Dying to Live

Seed Germination

We avoid pain because …
We don’t really understand what it means to follow Jesus

Jesus said the most profound and disruptive things, including:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Here, Jesus is categorically stating that real life actually involves daily death. This can be pretty confusing too, if you lean into the wrong images when you envision your earthly life.

Real life Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Family GatheringFor example, a commercial I saw recently depicted Thanksgiving. It showed an American-dream family (right down to the friendly, cuddly dog) gathering in a giant house, around a fancy table, surrounded by expensive decorations, dressed in designer clothes, all with great hair, clinking crystal wine glasses, preparing to serve a perfectly cooked 30 pound turkey. Wow! Breathtaking! What a life! If I just buy their product or service (it was for a financial management and planning firm), then I too will have a “real life” … surrounded by beautiful people and thanking God around a magnificently-set table and a massive turkey.

A preview of heaven?

thanksgiving-dinnerNow don’t get me wrong… I love Thanksgiving, turkey and gathering with my family … and I have had much the same experience this commercial portrayed. I’m not saying that Thanksgiving is wrong or bad, or that this commercial depicts something unhealthy. In fact, I think it gives us an interesting glimpse into heaven. There, the turkey will be huge, God’s mansion will be breathtaking, and the family will be pretty much permanently gathered around the Father’s table. And taking time now to do things that we’ll do in heaven — like setting aside special time to express gratitude to God while sharing abundant food and fellowship — isn’t bad, it’s wonderful. Especially if we are conscious in it to remember God’s blessing and to look forward to heaven.

The problem is that we, as Americans, have absorbed the imagery in this commercial to such a degree that it now represents our expectation for what life in a sinful broken world is supposed to be like. What God is storing up for us in heaven, we have come to believe we can build for ourselves here on earth. The unparalleled abundance and blessing which God has given so many of us is taken for granted. The comfort and ease and peace, fine china and full tables are no longer awe-inspiring, they’re expected, maybe even deserved. And we forget that life doesn’t consist in doing what it takes to replicate this commercial. It consists in walking with God, in following Jesus. And Jesus was very clear that following Him doesn’t always look like the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, it looks like carrying a cross and dying every day.

A better picture of real life

If I were to make a commercial for the life Jesus offers, I think it would look something like this…

Farmer hands sifting wheat

We fade in on the work-worn hands of an elderly farmer. He’s working his field with a hand hoe, tilling up dark rich soil that he’s obviously been nurturing for a long time. The sun is shining brightly in the background. We never see his face.

He stops his work, rests his hoe on a fence post, and wipes sweat from his brow with a worn cloth handkerchief. Then, he reaches his weathered hand into the pocket of his overalls, pulls out a handful of seed, and begins to scatter it over the well-prepared soil.

When he throws the second or third handful, the camera zooms in on a single seed as it flies through the air and ultimately lands on the ground. Then time speeds up. We see rain fall on the seed, while the sun rises and sets repeatedly behind it. And we watch the seed work its way down into the soil … and die. Soft, sad music plays in the background.

Growth process of wheatBut we all know what’s coming, so we keep watching. The music begins to change, and eventually the seed sprouts a single, tiny green shoot. It pushes up out of the ground, and slowly begins to look like a stalk of wheat. By now, the music is beginning to crescendo, and as it mounts, the camera zooms out and up, until we find ourselves looking at a huge, rolling field of beautiful golden wheat. The sun shines again in the distance, and the farmer stands with his back to us off to the right, leaning on his pitchfork, looking (we imagine approvingly) at his wheat field.

Wheat Field

Which picture do we prefer?

Seen from the perspective of heaven, the earthly life of the Christ-follower is represented well in this image of the lifecycle of a grain of wheat. The whole of our lives on earth is lived, spiritually speaking, in God’s act of sowing us into good soil, and then taking us, in Christ, through death, germination and resurrection into “real life.”

Some overtly reject this notion of transformation through death and rebirth. But many, perhaps even more insidiously, believe that they are on this path simply because they “prayed a prayer” or “came forward” one day at church or “made a decision for Christ.” In our affluent, distraction-filled culture, we tend to view the Christian life more like membership in a club or a document to be signed or an extra layer of affiliation we can paint over a life fixated on earthly comforts and stuff and experiences. The busier we are making sure we have the latest styles in fine china or the nicest shoes or the best Pinterest recipe for mashed potatoes, so that everyone will have the best possible experience when they come for Thanksgiving, the less interested we’ll be in the image of (like the grain of wheat) falling to the ground and dying. Put simply, I don’t think most of us truly believe that real life comes only through dying.

“When Christ calls a person, He bids them ‘Come and die.'”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Which utopia do you want?

I think this all boils down to a question of which utopia — bear with me as I use the word “utopia” as a euphemism for “real life” for a second — do we want?

God’s utopia is heaven, or “the new Jerusalem,” or the Kingdom of God — the place where God dwells with His people and they dwell (directly, uninhibited by sin, totally free) with Him (Jer 32:38; Rev 21:3). Life in this kingdom starts the moment someone turns from their sin and accepts Christ as Savior and Lord. It’s the life Jesus described as “denying yourself and taking up your cross” (Luke 9:23) and Paul overtly described as “dying with Christ” (Col 3:1-17). Grains of wheat have no access to this utopia. Only wheat fields. The only way a grain of wheat gets in is to fall to the ground and die, and be raised to new life by God in Christ.

Utopia World Hotel (Antalya, Turkey)

Utopia World Hotel (Antalya, Turkey)

Man’s utopia is the American dream. It’s Antalya, Turkey or Dubai. Once while visiting Las Vegas, as I took in the glitz and glitter, I found myself thinking, “This is man’s utopia; what we would build with seemingly infinite resources.” This is grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner every single day. This utopia is what sells itself as possible if grains of wheat work really hard to make being a grain of wheat as awesome as humanly possible. But what we struggle to believe, and what Jesus meant by so many of the things He said, is that this utopia A) isn’t possible on earth, and B) even the momentary approximations of it aren’t worth what it costs. And it’s primary cost is that, in the pursuit of it, grains of wheat often fail to become what they were meant to be… wheat fields. In fact, if you make a grain of wheat comfortable and self-reliant enough, it may no longer even want to.

And in this difference is the rub. Which utopia we’re shooting for will make all the different in how we live and what we tolerate or invite into our lives. Whichever is our goal, we’ll sacrifice quite a lot to reach it, investing ourselves for the return of that goal (even if it’s futile… like creating heaven on earth). We will put on the things we think will help us get there, and throw off the things that we feel get in the way.

If your life consists in putting on money and power and comfort and ease and the recognition of your peers and independence and self-sufficiency, then I would submit that your heart is for man’s utopia. Seen from the other side, this life is spent avoiding the poverty and weakness of others (which sucks away resources), remaining under trials (which sucks away comfort), inconvenience, neediness, rejoicing with others’ victories, accepting when they have the advantage, responding with grace and love when we are wronged, investing in those who cannot help you in return, transparency, relational vulnerability, (inter)dependence, and many other things Jesus and the apostles espoused as signs of a life that is already sprouting up in the Kingdom of God and ultimately bound for heaven.

