I Choose Gratitude

If I’m being honest some days it’s difficult to feel grateful. If you’re reading this, and being honest then you’re probably in the same boat as me.

Intellectually we all know that we all have a lot to be grateful for. We hear all the time about the power of gratitude and how it contributes to a happy, healthy and purposeful life. There have been multitudes of self-help “life-hack” books written on the power of gratitude and a “positive” mindset. But realistically, if you’re like me, you probably spend far more time complaining about what you don’t have, and what’s not right, than you do about what you do have and what’s going well.

Sometimes I just can’t bring myself to have a positive outlook and look at the ways that I am blessed, and at others I’m so filled with gratitude, I can’t help but feel joy and optimism. So… what gives?

What I have found in my life to be true is that these two very different emotions are usually based on circumstances. But, what if we determined in our head and heart that they didn’t have to be? What if we intentionally choose to be grateful in spite of our current circumstance or situation?

Researchers describe gratitude as a personality strength. It is described as the ability to be aware of the good things that happen and not take them for granted. It’s also been shown that individuals who exhibit and express the most gratitude are for the most part happier, healthier and more energetic in day-to-day life. Studies have shown that grateful people report fewer ailments and symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and inactivity. Also, the more a person is inclined to feel grateful, the less likely they are to feel lonely, stressed, anxious, and depressed.

All this sounds great! But… how do we move into being a person of perpetual gratefulness

Thankfully, bring grateful doesn’t mean convincing yourself of some false reality where everything’s fine and dandy. Living your life with gratitude means choosing to focus your time and attention on what you appreciate. The goal is not to block out difficulties, but to approach those difficulties from a different perspective and with a different mindset. 1 Thessalonians 5:16- 18 says,

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Easier said than done though right? Have you noticed that most things in life worth doing are not done easily and with the best circumstances? Teddy Roosevelt once said,

Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

It’s not easy to get a college degree. It’s not easy to maintain a healthy marriage. It’s not easy to be a pastor, lawyer, law enforcement officer, teacher, etc. It’s not easy to keep that job. It’s not easy to live up to the expectations of a family member, friend, title, or role. It’s not always easy to be grateful.

However, the Bible encourages us to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. In Colossians 3:15 Paul writes,

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

Paul set a fine example of gratitude himself under some of the most miserable and unfavorable circumstances imaginable. You see, gratitude is a choice we make, as are all the virtues discussed in Scripture. Love is an act of the will. Joy is an act of the will. Peace is an act of the will. Patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all choices we make in spite of the world around us and the feelings raging inside us at any given moment.

Circumstances bear weight in the temporal, our gratitude and demeanor towards God and His blessings for us bear a weight in Eternity.

Joshua 24:15 says,

Choose you this day whom you will serve. . . . But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord

I choose to believe, even when doubts flood my soul. I choose to give thanks, even when my heart doesn’t feel grateful. I choose to worship, even when my voice doesn’t want to sing. I choose to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, even when I would prefer to serve myself.

How about today, we choose to live out 1 Thessalonians 5:18,

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 106:1 says,

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.

I see no other option but to push my circumstances to the side and to choose to be grateful. Gratitude unlocks the door to a heart of contentment, for contentment is never found in abundance alone. Contentment flows from the abundance of Jesus Christ. In Philippians 4:11the Apostle Paul wrote,

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.

What are you grateful for today?

An Unsustainable Pace

Today I was having a conversation with a college student in a grassy area outside the community college here in town. While we were conversing several children ran around playing tag and rolling in the grass. At first, it became annoying and distracting from the conversation that was taking place… but then a question began to nag in my mind. That question was: How are you doing with your playtime?

I couldn’t shake it? The question seemed silly! I’m an adult… I don’t “play.” But as I have thought about it all day the idea has started to unfold and I think there is an underlying importance within that simple question.

How are you doing with your playtime?

Not sure you should even have a playtime? Are you too grown up and mature for downtime, rest, and even… play? Well, maybe this is part of what you’re missing in life, and you like me are beginning to pay the price for the mindset of false productivity.

Research conducted by Dr. Stuart Brown, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and founder of the National Institute for Play, reveals that a lack of downtime leads to lower work productivity, social isolation, and even depression. In “Dare to Lead” Brown says,

The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression

Through extensive studies, Dr. Brown and his institute have discovered that play increases empathy, creativity and innovation. It actually impacts our brain waves by creating a “cool down” from the frenetic pace of synapses permitting neurons to pass electrical or chemical signals to other neurons.

