A Prayer for the Church

God, be with our church, with those who are called by Your name. Help us to realize that You are the most important thing in our lives, and that You and You alone have the power to change people’s hearts. Help us to realize our calling to love the lost, heal the wounded, both in body and in spirit, feed and clothe the poor, encourage the broken-hearted, and in all we do, to guide those around us to You. Let us see beyond the actions, beyond the anger and the hatred and the skepticism of all who reject You; let us see as much as You allow us to of their hearts, that we may know their pain and have only compassion and love for them, as You had love for us. Give us wisdom in dealing with people and with situations in life; only You know what is to come and what is truly best for us. Let us accept Your judgments and Your answers to our prayers, even when that answer is not what we want to hear.

Help us, Lord, to ignore those things that don’t matter that we might live in peace with each other, not striving to outdo each other in any way, but striving only to serve you with all of our hearts, minds, strength, and souls. Teach us humility and contentedness, teach us patience and mercy, teach us faith and love, but first, Lord, give us the courage to pray for these things in earnestness, for we know that You will always answer prayers for things that are in Your will for us. Help us to understand Your ways, that You often teach us love by giving us difficult people to love, that You show us how to be patient by letting us want things immediately. Help us to grow, Father, that we might be closer to You.

For our church, Father, please strengthen our faith. Show us that Your Word is still alive today, that it is not void or outdated or false. Show us our sins, and then show us our hearts that cause us to commit these sins. Most of all, change our hearts that we may seek You first above all things. Help us to be different from the world, let them see that You do change people, and that what we have is something they need. Give us the strength to weather persecution, to not only endure, but to praise You when it comes that we are counted worthy to suffer for Your glory. For it is always, Lord, about Your glory, for Yours is the kingdom and the power and the honor forever.

Let Your will be done in our lives.

Amen.

What True Confidence Is and Why You Need It

What if I told you that most Christians were wasting the second biggest benefit of being a Christian? The biggest is naturally that we go to Heaven for eternity rather than Hell, but that does us little good until we die, meaning that the biggest benefit to us on earth is largely wasted. This is the life-changing part of the Gospel, the part that non-Christians will look at that makes them want to know Christ, and the part that can give you a greater victory than any victory you’ve been seeking. So, what is it?

You have a new identity in Christ once you become saved that makes you more valuable than building any empire, having any job, acquiring any amount of wealth or power, or being the most attractive person ever could make you. Once you are saved, you cease becoming who you were and you become Jesus’ friend, a child of God, and His heir. You become part of the church, the Bride of Christ. There is no position higher outside of being God Himself.

Read that again. Slowly. Even the angels don’t have that promise. They don’t have grace and 1 Peter 1:12 says they long to look into God’s salvation in our lives.

What does that mean for us? It means that we no longer have to fight for positioning on earth. No more slavery to things which give us our value. Think about what this is for you for a moment. Do you give your all to your job, so that one comment from your boss can ruin your day? Do you feel an almost compulsive need to have dinner ready on time for your husband and the house clean? Do you constantly try to get more money, even when you have enough? Everyone (at least, everyone I’ve ever known) has something that can make them feel worthless if it’s taken away or attacked. And nearly everyone will try to keep that from happening, meaning they can be manipulated or, more often, manipulate themselves, into doing what is necessary to protect their self-worth. Stay in a bad relationship so they won’t be alone? Yep. Work 55 hours a week? If that’s what it takes.

People enslave themselves to whatever gives them value. 

Jesus died not just to save you, but also that you could get your value from being God’s son or daughter. He died to set you free from your self-imposed slavery.

That’s what having true confidence is: knowing Whose child you are once you become saved. It’s not because you’re special and did something amazing because you can’t possibly earn this position. Ever. And this position is so much higher than anything on earth that fighting for position on earth is like two blue whales arguing over which of them is a millimeter longer.

This is not just God fulfilling our earthly desires so that we have enough. This is God giving us so much more than enough that what we’re seeking now doesn’t matter.

