Are You Spiritually Parched?

photo credit: thephotographymuse via photopin cc
photo credit: thephotographymuse via photopin cc

The advent of global warming has resulted in some crazy weather conditions across the globe. Throughout the course of history, famines have not been uncommon, but some geographic areas are now seeing droughts of record proportions. Only a few months back, for example, shippers were fretting over the mighty Mississippi River as it slowed to a near trickle. During this current era, our natural circumstances appear to run concurrently with those that are spiritual—our world is parched!

I am not sure how we arrive at such conclusions, but it is common for Christians to believe that God leads them into spiritually dry seasons. As subtle as the difference may seem, we would do well to make a distinction between traveling through a dry environment, and being dry within our hearts.

Just as God led the nation of Israel through the desert, so He will sometimes guide His children through dry, desolate places. The Bible, however, is absolutely clear: He never wants us to be dry in our hearts! If we are spiritually parched, He is not to blame. The only wise option is to take personal ownership of the issue rather than blaming it on the mystical work of a sovereign God.

We must wonder, then, what causes our spirits to wilt with barren dryness. In most (if not all) cases, I believe that the culprit is misplaced trusta reality much more dangerous than it sounds.

Idolatry—a spiritual condition detestable to God—amounts to putting someone (or something) other than God on the throne of our hearts, either as an act of adoration, or in trust as the source of our provision. Because God is invisible, and idols physically tangible, we are tempted to look to idols to meet our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc
photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc

What are the primary idols of our day? It’s difficult to find many that compare with materialism and entertainment. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a large bank balance, or a good movie for that matter, but those who keep material goods and the need to be entertained at the core of their beings will pay the steep price of spiritual famine.

Thus says the Lord,
“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
“For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And whose trust is the Lord.
“For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit. Jeremiah 17:5-8 (NASB)

The contrast is all too clear. Yes, God may indeed lead us through dry environments, but if we are dry in our souls, the problem is ours and not His. Someway, somehow, we are placing the weight of our trust in someone or something humanly tangible. Our Father promises that those who cultivate faith toward Him will always be “well-watered gardens”, overflowing with abundant life (John 7:37-39).

photo credit: the_tahoe_guy via photopin cc
photo credit: the_tahoe_guy via photopin cc

We are all alike in that we each have the tendency to put our confidence in that which is visible instead of in our invisible God. Thus, in those unpleasant seasons when we find ourselves spiritually parched, the best first step toward a solution is to honestly examine the focus of our trust. This may not be the feel-good answer you are looking for, but I can assure you that it is a highly effective way to get those dry springs flowing!

(This post is 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.)

It’s Time to Ban Dark-Colored Hoodies!

photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc
photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc

Having spent far too much time meticulously watching local news reports out of Pittsburgh, I have come to the conclusion that most of the reported crimes are committed by people wearing dark-colored hoodies. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why someone hasn’t moved to ban them. I think that light and bright-colored hoodies would still be acceptable—as long as criminals don’t begin to use them when the dark ones can only be found on the black market.

No, this isn’t a sarcastic statement on gun control—a little levity now and again can help us from being overwhelmed by the weight of such issues as violence. However, I do want to again emphasize that we rarely focus on underlying issues because we are the problem.

Over the next few posts, I plan to highlight each of the three primary roots of the human heart that create conflict between us. The only real difference between violence and conflict is that violence is somewhat further down the same tumultuous road. I’ll also highlight how the Gospel provides the only truly effective antidote for each deadly root.

photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc
photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way. James 4:1-3 (Message)

The Message Bible isn’t always the most accurate, but there are times when I think it does a great job of communicating the intent of the original writer. In this case, James was strongly challenging his readers that selfish lust is a primary source of conflict–even to the point of violence.

Nowhere is the contrast between a worldly and a kingdom mindset greater than when it comes to selfish desires. The message of our world is, “You can have it all! You deserve it! You owe it to yourself! Put yourself first!” On a daily basis, we find ourselves bombarded by thousands of advertisements intended to play upon the selfish tendencies of human nature, compelling us to spend our money on a vast array of products.