Serving OthersConversely, the life aimed at God’s utopia reverses the polarity on these things. The challenge in our culture is that we don’t really believe that. We want the life described in the last paragraph, and we want heaven too. Whether we like it or not, it doesn’t work that way. To attempt it is to turn the gospel into a “get out of hell free” card. But Jesus said, “If you want real life — which is to say, ‘if you want me’ — then you have to die to yourself every day and accept the life I have for you” … which Jesus and the apostles spend much of the New Testament describing.

But we started out talking about avoiding pain and suffering

Bringing this all the way back around… We’ve talked about lots of reasons why people avoid pain, and about how God uses pain and suffering to get our attention and to grow us into maturity. So, I leave you with this thought, which I believe connects us squarely back into that discussion…

“We are by nature comfort-seekers, not cross-bearers.”
-Kyle Idleman

If you take a hard look at your life and find yourself working hard to avoid discomfort, difficulty, inconvenience, and irritation… If you spend your days building systems or stockpiling resources to ensure your security and comfort and ease of life… If you define “freedom” as the power to sit and do nothing or to entertain and indulge yourself 24/7… If you put far more thought into what flows into your life from others than what flows out of it to others… Then you may actually be working against what God desires most for your life: that you would die to yourself and be raised with Christ in newness of life (Rom 6:4).

Serving OthersCould it be that all these things — the messy, painful, stress-filled difficulty of a life centered on God and people, rather than on ourselves — are the signs that we are in the process of germination? And if so, wouldn’t we want to lean into that process and thank God for His amazing vision that we would become an entire field of wheat, rather than remaining a single dried-up grain?

But that assumes that you believe what God would build in your resurrected life is better than what you would build here and now. So I ask, “Do you?” Because this is just another way of asking what Jesus asked, “Will you repent and be baptized? Will you deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me? Will you die to yourself so that you can live in me?”

Read more about the goodness of God.

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A Matter of Trust

Trusting God

We avoid pain because…
We don’t really trust God

When, in the midst of very difficult circumstances, we shake our fists at God and say, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” … it is a clear indicator that we believe we know what’s best for us and that God is either a) cruel — toying with you like a cat with a ball of string — or b) incompetent — He has no idea what He’s doing. In either case, it’s a clear indicator that we do not in fact trust the Lord. I know it’s hard to see past suffering and the brokenness of the world, but faith sees what is invisible. When we vent our frustration and anger, or question God, what we’re actually saying is that everyone would be better off if God ran the universe your way.

refiners-fireIt comes down to this… God is wise, and we aren’t. God, as a loving Father, is at all times masterfully working all things together for our good. If there is pain, it’s because God is using that pain to do something in you and/or in others that you don’t understand and cannot rightly imagine. If you are a child of God, then when you get to heaven (sometimes you won’t even have to wait that long), you will confess with your own lips that God was right and everything suffered at His hand was totally worth it to bring about the results He has dreamed for His children, for His kingdom, and most importantly for His glory. But in order to trust God, we have to learn, even train ourselves, to believe that this is true … that God’s dreams for us (the pure gold) are worth the pain required to refine out of us that which is in the way of our purity (the dross). If the metal were alive, I suspect it wouldn’t like being pounded by the blacksmith. But looking back on those days from the perspective of a gleaming sword or an ornate jeweled necklace, I’m quite sure it would say that it had all been worth it.

Sapphire NecklaceIt would take far more space than we have to dive into a deep discussion about how to invest well in developing a deeper trust in God. Perhaps we could get into that more in a separate, future post. For the time being, my goal is to raise the vital importance of that trust — to propose that perhaps the origin of angst and frustration in the midst of pain is not in fact God’s unreasonableness, but rather our lack of trust. If we can make that recalibration in perspective, we can at least take a (huge!) step forward in recognizing when we’re failing to take God at His word with regard to our lives.

The next time you find yourself allowing circumstances to measure God’s goodness and interpret God’s heart (producing fear and anger and resentment) instead of allowing God’s goodness to interpret our circumstances (producing peace that passes understanding), then try this … Get alone with God (like in-a-dark-closet-without-your-phone alone) and directly tell Him that it’s hard to trust Him. Ask Him to supernaturally give you a faithful and trusting heart, which you simply do not have and cannot develop on your own. Ask God to work a miracle in you. Soak in Philippians 4:4-9 for a season, and see what God does with it. Preach the gospel to yourself to remind your weary heart of God’s goodness.

Prayer Closet

It is possible that God’s purpose in bringing the pain your experiencing into your life is that He is explicitly about the work of developing this trust in your heart. Whether it feels like it or not, you can trust Him. And once we accept that, we’re much more likely to accept, even embrace, the things in life that we don’t understand and would never ask for. Trust God’s work as a master goldsmith. His refining power in our lives is removing impurity and dross, so that we may “emerge as pure gold” (Job 23:10).

Read more about the goodness of God.

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Dreams of Heaven

Cloudwatching Look Up

We avoid pain because…
We are focused on earthly goals and dreams

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Colossians to challenge them to forsake inferior gods and destructive religious practices, and to reorient their lives completely around Jesus Christ, who is everything they need. About halfway through the letter, he issues this clarion call:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2)

Less-than-Great Expectations

Great ExpectationsBut we — especially those of us who practically wade through wealth and comfort in the everyday of life — tend to have a really hard time raising our eyes and hearts and minds to heaven. And when God sends difficult circumstances to get our attention or wake us up or burn away impurity … when He attempts to draw our eyes off the things of this world and onto Himself … then it’s easy to feel mistreated and cry foul. This is precisely because we tend to have our eyes fixed on the disillusion or destruction or disappointment of earthly goals and plans and material goods, rather than on the parting clouds above us. But we can only see the far-greater treasure that their parting reveals if we look up.

spots in your eyesHave you ever looked at a bright light long enough to sear temporary spots on your retinas? Even when you look away or close your eyes, you still see the spots. Well, people do the same thing with their plans for life and dreams for the future. How easy it is to fixate on earthly goals or desires or possessions until our eyes and hearts are seared with their images. The bright spots burned onto them can then obscure what God is actually doing in our lives. So in ignorance of His far superior plans, we turn away feeling like the universe (or God Himself) has somehow done us wrong.

looking-at-phonesBecause our eyes are firmly fixed on what’s in our hands or on our bucket lists or in our wallets or on our neighbors minds (or at least what we think that’s what they’re thinking), we can totally miss what God has set His eyes and mind and heart upon in our lives … which can always be summarized as “being conformed to the image of His Son” … which is better by far.

We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. (Romans 8:28-29)

To live the life we were made to live, we must fix our eyes on things above … on God’s definitions of success and accomplishment, on God’s goals and dreams, on God’s treasure and reward. If we expect our treasure to come in the form of earthly things or unthreatened comfort or emotional simplicity or some kind of guarantee that God would act in support of our own plans, then we haven’t at all understood the higher calling of God on our lives.


