From Spiritual Mountaintop to Spiritual Wilderness

original photo credit: Peter Rivera via photopin cc
original photo credit: Peter Rivera via photopin cc

Dramatic. Powerful. Intense. All are words that I would use to describe the weeks following my conversion to Christianity. Surrendering my life to Christ was without question a calculated decision; I was not crying out to God in a moment of crisis. Still, I was a broken person and the Holy Spirit moved dramatically to meet my need.

On one particular evening, while studying for a physics final, I saw two visions that I inherently understood to be from God. I’ll not go into detail, but one of the visions provided a future image of a successful ministry. I was at the top of the world! Not only had the Creator of the Universe lovingly plucked me from the depths of sin, He had visibly shown me a hope-filled future.

Not long after that glorious season, I found myself painfully trudging through the trenches of life; that mountaintop experience felt like nothing more than a blurred memory. My challenges were so difficult and my struggles so deep that I questioned whether any of the good experiences had ever even happened. Worse yet, my expected road to Christian ministry turned in a most unwanted direction, apparently leading away from—instead of toward—the vision God had given me.

Fast forward over thirty-three years. I’m still walking with God and am now involved with “full-time” Christian ministry. As of today, I still have not seen the complete fulfillment of the vision God gave during my college years, but at least the path of my life has turned back in what I would consider to be the “right” direction. For me, the call of God continues to be very much a faith walk, but I can now see its fulfillment through the eye of faith. That’s a lot more than I can say for the long, dark portion of wilderness territory that I once traversed.

photo credit: Zest-pk via photopin cc
photo credit: Jonathan Kos-Read via photopin cc

I wish I could say that my experience is unique—that I stand alone amongst all the men and women of God who have gone before me. I cannot say that. What happened—and continues to happen—to me is part of a pattern frequently used by God. Mountaintop vision to desolate wilderness to fulfillment of the vision—that’s the way the pattern works. Or at least the way it is supposed to work. Sadly, not everyone emerges from a wilderness season as a spiritual champion for Christ. Indeed, many go to their graves mired in the bitter-tasting muck of unbelief—as typified by an entire generation of ancient Israelites who perished in the Judean wilderness.

Often, it’s very difficult to explain why a wilderness season came to be. Sometimes God is clearly the author; other times He seems to have little to do with the situation. But regardless of how our time of spiritual dryness and isolation came to be, the manner of overcoming is always the same: we emerge as champions by responding to negative circumstances in a manner that honors God.

photo credit: Zest-pk via photopin cc
photo credit: Zest-pk via photopin cc

Our heavenly Father always has the best interests of His beloved children at heart, but there is something that He has sought after since the creation of the human race: our fruitfulness (Genesis 1:26-28; John 15:8). The Creator of the Universe passionately desires to see us bear the sweet fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to see that fruit multiplied in the lives of those we serve. This is really what the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is about. A spiritual wilderness experience can reflect the glory of God as He mystically brings the fruitful out of the barren, or it can reflect the sinfulness of humankind as we spiral downward in cynicism and unbelief. The choice, my friends, is ours.

(This post is loosely based on the content of my new book, Champions in the Wilderness, which will soon be available for sale. Also, when our new SfMe Media website is complete, our blog posts will be switched our new ministry website, searchforme.info and this blog site will be phased out. You can subscribe to by entering your email in the subscribe panel on the right-hand side of the new website.)

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Hey, Good Buddy, Ya Got Your Ears On?

original photo credit: Travis Isaacs via photopin cc
photo credit: Travis Isaacs via photopin cc

There was a season during my teenage years when CB radios were all the rage. People installed them in their cars and sometimes even their houses. My buddy’s dad had his own little CB station set up in the corner of his living room to keep him entertained through the long winter evenings.

“CB Lingo”—once only the language of truckers and rednecks—became common jargon for all of American society. Whether by radio or by phone, it was common to greet a friend with, “Hey, Good Buddy, Ya Got Your Ears On?” Little did I realize then that it was Jesus who coined that phrase—only His was a slightly different version.