So in layman’s terms… if you want to be more productive at work, become intentional about cultivating play and sleep!

Dr. Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, puts it this way,

We have to let go of exhaustion, busyness, and productivity as status symbols and measures of self-worth. We are impressing no one.

Practically speaking, this means many of us need to make some lifestyle and mindset changes. We need to establish boundaries by shutting off email and social media at a set time in order to focus on our families and our spiritual and emotional health. We need to stop celebrating people who work eighty-hours per week and stop bragging about how we’re tethered to our work responsibilities, as though that somehow makes us important.

Are you living at an unsustainable pace? If so… you are opening yourself up to some dangerous side effects of depression, anxiety, and burnout. And you are continuing to feed a culture of workaholic competitiveness in which no one wins.

Jesus’ solution was simple. In Mark 6:31 He said,

Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Go with Jesus. Find a quiet place. Get some rest for your own sake!

Sometimes I am woke up at night with the worries and schedule of tomorrow. Sometimes I can’t “shut off my brain” as I try to think through a problem at work or in my life… sometimes they are even problems I have created in my mind or things I have no control over! Sometimes I find the joy leaking out and depression and anxiety rushing in to take its place. When these things happen, I realize that my work place and life pace has overtaken my faith, and I need to go away with Jesus, find a quiet place, and get some rest. And sometimes that even includes… play.

You May be Your Own Biggest Obstacle

Do you have dreams? Goals? Aspirations for your life?

I sure hope so! A life without dreams would have a rather bleak outlook. Or dreams, goals, and aspirations may look a little different, or more realistic, now than they did when we children. But… we have dreams nonetheless.

So… let me ask you. How do you turn a dream into reality? One step at a time.

My wife, Alaina, had a dream to be a Doctor and to help people through medicine. For the past few years she has been walking through that journey and she can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and the accomplishment of her dream. It hasn’t been easy! It hasn’t been quick! There have been times where she has been overwhelmed… but her dream has been her determination and she has never stopped pursuing it. One step at a time.

Just like my wife, we all have dreams, vision, aspirations, goals, and desires… but for some of us the real issue comes down to our determination.

No dream, vision, aspiration, goal, or desire comes to fruition without taking the first step.

God promised the Israelites they would inherit the land of Canaan. The promise was first made to Abraham. Genesis 15:18-21 says,

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

What an awesome promise! But… the problem was, as you can notice from the Scripture above, there were people and obstacles in the way. To receive the blessing of their promise coming to fruition the Israelites had to step across the Jordan into the land of unknown. They had to face obstacles and overcome them in God’s power. They had to take responsibility and put the rubber to the road.

Alaina would not be in her 4th year of medical school right now had she not gone through the application process. Professional athletes wouldn’t be in the positions they are in without putting in the work required. Skilled musicians had to work and hone their craft to make the music we all enjoy.

Every dream is made up of small steps that propel you to see it come to reality.

I wish I could shout from a mountaintop so that all would hear, “YOU may be the biggest obstacle to fulfilling your dream! Not your parents. Not your education. Not your finances. Not where you are from. Not your boss. Take responsibility! Stop whining, blaming, fearing, dreading, and step into the future God has for you.”

Seek help. Don’t go it alone. Find a mentor. Develop a plan. Create a timeline. And then… take the first step. You’ve heard it said before,

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

I like the way Tony Evans puts it in his book Kingdom Man,

God’s activity in your life is tied to your footsteps.

Listen, you will have doubts, you will have naysayers, you will face obstacles, but you must push through them by a strength that transcends your perceived limitations. What was the Source of strength for the Israelites to step across the Jordan? Joshua 1:9 unveils that strength with a command,

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

God with us, Emmanuel, is the Source of strength to start moving our feet and taking those steps.

I’m sure at times Alaina has been discouraged and had doubts. We all have! But… if she hadn’t pushed through those doubts and taken her first steps, she would not be where she is currently.

So… let me ask you? What’s holding you back from fulfilling your dream? Maybe it’s not something or someone around you. Maybe it’s something inside you. Pray, seek the Lord, and then start moving your feet.

Leading or Telling?

