Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).

Prepared (1 Thessalonians – part 3)

The letter of 1 Thessalonians is like a little manual for ministry. Chapter 1 presents the reverberating impact of the Gospel. Chapter 2 lays bare the motives and manner of Paul’s ministry in the city. Now let’s look at chapter 3.

1. Young believers need to be prepared for suffering. Paul understood their context. They were in a city and a society that would react antagonistically to their newfound faith. So Paul had prepared them for suffering, and as time passed, Paul knew that they needed to be supported in their struggle. He knew the enemy would be on the attack against these new believers. Maybe we need 3:1-5 to direct our path more in our ministry? Do we understand our context? Our believers are in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to their faith. The enemy is very much prowling around today seeking to pick off vulnerable believers. As much as ever, and perhaps more than ever, we need to prepare believers for suffering. There is the immediate and usually subtle antagonism of our time. And surely we can’t be so naive as to think that our cultures can undergo such radical shifts as we have seen in recent years, and yet remain essentially unchanged in the coming years? Are our people prepared for living in a society that may bear more resemblance to countries we used to pray for than the countries we used to live in?

2. Don’t just let vulnerable believers drift. Paul’s team adjusted to offer support to the Thessalonian believers. Timothy was sent back and returned with an encouraging report. Let Paul’s statement bounce around your heart for a moment, “For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.” (3:8) For now we live . . . I wonder how often I hold back from this kind of concern for the sheep under my care? It is true that life change is God’s business and I can’t force it; and it is true that sometimes people need to drift in order to become sensitized to their need for Jesus; and it is true that with limited ministerial resources we will inevitably prioritize the sheep that are leaning in to be fed and cared for, etc. However, with all the practical wisdom of real-life ministry acknowledged, let us never grow calloused and comfortable with people drifting away from Christ.

3. Is there a more important ministry than prayer? Remember Acts 6:4 – the apostles didn’t want to get dragged into serving tables (which included negotiating inter-racial tensions within the new church: a significant and important role!) But what did they not want to be dragged away from? The ministry of the Word and prayer. And prayer! Is there a more important ministry than prayer? For many in ministry, it can appear that the priorities are preaching and leadership. Or preaching and organisation. Or preaching and publishing. May we all gain a secret reputation before God for the priority of prayer in our ministry. And somehow, let’s also encourage our whole church to be prayerful. Look at the Paul-team and how they prayed in 3:10-13. “Most earnestly night and day” and, “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and “that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God…” Earnest prayer for growing love and established holiness. What believer would not want to be the beneficiary of that kind of concern?

What would you add from chapter 3?

Legacy (1 Thessalonians – part 2)

Paul’s brief visit to Thessalonica and his follow-up letter makes for a goldmine of ministry insight for preachers. Last time I thought about the reverberating impact of the Gospel in chapter 1. Let’s look at chapter 2 and get a glimpse into the ministry dynamics of Paul and his team. There are some vivid lessons here for us:

1. Ministry motivation matters massively. They pushed through suffering in order to declare the gospel, selflessly seeking the best outcome for the people and to please God. I am sure we would all aspire to that in our settings too. But there are a host of alternative motives listed. Error, impurity, attempting to deceive, trying to please people, with flattery, greedy, glory-seeking, self-elevating…what a list that is in 2:1-6. Why do I preach? Knowing my fleshly tendency to self-deceive, perhaps it is wise to take a list like this to God and ask him “to search me and try and see if there be any wicked way in me.” And it would probably be wise to bring one or two others into that conversation too. Any hints of impure motivation in your ministry? It would be better to face it, rather than allow something bad to become established.

2. Godly ministry is just like godly parenting. We’ve all seen parenting navigated as if it is a distraction from more important personal pursuits. You can provide a home, food, resources and a bit of guidance, all the while watching the calendar until they leave home and your life becomes freer for your own hobbies and interests. Many do parent that way, but it feels like an imitation of the real thing. The real thing involves a selfless love that literally gives yourself away for them to thrive. The real thing requires labour and toil, setting a consistent example, and being willing to exhort, encourage and charge these blessings from God. The heart of a mother and a father are poured out in the ministry of parenting. So it is with godly church ministry too. Paul says so in 2:7-12. Paul, Silas and co were not insecure men competing to look tougher than each other. They were like a nursing mother in their giving to the new church, and they were like a father too. How is your church ministry in parenting terms? Is the congregation becoming a hindrance to your personal goals? Are you just throwing some food in front of them and hoping they will entertain themselves in front of a screen so you can get on with your own pursuits? Or are they like children you love dearly?

