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.)

Silencing the Jackhammer of Condemnation

Photo by kevygee -- CC BY 2.0
Photo by kevygee — CC BY 2.0

The air was thick with tension, but our hearts brimmed with hopeful optimism. Our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers had fought a tough game against their arch-rivals the Baltimore Ravens. Now the game was coming down to a doable 42-yard field goal attempt for the Pittsburgh win.

The Steelers began to line up, but then ding-dong–our doorbell rang! We live in Western Pennsylvania where most residents are Steeler fans and so we wondered who would be at our door at such a crucial moment in the game?

Photo by anna_gutermuth -- CC BY 2.0
Photo by anna_gutermuth — CC BY 2.0

It turned out to be Mary (not her real name), a single mother of three young adult children. She had come to ask to borrow some money for a few days. This was not one of those scenarios where a drug-addicted mother was trying set up her next fix; Mary’s need was genuine. Years ago, when their kids were younger, her husband suddenly left her for another woman. Since that time, she has struggled to do her best to keep things together, but significant behavioral issues by one of the boys sent the family into another tailspin.

None of this was news to us, but I was struck by Mary’s comment that she knew she needed to get back to church, only she felt embarrassed because of the problems she was having with her kids. That, in turn, made her feel guilty, and thus hesitant to seek God. So here she was, needing and wanting to draw near to her Savior and His people, but staying at a distance due to a crushing burden of condemnation.

Photo by diamondmountain -- CC BY 2.0
Photo by diamondmountain — CC BY 2.0

If you have ever watched a jackhammer at work, you have seen an effective illustration of how condemnation affects us. It is not simply like a hammer with an occasional or even steady bang, bang! No, condemnation is more like a relentless hammering in rapid and continuous succession. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Condemnation does not just crack the foundation of our confidence; it destroys it to the point that our faith begins to crumble, making all of life to be exhausting. Challenges and problems that we might be able to face and overcome on a normal day suddenly appear to be insurmountable.

Debi and I gave Mary some money, took the time to pray with her, and then directed her attention to the latter part of Hebrews 4:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16 (NASB)

The key to silencing the jackhammer of condemnation is to understand that our heavenly Father does not condemn us, but gladly extends to His children the scepter of His grace. Jesus walked this earth for 33 years and then willingly took upon Himself the full weight of our sin, failure, and sickness. God thoroughly understands our struggles! There is nothing we can go through that He cannot empathize with—and that He has not already paid the full price to cover.

Image98Years ago I learned a truly invaluable lesson—that we could come to God with the same measure of confidence regardless of how we were doing spiritually. In other words, a person in the midst of a miserable, self-absorbed week, could still approach Him in prayer with the same confidence as if he or she had been doing everything exactly right. Why? Our ability to draw near to God’s throne of grace is not based on our performance, but upon the favor that flows our way through the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross.

It is always through—and only through—the cross of Christ that we have free access to the very throne of God. When we understand these things and develop such confidence, we begin to realize that the very best thing to do when struggling is to quickly run to God. The very worst thing, on the other hand, is to keep our distance from the only One who has the ability to make all things well.

Do you want to silence the jackhammer of condemnation? Stop trusting in your own efforts to please God and rest the full weight of your confidence in Jesus our high priest. The result is even better than a Steeler victory!

It Is Exhausting Not to Believe in Jesus!

I lied the other day. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not in the habit of lying, and on a scale of 1 to 10 in importance, this particular fib probably came in at around a 1.5. But it was a lie nonetheless. I had found myself in an awkward situation and before I knew it, my mouth was uttering words that were untrue. Immediately my conscience assaulted me, but its influence was not enough for me to correct myself on the spot. Within 60 seconds the situation was over, yet a nagging sense of guilt remained.

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There are only so many ways that we can deal with our sin. The most common, perhaps, is to attempt to justify ourselves; to minimize any wrong doing on our part by downplaying the gravity of the situation or by placing the blame on others. Humans are masters of self-deception, and if we do something enough times with a convoluted mindset, wrong behavior will eventually be lauded as being right.

Another frequently utilized approach is to simply stuff the guilt into the recesses of our hearts. We know the deed was wrong, and we feel really bad about our actions, but what are we to do? In order to get on with life we cram our guilty feelings in with all of the guilty feelings from days gone by. Like overstuffed grocery bags, many of our guilt sacks are bursting at the seams, creating an underlying and inescapable sense of unworthiness.

