The Sacrifice of the Life of Worship

And he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24 ESV)

Control. We like to have it. It gives us security and pleasure. In these current days, it seems we have little or none at all. We have lost all control over our lives because of a microscopic virus.  The loss of control can be frightening, frustrating, angering, and saddening. We think we must possess it in order to have happiness and accomplish the things we want in this world. The world itself tells us that we need it. And yet, Jesus tells us that the only way to truly live is to relinquish control. There is a lot packed into those two sentences from Jesus.

Deny myself. This means that I give up ultimate control of my life to Christ. It is far more than making resolutions or giving up certain things a few times a year. It is more than trying to be a good person and follow the teachings of Jesus. This is a complete turning over of my life to God. It is yielding my wants, desires, and dreams to the perfect plan of the sovereign God.

Take up my cross. Taking up my cross implies that I must die. I must die to my will for my life, and take hold of God’s will for my life, my family, my church, my community, and my world. I must be willing to face the rejection that comes with identifying with Jesus Christ.

Follow Jesus. I must follow Jesus wherever He leads. During His earthly life, Jesus’ path often led Him into suffering and sacrifice. As His follower, I must expect that my path will lead there as well. Today, if I truly follow Jesus, the world will not stand up and cheer. If I truly follow Jesus, I will sacrifice many things in this life.

Losing my life to save it. As I deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus, I will find that I have lost nothing. In losing my life, I will actually save it. I may lose temporary, earthly things that the world clamors after, but I will gain the riches of eternity. In denying myself, yielding control of my life to God, I actually find freedom and joy in the richness and wonders of God. In taking up my cross, I might lose the favor and rewards this world has to offer, but I gain the favor and rewards of God Himself. And in following Jesus, while I may experience suffering and loss of worldly gain, I gain Christ and become co-heirs with Him.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12 ESV) As the apostle Paul says in this verse, I have not yet arrived. I have a long way to go. I want to be abandoned to God, but I get in my own way and I let other things turn my gaze away from the greater purposes and glory of God.

Several years ago, our pastor spoke from the book of Malachi. It was a call to abandon mediocre living in every area of our lives. My selfish desires and fixation on temporary things are what keep me from living beyond the mediocre and experiencing the wonder of being in the center of God’s will. This is because moving from mediocre to extraordinary requires me to lose my life. It means giving up my rights to my time, my possessions, my money, and my life. It means putting it all at feet of God.

This is the sacrifice of the life of worship. It is yielding, dying, and suffering loss. And in turn, it is freedom, living, and gaining the riches of eternity.  In losing my life, I find it, in abundance from the very hand of God, through Jesus Christ. For all the promises of God are fulfilled in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

This is an unprecedented time for most of us. We have never experienced something like we are going through right now. Our city, country, and world have been turned upside down by a virus that we cannot see with our eyes. During these days of isolation, rather than focus on ourselves and the things that we have lost, the Word of God directs us to turn our gaze to all that we have gained in Christ, both now and eternity. Many in our church and community may be suffering, whether physically, financially, or spiritually. Though we maybe can’t go to them directly, how might God use us to bless others with what He has given to us, both in resources and spiritually? How can this time of loss draw us closer to God and turning our focus to what is eternal?

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 ESV)

Together for His glory…

The Struggle of the Life of Worship

I don’t get to go fishing as much as I would like. I love to get away from the city, especially in the Fall, when the weather is cooler, and listen to the sound of the wind, water, and leaves. It is very refreshing. I am not a great fisherman, but I still love it. Most of the time, the bait we buy is not the best. The worms have probably been in the container for quite a while. When you pull them out of the dirt, they don’t put up much of a fight.

However, on those rare occasions when the worms are lively, it can be a challenge to get those things on the hook. And once the hook goes through the first time, they really start to fight, thrashing wildly. In these cases, it is not uncommon for the hook to end up in my finger instead of the worm.

When we decide to follow Jesus Christ, we embark on a journey where we will experience victories and defeats. As we grow in our faith, we find new freedom and strength. However, we also find struggle and conflict. In Romans 12:1-2, the apostle Paul implores us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, this being our spiritual worship. The problem with living sacrifices is that they are not dead. We can squirm around and fight back, much like a worm trying to be put on a hook. Pain is not pleasant. We don’t like it and we often resist it. But Paul is not just talking about pain here. I think he is talking about dying. This refers to the dying that takes place when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God.

The writers of Scripture speak about death, but many times they are not referring to physical death. They are speaking of sacrifice and death to self. Think of Jesus, on the night He was betrayed. The brutality and suffering that awaited Him were immense. He was sitting at a table with His closest earthly friends. Every single one of them would abandon Him. One of them would betray Him. He knew this and, yet, He served them. He washed their feet. He continued to teach them. He prayed for them. He prayed for us. He showed us the way of true worship.

