Asking the Wrong Question

“You’re asking the wrong question.”

It just popped into my head the other morning. No particular context that I remember. Just one of those random thoughts. But for days it just wouldn’t go away.

It sounded like an important insight, but only if it had a context. Asking who the wrong question? Wrong question about what? Questions

Was this a prompt from God, or just something some brain cell picked up from the radio?  Either way, it stuck in my head worse than Disney’s “It’s a Small World”. (Sorry if bringing that to mind ruins your day.)

Finally, this morning, it connected. I was sitting at a breakfast meeting listening to Skye Jethani talk about “The Idol of Effectiveness”.

His premise was that we’ve wrongly applied an American cultural metric to our spiritual life: Viewing the effectiveness of what we do for God as an indicator of a healthy relationship with God. It stems from the pagan belief that we are created to serve the gods (or God) and meet their needs. But our God does not need us at all.

Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-23 that some who call Him, “Lord, Lord” (the repetition expressing deep acknowledgement of His Lordship) are not part of His Kingdom.  In fact, it says many who do “mighty works”, even miracles, in His name will be told, “depart from me, I never knew you.”  How God chooses to use us (or donkeys, or even rocks) is not evidence of our relationship with Him.

Although I still need to ponder this further, it shed light on some things perplexing me about my own spiritual condition lately. I’ve been asking the wrong question, trying to assess my relationship with God by the works I perform.

Like the culture around us, we get caught up focusing on trying to prove our own worth. But thinking our worth comes from anything we do for God elevates and distorts our own importance. God created us to love us, not to use us.  Likewise, God wants us to love Him, not just to use Him to meet our needs.  Every time God works it’s in spite of us, not because of us. He doesn’t need us, He wants us — our presence, not our efforts.

In no way does this suggest we should be couch potatoes doing nothing for God.  The point is that our activities for God are nothing more than our proper response to His love for us.  They are not — as we tend to make them — the source of our identity in Christ. They do not increase our value to Him.  Bigger is only better if God calls you to bigger.

God did not call us to change the world — that’s His job. We are called to love Him and love others — both of which do require action, by the way. But if God calls me to a little task, success is doing that little task faithfully, not turning it into something bigger so I feel important.

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Central African Republic Trip Report

I’ve never experienced a culture this way before.

Whenever I visit a new country, I want to get out and explore and see as much of it as possible.  After all, I want to learn all I can about the place.  Walk around and observe people, drive around and see the lay of the land.

But not much of that happened during my recent trip to the C.A.R.  Out of an abundance of caution caused by recent rebel activity, I could count on one hand the number of times we ventured out of our secure (but un-air-conditioned) guest house compound.  I only rode about 60 miles total in a car all week, a quarter of that just to and from the airport.  And I only walked about a block to an artisan market once.

Here’s what my week looked like:

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  • A half day dedication ceremony for our new theological training facility (outdoor ceremony, coat & tie required). The Prime Minister of the country pinned a medal on me during this ceremony!  Ok, that’s a completely accurate but misleading statement.  I didn’t earn the medal, but I was asked to stand in proxy for a missionary who spent 40 years there but couldn’t make the ceremony.
  • I preached (through a translator) to a congregation of about 2,000 people on Sunday morning.
  • I successfully (I think – again through a translator) trained a Bayaka villager how to use a new water filter system.
  • Three half-days were spent observing seminary classes (English/French translation). I shared a devotional with them one morning. They brought the students to us instead of us going to the seminary.
  • One full day and three half days were spent in meetings with various national church and ministry leaders. (English/French translations again.)

That wouldn’t make a very good action movie unless you like watching sweat drip in humid, 90-100+ degree temperatures.

But sitting in meetings addressing real-life challenges was far more insightful than playing tourist.  I sometimes teach about cultural differences – collectivist/individualist; monochronic/polychronic; high/low context; high/low power distance, honor/guilt/fear, etc.  And I’ve been places that exhibited most of these characteristics before.  But the difference here was more intense.

Part of the reason I felt the differences so acutely was that, in a culture where titles and social standings are extremely important, I was there as a Board Member representing the organization that gave birth to the largest Evangelical denomination in the country.  The potential for social miscues to send wrong messages was high.