But we’re in good company. We see this over and over in the Bible. We could probably choose from dozens of stories to illustrate the point. But God specifically brought to my mind the story of Moses and the Exodus, so I thought we could zoom in on it…

Freedom from Slavery vs Making my Life Harder

Thousands of years ago, God appeared to a man named Abram, and promised that He would make Abram into a great nation. This nation would be, in a unique sense, God’s people and become a blessing to the entire earth. Through very unusual circumstances, which weave their way through the book of Genesis (specifically chapters 9-41), Abram’s great grandson, Joseph, ends up Vice President of the region’s uncontested superpower, Egypt. God has highly blessed Joseph, and directs him to lead the people of Egypt to store up food in preparation for a great famine which God has revealed to Joseph will be coming. The nation dutifully prepares, and when the rest of that part of the world sinks into great hunger and need, Joseph’s family (like many others) seeks refuge in Egypt. There, they find plenty to eat — thanks to God’s work through Joseph. Now called “Israelites,” after the new name God gave to Joseph’s father Jacob, God’s people prosper in Egypt and greatly increase in both numbers and influence under the protection of the king.

And this, by earthly standards, is where the story takes a turn for the worse. We pick it up in the opening pages of the book of Exodus…

Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built … store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor, the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
(Exodus 1:6-14)

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Eventually, through very interesting and dramatic circumstances, God raises up a man named Moses, and sends him to demand that Pharaoh — the most powerful man in the known world — release the Israelite people — now numbering in the millions — to walk out of Egypt with all their stuff, and be free to live with and worship God as they see fit.

Moses: “So, Pharaoh, you know all those slaves who are building your cities and monuments? Well, I want you to let them all go and do the work yourself for a change!”

Pharaoh: {blank, disbelieving stare}

God: {pointing to Moses} I’m with him. Best do what he says.

To put it mildly, Pharaoh rejects Moses’ demands. So, God works terrible and terrifying miracles through Moses, bringing down plagues on the king and his people. But instead of relenting, Pharaoh angrily digs in his heals, and reacts to Moses and his (really God’s) people with attempts at brutal suppression. So, the plagues get worse and worse and the Pharaoh gets more and more angry — round and round — until God has pretty much destroyed Egypt (punishment for their great wickedness). And finally, the king lets God’s people go. And God leads them, again eventually (more interesting drama), to a new homeland which He had promised to Abram centuries before.

Think about the drama which unfolded between Moses’ first round of demands to the king and the end of the story, when the Red Sea finally comes crashing down onto Pharaoh’s army, confirming that the Israelites had truly and completely escaped. There is a definitely escalating pattern in this part of the story. Moses would make his customary demand, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh would refuse. God would drop a plague — from frogs to locusts to blood to boils — onto Egypt. And Pharaoh would both hold his ground against Moses and retaliate against the Israelites.

Here’s an explicit glimpse we get of one round of this escalation early on in the story (read it for yourself in Exodus 5:1-22)…

Pharaoh: Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.

Moses (with his brother Aaron): Bad call. God sent us, and that should sum it up for you. Now, let our people go!

Pharaoh: No way; get back to work!

That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and overseers in charge of the people: “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’ Make the work harder for the people so that they keep working and pay no attention to lies.”

Slave drivers and overseers: {to millions of slaves who already lived in back-breaking hardship} No straw for you! Thanks to your buddy Moses and your “God”, your life just got even harder! Oh, and why haven’t you met your brick quota yesterday or today, as before!?

Israelite slaves in Egypt

Godly perspective presupposes delayed gratification

Imagine you’re the average slave building Pharaoh a pyramid. From your perspective, some guy came sauntering into the boss’s office and got you in trouble. Yeah, your life is horrible, but at least “the company” provides you with straw to make bricks. That was at least something. Now, thanks to the guy with the big mouth and the staff, you have to go gather the straw AND make the bricks. How does that make you feel? You’re probably pretty ticked off, as the Israelite rank and file surely were.


Israelites making bricks in EgyptBecause you have no way to know that “my job just got harder” isn’t the end of the story. If all you see are the problems of that day, then the whole straw shortage thing is very bad news. But if you really believe the things God has promised you, you’d be forced to conclude that there is more going on than that. You’d have to say, “I don’t know how, but somehow God is working all this straw gathering and brick making together for my good” (Romans 8:28, paraphrased). Thinking about Moses’ story from the outside, it’s certainly more obvious than it would have been to the Israelites from inside the story. And it’s for sure more clear looking back on this story from history than when we evaluate our own lives in progress. But still, looking back it’s hard to imagine the Israelite slaves saying, “I know God is working all things together for my freedom and the freedom of all my family and friends, but that goal is too far off and abstract. Who wants to think about actual freedom? Ain’t nobody got time for that! What I really want … what would make me happy … is for my taskmasters to dump a pile of straw outside my house in between beatings.”

I know that’s extreme language, and I present it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but isn’t that pretty much what the Israelites said (see Exodus 5:20-21)? And if we’re honest, isn’t that (in effect) the kinds of things we say as well? “God, I know you said you’re doing everything for my good and conforming me to the image of your Son, but that’s just too far off and abstract. What I really want … what would make me happy … is … something trivial by comparison that I want right now.”

If you could see the universe and human history and your life the way God does, what language would you use to compare the goals on your personal bucket list with the dreams God has on His bucket list for you? Would “no comparison” even come close?

It’s a perspective thing

This brings us back around to where we started — to your perspective and focus. It’s about where you fix your eyes. The average Israelite slave didn’t understand that the tug-of-war between Moses and Pharaoh was necessary. It was evidently required to gain the peoples’ freedom and glorify God and progress God’s redemptive strategy for all mankind. So, yes, there was immediate pain — and not short-term, either. They’d been slaves their entire lives … and now, work had gotten even harder. But who knew that this meager slave was in fact playing a key role in the drama that would stand for all time as the ultimate story of God’s redeeming power, giving hope and exemplifying promise to billions of people all over the world for millennia to come!?

They all knew God’s promise, “I will bless you and make you a blessing… To you and to your descendants, I give this land.” (Genesis 12:1-7). And I know it had been awhile and circumstances were blinding them. I get that sometimes it’s hard to choose to believe. But they still had that choice … to decide whether or not to actually believe what they all knew God had promised, even in the face of suffering and uncertainty. They had to choose to look up — to fix their eyes on God’s promises — or to look at their admittedly very difficult circumstances.

And so do we.

God is a promising God. He’s clearly told us that He is working all things together for our good. He is wise and understands how that works; we do not. He sees where our lives are going; we do not. We must resist the urge to repeatedly demand that He explain Himself. Even when there is pain and sorrow and what feels like inexplicable derailments or insurmountable roadblocks… Instead of shaking your fist at heaven or demanding some short term balm on your circumstances (your very own pile of straw!), let us trust in the Lord with all our hearts, lean not on our own understanding, acknowledge God’s right and competence to do what needs to be done, and joyfully submit to His way. He will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and you will not be put to shame (Psalm 25:3).

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

cloudwatching look up

Read more about the goodness of God.

