Welcome!

I am the Pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. It's a church made up of people from around the world who love Jesus and find themselves here in France. These articles are written with them in mind, but feel free to read them wherever you are from!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Danger of Unmet Expectations

Expectations are powerful things. When life goes as we expected we feel good. When people or situations fail to meet our expectations, we are placed in a potentially dangerous situation. Our reactions can have far-reaching impacts. Often our present problems are the result of how we dealt with unmet expectations in the past.

Consider for a moment the opening chapters of the Bible. After Adam and Eve sinned, the Lord laid out the consequences in Genesis 3:14-19. We are familiar with them: childbearing would become much more painful, the cursed ground would produce thorns and thistles, etc. Hidden away in these verses is a powerful word from God. God told the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring (seed); he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15). The Hebrew word translated "bruise" in this verse means to bruise, crush, or strike. Scholars see it as the first hint of the Savior coming to destroy the enemy. After all, Jesus received a spike through his heels on the cross and his death crushed Satan's power!

But that is getting ahead of ourselves. Think about the expectations that Adam and Eve probably had as a result of the promise in Genesis 3:15. They didn't know about the next 1186 chapters of the Bible. They only had Genesis 1-3. They had been kicked out of the Garden and condemned to eating their bread "by the sweat of their brow" for the rest of their lives. As they pondered what God said, it would have been perfectly reasonable for them to expect their yet unconceived child to be the one that would crush the head of that dreadful deceitful serpent. The word "offspring" is singular. They would have had no way of knowing that it would be generations before the Messiah would be born. Their hope would have been in what God was going to do through their child.

"Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived..." 

Pregnancy is a time of waiting and planning. Dreams and expectations abound. Will it be a boy or a girl? What will they be like? What talents will they have? What color should we paint their room? Of all the dreams and expectations that Adam and Eve had, one would stand above them all: This child shall crush the serpent's head!

"...and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.'" 

Scholars have long debated the exact translation of Eve's words. Some say the phrase means that she was praising God for giving her a son, Cain. Others say that she is giving thanks to God for his help through the painful delivery. Still others think that she sees something truly miraculous and supernatural in Cain. The phrase can be translated, "I have gotten a man-the Lord!" Whichever interpretation is right, Eve views Cain as a gift from God and undoubtedly sees him as the one who will destroy the serpent.

Parents set expectations for their children, whether they are clearly defined or not. The expectations for Cain were high. We don't know how long much time passed, but eventually, Eve got pregnant again and gave birth to another son, Abel. Perhaps we get a glimpse of the expectations they had for Abel when we learn that "Abel" comes from the Hebrew word meaning "vanity or meaningless." The difference in her reactions to the births of Cain and Abel is striking.

It is easy to imagine what Cain was like. He had been raised expecting to be victorious. Every step would be filled with confidence because he was Satan's enemy and will defeat him one day. Talk about a first-born son who is going places!

Then comes the sacrifice.

Cain labored growing food while Abel tended flocks. "Satan-Crusher" Cain and "Meaningless" Abel both brought a portion of their work and offered it as a sacrifice to the Lord. Then the unthinkable happens: God rejects Cain's sacrifice! His expectations are shattered. The Bible says that Cain was very angry and his countenance fell (Genesis 4:5).

Anger and depression are common reactions to broken expectations. Think about the last time your expectations were not met. How did you react? Some people tend more towards anger and others toward withdrawal and depression. Others oscillate between the two. It is at the moment of broken expectations that sin is crouching at the door desiring to destroy us. This is when we need to hear the two questions that God asked Cain.

Question 1: Why are you angry and why has your face fallen?

The first question the Lord asks is aimed at getting Cain to define his expectations clearly. The easy answer would be, "You rejected my sacrifice!" The deeper and more important answer would be, "My parents told me that I was going to be a mighty conquerer who would defeat the serpent. I am important! A mighty man! You rejected my sacrifice but accepted the sacrifice of my 'meaningless' brother."

Getting at the heart of our expectations is important. Often deeper digging exposes false assumptions, pride, and selfishness. Sometimes it brings to light false formulas that we have built into our ways of thinking. For example, if someone hurts us our despondency may reflect a formula that says, "If I am worthwhile as a person, no one will ever hurt me. Because someone hurt me I must have no value."

God's question to Cain was an opportunity for him to talk to God. If Cain had opened up about what was happening inside of him, the Lord could have realigned his false expectations. He could have taught him to walk in joyful obedience. He could have told him that the fulfillment of the promise to crush Satan's head was generations away. He could have taught him that significance comes from walking with God and not being "a mighty man." There could have been a lot of soul surgery and healing done if Cain had responded. But he didn't. In sullen anger, he remained silent.

Question 2: If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?