How many of us have ever had to speak to a travel agent to get some information on an upcoming trip? You sit in their office, they tell you about places they themselves haven’t been, they show you a bunch of brochures, and they describe the wonderful packages they could put together and how much they would cost you.

One time while on vacation in Arizona with my family we took a guided jeep tour. Our guide met us with the jeep, gave us useful information about the area, and then drove us through the streets, back roads, and mountains of beautiful Sedona. He didn’t just sit in an office and describe the scenery; he drove us through to see the scenery himself!

Travel agents give us information. Tour guides lead us to a destination.

Spiritually speaking, which of those two has helped you grow the most? The agent who tells you what to do, or the guide who shows you what to do? As a pastor, one of my main concerns is that I tell people how to grow spiritually more than show them how to grow spiritually, and I believe many Christians sit back and do the same.

In your Christian life, you can be a spiritual travel agent or a spiritual tour guide. Travel agents sit in climate-controlled buildings and tell people where to go, how to get there, and what to do when they arrive. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like the modern way we do church? Tour guides lace up their shoes and trek alongside you. It’s definitely not always comfortable. It can be risky and messy, but ultimately very rewarding.

Heather Zempel author of Big Change Small Groups puts it this way,

We can’t just talk about prayer . . . we’ve got to do it with people. We can’t just complete a workbook on serving our community; we’ve got to get out there and do it. We can’t just explain to someone, we’ve got to do it alongside them.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1 the Apostle Paul wrote,

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Do you live your life in such a way that you want others to follow? Are you committed to following Christ, so that others can follow you?

The way I learned how to ride a bike was my dad showing me. The way I learned how to pray was by my parents modeling it for me. The way I learned to preach was not just by reading books on homiletics but by actually preaching and having teachers help guide me.

Don’t be a travel agent Christian who just sits in a church building and tells people what to do. Be a tour-guide Christian who walks with others and shows people what to do!

Let’s follow the lead of the greatest Tour Guide who ever lived when he said in John 13:15,

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Lets get up off the pew, exit the building, and get to guiding!

How do we hold onto Faith when Life is Hard?

Why would God allow the mass bombings of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka which killed 253 people and wounded 500 others? Why would God not stop a gunman from killing one and injuring three more in a California synagogue? Why didn’t God stop the cyclones in Mozambique that have killed 38 people?

Sometimes I just don’t get it. Maybe you don’t, either. There are no easy answers, are there?

Vance Havner was widely recognized as one of America’s most traveled evangelists and popular Bible conference speakers. When he lost his wife to disease, he was disconsolate. Years later, he was able to write:

When before the throne we stand in Him complete, all the riddles that puzzle us here will fall into place and we shall know in fulfillment what we now believe in faith—that all things work together for good in His eternal purpose. No longer will we cry “My God, why?” Instead, “alas” will become “Alleluia,” all question marks will be straightened into exclamation points, sorrow will change to singing, and pain will be lost in praise.

Did you notice the reference to “years later”? Even for the die-hard believer and a well-seasoned evangelist overcoming pain, grief, loss, and sorrow didn’t happen overnight. Sometimes the pain may never be fully assuaged. Many live with chronic pain or depression that affects them every… single… day.

During the Korean War, Pastor Im was torn from his family and imprisoned for years, locked in a dark cell with only a small bowl of soup to eat every day. He kept his sanity by reciting Scripture, especially John 13:7,

What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says,

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Like that passage says we can only see a portion of what is going on. We cannot fully know or comprehend what is taking place on a spiritual level and how things weigh in eternity. We only see through a darkened mirror, but one day we will see face to face. We only know in part, but one day we will know fully, as we are fully known!

So, how do we hold onto faith when life is so hard?

William Cowper, an eighteenth-century English poet, struggled with depression his entire life. On one of his darkest days, he hired a carriage to drive him to the Ouse River, three miles away, where he intended to kill himself. A dense fog enveloped the area, and the driver, sensing that something was wrong with his passenger, purposely lost his way only to return back to Cowper’s home. Cowper realized his life had been spared, and that same evening in 1774, at age 43, he wrote these words:

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread; And big with mercy and shall break in blessings on your head.

Believe, trust, and know that God is with you in the pain. He is with you in the struggle. He is with you in the hurt.

Isaiah 53:4 reassures us that He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, and in Hebrews we are reminded that He will never leave or forsake us… even in the pain.