He does this for three reasons:

1. Because He knows that nothing you get when you’re getting your self-worth outside of Him will ever be enough because it won’t be permanent. There will always be another promotion, another relationship (or the fear that the one you’re in will fade or end), another possession to own, another achievement to earn. Always someone else to compete with. Always something new to win. There is never a point at which it is enough, at which you’ll truly be satisfied with yourself on a deep, permanent level.

2. Because He knows that you will cling to Him all the more tightly if you’re getting your sense of self-worth from Him. God doesn’t want our need for value to change; He simply wants to be where we get our value. We need to know Him as He truly is if we are to get our value from Him, and there is no way to do that save by seeking Him and spending time with Him.

3. Because it is when we stop competing with others that we are able to love them as He loves them. You cannot love someone while looking out for your needs and wants above theirs. You cannot truly love another person enough if you’re depending on them to tell you your value. It is only when you get your value from God alone that you are free of letting others’ opinions enslave you. It is this freedom, this peace that your God, your Father, loves you passionately that will make non-Christians notice the change in your life and want it for themselves.

True confidence, in short, is the freedom that comes with knowing you are a child of God, His heir, His friend, and the Bride of Christ. Nobody can take that away from you, and neither any failure nor any success can change that value. Once you become a Christian, you have this new identity available to you. All you have to do is embrace it.

Dancing in the Storm

One of my favorite songs right now is Passenger’s Let Her Go. You’ve probably heard it. “Well, you only need the light when it’s burning low, Only miss the sun when it starts to snow, Only know you love her when you let her go…” It rings so true that we don’t know what we have until it’s gone, because it’s so human to take what we have for granted.

This, I think, is one of the reasons we have storms in our lives: to help us to appreciate the good times. Think of the worst day of your life, or the worst few months of it. If that worst day isn’t today and that worst time isn’t still going on, you have something to be thankful for in that your life has gotten better. You may be going through a storm, but it’s not the worst you’ve seen.

And if that day is today, then you can be thankful that these times, though it may seem otherwise, don’t last forever. The storm eventually subsides, the puddles dry up, and the sun pierces the clouds once more.

Another part of this is found in Ecclesiastes 7:14, “In the day of prosperity, be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, so that man can find out nothing that will come after him.” God may have appointed you to go through a storm so that you don’t know what’s coming next. Not coming next makes you want to grasp for security and there is nothing more secure than Him. If trials grow your faith, the reward to be found in the trials is greater than the reward to be found in prosperity. If we can truly grasp this, we will be able to dance in the storm as much as in the sun.

Can you imagine what non-Christians would think of that? Of us celebrating when everything seems to be going against us? Of us praising God when we’ve lost our jobs, have a loved one in the hospital, or have a rebellious teenager? That’s the kind of peace that passes all understanding, that makes non-Christians wonder if maybe what we believe really is powerful enough to make a difference in our lives, a difference they want to experience themselves.

How do you react when you’re going through a trial? For my part, I have my good days and my bad ones. Sometimes, my faith is strong and the trial seems so much smaller than God. At others…well, I still have a lot of growing to do. I’m not yet at the point where I can be not just happy through the storm, but happy because of the storm, knowing that it’s during our trials when God grows us the most and brings us the closest to Him.

The Four Levels of Faith

It seems there are four levels of faith:
1. Comfort faith
2. 11th-hour faith
3. Rack, Shack, and Benny faith
4. Even though faith

Comfort faith is the level I was at for a long time. I believed in God and claimed I trusted in Him to guide me…provided I wasn’t concerned about money, health, or anything else major at the time. Leah calls it “sunshine faith.” When it’s all going well enough, it’s easy to believe in God. It’s even easy to say you’re believing in God to bring you things that don’t have a definite deadline, like a house or the right person to marry. You feel good because you seem to have both a faith in God and a great deal of comfort in your life. A lot of people stay here because it’s such a nice place. Sure, trials may come, but with the resources they have, they’re able to get through most of them just fine on their own.

But God rarely uses people whose faith is at just this level. Following God requires a deepening of your faith with Him. 

It’s also hard to let go of the things you have when your faith, not only in God but that He is better than what you are letting go, is weak. I think people either get contented at this level and so don’t seek God, or they know that seeking God comes at a cost and they’re simply not willing to pay it. Either way, this is the lowest level of faith, lulling those with it to sleep.