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The first approach means that we can do nothing wrong; the second screams that we do practically everything wrong. The first is tiresome because we are compelled to constantly protect our delusional egos. Each difficult situation requires that we somehow deflect any personal sense of responsibility for inappropriate actions, all while managing to create straw enemies to be identified as the source of all that is bad. But because this coping method is highly delusional, over time our self-deception becomes our reality, and so self-justification can eventually become entirely natural. Those who try to cram or stuff their guilt, on the other hand, live in a very real world of self-condemnation, creating a thoroughly exhausting sense of self-loathing–the result of which is often manifests in overeating and various other addictions.

There is a better way, of course. Even from the very beginning of time, God thoroughly understood how exhausting life would be in this sin-soaked world. And even from the very beginning of time, our heavenly Father designed multiple cycles and systems of rest for the benefit of all humankind. From a good night’s sleep, to a Sabbath day, to a time of honest prayer at the foot of the cross, rest is a vital part of God’s plan for His people. Even under the strict and exhausting Mosaic Law, God commanded periodic days—and even weeks–of rest. How much more would the New (and better) Covenant in Christ provide rest for our bodies and our souls?

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It is through the New Covenant in Christ—and only through the New Covenant in Christ—that we can find thorough and complete rest from our guilt. You see, the other day when I lied, I chose not to minimize my guilt, or deflect the blame, or wrestle with condemnation, or bury my wrongdoing. No, within minutes I went directly to God in prayer, confessing my pride and deceit with total honesty before my Lord. Knowing that I have the privilege of coming to God’s throne through faith in Jesus Christ, and knowing that the heavenly Father hears His children’s prayers, and knowing that He is always willing and ready to forgive through the blood of Jesus, I was able to make short work of my guilt and move on with my day.

Life has so many challenges that we are foolish to drag around a ball and chain of guilt—a weight that our heavenly Father long ago made provision to remove. While it is exhausting not to believe in Jesus, the opposite holds true. In the shadow of the cross, through faith in the sacrificial death and resurrection of the Christ, we can find real rest for our souls. For this I am ever thankful!

Bats Are Our Friends

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I saw recently that a local school district must spend more than $60,000 to relocate bats before they can build a new school. Many of the locals think it is a senseless waste of money but I disagree. In spite of their ugliness, bats are our friends. Did you know that one bat can eat 600 or more mosquitoes in only an hour? I hate mosquitoes (and their disease carrying tendencies) so much that it makes me like bats—even though they give fresh meaning to the word ugly. With the number of bats dropping precipitously due to disease, it makes good sense that bats would be protected as they are.

All of this makes me wonder if perhaps there aren’t other unlikeable things in life that we should actually appreciate more than we do. I am not especially fond of difficult times but the Bible strongly encourages a perspective of trials and tribulations that differs vastly from common thought.

 When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realise that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence. James 1:2-4 (Phillips)

We aren’t exactly certain if the author of this passage was James the half-brother of Jesus or not, but based on the modern perspectives of the Western Church, it is all too obvious that James didn’t have a clue about his subject matter. It only seems appropriate that we rewrite the passage to bring it more in line with modern times.

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When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, let your hearts be filled with resentment because such difficulties are unwelcome intruders. Realise that anything that threatens your personal comfort and security can be declared to be the arch enemy of God. Being mature and complete, lacking in nothing has nothing to do with enduring through difficult times, and everything to do with developing a sense of personal entitlement. James 1:2-4 (Contemporary Western Version (CWV))

Perhaps my CWV interpretation leaves something to be desired, but if I were translating the text based on the evidence of how Christians are responding to our current times, I honestly don’t think it would be much different.

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I get it. Really, I do. I understand that we are deeply concerned about the future. I see our religious freedoms unraveling. I am also well aware of the huge hole we have dug with our national debt. But is it possible that our ever-faithful Father is using “momentary light affliction” to produce within us “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison”? (2 Corinthians 4:17)

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Is it possible that the trials of this life are like bats? They are mysterious and creepy, yes, but in the end they may well be better friends than we realize. I, for one, would rather have an ugly bat fly by my head than the West Nile Virus incubating in my blood. Just a random post-election thought.

From Image to Reality

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How many people can we truly and intimately know in life? The question becomes even more extreme when we consider the technological trends of the past 100 years or so. Before the implementation of central heating, northern families were more or less forced to spend time together. Better to gather around an old wood stove with the rest of the family than to freeze in isolation. During hot weather kids played outside while adults sat in the shade of a front porch. Neighbors actually knew each other back then.

Not only are we now challenged by the design of our homes, but we face the daunting challenges of more advanced technology. I can’t imagine that television has boded well for marital intimacy on the spiritual, emotional, or physical fronts.

Technological advances have made our world smaller in one sense, but more distant in another. Media provides us with an onslaught of images of events happening all over the world. Even befriending someone on another continent is easy through social media, but the overwhelming volume of information also means that we have less intimate knowledge of who and what we think we know.

Photo by marykbaird – morgueFile

Our current presidential race is an excellent case in point. The truth is that we know very little about the real character of either candidate. Our votes are based mostly on likeability and carefully crafted public images. Each side launches short, but strategic negative ads intended to link the opposition to negative images. The hope is that we won’t vote for Candidate X because he voted for a bill that had a rider that called for the euthanization of feral cats left in public animal shelters for more than 30 days. The underlying message is “Don’t vote for Candidate X because he hates kittens.”

We all cherish the idea of unconditional love but it works much better with romantic images than with real life people. The idea of helping the homeless may sound attractive until we actually meet a vagrant with foul language and an unpleasant smell.

By far, the easiest form of love is movie love because screen characters can be made to do and be whatever the imagination desires. Yes, of course, we see the necessary crisis somewhere through the course of the flick, but all of that is sufficiently resolved by the final credits.

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We may not consciously think much of these things, but we know them instinctively. When an intelligent young man first begins dating an attractive female, he is careful to craft a favorable image according to what he thinks she will like. I’m not saying that females don’t do the same, but I know from experience how skillfully guys can be at presenting an appealing façade. Whether married or not, it isn’t long after their first sexual experience that his true colors begin to finally shine through. The longevity of the relationship will in many cases depend upon how effectively the couple can make the adjustment from image to reality.

Real relationships with real people require real love in order to prosper. Let’s face it, love comes with a price. We aren’t always lovable. Self-centeredness is all too common. Love is not some neat little gift basket perfectly tied up with ribbons and bows. Sometimes love can feel more like cleaning up your child’s dog’s vomit when no one else is home.

I don’t think that such unconditional love comes naturally for any of us. I mean, it’s pretty easy for me to love images, but real people are a different story. For that I genuinely need God’s help; I need His unconditional love to flow through me.

God, for His part, doesn’t care much for images. Not only do they fail to fool Him, but they aren’t necessary. Like a mother passionate for her ugly newborn, He loves us perfectly— unpleasant smells and all.

Such love has a supernatural quality to it and the order should never be confused. We can love others unconditionally only because He first loved us. To know our Father’s unconditional love is to become a willing vessel through which that love can flow. It is the only sure way that we can make a true transition from image to reality.

Parenting 101

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A good friend recently had a significant issue and failed to inform me. The nerve of the guy! Didn’t he know that I was there to help? It made no sense to keep me—a good, supportive friend—out of the loop. It may take a while for me to get over this offense!

Do you see it? A scenario like this provides an excellent illustration of our human tendency toward self-centeredness. The situation was not, and should never have been, about ME. And yet, as with all of us, there exists within my heart a deep drive that ever attempts to make the world revolve around ME.

There are those who would argue that original sin is nothing more than a doctrine invented by religious people intent on controlling the lives of others. However, in the end that argument only lends support to the idea that such narcissistic tendencies are universal. We all want to be in control!

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In all my life I have never met a child who was not self-centered by nature. If you question this, I simply suggest that you get yourself invited to a birthday party with a group of two-year olds. Without parental influence, the majority of these “MINE” parties would surely end in all-out war.

Personally knowing God’s amazing love for us as individuals is essential to a healthy perspective on life, but it is only a first step. For us to grow to maturity, there must be, by necessity, a process by which our self-centered compulsions are put to death. Christianity’s answer to this problem is love—not just knowing God’s love for us, but also learning to extend His unconditional love to others. Knowing His love first is what makes us capable of loving others, but, Christianity is never ultimately about US. None of this works very well if we fail to extend genuine love to God and others.

