived and read my Bible, the more I realized how much damage thoughtless and malicious words can do to people. These words belong in the same category for a simple reason- they come from the same place. Thoughtless words may not have the same piercing intention as malicious speech, but they proceed from a heart that is just as sick.

Too often we believe the tongue cannot be tamed, so we give up trying to restrain it at all. This is not an option for Christians, as we face too many biblical admonitions telling us to control the words that come out of our mouths. James warns us that a small spark can start a large fire, and the tongue, though small, can leave behind a similar trail of destruction. Paul wrote to the congregation and reminded them that no unwholesome talk should come from the mouth of a believer, but only words that are conducive for giving edifying grace to the hearer. Jesus said the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart, thus making our words a window into our souls and the Proverbs contain countless warnings about the danger of an unbridled tongue.

Since the Bible commands us so often to exercise self-control in our speech, how do we actively work to restrain our words?

Know the Power of Your Words

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. Proverbs 18:21

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18

When I say our words have power, I don’t mean they have creative power in the same way that God’s words do. Rather what we see Solomon say in the Proverbs is that our words can tear down and destroy another person or they can build another person up. Notice the imagery Solomon used in 12:18. Words can act like sword thrusts, making sharp cuts into the soul of our friends and neighbors when we speak thoughtlessly. The offense may not have been intended, after all Solomon chooses the word “rash,” but thoughtless words can have the same effects as words spoken with malicious intent. When we speak without thinking, we can bring discouragement, frustration, and pain into the lives of people around us.

Thankfully Solomon offers an alternative to our words bringing death and pain. Our words can bring healing and life to other people. As Paul said in Ephesians 4, proper words spoken at the proper time and with the proper motive encourage, build up, challenge, and bring grace to the person who hears them. The point here is not that we are slapping people on the back and telling them what they want to hear, but rather than we speak in such a way that even our rebukes bring grace because they are fitly spoken for the purpose of helping the other person. Our words can hurt and destroy or help and heal, let us give thought so that they do the latter rather than the former.

Weigh Your Words

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life.” Proverbs 14:3

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13

In these two verses Solomon reminds us to think carefully before we speak. In 18:13, he shows the foolishness of speaking about a subject without hearing a matter out completely. How often in discussions with other people do we think about what we are going to say next rather than listening to what they have to say? I would argue that careful listening is one of the best ways to demonstrate wisdom in our current culture. So often we read something someone says and react without giving careful thought to their argument or respond to something someone says when we only halfway heard and understood what they were saying. Wisdom and genuine understanding call us to listen and then think about what we are going to say before we open our mouths.

Just because we have heard what another person said and thought about what we want to say, this doesn’t mean that we have to actually say the words we have formulated. In the passage in 14:3 Solomon tells us that the one who guards his mouth preserves his life. In the previous verse he said a man eats what is good from the fruit of his mouth. By this he means that the one who speaks wisely eats well because he reaps the rewards of wise speech. Since wise speech pays off but treacherous speech leads to violence, shouldn’t we vigilantly guard the words that come out of our mouths? We must think twice before we speak. The first time we carefully consider what we are going to say and then we ponder whether these words need to be said at all.

Don’t Mix Anger with Your Words

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1

“A fools lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating.” Proverbs 18:6

A quick temper can lead to a verbal bloodbath. When we get angry and start venting, we speak without any consideration to how what we are saying will affect the people around us. Our anger blinds us to anything but the thing we didn’t get, the situation that didn’t go our way, or the person who disappointed us. In our blowing off steam we do not spend one second thinking about how our words will wound those in our hearing. Instead we make ourselves feel better in a tirade that leaves destruction in its wake. Think about your last angry tirade. You probably don’t remember the things you said in the heat of the moment, but the people around you do.

One aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Through the work of God’s Spirit in our lives we can begin to gain control both of our tempers and the words we say when we get angry. The key to dealing with our anger and the resulting verbal barrages that go along with it is to stop and cool off before we speak or act rashly. This can be done by simply getting away by yourself and taking a few minutes to think and pray. When we’re angry we have to regain the perspective we lose in moments of anger and get our spirits cooled down so that we can interact with people in a helpful way. Words spoken in anger will only stir up tension, but speaking calmly from a position of self-control will diffuse tense and difficult situations.

Our words have the capacity to do great things. With our mouths we can share the Gospel, pray, disciple, read Scripture, and sing songs to the Lord. The same mouth can also be used to tear down another person and to berate someone made in the image of God. James said these things cannot come from the same mouth, so we repent and rest in the forgiveness that is found in Christ when we’ve sinned with our lips. Then, through the grace we are shown in the Gospel and the power of God’s Spirit we seek to gain control of our tongues so they might be used again for God’s glory alone.

