To Grow Wide, We Must Grow Deep

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Church growth.  The topic is a healthy topic that all church leaders discuss, pray over and evaluate regularly.  There are two major ways to evaluate it, and churches tend to fall into one of two errors:  (1) evaluating church growth by numbers or (2) evaluating church growth by maturity of the members.  These are two sides of the same coin which a healthy, Biblical church must exemplify.  Mature believers will be reaching out to the lost and bringing in new believers, and in order for a church to reach out to a lost world the believers must be mature and capable of witness.  Finding the balance is extremely difficult, however, and without intentional prayer and planning, one or both of these __ will be overlooked and neglected.

Growth by Maturity.

Jesus came to the Earth and spent three intentional years with eleven guys who would spearhead the entire movement we now know as Christianity.  He taught them truths, He shaped their worldviews, He exemplified love, servanthood, righteousness, and every fruit of the Spirit.  He taught them, He prayed for them, and He bore with them when they just didn’t get it.  He invested Himself and loved them, teaching them the deep things of God and helping them learn how to walk obediently.  In short, He made disciples out of them.  He made “Christians” or mini-Christs.  He replicated Himself in them.  His final words as He was leaving the world and commissioning them were,

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.”

 – Matt 28.18-20

Jesus sent the eleven (plus Paul) out to do exactly what He had done for the past three years:  make disciples.  He told them to go to every single people group, to baptize new believers, and to teach those new believers everything that He Himself had taught them.  How were they supposed to do that?  They were supposed to go about it just like He had.  Live life together, teach them, preach boldly, allow the Holy Spirit to preform signs, instruct, rebuke, discipline, pray over them.  Jesus showed them how to do what to do by doing it Himself.

It took Jesus about three years to make disciples who were trained, well versed in the Scriptures and capable to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit and to make their own disciples.  He utilized those three years to send them out practicing and utilized their successes and failures as teaching points, such that they were fully equipped and prepared to do the work of the ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit and without the physical presence of Jesus.

They were mature.  They were trained.  They were prepared.  They knew what to do.

Growth by Numbers.

We would be remiss to neglect the fact that after Jesus returned to Heaven, we are regularly given account of the actual numbers by which the young church was growing.

“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.”

 – Acts 2.41

“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand.”

 – Acts 4.4

Should we measure our success by numbers?  Yes and no.  There is no target range; there is no magic number by which we should be growing.  It is healthy and wise, however, to keep track of our members and what is happening in our congregations.  Are people coming and leaving after a short while?  Are people stagnant?  Are we bringing in believers who are just transferring from other churches?  Or are we actually reaching the lost, seeing them baptized and discipled?

We are commanded to preach the Gospel.  To plant seeds.  To sow broadly.  To tell everyone.  Beyond that, it is God’s responsibility to cause the growth.  We should be ready, willing and excited to jump in and be a part of the disciple-making process whenever possible, but it is God alone who changes hearts and we cannot force someone to submit to, know and love God.  Only He can do that.  We plant, God causes the growth.

“So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”

 – 1 Cor 3.7

We see from example and from the teaching of Jesus, however, that it is God’s plan to make disciples of all nations and when we share the Gospel, He will cause growth in some.  Yes, some of the Gospel seed will fall on bad soil and produce nothing or false growth, but there will always be some who respond.  God has already prepared the hearts of many.  He has promised us that the harvest is plentiful and ready, all we need to do is get out there and join Him in the reaping.

And [Jesus] was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

 – Luke 10.2

In short, if we are not reaping a harvest it is because we are not sharing.

Now, we might begin to protest:  Our culture is post-Christian, people don’t want to hear it, I don’t know how to share, I don’t know where to meet people, blah blah blah…

Here’s the deal folks.  The New Testament Church was a hated, discriminated and murdered group of people.  The Jews were against them.  The Romans were against them.  The pagans were against them.  And not just in the, “I don’t want what you are selling” type of way, but in the “I’m going to throw you in jail, rape your wife, murder you” kind of way.  It was so bad, in fact, that much of the New Testament was written to people who were chased out of their towns simply because of what they believe.  Much of the New testament was written from jail.  Much of the New Testament was written to encourage people who were in jail or taking care of other believers who were in jail.  These believers read the promises of the New Testament about persecution as literal, not just the possibility that someone might mock or laugh at them or hurt their feelings.

They had thick skin, they had experienced real persecution, and yet they continued to share the Gospel and their numbers continued to grow.  By the multitudes.  Why?  Because Jesus had truly transformed their lives and they could not help but talk about Him.  We know the reality:  when something amazing happens, we can’t help but talk about it.  Did you meet the girl of your dreams?  You let everyone know.  Did you get into your favorite college or find a job after months of searching?  You post it on facebook, instagram and call your mom.  Did you get in a car accident and yet were miraculously saved?  You take pictures of the mangled wreck and show it to strangers.  We talk about the things that rock us, shape us, and the things that we know.  If Jesus has rocked your world, you will talk about Him.  If church is just something you do, then it may or may not come up in conversation.  Like that TV show you watch when nothing else is on, or that chore your mom asked you to do.