True worship is the abandoning of ourselves to God, giving our lives to Him as a living sacrifice. It means living in the manner that Jesus lived. Jesus was willing to endure suffering for the sake of others and the glory of God. Jesus was willing to be wronged for the sake of others and the glory of God. Jesus was willing to give up His rights for the sake of others and the glory of God. How quickly do we rush to our own defense, standing up for our own rights, harboring the bitterness of wrongs done to us? How often do we pick up our toys and go home when we don’t get our own way or when others don’t do things exactly the way we think they should be done?

Jesus died to His desires. Jesus died to His rights. Jesus died that we might live. Jesus embraced the will of the Father, despite the knowledge that He would bear the full weight of God’s wrath for our sin. Even when He knew He would be abandoned, betrayed, and sacrificed, He continued to love and serve those who would dish out the rejection and send Him to the cross.

How different would our marriages, families, friendships, churches, and communities be if we would simply be willing to suffer rather than take offense and tenaciously hold onto our desire for our preferences and rights to be fully acknowledged and satisfied? Even more, to realize that these afflictions and “thorns” could very well be God’s discipline in our lives, to bring transformation in our lives and make us more like Christ (Hebrews 12:3-17).

What relationships would be transformed and reconciled if I was willing to die to my preferences? I am not talking about denying our convictions that are grounded in the Word of God. I am referring to those things, not essential, that divide us in our relationships. What if I was willing to die to my pride and serve, even if I am rejected or humiliated? What if I humbled myself instead of trying to be vindicated or acknowledged? What if I loved and served those people who drive me crazy and just get under my skin? What if I saw irritating circumstances and people as one of God’s means to make me more like Jesus?

So many people just view worship as an experience or something that we participate in. However, true worship is lived every moment. True is worship is a complete giving of our lives to God. It is living life in the trenches, pressing on to be transformed into the image of Christ in midst of life, not in spite of it. The life of worship is not a cakewalk. It can be filled with many difficulties and struggles, victories and failures. I know I have a long way to go. But God has promised that these struggles are momentary and light, in view of eternity and the glory that awaits and the joy we find in Him. Jesus died so that reconciliation could take place. We are called to follow in His steps. Are we following, or are we seeking an easier way through?

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you.” James 4:10

Together for His glory…

The Invitation to the Life of Worship

I can remember when my boys were younger, I would be working on a task or job and they would sometimes come along with me. On some of those occasions, they would want to help out. Now, depending on their age, the amount that they were able to do was limited. However, I enjoyed spending time with them and wanted them to feel like they were helping out. So, if we were moving a table or something like that, they would help carry it. However, I would position myself towards the middle of the table, so that I was carrying the majority of the weight while they helped and “carried” their end of the table.

In many ways, I think this provides a good picture of living the life of worship. In Matthew 11:25-30, Jesus offers us an invitation. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). It is the invitation to come and follow Him and to live a life of worship. But it is unlike any invitation offered by the world and by other religions.

The wisdom of God is revealed to the child at heart. In Matthew 11:25-26, Jesus says that the Father has hidden things from those who think they are wise and important, and He has revealed them to little children. In another passage, Jesus says that unless we become like a child, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:1-4). I believe this says that God reveals Himself to those who know that they need Him. To those who are self-sufficient and confident in themselves, God hides His wisdom from them. God wisdom is provided for those that come as a child.

Religion is a heavy load to bear. Jesus does not offer us religion. Jesus does not invite us to come and prove ourselves to Him. But for most who are involved in religious activities, it is a labor of proving their worth or earning the favor of whatever god or system they are following. Even many people who call themselves Christians live their lives this way. It is often perpetuated by leaders and organizations who pile up burdens on people, telling them that they have to live a certain way to earn God’s favor and get into heaven. They create their own systems of righteousness that have nothing to do with God’s Word. This is what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did, and this was the load that the people were trying to carry in order to please God.

Jesus offers rest for the weary. Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law and Prophets, not to abolish them (Matthew 5:17-18). But the burden that was being piled on the people was beyond the Law of God. It was a system of manmade rules and laws. Jesus is offering freedom from that heavy burden. He is saying to take His yoke and follow Him. It is a simple call to follow Jesus and live a life of commitment to Him. It is about loving God with all that we are, and allowing Him to work in us to change us and transform us to be more like Christ. We don’t have to prove anything. In fact, we can’t. We just have to follow. This is the yoke of Jesus.

Jesus carries the load. The reason His burden is light is because Jesus has born the full weight of God’s requirement Himself. He has lived up to the standard of holiness required of us. He has taken upon Himself the full penalty of the wrath of God against our sins, failings, and the consequences of sin in this fallen world. Jesus has paid the complete price so that we can receive His righteousness and be declared holy before God (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is the gift of God for all who will receive it and for all who will give themselves to Jesus.

This does not mean that the road will be easy. There are going to be many trials and challenges along the way. As in the story I shared at the beginning, when my boys would help carry that table, they were working hard, huffing and puffing as they worked. They would be tired afterwards and would occasionally get a pinched finger or scraped knee. But I was always there to meet their needs and they were actually carrying very little of the actual burden during the work. I was carrying most of the load, but they had fun “helping Dad.”