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The Allure of the Dream World


We avoid pain because…
We love our dream and don’t want to wake up

Have you noticed that we humans are a stockpiling people? Even those of us who aren’t too good at savings accounts know how to accumulate stuff we want. We hoard the treasures this world has to offer, believing that they will satisfy us. We build bunkers and treasure chests of various kinds, load them up with our collections of revered goods and experiences, and invest all manner of resources in defending them from outside intrusion.

Treasures of Having

treasure-room goldSome of our treasures are material. Cars, houses, toys, cash, retirement accounts, etc. We want these things because they give us an immediate-term happy fix. In our heart of hearts, we know they’re temporary, but we love them anyway. Most of us also know that, in the extreme, they’re “bad” … but only in some amorphous, comfortably distant way. And, of course, only other people pursue them in the extreme. We tell ourselves over and over again (and there is some truth to this) that it’s okay to own them as long as they don’t own us. But here again, that’s a fairly fuzzy concept, because we typically fail to establish an actual definition of what it means for them to “own us.” In any case, when treasure is physical or material in nature, there is at least an awareness of the dangers in storing them away in ever-bigger barns (Luke 12:13-21).

Treasures of Being

the-good-lifeBut there are far more insidious treasure temptations out there than material goods. Some of the treasures of life can be found only in God Himself, but are (falsely, deceptively) promised to us by the world as well. So in addition to toys and trinkets, we also invest heavily in chasing after peace, love, wisdom, abundance, security, comfort and a big-ole’ pile of other things that God does in fact promise us. In fact, God generously gives us these things for the asking, but not as a pharmacist fills a prescription. God doesn’t hand out bags of peace or wisdom or security which are varying degrees of “full.” Rather, God gives us Himself (living water), and because He does, our cups are always overflowing. As heat and light are experienced as the natural and necessary outcome of being near the fire, so also, when we are walking with God, these treasures (and many more) naturally and necessarily result.

But when we look for these soul-deep needs in anything other than authentic communion with God … when we search and claw and scrape long enough and hard enough in this fallen world … in a sense, we do find treasures like love and happiness. But they aren’t what we think they are. Instead of finding “the real thing,” we end up with cheap copies. They shout loudly that they’re authentic, but they aren’t. They cannot satisfy us. It’s like finding safety and peace (just two examples) in a dream. While we’re sleeping and in the clutches of the dream world, they seem real, so we hold them to our chests and feel secure in them … that is, until we wake up and discover that we never had anything of the sort and that in our slumber, while we indulged fanciful dreams, we have missed the coming of real peace and real security.

Isaiah said it this way, almost 3,000 years ago…

As when a hungry man dreams, and behold, he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams, and behold, he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. (Isaiah 29:8)

Dreamed up treasure

dreaming-of-treasureReal life — and all that we long for in the depths of our souls — does not come at our own hands, or because we have planned carefully and worked hard, or as a result of material wealth. We do not achieve soul-satisfying “life in all its fullness” (John 10:10) through the right combination of labor, luck and LinkedIn. The most important things in life come to us exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ, whose own life and own presence are abundance, security, safety, comfort, peace, rest and so much more. Outside of the presence and power of God, these are only a dream. If we are defining our lives by the things we have or happiness we self-generate, then we are living in a dream world.

All too many people, even Christians, ignore this truth. We mistakenly believe that life consists in the abundance of things and comfort. While safe and happy in a dream world, we store away these earthly treasure like misers, and then we build fortified military-grade defensive emplacements to protect it all.

fortified military bunkerGod, in His goodness and tremendous love, seeks to wake us up from this dream … before it’s too late. One of God’s most effective tools to shock us awake is to introduce painful circumstances into our lives. Like an electric shock to the heart or that really loud alarm clock I bought in college to make sure I got to my early morning classes on time after being up late night after night … pain and suffering can shatter the allusions of the dream world.

But we love our comfortable, fanciful dreams. We’re so warm and cozy in our fortified dreamland bunkers. And we feel safe. So, the last thing we want is the shock of pain or the loud alarm of suffering to wrench us out of the Matrix into the cold hard reality of the waking world. We tend to agree with Cypher, “Ignorance is bliss!

ignorance-is-blissSo, unknowingly trapped in our dreams, we pour endless work, time, energy and money into fortifying our defenses. A bigger 401k will make me safe. A different job will bring fulfillment. A new girlfriend will make me happy. And whatever it takes to protect the dream state, that’s what we do … which for sure includes a severe allergy to painful circumstances. Budgeting, tithing and living generously means sacrifice, so we bail. A job can be dull and difficult, so we bail. A relationship can be messy, painfully hard work, so we bail. The dream world says to run away from these kinds of “hard” as fast as possible. Seek safety, fulfillment and happiness in something else (but of the same kind). Follow the cheese as it skips elusively around the maze. It is a dream, after all, so we don’t even question that the cheese was just here a second ago.

How do I wake up?

super-loud-alarm-clockBut what if suffering through these circumstances is exactly what would make it clear to us that it’s all a dream … a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14). What if real safety, fulfillment and happiness (and I chose these three nearly at random just to represent the point) cannot be found in any bank account, job or human relationship? What if they actually are only found in God Himself … outside the dream … in the real world? What if the real world was much harder but much better than the dream world?

If all that’s true, then God’s attempts to wake us up are paramount. As sound asleep as we are, God’s methods to rouse us are probably gonna hurt, but that’s what we need. If you have a tendency to hit snooze and fall back asleep, then the only way to avoid being late to school or work is to make the alarm clock louder, more annoying and further from the bed. God’s tactics to get your attention (some of the pain and suffering we experience in life) aren’t cruel … they’re what’s necessary for love to succeed. An easy softness that leaves us in the dream world … now that would be cruel.

A sense of urgency

sunriseAnd one more thing … there is, in fact, (at least) one critical flaw in this Matrix analogy. Unlike the movie, everyone will ultimately wake up from our dream. The dream we call “real life” has a clear and definite end. And it’s racing upon each of us with relentless metronome precision. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Some will remain under the pressures and challenges of life, feeling pain and seeking the Lord in suffering, until they come to grips with the reality that this really is a dream. This person takes the red pill, and wakes up to a new reality in which God Himself, by virtue of His presence, showers us in the abundance of the treasures of heaven. They come to grips with the fact that only God fulfills the needs and desires of the human heart. This doesn’t mean you’ll be rich or that life will be easy, it means that life will be lived together with God, which is more precious by far than any gold or silver or comfortable circumstances.

Red Blue Pill

Watch the Matrix movie clip

But others won’t wake up. They take the blue pill, “wake up in their beds the next day [still in the Matrix], and believe … whatever they want to believe.” Instead of the pain of a wake-up call, they flee discomfort, avoiding anything that would disturb their slumber. They live carefully-constructed lives to avoid anything that doesn’t feel like treasure. Every nugget of dream-world treasure they find, they stockpile it and build defenses to protect it … chasing wind, erecting barns … and remain blissfully asleep and unaware … until one day, they are wrenched away from their false security at the end of life, and forced to face the fact that their stockpiled treasure and well-crafted defenses don’t really exist. It never had any power to protect them. They were never safe. They were always perishing. And their “desert of the real” might even be eternal separation from the God who would have given them everything if they had just chosen reality over a self-gratifying dream world.