I come home with a deeper appreciation for three things:

  1. The challenges our Christian brothers and sisters face making disciples and planting churches while dealing with malaria, rebel threats, and poverty;
  2. Some wise and passionate leaders God has raised up to meet the challenges; and
  3. Our Encompass World Partners staff who navigate these and other cultural challenges around the world continually.

A big thank you to those of you who prayed and supported me through this ministry opportunity!

Cure for Boredom…

How long can you sit quiet and still before you start feeling bored?

Is it possible to be simultaneously bored and aware of the awesome presence of God?

Taking a Stand Against Our Culture

In a culture of self-realization, the Christian’s call is to renounce self; in the face of noise, silence is the preference; in a world of competition, the Christian’s declaration is that the winners will be the losers and the losers winners; in a culture whose economy is intent on consumption, the Christian insists on simplicity; in a culture structured by possessions, the insistence is upon detachment; in a culture intent on a high standard of living, the Christian insists upon a high standard of life; and at every point, the Christian exposes the emptiness of fullness for the sake of the gospel’s fullness of emptiness.

— W. Paul Jones, The Art of Spiritual Direction,
referenced in:  Reuben P. Job (2013-10-24). A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God (Kindle Locations 2197-2203). Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.

The title of this article may have led you to expect me to take a stand against abortion, homosexuality, divorce, or other manifestations of our fallen world.  But I contend that the reason we have such fierce battles to fight on those fronts today is that we’ve failed to fight the real cultural battles like those quoted above.

Where God’s people demonstrate the fullness of lives lived in God’s power, many outside the church are drawn into God’s Kingdom. But when we blend in to our culture to the point that you can’t tell us apart there’s nothing to attract them.

It’s not the sins of the world that I grieve over as much as I grieve and repent over the sins of God’s people as we’ve failed to stand out as different and demonstrate His love as He calls us to do.

We have our successes, and we should celebrate those with gratitude to God and to the faithful saints who withstand cultural pressures with the grace, love, and truth that represent God well. Where the contrast between self-centered lives and Christ-centered lives is strong, two things happen: 1) Spiritual battles, struggles, and persecutions rage; 2) God wins those battles as the world witnesses His people standing strong in their midst. No battle, no victory.

But the battle we’re called to isn’t a power-play against the evils of society, but to follow the lead of Jesus:

“…crushing dissent violently and cruelly was itself anathema to the life of Jesus, who had not killed to protect the truth but on the contrary had freely died for the truth. He might well have forced those who crucified him to accept his teachings. That would have seemed the practical path. But he did not. Instead, Jesus freely suffered and died, and in doing so, he illustrated as eloquently as may be done that naked power was not the most powerful thing in the universe. On the contrary, truth itself was more powerful.”

[1]Metaxas, Eric. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (loc. 7968). Viking. Kindle Edition.

May we not run from the battles but humbly engage so that our lives illustrate the power of God’s truth.

What Does God Think of Luxury?

It wasn’t the venue you would expect for a week-long meeting of 50+ missionaries and their families. The pampering started as we sat and sipped lemonade while checking in. Our hotel room view overlooking one of the many pools and the Mediterranean Sea was breathtaking. The buffet meals were reminiscent of a cruise ship.

I wonder what your emotional response is to that kind of luxury? Arriving in Cyprus, I can tell you I went through a range of responses:

  • Envy — Why can’t I live like this all the time!
  • Guilt — Here I am consuming all these luxuries while there are people struggling for food and water.
  • Judgment — People who live like this are so self-centered!

So what does God think of such luxury? We all know Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).  But that wasn’t his response to every rich person He met. Both Jesus and Paul had wealthy benefactors who supported their ministries (Luke 8:3, Rom 16:2). Not to mention Abraham, David, Solomon, Job, and other godly men who had wealth.  Scripture teaches that riches are from God (1 Chr 20:12, Prov 8:18), and He is the one who gives us the ability to earn wealth (Deut 8:18).

There are serious problems with the “prosperity gospel” taught by some, but the problem isn’t wealth itself. The problem is giving wealth (or anything else) a place in our lives where it doesn’t belong. When we seek first our own pleasures or easy life rather than God’s pleasure, or we put our trust in wealth instead of God, we have displaced Jesus from his rightful place.

The Bible provides many warnings against the struggles that come with wealth, but those warnings don’t equate to wealth being bad any more than warnings against inappropriate sex make sex bad. Seeking poverty or self-denial for its own sake can be as much of an idol as wealth.