The life of worship is the invitation to come and follow Jesus and to delight in Him. Life can be hard. It can be really hard. But we can have joy in Christ, as we delight in Him and in doing His will. And we can be confident that, as we walk with Him, He has put Himself in the middle of the table and has carried the heavy load.

Together for His glory…

The Life of Worship: Is it Possible to Obey the Greatest Commandment?

I am far from perfect. For some of you who know me well, this is no great revelation. I have many flaws and I am frequently discouraged with what I perceive as my lack of progress in growing in my relationship with God and my love for Him. It can be very depressing at times. I can very hard on myself. I am sure some of you can relate to this. You don’t need anyone else to criticize you. You are your worst critic.

Self-critique can be helpful. However, it can also be unhelpful in a couple of different ways. First, if we are only looking at the here and now, we forget where we have come from. It is kind of like when I look and my children now. I don’t always remember what they were like when they were younger. However, then I look at some old photos or movies and I am amazed by how much they have changed and matured. In our spiritual lives, it can be like that. If we could see a snapshot of how we were 10 years ago, we would see that we have grown.

On the other hand, we can overestimate our growth and maturity, especially if are filled with pride and overly impressed with our own abilities and accomplishments. We can think too highly of ourselves and, therefore, look down on those who are less “spiritual” than us.

This is why, in both cases, it is important to have God’s perspective. This is especially true when it comes to living out the greatest commandment, which is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). As Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to live out on a daily basis. All of our life, every breath, is to be a pursuit of loving God with all that we are. This is a high and daunting calling. That is why it is important to keep in mind how God views the fulfillment of this calling.

We do not initiate love for God. In our fallen human nature, we do not love God. Ultimately, we do not even know what true love is. We are dead in sin apart from Christ (Ephesians 2:1). Dead things do not love. They are incapable of love. Therefore, the love we are called to give to God is impossible. However, love was revealed to us by God when He sent His Son to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). Love was demonstrated to us through the life and perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God came to us, to show us what true love is really like.

We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). The only reason we can love is because God loved us first. Therefore, we do not initiate love for God. Our love for God is a response to His love being poured out into our hearts. We can’t whip it up or create it on our own. It is made possible by the work of God in our lives when we receive the gift of His salvation through Jesus Christ. We are made new and, as a result, are able to love Him in response to His love for us.

God perfects His love in us. In spite of receiving this new life and the ability to love God, we are still far from perfect. We have been declared righteous through the blood of Christ. But God’s sanctifying and perfecting work continues in us until the day we die. We abide in God and He abides in us, and through this process, this love is perfected in us (1 John 4:14-17). As we seek to live out this love for God in our daily lives, He gives us the strength and wisdom to grow and be filled with the love and fullness of our God (Ephesians 3:14-19).

As we respond to His love and seek to live a life of worship and to love our God with all that we are, we need to remember that it is not by our wisdom and strength that it will be accomplished. We are called to follow and pursue. We are called to love God, but it is God Who will perfect this in us. Our strength is failing. God’s strength is perfect. Our love is fleeting. God’s love is never ending. We are called to abide, or dwell, in Him. He is the One Who will accomplish His perfect will in us. So, yes, it is possible to live a life in obedience to the greatest commandment. It may not always be pretty, but God will continue to demonstrate His love to us and work in us to help us to live and love more like Jesus.

Together for His glory…

The Life of Worship: The Greatest Commandment

I love my wife. I love her a lot. We have been married for 36 years. We have known each other for almost 45 years. She is my best friend. There is no one I would rather spend time with. No, things are not always smooth and tranquil in our relationship, but we are committed to one another, for life. And I do not want it any other way.

Now, I could be committed to staying with Cheryl, honoring my marriage vows to remain true to only her. However, in our relationship, I could keep myself closed off and isolated from her. I could withhold my love and affection. I could go about my life and never do any acts of kindness for her. I could take care of my own needs and neglect hers. On the other hand, I could be unfaithful, and not remain true to the commitment I made to be faithful to her all the days of our lives together. At the same time, I could do all kinds of wonderful things for her, showering her with gifts, attention, and affection, while being unfaithful.

In both of the situations, there would be a disconnect. Whether one way or another, my wife would be getting part of me, but not all of me. My life would be a contradiction. The actions of my life would be in opposition to each other. I would not be fully devoted to her as my wife. Unfortunately, when it comes to our relationship with God, we frequently have the same disconnect. Well, maybe I should not speak for you. For me, there is.

“And he [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.’” Matthew 22:37-38

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This is basically a restatement of what Jesus is saying in the passage above, which He is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, where the Jewish nation is given this command to love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Moses gave the command to the people, as God had given it to Him. Jesus confirmed and validated it as the greatest commandment. Therefore, as those created by this Almighty God, this is our highest call.

There are many commands and principles in the Bible. Sometimes, it is hard to keep them all straight. However, Jesus said this command, and the next greatest command, which is to love our neighbor as ourselves, encompass all of the Law and Prophets. In other words, every other commandment given by God falls under these two (Matthew 22:37-40). For me, this is freeing. I don’t have to remember a long list of dos and don’ts. I give myself to Him through a life of love and devotion and He will work in me to fulfill the whole of His law.