So, ignorance is most certainly not bliss. Far better to wake up, even if it hurts to get out of bed.

“Awake, O sleeper, arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

alarm clock silhouette at sunrise

Read more about the goodness of God.

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The Big Move: An Incarnational Life of Worship

To the Christian…
A sermon manuscript on 1 Peter 2:4-12, prepared for my worship class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

moving in to a new house

Introduction: A Stranger in a Strange Land

Two weeks ago, as Elaine sat in her boss’s office, the look on her face said volumes about her uncertainty and trepidation regarding her new assignment. A single, ambitious 34-year old professional – Elaine has been the company’s Director of HR for just over ten years. In that time, she has seen incredible changes, but over the last year, the most dramatic change yet had come to affect nearly every aspect of her job: the company is going global. When she started, they had only been in three locations (one of which was clearly the main office). But now – what seemed like only minutes later – they had offices all over North America, and were only 60 days away from the grand opening of their new Asia-Pacific headquarters. The company had merged with a Chinese partner, and was now in the process of integrating a whole string of offices on the Asia-Pacific coast into their operations.

Ever since the merger was announced, Elaine had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that meeting had been it. They had finally announced her new assignment: to move to Beijing for a minimum of one year, and there oversee the integration of all personnel from the merger, and to work with them to hire and fire others.

Now, two weeks later. Elaine finds herself in another conference room on the other side of the world … this one full of people who speak English only when they need to and whose culture is as foreign to Elaine as anything has ever been in her life. Looking around the room, she realizes … again … that there is only one other Caucasian present, and no other women. And the average age in the room can’t be less than 45. To say the least, Elaine is now a stranger in a strange land.

tourists seeking directionAs time passes, Elaine is faced with countless decisions about how to engage her new environment. Is it unfair of her to expect Chinese – or Filipino or Japanese (where other Asian offices are located) – people to adopt policies which were developed and tested in the US? Is it disingenuous for her to try to somehow “be more Asian” in her thought and action? How should she react to the fact that they view women totally differently than her US-based colleagues do? Is that okay? Does the corporate culture need to bend to them? Do they need to bend to the existing corporate culture? Both? Neither? Should she learn Mandarin? On the personal side, should she go out with them in the evenings and try to become more a part of their world? Should she wear new kinds of clothes and eat new kinds of food, or is it okay that she craves pizza and McDonald’s? I mean, who knew her distaste for fish would come back to bite her like this! Does she need to get over that, or is it okay to “be herself”?

Suddenly it seems like every decision she makes is now colored with 10 layers of complexity and complication. And she certainly doesn’t remember being this tired at the end of the day when she was back in New York.

Elaine is a fictional character, but as our 21st century world continues to shrink, her situation is being faced by millions of people all over the globe. And it’s not just in the business marketplace. Whether you realize it or not, you too are a stranger in a foreign land. Whether you live within 20 miles of where you were born, have never traveled internationally, or are a world traveler like Elaine, if you belong to Jesus, then this world is not your home. Like Elaine, you are living for a short time in a place very different from the place of your new birth, where you will spend eternity in the house God is personally preparing for you (John 14:2-3). And just as it did for Elaine, this reality can create an astonishing level of complexity and complication in our lives as we try to live in this world but not be of it (John 17:13-19). At the very least, it should dramatically affect how we perceive the world around us.


Primary Claim / Organizational Sentence

These past few weeks, we’ve been studying key passages in Scripture to help us cultivate a theology and life of worship. Today, we’re looking at 1 Peter 2:4-12. Here, the Apostle Peter, writing only a few years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, instructs us that part of what it means to worship God is to live life as sojourners in this world, engaged in a very significant mission God has given to us. God has chosen us and sends us to live incarnationally in this world as strangers in a foreign land. Just as Jesus came to us and lived among us and brought (continues to bring!) the Kingdom of God with Him into this broken, hurting, darkness-loving world, so we too are called to bring the Kingdom of God with us wherever we go.

Scripture Reading

Our Scripture for today is part of a letter written by one of Jesus’ disciples and close friends. He intended it to be read to several churches that he and the other apostles helped to start in Asia Minor. We pick it up toward the beginning of chapter 2. To this point, Peter has been talking about how we are God’s children. He has excitedly described how we are called by God to be set apart for special use and how God has prepared an unimaginable inheritance for us in His Kingdom. He now turns to describing how the reality that we are God’s children should impact our daily lives by comparing us to Jesus.

Using some interesting metaphors which we’ll discuss and which should remind you of key concepts in Old Testament worship – keep an eye out for those – Peter makes the astonishing assertion that we are sent by God into this world on an important mission … in exactly the same way that Jesus was. Jesus came from God and was “incarnated” among us. He became flesh and dwelt among us. Most people in this room, even many of our friends who don’t attend church, know that. But the truth of the gospel doesn’t stop there. What many don’t know or don’t live out is the amazing reality that we too, as the members of Jesus’ body, are sent to be incarnate in the world … just as Jesus was. Jesus said (in John 20:21), “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And in our passage today, Peter unpacks a little of what that means.

If you have your Bibles, please follow along in 1 Peter 2:4-12. I’m reading from the ESV.

As you come to him [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

(1 Peter 2:4-12)

Let’s pray, and then dive into the passage.

{ Lead in prayer, specifically for God’s revelation and for practical life-application in response. }

1) God chose and sent Jesus into the world on a mission

(1 Peter 2:4, 6-8)

Peter opens with “As you come to him, a living stone, rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious…” Because Peter has been talking about Jesus throughout chapter 1, we know the “him” here is Jesus. But what does Peter mean by “a living stone”? And what exactly is Jesus, the living stone, chosen to do?

Reading ahead, we see that Peter (in vv6-8) gives Jesus four closely-related titles that help us answer these questions. He calls Jesus “the cornerstone,” “the stone that the builders rejected,” “a stone of stumbling,” and “a rock of offense.” We’ll come back to the rest of these in a second, but let’s start with the term “cornerstone,” which would have been very familiar to Peter’s audience, even if it’s a bit foreign to us. So, what’s a cornerstone?

cornerstoneBuildings, especially large important ones, used to be made almost entirely out of stone – literally by laying one big carved stone on top of another. The first, largest and most important stone to be laid in the construction of any building was called the “cornerstone” or “capstone.” This stone had to be absolutely perfect – perfectly square, perfectly sized, perfectly placed, and perfectly level … because from this first stone, all the other stones in the building would be squared, sized, placed and leveled. If the cornerstone was off, then the whole building would be off. Think leaning-tower-of-Pisa kind of “off.” So, Peter is describing Jesus to be the first, largest and most important element in God’s architectural plan – the foundational ingredient or centerpiece of what God is building.

So what is God building? Cair Paravel castleIn the Bible, construction metaphors are often used to describe a fairly broad array of the works of God on earth. However, when the Bible talks about what God is building, it’s typically talking more about a state of being than a geographical place or building with four walls and a roof. What God is building is a place or state in which His Son, King Jesus, reigns supreme and uncontested, where all the brokenness of this world has been restored and redeemed, where people are reconciled to God and to each other, and where evil has been finally and forcefully defeated. My favorite term for this place is “the Kingdom of God.” But with a certain degree of poetry, Peter is referring to God’s kingdom in this passage as a building or “spiritual house.”