There is a right course of action in every situation and it leads to being accepted by God and the lifting up of our countenance. It may be difficult to follow, particularly if anger or despair are dominating our thinking. The right thing may mean forgiving those who do us wrong (Matt 18:21-22) or loving our enemies (Matt 5:43). The pain of unmet expectations may make the right way seem absurd, but it is the only safe way through the situation.

For Cain, the difficulty was that the Lord did not accept his grain sacrifice. An animal sacrifice was required. This was what "doing right" involved. Cain would have to go to his brother Abel to obtain an animal to sacrifice. It would be humbling. Doing what God required would involve an internal transformation for Cain. It would bring him into greater submission to the Lord. It would deepen his relationship with his brother. It would break his pride. The result would be a raised countenance, a better family life, and a future of unknown potential because he was walking in obedience to God.

Sin is crouching at the door...

Sin desired to have him. The term refers to a lion poised to attack its prey. God warned him of the consequences of not doing what was right. The consequences of disobedience are always far greater than the cost of obedience.

Standing there in the fiery trial of unmet expectations, Cain had a decision to make: would he do right or walk away? We know what happened. Cain committed murder. He killed his own brother. Abel had done nothing at all to hurt Cain. The power of unmet expectations caused Cain to see Abel as an enemy worthy of death. As a result of the murder, Cain lived as a marked man away from the presence of the Lord for the rest of his life (Genesis 4:8-16). Oh, how powerful unmet expectations can be!

When our expectations are not met and we sense anger or depression (fight or flight) rising up within us, we need to find God's right way through the situation. He will lead us in paths of righteousness for his name's sake (Psalm 23:3). We fool ourselves when we think we can deal with the situation some other way and not suffer the consequences. We may think that we have ignored God's way and are doing well because we have not done something as drastic as Cain did in killing his brother. But murder is not the most common result of unmet expectations.

The most common consequence is bitterness. Bitterness is like a fog that rises up from the pain of unmet expectations and clouds the mind and judgment. It causes us to react in anger or despair to things that others would not be bothered by. It poisons life. Like a root buried in the ground, bitterness can constantly send up shoots. The shoots can be cut off, but the bitter root remains. Often it remains masked behind a "tough" exterior and weaves a web of rationalizations for its existence.
For the bitter person, there is an underlying sense that life is not fair and that they are perfectly justified in acting the way they do. It makes it difficult to get rid of!

That is one reason why we are told to make sure that no one misses the grace of God and that bitter root is allowed to grow because it will defile many people (Hebrews 12:15). We need to allow the Lord to work deep in our hearts to deal with any bitterness. We need to exercise extreme care when we are faced with unrealized expectations because we must choose God's acceptable way or we will suffer the consequences.

A great book on dealing with the issue of our soul's health is Soul Care by Rob Reimer
For a detailed study of bitterness read Tracey Bickle's book Chaos Beneath the Shade.



Friday, February 16, 2018

Praying Beyond "Lord, Bless the Missionaries"


Missionaries leave their home and take the gospel to new places. They face challenges of culture, language, distance, and spiritual warfare. When we send them off they tell us that what they need most is our prayers. We tell them that we will pray for them and then...what? Often they are forgotten or when we do think of praying for them we are stumped. How do you pray for missionaries? This question becomes particularly important because more and more missionaries are working in areas that are hostile to the gospel. They cannot send out regular prayer letters to let people know how things are going. These missionaries are the ones most in need of prayer, but are easily forgotten.