On the other hand, it is an enormous task. To love the Lord with my whole being is a great challenge. In fact, on my own, it is impossible (more on that next week). It involves a total and complete devotion to the Lord.

It involves loving the Lord with my mind. This means that I seek to know Who He is in a greater way on a daily basis. I must pour His truth into my mind, conforming my thinking to His thoughts. But growing in knowledge is not enough. As my knowledge of God and His character and ways increases, my devotion for Him should grow as well. My relationship with God should become deeper and richer. My love for God and my joy in Him should be expanding every day. Then, as my knowledge and devotion deepen, I should grow in my giving myself in service and living out my life in obedience to God, loving God with all of my soul and strength.

The conflict arises when we think we can have one of these aspects without the others. Even though we don’t think it, practically we live it out. Ultimately, we live a lopsided life, overemphasizing one aspect of our lives. We get a lot of head knowledge, but have little love for God or don’t live in obedience. Or maybe we love God, what we know of Him anyway. But we don’t grow in our knowledge of God and the faith, so our love is ignorant and uniformed and we often live lives based on our own wisdom or fantasies, rather the truth. Or maybe we are very busy serving God, but we don’t spend time renewing our minds with His Word or we have little devotion for Him. Our service has become obligation, not a life lived in joy and love for God.

All of these options are less than best. That is why I think God contained all of the aspects into one command, to love Him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Without one, the others are incomplete. The result is a relationship that is lacking and not fruitful, just as marriage that is not fully devoted in all aspects.

God wants all of us, not just part of us. It is not that God is needy or greedy. He knows that there is no greater fulfillment and joy for us that can be found in any other person, place, or thing. Our highest joy is found in loving Him with all that we are. The pursuit of the life of worship begins with this call. Let us seek to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. There is no higher calling.

Together for His glory…

The Life of Worship – What is It?

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

Over the past 30+ years, I can’t tell you how many books, articles, sermons, and seminars I have read or listened to on the topic of worship. There are a lot of convictions, declarations, and opinions – some good, and some not so much. I know I have definite convictions on the subject. The majority of my ministry has been spent being involved in studying and seeking to worship and lead worship in a manner that is pleasing and exalting God. Looking back over the decades (I can’t believe I can say that – decades!), there are some things I think I got right. There are other areas that I stumbled through. Today, I am still on the pursuit – some days are better than others.

The declaration made by Jesus, in the passage above, is a radical shift from what people of His day thought about worship and religion. It is a radical shift from what most of us believe. Even for those of us who know all of the right answers, in our hearts, there is always a battle going on. There will always be a struggle to worship God in spirit and truth. The world will not do us any favors in this. They will try to shift our focus to anything but Jesus. To live a life of worship, we must be diligent. In fact, if don’t intentionally pursue it, it is not going to happen.

Thankfully, God is gracious and merciful. He knows our weaknesses. When we slip, slide, fall, or even run away, His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). He is the God of new beginnings. He delights for us to delight in Him, because in Him He knows we will find our greatest joy and satisfaction.

Over the next few weeks, I will share thoughts about the life of worship. As I have said here before, I do not claim to be an expert. I do not claim to even live this well. One of the reasons I call this blog “In Pursuit of the Life of Worship” is because that is exactly what it is for me. It is a pursuit. A journey that will last my lifetime and beyond. Sometimes, I think I get it right. Many times, well, let’s just say I have a long way to go.

However, I want to live out this life in a way that glorifies God and brings me to a deeper, richer knowledge and love for God. So, I keep moving on. And I encourage you to do the same, as you encourage me to do the same. Together, we join the most glorious pursuit of all – to know and love the One Who spoke all things into existence, holds them together by the power of His Word, and has redeemed us by His Own blood. This is Someone worth pursuing a relationship with.

Together for His glory…

My Idolatrous Heart: Approval of God or Others

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24

In this week’s journey, I want to look into one of things that many of us, or all of us, struggle with, if we are honest. I think everyone appreciates being told that they have done a good job. When I have worked hard on some project, it is gratifying to know that someone else recognizes the value of what I have done. I also appreciate knowing that my life and ministry have positively influenced someone’s life and helped them grow in their relationship with Christ.

Feedback, whether we are giving or receiving it, is an important part of our lives and growth as individuals and followers of Christ. We see numerous examples of feedback, both encouragement and criticism, in the pages of Scripture. Yet, we also see warnings against seeking the approval of others or placing too much value on what others perceive or say. How do we navigate this path without allowing what others say to us, or think about us, to become an idol in our lives? Here are some things that can help us to accomplish this.