So, God chose His Son Jesus and sent Him into this world to be the first and most important element – the cornerstone – in building or bringing about the Kingdom of God – a place where we can finally live at peace with God and each other the way we were intended to from the beginning.

2) God chooses and sends us on a mission with Jesus

(1 Peter 2:5-10)

kings-and-queens-of-narnia1But God does not send Jesus on this mission alone. One of the staggering truths of the gospel is that we are chosen and sent by God on this mission with Jesus. The building that God intends to build consists of more than just the cornerstone. It’s the most important piece to be sure, and without it the entire building would fall apart. But it’s not the only piece. Though Jesus is in fact the all-powerful God of the universe, amazingly, He doesn’t undertake His mission to redeem the world by Himself.

Now I want to pause for a second to avoid confusion. When it comes to the work necessary to forgive our sins and make us clean and acceptable before God, the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross for us is the whole story. It is both completely necessary and completely sufficient to save us from our sins and reconcile us to God. We do not add to that. I’m not saying that we are sent on a mission with Jesus because somehow Jesus isn’t enough. But for some unfathomable reason, God chose to make us partners (underkings) with Jesus in establishing His kingdom. In other words, it is an incredible act of love and grace that God chooses us for this kind of mission. It is not because we are worthy of it or because He somehow couldn’t have gotten it done without us. This is not fine print, it’s an extremely important distinction that I don’t want any of us to miss.

Okay, with that said, let’s continue on in v5 and see how Peter puts it. He says, “you yourselves, like living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.” So, just like Jesus, we are chosen by God to be living stones. Note that we, the stones, are alive … we are not lifeless, unthinking, raw materials that God stacks into a wall or molds into a front porch, but alive and conscious and responsible for active participation in the building project. Look back at the passage… Our freedom and responsibility in this picture is so real and so available to us that most of the “living stones,” or (as Peter varies the analogy) “fellow builders,” do the unthinkable… we reject God’s cornerstone. refusal-to-workMost people want to build their own building in their own way or to dictate their own terms to God (the master builder) as He attempts to shape them and place them. And as a result, the perfect cornerstone, which should be the rule and guide for the whole structure, instead becomes “rejected by men” (v4), “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (v8).

So God intends somehow to incorporate our active cooperation and thereby to build us all into His great spiritual house – which is to say, to bring about His Kingdom. What exactly is He calling us to be and do as our part in this construction? To find out, look back at v5. God says,”[you are being built up as a spiritual house], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And later in v9, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession.”

Now we’re getting to specifics… we are a holy priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. Breaking this down, I see at three key concepts that might help us better understand the mission on which God is sending us…

A) We are holy

fine china silver dinner settingWe see that immediately in the text: “a holy priesthood” and “a holy nation.” To be “holy” means to be different, peculiar, unusual, set apart for special use. Like the fine china that you only break out when you are entertaining guests of great importance or the outfit that you only wear on special occasions, we are set apart by God for His special use. We don’t use the fine china for everyday dinner in front of the TV. We don’t wear our best clothes to work in the garden. And neither has God chosen to send us on a mundane or unimportant mission in building His Kingdom. We are not optional decoration on the facades of His building. We’re load bearing members in its internal structure. We are necessary, special and set apart for a particular reason that God Himself determined was vital before the world began. And as such we should stand out in this broken world. We should live peculiar lives … lives that are different … the kinds of lives that make others question “Why do they do that?” in the best possible way.

B) We are temples and priests

small-churchSo, we are holy or set apart. But for what specific purpose? Precisely in what way should we be “peculiar”? We already saw we are being built into a spiritual house – what we could call a “temple.” But here Peter is also saying that we are God’s “priests.” I think these terms still need some explanation. Remember when I said a few minutes ago that you should be watching out for Old Testament worship terms? Well, here they are!

Peter’s original audience, listening to this letter being read in their church 2,000 years ago, would have been flooded with very clear Old Testament worship imagery here. In those days, people believed that they could only worship God by coming to a specific, literal, physical temple building. The temple was where God lived, so the temple was where the people went to meet with God. But even then, the people didn’t go before God themselves. Not directly. They came before a priest, and the priest went before God. The priest was a special class of person in their society, specifically appointed by God, to “mediate” between God and people. In our terms, we might say that the priest “facilitated” or “brokered” their relationship with God. Finally, people literally brought animal sacrifices with them as a common part of worship. We’ll talk more about that next week. For now, let’s unpack what Peter means by calling us temples (“spiritual houses”) and “priests,” and how these terms relate to God’s mission for us.

neighbors-eating-together2Like Jesus (the ultimate Temple), we are called to be God’s temples in this world – meeting places between God and man. Ultimately, people don’t come to a building to find God, they come to Jesus. And we are the body of Christ. As God’s presence was once located in the Old Testament temple, it is now found perfectly in Jesus, so it should also be found in us. When people are around us, they should feel like they have in some degree been in God’s presence. One of the many metaphors that the Bible uses to describe this is that we should be smelly. We should smell like life to those who want to live and smell like death to those who are determined to have their own sinful way with their lives … which means they’re continuing to die (2 Corinthians 2:16). We worship God by smelling like God, so that people wonder when they’re around us… What’s that smell!?

neighbors-talking-over-fenceAlso like Jesus (the ultimate Priest), we are called to be God’s priests in this world – mediators between God and people. People can’t carelessly, recklessly approach God as if He were just like us. The Bible says that God is an all-consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). Anyone who wants to come to God must come first to Jesus, because Jesus stands between them and their sin and God’s transcendent holiness. Jesus ushers people into God’s presence. They come to Jesus to worship God. And we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when people come to us looking for answers … looking to us for more than busy schedules, tough days at work, and wild parties. We are to usher them into God’s presence. In an ultimate sense, your pastor isn’t more of a priest than any of us are. We are all responsible for knowing and rightly representing God’s word in the circumstances of life. We all rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and bear each other’s burdens. We all hear our neighbors’ confessions, encourage them to seek forgiveness, and assure them of absolution from sin. We all intercede for our friends and even our enemies. We all lead people to God, because we are all the priestly servants of God, whom He has chosen and set apart for special use.

C) We are in this together

neighbors-eating-togetherAnother important point I want to briefly mention is that Peter clearly sees the Christian life as a team sport. He uses a number of plural terms in our passage, such as race, priesthood, people and nation, and pretty much every pronoun is plural. He clearly sees us all as interconnected and interdependent with one another. I love the way Peter says it in v10: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The life lived in Christ is the life lived in community, by the mercy of God. We should not be individual stones off by ourselves trying to be whole buildings; we are built into a spiritual house together with many other stones, all patterned after and aligned to the cornerstone, Jesus.