Related Posts:
How to Stop Losing Your Temper

For Further Reading:
Uprooting Anger by Robert D. Jones

Resisting Gossip by Matthew Mitchell

Pastors can engage in much hyperbole about how difficult the ministry is. On its best days, the ministry is demanding, but so many great things are happening around you that the aggravations fade into the background. The bad days in ministry can be downright terrible. Whether it’s another person in your church walking through sickness and death, a leader leaving for another church, dealing with someone who is walking through a season of outright rebellion against God, or facing fierce opposition from within the church, the bad days bring trouble that can make you forget the good days ever existed.

I have always been encouraged by 2 Corinthians, in which Paul unfolds the heart and motivation behind a mature ministry. He writes to the Corinthian church, which he started in the midst of terrible opposition and discouragement. Now, a group of men have come into this church boasting in themselves and actively working to discredit Paul’s ministry among the congregation. They attack Paul’s appearance and lack of rhetorical impressiveness, even going so far as to use the physical sufferings he has faced in ministry as a way to discredit him.

In chapter 11, Paul catalogues the hardships he has faced in service to Christ, but he doesn’t do this to complain or engage in one-upmanship. Instead, he recites his sufferings for the sake of advancing the Gospel to boast in his own weakness because they show that it has been the power of God which animated his ministry all along.

He says something curious as he lays out his physical hardships. After speaking of beatings, lashings, nights spent in the cold, imprisonments, and days spent in hunger and thirst, he says, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” The authorities gave Paul the thirty-nine lashings five times, three times they beat him with rods, and once he was stoned; and in the same paragraph he mentions his anxiety for the churches. This tells us something about the pressures of ministry.

Every pastor walks through dark nights of the soul. The pain of betrayal, the sting of failure, and despair over people walking away from the faith is often more than the pastor is able to bear. Some days, being beaten with rods sounds preferable to the tense meeting, the painful confrontation, and the smile you force while one more person tells you they are going somewhere else.

You don’t get to shut down when you’re in these times of trouble though. While there are times when a pastor needs to get away, for the most part when times are tough we have to keep plodding for the glory of God. We continue to pray, preach, evangelize, disciple, and counsel even when we are in great need of help ourselves.

How do you do this though? How can a pastor continue to work faithfully while walking through overwhelming pain and trouble?

Ground Your Identity in the Gospel

Please don’t skip this point for the more “practical” stuff I say below. One thing I find to be hard about the ministry is how intertwined my spiritual life and my vocation are. While all work that contributes to the flourishing of mankind is a sacred calling, there is something about the ministry that makes you question your standing before the Lord when things are not going well. You can wrongly assume that if you were praying more, sharing the Gospel more, reading the Bible more, and being a more faithful Christian your church would be doing better than it is right now. Do not fall into this trap. Some of the godliest men I have ever known have faced some of the greatest uphill ministry battles I have ever seen.

Pastor, remember that you are a Christian first. Before God called you to be a pastor, he called you to himself. You are a child of God through faith alone in Jesus Christ. You have been promised an incredible hope, not because of your effectiveness in ministry, but through the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. By his life, death, resurrection, and continuing ministry at the right hand of God you are a justified saint with access to the throne of God. And this is all true, not by any great work you have done in the name of Jesus, but because of Jesus and what he has done. Come back to this great truth every single day.

Talk to Your Wife

Talk to pastors about how much you should tell your wife about what you are facing at church and you will get varying responses. Many men believe you should not weigh down your wife with the difficulties you are facing. I cannot presume to speak for every marriage because every man and wife are different, but I think I would shrivel up inside if I did not talk with Beth about the pressures I faced in ministry and the effect they were having on my soul.

The reasons I choose to be so open with her about the pressures of ministry are many, but they begin with the fact I adversely affect our relationship more by hiding my struggles than I do by being open about them. Men, our wives know us well and have great insight, so we cannot hide when we walk into the house with a two-ton weight on our shoulders. They know it, and shutting them out hurts our marriages more than it helps them.

Our wives follow Jesus too, and know us better than anyone else does, so why wouldn’t we want to invite them into our struggles? We need their wisdom, their help, their understanding, and their prayers. If you can tell your struggles are weighing your wife down as well, don’t assume not talking is the right response. Ask her the best way to talk through these things with her without overburdening her. Don’t assume you will make the right call on this without hearing her insight.

Trust Your Church’s Leaders

I am a firm believer that every church’s leadership meetings need to begin with prayer. By this I am not talking about a quick, obligatory prayer that we feel like we must offer because we are talking about “church business.” Instead, the church’s leaders need to have honest conversations about how they can pray for each other and begin the meeting with ever church leader prayer over one of the other church leaders. Doing this builds an incredible sense of brotherhood and reminds us that we are partners in a great cause, not belligerents in a battle.

If you are walking through a time of pain and difficulty, trust your church’s leaders enough to let them know. Explain the source of the trouble and what is happening to you as you walk through it. Listen to them as they counsel you and receive the encouragement God gives as they pray for you. Then, as they may want to come along and offer practical help, let them. The church is a body, and you rob yourself of the help that comes from this glorious truth when you try to forge ahead alone.

