Sitting on the Stool

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“There are two spiritual activities which are to be unceasingly part of a believer’s life, two great pillars that hold up the believer in the matter of daily living.  One is the study of the Word of God.  Two, prayer.”

— John MacArthur

I’m not one to usually criticize John MacArthur, who some would argue is the best exegetical preacher alive today, but when I was listening to his sermon “The Paternity of Prayer” on my way to work the other day, the above quote popped out at me.

Immediately, I thought: Wait a minute. What about service?

I do not disagree that study and prayer are two essential aspects of the Christian life, but if we forget or minimize the necessity of service, we fail to put legs to what our study and praying have revealed. This is why I have often thought of Christianity like a three-legged stool that must continually be in balance, where one leg is study, one is prayer, and one is service.

You cannot neglect one or two of these legs without toppling over. For instance, a person that is great at study but does not pray, he only has head knowledge and can get filled up with the arrogance of much learning. Or if he has a passion for prayer so as to see great miracles occur but does not study or serve, he will not produce anything meaningful. This is why Solomon warns us:

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:12-14)

And it is why Paul says:

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

In both situations, Solomon and Paul emphasize that the most important thing is not knowledge or faith by itself, but it is adding both of these things to what you do. As Paul later wrote in Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (NIV)

Service, then, is a necessary leg of the Christian existence. If it was not, James would not have argued that it is our deeds that prove our faith (Ja. 2:17-18) Jesus would not have said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn. 13:35) And the disciples in Acts would not have delegated the work of distributing food to the widows to seven godly men so that The 12 would not neglect “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:1-4)

I understand that it is safer to remain in one’s study, surrounded by books and excavating truths never before understood. I respect that it feels more comfortable, and at times it feels more spiritual, to pray for a person or a situation, rather than get involved. But God calls us out of our safe places and asks us to leave our comfort zones. This is why Jesus tells us “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Because we are to be a going people. We are to be an engaging people. We are revolutionaries who are on a mission to change the culture of our homes, communities, and nations. We are a people who are to serve “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:11)

We are not to be cowardly or sluggish or foolish. Those are mistakes the anxious. We are not to be arrogant, doubting, or disbelieving. Those are the mistakes of the inactive. We are to be doing, going, and serving. Giving our bodies up as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), which is “your spiritual worship” (or, “your rational service“).

Neglect not this third leg of Christianity. It is where you get to see the truth you’ve studied in action, and where you witness your prayers become weapons of warfare. It is where you are allowed to join the holy, sovereign, creating God in the redemptive work He is doing. To reject such an honor is disrespectful. To refuse such a privilege is unthinkable. No man is remembered who does not add service to his study and prayer.

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Quick Thoughts: Wisdom and Understanding

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Then he saw it and declared it;
    he established it, and searched it out. And he said to man,

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
    and to turn away from evil is understanding.’” (Job 28:27-28)

God saw and declared wisdom. He established it and searched it out. He knows its depths. No part is a mystery to Him. But to help Man in his limitations understand, God reduces it totwo instructions: 1) the fear of the LORD and 2) turn away from evil.

But if the truth is that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), how then do we turn from evil? The answer is provided in Matthew 7:11, which says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

In this verse we learn:

  1. We are all evil.
  2. Evil people can do good things, even  in the midst of their depravity. In other words, depravity may exclude a person from saving himself but it does not exclude one from doing good acts. The conscience is still intact and able to choose between right and wrong. We are like the schizophrenic whose condition does not preclude him from hearing real (or right) voices, but it also doesn’t dampen the unreal (or wrong) voices that influence their decisions.  Evil can be compelling, but it can also be turned away from.
  3. Turning away from evil is a discipline one must continually practice in order to understand or have discernment. Just as repeatedly turning towards evil breeds more evil and corruption of mind (Romans 1) so turning away from evil removes the scales and increases the ability to do more good deeds (1 Cor. 9:25-27)
  4. Turning from evil provides discernment but it does not remove the stain evil has left on us. The more we turn from evil, the more we realize how hopeless our condition is without God. Self-improvement through continual washing never wholly absolves us of the need to bathe again. We can never be whole or perfect without God.
  5. That is why the fear of the LORD is wisdom. We must fear God, both in trepidation and respect, to approach Him in boldness and to ask Him to do what we cannot accomplish, i.e. to cleanse our soul and lead us into the deepest depths of wisdom that only the pure can travel.