The backstory on the missionaries spending a week at a luxury resort sheds some light. This gathering was originally scheduled for a more modest facility, but the owners decided to close it for renovation. So they honored the contract by switching to a different, albeit more upscale facility.  The cost was less than I’ve paid to stay at a Best Western. So this was a God-orchestrated upgrade.

Which brings me to the point. God delights in bringing pleasure and joy to His people. But He loves us too much to let us get spoiled by such things. When God arranges to bless us — even with material things — the right way to receive it is with joy and gratitude to God. Give Him the pleasure of seeing us enjoy it. Don’t ruin His pleasure with our envy, guilt, and judgmental attitudes.

The team from our church was there to serve these missionaries during their week of rest, renewal, and reconnection. Our greatest blessing was the joy of serving, not the luxury. But we accepted God’s pampering with gratitude.

Choices

I’ve been thinking a lot about choices lately. Not so much  the “big” choices in life: Who do I marry? Do I take that job? Should I buy that house? We usually put a lot of thought and prayer into those choices, seeking counsel from those we trust.

But what about the little choices? The kind we make dozens, even hundreds of times a day. Our responses to these are habit, they reflect our heart — and they change our heart. I’m convinced the accumulation of these little choices has a bigger impact on our lives than the few really big ones.

God created us with a free will, i.e. the ability to make decisions — to choose. Consider, what is love but the choice to put someone else’s interests ahead of our own.  What is worship but the choice to do what pleases God rather than what pleases me. In giving us the ability to make choices, God delegated to us a limited ability to demonstrate His character in us by choosing to care about someone other than ourselves.

We also know that God considers the motivations of our hearts as more important than our actions. Our actions matter, but only because they reflect what’s in our heart. Consider Jeremiah 17:10:

“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.

God looks at our hearts and minds to determine how he will reward our deeds. Or 1 Samuel 16:7b:

For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

Again, it’s our heart, not the things we see that God is paying attention to.  So how do we make our hearts pleasing to God?

We start making choices that please Him.  As we exercise our free-will muscle to make loving, worshipful choices instead of self-centered choices, that muscle gets stronger in its ability to please God.

Consider these familiar scriptures:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.    Philippians 2:3-4 (ESV)

Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.     1 Corinthians 10:24 (ESV)

You can also look up 1 John 3:16-18 and Matthew 16:24 to see the theme continue.

When does God expect us to apply these biblical instructions? Only in our occasional big choices, or in the multiple-times-a-day choices?

So here’s the question I’ve been challenging myself with:

If I was a fanatic about considering others more important than myself, what would I do differently everyday?

Here are just a few answers:

  • Leave the closest parking space for someone else
  • Show grace when others err
  • Don’t recline the airplane seat into the person behind me
  • Give others the best seats
  • Tip big

Making those kinds of choices multiple times a day changes us.

Post your answers to that challenge here…

Hurricane Harvey, Part II

Mike’s house was flooded to the roof line. The weight of the wet insulation collapsed the ceiling, but the stuff in his attic was mostly dry. Coming in by boat and docking at his roof, he removed a sheet of tin roofing, climbed into his attic and rescued the “guns & gittars” (Mike’s a true Texan!) that he had tucked into the attic for safety. 

Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Vidor, Texas is a small church that is having a huge impact on the economically challenged residents of their community. While Pastor Skipper and several other flooded-out members of this church are living in trailers on the church property, they’re distributing food, water, cleaning supplies, and other needed items to their neighbors. The church is so full of goods to distribute they don’t have room to hold Sunday services.  Hope Force provided our 60′ x 100′ tent to serve as a warehouse for the next few months so they can regain use of the church building.  Erecting this tent was our main project during my last few days in Texas.

These are just two of the projects we worked on last week.  Once again, it’s been your prayers and financial support that have made it possible for us to to share the love of Christ with those in need.

Mike worked along side us at his house for two days. He repeatedly expressed puzzlement over why we would volunteer to serve people like him in this way.  On our third and final day at his house, he had to return to work.  When we left, we placed a New Testament signed by the team in the middle of his cleaned-out living room for him to find.  I left a bookmark in it with I John 3:16-18 highlighted:

By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.

1 John 3:16-18 (NKJV)