3) The mission is to live incarnationally

(1 Peter 2:9-12)

neighbors talking

What do all these thoughts – being set apart as holy, serving as God’s temples and priests, and being reconciled together as the body of Christ – have in common? Perhaps many things, but what I think Peter intends us to notice here is that they are otherworldly. They stand out as peculiar in this world. They smack of heaven!

Remember Elaine, and her move to another culture? I think that’s a weak (but hopefully useful) way to visualize what it means to be living in one world but to be from another. Peter goes on to say something similar. Let’s look back at vv9-12 of the text:

[You are chosen] … that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

In a number of different ways, Peter is saying here that this world is not our home. He is clear that we live in this world, but we are not of this world. Jesus said the same thing in John 17:16, as He was praying for us all these years later. We are not owned and operated by this world; we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. We live here temporarily, but we are not at home here; we are sojourners and exiles. We are passing through.Temporary Housing Units We do not embrace earthly passions (conforming to this world); we acknowledge that they are at war with our very souls … so we resist them with all the power of God who lives in us (we are transformed by God’s Spirit). We live peculiar lives among our neighbors so that they would see God and come to Him.

How, exactly? Looking at the remainder of the passage, I see three specific marks of the incarnational life of a Christ-follower. Let’s run through those quickly, and then we’ll close.

A) We proclaim God’s excellencies

good-neighbor1God is excellent. His mercy and grace are excellent. His love is excellent. His power and authority are excellent. His Kingdom is excellent. His law and ways are excellent. The fact that He has “called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v10b) is excellent. Living incarnationally means that we proclaim these excellencies – with our words and our lives.

Jesus said, “Go and tell the world about me – about how excellent I am – and teach them to be with me and follow me wherever I go” (Matthew 28:19-20, my paraphrase). When our words and our lives show who God is and what He’s done, then people see Jesus for who He really is. And when people see Jesus for who He really is, they fall in love with Him and follow Him and want to be more like Him. This is a key part of our mission.

B) We pursue heavenly passions

Prayer-Ministry-GroupLiving incarnationally means investing in heavenly things, rather than earthly things. We invest in success as God defines it, rather than as the world does. This means prioritizing God’s ways over the world’s ways. Over time, we care less about orienting our lives around climbing corporate ladders, being the most important kid on the playground, seeking revenge when wronged, watching the latest trendy show, etc. Instead, we love others even when it hurts, and focus more on God’s definitions of significance than worldly definitions of success. We trust God to provide for us, rather than clawing and scraping and scheming to look out for #1. We live generously instead of hoarding what we have. We get excited about purity, rather than about careless or ungodly living. We spend our time on things that glorify God not entertain or stimulate our flesh.

The momentary thrills and pleasures of this world are less and less attractive, because we have found true, lasting, abiding satisfaction in Jesus. Leaning into this far better reality is also part of our mission.

C) We live honorable lives

good-neighbor2Finally, living incarnationally means living honorably and seeking justice. We act with honor and do what’s right, even when it costs us. We see people the way God sees people, even when that makes us unpopular. If we love Jesus, it changes us. Where we would once have lied to get ahead, now we tell the truth, even if it hurts. Where we would once have cheated and connived to get our way, now we live out the law of God in honorable and peaceful living. And it’s not just about better action, it’s about a new perspective that wars against inaction. If we love Jesus, it becomes increasingly difficult to act unjustly or to ignore the injustice we see in others. We find it harder and harder to look the other way when we could have helped or to step back and let others stand in the gap when someone is hurting, afraid or oppressed.

People around us are watching to see if all this talk about Jesus really means anything. We can’t say we love Jesus and not treat others the way Jesus did. The Christian life calls for action … for honor, for justice, for integrity, for compassion. A life of worship that demonstrates this kind of godly concern is part of our mission.


We’ve covered a ton of ground, and I suspect it might be easy to get somewhat overwhelmed. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When she moved to China, Elaine felt a significant increase in the complexity of life. And we can feel that way too. While it’s true that mission-minded people can discover whole new layers in the choices of the Christian life, it’s also true that God does not leave us to make these choices alone. The wisdom and companionship of His Word, His Spirit and His people are our ever-present help and guide.

So, armed with these, as we go out today, remember that we live in this world, but we are not of this world. We will be here for such a short time, and then we will be with God forever. But it is for this time and this place that God, in His wisdom and power, has chosen us. As He sent Jesus to all mankind, He has sent you to your neighborhood, your school, your office, your home … to show the superiority of life in the Kingdom of God. So, while we are here, let us live among our neighbors, friends, colleagues, and friends as Jesus lived among us. Let us proclaim God’s excellencies, pursue heavenly passions, and live honorable lives, so that they will see Jesus in us, come to Jesus, and find in Him life in all its fullness.

{ Close in prayer, specifically that God would a) receive our worship in our attempts to live the gospel, b) would keep His promise to empower us, and c) would bear fruit from our meager efforts to live incarnationally. }

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The Fantasy of Quick Fixes


We avoid pain because…
We’re enamored with quick fixes

Growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was absolutely my favorite meal of the year. I looked forward to it all year long. My parents would literally spend days preparing for it — shopping, chopping, marinating, and otherwise laboring over ancient family recipes I can’t seem to replicate no matter how hard I try. Then, when the moment finally came, we’d haul out the fine china and silver, set the table in linen tablecloths and napkins, and feast ourselves into food comas. thanksgiving-dinnerThere was ceremony to it as well. We prayed special prayers and circled around the table each sharing what we were thankful for. So between that, the quantity and variety of foods, and the anticipation involved in building up to it, this meal always took longer to actually eat as well. And cleanup was monstrous, but we whistled while we worked because, after that, the homemade pies appeared … and were enjoyed … and then, unconsciousness.

In sharp contrast, on the average day when Faith is working and I’m home with my son John, we typically want something fast and easy for dinner … something we can eat in front of the television on a single plate that we toss in the dishwasher afterwards. Or, if we go out for a treat, John invariably wants something ultra healthy like Taco Bell or White Castle. I’m typically okay with that, though, because it’s fast, easy and cheap.

tv-dinnerWhat does any of this have to do with experiencing pain or difficult life circumstances?

It’s about how you view your life. When you picture your growth as a child of the Most High King, actively being transformed by the Spirit of God to be more like Jesus, do you picture yourself as a Thanksgiving feast or drive-thru fast food?

Your life before God is way more than fast food. HE sees you far more like a Thanksgiving feast than a TV dinner! You are God’s masterpiece! In you, God is preparing the best meal of the year. Jesus didn’t leave heaven, sacrifice Himself on an implement of Roman torture, and endure the unspeakable weight of the sin of all mankind so that you could have a cheap-tacos-in-front-of-the-TV kind of new life in Him. He’s after the full three-day, fine linen, real silver, grandma’s apple pie kind of experience for you.

And here’s the rub … that’s not fast, it’s not easy, and it’s not cheap. With all due respect to the production mindset of the industrial revolution, the fact is that you simply cannot microwave redemption. The redeemed, sanctified life of a child of God cannot be achieved with high-speed, quick-fix, patch-it-temporarily, better-life-by-next-Thursday kind of strategies. So, if God follows recipes you can’t replicate and does a bunch of work to cook the meal that you aren’t expecting or don’t understand, don’t run from it wishing for quick-fix, Taco Bell kinds of solutions. If you do, you’ll miss out on the best meal of the year.