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Burn the Ships

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In 1518, Cortez sailed from Spain with 11 ships carrying 500 soldiers and 100 sailors. The goal was to conquer the Aztecs of Mexico. But when they landed on the Mexican coast in 1519, the indigenous people far outnumbered Cortez and his crew. Fear set in for many and some of the men developed a secret plot to retreat to Cuba. It was safer there and they could wait for reinforcements.

But when Cortez learned of this treachery, he refused to listen to the plan of retreat. Instead, he did the one thing that no one would have expected him to do. He ordered his men to burn the ships. “The only way we will leave this land,” he told his men, “is in death!”

Incredibly, the men rallied behind their commander and conquered the Aztecs’ empire, which had been around for over 600 years.

How did they do it?

Simple. They burned all of their avenues of retreat, leaving themselves only one direction in which to move — forward.

Think about that for a moment.

When you take the time to look at your “have to” list or when you sit down to begin tackling your impossible dreams, what avenues of retreat do you permit yourself? Social media? Alcohol? Hanging out with friends? Netflix? Menial chores? Self-beratement?

OR…Maybe you are more clever than that.

Maybe, as you attempt to move your desire into an actionable plan, you provide yourself with the following avenues of retreat:

  1. Disguise: Don’t tell the truth
  2. Avoid the truth: Tap dance
  3. Answer questions with questions
  4. Keep people off track
  5. Keep the B.S. going
  6. Let someone else do all the work
  7. Don’t take responsibility
  8. Blame someone or something else
  9. Keep the attention off of yourself
  10. Keep everyone else in an uproar!
  11. Scatter birdseed, i.e. lead them on a wild goose chase!
  12. Consider yourself special, get into cliques or sub-groups
  13. Focus on a member of the opposite sex instead of what you should be doing
  14. Don’t do anything extra. Do ONLY what you HAVE to do.
  15. Tell others what they want to hear and look sincere.
  16. Change the subject when your dreams/goals are brought up.
  17. Trust no one! Never let down your guard.
  18. Focus on rescuing someone else from their mistakes, failures, etc.
  19. Convince yourself that you don’t need anyone’s help.
  20. Quit…and take someone with you, if you can manage it. (Misery loves company)
  21. Focus on what’s happening in the world
  22. Isolate yourself. Avoid sharing with others
  23. Gripe and complain about everything
  24. Don’t help others, let them fend for themselves.
  25. Build resentments and hang onto them for a long time.
  26. Stay in your head. Don’t let yourself get in touch with your feelings.
  27. Get angry. It throws others off balance.

Or maybe you use one of the following words to weasel out of actually doing anything at all:

  • I don’t know
  • I don’t remember
  • I’ll try
  • You’re picking on me
  • I don’t see how
  • Anyway…
  • Huh?
  • Sorta
  • But
  • If I can
  • I can’t
  • As I can
  • It’s too hard
  • I guess so
  • More or less
  • Maybe
  • Sometimes.¹

Now, take a moment. Go back over the list and ask yourself which of these avenues of retreat sound like you? What practical steps would it take for you to burn these ships?

Don’t just list these ideas in your head.

Write it down.

Make it real.

What would happen if you destroyed ALL of the avenues of retreat in your life so that only ONE path was open to you: the path forward?

What dreams could you begin to accomplish? What goals would you have stripped of the word “impossible?” What excuses would no longer be available? What dreams would you have forced out of your head to become a reality in the world around you? What impact would you make not only in your life but also on those who came in contact with your realized ambitions? What would you be able to do if you honestly assessed your life and decided, right now, to lay the torch to the deck and burned the ships?

 

 (¹Taken from a handout entitled “How to Slide Through Treatment and Stay Sick.” Author Unknown)

Why I Decided to Stop Reading the Bible Every Year

fasting1When I was a teenager, I began the practice of daily Bible reading. My pattern was to read a chapter in the morning and a chapter in the evening in order to bookend my day with the thoughts of God.  Using this method allowed me to finish the Word approximately every two years. But this changed four years ago after I downloaded a Bible app to my phone. Excited with all of the functionality and options for studying that it allowed me to do, I chose to begin a new Bible reading plan, one that would allow me to read through the entire text in a single year. This meant that I would be reading four or five chapters a day from the Bible.