3. Church ministry is an invitation to profound enrichment. Paul was only in Thessalonica for a short time, but consider how he continually longed to be with these people (see 2:17-20). They were his hope, joy, crown of boasting, and glory. The logic is fairly simple, but let’s ponder it anyway. The nature of God’s character should flow into our ministry, which will then characterise our connection with the church. You can guarantee the enemy will try to disrupt that, but the invitation remains in place. We can easily view Paul’s description as challenging – “I should work harder at ministry because I’m not sharing his sentiment for the younger believers God has given to me.” Instead, let’s view Paul’s description as an invitation – “I get to give myself away for these people, and in the process gain the kind of connection that many in the world around us would give their left arm to experience with anyone.”

4. Gospel ministry can really hurt, love anyway. Paul wrote these words to the church because he was separated and wanted to be there for them. He felt the pain of a parent’s heart when they are forced apart from their children. You don’t need me to tell you that getting hurt in ministry is not at all unusual. And it would be totally understandable to grow calloused in order to cope with that pain. Maybe even in Paul’s separation and longing we can be reminded that ministry does hurt, but we can love others anyway. In the end, we will get to our forever home where there will be no pain, no separation, no hurt, no sin, no church splits, no backstabbing, no misunderstanding, no failing bodies, etc. I am not saying we should choose to burn ourselves out, there is selflessness in genuine self-care too. But let’s not choose the calloused coping approach. For this brief moment, let’s keep our eyes on our suffering Saviour as we prayerfully press on.

1 Thessalonians chapter 2 is like a ministry training manual, what would you add?

Reverberations (1 Thessalonians – part 1)

I have been enjoying 1 Thessalonians recently and thought I would share a few highlights for us as preachers. Paul was in Thessalonica for a relatively short visit in Acts 17:1-10, but the gospel hit home. As I look at chapter 1, I wonder if my expectations might be too low in preaching the Gospel today.

1. The Gospel establishes churches. Notice how Paul mentions their work of faith, labour of love, and steadfastness of hope (1:3). He may have only been there for three sabbaths plus whatever amount of time before he was chased out of town, but these new believers were already bearing fruit. At the very foundation, they were people who knew they were loved by God (1:4). The preaching of the Gospel establishes churches. We should preach the truth that can change lives as if it will change lives.

2. The Gospel is not just words. Notice how Paul describes the coming of the Gospel to these people in 1:5 – the Gospel came “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” When we preach the message of Jesus we are just one part of a team, and the other players are impressive! There is the message itself, focusing on Jesus. There is the Holy Spirit actively driving that message home. By extension, we know that the Father’s plans and purposes are being worked out. When we preach the message of Jesus we ourselves are still part of the team. We see in 1 Thessalonians that how Paul and his colleagues were amongst the new believers was really significant. We are part of a trinitarian team when we preach, and even though we are incomparably small compared to the other team members, our part matters nonetheless.

3. The Gospel impact reverberates globally. It is easy to think of my little sermon to my little congregation in this little insignificant corner of the world. Actually, when the Gospel lands in a life it can reverberate around the world. These new young believers in Thessalonica became an example in Macedonia and Achaia (1:7) and everywhere! (1:8) When the Gospel sounded in their lives they turned from idols, to serve God, and to wait for Jesus (1:9-10). And what is more, people heard about it!

It is easy for us to think small thoughts when we preach the Gospel. This Sunday is coming. Think about the impact of the Gospel in Thessalonica – a brief visit, with much tension, and affliction for the preacher and the listeners, as well as the preacher chased out of town entirely too soon from a human perspective. Even against such odds, the Gospel impact was huge, it changed lives and that impact reverberated globally. Let’s preach in light of 1 Thessalonians 1 and dare to believe that we are participating in the transformation of lives for eternity!