The disciples’ world had been rocked, their lives transformed, and even though it cost 11 of the twelve their very lives, they kept on talking about it.  The New Testament Church was scattered across the known world, running for their lives, but they kept talking about Jesus because He transformed their lives and they loved Him and could not help but talk about Him.  This is maturity, folks.  Not being able to recite the entire Bible.  It is knowing, abiding in and loving Jesus.  Yes, people will be impressed if you can recite huge chunks of Scripture and they will value your knowledge if you can explain intricate doctrines and history, but the whole game changes when the focus is Jesus and what He has done in your life and on the cross.

Numerical growth must be all about Jesus.  We can draw a crowd for a while with entertaining speaking, good music, community events and lots of singles for others singles to meet, but those things will fade.  If Jesus does not come in and transform these lives, then we have done them no service.  In fact, we have probably done them a great disservice and will bring judgment upon ourselves for placating a sinful world and helping them to believe that they are eternally secure when in fact they are not.  Yes, we should engage the world, and yes at times facilitating events like sports or family outings will enable us to have those real conversations.  But let us always be purposeful to have those real conversations.  Lives are only transformed by the Gospel.

Has Jesus transformed your life?  Is He working in your life today?  Are you telling people about it?  Are you sharing the Gospel with the lost and helping younger believers grow in knowledge and obedience?  Are you growing in depth and in numbers?  We must go deep before we can go wide.  If we go deep we will naturally go wide.  If we go wide without going deep we will dry up.  If we go deep without going wide, we are disobedient and have not truly gone deep, because going wide is a natural byproduct of going deep.  Let us therefore get busy about going deep and let it pour out into our daily lives so that we naturally go wide.

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Forgetting what lies behind.

future

What is your background?  Do you think fondly of your life story to this point?  Or have you had a difficult past that has shaped you through struggles and pain?  Are you generally proud of your accomplishments and confident in your experiences?  Or are you ashamed of your past, your decisions and your life’s path?  Maybe you are somewhere in between, confident in your identity but embarrassed of that one story or those few years tucked in back there.

The root of both dispositions, when it impacts our personality and worldview, is pride.  Either was have the normal expression of pride which considers our thoughts, values and experiences as superior or we exemplify the victim and shame mentality which draws on pride saying “I deserved better” or “I should have known better”.  God gives us experiences and plans our lives very intentionally.  It is not wrong to remember fondly or to feel sorrow over the past, as long as we intentionally turn the glory and honor back to God.  We should praise God for the successes and we should cling to God for the strength and truth needed to repent from failures and sin.  Both responses rightly bring glory to God.  Anything else robs God of His glory and brings praise or attention to ourselves.

The Apostle Paul, arguably the most influential man in Christianity after Jesus, wrote poignantly on the subject.  Before his conversion, Paul was the shining example of Jewish religiousity and legalism.  Not only did he keep the rules and preform above and beyond his peers, he also had the pedigree which set him apart from birth.  He had everything going for him.  He knew it, and everyone else knew it.  Then Jesus radically transformed his life.  He literally knocked him off his horse, called him to repentance and salvation verbally, and blinded him for a few days to consider Jesus’ power and calling.  After his sight was restored and he was baptized, Paul went away to the wilderness for three years where Jesus and the Holy Spirit personally taught Paul and prepared him to be the first missionary to the non-Jewish world.

After years of successful ministry and disciple-making throughout the known world, Paul wrote this in a letter to one of the churches he founded, in regards to his personal past:

“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.  Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

– Phil 3.8-14

Paul consistently shared his testimony of conversion and church planting.  This is, in fact, how we know so much about him:  he wrote it in his letters which are much of the New Testament!  He had achieved unmatched success and position in the Jewish world before Christ, and after his conversion he almost single-handedly planted churches throughout the entire known world.  At the point of his conversion, Jesus revealed to him that his efforts were in deed persecuting and hurting the Church and Jesus personally, and his life was radically transformed – such that he became just like those whom he sought to kill.  Thus, he had reason to boast in himself, he also had reason to be ashamed of himself, and he had reason to boast in his accomplishments for the Church.

His response, however, was to give glory to God for that path down which he had walked, but to always look forward to eternity with Jesus.  His focus was so eternal, in fact, that he essentially “forgot” what was behind him.  He did not literally forget, obviously, but he considered it to be of no consequence to where he was going.  It did not define him, hinder him, or give him grounds for boasting.  He was focused only on Jesus, on becoming more like Him and striving after the goal of eternity with Him.

This is perhaps the greatest example of true humility.  Often times we consider humility to be when a person thinks less of himself than his value, thus the truest opposite of pride would be some form of self doubt or self hatred.  But in reality, Biblical humility is spending one’s efforts to focus on God and not one’s self.  It is not thinking less of one’s value but spending less time thinking about one’s self and thinking more about God and others.