Talking on CB Radio
photo credit: Andrew 鐘 via photopin cc

Matthew 13:3-9 records what is often called “the parable of the sower.”

And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (NASB)

Did you notice how Jesus ended His little story? “He who has ears, let him hear.” It’s similar to, “Hey, Ya Got Your Ears On?” but with a slightly different twist. Jesus commonly used this phrase when in the process of making a difficult statement. In a sense, the Son of God was saying, “Listen up folks, you may not like what I’m saying, but you really need to hear this.”

photo credit: Natanis Davidsen via CreationSwap
photo credit: Natanis Davidsen via CreationSwap

After Jesus presented the parable of the sower, the crowds went on their way marveling about the eloquent stories that He told. Christ’s disciples, however, pulled Him aside and began to ask questions in an effort to get to the heart of the matter. The Messiah’s followers didn’t just hear what Jesus said; they actually listened.

You know, one thing about Jesus is that He is just so darn easy to ignore—at least in the short-term. A few people in Western culture totally reject what Jesus had to say, and I’ll say that, at the very least, I applaud them for their honesty. Most of us simply pick and choose, approaching the teachings of Christ like we would a restaurant buffet. We keep what tastes pleasant to the palate, while conveniently ignoring anything we deem to be distasteful.

Buffet
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The problem with this approach is that the words of Jesus Christ can never be simply a matter of preference—they are the very words of life. Whether we choose to reject His teachings, or simply ignore them, I can guarantee that we will find ourselves paying a steep price in the end. The Creator of the Universe is not to be trifled with.

Personally, I really do prefer the pleasant parts of Christianity. I like, for instance, going on retreats—taking time to linger in the presence of God and sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya with my brothers and sisters in Christ. But along the way, I have also learned the life-giving value of less palatable things like hard truth, correction, and discipline. The fact that I don’t like something doesn’t mean that I don’t need it!

How about you? Ya Got Your Ears On?

Do This in Remembrance of Me?

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original photo credit: steakpinball via photopin cc

It’s easy to get confused when trying to understand how the Mosaic Law relates to the New Covenant of grace. I am intrigued by Romans 4:14-15 (NASB):

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

Our initial reaction upon reading this verse might be to think that it is impossible to sin now that we are free from the requirements of the Mosaic Law. We would do well to consider the context of this passage. Paul was writing to Jews about both Jews and Gentiles, and how they were to respectively gain their right standing before God. His point was that Jews could not be justified by their age-old reliance upon obedience to the Law. This does not mean, however, that the Christian faith is entirely void of all laws.

The kingdom of God is governed by one primary law—the royal law:

 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. James 2:8 (NASB)

Jesus raised the bar even higher in John 13:34 (NASB):

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

City of Brotherly Love
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This is where our second Greek word for love, philia, comes into play. And in case you were wondering, this is where the name Philadelphia finds its roots as the city of brotherly love—although I’m not exactly sure how accurate that description is in our day. I’ll be perfectly honest here—the problem isn’t limited to the city of Philadelphia; I think that very, very few professing Christians pay any serious attention to Christ’s command for us to love our brothers and sisters of the faith with the same measure of love modeled by Jesus.

Why do I feel this way? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that heaping judgment and contempt on other Christians is more of a common practice than a rare exception. What we don’t seem to understand is that Jesus is personally affected by our treatment of His covenant children. (see Matthew 25:31-46). Whenever I look down my nose with contempt at one of my Christian brothers, I might as well have Jesus Himself in my sights. What a scary thought!

What happens when we transgress God’s royal law of love? We heap condemnation upon ourselves—especially when we profess our devotion to the New Covenant in Christ.

photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc
photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (NASB)

Does it really matter how we treat the body of Christ–our New Covenant brothers and sisters? Absolutely! Do you truly want to honor God with your life? Let love govern your behavior–all of it.