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FYI – I am coming to the end of this playlist of videos on the Psalms of Ascent:

Something to Ponder

The book of Psalms tends to become a favourite for people who have faced some challenges in life. Perhaps you have experienced grief over the loss of a loved one, discouragement during a dark season of life, or any other challenges that set the Psalms into vivid colour in our hearts. Once we know of the soul food kept in that storehouse, we tend to find ourselves returning again and again.

Sometimes the Psalm writer has found words for the ache in my heart. Other times the psalmist points my heart to where it needs to be looking. The book of Psalms is a real treasure – a refreshing spring for the weary times we all have to endure.

The book of Psalms sits at the centre of our Bibles for the times we are just reading through. Maybe there is no experienced crisis that leads us to this vast collection of Hebrew poetry. Sometimes, we will find ourselves reading it simply because it comes next in our Bible reading. It can be a great experience to read it through with fresh eyes and notice the uniqueness of each Psalm and the recurring themes.

Let’s look at the first Psalm of book five – Psalm 107. This Psalm sets the tone for the section that will follow. It begins as you might expect, with a call to thank our good God for his enduring, steadfast love. This call goes out to all who have been redeemed and rescued by God (v1-3).

Then we find ourselves walking through four examples of challenging circumstances from which God rescues his people:

First, we read of the weary wilderness wanderers failing to find a place of sanctuary (v4-9). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. (Those words will come up again.) So, with stomachs full and souls satisfied, the psalmist encourages them to thank the LORD for his steadfast love. 

Second, we read of the helpless prisoners, tired and broken by hard labour (v10-16). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With their bonds broken and bodies set free, they are called to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Third, we read of the afflicted starving to death, suffering for their sin and facing their demise (v17-22). They cried to the LORD, and he delivered them. With healed bodies and joyful hearts, they are invited to thank the LORD for his steadfast love.

Fourth, we read of the fear-filled seafarers, tossed to and fro by the raging seas, despairing and at their wit’s end (v23-32). This example gives more vivid detail, but again, they cried to the LORD, and he delivered them (see v 6, 13, 19 and 28). With the storm stilled and safely brought back to the fellowship of humans on shore, they are encouraged to thank the LORD for his steadfast love (see v8, 15, 21, 31)

The final section of the Psalm underlines some of the points made throughout. God is in charge. Just as he can bring about change in nature (v33-38), he can reverse his people’s fortunes (v39-42). And so, the final verse ensures we have not missed the point. If we are wise, we will ponder what this Psalm says. Indeed, if we are wise, we will ponder, contemplate, consider and meditate on the steadfast love of the LORD (v43).

The Psalm begins and ends with the spotlight on the steadfast love of God. The Psalm invites us to consider four examples of people in dire straits who called out to God and discovered why they should thank God for that steadfast love.

Perhaps Psalm 107 is the food for thought that we need. It could be that we feel like we are close to death or tossed in every direction and despairing of life itself. Or it could be that we are calmly moving through the second half of 2022, thankful for God’s blessing and a season of tranquillity and peace. Whatever may be going on around us, Psalm 107 suggests what should be happening inside us. We should be considering the steadfast love of God. Honestly, it is hard to think of a wiser thing to do.

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Growing Worship

Genesis is the book of foundations.  It lays down so many foundational truths on which the rest of the Bible can helpfully build.  For example, consider the life of Abraham.  His is the first extended biographical narrative in the Bible.  His story is about as far removed from our world as can be – geographically, culturally, religiously, technologically – and yet, it all feels so strangely relevant.  This is not surprising; God is a great communicator and knows exactly how to introduce us to the concept of living a life of faith in a God and his good-promise plan.

I recently revisited the most famous story in the epic biography of Abraham – Genesis 22.  So much had already happened in the preceding chapters.  God had called Abram to give up everything and go to an as-yet-unspecified location.  And then the rollercoaster of Abram’s growing faith takes us through some real highs and surprising lows.  There is the daring battle and rescue of Lot, his nephew, later followed by intercession as Lot’s town faced imminent judgment.  There is the powerful covenant scene in the darkness after the declaration of Abram’s belief in God’s promise.  But there is also the repeated risking of Sarah’s life with foreign kings, not to forget the turmoil created by having a child with Sarah’s maidservant.  Finally, after many years, the child of promise arrives to change the tone of the laughter in the family tent.  Abraham’s story is a rollercoaster of growing and struggling faith in a good God – and so is our story.