We can also learn from Paul’s example that no matter where we are in life we should always be looking forward and pressing on to maturity and growth.  It is easy to become complacent.  It is easy to allow ourselves to think that we deserve a break from work, ministry or discipline once we reach certain mile markers in life.  But God never gives us a pass.  God does not allow our Spiritual growth to reach its fullest potential until we are freed from our physical bodies and in His presence, thus even if we are retired or confined to a bed, we can still grow in our prayer life, in our witness, in our knowledge of God and in our devotion to Him.

Let us leave it to those who write our eulogy to determine our greatest moments and achievements.  Let us never consider our past to be our glory days, nor our moments of shame.  Let us continually look forward to the prize, to the goal of eternity with Christ and let us forget what lies behind.  We should always remember what God has done and the victories He has won, but let us always be expectant of His miraculous movement yet to come.  Let us remember the sin from which He has freed us and because of it press on to greater maturity and more intimate fellowship with Him.  Let us remember the trials through which He has brought us, but let us continue to seek to die to ourselves and let Him live through us more.

Is it wrong to strive?

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Since the beginning of time, there have been false prophets.  The greatest tactic of Satan is not to completely dissuade people from God, but to twist His words just enough to get people off the straight and narrow – though often times believing they are still on the path to Heaven.  In the Garden of Eden, Satan twisted God’s words – nothing he said to Eve was untrue, it was just a distortion of the truth.  They did not die right away, they did “become like God”, knowing good and evil – but they disobeyed God and brought the curse upon mankind (Gen 3.4-5, 22-23).

The failure of the Pharisees and Sadducees was that they distorted the Law of God, keeping the letter of it without obeying the first and primary one:  to love God.  They added to the Law in order to make their reputation great for being pious without knowing God, thus while they appeared to be holy, they were far from the heart of God.

Jesus Himself warned strongly of false prophets.  He foretold that there would be many who would arise within the Church, who were wolves in sheep’s clothing, who were tares among the wheat – they look just like believers but truly are not (Matt 7.15, 13.25-30).  The apostles and epistles deal with many heresies and distortions of the Gospel in the early church and also continue to warn against false prophets.

And we have seen this trend continue throughout Church history.  This is why councils were held, doctrines defined, heretics discredited and sadly many cults and false churches started.  In the early days there were major disputes about the nature of Christ:  was He man, was He God, was He both?  And these debates led to conversations about the trinity.  Such doctrines we now take for granted, but were difficult in the beginning.  Other false doctrines have been believed at various times throughout history, such as the belief that human nature is good, apart from God, and will seek God on its own.  While it was condemned as heresy early on, as Christianity has become a major world religion and Christians have less conviction to the knowledge of the Word and doctrine, such heresies gain more traction.

Another dangerous teaching was the Keswick movement that started in England in the early 19th century.  Also known as the Higher Life Movement, it influenced many of our heroes in the faith.  The core of the belief system was that the true Christian life required two major crises:  the first led to conversion and the second led to maturity or the “deeper” things of Christ.  They defined these as justification (salvation or conversion) and sanctification (maturity, the deeper things).  This second crisis is similar to the Pentecostal belief of the baptism of the Spirit, and it is called a variety of things, such as “entire sanctification”, “second touch” or “second blessing”.  The benefit of this experience, they believe, is the Christian realizes his unity with Christ and thus can stop striving.  He has that fullest communion with Christ, His joy is complete, the Holy Spirit is living through him, and he can even attain perfection.

As Christians are less and less learned, we are doomed to repeat history (and believe false doctrines)- just like all other disciplines of study and life.  And while there are those who still believe in a second touch – namely the baptism of the Spirit – there are also those who are adapting the “cease striving” aspect of Keswick theology all across the United States today.  This appeals greatly to our culture who has defined herself by individual autonomy, lack of absolute truth and tolerance.  Essentially they are saying it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict of sin and I am a passive agent in my (and other’s) sanctification.

It is indeed the Holy Spirit’s job to convict of sin and righteousness:

“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father and you no longer see Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.”

– John 16.8-11

No one can be convicted of sin and long to turn to righteousness without the work of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot drum that up in our own hearts, and we cannot force it upon someone else.  But just because the Holy Spirit works in and through us does not mean that we are off the hook in terms of responsibility before and to God.

Even under the covenant of grace, even with salvation by faith alone through grace alone, the entire New Testament continually commands us to strive, to work, to obey, to die to our flesh, to live unto the Spirit (Luke 13.24, Phil 2.12, Heb 5.9, Rom 8.13, Gal 5.25, etc.).  We must root out sin from our lives, we must be active in our Spiritual lives, and through that we will have peace knowing that our sanctification is being established.  There is a dual responsibility:  the Holy Spirit enabling us, and us doing what He leads and enables us to do.

If we do not work, if we do not fight, the battle between the flesh and Spirit will allow the flesh to prevail:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.  For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.”