So how do you intercede for them if you don’t know what to pray for?
General thoughts:
  • Have a system to remind you to pray. You won’t be getting newsletters, so you need to develop a reminder that works for you. Some intercessors devote a particular day of the week to pray for missionaries. Others have a prayer partner that they regularly meet with for prayer.
  • Research your target.  You can find a great deal of general information about the country, city or people group you are interested in online. Operation World, the World Factbook, and Wikipedia are all good references. Find pictures of cities, places or people if that helps you. 
  • Use their prayer letters. Many missionaries send out prayer letters. If they do, use them! They are written in the midst of busy days and provide great insights into the lives of the missionary. However, the reality of many missionaries today is that they cannot send newsletters. If they do, they must avoid all references to Christianity. Email, regular mail, and phone conversations are often monitored. Often it is the workers that communicate the least that need prayer the most!
  • Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Remember: the Holy Spirit knows what you need to pray for and he will show you. NEVER IGNORE THE PROMPTINGS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Tremendous issues may hang in the balance. You may never know this side of heaven what the results of you intercession were. Accidents avoided or satanic attacks thwarted before they began cannot be known here on earth. You can be assured that the nudge you feel to pray for a missionary is not coming from the enemy.  Prayer is the last thing Satan wants you doing!
  • Utilize the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Words of knowledge and discernment are invaluable as you seek to understand how to pray. If you have been given the spiritual gift of tongues, use it to pray for the workers and their field.
Specifics:
  • Pray that the workers would have a deep wholly-committed devotion to Christ. 
  • Some workers have a work platform that allows the worker access into the country. Pray that their work would be high quality and a source of real blessing to the people. 
  • Pray that the worker will have a real sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and will be obedient to his promptings. Ministry in many countries is full of risk. The worker risks expulsion, harassment or worse any time they talk about the gospel. If they “play it safe” then they risk ineffectiveness. The Holy Spirit knows when and what to say! Ask God to enable the worker to walk closely with the Spirit and to be instantly obedient to his commands. 
  • Pray for a hedge of protection to surround the worker. Both physical and spiritual danger abound in many places. 
  • Pray that God would raise up an army of intercessors for the workers. Pray that these prayer warriors would be faithful to prayer and obedient to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • Pray for a support system to develop. The “lifeline” back home needs to be strong. The people who support the worker need to be wise in the way that they support the worker. Because correspondence is frequently monitored, discretion must be used or more harm than good can be done by emails or letters.
  • Pray for strategic relationships. This needs to happen on at least two fronts. First, pray that God would lead them to develop relationships with people who are open to the gospel. Pray that the Holy Spirit would prepare the hearts of key people who will form the foundation for the spread of the gospel. Second, pray for strategic relationships to develop with the local community leaders. Permits for building use, visa issues, living arrangements, customs problems and a myriad of other details are frequently solved by knowing the right people. Pray that God would help the workers find favor with these key people. 
  • Pray for insights into culture that will open the door to the gospel message. Every culture has keys which can be used to bring acceptance of the gospel. Pray that workers would understand how to best present the gospel in their unique cultural setting.
  • Pray for encouragement. There is a reason they are called “hard places.” Pray that God would give the workers daily encouragement to continue in the task they have been called to (Hebrews 6:10-20).
  • Pray through a book of the Bible. Take one of the books of the Bible and use it as a guide for prayer. Read until you find a truth, promise, or warning that seems to stand out and begin praying along the lines of that text. For example, you might pick the book of Philippians as you read you come across Philippians 1:9-11 and pray that their love would grow in knowledge and depth of insight. While we all need to grow in love, the missionary faces expressing love in a new cultural context. That is harder than it looks! As you read Philippians 1:12-14 you might sense the need that they would see how their difficulties are serving to advance the gospel. "Praying Bible books" will transform your praying for missionaries!
Remember:

Completing the Great Commission is a team effort. I believe that the real heroes of the kingdom are not the pastors or the missionaries. The real heroes are hidden away with bent knees and bowed heads. Their quiet prayers echo through the throne room of God. They strengthen missionaries and tear down demonic strongholds. They open doors long closed. They are the key to seeing people from every nation gathered around the throne singing praises to the Lamb who was slain and lives forevermore.

We may not be called to public service, or qualified for instructive speech, or endowed with wealth and influence, but to each of us is given the power to touch the hand of omnipotence and minister at the golden altar of prevailing prayer. One censer only we must bring – the golden bowl of faith, and as we fill it with the burning coals of the Holy Spirit’s fire, and the incense of the great High Priest, lo, there will be silence once again in Heaven, as God hushes the universe to listen, and then the living fire will be poured out upon the earth in the mighty forces of providence and grace, by which the kingdom of our Lord is to be ushered in. – A.B. Simpson

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Christian at Work: A Fresh Look at a Parable

Most people are not self-employed. Both the dishwasher in a restaurant and the vice president working for a huge multi-national corporation have something in common: they work for someone else who oversees their work and signs their paycheck. They have certain responsibilities they are expected to fulfill.  Interestingly, the Lord told a parable that gives insight into how he thinks each of them should do their jobs. It is found in Matthew 25:14-30. Let's take a look.

Jesus speaks about a man who is going to go on a long journey. He will need to entrust his affairs to his servants. Like any boss, he delegates things to them based on his estimation of their abilities. To the servant he thought had the most ability, he gave five talents, the second servant received two talents, and the servant with the least ability received a single talent.

It is important not to be confused by the word "talent" because it is a what is called a linguistic false friend. It has nothing to do with a person's abilities. A talent was a sum of money equivalent to twenty years worth of work. So let's do some math and then insert the amount in euros just to avoid the linguistic confusion.

According to Wikipedia, the average gross income in France is 35,484€. Here's how verses 14-15 read after some quick calculating:

For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave 3,548,400€, to another 1,419,360€, to another 709,680€, each according to his ability.

These three servants worked for their boss. They had different abilities and so they received different amounts of money. Those with the ability to handle large amounts of money received more to manage, but each of them had responsibilities which were important to the boss. Each of them had a significant role to play in the operation of the boss's affairs.

After entrusting his three servants with over five and a half million euros he went away...for a long time. The Greek word implies going on a long journey for a significant period of time. In today's language, we might translate it with something like "he went abroad." In an era before cell phones and the internet, he was giving these servants an incredible amount of responsibility and was not able to look over their shoulders to make sure they did their jobs.