Gathering Sticks

Throughout history few leaders have accomplished as much as the apostle Paul, yet he endured an astonishing number of traumatic events: imprisonment, beatings, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, and many other forms of suffering. 2 Corinthians 11:25 is a small example of the things Paul himself went through. It says,

Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea.

In Acts chapter 27, Luke tells about one of those shipwrecks and includes dramatic details about a terrifying storm at sea that ultimately broke the ship Paul was sailing upon apart. In the aftermath of the shipwreck, Paul and his fellow passengers scrambled for safety onto the shore of an island called Malta. In Acts 28:2 Luke recalls,

The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.

Remember what happened next? Verses 3-7 continue by saying,

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

It’s a minor point, but notice: Paul was a leader who was willing to pick up sticks!

Paul didn’t sit on the sidelines and say, “Someone needs to build a fire. I’m an apostle, a man of God, not a stick-gatherer. You guys go gather sticks while I sit and watch.” Paul didn’t consider the menial task of gathering firewood beneath his dignity. He didn’t excuse his own inaction by saying, “Look, I’ve got more important things to do! I have sermons to prepare and letters to write.” He simply saw a need and pitched in to help build the fire. Paul saw himself as an example, not an exception. He saw himself as a coworker, not a superstar or privileged individual demanding special treatment.

Paul also didn’t use his past and the circumstances he had endured to limit his actions. Paul didn’t view himself as too educated, too undereducated, too important, or too busy to handle the task at hand.

Paul went beyond his “job description” to see that the task got done.

In Scripture Jesus unleashed some of his harshest criticism on leaders who did “not practice what they preach.” We see this in Matthew 23:2-4,

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.

These hypocritical leaders were professors, but they were not practitioners.

Ask yourself: Are you a professor or a practitioner?

We call teachers who serve on a college faculty “professors” because of their ability to pass along knowledge and expertise to others. More broadly, “professor” refers to anyone who professes opinions and beliefs in a way that instructs others. In this sense, all Christians are professors, for we all have God’s good news message to share and teach. But… it’s not enough to profess faith without practicing it! This is true for all Believers, but this is especially true for those who accept the responsibilities of church leadership.

Jesus calls leaders to service, not self-glorification. Godly leaders shouldn’t aspire for impressive titles, positions, or the honor of man. Jesus insists, in Matthew 23:11

The greatest among you shall be your servant.

Hear this: if someone can’t be trusted with little things (like gathering firewood), why should anyone trust him with big things (like leading a congregation)?

Now each of us should ask ourselves… are our hands dirty? Can people trust us to see through even the menial tasks?

Of course, church leaders must use their time and abilities wisely, and sometimes they must let others wait on tables while they devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:3-4 says,

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

But the point is, faithful leaders don’t shy away from hard work. They put their hands and efforts to the task along with the rest of God’s people. Effective leaders are willing to get their hands dirty, and when the need arises, they venture out into the woods and pick up sticks.

 

Just Don’t Stay Down

For those who are involved in my personal life you certainly know that I shoot competitively. This past weekend was my first competition back from my off-season and my first of many to be shot in 2019. This particular match was called “Hard Rock” and is the first of a trio of matches called “Hard as Hell.” My expectations were that it would be hard… but I truly couldn’t have expected what myself and my gear would be pitted against just in order to finish each individual stage.

There were moments in the middle of the snow and sleet trying to manipulate a firearm that was determined to not function correctly that frustration set in and it was all I could do to continue to fight through in an attempt to finish.

At one point while walking back to my vehicle after a slippery run through the woods shooting steel targets an Army Ranger who was there shooting asked me how I did. My response was something along the lines of, “I fell down 3 times on the course of fire. The run was decent, but I know I could’ve done better.” His response was short but sweet. He said, “Well… it would’ve been worse if you had stayed down!”

I am no stranger to the feeling of disappointment when you fail and fall. This past weekend is probably the poorest I have ever done at a shooting competition. But… if you allow yourself to learn from failure and you get back up and go right back at it your character will reflect your resound.

Failure doesn’t have to be the final chapter. Your slips and falls don’t have to determine the outcome.

In August of 1521 Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, and near the end of the letter he wrote these now famous words,

Pecca Fortiter, sed forties fide et gaude in Christ

Our translation of this is,

Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!