– Gal 5.16-17

And we are also solemnly warned that if we continue in sin and do not submit to the sanctifying work of the Spirit and commands of Jesus, we are not saved:

“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

– Heb 10.26-27

It is sin alone that separates us from God, and therefore when we are saved, when we are born again and have Spiritual life, the Holy Spirit enables us to fight sin.  We abide in Christ, drawing the life-giving sap through Him, the vine, and thus we are able to die to our flesh.  We see the work He does through us, and because of that we have peace and rest, knowing that our eternity is secure.  The rest is a Spiritual rest.  The peace is the knowledge that no matter what happens to us on Earth, we will one day be glorified with Him.  It is not necessarily temporal peace or rest.

Unfortunately, we take promises that are not for us and try to claim them, like Ex 14.14.  God wanted to show His power to the Israelites and reveal to them who He was, as He was preparing to bring about the Mosaic Covenant with them, write the Law, lead them through the wilderness and into the promised land.  He was revealing Himself to them, and exemplifying His power by parting the Red Sea, providing a way for them, and destroying the Egyptians – all at once (after He had shown His power by the plagues in Egypt).  Thus Moses proclaims:

“The Lord will fight for you while you keep silent.”

This was a situational promise, this was to the Israelites while they stood on the shore of the Red Sea.  This is not an ongoing command for how we are (or they were) to live their lives.  As they conquered Canaan, there were times that they fought, there were times that God fought for them.  He likes to change it up and be unpredictable.

There is another verse that Keswick Theology loves,

Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

– Ps 46.10

What does this mean?  If the command is to cease striving, and the response instead is to “know that I am God”, then this is not a command against working towards holiness.  It is a command against proving God.  John Piper gives this illustration:  imagine that you commit a substantial amount of time in prayer, asking God to reveal or give you something.  We ask, we communicate our need, we are emotionally involved.  While we are deep in prayer, imagine God walking up to us with the provision on a tray, handing it to us.  When we finish our prayer, however, we turn around and go right back about our day, instead of looking up and receiving that which He is handing to us.  When we rely on and depend on God, when we ask Him for things, there is a moment where we must receive that which He is giving us.  God has given us provisions for the Christian life, and often times we ask for those things instead of taking them up, even though they are already ours.  If we know that He is God and recognize His gifts and provisions, we receive and our striving in satisfied.  Our sanctification, however is a life-long process for which we continue to work, in partnership with the Holy Spirit.

Sanctification (becoming more like Christ, growing in Spiritual maturity) is part of our salvation.  God promises that all who are justified will be sanctified:

“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.”

– Rom 8.29-30

We will have a variety of experiences with God throughout our life, and we might even have a variety of crises.  But there is no Biblical teaching of a second revelation whereby we go into a deeper relationship with God, and the exhortation is clear that we are to work out our salvation continually, and not be passive.  Not only that, but we are to hold one another accountable and help each other work out our salvation.  That is why God gave us the body.

Are you actively working out your salvation today?  Are you fighting for holiness and sanctification?  Or are you just coasting through life, expecting the Holy Spirit to work through you without your participation?  Let’s get up close and personal with Him today.  Let’s be aware of the false prophets and false teachings that have led many astray and fight for the purity of doctrine and belief within our own hearts and churches.  Let’s unite with those around us to push one another on to holiness, and give the Holy Spirit glory for enabling us to obey!

Resolved.

new years resolution

New Year’s is just a few days away, and many New Year’s resolutions will be made.  Have you started thinking about yours?  Will you aim to eat better?  Or exercise more?  Perhaps you will simplify your schedule or get more rest.  Many will aim to be more spiritual – praying more, meditating, reading the Bible daily, and the like.

But there are also many who refuse to set a resolution because they know they will break it.  I knew someone who struggled so much in school and discipline that he simply refused to set any goals.  The fear of failing to meet them was so great and the guilt associated with it led him to remain as he was, as a guy in his late twenties.  He said, “I would only be setting myself up for failure”.

It is true, any goal that is set is an opportunity for failure.  But it is also true that unless we set goals or make an effort, nothing will ever be accomplished.  It is true on the micro level:  if you do not make a plan for the day, you will forget to go to the grocery store after work, or bring your workout clothes to hit the gym.  But it is also true on the macro level:  you have to apply to college and start classes to earn a degree, you have to send out your resume to get a job, and start lessons to learn a skill.

But the reality is that our relationship with God is more than just a goal.  Our spirituality is more than just dedication.  Goals, however, can enhance a relationship and a Spirituality.  Even in the midst of our emotion-driven society that believes love should be easy and euphoric, most will ultimately admit that marriage is hard work, and relationships take effort to maintain.  They might be born in emotion and initially driven by passion, but after time that can fade and commitment must mark our choices in order to maintain intimacy and happiness.