Work for the Lord, regardless of whether our efforts are recognized by others. The passage in Colossians 3:23-24, shown above, is interesting in that the apostle Paul is addressing slaves with these verses. Slaves may rarely, if ever, have been shown any respect. They could perform their work each day with no response of gratitude or appreciation from their master. They could have been mistreated, even when doing everything they were asked to do. Yet, whether they are treated poorly or whether they are recognized for their work, Paul instructs them to work as if they are working for the Lord, not for men. As we live out our lives and conduct the work the Lord has provided for us to do, we should do our work for the Lord, not the approval of others. The Lord will reward us. And if no earthly reward or acknowledgement is ever received, we can know that God will reward us for our faithfulness and obedience.

Consider criticism, when it is received from a trustworthy and godly source. When we are involved in life and ministry, we don’t always receive the type of response that we want. We want positive feedback. When someone comes to us with some advice, exhortation, or challenge, our first response can be to be indignant or offended. However, it could very well be that God is using this person to bring some issue to our attention. Or maybe we don’t get any response, from anyone! We thought we did a good job on something, but no one seemed to notice. Do they all think I did not do well? Was my contribution not important? Again, God may be using this situation to remind us that we called to live for Him and not the approval of others. The Lord disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:3-11). When criticism or silence come our way, we should be willing to evaluate our lives and motives. Consider the source of the critique and seek the Lord for wisdom. The Lord may be trying to tell us something.

Thank God for the encouragement we receive. When someone praises something we have done, we should thank them and give acknowledgement to God for His work in our lives. We need to remember that it was not us who did this alone, but it was God working in us (Ephesians 2:8-10). Apart from Christ, we can do nothing of eternal value (John 15:1-5). It is also important to remember that God chooses the weak and foolish (all of us) to accomplish His purposes, so that no one can boast (1 Corinthians 1:23-31). Thank God that He has graciously allowed us to serve Him and to be a part of what He is doing in the world.

Do not place too much value or importance on praise we receive. Jesus did not entrust Himself to those that followed and even believed in Him for the wonders He did among them (John 2:23-25). This is because He knew the hearts of all people. We are all sinners. If we determine our value or commend ourselves because of the praise we receive, we are basing it on the opinion of those who are fallen, just like us. Yes, godly feedback and encouragement can spur us on to continue pursuing Christ. However, those who praise us today can curse us tomorrow. It happened to Jesus. It will happen to those who follow Him. In addition, when we pursue the praise of others, Jesus said that we have received all of the reward we will get. There is no eternal reward because have coveted the approval of others, rather than God (Matthew 6:1-18).

Above all, seek God’s approval, not that of others. In the end, the only One whose opinion really matters is God. Our desire should be to please Him and to pursue His desires for our lives. When we are in glory, the praise we received from others will count as absolutely nothing. While we can be thankful for the generosity and encouragement of others, our pursuit is to be for God’s approval. Ultimately, God’s approval of us comes only through being clothed in the righteousness of Christ, having received the salvation provided through His sacrificial atonement (Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Beyond that, we can find our joy and satisfaction in knowing Christ and allowing Him to work in us and through us to accomplish His purposes (Philippians 3:7-11).

Praise received from others can be a source of encouragement to us in our walk of faith and ministry. However, it can also become an idol that we crave and pursue after. It can become the driving force behind our lives, our work, and our activity within the church. When this happens, our pursuits are based on what we get out of it rather than the glory and purposes of God. In the end, we will not obtain what we really want, for the praise of others is often tainted and it is fleeting. The approval of God is eternal and brings joy and satisfaction for this life and for eternity.

Together for His glory…

My Idolatrous Heart: Self-Righteousness

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Luke 18:10-13

It was the late 1980’s. I was emerging from a long journey through confusion and spiritual emptiness. I had a newfound desire for the Word of God. I was growing in my walk with God. I was learning and had a passion for ministry again. The long descent had taken several years and now I had swung around and was quickly heading in the other direction. I was consuming all of the Bible teaching I could get my hands on. I was on a roll. I had gone from being confused to confident. But all was not well.

I began to issue edicts for our family. I was determined to banish any traces of harmful influences from the world and culture in which we lived. We were going to be a household that served the Lord (Joshua 24:15). There was no discussion. I decided, and it was. Now, my poor wife not only had whiplash from my rapid reversal of convictions and worldview, she was having treasured family traditions yanked from her life without any discussion.

The impact of my new approach spilled over into the church. I stood in the pulpit, as I had opportunity, and railed against the idolatry and lack of purity in the church. I challenged church leaders, telling them that they and the church needed revival. I wrote songs that lashed out against all of the compromise that I saw. I confronted the pastor and he responded by suggesting that I needed counseling. So, I left that church, taking my family with me.

The next few years were tough, but growing times. I would like to say that I fully learned my lesson at that time, but it is a lesson I continue to learn. God began to teach me about His grace. I learned, but still fell.

I can remember my early days in worship ministry. I thought I knew God’s plan and agenda for worship in the church. I had it figured out. How foolish I was. Today, I feel like I know less than I did then. God is so much bigger than He was then. Obviously, God did not change, but He has graciously worked in my life and revealed Himself to me through the years.