Pray

You knew I was going to go here, but I once had a friend ask me an incredibly important question about prayer and you need to hear what he said too. “Scott, have you prayed about this?” “Yeah, I’ve prayed about it.” “No, Scott, have you really stopped and prayed about this?” The answer was, “no.”

Too often, we throw up one quick prayer and say we have prayed about something. We have to stop and come before the Lord with our burdens. The promises we so often quote to people about prayer apply to us too. “Be anxious for nothing, 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.” Bring your burdens before the Lord, and receive the peace that he gives to his people.

Read Your Bible

Fellow pastor, I don’t mean to insult you by insinuating that you don’t read the Bible. I know you do, but like with prayer it must be asked, “Do you read the Bible?”. By this I mean that you read the Bible for the sake of your own soul and not just so you can teach it at the next appointed hour.

In the Bible you will find constant encouragement. As God speaks to us in the pages of Scripture, we hear the truths we need to persevere in the face of trials and difficulty. We remember the heart of why we do ministry and the proper means by through which we accomplish it. You’ll see how the people of God throughout history kept going forward when adversity came and how the Lord helped them overcome it. We need this constant nourishment. We need the truths of the Gospel and a reminder about the gracious character of God. We find these truths in the Bible alone.

Get Outside

When I was young I read a biography of Charles Spurgeon and found his bouts with depression to be a curious battle for so great a man. What I found particularly strange at the time was how much he felt likes walks on the beach and getting into nature restored his soul. He said things like this, I before I was a pastor myself I didn’t get it.

Let a man be naturally as blithe as a bird, he will hardly be able to bear up year after year against such a suicidal process; he will make his study a prison and his books the warders of a goal, while nature lies outside his window calling him to health and beckoning him to joy.

He who forgets the humming of the bees among the heather, the cooing of the wood-pigeons in the forest, the song of birds in the woods, the rippling of rills among the rushes, and the sighing of the wind among the pines, needs not wonder if his heart forgets to sing and his soul grows heavy.

A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours, ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive.

A mouthful of sea air, or a stiff walk in the wind’s face, would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.

Heaviest the heart is in a heavy air,
Ev’ry wind that rises blows away despair.

The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops—these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary.

For lack of opportunity, or inclination, these great remedies are neglected, and the student becomes a self-immolated victim.

Most of our work is inside work. We meet with people over meals or coffee. Then we head back to the study to sit in a chair while we read, study, pray, return emails, and meet with more people. Sitting down inside this much is not good for us, so we must look for every possible opportunity to get moving and get outside. Reading on my back porch and my 5AM walk have done immeasurable good for my soul. Spurgeon was right about nature, and only had to walk through some tough times to see how right he was.

Pastor, fight the good fight in the encouragement God gives. Get in the word, get on your knees, get outside, talk to your wife, and talk to your leaders. Remember who you are because of Jesus and Jesus alone. None of these things will make the ministry easy, but they will help to keep us going when things get really hard.

Take a Day off, Take Your Vacations, and Take a Retreat

Unfortunately pastors think we can abuse ourselves by working nonstop because, “I’m doing this for Jesus.” Pastors, we can never bring glory to God by pretending like we are him. God alone never slumbers or sleeps, and we demonstrate great foolishness when we think we can keep plowing without rest like God does. This idiocy starts in seminary, where we use how little we’ve slept as some kind of badge of honor, and if we are not careful it continues into our work in the ministry.
Pastor, take twenty-four consecutive hours off from work to rest, hang out with your family, do yard work, or whatever you want to do. Your body and your mind need a break. Your family needs your attention. To be honest, I’ve struggled with this lately and felt myself starting to wear down. We left town a couple of days ago to come visit family and I did nothing work related yesterday. After just that one day, I feel incredibly rested, rejuvenated, and ready to get back to work tomorrow.

One day a week will only cut it for so long. Take your vacation time and get away. Tell people to only call you if there is a real emergency. Get everything in place for who will cover your responsibilities and go somewhere. Take naps, enjoy nature, eat good food, and have fun with your family. You need it more than you know, so pull out your calendar right now and make the time to get away. (Notice I said “make the time.” We need to excise “find the time” from our vocabulary. You never magically “find” time for the things that matter. You have to “make” it.)

Also, work with your leaders to schedule time for a study and planning retreat. This is not a vacation, but a time or two a year for you to get away and work in a distraction-free environment. Work on sermons, plan outreach events, or develop training for your leaders, but make this time to get away and work without the ringing of the phone or the pinging of the email. (Many denominations have camp grounds or conference centers that would be great for this. Also look for cabins in state parks or find out if someone in your church has a place where you can go.)

I’m sure there’s a lot more that could be said about persevering through hard times in the ministry. Where do you find encouragement to keep going when ministry gets hard?