Luther’s words have often been misunderstood as granting permission to sin or encouraging people to sin, but I’d like to suggest another view which perhaps can help all of us deal with our daily struggles with temptation, failure, disappointment, or despair.

Who hasn’t experienced the disappointment of trying to move forward only to fall back? Of trying to keep a promise only to forget? Of trying to overcome only to give in? Of trying to do what’s right, think what’s right, and follow what’s right only to fail? We all have! When we experience these disappointments, set backs and failures, we tend to slip into one of two patterns.

First, we enter into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a “cheap grace,” where we dismiss our sin in light of God’s grace without any inner transformation or true repentance. This is a “boys-will-be-boys” mentality of accepting and writing off our sins and failures as a natural and almost unavoidable outflow of our human nature. The Apostle Paul described this tolerance of sin in Romans 6:1-4 like this,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

This first pattern is one of flippancy toward sin where we dismiss it and continue to repeat the cycle of sin, brief regret, quick prayer, moving on, back to sin, brief regret, etc. The problem is the cycle goes unbroken, and we do not experience the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second pattern is where our sin and failure is followed by us being overwhelmed with guilt and shame and causing us to withdraw to a defeatist mentality. We either become a legalist where we hide behind a mask of “all-is-good spirituality” while struggling with guilt underneath, or like that Army Ranger pointed out we can alternately develop spiritual stage fright, where because of our fear of falling we hide behind our anxieties of the “what-ifs” and we fail to step out with bold obedience.

Both of these patterns consist of an attempt to overcome our sin patterns by some external means rather than the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I believe the words of Martin Luther are helpful to us in whichever pattern we find ourselves. Following Jesus is a call for us to die to self and be reborn with the power of His indwelling Spirit like Jesus says in Mark 8:34,

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

In fact 2 Corinthians 5:17-18a says,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God.

In other words, we cannot do it on our own! We cannot overcome our sins in our own strength and power. Therefore, we live our lives boldly in the transforming power of God’s grace. We don’t have to walk in fear of failure, but instead we walk in the love of Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther’s words are not given as a license to sin but to stop living in the fear of falling, failing, and sinning!

I’ve never walked a tightrope strung across two high rises, but I imagine that the person doing so must focus on the destination rather than on what lies below. Like a tightrope walker if we live our lives thinking most about not falling, we most likely find ourselves in the disappointing posture of having fallen. It’s when we live our lives thinking most about the love of Jesus Christ that we find ourselves standing on His path of righteousness.

And when you do fall, because you will fall, get up, turn from sin and shame, live in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and refocus your life on Him. Failure can be eye-opening if you allow it to be! An old proverb says, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” As long as you keep getting up, you’re not failing. Don’t be anxious about sinning, but rejoice in Christ!

You will fall… just don’t stay down!

Jesus in the Preparation

My wife is currently in Medical school. For those who don’t know, it can take more than nine years of study to become a doctor. That’s 9 years after your undergraduate four-year degree is complete! She sure is braver than I am!

But… even after so many years of study, practice, learning, and shadowing other doctors they still don’t become experts on everything. They have particular areas of emphasis where they are experts, and other areas where they only know enough to scratch the surface and refer to the expert in that field of medicine. Yet, every single drawn out moment of preparation for that role in saving lives and curing diseases counts.

It’s the same with ministry. When we hear the call of God to go into ministry, we can often burst out of the gate wanting to get through the training process as fast as possible. Let’s get these training wheels off and get on with the race! But, good preparation is essential for lifelong impact in the call of God.

It’s easy to read the Gospel stories and think that Jesus suddenly appeared on the scene and started doing his thing. It is likely, however, that Jesus didn’t begin his ministry until he was in his late 20s early 30s.

What did he do for those thirty years? He prepared.

Going to the synagogue, studying the Torah, reading the scriptures, praying, working at his carpentry trade. During that time, he probably gathered stories about mustard seeds, lost sons, and wicked tenants. He probably watched and studied the way the Roman Empire exerted its power on the local Jewish communities, regulating their lives through taxes and military force.

Above all, he waited for the appointed time, the right time. Even though he was waiting, he didn’t stop preparing. He was preparing for the moment when his waiting would end.

Just as Jesus is in the waiting, so also Jesus is in the preparation.

What is your mission? How have you prepared? Is now the appointed time?

