Seeking God’s blessing

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago.

The sermon today was on John 6:26-36.

Jesus miraculously fed the crowd.
  Spiritual “anointing”
Recently when I taught, God spoke to people through me in an evident way. I love that. But today, in Sunday School, everything I planned went wrong.
They looked for him again because they wanted more.   Me: Lord, I’m so frustrated at how Sunday School went. How can I worship you this morning, when I am angry and discouraged about Sunday School?
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.   Jesus: Why are you seeking me? What did you learn when I anointed your teaching? Did you learn that I am the source of fruitfulness and meaning? Did you learn that it is worth seeking me above all? Or is it only that you loved the experience of knowing I was doing something supernatural through you?
  Me: (sputtering) Well … well … I know that you give meaning in an eternal sense, but I also wanted things to go well this morning. When it didn’t, that messed up my joy. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it just did.
Do not work for the food which perishes,   Jesus: Think about it, Kevin. After an “anointed experience”, the joy fades for you in a day or two. How often will you need your anointing fix?
but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.” Your joy can be more permanent than that. I know you like to see me at work through you, but, you know, I’m still at work even when I don’t use you. Your joy in what I am doing doesn’t have to fade whenever it isn’t happening through you.
Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?”   Me: OK. So how can I  have that joy now? What do I need to do?
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”   Jesus: Just let go and trust me. You don’t need to be personally successful.
So they said to Him, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?   Me: But how can I trust you to be meaning and fruitfulness for me if you aren’t going to keep giving me experiences like that?
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.’” After all, that’s how it works with other people! They have all these stories about how you make them fruitful! As long as they obey, and surrender to you, then you reach people through them. As long as they have faith, you show up.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.   Jesus: You miss the point. It was never their experiences of anointing and fruitfulness that mattered. It was always just a matter of God being in it.
For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” What is “anointing” after all? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? That’s all that was every really important. The anointing isn’t an experience, it’s a Person.
Then they said to Him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”   Me: OK, then give that to me.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.   Jesus: You know what to do. Just keep abiding in Me.
But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” The reason you are struggling is because you aren’t responding in faith right now. (Ouch!)



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Remembering the relationship

For several years, the key to my Christian walk has been discerning what specific area the Holy Spirit puts on the agenda for my growth each week. The usual pattern is that every few days I start having difficulty walking in joy with God, but can’t say exactly why. I pray and try to obey more and try to trust more, but there remains a vague sense that something’s wrong. I’ve learned not to fret at that point, but to just keep mulling over what could be wrong, while I wait for God to make things clearer. Generally, after about three days, everything subtly shifts into place, and I know what’s going on. I become aware of some hidden motive that’s been driving my actions and emotions without my realizing it. Once I see it, it’s easy to lay it before God and move on. Life goes smoothly for a couple of days, until the cycle starts over.

Recently, the same thing happened, but it took about three weeks instead of three days, so I didn’t recognize the pattern at first. For about three weeks I’ve been irrationally discouraged by a couple of disappointing ministry opportunities. There was a Cru (Campus Crusade) meeting that fell flat, and for which I felt largely to blame. There was a Sunday School that went contrary to everything I had planned. There were a few other things. I kept working hard to trust and obey, and objectively there were a lot of things going well in my life, but I felt generally disconnected from God. I noticed that my personal quiet times with God were beginning to drop away, something I monitor because it is a reliable indicator that things are going wrong in my spiritual life even when I feel okay.

A week and a half ago, I spent some extended time with God in Scripture and prayer. God met me in that time, and I saw a lot of exciting things from the Scripture, but there was no sense of resolution as far as the malaise I’d been experiencing.

This past Friday, I asked someone to pray for me, but couldn’t even put into words what was wrong. “I’m just spiritually restless,” I told him. “I think there’s something wrong, but God isn’t convicting me of anything specific. I’ve learned that God usually shows me what it is eventually, but just pray that I’ll see what is going on.”

This Saturday, I tried to explain to Kate how I felt, even though I wasn’t even sure what I felt. As we talked, I started seeing how to describe to her what was going on. After about five minutes of interaction with her, I could define the problem clearly: “I’ve been feeling very task-oriented in my walk with God. I feel brisk and business-like, but I don’t feel as though I have any sense of walking in relationship with God.”

As usual, once I was finally able to put everything into words, the whole problem was easy to resolve. Kate and I talked about the study I’ve been doing on the Sabbath, and the importance of finding rest in Christ. We talked about how easy it is to walk in obedience while still missing out on an on-going interaction with God as a Person. It’s easy to make our spiritual life a task list instead of a relationship.

So everything’s good now. In fact, I think one of God’s purposes in the last three weeks was to help me understand my own Sabbath study better. He had to be sure that the meaning of finding rest in Christ was real and practical for me.

The reason I shared all this was because this kind of thing is so typical of my walk with God. I haven’t heard very many other people describe their own spiritual lives this way, but if my life is any indication, there must be some others out there who experience the same things, and for whom my example will be an encouragement in some way.

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The sermon today was on John 5:31-47.