Related Posts:
48 Scattered Thoughts about Pastoral Ministry and Being a Pastor

Six Foolish Things I Used to Believe about the Ministry

For Further Reading:
The Pastor’s Justification by Jared Wilson

Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by R. Kent Hughes

Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp

A Few Good Reads

September 8, 2016 — Leave a comment
photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

Andy Stanley’s Statements about the Bible are not Cutting Edge—They’re Old Liberalism
Andy Stanley has caused no small amount of controversy in the last few weeks over his new sermon series. “Who Needs God” is designed to address those who grew up in church but later abandoned the faith. Stanley’s desire to bring folks who walked away from the church back into the fold is laudable, but the message he has been preaching goes astray. David Prince helpfully walks through what Stanley has been teaching and shows that his message isn’t that new. In fact we went through this 100 years ago. His response blends biblical exegesis with relevant historical theology, and we need to hear it. “Stanley argues that our faith is based on the resurrection and not the Bible. Severing the Scriptures from the resurrection is the very thing that Jesus said could not be done, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:31).”

Simple Ways to Spark a Lukewarm Devotional Life
We all know what it is like for our devotional life to suffer. There are times our Bible reading and prayer times feel as stale as old bread. Tim Challies offers some practical ideas for breathing life into your devotional times again. “Sometimes a plan is the problem and sometimes a plan is the solution. If your reading is infrequent and unstructured, why don’t you think about finding and following a plan? While we typically think of annual plans that begin in January, there are also great plans that run for weeks or months. A three- or four-month plan may be just the thing to get you through to the end of the year.”

Grieve Your Loss in Another’s Pain
In an excerpt from his new book, Being There: How to Love Those Who are Hurting, Dave Furman talks about the loss his wife Gloria has experienced in helping him through his physical disability. He shows why it is okay for those who care for another who is in pain to grieve the loss they experience through the care that they give. “In some ways, our grief as Christians is amplified because our hearts of stone have been made hearts of flesh, and now we hurt for other people differently. You hurt for your family and friends who are suffering. It’s imperative that you’re honest about the pain that you’re going through. Rather than just trying harder and keeping it to yourself, it’s important that you grieve your loss and come to terms with reality.”

The Haunted Hayride of Human Approval
I would rather be beaten with a stick than to disappoint people. This is not an overstatement, I struggle mightily with the desire to please people, and I know I am not the only one. The desire to make everyone happy is an endless treadmill that leaves you exhausted and empty on the inside. Marshall Segal helps us understand the danger of longing for human approval and the antidote for it that we find in the Gospel. “Perhaps the single most significant hindrance to Christian witness in the world today is our hunger for human approval. By nature, we think more about what people think of us than about what they think of Jesus. We crave acceptance and dread rejection — which inclines us toward whatever might improve others’ perception of us. And that will very rarely, if ever, lead us to call them to repent from their sin and believe the gospel.”

Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best it Can Be
Few families in our culture have been untouched by the pain of divorce. It seems that in our culture that is obsessed with personal happiness, we are willing to quickly jettison a marriage when things get hard, not realizing that there is a greater purpose in marriage or that enduring through the hard times makes a marriage more joyful in the end. In this new book, Christopher Ash reminds us of the beauty and sacredness of marriage by pointing us to the truth that we are married for reasons bigger than our own happiness. “By realigning our hopes, expectations, and goals for marriage according to the Bible, we will discover the deep joy and lasting fulfillment that comes from a God-centered marriage.”

We live in a world of pain, and we hate it. God created the world and declared that it was good, but from the minute sin entered the world we have experienced trouble, pain, and difficulty. Our struggles take many forms: physical pain, fear, doubt, betrayal, temptations, mistreatment, and a host of others.

We should never ask if we will walk through trouble in this life, but when we will and what form it will take. Since pain is certain, the question for us becomes: how will we respond to our pain? And how do we process what God is doing through us in our struggles?

People in 2016 are not the first to walk a path strewn with thorns, and we will not be the last if Jesus tarries longer. Thankfully we can look to Scripture and see the ways of God with our fellow sufferers to gain a greater understanding of how we can respond to our trials and how God is at work through them.

One passage I have been thinking through a lot lately is 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, a passage with which many are familiar because it contains Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul writes to the Corinthian church as this church has been calling his apostleship into question because men had come into it and lured the people toward themselves by attacking Paul’s ministry. He answers the charges about his lack of eloquence, unimpressive appearance, and multitude of trials by showing what these prove: that the power of God drives his ministry rather than the shrewdness and cunning of men.

In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, he talks about a man (himself), whom God carried up into the third heaven, and who saw things that were to great to come back and recount. Paul shares his experience by referring to himself in the third person here because he wants the emphasis to be on the greatness of the visions and not on him being the one who saw it. This great revelation led to God taking action in Paul’s life to ensure he would not be puffed up with pride because of what he saw.

Paul describes the burden God placed upon him as a “thorn in the flesh.” Pastors, scholars, and theologians have spilled barrels of ink discussing the thorn in the flesh. All manner of fanciful interpretations exist, but there are two possibilities that make the most sense. Since this thorn was “in the flesh,” it could have been a physical malady. Or, when you consider the historical situation leading to the writing of this letter, the possibility arises that Paul uses “thorn in the flesh” as a metaphor to describe the false teachers who are actively working to discredit him. It is this latter interpretation that makes the best sense in light of the rest of the book.