In contrast, the message of the Gospel is one of selflessness—of laying down our desires for the benefit of others. After all, isn’t that what the heart of love involves? Certainly, the Gospel is about God’s amazing love for us, but we dare never forget that we are called to deeply love God and others in return.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40 (NASB)

photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc
photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc

To our detriment, we have tried to shape the Gospel to fit our Western consumer mentality.  How can we expect people to be unselfish when all we do is proclaim what Jesus can do for them? How often do we hear altar calls in which potential responders are challenged to fully count the cost of becoming a disciple of Christ before making a decision to receive Him (see Luke 14:27-33)? Almost never.

Would fewer people respond if they were compelled to count the cost first? Absolutely! But in the process, the Church would begin to look much more like the Church should look. Rather than fighting amongst ourselves because of envy over who got the bigger blessing, we would be alive with the power and vitality to make a real impact in the world around us.

How can we influence the world around us to become more peaceful and loving when conflict due to selfishness so heavily colors the fabric of our churches? Love is the answer—not only God’s love for us, but our love for Him and others in response to all that He has done for us. May we never minimize love’s importance or fail to realize love’s amazing power to transform even those who wear dark-colored hoodies!

How You Can Help to Prevent Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook Shooting
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It has been several days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I am still struggling to process the reality of such a horrible event. Other mass shootings in recent years have scarred communities, but this one has left deep and lasting scars for our entire nation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a similar effect, but there is something different this time around. Those killings were the work of religious extremists operating from halfway across the globe. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the product of our own societal dysfunction. That a young man would maliciously murder twenty first-grade students, jolts suburban and rural America with the realization of what inner-city dwellers have known for quite some time:  something is terribly wrong in our beloved nation.

Of course, an intense battle will be fought over gun control. Some will contend that guns should be banned. Those in opposition will argue that law abiding citizens who carry weapons will actually help to make our streets safer. Both sides will support their arguments with various statistics and anecdotal stories. The battle over gun control, however, provides a convenient diversion from deeper, more difficult issues that must be addressed. To say that guns are at the core of the problem is to grossly over-simplify the issue, while avoiding any sense of personal responsibility for the collective citizenry of our nation.

Greed
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The bottom line is that we have become a nation of self-centered consumers. And while I would never say that such a description applies to every person in the U.S., I do believe that it is quite accurate in a general sense. Even issues such as the misappropriation of pharmaceutical drugs or the prevalence of violent movies and video games are closely tied to greed.

Our freedom that was purchased in blood has now become our demise, for freedom only works when the people of a nation collectively seek the greater good. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was both true and prophetic:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB)

Today, even the Church is driven by a consumer mentality. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders cater to this destructive mindset because they believe it is the only way to get people into their churches and to fund their ministries. Our American gospel is all about what God can do for us, while the true nature of the Christian faith remains relatively untouched.

Money App
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God, it appears, has become an app that we can access in time of need. We have a salvation app, a provision app, a comfort app, and, at this time of the year, a Baby Jesus app. The sovereign King of the Universe, however, will not cater to our self-centered terms. If we want to relate to God, we must fully subscribe to His entire operating system—one that calls us to seek Him with all of our hearts as a way of life. If we would flock to our churches to seek His presence and drop to our knees in prayer with the same intensity of emotion before a national tragedy, there probably would not be the need to do so afterward.

Violence in America began to seriously escalate in the 1960’s. What brought it on? I am convinced that the roots can be found to have materialized just after World War II with our collective pursuit of the American Dream. While our nation held to a form of religion, at that point money became our national god. We honored Jesus with our lips, but the real god of our hearts was materialism. Psalm 16:4 tells us that, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (ESV). Is this not an accurate representation of our grief over the Sandy Hook shootings? The violence of our day is, at least in part, the fruit of over half a century of materialistic idolatry on the part of an entire nation.

Shooter
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On a practical level, our incessant quest for more stuff, combined with the rise of secularism and the gradual rejection of the Christian faith, has precipitated the horrible decay of the nuclear family—the building block upon which a healthy society functions. More specifically still, the growing absence of loving, faithful fathers has led to an identity vacuum in the hearts of our nation’s children. Show me a culture lacking in a healthy sense of identity and I will show you a nation of young men immersed in a climate of violence.