Coming to Mt Moriah – After all the ups and downs, we arrive at Genesis 22.  Back in chapter 12, Abraham had been called to go, to leave everything, and to journey to a yet-unspecified location.  Now in chapter 22, he is again called to go to an unknown location and to give up everything.  Before, his life included a whole host of people and the perks of life in sophisticated Ur.  Now, everything was wrapped up in the breathing body of his long-promised son. 

Abraham’s story teaches us that life is not about continual novelty.  God repeats and restates his promise, Abraham repeats the same struggles and sins, and God is repeatedly gracious.  We see God again calling Abraham to give up everything, just like He had asked at the beginning, and also not just like that – this felt much bigger. 

Your life, and mine, is not filled with brand new experiences and lessons.  How often do we despair when we slide back into the same old struggles, and yet how often do we get to marvel at God’s patient kindness in lovingly rescuing us and helping us learn the same lessons at deeper levels?  When the gospel first stirred our hearts, we were called to leave everything and follow him, so why are we surprised if years later we are again called to give up yet more in order to follow him even more closely?  As the years pass, the light of God’s goodness shines deeper into the corners of our lives.

So, the story of Genesis 22 unfolds in a masterpiece of ancient storytelling.  The writer underlines the pain of God’s call as he labours over the identification of the sacrifice in verse 2 – “it is your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love.”  The writer piles verb upon verb in verses 3-4 to give a sense of the progressing action as Abraham obeys God’s call.  The writer slows the progression of the narrative as Abraham’s hand is held high over Isaac, bound on the altar in verse 10.  It really is brilliant storytelling.  Perhaps most telling is what the storyteller omits – specifically, Abraham’s feelings.  We read of his unflinching obedience, but our hearts break as we read it.  Perhaps the writer did not mention Abraham’s feelings because no words could ever describe them adequately?  Perhaps because any empathetic reader would already know better than words could convey?

As we reflect on Genesis 22, here are three thoughts to ponder prayerfully for our journey of faith in God today:

1. Genesis 22 is about worship.

Christianity is a uniquely diverse global worship movement.  Across the globe, every week, millions of people gather to sing in worship to God.  Since singing is so central to our ongoing experience of faith, it is easy to assume that our worship consists entirely in our shared singing.  However, the Bible does not restrict the concept of worship to our shared harmonization of heartfelt truths.  The Bible speaks of worship also in terms like Romans 12:1, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice . . . this is your spiritual act of worship.”  And so perhaps there is no better passage to get us thinking straight about worship than Genesis 22.  Abraham was called not to murder his son, but to make an offering of him to God.  Abraham himself spoke of their plan to “go and worship” (v5). 

Genesis 22 is about worship.  And it makes clear that worship, our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God, involves more than singing.  Abraham was called to leave everything and live for God back in chapter 12.  But now, years later, he is again called to live for God by giving everything to him.  What will it look like for you to worship God today?  Perhaps you look back on your conversion and see a greater fervour in your expression of worship.  But this story does not urge a return to our first love.  It invites us to a more costly, deeply-felt sacrificial offering of our everything to God. Worship means giving God everything.

2. Genesis 22 is about faith.

There is no doubt that this story is the high point of Abraham’s biography as the father of faith.  But what is the nature of that faith?  Notice that in verse 5 he tells his servants that he and the boy will “go worship and come again to you.”  Hebrews 11:17-19 reveals that Abraham had faith that God would raise Isaac from the dead.  After all, he had been born out of the death of Sarah’s womb, so why wouldn’t God be able to do it again?  Also notice that in verse 8 he tells Isaac that “God will provide.”  Abraham could not know exactly what would happen, but he seemed to know exactly who was in charge.  After God provided the ram, Abraham speaks again, naming the place “The LORD will provide” (v14).

The only way you and I can really worship God today, if worship means giving everything to God, is if we have faith that God himself will provide.  Can I give up this relationship that the Spirit of God is calling me to walk away from?  (That is not your marriage, but it could be an unhealthy friendship that threatens your future or present marriage!)  God will provide.  Can I give up this promotion and the security that may come with it in order to live out my spiritual values, even though I need that greater salary?  God will provide.  Can I give sacrificially when I don’t even know how expensive everything will become in the next months?  God will provide.  Worship means giving everything to God, trusting in his giving character.