In the same way, there are times that our Spiritual walk and relationship with God will be easy and natural.  But there are other times when we are distracted, too busy, frustrated, or over stimulated and pleased with our physical lives that we neglect our relationship with God, and it will take a conscious effort and decision to pray, read the Bible, meditate and listen to the Holy Spirit.  And the nature of having discipline or a goal does not take away from the authenticity of the relationships – quite the opposite, in fact.  It portrays our convictions and passions to intentionally set aside that time, even in the midst of everything else.  A wife feels loved and valued when a husband takes time out of his day to call, to stop for flowers or to take her on a date where they can talk deeply.  She actually feels more honored that he would value her enough to go through to effort of planning.

Not only is it not disrespectful or disingenuous to set aside a specific time to pray or have a quiet time every day, it is also not an expectation or sin for which God will condemn us if we fail.  If you have a standing phone date with a friend, and you forget once or twice, that friend will forgive you if it is not your habit to forget.  If you need to reschedule a lunch date with your wife, she will understand if you are not in the habit of blowing her off.  If you consistently forget or blow off your relationships, however, there will grow a distance between you and a very real problem is established.  The same is true with God.  You cannot have a relationship with God and be Spiritually healthy if you neglect Him.  If you oversleep one morning, however, or have a change of schedule and have your quiet time in the afternoon instead of the morning, He will not consider you a failure.

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

– John 15.4-6

Jesus commands us to abide in Him.  The term abide can be difficult to understand, as we rarely use it in day-to-day language.  The Greek term used translates as “to remain, to not depart” and also “to continue to be present, to continue to be held or kept”.  The implication is continual interaction and relationship.  Jesus explains Himself with the imagery of the vine.  A branch depends on the vine for sustenance and life.  A branch cannot survive, produce fruit or grow unless is draws sap from the vine.  So we, when we are Spiritually born, must draw our Spiritual life from Jesus.  We cannot live, grow or bear fruit unless we stay connected to Jesus.

So as the new year approaches, let’s be bold to set a goal to go deeper with Jesus.  He will not be mad at you if you miss a day or two, and will not consider you a failure.  Quite the opposite, in fact, the commitment to and any progress towards greater intimacy with Him is a beautiful reality that will strengthen your Spiritual walk, health and maturity.  Let us not put a weight on ourselves that He hasn’t put on us, but let us abide in Him and draw our life and strength from Him as our source, as our vine.

You will find that as you begin those habits, it will soon turn into a situation where you long for your time with the Lord and needing to reschedule from the morning to afternoon will leave you ready and excited for that time.  Or missing a morning will leave your day lacking.  Let’s change our attitudes about resolutions, not seeing it as an opportunity for failure but rather an opportunity to grow and change.  Let’s not beat ourselves up and give up if we miss a few days, but find commitment anew by the encouragement and strength we draw from the days we succeed!

How will you commit to the Lord this year?

God Did Not Create Us For Comfort Zones: The Danger and Beauty of Spiritual Gift Inventories

comfort zone

“Do you know what your Spiritual gift is?”  This is a pretty normal question in Christian circles.  Scripture lists a variety of ways that people can be gifted and so we have developed tests that help people understand how they are wired and inventory their gifting.  It is a churchey personality test, in many ways.  Some churches require would-be members to take a test to determine each person’s gift in order to help plug them into ministry quickly.  Some small groups take the inventory test to help each other get to know one another and develop roles.  Some people are curious and take a test just to find out.

These tests can be extremely beneficial or detrimentally harmful.

There are three predominant passages that people turn to when discussing Spiritual gifts:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.  There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.  But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”

 – 1 Cor 12.4-11

“For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.  For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”

 – Rom 12.3-8

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

 – Eph 4.11-13

These are the gits derived from these passages:

  • Prophecy
  • Serving
  • Teaching
  • Exhortation
  • Giving
  • Leadership
  • Mercy
  • Word of wisdom
  • Word of knowledge
  • Faith
  • Gifts of healings
  • Miracles
  • Prophecy
  • Distinguishing between spirits
  • Tongues
  • Interpretation of tongues
  • Apostle
  • Prophet
  • Teacher
  • Miracles
  • Kinds of healings
  • Helps
  • Administration
  • Tongues
  • Apostle
  • Prophet
  • Evangelist
  • Pastor
  • Teacher

Being the logical and methodical people that we are, we desire to itemize these gifts and identify them in one another so that we can plug people into ministry and service.  This is a very good thing!  If a person is new to the faith, or new to a church, he may not yet know what his strengths and passions are, and he may be lost as to where best he can be used.  Our methodology is similar to a guidance counselor helping a student choose what to study in college, or a placement officer helping someone find a job and career that meets his skill set and strengths.

It is clear when reading through this list that there are some gifts that are not for everyone, too.  Not everyone is an apostle, for example.  In fact, we understand that apostles – in the fullest sense – were those twelve who were chosen and appointed by Jesus.  The office of apostle is no longer filled, as there are no longer any living who walked with Jesus and were sent out by Him.  The term apostle, however, literally translates as “sent out one”, and we do indeed send people out to the mission field and to plant churches.  Not everyone will be sent out.  Not every one will be a teacher.  Not everyone will have the gift of speaking in tongues.  Thus it is helpful to discern our giftings and abilities so that we can serve the body.