As I consider these things, I can’t help but think of the ancient nation of Israel as they found themselves exiled in Babylon—an exile brought upon by their own idolatry. But the God who they had rejected and ignored spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah with a message of kindness and hope.

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how things may appear, and no matter how dark and foreboding the future may look, we can all help to turn the tide of violence in our culture by seeking God with all of our hearts, by putting material possessions in their proper place, and by genuinely loving those around us. Can there be a better season of the year to get our priorities right than at Christmas?

Discovering the Antidote for the Deadly NV Virus

Photo by yanivba — CC BY 2.0

I am certain that I caught the deadly and destructive NV virus at a very young age–my first clear memories of its influence dating back to the first grade. My aunt had recently given birth to a baby girl and my family was traveling with relatives to attend the christening. I was especially excited because I would be getting out of school early. My memory of a teacher rescuing me from a school assembly so I could leave still lingers.

To further set the stage, we lived in a housing project with my father on disability and my mother not working outside of the home—all of which meant that we didn’t have much. Lacking a car, we had to tag along with gracious relatives in order to make the trip. The new parents, on the other hand, lived in a nice, new development outside of Harrisburg—my uncle having landed a well-paying job as a civil engineer with the state.

Photo by moriza — CC BY 2.0

I don’t think there was a toy that my cousins didn’t have. In particular, I remember Kurt’s shiny red bike with flags resting on top of the handlebars and streamers flowing from the sides. (Please don’t tell anybody, but I wrecked that bike and blamed it on his sister!) Kurt, who was about my age, owned just about everything I wished I had, making me very feel small and poor in a big, prosperous world. The NV virus was working its destructive magic.

Symptoms of the virus would frequently surface throughout childhood and into my adult years. No matter where I turned, it seemed as though others were more blessed. Little old me was always left holding the short end of the stick. After becoming a Christian, I did my best to combat the effects of the virus—even to the point of ingesting large portions of the Bible via reading. And while my exhaustive efforts helped to suppress some of the more blatant symptoms, the best I could do was send it into remission for short periods of time.

Over time I learned that the NV virus takes root in small-minded thinking. We are especially susceptible when our view of God is limited and narrow. That’s when our hearts tell us that He only has a limited number of blessings to go around. Obviously, my name must have been missing from the VIP list when God and Saint Peter sat around the pearly gates deciding who should get what.

Photo by SfMe Ministries Inc.

Then one day I began to learn about the favor of God—a favor that is in no way dependent upon one’s appearance, performance, personal charm, or childhood neighborhood. God’s favor, I learned, comes to us not by our merit, but through Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. When I approach God the Father through faith in Christ, I am favored. In a sense, Jesus suffered on the cross so I wouldn’t have to face the needle.

The thought was a nice one but still its effects were limited—that is until I learned to celebrate the fact that I am favored in His sight. That result was nothing short of astonishing. No longer did I feel as though I had missed the blessing train, but inherently understood that material possessions and worldly standards of success have very little to do with the smiling favor of my heavenly Father. At last, after years of struggle, I had found the antidote to the NV virus. I mean, when we know deep in our hearts that we are favored by the Almighty Creator of the Universe, how long can we feel a sense of lack?

Those who think that celebrating the Father’s favor opens the door to pride fail to fully grasp the full nature of the Gospel. We are not favored because we are worthy or deserve His approval in any way–we are favored because of our association with the favored Son of God.

What does all of this have to do with our ability to love others?

– When we know that we are favored by God, we rest confidently in His love.

–  When we rest confidently in His love, we realize that our value comes not from performance or possessions, but from living out His presence and approval.

– When we live out His presence and approval, we are complete.

– When we are complete, we feel complete.

– When we feel complete, we are free from envy and able to focus not on what we lack, but on how we can enrich others.

Love is the overflow of our faith-filled relationship with God, not some elusive virtue we try to manufacture from empty hearts.