3. Genesis 22 is about God.

The ultimate worship question is the Mt Moriah question.  If worship is about giving our everything to God, and if that requires faith in God’s giving, then let’s ask the Mt Moriah question.  Who gave up everything on Mt Moriah?  Abraham was willing, but was spared by a God-given sacrifice.  Years later, God himself brought his son, his only son, whom he loved, Jesus, to Mt Moriah.  God was willing, and did not spare his own son, but made him the God-given sacrifice for us.  God really did provide. 

And that brings us to the heart of worship.  It is our expressed response of devotion, adoration and honour to God.  We cannot work it up in ourselves by practice or by determination.  It is a response.  So, we must look to Mt Moriah.  We worship by giving our everything to God, because he first gave his everything for us. 

Worship is so costly.  It cost God everything.

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Is Preparation Spiritual?

I think we would do well to clarify our terminology when it comes to asking about whether something is spiritual or not. The world often sees “spiritual” as a mystical quality inherent in certain activities or persons. So the mystical neighbour with the yoga mat is considered spiritual, but the engineer on the other side who plays football and enjoys soft rock anthems is not considered spiritual.

Then there is a semi-Christian version of the word which basically uses it as a synonym for sanctified behaviour. So it is not describing a quality of spirituality being present in something, but rather it just means whether it is appropriate Christian behaviour or not. In this way of thinking it is “spiritual” to pray, but it is not “spiritual” to go and watch the football game.

So let’s consider the issue of sermon preparation. Is it spiritual? Some, with the semi-Christian understanding of the word might affirm that it is spiritual to prepare a sermon – it is appropriate Christian behaviour for a pastor. Others, with a Christianized version of the first, more mystical, concept, might argue that it is not spiritual to prepare a sermon. Better, they might say, to disengage yourself from study and just rely on inspiration in the moment.

What if we cast off confusing misappropriations of the term and think in genuinely biblical terms. What constitutes “spiritual” in the New Testament? Is it not the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit? If that is the “top and bottom” of the issue, then we would have to say that either neighbour could be spiritual, or maybe completely devoid of the Spirit. And praying or watching football could be spiritual, or could also be completely devoid of the Spirit. And we would have to say that either preparing a sermon or choosing not to prepare a sermon could be spiritual, or completely devoid of the Spirit.

I do not doubt that God, by His Spirit, may work wonderfully if I am called on to preach without a moment to prepare. However, I do wonder at the wisdom of abdicating my role as a steward of the ministry if I were to decide to preach as if it were somehow more spiritual to not prepare at all.

My vote would absolutely be on the side of preparing. Wayne McDill, in his 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching (p219), wrote, “The fact is that God has decided to use preachers.  Our laziness does not help the Holy Spirit; it hinders him.  There is nothing particularly spiritual about poor sermon preparation.”

However, preparation is not automatically spiritual, either. Is my confidence in my preparation, my homiletical skill, my gifting, my knowledge, my view of preaching, my teachers, my books? Or is my heart reliant on God, my mind humbly subject to God’s instruction, my attitude one of humility before the Word of God, etc.? My suspicion is that whether my preparation is spiritual or not will be evident in my prayer. It will be known to God and probably more obvious to my listeners than I might think (especially if I am functioning in a state of self-confidence).

If you are asked to preach, prepare. Prepare humbly. Prepare prayerfully. Prepare as if “apart from me, you can do nothing.”


Tweak the Terminology

Sometimes changing the label for something can make a big difference. A couple of examples before I introduce the one that I want to focus on in this post:

Example 1 – Teaching preaching over the years, I have shifted from talking about “illustrations” to explicitly describing what is needed: “explanations/proofs/applications.” Identifying what you are trying to do helps you avoid filler material that has the vibe of an illustration but doesn’t achieve anything specific. Why not call it what we want it to achieve? Even in our thinking, this can help our precision as communicators.

Example 2 – As parents, we want our children to learn to serve and contribute to the functioning of our home. It is good for the family, and it is good for them too. But the standard label used is “chores.” Oh dear. Who would want to do a chore? So, we grabbed a label we saw someone else using. “Contributions.” You have to do a chore, but you get to make a contribution. It is just a label, but it does make a difference.