The good and faithful servants.

There were two servants who Jesus called "good and faithful" servants. They took the money and put it to work. During the time that the boss was away, they each doubled the money that they had been entrusted with. They were diligently at work caring for their boss's interests while he was away. They were wise and skillful.

What's more, they gave all of the money and the earnings back to the owner.

Think about the temptation that they would have faced. The first one earned over 3.5 million euros in profit. If the boss had been gone 5 years, that is about a 14% return on investment. The servant could have told the boss that the ROI was only 10% and secretly pocketed the difference. Who would be the wiser? The opportunity to cheat the boss was there. But Jesus specifically points out that the good and faithful servants gave back all the money that they had earned. They had integrity.

Diligence, skill, and integrity were the characteristics of the good and faithful servants. They received a great reward.

The wicked servant.

There was a servant who had been given less because his employer thought he had the least ability. Still, he had been given over 700,000 euros to manage. That is a significant amount of money and responsibility. When the owner returned, he discovered that the wicked servant had not even done the bare minimum he might expect from him. Instead of even putting it in the bank where it would draw a little interest, the servant buried it in the ground.

The servant's explanation for his behavior is telling. "I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you  did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid." On the surface, it seems like having a "hard" boss would cause the employee to make sure that he did what the master wanted. Why did this servant have the opposite response?

There are two reasons:
"When the cat's away,
the mice will play!

First, this servant was a sluggard. There is a proverb that says, "Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is the sluggard to him who sends him" (Proverbs 10:26). That certainly describes how the owner felt when he found out how little the servant had done! The sluggard (or slothful person) avoids work at all costs. He makes up reasons for why he cannot do anything. "There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!" is the cry of the sluggard. He imagines dangers that are not there.

The wicked servant was afraid of doing what the others did with the money. They went and traded with it. They put it to work for their master. The sluggard was afraid to do that. He reasoned, "What if something bad happens? I better not even put it in the bank...it could be robbed!" So he did the foolish thing: he buried it. That was easier than taking it downtown to the bank.

Second, I believe that the servant totally misunderstood the character of the boss. He was not a "hard" man. He was good. The two faithful servants were well rewarded and enjoyed a great relationship with him. The opinion of the sluggard was based on a misunderstanding of the nature of working for someone. He thought the man was "hard" for "reaping where he did not sow." After all, he made over five million euros while away on a trip! Was that wrong? Did that make him "hard"?

Not at all! The man had money that he could have buried all by himself. Instead, he invested it with his servants. He wanted to put it to good use. It says that they "traded" with it. So they went into the marketplace and bought and sold things for a profit. Maybe they opened a restaurant or a furniture store. They took the capital and put it two work in a way that produced goods and services that people wanted, benefiting the community, providing jobs (probably), and returning a good rate of return...the profit for the owner. So they were making the owner richer, but also improving their lives and the lives of other people. It was a win-win situation. The wicked servant did not understand that and only thought evil of his boss.

I thought this parable was about the kingdom of God!

It is. Jesus is telling us to be good and faithful servants with what he has entrusted us with. If we are, we will be well-rewarded when he returns. The parable is primarily talking about using what we have been given for the benefit of his kingdom. We need to understand the responsibilities he has given to us and be wise stewards of them.

At the same time, though, this parable tells us what Jesus thinks a good and faithful servant is. That definition applies to our work lives where we have been given responsibilities by our bosses. Whether the responsibility is managing a large enterprise or washing dishes, Jesus expects us to be faithful, diligent, and honest in discharging their duties. That is the definition of a Christian employee.

The Scriptures make it explicit in Colossians 3:

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 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 (Col 2:22-24).


This is one of several articles about the Christian at work. All of them can be found by clicking here. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Characteristics of the Christian at Work

This is the second in a series about the Christian at Work. It is written with the prayerful hope that it will help the vast majority of believers connect their faith to what they will probably spend most of their waking lives doing: working. The first in the series is found here.

The alarm clock goes off and we start our morning routine. After making ourselves look presentable and grabbing a quick breakfast and a cup of coffee, we head out the door to go to work. It is a pattern for life for most of us. Here in France, they call this routine "m├ętro, boulot, dodo." But what difference does the fact that we are a Christian make in our life when we head out the door on Monday morning?

A Foundational Scripture




Whether we are self-employed, the owner of a large company, a line worker, or a middle manager, this verse is a starting point regarding how we are to live. Our boss is Jesus. As followers of Christ, we do not work for ourselves, for our earthly boss, or for our company. We work for Jesus. Instantly this changes our perspective about our workday. Jesus is there and we are serving him. There need be no disconnect between Sunday and Monday morning. All of life is to be lived with the awareness of his presence and with the understanding that Jesus is the Master of our entire lives: that includes work. It affects how we treat customers, co-workers, our bosses, and those we supervise. We will take a look at specific ways that it affects these relationships in future posts. First, we will consider two characteristics that the Lord wants to develop in us regardless of the work that we do.

Diligence
In last week's post, I wrote that we are commanded to do something useful with our hands. This usefulness is designed to help provide for ourselves and to be a blessing to others. The schoolteacher earns a salary while educating students. The engineer is paid for designing a new road. The clerk is paid for stocking the shelves so that people can buy the things that they need. In each of these cases, the worker is doing something useful that helps other people. The Lord expects us to be diligent in doing this. Diligence is simply conscientiousness and perseverance in doing a task. If work is doing something useful that benefits others, diligence is doing it consistently well for the long-term.

I remember laying down on the sidewalk as a little boy watching with fascination a colony of ants. Those little things never stopped moving! Some were building the anthill while others were busy gathering food. Sometimes a few ants worked together to move a large piece of food. I could only imagine what was happening beneath the surface. It was amazing. Of course, ants are common and as adults, we often don't pay attention to them unless we find them in our kitchen. That's why I was startled a few year ago when I was sitting on a bench in Recife, Brazil. I looked down and there was a ribbon of green moving across the dirt. Thousands of ants were climbing single file up a nearby tree. Each one then took a small piece of a leaf back down the tree and marched it, single file to a giant anthill 50 meters away. Incredible! The Bible holds up the ant as an example to us of the type of worker we should be regardless of our job (Proverbs 6:6-8). They have something to teach us: those little guys know how to work.

We are to work diligently in order to provide for ourselves and to be a blessing to other people. A group of diligent workers is a powerful thing because their work does not improve only their own lives, it improves the lives of the whole community. In this way, work is a manifestation of love for one another.

I have a friend whose picture should be next to the word diligence in the dictionary. A millwright by trade, he worked for a large mining company. He was known for not only his hard work but in seeing little things that would make the operation more efficient or safer. I remember the first time I went hiking with him because he carried a little saw in his small backpack. Anytime there was a tree that had fallen across the trail he pulled out his saw and swiftly cleared the obstacle out of the way. He wasn't part of a trail maintenance crew, it just seemed to be natural to him. I asked him about it and he laughed, "When I was a teenager I prayed, 'Lord, teach me how to work.' I guess he answered my prayer."


In the Bible, those who are not diligent are called sluggards. They are lazy and full of excuses for why they do not work. I encourage you to look up the passages in the Bible that use the term. The Lord knew that there would be those who would be tempted to take advantage of the generosity of others. They were lazy and were not diligent workers. As a result, Paul laid down a rule in the churches: "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat." He insisted that people get to work and earn their own living (2 Thes 3:10-12).

Laziness is frequently an indication of selfishness in our hearts. We roll over, preferring the warmth of our beds to the small effort of getting up and being a diligent worker (Proverbs 26:4).

Integrity

One of the key traits that God wants to develop in us is honesty. Satan is called "the father of lies" and deceit is his native language (John 8:44). We are to be people of the truth! Often in our work lives, we will be tempted to deceive other people. For example, when I was learning to sell insurance, my boss and I went to appointments together. One afternoon as we made a sale he told me "adjust" the applicant's weight because otherwise his application might be rejected and we would lose the commission. The man was overweight and my boss wanted me to lie in order to make the sale. Opportunities to "get ahead" by lying are found around every corner in the marketplace. "Everyone is doing it!" the evil one will whisper in our ear. We must not listen to his voice. I refused to lie on the application, which frustrated my boss, but my integrity was intact.

Proverbs 11:3 -  The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them. 
Proverbs 21:6 -  The getting of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

There are times that being honest seems costly. A sale might be lost or a boss may get mad. In the end, though, our integrity will reflect well on our Lord. We are to keep our lives honorable even among those who do not believe in Jesus. They might accuse us doing wrong, but in the end, they will know that our honesty comes from God and they may even turn to him as a result (1 Peter 2:12).

Diligence and Integrity Are Signs Pointing to Something Else
Some of us live and work in cultures that are not open to the gospel. Typically this happens because the culture has an anti-Christian bias. It may be that another religion dominates the land or it has been affected by secular humanism. The moral failures of celebrity Christians do not help. One of the ways to change this attitude is through diligence and integrity in the workplace. When people rub shoulders with someone who is diligent and honest, it is attractive. They are trustworthy. They are caring and sensitive to others. They are seeking to improve the lives of others. Through exhibiting a strong work ethic, Christians can gain the reputation of being the best workers and the best bosses. It will open doors to share the gospel and to plant seeds that may lead others to eternal life.




Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Christian Perspective on Work

After I committed my life to Christ during university,  I was hungry and devoured the Bible and read dozens of books on following Christ. I wanted to succeed as a Christian and be as useful as possible in the kingdom of God. I was inspired by the biographies that I read and wanted to be like those great heroes of the faith. Passionate to follow Christ, I was ready to risk everything for the gospel. While my passion has not waned since those days, my understanding of what being a radical follower of Christ has changed because the Lord ripped a deeply embedded lie out of my life.

You see, while I would not have admitted it, I believed that those who were really used by God were full-time Christian workers. They were pastors and missionaries who did not have time for "secular" employment. Even as I write those words I cringe at their absurdity. This lie was fed by the fact that none of the books that I read were written by mechanics, executives, or bus drivers. They were all written by, or about pastors and missionaries.

To pull this false idea out of my life the Lord led me into the marketplace. I spent most of the first fifteen years of my working life in the insurance and investment world. I started in an entry-level clerical job, moved into management, and eventually opened a consulting business. I discovered that often there seemed to be little immediate connection between what I was dealing with at work and the preaching that I heard on Sunday mornings. The preaching that I heard was good, but it was apparent that the preacher had not spent much time in my work environment.

I found that I needed to dig into the Scriptures for myself in order to truly understand how following Jesus related to my work life. Over the course of this year, I intend to share some of the things that I learned during those years. Hopefully, it will be informative, challenging, and liberating for the majority of you, who are not pastors or missionaries. 

Work and the Curse
It is a sentiment widely held by people: work is the result of the fall. When the alarm clock goes off and it is time to start another day of work it is easy to understand the thought. But is work the result of the curse? Most people seem to think of the Garden of Eden as an endless Club Med vacation. Perfect weather, delicious food, great scenery...and no work! But is that what the Bible says?

In Genesis 1, God makes humankind in his image. He tells the man and woman, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves" (Genesis 1:28). The image is of the world being a wild and untamed place that needed to be brought into subjection. Far from being a vacation, this would take time and would involve effort. And God declared that it was very good! (Genesis 1:31).

In Genesis 2, we read the details of the creation of Adam and Eve. It begins in Genesis 2:5 with a land that lacked "bushes and small plants of the field." These two terms specifically refer to cultivated plants. Why were there no cultivated plants? Because there was no one to cultivate them! So God planted a garden, formed man and put him in it "to work it and keep it" (Genesis 2:15). Mankind was given the responsibility of working the land (to subdue and have dominion over it) and to keep watch over it.

Subduing the land, having dominion over the animals, cultivating the land, and keeping watch over creation sounds like a lot of work!

We must begin understanding our jobs as something that has been given to us by God. We were never intended to sit on the couch watching reruns on television. We are created and designed to work.

How Does the Fall Impact Work?

Thorns and Thistles
The most obvious result of the fall relating to work is the curse of the ground. Prior to the fall, the land had been abundant and easily cultivated. Work was relatively easy. After the fall, Adam was told that working the ground would be painful. It is a rich Hebrew word which means pain, toil, and hardship. Thorns and thistles would always seem to grow faster than beans and carrots. The piece of bread would only be produced with much sweat (Genesis 3:17-19).

The image of the world before the fall is one of untamed abundance. After the fall, food would only come through lots of hard work. Implied in this picture is the idea that without the hard work there would be no bread. If abundance marked the world before the fall, scarcity was the picture of life after the fall.

Relationship Issues
Not only was the ground cursed as a result of the fall, but relationships were severely affected. Adam blamed Eve for their sin (Genesis 3:12). One of their sons murdered his brother (Genesis 4:8). It quickly becomes evident that sin has completely pervaded the hearts of everyone (Genesis 6:5). The pages of the Bible are filled with stories of murder, rape, theft, and deceit. If working the land wasn't hard enough, now the wickedness of others threatens to rob us of the bread we labored so long to produce!

The Gospel
Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin. Those that repent and believe in him are born again, receive eternal life, and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within. This results in a transformed life that is perhaps no more better demonstrated than in Ephesians 4:28: "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing something useful with his own hands so that he may have something to share with those in need." The selfish thief turned into a benevolent worker!

Modern Life
But there is something beyond the transformed life that catches my eye in this verse. Paul tells the thief to "do something useful" so that he has something to share. That is an important concept in our age. For most of human existence, working the land has been the most common job. As recently as 200 years ago, 90% of people worked on farms. The biblical idea of working being the cultivation of the land was immediately transferable to daily life. Today almost no one works on farms. For example, in the United States, only 2% of the people are professional farmers!

Next time you are tired of staring at the computer
screen, remember that you could have spent your
day staring at the rear end of a horse!
The productivity of farmers has resulted in many people needing to find work that is not agricultural in nature. That's where the idea of "doing something useful" fits into the picture. As followers of Christ, we are called to work, doing something good and useful that will not only provide for ourselves (earning our bread) but be a blessing to others. The variety of occupations that are now available that will be a benefit to others is almost limitless.