God is for Me

Have you ever had a buddy lead you into a fight with the confidence that they were going to be there to back you up if things went south? How did that turn out? Unless you flipped the switch into “Macho Man” Randy Savage mode you probably got roughed up pretty good.

Too many times someone has tried to encourage me by saying, “Don’t worry! I am here for you.” Likewise, too many times that very same person is nowhere to be found when things actually go down.

I do not put too much confidence in such a statement coming from a mortal man. Why? Because every mortal man is fully capable and gifted in the art of not “coming through.” Most men don’t make that statement with the intentions of letting the other person down… but men can change along with circumstances and situation.

However, I trust that very same statement from God.

Romans 8:31 says,

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

So… if I don’t trust that statement from man then what makes it any different coming from God? God alone is unchangeable; therefore, I want to make certain that God is for me. We have great reason for confidence in God for our salvation. What is that reason? God is for us!

But I do think that too often, we can apply that verse a little too quickly, without digging deep into what it really means. We correctly use it as a spiritual weapon, but without understanding how to properly deploy it, kind of like using a rifle as a club. We associate the verse with the blessing hiding right around the corner, instead of the victory on the other side of the battle.

We celebrate the victory before fighting the battle.

Yes, there will still be battles! Yes, you will still have to fight! But we fight alongside the Almighty God! It’s true that if God is for us, nothing can stand against us. But it’s also true that if God is for us, a whole lot of things can, and will, be against us. The enemy is directly opposed to the power of God displayed in and through us.

In Ephesians 6:10-18 Paul writes,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

If there were no fight ahead then why do we need armor and weapons of war?

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Therefore, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the whole armor of God and take your stand against the devil’s scheme. Fight the good fight against all defeated enemies and spiritual forces of evil. Pray in the Spirit and stand firm. Fight, and stand in victory.

So… what will stand against us? Everything.

Throughout our lives, many things will stand against us. Right now, I’ve got a lengthy list of things causing distress in my life, including but not limited to:

  • Lingering sickness and health issues
  • My wife’s Medical School loans
  • A work list that never gets smaller

I pray about these things a lot. Pretty much every day… and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. They are still here and I am still fighting the fight.

So what gives? I thought God was for me. What about all those angel armies that Chris Tomlin sings about?

It’s not like I’m the only one. Every Christian I know finds themselves in the same place, beset by trials, enemies, weird health problems, financial hardship, and a lot more. This also seems to be the story throughout Scripture. If Jesus had things stand against Him to the point of execution on a cross, then maybe this verse is a little deeper than it seems on the surface.

We have many enemies, but they are all finite creatures. No power can prevail against the infinite God, who has purposed to save us. Who can resist him? What about the devil and demons? God in Christ has defeated the devil on the cross and liberated us from his clutches. The stronger one, Jesus Christ, defeated the strong one, the devil, and has set us free.

What about the world? In John 16:33 Jesus said,

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

Rejoice! The world of Pharaohs and Caesars and dictators and presidents cannot harm us. Jesus Christ has defeated them all.

What about the apostate church? Again, the answer is, no. It cannot harm us. Why is that? In Colossians 2:14-15 Paul writes,

Having canceled the debt ascribed to us in the decrees that stood against us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross! And having disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

What about the flesh, that sin still dwells in us? Yes, it is against us, but it is not the only thing in us. God’s Holy Spirit is also in us! Too often we forget that! We have the Sprit of the living God dwelling inside us! He is the Spirit of holiness who gives us victory over sin! Therefore, sin cannot have dominion over us. We are not under sin, law, or death.

Is there any power equal or above God’s power? No! Therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us? The Scriptures emphasize this point throughout.

Jesus Christ by his death has defeated all our enemies and his enemies.

Jesus is still waging war against all our defeated enemies, and it is His business to fight such a war. In Psalm 110:1 the psalmist declares,

The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’

In 1 Corinthians 15:25-27 Paul writes,

Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The battles may come and the enemies may rise up, but I don’t need to solve the problem alone. The Holy Spirit himself intercedes on my behalf. What a beautiful thing. The Spirit comes to the Father on my behalf, but unlike me, the Spirit knows exactly what I need. He’ll never pray the wrong thing. The Spirit will ask God to give me what I need and God will always give it to me. Romans 8:26 says,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

The whole world may stand against me, but it can’t destroy me because the Holy Spirit is interceding for me.