Ok, so what terminology tweak am I thinking about in this post? Well, it is the strange world of Christian “disciplines.”

The language of disciplines gets used in quite different wings of the Christian church. There are the dutiful disciplines of the more intellectually shaped branches of the church. The disciplines here tend to relate to attendance, reading, learning, etc. Then there are the ascetic disciplines of the more experientially shaped branches of the church. Here you will find more focus on the disciplines that relate to self-denial, solitude, fasting, etc.

In reality, much can be said in favour of all the disciplines on both sides of the church. This is why much is said in their favour. But can we stop and question the label for a moment? “Discipline” is the language of the exercise class, the language of the academy, and the language of performance in work, sport or the arts … but is it really the language of relationship?

Discipline and Relationship

Undoubtedly, much effort is expended in a relationship, and that effort will look disciplined. If you were to spy on my marriage, you would see disciplined actions on my part. There are specific jobs in the home that I repeatedly do: locking the doors, putting out the garbage, etc. And yet, if you asked me about my practising of the marital disciplines, I would wonder what you are saying. I put the garbage out in a disciplined manner, but I don’t see it as a discipline. I spend time on dates with my wife, but I don’t see that as a chore.

Many spiritual disciplines are good things: reading the Bible, spending time with God, fasting in order to pray, getting away from the busy distractions of this world, etc. I don’t want to question these things, but I do question the label. Would you promote them as “Christian chores” in your church? (If you would, perhaps that says something about your view of the Christian life!) I would not. I prefer to remove the overtones of duty and effort from the label so that the label is free actually to describe the goal.

The Goal of Disciplines

What is the goal in performing a discipline? Relationships do require disciplined effort, but they rarely thrive under the language of discipline and effort. For instance, your spouse will not feel so warm towards you if you hand over the flowers or chocolate, while referencing your effort and discipline. “I hope you like roses. I needed to do my weekly thoughtful-gift-discipline, so I got you these.” Please don’t say that; it won’t help. And if you do say that, it will shape how you view the giving of future gifts. The goal of the “discipline” is not a have-to but a get-to. The goal is not your successful accomplishment of the “discipline” but the communication of love to your significant other. And as you lean toward this other person, you will find your heart warmed and drawn towards them.

So, what can we call the spiritual disciplines that will remove the overtones of “chore,” the focus on “self,” and the assumption that it is my performance that will lead to life change?  What can we call the spiritual disciplines if we are actually talking about growing in a relationship?

Finding An Alternative Label

It can be hard to choose an appropriate alternative label to replace a well-established one. My mind goes to several possibilities. Are we talking about spiritual reminders, encounters, re-introductions, heart-warmers, match-making, or exposures?  I am seeking a term that makes it clear that the activity is not an end in itself, but a way of inclining my heart towards Christ in such a way that my heart might respond in faith and love towards him.  I cannot control my heart’s responses, but the Bible does speak of guarding the heart from negative influences and inclining the heart towards God’s good influence.  Each term listed could have unhelpful connotations.  How about for now, until we agree on a better term, we use “spiritual heart inclination”?

I need spiritual heart inclinations in my life because when I spend time in God’s Word, worshipping, praying, or with God’s people, I am leaning into the relationship that I have with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. This “leaning in” will not be successful because I am responsible and repeat the exercise. It will be successful because my heart is warmed by the wonderful one I am exposed to in the process. 

Instead of starting my Bible reading with the thought, “I need to be responsible and get through my chapters for today,” I can start with the prayer, “I need to respond to a glimpse of your heart as I incline my heart toward you, O my God, and I so need to see you in your Son today – I want to see you, please….” The first is the self-concerned declaration of disciplined intent. The second is the inclining of the heart towards the One who can inspire that inside-out transformation I so desperately need.

It is not the discipline of reading a certain number of chapters that will change me any more than the regularity of simply visiting a restaurant that will achieve connection in my marriage. The  inclination of my heart toward Christ in his Word (or my wife in the restaurant) will allow a response to be stirred within me. 

May our lives be disciplined in our responsiveness to Christ, but may the label of discipline never again feel appropriate for our connection with Him. Spiritual heart inclinations, or a better label you suggest in the comments, that’s what we need. Because it is not about me but him. It is not about my responsible effort but my response to Him.  And spending time with the lover of our souls is no chore but a privilege.