We don’t have to be going through the exact kind of trial Paul was experiencing to receive the grace and help extended in this passage. He says he prayed three times for God to take away the thorn, but God wouldn’t do it. God’s answer to Paul, and Paul’s response to what he hears, offer great hope to those who are walking through pain and suffering.

Depend on God’s Grace

“My grace is sufficient for you.” God tells Paul that his unmerited favor which he lavishes upon us richly in Jesus Christ will be all that he needs to endure. God’s grace saves us, but that’s not all. In his grace God gives us everything we need at the moment we need it to persevere through our trials and to walk through them without being crushed by them.

Grace is the antidote we need for the anxieties we face. In Philippians, Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, but in everything to make our requests known to God. We place our burdens on him and in exchange he gives us his peace. This is grace. When we realize that we do not have to carry our burdens on our own or spend our lives riddled with anxiety, and we go to the Lord in prayer, we get to start experiencing the blessing of his peace. We need to hear, “My grace is sufficient for you” every day, because every day we will be tempted to think our burdens will destroy us. We need the reminder that his grace is sufficient and that he welcomes us in so he can give us peace instead.

Growing up in the South, I often heard, “The Lord won’t put on you more than you can handle.” The Bible does not teach this. The best I can tell, this is an unhelpful paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10 where Paul teaches that God will not allow a temptation to come our way without providing a way of escape. God will, and often does, put more on us than we can handle. When life seems easy and we think we can handle it on our own, we get tempted to forget him and live as if our own resources will get us through life just fine. God is a master at getting our attention, and he often uses our trials and difficulties to remind us of how desperately we need him. And every time a trial comes our way to remind us that our self-sufficiency is an illusion, he says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Don’t Despise Your Weakness

“My power is made perfect in weakness.” These words seem like nonsense to us today because we don’t associate weakness with power, and in man’s reckoning they are polar opposites. We hate our weaknesses and spend considerable effort trying to hide them or work on them so they at least become our mediocrities. God is not interested in helping us maintain our appearances of having it all together and our facades of self-reliance. He wants us to depend on him so that his power shines through.

Paul, who had a spiritual experience beyond anything we could imagine, needed a thorn so he could be reminded that he was a dependent man. God sent the thorn to keep him humble, and to remind him that he was a man who needed a power he didn’t possess on his own. We need to get this memo as well, and the Lord in his providence sends thorns our way. Every time we feel their prick, it should drive us toward the only source of real strength.

Pride and despair come from the same place. When we try to live life in our own power and fame and succeed, we become puffed up with pride. On the other hand, if our efforts at self-justification fail, we get overwhelmed with disillusionment and despair. Since both of these maladies have the same source, they also have the same solution. We have no choice but to put our pretensions of strength and self-sufficiency to death. In their place, we must discover faith and humility. In the place where we come to an end ourselves and trust in God’s promises to us in Christ, this is the place where we find God’s sufficient grace and the help we so desperately crave in our time of need.

Related Posts:
When the ‘Black Dog’ of Depression Bites

What To Do When You Are in a Spiritual Dry Spell

For Further Reading:
Walking With God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

When the Darkness Will Not Lift by John Piper

A Few Good Reads

September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment
photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

I Overlooked the Rural Poor– Then Donald Trump Came Along
2016 will be remembered for many things, but the most interesting trend I have seen is a refocus on rural America. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy highlighted the struggles and chaos facing many in these forgotten regions of our nation. The church’s attention has been refocused on these areas as well, thanks to books like Donnie Griggs’ Small Town Jesus and Aaron Morrow’s Small Town Mission. Here, Tish Harrison Warren shares how the rise of Donald Trump helped her better understand rural America. “Many evangelical leaders have publicly grappled with Trump’s popularity. As America clusters in cities and suburbs—now home to a record 80 percent of the population—our church planting, poverty relief, and outreach ministry have shifted accordingly. For many, rural communities and small towns are faceless places we road-trip through on our way somewhere else.”

How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students
While many conservatives mock the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings in university settings, we underestimate the effect they can have on students. Writing in The Atlantic, Alan Levinovitz explains how religious students become more hesitant to talk about their faith in class discussions because of this environment. “Students should be free to argue their beliefs without fear of being labeled intolerant or disrespectful, whether they think certain sexual orientations are forbidden by God, life occurs at the moment of conception, or Islam is the exclusive path to salvation; and conversely, the same freedom should apply to those who believe God doesn’t care about who we have sex with, abortion is a fundamental right, or Islam is based on nothing more than superstitious nonsense. As it stands, that freedom does not exist in most academic settings, except when students’ opinions line up with what can be broadly understood as progressive political values.”

Why Marriage is Better Than Cohabitation
As the number of couples cohabitating instead of marrying rises, we need to think about the consequences of this shift. Tim Challies, drawing on Christopher Ash’s book Married for God, argues that the benefits of marriage vastly outweigh those of cohabitation. “Though Christians continue to affirm the uniqueness, the goodness, and the necessity of marriage, our society continues to legitimize cohabitation as either a common precursor to marriage or a complete alternative. This slide is troubling, for marriage offers a number of important benefits that are absent from cohabitation—benefits that extend to couples, to their children, to their families, and to society as a whole.”