The topic is worthy of far more time and effort than a single blog post and so I will address it with more detail in my next book. For now, however, these are essential thoughts to ponder. The King of the Universe cares more about our love—or lack thereof—for one another far more than most of us will allow ourselves to believe.

A Love Song for Eternity

Original photo credit: kelsey_lovefusionphoto via photopin cc
Original photo credit: kelsey_lovefusionphoto via photopin cc

I’ve never written a love song—I am not gifted in music—but I’ve certainly listened to a few in my day. Love songs, it seems, run the gamut from what might be more appropriately called lust songs to those that idealize faithful and long lasting devotion. Titles are even more diverse, including famous hits like “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “Baby Love,” “Lean on Me,” and “I’ll Be There.”

If I had the ability to write a love song about God, I think it would be titled, “Perfect Love”. No human example can even begin to compare to the mind bending agape love of our Creator. Let’s face it, selfless love is highly regarded and yet we all have a whole lot of selfishness that somehow manages to contaminate just about everything we do.

[Agape] Love of God means total commitment and total trust (Mt. 5:29–30; 6:24ff.). In particular, it involves a renunciation of mammon and of vainglory (Mt. 6:24b, 30ff.). It also calls for resistance to persecution, which is a fiery test of the loyalty of love (Mt. 10:17ff.; 5:10ff.).[1]

Hour of the Soul
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The context of the New Covenant is clear: our agape love for God is far more than a momentary feeling of excitement that comes when we realize how much He has blessed us. The depth of God’s love for us was never meant to be a one way street. He has never failed to give everything for our sakes, nor will He hesitate to expect the same measure of devotion from us.

“And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And He said to him, ‘What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, ‘You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.’” Luke 10:25-28 (NASB)

I don’t know about you, but I have difficulty seeing Christ’s command to love God as anything but all encompassing.

“with all your heart . . . with all your soul . . . with all your strength . . . with all your mind”

Are you willing to:

–        Go wherever He calls?

–        Do whatever He asks?

–        Surrender anything He requests?

–        Give all He desires?

photo credit: Chris Van Den Berg via CreationSwap
photo credit: Chris Van Den Berg via CreationSwap

Being a Christian is not about following a list of rules, but living by one law (love God with all that we are) that governs our every action. Until we get this one thing settled, it’s virtually impossible to address specific types of behavior. People who draw their meaning of love from pop culture will be in the habit of practicing selfish love, if such a creature exists. They will find a way to justify almost any action under the banner of grace.

I realize that this all sounds rather heavy, but it’s not nearly so much about the “have to” as it is the “get to”. Love, in its purest form flows out of a desire to give fully of oneself to another. What an awesome, undeserved privilege it is for us to even have the chance for such a mutual relationship with the King of kings and the Lord of lords! Despite my selfish tendencies, this is not an opportunity that I want to squander. How about you?


[1] Kittel, G., Friedrich, G., & Bromiley, G. W. (1985). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (8). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

What Does Obedience Have to Do with Faith?

I think I did a decent job of blasting theological liberals with my last post regarding the integrity of the Scriptures. There are times, however, when I find it necessary to be an equal opportunity offender; this week I will take a loving shot at some of those in the evangelical camp.

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Created by Sam Hakes

“What” I might ask, “was the apostle Paul’s primary mission in life?” The expected evangelical answer would be, “to help populate heaven by seeing lost souls saved.” It all sounds very noble—and very spiritual—but that isn’t quite what the Bible teaches. By no means am I saying that saving souls is unimportant. The Bible itself tells us that all of heaven rejoices when a person’s name is added to the Book of Life. But notice what Paul wrote in the introduction of his letter to the Roman believers:

. . . Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake. . . .  Romans 1:4b-5 (NASB)

Paul was stating that the primary purpose of both grace and apostolic ministry is to “bring about the obedience of faith.” This is no fluke as Paul uses the same terminology at the end of his letter (verse 26):

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 16:25-27 (NASB)

Paul's Letter to the RomansDo you see it? Paul’s letter to the Romans—the premiere book of the Bible that illuminates our understanding of the gospel—begins and ends with an emphasis on the “obedience of faith.” Salvation isn’t just about accepting Jesus so that we can join a heavenly chorus of believers. Genuine faith is revealed by very practical obedience to God’s commands.