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Walking Through the Psalms

During 2022 I have been enjoying a slow walk through the book of Psalms. I have been working through the book one Psalm at a time. I have shared the journey via YouTube and sought to convey a detail and a point of application from each Psalm to help others enjoy reading the Psalm. I will attach the playlist below this post.

As we are now at the halfway point in the year, I thought I would pull together some reflections:

  1. Slowing down and pondering a Psalm allows you to appreciate the artistic crafting contained within a Psalm. For instance, if I look at the short five verses of Psalm 70, I notice the key terms repeated in the first and last verses: haste, O God, deliver me; O LORD, help me. Actually, while I knew that Psalms can give a sense of completion by using similar terminology at the beginning and end, I have been surprised by how often that occurs. And the use of inclusio, or “bookends”, is only one of many types of artistry to be found in the Psalms.
  2. Scribbling on the text of a Psalm allows you to notice the flow of thought more easily. Again, sticking with Psalm 70 as a simple example, there are two movements within the body of the Psalm. In verses 2-3, the repetition of “Let them…” shows David’s concern regarding those opposing him. He wants God to deal with them. Then verse 4 has the repetition of “May…”, which points to the positive request and anticipation. David knows that seeking God leads to good for his people. Judgment of them; the blessing for us.
  3. Study intensity does not preclude devotional impact. I remember Gordon Fee writing about the need for exegesis and devotion. He noted that just as a church does not need an exegetically precise pastor who is lacking in devotional warmth as he studies his Bible in sermon preparation, the people in the pew should not be devotionally warm while being exegetically imprecise in their personal Bible times. Sometimes we fall into the trap of separating technical study from devotional reading. But when I scribble on a printout of a Psalm, note the structure, the parallelisms, the imagery, and even when I turn to a technical commentary to probe a specific issue, none of this precludes the devotional impact of the Psalm. The end goal should be that the Psalm speaks to my heart, affects my life, and potentially gets shared as an encouragement to someone else.
  4. Simplicity in Psalm study is sometimes where we find the treasure. Some of us set the bar very high for our Bible engagement. We think we have to plumb the depths and find high-level technical insights in every study. But in Psalm 70, the bottom line is straightforward. David starts the final verse with an extra line before returning to the terms that bring the Psalm full circle as they repeat the opening ideas from verse 1. What is the additional line? “But I am poor and needy.” The enemies of David need to be judged. God’s people have reason to rejoice in God. David is poor and needy. So, hasten, O God, deliver and help me. The bottom line that we can take away? “I need God.” It is not high-level original thought, and I will not get a PhD for noticing it, but it might be just the thought I need as I walk with God today.
  5. Short Psalms do not have to mean brief study. Psalm 70 is just five verses long. It is essentially a repetition of the final verses of Psalm 40. So, with it being brief and recently studied, does that make it a quick cursory study? It does not have to mean that at all! God’s Word can always be a fruitful chew! I understand the benefits of a quick read and simple study – we all need those too. But there is nothing to say that a brief Psalm must not linger longer than a few minutes in our minds and hearts. Meditate on God’s Word, day and night – that even sounds like a healthy Psalms idea!
  6. Some Psalms point overtly to Jesus; every Psalm points to God’s character. Some Psalms clearly point beyond themselves to the coming greater son of David. In other Psalms, the connection to the coming Messiah is less overt. But every Psalm points to God’s character, which is an excellent focus for your heart. It is never too big a step from God’s goodness, grace, mercy, and blessing to the fulfilment of God’s great plan in the coming of Jesus. You don’t have to force a detail to make the link explicit. But do make sure you are enjoying the God who is revealing himself through this beautiful book.
  7. Say what you see – the Psalms ask to be prayed or sung. As you read through Psalms, you may find a tune already in your mind. For example, Psalm 34 and Psalm 68 seem to strike up several songs because of songs sung in my church growing up or today. Other Psalms may feel very unfamiliar in their wording. Yet, often they offer the very words my heart wants to be praying to God. That feeling of profound contemporary relevance is not rare when spending time in Psalms. So let the words work in your heart and then let the words work on your lips, whether you are singing God’s praise or crying out to God in prayer.
  8. Share what you see – the Psalms are asking to be passed along. There is something incredibly transferable about the blessing of Psalms. The simplicity of application, the power of the imagery, the brevity of the written context – it all means you have something to share with others in conversation or with friends via text message. Psalms is a book that joins you in the most secret place of suffering or struggle, and yet it is a book that can spill out to others in the everyday activities of life. Share what you are blessed to see.