And there’s one last danger: when a serious trial comes, many people at this level will crumble. Their faith hasn’t been worked and so they have nothing to stand on. It would be like a 120 lb. guy walking into a gym after benching 40 lbs. at home and trying to bench 400 lbs. He’d be seriously injured, if not killed.

The second level of faith is 11th-hour faith. It’s a bit stronger because you’re willing to step out and follow God outside of your comfort zone, yet there’s still a safety net. Leah and I currently have this faith. We moved down to Houston, but when we think about our checking account, we think, “Ok, we can sell her car and that should bring in about 3-4 months’ worth of expenses. We also have our credit lines, which could float us for an additional 4-5 months. We’ll be ok, we’ll make it.”

Our faith is growing each day, but we’re not quite ready to fully trust God. We want Him to catch us, even though we’re not ready to let go.

There’s some good in being here. For one, it hurts, meaning that our faith is growing. I had a job search last year and God blessed me with a contract job. I was stressed, though, because we were down to about a month’s worth of expenses. This time, I’m taking it much better, but I’m not where I need to be. Not close. I keep thinking about what will happen with the search and, even when I daydream about what God could do, it’s still not letting it all go to Him to let Him decide what needs to be done. I’m still telling Him that I need a job, which is to say, that I need the first step, but then I can take it from there. And if He doesn’t come through for a while, it’s ok because I still have my safety net.

Then there’s Rack, Shack, and Benny faith. Those of you who know Veggie Tales probably get this reference to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image of gold 90 feet tall and demanded that all people worship it. These three refused, so the king gave them another chance. They refused again, saying, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16b-18)

This is powerful faith, what I call “even if” faith. They were determined to believe in God and serve Him, even if He didn’t come through for them. Even if they were to be burned alive for their faith, they would not budge. I’m not there yet. I could believe in God and serve Him through more now than before, but being faced with the prospect of being burned alive…I’m not sure I could be that strong. They were willing to let go, to have no safety net under them, and, though they were hoping God would deliver them, their faith didn’t depend on His answering their prayers the way they wanted.

This is where it gets scary, though, because you don’t know whether He’ll answer your prayers in your way or let you get thrown in the furnace. And if you do get tossed in, you don’t know that He’ll protect you. This is the point at which you still pray for your plan, but have accepted His.

Lastly, there is “even though” faith. This is a subtle, but important, difference from even if faith. With even if faith, you’re still wanting your will to happen. You’re hoping God gives you a way out and you’re still looking for it. You’re willing, you can be committed, but the faith is different because the focus is different. Jesus, as the man, didn’t want to go the cross, but He was willing to go, knowing full well that there was no way out, that He would, without question, suffer one of the worst deaths in recorded history, despite having done nothing to deserve it. He went, knowing that for a brief time, He would carry the weight of all our sin on Him, becoming the sacrifice to appease His Father’s perfect and adamant justice.

I don’t know if it’s possible; to be honest, I don’t even know if I want to have this kind of faith. It terrifies me to be willing to march boldly into a certain and horrible death, worshiping God the whole way. And it doesn’t even have to be death. If I knew for certain that God would not come through for Leah and I and that we’d be on the streets, that we’d never have kids, and that we’d live short lives marred with diseases and abuses, it would be hard for me to serve still. If I were to lose Leah, I would come back eventually, but I don’t think I could worship God when it happened or honestly love Him. I tell myself “one step at a time,” but I don’t know how far I want my steps to take me. I pray simultaneously for the boldness that I need to wield this kind of faith and that I’ll never need to have it.

If anyone had this faith, it was Habakkuk. In chapter 3:17-19, he writes, “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food, though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls, I will rejoice in the Lord. I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills.” Or as Job said in Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

I am in the second level right now and part of my problem is I want to go back to the first as much as I want to press on to the third. I need to know more clearly the God I serve, and I need to let go of my own will in my life.

I Was Right

A few years ago, shortly after enjoying the best God time of my life, I wrote a poem about forgiveness. I was struggling with literally dozens of grudges then, and writing this was the first step in the process of letting those go.