Though I may be buffeted by a hurricane of pain, strife, sorrow, temptation, and spiritual attack, God calmly controls every gust of that hurricane. He is orchestrating all things for my good and his purpose, strategically using this trial to build my trust in him, this relationship to increase my joy, and this hurdle to hurdle to give me a deep experience of his love for me.

No matter what stands against me, it can’t thwart God’s purpose. From start to finish, first breath to last, cradle to grave, I’m his. Come hell, high water, or the apocalypse, nothing can stand against me.

I enjoy singing songs that reflect on God’s faithfulness and promises to remind me in times of battle that God is for me and with me. If you are like me there are times you need a reminder that he is God and you aren’t and His timing is much more deliberate than yours. One of those songs goes:

Walking around these walls
I thought by now they’d fall
But You have never failed me yet
Waiting for change to come
Knowing the battle’s won
For You have never failed me yet

Your promise still stands
Great is Your faithfulness, faithfulness
I’m still in Your hands
This is my confidence, You’ve never failed me yet

I know the night won’t last
Your Word will come to pass
My heart will sing Your praise again
Jesus, You’re still enough
Keep me within Your love
My heart will sing Your praise again

I’ve seen You move, come move the mountains
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again
You made a way, where there was no way
And I believe, I’ll see You do it again

Romans 8:18–19 says,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

The suffering I experience right now is going to pale in comparison to the astounding glory that will be soon revealed to me. In fact, the glory that’s coming will be so breathtaking, so glorious, so overwhelmingly valuable, that I’ll look back at what I suffered and say, “That was nothing! It was all worth it! Following Christ through the valley of pain and suffering was nothing compared to this!”

Nothing can stand against the Holy Spirit helping me.

Romans 8:28 promises,

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Nothing can stand against God’s purpose for me. 

Given all these things, Paul then says in Romans 8:35-39:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If God is for us, there truly is nothing that can stand against us… and many things WILL stand against us. That’s guaranteed. But, we are more than conquerors and nothing can separate us from the love of God!

But our end is sure. We WILL arrive in glory, and when that time comes, we’ll chuckle at how insignificant our sufferings really were. Christ will be all in all, and we’ll be experiencing joy we didn’t know was possible.

Fight the good fight. God is for you.

Answering the Call to Serve

I am a huge University of Kentucky fan. I live and breathe both football and basketball seasons where I get to enjoy watching the Cats play. I grew up near Danville, Kentucky where there are two schools that are very well known in the high school football world.

There is so much about sports to enjoy and so many lessons that can be learned from both watching and playing. If you are a football fan you most likely know that from 2012 to 2016 Peyton Manning was the leader of the Denver Broncos’ offense… but what many don’t know is that there are often quiet leaders in the locker room that we don’t hear about. Those leaders can set the tone for the team.

When players from the Denver Broncos were asked about the leadership on the team one name came up repeatedly… Jacob Tamme. Demaryius Thomas, wide receiver, said,

I would have to go with Jacob Tamme. He sets a great example. Jacob comes from starting last year, to now he is doing special teams and playing on the offense. He’s on time for everything. He makes sure that everybody from offense to defense is all right. He speaks when he is spoken to. If he has something to say, everyone listens and he gives great advice.

Virgil Green, tight end, said,

Jacob Tamme is a great leader. He’s done a lot in this league. He’s somebody who’s been through a lot leads on special teams and offense. He takes a more serious approach to special teams, understanding that it often times wins and loses games. Having a guy that has been in the league for awhile and understands that his role is important no matter where it’s at is great for a young player like me.

Tamme had made a mark on the team with his experience, humbleness, and faithfulness to work hard on and off the field each and every day. He viewed each and every job and position as vital and that earned the respect of those around him. The cool thing about Tamme is that he grew up in little Danville, Kentucky. He went to high school just down the road from where I grew up, he played for my Wildcats, and despite his humble upbringing he got to be an influencer to many within the NFL because of his hard work and good attitude.

There is a cool, and well known, story in John 13:3-17 that goes like this,

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Here in this story is Jesus, sharing the Passover meal with His disciples. He is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, and as part of the Godhead He is responsible for the creation of everything in that upper room. He brought life to the oak tree that made the table, He knew each of the Disciples before the beginning of time, He was fully aware of the state of their hearts and minds, and He was responsible for the dust that dirtied their feet, but yet there He was with a towel and washbasin… a humble servant leader.