7 Ways to Let God’s Word Shape Your Corporate Worship
I wrote this for Radical, and in it I explain ways the Bible should saturate our corporate worship gatherings. “The world force-feeds lies and falsehoods to believers all week long. Our enemy, who is the father of these lies, also disguises these pseudo-truths as wisdom that leads us down the path to life and joy. The only antidote to believing lies and the false promises they promote is to hear, know, and believe the truth. How are the believers in our churches going to know the truth of God’s Word if we are not saturating them with it every time we gather? We need more Bible in our worship gatherings and it is imperative that we labor to make sure every element of our worship bleeds Bible.”

Small Towns Need Jesus Too
This is my review of Donnie Griggs’ Small Town Jesus, which is posted at The Gospel Coalition. With the emphasis on church planting on cities, I thought Donnie’s book was a great reminder to strategically engage rural areas with the Gospel. “People in small towns tend to reject having big city models of ministry imposed on them. This becomes even more evident when the pastor disengages from the people around him and seeks to do ministry in a purely attractional manner. Small towns are still driven by relationships, and the pastor who understands this has the potential for building a ministry that will touch many with the gospel and grow them into mature disciples.”

 

photo credit: S+J via photopin (license)

photo credit: S+J via photopin (license)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Ephesians 4:29-5:2

When we think about the sins that destroy a marriage, our minds often turn to adultery or abuse. More often though, marriages decay from the inside rather than imploding in a moment. Years of thoughtlessness, unkindness, and unforgiveness chip away at the joy and trust between a man and his wife.

Many times we don’t treat our spouses with the basic courtesy that we would show to someone we had just met. The civility and kindness that we show in the neighborhood or with our friends disappears the moment we step inside our homes. Many times we treat our spouses with a contempt we would not dare think of demonstrating outside of our homes.

Most couples don’t need a marriage conference, a weekend getaway, or a miracle to rekindle the joy in their marriage. Instead they need to apply one of the most simple commands Jesus ever gave, “love your neighbor as yourself.” What if we started treating our spouses as our closest neighbor and applied the New Testament’s “one another passages to our marriages?

In premarital counseling with couples I spend one session on treating each other with basic courtesy and walk through Ephesians 4:29-5:2. In this passage we see five ways spouses can strengthen their marriages by treating each other as their closest neighbor.

Build Up Your Spouse

When I was growing up Paul’s command to let no corrupting talk come from our mouths was the goto verse for telling Christians not to curse. While this may be a third of fourth level application of this passage, forms of talks exist that do much more damage than dirty words. When spouses belittle, insult, and browbeat each other, they corrupt and corrode the bonds and trust between them. Insults, putdowns, and constant badgering have no place in any relationship, but especially in marriage.

Instead of tearing down, our words must build up and give grace to the person who hears it. This does not mean we only speak words of affirmation like Stuart Smalley. This command beckons us to seek to bring grace and spur our spouses on to spiritual growth even when we must correct them for something they have done wrong. You can point out poor or behavior without being insulting, and it has everything to do with the intent of your words. Words that build up correct with the aim of helping instead of simply venting over hurt feelings.

Be Calm With Your Spouse

Few things will wreck your marriage like a hot temper. Solomon addresses this with his son often in Proverbs because he knows the damage that can be left in the wake of angry outbursts. Paul echoes Solomon’s concerns when he tells the Ephesian believers to put anger, wrath, and malice away from them. Nothing constructive will happen in a discussion between spouses when one is furious.
The biggest issue with anger is that it blinds us to what we are saying at the time. When we lose our tempers, we speak harshly and thoughtlessly, causing horrific damage to the people around us. While this is happening we are completely blind to it, because all we can think about is whatever it is that set us off at the moment. This is why the Bible calls us to be slow to anger and to have a cool temper. We must learn self-control so we don’t destroy ourselves and our marriages.

Show Kindness to Your Spouse

We teach our small children to be kind to others, and then we somehow forget to follow this command ourselves. How often are our relationships marked by a lack of simple civility and thoughtfulness? Our words can be gruff and uncaring. The going out of our way to do good things for each other that characterized our dating relationships seem to fly out the window.

I’m convinced that kindness and thoughtfulness would transform our marriages. Think of the tangible difference it would make in your marital relationship to speak kindly to each other and to look for opportunities to help each other. What would your marriage look like if you both simply sought to put each other before yourself? Taking away harshness and replacing it with kindness would thoroughly change the atmosphere and feel of your marriage. As D.A. Carson said at a conference a few years ago, “The great aphrodisiac in marriage is kindness.”