It is important to make the connection between how we spend our working days and the benefit we are providing to others. Sometimes this link can be difficult to see. My first job was as a health insurance claims examiner. As I sat at my desk in my first job entering claims into the computer for payment, it was easy to feel like I was a nameless worker who made little difference in people's lives. I needed to take a bigger view: the company I was working for was a mechanism that helped people pay for medical care that was otherwise catastrophically expensive. That was a good thing that helped lots of people. As I focused on the good that we were doing as a company, I discovered that my attitude at work improved.

Those who have been born again by the Spirit seek to live life by the principles that Jesus taught us. And that begins with the very idea that work itself is not a bad thing. It is a good thing that we were created to do for the glory of God. As we walk in obedience to him, we will spend most of our lives working. Good work, done to the glory of God, is holy and deeply spiritual.

Remember that when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning!

The next article in this series is found here.

Friday, January 19, 2018

What Are You Doing that Requires Faith?

I used to teach a group of sixth-grade boys every year. They were rowdy and sports-minded like most 12-13-year-old boys tend to be. In order to capture their attention, we talked about sports. We talked about the sports halls of fame that were scattered around the country that enshrined the great sports figures of the past. The Hockey Hall of Fame was just an hour away from where we were living and it was a rare boy who had never been there. It was a fantastic way to help them connect with one of the most inspiring chapters of the Bible: Hebrews 11. In that chapter, the writer recounts the exploits of the heroes of the faith. I called the chapter "God's Hall of Fame." We met every week to talk about the exploits of people like Abraham, Moses, and Samson. The boys loved it!

After class one day, I was walking back to my office from the church kitchen carrying a cup of coffee. Suddenly, the question popped into my mind, "What am I doing that requires any faith at all?" I talked to the boys each week about being "men of faith", but life had settled into a comfortable an predictable rhythm. There was little risk in what I was doing. Life had become a pleasant routine.

The Christian life is not routine. Oh, there are seasons where things can be mundane, but if we read either the Old or New Testaments we discover that God frequently called people to take risks. Consider Noah building an ark or Daniel daring to pray. It doesn't get less risky in the New Testament. Consider Peter getting out of the boat or Ananias going to visit Saul/Paul. The call to follow Christ is a call into the unknown and unexpected. The security lies in Jesus, but he will lead us into situations that will challenge us to trust him.

Ponder the fact that each of us is to be connected to the task of making of disciples of all people. This is not the task of specialists like missionaries and pastor, but of ordinary Christians. Sure, the biblical history of the church is called "The Acts of the Apostles", but if you read its pages you will find that there were many non-apostles that were doing "acts" just as faith-filled as the apostles. The first great wave of evangelism outside of Jerusalem was not done by the apostles, but by "regular" Christians sharing their faith as persecution nipped at their heels (Acts 8:1-4).

As I sat down in my office that morning, I contemplated the fact that  Ephesians 2:10 tells us that God has prepared things for us to do. I realized that if I was to walk by faith, it meant doing the things that God had planned for me to do. It wasn't about thrill-seeking. It was about obeying God.

Walking by faith cuts in two directions. First, there were many things that would be mundane, but could be transformed by understanding that God was using what I was doing even in the ordinary things of life. Jesus asked his disciples to pass out bread and they became part of a miracle. Walking by faith means seeing that things like teaching my class of sixth-graders could be used to call people to the mission field. Or that a job on the factory floor could strategically place a believer into the lives of co-workers. Or changing another diaper or washing another plate could be used by God in ways beyond understanding. So seeing our daily tasks as part of God's plan energizes and directs our work.

Second, there will be times when God will call us to step out of the routine in acts of radical obedience.   This is to be expected and it will be uncomfortable. It happened regularly to the first disciples and we can read these accounts in the gospels and Acts. God has not changed, nor has the pattern of walking with him. There are moments when Jesus will call you to get out of the boat and walk on water. It may be to share the gospel with a co-worker, start a bible study, or pray for the sick. It may be to mow the neighbor's grass or stop to change a flat tire. We don't get to choose the task or the moment. We listen to the voice of the Lord and obey.

 If this never happens to you, something is wrong. You are missing something vital in your Christian life. My advice to you is that you need to begin telling God that you are willing to do whatever he wants you to do. Ask him to show you the adventure of keeping in step with the Spirit. But let me warn you: he will take you up on that prayer, and it will lead to places you would not normally go. It will be risky and uncomfortable. That's why faith is required. You have to trust him.