The pastor emphasized the four witnesses that testify to Jesus’ deity: John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, the Father, the Scriptures.

Here are some questions our family had afterwards.

  • Verse 36 says that Jesus’ miracles show that he was from God. Yet other Scriptures talk about people who are not from God doing miracles. So do miracles prove someone is from God, or not?
  • Jesus says later in John that his disciples would do “greater works” than he did. How can they be greater than raising someone from the dead? What does that verse mean?
  • What is the testimony of the Father mentioned in verse 37? Our pastor first connected it to the testimony Scripture, as mentioned in verse 39. In that case, there are only three witnesses in this passage, with the last being “the Father through the Scriptures”. Later he connected it to the announcement, “This is my beloved Son” at Jesus’ baptism. But then what does it mean, “You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form”?

Our family had a really good discussion about the first two of these questions. We ended up talking about miracles, and about living with the expectation that God may still work supernaturally today.

Other questions I’ve been wondering about recently:

  • Acts 2:42 refers to “the breaking of bread”. I’ve always assumed it meant communion. A pastor a couple of weeks ago preached that it meant having a meal together. So what does it mean?
  • James 2:26 says “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” This is backwards from what I always think it is saying. I think of works as being the body — the outward form — and faith as being the thing that makes them of value to God. Works have spiritual value when they come from a believing heart. But this verse turns it around. I think it says that faith is like the body. It is just the form, the shell. When faith is fulfilled in works it becomes alive. The works that proceed from faith are what provide the life, the power, the “spirit” that animates the faith. The question is, am I right? Am I missing something? What more is there to add that would illuminate this?

I love having questions. Every question is a promise that there is more out there for me to learn.

(By the way, we did come to some satisfying conclusions about most of these questions. I just didn’t tell you what they were!)

Oh, one last thing I almost forget: Go check out my brother’s brand new website. Say something on it. You could even ask him my questions and see how smart he is 🙂

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What is the gospel?

I tend to think of “the gospel” as “what you need to believe to be saved”. If you don’t have to believe it to be saved, then while it may be true, it isn’t part of the gospel.

Now I’m wondering, is that what the gospel means in Scripture? A book I’ve been reading sent me back to the New Testament for another look.

It’s certainly good news that in Jesus we are offered forgiveness of sins. But there are other things about Jesus that are good news too. Does the New Testament use “gospel” to mean all the good news about Jesus, or does it mean very specifically the offer of personal salvation through His death for us and nothing else?

The question reminds me of the charismatic churches that talk about being “full gospel”. What they mean, I think, is that Jesus doesn’t just offer forgiveness, he offers healing and prosperity and so on. I don’t share their views about guaranteed healing and prosperity for believers, but set that aside for the moment and notice that when they call healing and prosperity part of the gospel, they aren’t implying that you must believe in that healing before you can be saved. They’re just saying that the good news doesn’t end with forgiveness. Not only can you find pardon for all your sins, you can find other blessings as well.

When Jesus walked on earth, there was a lot of good news about him. He healed and cast out demons. He taught with authority and insight. He said the kingdom of God was near. He demonstrated the compassionate heart of God.

Since his resurrection and ascension, there are more things that are good news. He has been made both Lord and Christ, and has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the reality that all the Old Testament rituals were pointing to. All of God’s goodness is summed up in him. He has called us to follow Him. He is our perfect example.

Of course none of these other blessings does us any good until we’ve received forgiveness in his name, but is it accurate to call them part of the gospel anyway?

If this is what the gospel means in Scripture, does that affect what we should think of when we talk about “sharing the gospel”?

Let me know what you think.

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Exodus 23:20-21

In Exodus 23:20-21 God says to Moses and the Israelites:

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.


When did this happen?

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Faith and weariness

I read this yesterday:

But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

“For yet in a very little while,

He who is coming will come, and will not delay.

But my righteous one shall live by faith;

And if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:32-39)

I was struck by the phrase “you have need of endurance”. The people addressed in this letter had once joyfully endured persecution, but now they were getting weary of believing. Their determination was flagging. The writer exhorts them to keep hanging on until the end.

One of the things I’m struggling with these days is having faith. In my daily life, I keep encountering things that overwhelm me with fear and I just give up for a day or two. God keeps pulling me back to the place where I have to make a conscious decision to trust him again and move on in joy.

The challenges to my faith are not big things, not major persecution or anything. Just things like a class that didn’t go well, or a car that broke down and will cost more than we have to fix it, or having to confront someone about their sin when it makes me very uncomfortable to do so. What God seems to ask me to do is not just follow through but do so with confidence and joy.

The interesting thing is that having faith like that – choosing to trust and stop worrying – is exhausting for me. I find myself completely worn out at the end of the day if I’ve done well. I can’t quite figure out why. My suspicion is that fear and other strong emotions are pulling hard at me at a deep, mostly subconscious level, and I’m spending all day fighting them off without quite realizing it. Because of that, having faith these days is literally hard work.