Luke 22:27 Jesus says,

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

If we want to know and love God, the Creator of all that is, then we are called to serve as He serves expecting nothing in return. He says to us, “I am among you as the one who serves.” How might we follow Christ to serve others out of a meek and lowly heart?

How do we humble ourselves, receive God’s grace, and serve? How do we avoid the trap of our culture that tells us to look after “number one” the big “numero uno?”

Serving is hard. It’s especially challenging if we find ourselves in positions of influence. A thousand subtle temptations arise to promote ourselves, take credit, misuse our authority, and desire recognition. Whether we’re leading a team, a church, a family, or a Fortune 500 corporation, building a life inspired by serving can turn the “me-first” mentality and ambitions upside-down.

The life Jesus led models for us what it means to be a servant leader in all areas of our life.

All professing Christians agree that a Christian leader should be a servant leader. Jesus couldn’t be clearer:

Luke 22:25–26 says,

The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.

Where there’s not always agreement is how servant leadership should look in a given situation. Sometimes servant leaders wash others’ feet, so to speak (Like our story out of John 13), but other times leaders have to rebuke the ones they love and lead. Matthew 16:23 says,

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Sometimes a leader is called to discipline. Matthew 18:15–20 says,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

Sometimes they serve at their own expense. 1 Corinthians 9:7 says,

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?

The world looks at the word “leader” as a lofty title… whereas Scripture paints a different picture.

The pairing of the words “servant” and “leader” is a little bit like the pairing of the words “jumbo” and “shrimp.” What seems to be an oxymoron, or an apparent contradiction, is really a redundancy, like “free gift.” A gift, by definition, is always already free. A leader, by Christ’s definition, is always already a servant.

But sadly, not all leaders are servants. In a 2014 nationwide survey by the Christian research organization The Barna Group, 62 percent of working Americans say they “wouldn’t follow their boss if their paycheck didn’t depend on it.” Roughly 30 percent of Americans report that “their boss makes them feel controlled, manipulated or defensive,” and an equal percentage reports that this unhealthy leadership is a source of great personal stress. A “slave-driver” employment culture is more common than we realize.

Yet God calls us to influence our culture. Whether in corporations, churches, coffeehouses, grocery stores, baseball fields, and communities one of the most powerful transformational agents that exists is the act of serving. Through serving, we humble ourselves, experience God’s grace, and we lead others to do the same.

The phrase servant leader was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf in his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” in which he contrasted two types of leaders.

The first type of servant leader desires to lead above all. Serving is just an afterthought.

The second type desires, above all, to serve. Serving is primary; leading is secondary, the consequence of serving.

What type of leader are you?

What many of us fail to realize is that everyone is leading someone. Maybe you are a parent and you are leading your children, maybe you are a coach and you are leading your team, maybe you are a seasoned employee that others secretly look up to and model their work ethic after… everyone leads someone.

Dr. Mark Berry once said,

A servant leader leads from the heart and not necessarily the mind… As leaders, if we see ourselves as superior to others, then we will never gain their respect and admiration. We may have the knowledge, but if we don’t reach the hearts of those we serve, they will never understand our strategy. Without a servant’s heart, people will never catch our vision.

Without a servants heart people may never catch our vision, or see our relationship with Jesus modeled and lived out in front of them.

Dr. Michael Reagan once said,

The servant leader creates or embraces a vision of the future that encompasses not only the individual, but the community. These leaders work for long-term growth of many rather than short-term, personal gain.

Just as Jesus’ disciples were mentored and trained by a servant leader, so we must be committed to developing others. After all, isn’t life about giving ourselves away to others?”

Just as God’s grace is sufficient in our serving, His grace is made perfect in our failure to serve. Following Christ isn’t about loving perfectly, but receiving love imperfectly, despite our brokenness, and then giving love away in meekness and lowliness of mind and heart, with Jesus the Servant-King by our side.

In the Wycliffe translation of Philippians 2:7, we read that Christ “meeked himself” as he took on flesh and the form of a servant, although He was King of kings. As we live to follow Christ the Servant Leader, here is the challenge to each of us, no matter our calling or career: we are invited to “meek” ourselves, esteem others above ourselves, and serve.