What do you appreciate about the book of Psalms? What have I missed?

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Running on Fumes

When a car has very little fuel in the tank, we say it is running on fumes.  It is moving forward, but warning signs indicate the vehicle is in trouble.  It won’t go very far unless something changes.  And the something is simple – it needs fuel.

The same thing happens with Christians too.  They give the impression of keeping on spiritually, engaging with the church, and so on.  But there are warning signs, and they won’t go very far unless something changes.  Again, the something that needs to change is relatively simple – they need fuel. Simply being around Christians and using Christian language is not enough. Without a vital personal relationship with Christ, they are merely running on the fumes of Christianity.

Warning Signs – In a car, you have warning lights on the dashboard to alert you to an issue before it becomes a problem.  If you proceed far enough, the engine will start to sputter and make unusual noises.  What are the warning signs when a Christian is running on the fumes of Christianity?

  1. Loss of Joy – There are many reasons for a loss of joy, so do not assume that the spiritual tank is always empty when joy fades.  However, any warning light is a reason to investigate.  Indeed, when someone’s tank lacks the fuel needed, delight in the things of God and church life will only come in fits and starts.  The classic biblical example is Martha in Luke 10:38-42 – she was doing the right thing, but the joy was gone.
  2. Alternate Fuels – Is work or a hobby suddenly becoming more significant?  Are they starting to find motivation and purpose in something other than Christ in a way that was not true earlier in their Christian journey?  Alternative fuels are attractive because someone struggling will see the alternative as more readily accessible and the goals more attainable.
  3. Blaming the Church – It is very rare to hear someone drifting from church life and being honest, “Oh, I am staying away because I am not fuelling my soul, and so I feel awkward being around other Christians right now.”  It is much easier to talk about how the church does not meet their needs, and they don’t fit, the programs are not helpful, the other people don’t like them, etc.  Not every person being critical of the church is in a bad place personally, but many are.
  4. Verbal Paper Cuts – Sometimes it is not the full force explosions that hurt, but the subtle paper cuts.  Someone in a low place spiritually will often make little paper cuts with their words.  Little bits of gossip.  Little criticisms.  Little digs.  Maybe nothing significant enough to confront or challenge, but enough to leave you feeling that sting of an open wound when they walk away.
  5. Emotional Outbursts – Sometimes, things do come out in full force explosions.  And, like a cornered animal, someone feeling spiritually empty can lash out and attack rather than admit their need and open themselves up to help from others.

Emergency Measures – What do you do when someone is running on empty and about to run out of fuel and grind to a halt? 

  1. Re-Fuel – To be blunt, they need to be in the Word of God and allow Him to minister to them.  But they may struggle to feed themselves if they have let their tank get too low.  Perhaps a friend can help them get into the Word and start back into a healthy pattern. 
  2. Recognize the Emergency – How often do we pridefully persist on our path, ignoring all the warning signs?  Many a stranded motorist thought they could go a little farther before stopping for fuel.  Part of solving the problem will be humbly admitting the problem.  As long as pride continues to stir excuses and explanations, the fuel cap remains in place.  They must humbly acknowledge how they have allowed themselves to drift, how they have arrogantly felt they did not need to be in the Word personally, or how another sin has built a blockage between them and God.  Whether that is a giant skeleton in the closet or the “respectable” sin of personal pride, confession will be like a doorway to help for the struggling believer.
  3. Reach out for Help – These are in the reverse order.  We need to be fuelled again, but often that won’t happen until the nature of the problem is recognized, and often that is hard to achieve without first calling out for help from another.  If you see the warning signs in a friend, encourage them to face the reality of their situation.  If you are desperate, you could point them to this post and ask if it resonates with them because you are concerned.  If you see warning signs in yourself, then get a friend immediately.  We tend to think that a renewed effort in my quiet times, or perhaps some alternative, will fix the issue.  A thimble of fuel won’t get you too far.  Call a friend and walk through it with someone. 

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Check out a Psalm from this week for your encouragement: