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, 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.)

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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“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!

Let the River Flow

I suppose it began about 10 years ago. Several evangelical campus ministries at Indiana University of PA (IUP) loosely organized into what we call The River – many streams fed by one Spirit, flowing together with one heart and one mission. I believe in this concept so much that we named our ministry center the River House.

In launching Search for Me Ministries I’ve had to back off from my direct involvement with college students at IUP, but the heavenly Father certainly had plans that weren’t on my radar screen. And so I’ve stayed involved with The River, doing what I can to help network, support and encourage those who are on the front lines of college ministry at IUP.

Several of us have met together over the past couple years at our River House for prayer and this year we’re excited to have some new folks on board (as an answer to our prayers). Recently we kicked off the school-year with a luncheon and what an excellent time we all had together!

Our mission is universal, flowing from the Great Commission.

18And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 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 is not to make converts or even denominationalites—we’re here as the covenant family of God to make disciples for His kingdom.

In spite of being a relatively unknown, secular state school, IUP has a rich legacy of lives that have been touched and transformed by Christ, people who have gone out to make an impact in our world.

I have former classmates from IUP who pastor large churches and lead national organizations. Former students from ours and other IUP ministries are making an impact for the kingdom both here and abroad. But regardless if the footprint is large or relatively small, they all matter. Each disciple, whether a ministry leader or a stay at home mom, has the potential to powerfully influence the lives of many others.

Our disciples must be disciples of Christ first and foremost. We are not here to build our own kingdoms, but to advance His. This is perhaps one of the greatest errors of the church through the years. As organizations we often display the same sense of self-centeredness that we would despise in the lives of our members. All too often we fall prey to the slithering hiss of the serpent, seeking to build our own kingdoms, unrighteously judging our brothers and sisters and competing against those who share our mission. Aren’t these all identity issues?

It was our Lord Himself who said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24). One primary reason that the church is losing the battle for our culture is that we are a kingdom divided (John 13:34-35). Why are we so quick to ignore this reality? We don’t have to morph into one organization, but we do need to be of one heart and one Spirit.

I’m not just talking about unity for the sake of unity. We are a brother and sisterhood in Christ. It’s not what we’re trying to be. It’s who we already are. If we will simply be who we are, who knows what our God will do?

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.” Psalm 133 (NASB)

All of our programs, all of our outreaches, all of our hard work, mean relatively little unless God blesses. As we walk in covenant unity the life of God begins to permeate our ministries and our mission field.

Let the river flow!

Tornado Alley

Photo by CC BY 2.0

Have you watched the news recently? The increased frequency of natural disasters is insane!

April of this year marked a record number of tornadoes across the U.S. and unfortunately far too many deaths. Crazy happenings in an increasingly unstable world!

The natural instability of our climate seems to correspond with the political and spiritual instability of our world. We do indeed live in tumultuous times!

Some folks would say that the unity of the Church is a nice, but unattainable ideal for us to maybe try to pursue as we are able. I say that Christian unity is a matter of life and death—especially on two particular fronts.

1. For those who do not know the saving grace of God. One of the primary missions of the church is to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). In recent years this has amounted to getting people to make a decision for Christ. The two can be painfully different. A disciple is someone who is a learner of Christ and connected to a local body of believers. It’s within this context that true transformation takes place.

What is it that draws unbelievers to local churches? Love!

Jesus Himself said, “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 (NASB)

The converse is also true. When people don’t see us loving one another, they will quickly assume that our faith is shallow or even fake. They’ll be pushed away from Christ instead of being drawn toward Him.

All of the most well-designed outreach programs in the world will amount to very little if we do not love one another. Christian unity is a matter of life and death for the unsaved.

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2. Unity is a matter of survival. I believe that we are slowly entering a time of increased Christian unity to be accompanied by a last days’ harvest of souls. But not all will be saved and the ideal of the universal unity of mankind cannot be achieved without compromising our faith. As a result, there is an F5 tornado brewing and the Church of Jesus Christ will be right in its cross hairs. The day is coming when Christians will need one another simply to survive the onslaught.

In times of intense persecution denominational lines mean little, but if we do not begin to build cross-denominational relationships now, we’ll be ill prepared for the coming storms.

As important as these two arenas may be, there is a third reason to pursue unity that should deeply stir our hearts—our love for our God. He desires that His people would be one even as He is one (John 17:22). If we truly love Him, we’ll love one another.

Regardless of our primary motivation, every one of us is called to preserve the unity of His Spirit in the bond of peace!