Forgive Your Spouse

At it’s best, marriage is the union of two redeemed sinners. While Christian spouses will both be experiencing conformity to the image of Christ, there will still be remaining sin in each of their lives and they will sin against each other. What one spouse does when the other sins against them will be what defines the tenor of your marriage going forward. If you harbor grievances and anger toward your spouse for what they have done to you, do not be surprised when it begins to show in the way you interact with each other.

When one spouse hurts the other, the offender must apologize and ask for forgiveness. This is the simple act of taking responsibility for your sin and the damage it caused. Make no excuses, but instead offer an unconditional apology and ask your spouse to forgive you. Then, the offended spouse has a serious choice to make. To forgive is not to simply say, “It’s okay.” What happened was not “okay” and you don’t need to gloss over it with the wave of a hand. You need to forgive. This means you no longer hold this sin against them and will not bring it up again. When you forgive another person, you are saying you will not dwell on it, will not bring it back up to your spouse, and will not talk about it with other people. (This formulation is not original with me, and though I’m not sure of the exact page on which I read it, I believe it comes from Jay Adams’ A Theology of Christian Counseling.) To forgive is to let go of your need for mental or actual revenge and trust that this sin has been fully dealt with in the death of Jesus.

Walk in Love Toward One Another

Finally Paul teaches us to walk in love towards each other. The call here is simple, yet it demands a death to self that does not come easily for us. To walk in love is for a person to put his spouse before himself and to look out for her before he looks out for himself. It is a demand to sacrifice and to do good to him even if it costs her. Love is not a mere feeling, but a settled commitment to the good of your spouse from a heart that cares deeply for him or her.

We walk in love because Christ loved us, and he gave himself up for us. If you think about everything we have walked through, especially kindness, love,and forgiveness, it models the love that God has shown towards us in the Gospel. For the Christian spouse, you must simply look at how God has treated you in the Gospel and model that behavior towards your spouse. You don’t need to drum up forgiveness or love from within yourself; you already know what it means to be loved and forgiven in the deepest way possible. When we apply the Gospel and its implications to our marriages, the possibilities for growth are endless; and what it produces will be beautiful.

Related Posts:
The Marks of a Healthy Marriage

Why the Bible Does Not Have a Lot of ‘Marriage Advice’

For Further Reading:
Sacred Marriage by Gary Chapman

What Did You Expect? by Paul Tripp

The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy and Kathy Keller

A Few Good Reads

August 29, 2016 — Leave a comment
photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

photo credit: solidether via photopin cc

30 Life Skills Every Functioning Adult Should Master
Unfortunately, I disregarded the advice of my parents when I was growing up and refused to listen to most of what they tried to teach me. My adult years have been marked by a struggle to catch up with the things I should have learned in the early 1990’s, so I appreciated this list of things an adult should be able to do.  “We can’t promise we’ve outlined every skill you might need, but if you’ve mastered these, you’re off to a good start.”

12 Questions to Ask Before You Post Something Online
Many of us know the pain of posting something rash or foolish online. Whether we said something harsh about another person or voiced a strong opinion without all the facts, every one of us needs a refresher in thinking about what we say online. Mark Dever gives us some helpful questions to ask. “Is what you’re about to communicate going to help or hinder those you’re evangelizing? Is it likely to diminish the significance (to them) of your commitment to the gospel, or enhance it?”

You Could’ve Been Something
I loved this post from Andrea Burke on our desire to find our identity in what we do rather than in Christ. “This same haunting voice is the one that visits me still. When I’m standing in the kitchen, scrubbing day-old chicken grease off of a frying pan and my daughter insists I’m failing her in one way or another, that little voice whispers ‘You could’ve been something. Now you’re just a mom.’”

20 Quick Tips to Improve Your Productivity
Few people get as much done as Tim Challies. Here he shares 20 practical tips that will help you be more productive. (For more, check out his book Do More Better.) “Be careful of tasks that are dauntingly huge. “Write: A Great Novel” is so giant a task you may never begin, and even if you do, you will be unable to track your progress. Break giant tasks into a series of smaller tasks and work through them progressively.”

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill
Few people can write history as compellingly as Candice Millard. In the last year I read her books The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, so I was excited to see her new book on Winston Churchill. For those who enjoy reading history, this promises to be a gripping narrative. “Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner.  Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape–but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.”

photo credit: Kaepernick via photopin (license)

photo credit: Kaepernick via photopin (license)

Most days I check the Facebook trending topics because I’m interested to see what people are talking about. Saturday morning I looked and saw the name of San Fransisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick. I assumed he had been injured in a preseason game, but I was wrong. The story told how he refused to stand for the National Anthem and said he did so as a protest for the injustice black people face in America.

The reactions to Kaepernick’s protest were swift, hostile, and predictable. “How can a millionaire say he’s being oppressed?” “This is Colin Kaepernick’s oppressed upbringing” read the headline over a photo of a large house. Then the predictable counter attack came next. “Colin Kaepernick is right and we need to listen to him.” “The Star-Spangled Banner celebrates the death of slaves.”

By the middle of the week our perpetual outrage machine will have moved on to something else and we will all forget why we were so mad about Colin Kaepernick. Therefore, this post is not about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem. Instead, it is about what this story and a thousand others we could bring up say about us.