But the danger in the Spiritual gift inventory is threefold.  Firstly, it encourages complacency.  Imagine if someone had asked you what you wanted to be or given you a test to determine your personality and strengths when you were eight years old.  As a third grader, they determined that you are not a leader or teacher but that you had a scientific mind and thus determined that you should pursue science, possibly medicine.  You then were locked into that destiny and had no option to change.  But what happens when you get halfway through med school and realize this is not what you want for your life at all?  China has such a system and while some flourish, being considered valuable either in academics, athletics, or a specialized training, others are determined to be of little use and are sent to schools that will only land them a job to survive.  There is no chance, for such a one, to grow or be successful.

Much in the same way, when we are at any point in our Spiritual walk or development, we might have a particular strength or gifting of the Spirit that is useful at the moment, but the Spirit gifts us for the service of the Church.  Our giftings and abilities are not given for our own personal benefit but to minister to the body and believers around us.  Notice in all three passages that theme:

1 Corinthians:
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

Romans:
        For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

Ephesians:
        And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

It goes without saying that the needs of the body are fluid.  The needs of your local church will be different one year form now than they are right now.  But if we have identified ourselves and our “gifts” rigidly, then we will be incapable of adjusting and observing the current needs of our body.  One will be pigeonholed and oblivious, thinking, “I am a teacher.  I teach Sunday School.  That is my gift and that is what I do.”  While there might be a need for prayer support, serving the widows or reaching out to the community.  Situations change, people change, and God changes us accordingly.

Secondly it neglects the responsibility of every believer by allowing people to justify the lack of presence of a gift.  Some of the gifts of the Spirit are gifts that we should all have.  Faith, for example, is that by which we are saved.  Some people will be given an extra measure of faith – and God will give all of us the amount of faith we need for each situation we encounter.  Romans teaches us that God has given to every believer a measure of faith – this implies that some get more than others.  But we all have some.  It is by faith we are saved, and the saving faith that we have is a gift from God (Eph 2.8-9).  One might be tempted to think, however, that if his Spiritual gift is service than a lack of faith is understandable and justifiable, because that simply is not his Spiritual gift.  And thus, his growth is stunted.  As believers, we are called to die to ourselves, to trust God fully, and to live lives of faith.  But when we rest in our identity as defined by a Spiritual gift inventory, we will be tempted not to push ourselves and let God change us and use us in ways we never imagined.

Lastly, it pushes God out of the picture.  All Spiritual gifts are from God.  He gives them to us to serve the body, and He gives them to us according to the needs of the body.  But when we inventory ourselves and consider this our Spiritual personality test, then we are left with a black and white dotted line to sign, and we get busy about using the gift we have instead of pursuing God to see where He wants to use us.  There will be times when a need arises that we do not particularly desire to meet.  There will be times when we have to get out of our comfort zones to help or serve.  But plugging people into ministry according to their gifts fosters the exact opposite mindset:  go where it is comfortable and do what you know.

God’s will for us is our sanctification:  becoming more like Jesus (1 Thess 4.3).  This is a continual life of change:  dying to sin, abiding in Jesus, growing in Spiritual maturity, and strengthening the Church.  If the very nature of our salvation is change, then we can expect that our Spiritual giftings and inclinations will change.  Every believer is called to faith, is called to show mercy, is called to love, is called to give, is called to teach (either children, or making disciples one-on-one, or teaching a class or the entire church).  Some will be uniquely gifted to do these things on a grander scale than others, and all of us will be given measures of grace to do these things as they are needed.  The Holy Spirit is not stagnant and He will enable us and use us in a variety of ways throughout our Spiritual lives.  As we grow to be more like Jesus and as we remain in Him, we will develop a dependence on the Spirit.  We will learn to hear His voice and follow His leading.  If we seek Him once to find out what our gifts are, and then isolate ourselves in that one ministry, we will stop growing and we will serve in our own strength.  Thus, it is wise to examine ourselves and where we are with the Lord regularly and ask Him what gifts we have been given, but we must continually be in the presence of Jesus and asking what it is that He has for us to do today.  Because it might not be comfortable.  It might not be our norm.  It might not be what we consider to be our strength.  But God likes to use our weaknesses to glorify Himself, and He will push us on to maturity.

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

 – 1 Cor 12.9

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”

– 1 Cor 12.12

God wants what is best for His children.

perseverance

Are you a Christian?  Have you confessed your sins and repented of them, and asked God’s forgiveness by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ?  If you have been saved, then you can rest confidently that God wants what is best for you.  God wants what is best for you even more than you want what is best for you.  The thing that we must learn – sometimes painfully – is that often times we do not know what is best for us.  Thankfully, God does.