Were all of my convictions about the church, spiritual life, and worship wrong? No. At least, I don’t think so. In fact, I still hold onto most of the same convictions and, in many cases, I hold them more strongly today. So, what is the difference? Over the years, by God’s grace, I have learned to view myself more like the tax collector in the passage above. I understand a little better how absolutely depraved and hopeless I am without Jesus Christ. I don’t have all of the answers. In fact, I don’t have any of them. God does. God and His Word alone are alone infallible. So, I have learned to hold things a little more loosely. And, I have a long way to go. I still have a lot of Pharisee in me.

Self-righteousness is a symptom of pride, which I discussed in the last entry. At its core is an exalting of ourselves, our lives, our convictions and opinions to the level of the Almighty God. Of course, we don’t see it that way, but if we honestly evaluate things, that is what it is. When the Pharisees and teachers of the Law added all of their additional requirements to those in the Word of God, they were placing their wisdom on the same level as God’s. They condemned others for not upholding these additional laws and clarifications, just as they would the Law, or even more so. And we do the same thing.

How? When we judge others for not holding the same convictions as us, even though they are not mandates of Scripture. When we make minor, debatable or extra-biblical issues into major issues, on the level with doctrines like the inerrancy of Scripture or the deity of Christ, we become just like the Pharisees, exalting our rules and convictions to the level of Scripture. When we criticize or demean others for their lack of conviction in these areas, we put ourselves in the place of judge. However, there are many issues where orthodox, godly Bible scholars have differing opinions. Maybe our positions are valid. Maybe they aren’t. This is where we learn to major on the majors and minor on the minors. This is where we can encourage and challenge each other to dig deeper into the Word and together we will grow (Proverbs 27:17).

Self-righteousness shows itself when we stand outside someone’s life and make judgments about how they are conducting their lives or raising their families. This, of course, is the easy thing to do. It is much harder to invest ourselves in their lives, seeking to help them grow in their faith and learning together. It is much harder to love others like Jesus did and get involved in the messiness of their lives. Maybe we are afraid. Maybe we are lazy. Or maybe we are too proud and it is easier to lob judgments at them from afar. Ironically, if we did get involved with their lives, we might find they have a greater understanding of God than we do. The tax collector in our passage knew exactly where he stood before God. The Pharisee did not (Luke 18:13-14).

When we criticize or judge those who God has placed in leadership in the church, we are not only demonstrating self-righteousness, we are putting ourselves in opposition to God. Ultimately, church leadership is not accountable to us. They will be held accountable to God, for they are called to watch over those in their care (Hebrews 13:17). I am not saying this just because I am a church staff member. I have been on both sides of this relationship. I have been the receiver and the giver of criticism. I have been critical and judgmental of leadership. And I needed to repent.

Regarding the pastor I challenged many years ago, I had to go to him and ask for forgiveness, even though I still held to my convictions. In fact, I still think I was right, but my heart was wrong and my actions were not godly. I should have prayed for him and worked with him. I should have brought my concerns to him in a humble manner. Things could have turned out differently. In the end, maybe no change would have occurred and we would have had to leave the church because of our convictions. However, I would have been obedient to God and not guilty of rebellion, gossip, slander, and undermining the work of the church. Ironically, as it turned out, I became the custodian of that church. So, I ended up cleaning this pastor’s toilets. I am pretty sure God was humbling me through that.

We need to remember that God does not need our help to make sure things go right. God is sovereign. He will accomplish His will for His church and the spreading of the gospel with or without us and our great convictions and ideas. We need to remember how desperately we need a Savior, and that apart from God’s unbelievable grace and mercy, we stand absolutely condemned, without hope or salvation or forgiveness.

It is important to remember that Jesus was condemned and handed over by religious people, not “pagans.” He challenged their self-righteousness, superiority, and wicked hearts, and they killed Him for it. Jesus is not calling us to be religious. He is calling us to a radical relationship with Him, with the realization that all we have is in Him. Our greatest joy comes from being filled and satisfied in Him.

Jesus demonstrated humility through His incarnation, life, ministry, and sacrifice (Philippians 2:1-11). We should do the same. We should remain humble and flee pride and self-righteousness. If we humble ourselves before God, He will exalt us. And if our cause is from Him, He will honor it and bring it to pass (James 4:6-10; 1 Peter 5:5-6).

Together for His glory…

My Idolatrous Heart – Pride

The topic of idolatry summons up different meanings for many of us. Many of you who read this would consider yourselves to be Christians or followers of Christ. For the Christian, the topic of idolatry often conjures up images of statues or images worshiped in other religions. We think of the many references in the Bible to the gods of the nations that God warned Israel against. There were the constant warnings from the prophets, calling the people of God to forsake the worship of gods and return to the Lord.

At the heart of idolatry, though, are not the objects being worshiped. Primarily, it is the attitude of the heart. Therefore, idolatry could involve not only objects, but people, aspirations or pursuits, possessions, or even our own convictions and belief structures, if they are not grounded in the Truth. For the unbeliever, these things keep the person from finding their ultimate joy and satisfaction in God. For the believer, though, it can have the same result. Though we have found freedom through Jesus Christ, we repeatedly return to the pursuit of the things from which we were redeemed. We seek to find joy and satisfaction from those things which will never truly satisfy.