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Is there any other arena in life where self-deception is so tempting and so prevalent? Human nature displays incredible skill in justifying its own self-centeredness—usually by focusing on what I deserve and what they don’t. I deserve to be treated with understanding and respect. They are, of course, worthy of my righteously imposed judgment because of their failure to live up to my expectations—the standards by which the entire world should be bound.

A wise parent is one who unconditionally loves his or her child without creating a self-centered monster in the process. Far too many homes are mistakenly child-centered when they should be Christ-centered. Debi and I told our kids many years ago, “We love you dearly and are thrilled to have you in our home, but this family is by no means about YOU.” Based on the overall character of our now-grown children, I tend to think that we were on the right track with our parenting plan.

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As the perfect parent, our heavenly Father knows exactly what He is doing in molding and shaping our lives. Unfortunately, we often ignore the full counsel of God. I find this to be particularly true of the general manner in which the western church presents the Gospel. The unfortunate result is a large percentage of professing Christians who innately feel that heaven revolves around THEM. A world full of big MEs presents a huge PROBLEM.

Love is never a bad theme for discussion, so it will be the focus of my next few posts. Regardless of how long we walk this earth, none of us will ever outgrow our need to pick up our crosses, deny ourselves and grow in love.

Thy Kingdom Come . . .

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The kingdom of God. What an amazingly mysterious concept! The kingdom of God is literally the King’s domain, but what does that mean? And what are the ramifications?

John 18:36 records Jesus saying that His “kingdom is not of this world.” The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 4:17 that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

God’s kingdom is primarily spiritual, still it has profound physical implications. As one of the predominant messages of the New Covenant, whenever the kingdom of God was preached, healing and deliverance usually followed. Yet, in essence, the kingdom of God represents a spiritual realm which cannot be advanced apart from supernatural means.

It is comforting to know that our God can and will use our natural gifts and talents to advance His purposes, but in the absence of spiritual power we can expend a great deal of effort and accomplish very little in the end.

(Perhaps one of our greatest hindrances to embracing the full work of the Holy Spirit is the poor witness of many who profess to operate in the gifts of the Spirit. Those who don’t understand their secure standing as children of God will attempt to utilize spiritual gifts as a source of personal validation. The problem was common with the Corinthian church and, unfortunately, we continue to repeat the same errors as our spiritual ancestors. So many problems of dysfunction could be virtually eliminated if we could correctly understand that the Gospel is inherently an identity message. Please check out my Search for Me identity series).

Every now and again I find myself coming back to three essentials of the Christian faith, concepts written into the core fabric of walking with God, including being empowered and used by the Holy Spirit. I’ll list them in a particular order, but the concepts are more circular than linear—the more we pursue one area, the more it should feed the others.

1. Believe – All too often fear and doubt keep us from going deeper into the things of God. It’s so important for us to understand the character of God, knowing that our heavenly Father gives only good gifts to His children. There are no bad gifts given by God and all are to be desired with the right motives in their appropriate times.

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2. Seek – It’s true that no one can come to God without the Father drawing us to Himself, but more than once the Scriptures emphasize the importance of our seeking Him, including the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The idea is that if we truly love God and the people Jesus died for, we will want to do all we can to impact human lives. Knowing that such abilities are beyond our natural selves, motivated by love we seek the empowerment of the Spirit.

Chapter 11 of Luke’s G ospel speak to both the importance of believing in God’s goodness in persistently seeking the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. 11 Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? 12 Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? 13  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Luke 11:9-13 (NASB)

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3. Yield – This remains one of the predominant messages of The Lord’s Prayer.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10 (NASB)

Our appropriate response to God’s goodness, glory and sovereignty is always to yield our will to His. A complete surrender of our wills to His is non-negotiable. We’ll face no more important (or difficult) battle than the battle of the will.

Regardless of one’s perspective of spiritual gifts for contemporary use, we can all agree that we can do better than we are; that every one of us could be used more effectively as a vessel for God’s honor. Believing, seeking and yielding—all three are common to all of Christianity, helping to set the stage for more effective service to our beloved King. Lord, may Your kingdom overtake all the earth!