I am not going to share, in this post, where God led me because my story isn't your story. The works he is calling me to do are not the same as yours. Instead, let me encourage you to ask him to increase your faith and use you to build his kingdom. Then listen to him and then obey. You may be surprised what he tells you to do. It may be a big thing like going on a missions trip. It is easy to see how that might be risky. But beware that sometimes the adventure will lead in an entirely different direction. It may lead you to the prayer closet to intercede for those that go rather than taking the trip yourself. It may lead you to talk to your Muslim neighbor about Jesus. It may lead you to pray for your sick co-worker. Or teach sixth-grade boys. You never know where the Lord will lead, but joining him in what he is doing will always lead to adventure.

So let me ask you, "What are you doing that requires faith? Are you willing to step out in obedience to God?"

Friday, January 12, 2018

Lord, Why Do You Stand So Far Away?

Trials come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes it seems like "normal" problems pile on top of one another so that it feels like life is coming apart. The toaster burned your last piece of bread and you rush outside only to discover that your bike has a flat tire. It is only then that you realize that you forgot to take your keys with you and you are now locked out of the apartment. It wouldn't be so bad, except that you overslept because for some reason your phone didn't charge so the alarm didn't go off.  Now you are standing outside rideless, breakfastless, phoneless, and very late. Then it starts to rain.

We've all had days like that, haven't we?

But there are other trials that don't involve the simple piling up of circumstances. They involve people who act wickedly. They lie and cheat in order to get ahead at work. They love to intimidate and use their power to bend people to do their will. They take selfish advantage of every situation. They are the schoolyard bully who never grew up. In the corporate world they are like sharks in business suits. On the city streets, they are like schools of piranhas committing crimes and threatening people. When they gain political power they plunge the nation into darkness while their egos are stroked and their bank accounts grow. 

The Bible is well aware of people like this and the troubles that they cause on the earth. They are known collectively as "the wicked." Consider how Psalm 10 describes the activity of the wicked person:
  • He hotly pursues the poor.
  • He is greedy for gain.
  • He is extremely confident in his strong position of power.
  • His speech is full of deceit and evil plans.
  • He sits in ambush in the villages taking advantage of the unsuspecting to destroy the innocent and the poor for his own benefit.
  • He believes that there is no God that will hold him accountable for his actions.
Even though the wicked are so destructive to people and society, they are often successful in gaining money and positions of power. They justify their selfish actions believing that they are entitled to whatever they can get their hands on. It is a "dog eat dog world" and "only the strong survive" are their mottos. The weak, the poor, the fearful, and those too "polite" to oppose them are crushed under their feet.
It can be easy to feel like God is not just in allowing them to terrorize the earth. When we see someone surrounded by a school of piranhas it is easy to cry out, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?" When we find ourselves swimming with sharks we find ourselves crying to God, "Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1). 

The psalmist gives some wise words for dealing with this situation. 

Turn to God as your source of hope. 
Even the simple cry "Why?" is a sign of faith rather than a rejection of God. It is the response of a soul trying to reconcile the promises of God with the injustice that they see and feel around them. God takes no offense in this struggle if it comes from a heart that is in pursuit of him. Faith shines brightest in the midst of difficult situations and questions like this indicate that our faith in God is being stretched. Like the disciples in the boat during the storm, we are alarmed that Jesus is asleep in the boat and doesn't seem to care about our desperate need (Mark 4:35-41). Trials, as painful as they are, can serve to strengthen our walk with God if we honestly cry out to him (James 1:2-4).

Ask God to act on behalf of the afflicted.
The entire psalm is a call for God to act on the behalf of the oppressed. The writer recounts the evil deeds of the wicked and asks God to intervene. He proclaims that God will strengthen the heart of the afflicted and that he will do justice on the earth. God wants us to join in prayer and intercession on behalf of the oppressed. He wants us to cry out for justice to be done on the earth.

Call on God to break the arm of the wicked.
The "arm of the wicked" is their strength. Ask God to destroy the strength of the wicked rendering them powerless. Pray that the schemes and plans of the wicked would come to nothing. Pray against their plans. Ask God to send them into confusion and that their power would be broken. Pray that they would be caught by the traps that they have set for others. 

Ask God to call the wicked to account until they are no longer doing evil.
Remember that God sees everything that is done on the earth. There is nothing hidden from his sight. He "notes mischief and vexation" and will see that justice is done (Psalm 10:14). There is coming a day of judgment and the wicked will be cast into hell forever. One of the reasons that the wicked continue to do evil is that they scoff at the idea of divine judgment (Psalm 10:4, 11,13). To call the wicked to account is to pray that they would recognize that they are under the wrath of God and are destined for hell.

To pray for the arm of the wicked to be broken and for them to be called to account is an act of love. The momentary rewards of doing evil spur the wicked on to more and more wickedness. We pray that this reward cycle would be destroyed and that their wicked schemes would come to nothing. When we pray for the wicked to be called to account, we are praying for the conviction of sin to fall heavily upon them now. Their wickedness will end either with their salvation or their damnation. We pray that the conviction of sin would be strong upon them now so that they will be saved.