Once again, we find ourselves exploring a deeper understanding of grace. If the grace of God is unmerited favor and nothing more, then we are excused to live as we please as long as we have made some type of decision for Christ. But if grace is something more–if grace enables as well as favors–then it makes perfect sense that a growing faith would lead to increasingly favorable life changes. It’s not about measuring up to some type of religious standard, but rather living by a new and different paradigm.

The Great Commission, in many evangelical circles, has been minimized to mean something very different than what Christ commanded His disciples.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

Our call, as recorded by Matthew, is to “make disciples” of Jesus. This means that our salvation message must go beyond God’s willingness to forgive our sins. We speak not merely of a salvation prayer, or of a decision for Christ, but of a changed lifestyle which faith and grace will bring about. Any gospel that fails to call for a total surrender of one’s life to Christ is, at best, only an incomplete version of the genuine article.

I believe we do a tremendous disservice to people when we undermine the credibility of the Scriptures with liberal thinking, but I am also convinced that evangelicals make a huge mistake when they simply regurgitate concepts that they’ve been taught by their religious leaders. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand the Bible but it does take effort to seek God’s wisdom for a clearer comprehension of Biblical truth.

Return of Christ
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I know that most evangelicals are well-intentioned but so are most liberals. In light of Galatians 1:6-10, if there is one thing that requires extraordinary attention on our part, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ!

How Do You Picture Jesus?

CompositeJesus
Taken from Wikapedia – Public Domain

Have you ever wondered what Jesus looked like? I think that we safely can say that he wasn’t pale and sickly-looking the way that many of the Renaissance painters made Him to be. Jesus would, in fact, have had somewhat dark skin. If He was of average height for His day—and we have no reason to believe that He wasn’t—Jesus most likely stood just over five feet tall. And though not a physical giant, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus had a fairly muscular build.

History calls Him a carpenter, but the actual Greek word is téktōn, which can be translated as craftsman or builder. Being that wood was not especially plentiful in the Judean region, He probably made yokes, plows, and tools; or He worked as a stone mason. Justin Martyr, a first century church father, said it was the former, so Christ’s description as a carpenter has stuck. Either way, as a craftsman—someone who worked with His hands and spent time around other builders—Jesus would not have been a physical wimp, regardless of how He is often portrayed.

The physical picture we have of Jesus doesn’t really matter all that much, but how we view His personality means a great deal. It is completely inaccurate to envision the Son of Man as a timid, somewhat weak-willed guy who just walked around forgiving everybody regardless of what they said and did.

Through the Scriptures, we sometimes see an angry Jesus; He turned over the tables of the money changers and blasted the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Jesus was not hesitant to express His displeasure—and even His wrath—but His anger was never self-centered. The Son of God hated injustice with a passion.

photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc
photo credit: Unhindered by Talent via photopin cc

As a craftsman, Jesus was also accustomed to beginning with raw materials in an effort to produce a finished product. While He may have enjoyed simply working with His hands, there was always an end-goal in mind. A craftsman never looks with complete pleasure upon rough lumber until He can envision a finished product. A master craftsman never fears working with flawed materials; in spite of the difficulties, these materials make some of the most beautiful products. There is a problem, however, if the raw materials always remain raw—if they never progress toward their final goal.

photo credit: Simon Blackley via photopin cc
photo credit: Simon Blackley via photopin cc

Ephesians 2:10 (AMP) tells us that “We are God’s [own] handiwork (His workmanship), recreated in Christ Jesus, [born anew] that we may do those good works which God predestined (planned beforehand) for us [taking paths which He prepared ahead of time], that we should walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us to live].”