So, as I continue to examine the impact of idolatry on our lives, I will focus on an analysis of the attitudes of the heart. One of the primary, if not the primary, indications of an idolatrous heart is pride.

2 Chronicles 26 details the reign of King Uzziah in Judah. Uzziah started off well. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chronicles 26:4). However, his life and reign did not end well. “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God…” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Uzziah set out to do something that God had forbid him to do. The priests in the temple tried to stop him and, rather than listen to their warning, he became angry with them. At that moment, God struck him with leprosy, and he remained that way until his death, living in seclusion (2 Chronicles 26:21).

Pride can be a very strong influence in our lives. We use the phrase commonly in our language. We take pride on our work. We are proud of our children or our accomplishments. There is a sense of pride in being a part of a worthwhile cause. It means that we esteem or value something as dear or important to us. I believe God calls us to excellence in our relationships and pursuits. We should value these things. However, when the value we place on these things reign higher, in our hearts and lives, than the place only God deserves, it becomes idolatry.

How do we know when this point arrives? What are the telltale signs of idolatrous pride? I have seen it in the lives of others. I have seen it in my own life, although not as often as I should. It usually takes intervention from God to humble, teach, or remind me of my proper place in things. Nevertheless, here are some ways I have seen sinful pride revealed or on display.

Taking credit for God’s work. When we begin to take too much ownership or credit for something we have done, we are taking credit for what, ultimately, God has enabled us to do. We become self-sufficient in our own abilities and wisdom. Whether it is having a successful marriage and home life, raising godly and well-balanced kids, succeeding in careers or ministry, and many other things we could list, there is always a danger of forgetting the source of our abilities and what we are able to accomplish in life (John 15:4-5; 1 Corinthians 1:25-31. We need to remember that apart from Christ, we can do nothing lasting or of eternal value. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. We should direct all praise to God, Who has graciously allowed us to participate in the work He is doing.

Craving praise from others for our value and accomplishments. When we crave or glory in the praise of others, we are valuing their recognition and approval more than God’s. Their praise of us, rather than glorifying God, becomes our pursuit and pleasure. We work or advertise our efforts, in self-promotion, so that we will be acknowledged by others. We steal the glory that God alone deserves and He has told us that He will not share His glory (Isaiah 48:11). We also receive the only reward we will get, which is the fleeting approval and praise of others (Matthew 6:1-5). Instead, we need to live and work for the glory of God, receiving from Him an eternal reward, which will never fade, and the joy and delight that come from resting in His will and provision. And we need to do this regardless of the amount of recognition that we receive from others, if any.

Arrogance and easily taking offense. This arrogance is displayed when we value our opinions and our work so highly that we boast and build up our own importance. Or, we demean or tear down the work and value of others. Whether it is related to our position, ministry activities, our interpretation of Scripture, or any number of ministry, political or social issues, this arrogance often reveals itself through the belittling of other ideas or individuals. Pride also reveals itself when we are easily offended. When we hold ourselves or opinions too highly, any critique or comment can be viewed as an attack. We take offense, rather than listen and evaluate the opinions of others. Bitterness, rage, verbal attacks, and withdrawal are common responses when we are easily offended. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak (Proverbs 19:11; Galatians 5:22-26; James 1:19-20). Humility and longsuffering should guide our actions.

Not teachable and submissive. This is closely tied with arrogance. When we are not teachable, we value ourselves, our agenda, and our positions too highly. None of us are God. There is only One Who knows truth perfectly. This does not diminish the importance of our convictions and holding to the truth of God. However, if we are unwilling to listen to the instruction and wisdom of those who God has placed in positions of authority over us, we are guilty of the sin of pride. Ultimately, we may be in the right, but we must approach these moments with humility and openness to what God will teach us. By remaining teachable and humble, we honor those in authority and allow for a dialog to take place that can help us and others grow. Also, this heart attitude glorifies God (Hebrews 13:7, 17).

There is no way to touch on all of the aspects of how pride impacts our life. It is sometimes brazen and out in the open. Sometimes it is subtle, twisting itself around our hearts and minds, impacting our relationships with God and others. The sin of pride is basically the result of setting up an idol to ourselves. It is bowing down to our own importance and accomplishments. It is the valuing of ourselves more than God and His work in our lives.

I wish I could see how much this permeates my own life and how this impacts those I love and those I work with. I have a long way to go, but God is so gracious and patient. I pray that He will remind us all of the joy of resting in His sufficiency and salvation, forsaking our own glory and praise. The world tells us to hold on. God says let it go. We don’t need anyone’s approval but His. He is sufficient. And in His marvelous grace and power, He has equipped us to do His work, for His glory and our joy in Him.