Things ought to get easier with practice. Whatever emotional resistance I’m encountering these days will eventually be trained out of my default psychological setting, and believing with joy will come more naturally. That’s what character growth often consists of.

I think it’s interesting that faith can be tiring. I haven’t heard other Christians say they’ve experienced this, but I’ll bet a lot of them have. I think the taxing nature of faith is linked in some way to several Scriptures besides the one above, such as: Luke 22:40-46 (note v 45), Romans 4:18-21, Galatians 6:9, or James 1:2-4.

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The second-born in the Old Testament

Abraham had two children, Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was first-born, but the line of Israel came through Isaac. Then Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Esau was first-born, but gave away his birthright and the line came through Jacob. The Jacob had a whole bunch of sons, but the one God used for his purposes was Joseph, nearly the last of the twelve.

Why this emphasis on the first-born not being the important one?

I don’t think it will do to say, “There is no significance. It just happened that way historically.” Old Testament Jewish readers, at least, would have expected the pattern to mean something important to their identity as a nation chosen by God.

Does it emphasize that being the chosen people is up to God rather than man? (Compare Romans 9:11). Or that God is more concerned with a person’s heart than his position? (Compare 1 Samuel 16:7). It can’t be straightforwardly Messianic: Jesus is definitely pictured by a first-born, not a second-born, son. (John 3:16, Colossians 1:15).

Hmmm …

Any suggestions?

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Jesus’ faith

I was thinking over the weekend about Jesus’ teaching about faith.

I love that when you consider the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, it’s so different than we we imagine it. He talked about money so much! He talked about the kingdom an awful lot. And he talked lots and lots about faith.

On the one hand, he seemed to have an almost carefree approach to life, because he was so sure the Father would take care of his every need, and he exhorted his disciples to think the same way. On the other hand, he never seemed attached to earthly *stuff* at all. He expected persecution and homelessness (Luke 9:57-58) for instance.

I can’t speak for all of you, but I don’t strike that balance well.

If I focus on expecting God to meet my needs here on earth, I become attached to what I’ve got and how comfortable life can be, and get too self-indulgent. If I focus on heavenly instead of earthly blessings, I tend to get *serious* and *responsible* and, eventually, worried.

Jesus’ way of living is very attractive to me. He seemed so free. He traveled so lightly through life, unburdened by either worry or luxury. (Matthew 11:28-30, 13:22b).

What does this kind of faith look like? For me, it is somehow connected to being simply happy.

Anyway, that’s one of my goals this week: to grow in this kind of everyday trust in the Father.

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In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says this:

And when I came to you, brethren, … my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Cor 1:1-5)

I’ve been thinking about what it means to persuade people of the truth. From my point of view, you persuade someone by a) understanding the truth, b) understanding their point of view, and c) building a bridge that will get them from where they are to where they need to be.

But is building a bridge that will get them from where they are to where they need to be the same as getting them to rest their faith on their own wisdom? Perhaps you need to just skip the bridge and say, “This is the truth!” even though you know they’ll never buy it because, from their point of view, there isn’t any reason to.

Proverbs speaks favorably of persuading people:

The wise in heart will be called understanding, And sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (Prov 16:21)

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth And adds persuasiveness to his lips.(Prov 16:23)

By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, And a soft tongue breaks the bone. (Prov 25:15)

The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable (Prov 15:2a)

Paul certainly persuaded people, too:

And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women. (Acts 17:4)

And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:4)

And he entered the synagogue and continued speaking out boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. (Acts 19:8)

Agrippa replied to Paul, ” In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” And Paul said, “I would wish to God, that whether in a short or long time, not only you, but also all who hear me this day, might become such as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:28-29)

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. (2 Cor 5:11)

How does all this work out? I’m still not sure.

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I love prayer meetings, sometimes. Other times I am bored and discouraged by them.

Recently I’ve had the chance to be a part of the first kind. It’s been refreshing spiritually. It’s hard to describe how greatly refreshing it’s been. 

It’s hard for me to say what the difference is. I’ve tried to capture it in different ways at different times. Here are some of the things I’ve pointed to in the past as characteristic of a rich time of prayer:

  • When God’s presence is clearly felt
  • When people are free to pray as the Holy Spirit leads, instead of feeling as though they have to follow a specific pattern
  • When there is strong spiritual leadership that casts a united vision for the purpose of our prayers
  • When people are praying with genuine faith, as though they expect God to answer
  • When people are praying because of a genuine spiritual burden, rather than just bringing laundry lists to God
  • When people are praying for the kingdom and glory of God instead of just for their own comfort
  • When people are paying close attention to the Spirit’s direction as they decide what to pray
  • When most of the people there are serious about prayer and have a hunger for what it can be

These days, I’d characterize it as being a time

  • when people really seek the face of God, as opposed to just jumping into their prayer lists.

Whatever it is, I don’t do it well on my own; I really depend on other people being there with me, their faith encouraging and stimulating mine.

Regardless, I’m really enjoying this season in my prayer life. I’m treating it as a gift from God and not trying too much to find ways to make it happen.

Thoughts? What factors make corporate prayer times really good for you?

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