We have become a people who are addicted to outrage. Every day, we pick up our phones and are immediately bombarded with a thousand headlines yelling, “here’s something for you to be angry about!” Like pigs going back into the slop, every day we fall for the controversy de jour and works ourselves into a tizzy over something said or done by someone we don’t even know.

This is not a liberal or conservative problem because every day we see outrage from both sides. How many more posts can we write about how awful Donald Trump is? How many more links are we going to generate about Hillary Clinton’s scandals?

I know the answer to my last two questions. People will keep writing articles to incite our anger as long as we keep clicking and sharing.

For followers of Jesus, the glory of God and our personal joy are at stake in how we respond to controversial news stories. Therefore, we must give thought to how we respond and speak when these issues arise. We would do well to listen to the wisdom from the book of Proverbs and apply to our thoughts, speech, and attitudes about controversy.

Fiery Anger Never Produces a Good Result

“A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated.” Proverbs 14:17

“Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Proverbs 14:29

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1

“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” Proverbs 15:18

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling.” Proverbs 20:3

In speaking to his son, Solomon shows him the foolishness of a hot temper. A person with a hot temper will act foolishly and speak foolishly. Anger blinds our reasoning and keeps us from calmly thinking about the best way to respond to a difficult situation. This leads to our doing and saying things we will ultimately regret. In addition, no one will grow in respect for us or want to hear what we have to say when we lose our tempers.

We also must evaluate whether what we are getting angry about should actually be arousing our anger in the first place. Checking the trending topics on social media shows that we consistently get angry over the opinions of people that we never have to encounter in real life. If a famous singer, athlete, or movie star states a controversial opinion, what effect does that have on you? Does their opinion impede your ability to live your life or provide for your family. The answer is usually “no,” yet we work ourselves into a state of frustrated anger because of something someone said that we don’t even know. There are things that should make us righteously angry, but there are fewer of them than you think.

Angry Words Never Produce Changed Hearts

“With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.” Proverbs 11:9

“Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.” Proverbs 11:12

“A man who is kind benefits himself, but a cruel man hurts himself.” Proverbs 11:17

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Proverbs 13:3

“By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.” Proverbs 14:3

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” Proverbs 18:2

“A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.” Proverbs 18:6-7

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21

Our words have tremendous power to do good or to cause harm. When we speak in anger and frustration, we normally cause the latter. Notice everything Solomon says here about speaking with rashness and cruelty. When we speak angry and hurtful words we destroy our neighbor and ourselves. When we speak quickly and forcefully without understanding an issue, we demonstrate great foolishness and folly. Our angry words gain no friends and no hearing for the Gospel, instead they make enemies as the words that come from our mouths provoke anger and hatred in response.

Followers of Jesus, please hear me on this point, our great task is to spread the Gospel of Christ so that men and women might believe and then grow into full maturity in the faith. Because we have this great aim, we want to be heard by our friends, neighbors, and culture. They will not listen to what we have to say about the grace of God if our usual talk is filled with anger and vicious character assaults on other people. Jesus said “out of the heart the mouth speaks,” and a heart that continues to produce harsh and angry words will have a difficult time conveying the wonderful truths of the Gospel.

A Cool Spirit and Kind Words Open Doors

“With his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered.” Proverbs 11:9

“Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Proverbs 16:24

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” Proverbs 17:27

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” Proverbs 21:23

Since our great ambition is to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in both word and deed, what will be the kind of speech that will open doors for speaking with people with whom we disagree? Solomon commends gracious and kind words to us in his instructions to his son. Words which flow from a heart that understands grace have the capacity to give life to the people with whom we are talking. Kindness disarms objections and builds bridges so that people are willing to listen to what we say. Graciousness, humility, and kindness pave the way for Gospel witness, while harshness and anger will create craters we can never cross.

Gospel witness and perpetual outrage cannot coexist, so we must find a way to dive out of this vicious cycle of fear and loathing. It begins with giving thought to the amount of media we consume each day and what this media is trying to produce in us. Most websites, radio talk shows, and TV talking heads don’t care if you agree with them or not, they just want you angry enough to keep reading, listening, and watching. If you know that this is the goal, then you can start thinking about the headlines you read and hear with greater care.

We also must give great consideration to how we respond to what we hear about the world around us. In Proverbs Solomon urges us to ponder the path of our feet and to give great thought to how we respond to the foolishness we encounter. Instead of flying off the handle, ask if this is something worth getting angry about. Ask if it is worth you sharing it and weighing in. Ask if it will generate conversations that can lead to the Gospel or if it will lead to alienating people over something that really doesn’t matter.

In a few days Colin Kaepernick will disappear from the trending topics and another controversy will take his place. In the meantime, may God grant us the grace to know when we should speak, and when we should stay silent.

Related Posts:
Should I Correct a Foolish Person or Stay Silent

For Further Reading:
A Proverbs Driven Life by Anthony Selvaggio