Admittedly, ego drove this decision more than devotion or fervency for God. I wanted to be able to say, at least to myself, that I had read through the Bible “x” number of times in my life. Something about the number made me feel good about my walk with God. In hindsight, though, this gory self-righteousness led me down a path that was neither spiritual nor helpful for my Christian life. Thus, I have decided it is time to stop reading the Bible every year. Below are my top 10 reasons why:

 

  1. The Bible is to be absorbed, not raced through like a NASCAR race
  2. The Bible is made for man and is best understood in small doses in order to understand its application to life, but reading through it in a year only provides a large 30,000 foot overview.
  3. The Bible is designed to reveal God but, as with all things, speed blurs perception.
  4. If I only have 20-30 minutes each morning to read my Bible, I will get more out of it by examining how this passage connects to others or meditating on a manageable bite size piece, rather than reading 4 chapters and having no time for meditation or study.
  5. The Bible is not only to be meditated upon but also applied. I cannot apply a lesson I have not taken the time to learn. Most likely the only lessons that I am “hearing” when I read through the Bible in a year are the ones I remember the Lord teaching me from the past, not new ones that challenge me.
  6. Reading it through in a year can be more about successfully accomplishing a goal than becoming closer to or more like the LORD.  If my life is to be lived in such a way so that others may see the perfections of God publicly displayed through me, then I must take the time to understand how to exalt the LORD with all of who I am. To learn how, as John the Baptist said, I must become less so that He becomes more.
  7. As Chaucer once said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” This year I began to realize that I was reading the Bible much like a movie I have seen a hundred times, anticipating the memorable or favorite scenes, but not enjoying it. Such an exercise feels like a duty, not a relationship with the text or the Creator who wrote it.
  8. It taps into my sinful nature much more easily than I anticipated: perfectionism masquerading as holiness, self-righteousness obscuring shame, self-blame and feelings of failure when I miss days that I should have read, as well as pride in doing the safe and private task of reading instead of the dangerous task of actively serving others with the power that God provides.
  9. The Bible is to be a starting point, not an ending point, for Christian living. It points us towards God and holy living. Making our calling and election sure is more than an intellectual agreement with a specific set of teachings. It is also a daily behavior that confirms that we are Christ’s and that He is ours. That the two have become one. The choice to love God is not one we make only at a singular point in time. Rather, it is one that we continue to make throughout our lives, sometimes even several times a day, so that we may know the joy of continually turning towards each other, even when our beloved makes no sense or hurts us. In other words, it is embracing the vulnerability of love in order to gain the intimacy of relationship.
  10. Aside from the incarnation, the Bible is God’s most vulnerable expression of who He is. It is the place where He bares His heart, communicates His desires, shares the joys and sorrows of His past, explains His frustrations, and voices His profound yearning for a deeper relationship. But if I am trying to get through four or five chapters before I start my day, I will often hear His mouth, but miss the message of His heart.

 

What am I going to do instead? I think I will go backward in order to move forwards. Get out my pen, annotate the text, and really try to see how all the parts connect to each other. A chapter or two each day. As they say in the South, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Two Question Christianity

Since childhood the idea of competing against myself has always propelled me farther than the act of competing against others. Can I read a thicker book this time than I did last time? Can I write a longer, or better, story than I did last time? Can I climb higher in the tree? Can I run farther or faster during this track meet? Each personal success pushed me to attempt the next level.

Therefore, when I began reading the Bible at age 14 Continue reading

How to Argue Without Getting Stupid

If you are in any type of relationship and you have found yourself getting into stupid arguments over stupid things, then you have probably sought out advice in some form (books, friends, magazine articles, pastors, counselors, etc) to help you with this issue. The problem with most advice, though, is that it primarily focuses on what NOT to do. Those suggestions are helpful, I’m sure, but I have found that telling people what not to do is usually counterproductive. Continue reading