Together for His glory…

Examining My Idolatrous Heart

“The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.” 2 Chronicles 36:15-16

The final chapter of 2 Chronicles contains the verses above, which is followed by the judgment of God on His people. These two verses contain several things for us to consider.

God is persistent. For years, through multiple prophets, God had warned His people about their idolatry and their rejection of Him and His law. They were without excuse. The people could not say that they were unaware of God requirements. God had even brought smaller judgments and trials on the nation, in order to turn their hearts back to Him, but the revivals were short-lived. They would turn away again. Yet, God continued to warn and call His people to return to Him.

The persistence of God flows from His compassion for His people. God was protecting them from the emptiness and passing satisfaction brought by their pursuit of the gods of other nations. God knew that they would find no greater fulfillment or lasting joy than in their covenant relationship with Him. He wanted the best for His people, not just for the present generation, but for future generations. Therefore, He continued to warn and call them back to Him, in spite of their repeated rebellion.

Yet, in the end, the people would not have it God’s way. They wanted things their own way. They did not believe God’s warnings. In their foolishness, they did not think God would act. Or worse, they did not think He could act. They mocked His messengers and despised His prophets. They took on the practices and worship of the gods of the very nations that God had driven out before them. They did even more evil than the nations before them (2 Chronicles 33:9), even though they had been given the very Word of God. Their rebellion was a complete rejection of God.

Therefore, as the passage says, there was no remedy. God brought judgment on the people of Judah and Israel. They were killed or removed from the land He had given them. The temple, built for the glory and worship of God, was destroyed. The people God had chosen and delivered from captivity were now captive again. God was justified in His judgment. His persistence and compassion kept it from happening sooner. And even His judgment, He preserved a remnant of His people, once again demonstrating His compassion and faithfulness, even when His people were not faithful.

There are many lessons for us in this passage. As followers of Jesus Christ, we need to be guarding our hearts against the idolatry that is so prone to the human race. We need to continually examine our hearts, asking God to search our hearts and reveal to us the things which we are treasuring more than Him. Is God sending us reminders and messages that we are not listening to? Or worse, are we despising and rejecting them? Have we been taken captive by idols in our heart?

In the church, we are often quick to cast judgment on those outside of our evangelical Christian bubble. We target the big sin items in society. We condemn elected officials for not upholding Christian principles. If they would only operate on Biblical principles, society would be turned around. Really? The nation of Israel had the most Biblical framework of any nation that has ever existed. They had the very Word of God as their constitution, to put it in our modern framework. Yet, rebellion and idolatry and sin did not cease. There was corruption throughout the nation’s leaders, priesthood, and the people. As with Israel, all of our attempts will also fall short because of the idolatry of the human heart. At the same time, we point our finger at society, sin and idolatry in our hearts could be impacting the work of the gospel through our lives and our church.

The human heart is deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9). We deceive even ourselves. The work of the church is often hindered because of the idolatry of our hearts. Our preferences, prejudices, agendas, short-sightedness, and sin hamper the effectiveness of the church. Sadly, we don’t often realize it. In fact, we may even think we have noble or righteous causes. I have had to examine my own heart to see if there are convictions or positions that I adamantly hold, but which may be working against what God wants to do in His church. I have to ask myself whether my ministry agenda and pursuits have become an idol in my life or whether they are actually helping to accomplish God’s purposes for His church.

How do we know? We have to continually examine our hearts, looking for these idols. We have to check our attitudes. When someone in leadership speaks regarding a ministry or mission, is my first reaction negative? Do I consistently question whether this is something that the church should be doing? Do I frequently criticize or grumble to others about what someone else in the church is doing? If I present an idea for ministry and it is not readily received or pursued, do I become angry and critical? Have I withdrawn from most of the activity and ministry of the church? If I have not physically withdrawn, have I removed myself emotionally or spiritually, so that I am just going through the motions? Have I become a piece of driftwood in the church, just floating around, bumping into things, causing damage and distraction, rather than intentionally engaging in ministry, under the leadership that God has put in place in my church?

I have been at our current church for 30 years. I have been actively serving, in some capacity, for almost every one of those years. And yet, I need to regularly ask myself these same questions. I routinely construct idols in my life or ministry that need to be cut down. I have disagreed with more things than I can count. There have been times when I have questioned why I am even at the church. However, God has allowed me to work through these things, hashing them out with leadership and others in the church. In the end, God has used these things to refine me and to reveal areas in my life where I was prideful and was not teachable. It is an endless process and I have a long way to go.

If you have a bur under your saddle, it may be time to lift up the saddle and see what is really there. What you find may surprise you. Instead of the glaring issue you thought was there, like an issue with a person or the church, you may find an idol you have erected in your own honor. I pray that we will be quick to hear the Word and warnings that God brings our way. We should continually examine ourselves, to see if our lives and faith are what God has called us to (2 Corinthians 13:5). The alternative is to leave God with no remedy but to discipline us, as He has always done with His people. Jesus said that He will build His church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). If the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, surely He will not tolerate one of us standing against what He wants to accomplish. My friends, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

Together for His glory…