“I was right!” I shouted,
Alas to no avail.
The night dark and unclouded
The moon, still smiling, pale.
“Answer me if You’re there!
Or have You gone away?
They were wrong! It’s not fair!
Do You hear me when I pray?”
Softly rustled the leaves
And as I turned I spied,
As though between two thieves,
A flanked tree with branches wide.
“I was right then as well,
More than you’ll ever be,
But love saves more from hell
Than right or law or creed.
They were wrong, it is true,
But does that matter now?
Life became unfair for you
When blood dripped from my brow.”
“I was wrong,” I gently wept,
The pale moon smiling still.
Then heard as in the clouds crept,
“That doesn’t matter, either.”

Gandhi and the Christians

Gandhi used to read the Bible daily. He highly admired Jesus and tried to follow His teachings. One day, he was asked why, if he liked Jesus so much, he didn’t become a Christian. Gandhi’s answer was simple: “Christians.”

When he was studying in Great Britain, he got to know many people who claimed to be Christians, but were that in name only. They didn’t live as Christ lived. I don’t know all the things he saw them doing, but it was enough to make him not want to be a Christian. Continue reading

Who is that Masked Man?

Most of us love a good superhero movie, but one of the things most of them have in common is the hero wears a mask (or, in Superman’s case, a ridiculously easy to see through disguise when he’s not in tights). It’s about protection of their identity in most cases, so people can’t get to those the hero cares about and so control the hero through them. In some cases, it might be about humility, so that the hero can take off the mask and costume and go about his or her day without the world thanking them at every step.

We wear masks, too. Ours, however, our worn out of personal fear that our true selves are not worth knowing, not worth spending time with. That we’re somehow not good enough.

Take a common situation, such as meeting someone new. You know the drill: you shake hands, offer a smile, give your name and they give theirs. You might ask each other what you do for a living or why that person happens to be where you are. Light, surface-level questions. Nothing too personal offered or asked. Why?

Part of it is because social decorum dictates that initial meetings are best left impersonal, but that decorum comes from the underlying issue: that we don’t want to let people close to us that easily. Trust is not readily given; in many cases, it’s not even readily accepted. You don’t know the person you’re meeting, so you don’t give them anything they can use to hurt you. 

Not only that, you either offer nothing bad about yourself or you offer only bad about yourself, the former if you want them to like you and the latter if you want attention or just want the other person to not hurt you. With either, the result is that the person you’re meeting doesn’t have a true picture of you, as nobody is either all good or all bad. You give them a caricature, that mask you’re wearing that exaggerates some of your features while hiding your true self.

For me, my mask has several parts. One part is stoicism. I laugh easily enough and my laugh, I’m told, is musical and contagious, but I don’t just smile often. I don’t show much of any emotion. I don’t talk all that much, either. Another part is that I want to be the smartest guy in the room. When I’m around new people, I look for ways to do math in my head for them so they’ll think I’m brilliant. Once that’s established, I usually let it go, but I want that to be part of their image of me. There are more parts to my mask, but there are two important things about my little facade:

1. My mask is not who I currently am. I don’t advertise openly that I have insecurities still. I have far fewer than when I wrote the book on having confidence, but some are still lingering. I didn’t know how many until I got married, but thankfully, both God and my wife are working on me to erase those. 

2. More importantly, my mask is not who God wants me to be. He wants me to be His son, His adopted heir, more powerful and important than if I was a conquering general or the world’s richest man. No insecurities, no fear of failure, no fear of anything but God.

He wants that for you, too. Deep down, you want it for yourself. It’s why you keep searching for things that will make you feel valuable, so you can make yourself a little better in the hopes of one day dropping the mask and letting the world see you as you really are. You are good enough to do that now with Christ’s image of you. 

I want to challenge both you and myself this week to drop our masks, even if only for a few minutes at a time. Tell yourself that you are God’s child and that no opinion of anyone else on this planet matters. Tell yourself that no failure on your part affects your value. And then, do whatever God wants you to do. Cast all your hopes for value and love on Him and work to show yourself approved to Him, a workman that needs not be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15). I’d love to hear your stories of how this went. I’ll try to remember to post mine.