I honestly don’t know how He looked physically, but I see in Jesus both the passion and wisdom of a master craftsman. Undoubtedly, He will accept us as we are, but He will never be content to allow us to remain in our current states. His goal is to take our flawed raw materials and produce a masterpiece of fruitful service. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the King of kings and Lord of lords would ever be content with anything less.

Why Government Leaders Ignore the Root Causes of Violence

U.S. Capitol
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Every time a mass shooting occurs in the U.S., our government leaders rise to the occasion by proclaiming the need for change. Those who are sincere will usually push hard for gun control while ignoring the root causes that have brought such sickness upon our society.

Why are our politicians so slow to look at the real issues? There are times when gazing into a mirror can be very unsettling.

In examining the Scriptures we find that the primary problem with human nature is an innate desire to be like God apart from God. This defining drive of the human heart finds its expression through three primary roots—self-centeredness, the lust for power and control, and a constant yearning for self-glorification. All three fallen tendencies drive the world of politics, but rather than potentially implicating themselves by addressing the real issues, our leaders and legislators will look for any scapegoat to deflect the attention from their own shortcomings. It is all simply a matter of human nature.

We the people
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I share these thoughts not as a disgruntled American full of disdain for our government leaders, but as a Christian who fully recognizes that these self-absorbed tendencies are common to the entire human race. If ours is a government for the people and by the people, at least to some degree, our government leaders serve as a reflection of the general populace.

All of this brings us to yet another factor in the rise of gun violence in the United States—the declining influence of a vital Christian Church in America. I cannot agree with those conservative historians who try to paint virtually all of our Founding Fathers as devoted Christians, but I can say that the men who fought for freedom from tyranny and who framed our Constitution were profoundly influenced by Christianity.

The First Great Awakening was a move of the Holy Spirit that changed the fabric of the American colonies in the 1730s and 40s. That experience, combined with longtime frustration with authoritarian monarchies, deeply impacted the hearts of America’s 2.4 million residents. The result was a new form of democracy replete with freedoms of all sorts, including an emphasis on the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and, of course, the freedom of religious practice.

Founding Fathers
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Even though the Founding Fathers may not have all been Christians, they all lived in a culture that had been colored by the Christian faith. The result was an ideal—the belief that if all pursued the greater good, they could build a society like none other. In the process, men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington established a system of checks and balances to protect this new ideal from the self-absorbed tendencies of human nature. Almost amazingly, the social experiment that we call the United States of America worked quite well until the moral influence of a vital Christian Church began to wane. With the decline of the Church came the lifting of the societal standards which stood against self-centeredness, the lust for power and control, and the constant yearning for self-glorification. Human nature, in other words, has become increasingly free to run its course. And just as it was when Cain killed his brother Abel, grief, tears, and extreme heartache are now our lot.

Church Building
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Again, I want to be clear that my primary criticism is not of our government but of the Church at large in the U.S. Non-Christians will do what non-Christians will do—and all the more so without the steadying influence of a vibrant Christian Church. For those who profess Christ, we are now left with a choice. We can whine and complain and lament the loss of what once was, or we can lift up our heads, bow our knees, and pursue Christ with our whole hearts. Instead of being selfish, we can walk in love. Instead of seeking power and control, we can seek the advance of God’s kingdom. Instead of seeking our own glory, we can proclaim His through both word and lifestyle.

Will we be able to turn our nation back to the point where freedom truly thrives? In all honesty, I don’t know. But I do know that one life fully surrendered to the King of Glory can have a powerful impact on the lives of untold others. If even one potential mass murderer is won to Christ, not only is his life saved, the lives of all of his potential victims are also spared.

No matter who you are and no matter what your status, if you are truly alive in Christ, you will make a profound difference in the lives of others. What better legacy can we leave for our children, grandchildren, and the others who follow after us?