Scripture teaches us the primary desire of God for our lives, His will for our lives:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification…”

– 1 Thess 4.3

Sanctification is a big, theological and heady word which is not typically on the forefront of our minds when we consider our life choices and decision making.  Sanctification is the ongoing process of salvation by which we are being made more like Jesus and less like the world.  It is getting to know God more fully, and in response putting to death the deeds of the flesh.  It is becoming Heaven-minded and not worldly minded.  It is our Spiritual maturation process.  So, in short, it is God’s will that we mature and grow Spiritually.  Paul explains what sanctification looks like for the Church at Thessalonica and for us, at least in part:

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.  For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification.”

– 1 Thess 4.3-7

The Thessalonians needed instruction and discipline in their sexuality and relationship with one another.  Throughout Scripture we see more exhaustive lists of the sins and deeds that God hates, i.e. Gal 5.19-20.  But Paul summarizes His teaching simply, “God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification”.  This is God’s will for us.  And if we have begun the walk of the Christian life, if we have recognized and begun to confess our sins, then we also should be growing in our hatred for and conviction of sin and desiring to become more like Christ.  Our will should also be our sanctification.

That is the best for us.

We also can claim the promise of Scripture that if we have begun that walk with the Lord, He will complete it in us:

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

– Phil 1.6

When we come to God for salvation through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence within our lives and begins the process of Sanctification from within.  We then get to practice dying to the flesh and letting Him live through us.  He is at work within us, and He will complete the work of sanctification.

“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.13

So if we know that Scripture teaches us clearly that God’s will is for our sanctification, for us to become more like Jesus, and that He promises to complete that work in our lives, we can know fully that all things will work out for our best:

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

– Rom 8.28

Our best, however, is rarely what we desire in our hearts.  Consider the things you long for, work for, and pray for.  Do you desire a nice house?  A new car?  Nice clothes?  Fancy food?  Do you desire to have a consistent life that is not interrupted?  A schedule that makes sense and allows for the right amount of sleep, exercise and socializing?  Do you pray for good health?  For people around you to live forever?  For your children to be perfectly behaved?  Do you pray for those things that are making you uncomfortable to be taken away?

These things are not bad in and of themselves.  Jesus, in fact, promises rest and peace to those who come to Him (Matt 11.28-29).  He desires to give us peace and rest.  But have you ever reflected on a season of peace and rest and said, “I grew so much during that time”, or “My faith is at a place it has never been before”.  No, you have not.  And do you know why?  Because God knows that our faith only grows and is refined through testing – through the fire.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.1-5

We grow in sanctification, we mature, and we develop perseverance, character and hope through suffering and trials.  It is after a season of tremendous difficulty and suffering that believers look back and are amazed at the faithfulness of God and the development of their faith.  Faith is not developed by comfortable lives, it is developed by relying on God through the storm.

Think about it this way:  If sanctification is becoming more like Jesus, should we not expect to live the kind of life that Jesus did?  Jesus had no house, no earthly possessions and treasures.  He lived a life fully devoted to God, and He suffered hatred, persecution and death on a cross because of it.  Jesus Himself said,

“Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.”

– John 15.20

Non believers hated and persecuted Jesus.  If we are becoming more like Jesus, non believers will hate and persecute us as well.  We also know that Jesus, in His greatest hour of suffering, asked God to take away the suffering, but God did not:

“Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”

– Luke 22.42

Have you ever been in the midst of suffering and begged God to take it from you?  And He chose not to?  What was the result?  Did you ultimately grow and mature in your faith?  Or did you become embittered and resent God for the trial?  If you are a servant of Jesus, you can expect great suffering.  And you can expect that God will bring about your sanctification – your best – through it.

For four years I lived a life that many thought was one that required great faith.  I loved the opportunity to serve, and relished every moment of it.  It was indeed a life the required much sacrifice and conviction, but because of the desires God had placed in my heart it required minimal faith in the sense of perseverance through trial and testing.  Then God rocked my world and completely changed my life’s trajectory.  I then was forced to live a life that few would consider a life that requires much faith, but for me – because of those convictions and desires I have – it requires a daily submission and new step of faith.  And I can honestly look back on the last three years and see immensely more faith, trust and hope developed than in the four years before.

God is testing my faith.  And I am thankful that I can see growth through it.  I am also thankful that I know it means He is working in me, for my best, and for my sanctification.

We naturally want what is easiest and what feels the best.  But God has promised to develop faith and Spiritual maturity in His children.  And the way He does that is by testing and refining our faith through the fire of tribulation and suffering.  He wants what is best for you more than you want it for yourself, and He knows what is best for you – much more clearly than you know.  Are you in a season of peace and comfort right now?  Or is your faith being refined?  Can you look back over your life and see those seasons of testing and purification?  Or have you lived a relatively comfortable life that required little faith?  Trust God.  Know that He tested Jesus and even asked Jesus to surrender His desires and will.  Know that we, as Jesus’ servants, are not greater than our master and that we will be hated, persecuted, and tested by God.  And if you have not, then I would go back to the foundation and see if you have surrendered your life to God and asked for salvation.

He will work the best out for you.  And it will be through discipline and testing.  Trust Him through it, and you will be amazed at how you grow.

God is getting ready to do something big.

change the world

When I was a sophomore in High School, I went on a mission trip with a bunch of other high schoolers from around the country to South Korea.  There were around thirty of us, plus adult chaperones and leaders.  We spent a week together getting ready, learning music, praying, and preparing ourselves to go and then we spent a month traveling around military posts and camps sharing about Jesus.  While we were having our week-long preparation, an emergency arose with the team leader and he had to withdraw from the trip.  The mission organization brought in another team leader who was able to lead us, but there were a variety of other hiccups along the way that made this particular trip substantially more difficult than others – others which had more than double the number of participants.  As we were loading the bus to go to the airport to begin our trip, we had one final prayer meeting and the sentiment was shared over us, “God is going to do something big through this group – because the enemy has worked hard to make this trip not happen”.

Nothing big happened – at least in our observation.

Yes, God is infinitely bigger than us and has every circumstance orchestrated sovereignly to accomplish His perfect will in and through us, and there could be ripple effects from that trip to South Korea of which I and the rest of the team will never be aware.  But in our finite perspective, we did what we said we were going to do, we saw a very limited response, and we came home.

Many times when we are walking through crises and difficulties in life, we comfort ourselves with the platitude that “God is getting ready to do something big”.  The only explanation we can muster to understand our suffering is how awesome we are, God wants to change the world through us, and therefore Satan is putting up a big fight to slow us down or thwart the plan.

But may I ask you, how many times have you come through that difficulty and observed a mighty act of God?

And how many times do you get through the difficulty and immediately forget the suffering, and stop looking to God?

Scripture teaches us that Satan does in fact prowl around on the Earth like a roaring lion, seeking those whom he can devour.

“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

– 1 Peter 5.8

Satan is looking for people who are weak, who are distracted, who are able to be devoured and made ineffective for the name of Christ.  He also uses his cunning to attack the diligent – as he twisted Scripture and attempted to deceive Jesus Himself!  But no where does Scripture teach us that Satan sees the plan of God and therefore sets out to thwart it by throwing obstacles in our path.

Rather we see from Scripture that trials and tribulations are actually a part of God’s perfect plan for our sanctification and maturity:

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

– James 1.2-4

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.3-5

The testing of our faith produces endurance – when we persevere through trials.  And endurance results in character, hope, and ultimately maturity.  In short, we will not become mature believers until we walk through trials and difficult times, and grow from them.  Our faith must be tested and refined in order for it to become more pure.  If left stagnant and untested, it will remain immature.

So I guess we need to reconsider what exactly it is that we mean when we say God is going to do something big.  Do we mean that God is going to help us grow, understand the Gospel, and become more mature and Christlike?  If so, then let’s continue to praise God’s sovereignty in our circumstances.  But let us beware of giving Satan too much credit.  Scripture is full of unfathomably difficult circumstances.  Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son – who was born to him when he was 100 years old, after leaving his country and roaming for most of his life.  Joseph spent years in slavery and in prison while waiting for God to fulfill the vision He gave of him being in a position of high leadership.  David was anointed king and then literally ran and hid for his life for years while waiting for God to put him in power.  Jesus Himself lived a lifetime on earth without a house or place to lay His head, and then suffered death in the form of crucifixion.

Now, we know that God was doing the mightiest of works through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  But even Jesus was disciplined and learned maturity through trials.  He was glorified as the son of God by His perfect example of perseverance through even the most unfathomable of situations:

“In the days of His flesh, [Jesus] offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety.  Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. And having been made [mature], He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation…”

– Heb 5.7-9

So let us step back and take a realistic look at our lives.  When we encounter a trial and difficult situation, let us keep in perspective the fact that God not only allows but orchestrates the testing of our faith so that we can grow, become more mature, and be more like Christ.  Without the testing of our faith, we do not grow.  So let us take comfort in the fact that yes, God is doing something – but the magnitude of it may only be a refinement of sin within our own hearts.  God is not necessarily planning on changing the world just because this went wrong or that fell through.

But let us also be intentional to step back and see the lessons and refinement that is intended by our circumstances.  If God has you in a trial, it is for your growth and sanctification.  We will not grow if we do not join Him in perseverance and faith through it.  If we just hunker down and wait for the situation to end, if we just barrel through and force the resolution that we want, if we do not intentionally seek out God and His plan through our suffering, then when we get to the other side we will have not persevered in faith; we just got through it.  And we forget.  As soon as it is over, we no longer placate ourselves with the empty hope that God is getting ready to do something because we are comfortable again and God gets placed right back on the back burner where He belongs.

Rather, let us get in God’s face and ask Him boldly, “What is it that you want me to learn here?”.  Let us press into God during these trials and experience the refinement that He intends for us.  And then, when it is over, let us be able to look back and see what exactly God did in our hearts and in our lives during those trials.  Let us intentionally engage with God, be humble, grow, see what He is doing, and at the end be able to give witness to it.  God is doing something big, and that is our sanctification.

All things work together for good for those who love God – and often the good is our Spiritual growth and maturity.

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

– Rom 8.28