And don’t forget, our goal isn’t next week, it’s heaven. It would be “easy” and far more microwave-friendly for God to hook you up with a new job or a new fancy toy or a new hair style or new relationship with someone you meet at youth group or whatever it would take to give you a little emotional high about your life by next week. That’s simple … and almost meaningless by comparison. Your Father isn’t after a better next Tuesday, He’s after life transformation … conformity into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) … a life of real joy, real love, real goodness, real faithfulness (Galatians 5:22-23) … an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or even fade (1 Peter 1:3-4) … to make what is perishable and weak to be imperishable and glorious (1 Corinthians 15:42-43).

God is transforming you so that you will fit in and be at home in heaven!

Why are we willing to wait patiently literally for years as buildings are built or movies are produced or sales cycles are resolved, but think that being rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought over from death to life (Colossians 1:13) and being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), so that we may be presented before God as spotless and perfect (Ephesians 5:27), constitutes a reality that God should whip up in an afternoon or through a single sermon series or after reading a couple books or in a few months of small group meetings and half-hearted prayer? gensler-shanghai-tower-under-constructionAnd how much more important are you than any building or sales cycle? How much more entangled is your sin problem than any engineering challenge man has ever faced? How much work is needed in your heart to make it like Jesus? Surely you see that it’d be much easier to build a new skyscraper!

If we’re going to see the goodness of God in the circumstances of our lives, we have to be willing to let God work at God’s pace. And God is not slow (2 Peter 3:9); He’s doing what is necessary. It’s fantasy to believe there’s a better way … not to mention the height of arrogance. We are not wiser than God. We do not understand the ancient recipes the way He does. Let Him cook. Maybe even set aside a few distractions to look over His shoulder and learn a thing or two about really good recipes while He does. But in any event, I promise you that what He’s making in you will be worth the wait.

long journey

Be still before the Lord; wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:7)

Read more about the goodness of God.

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A Clear Context for Suffering


We avoid pain because…
We have cultivated unhealthy perspectives

God commonly uses pain and suffering in people’s lives to get their attention and to grow  them up into spiritual maturity. Nonetheless, most people work very hard to avoid pain.

Why is that?

One of the greatest contributing factors to our distain for suffering is that we do not rightly value it, specifically in comparison to the seriousness of our sin and to the gloriousness of heaven. Most of us find it hard to stand up under painful circumstances because we haven’t prepared ourselves well for it in our hearts. For all too many of us, when the trial comes, we lack two very critical pieces of context within which to rightly receive and evaluate it, and what God might be doing through it.

Suffering vs Sin

boo-boo brown medicine bandage on injured finger

Our view of sin

First, as a rule, people have an unhealthy view of sin. We don’t really believe sin is all that serious. It’s a minor problem, a snafu, a mistake. It’s a slip-up. It’s, “I know that was bad, but I’m only human.” Or the famed, “At least I didn’t… [do something that someone did whom we consider to be worse than we are].” In short, for many reasons, we excuse the flaws that God would refine out of us (like burning impurities from gold to make it pure). We feel like we need a bandaid to deal with a minor infraction, when God tells us that major surgery is needed. And we tend to overvalue and overemphasize the sins of others while simultaneously undervaluing and underemphasizing sin in ourselves.

God simply doesn’t see our sin the way we do. Unlike us, He understands the devastating consequences of sin, and loves us too much to permit those consequences to devour us and those we love. Even the smallest imperfection in your character moves the heart of God to go to great lengths in order to bring healing and restoration to your life and reconciliation to your relationships — with Him and with others. You may not realize it, but your sin is greatly damaging both — even the sins you might consider to be “small” or “minor.” You may think your pride or critical spirit or selfishness is no big deal, but it is. You may think your private sin is actually private and doesn’t affect others, but it isn’t and it does.There is no understandable or excusable sin. Your sins are a big enough deal for the Eternal Son Jesus to leave His throne in heaven, take on flesh, dwell among a profane people, submit to torture and murder, and be separated from God. Your sins are significant enough (and His goodness and love are great enough) to induce God the Father to send His Son to do all these things on your behalf.


God’s view of sin

So, if Jesus suffered so expansively for your sin, why would it not logically follow that your sins are important enough to God that He would introduce a temporary, comparatively insignificant level of pain and suffering into your life in order to set them right?

If you had cancer and a surgeon caused you a great deal of pain on the operating table to cure you, would you think that he was cruel because he did what it took to save you? I doubt it. Or what about the doctor that amputates your leg while you’re unconscious from fever to keep the gangrene from spreading and taking your life? Does that make him a sadist? Does that mean he’s cruel or is playing games with your life? Hardly! But we don’t seem to realize that sin is worse than any cancer or gangrene. It separates us eternally from God and would cast any one of us — no matter how virtuous he or she may appear on the outside — into the fires of hell if it is not redeemed … destroyed … refined … burned … amputated out of our lives. So, if it takes some pain — even severe pain — to rescue you from such a horrendous fate, then it is exactly God’s goodness and God’s love which compel Him to put you through it for your own sake.

Here vs Heaven

mansionThe other reason we can wrongly value pain is our overly-lofty view of this life, compared with our severely anemic view of heaven. Most of us have it so good here on earth that we don’t really care that much about heaven. In our most honest moments, we’d be forced to admit that we see the contrast something like this, “I’m sure the clouds will be fluffy and beautiful and all that, and that the harps will sound great, but a really big TV and a really glitzy car, or a mansion with a pool and a tennis court … those would be really amazing.” And of course we believe we can have both (whatever heaven is and a bunch of cool earthly stuff). Besides, heaven is a “someday” thing; we want [fill in the things or circumstances that you think would make your life totally amazing] right now!

Because we don’t have a clue what heaven is like, we don’t long for it like we should. And we don’t know what heaven is like, because we haven’t spent enough time with Jesus. We think we know what peace is, for example, but we really don’t. If you could have true, deep, abiding, soul-quenching peace, what earthly trinket or treasure would you not be willing to pay for it? Or love; do we really know what love is? If you could be accepted and held and made beautiful and always be satisfied, wouldn’t you want that? What would you sacrifice to have it? Or real security? Or real wisdom? Or any of a dozen other things we spend our days clawing and scraping to achieve in this world, even in their dimmest, weakest, poorly replicated form? But in heaven, because you will truly be with God, all these things and more will be yours.

Meanwhile, those things feel out of reach to us here on earth. Or if we do believe they exist, we believe that we will bring them about by the strength of our own mighty hands. So, we fix our hearts on earthly things we believe are means to achieve these ends, when in fact they are idols which weigh down, distract and poison us into a dull-eyed complacency that Jesus said was so hard to escape that He likened it to a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24). And because our hearts are glued to things and relationships and circumstances, we fail to see that if God’s perfecting work (to make us like Him and fit for eternity) costs us any, or even ALL, of these things, then it would be well worth it. As we’ve discussed, God would wrench every one of our idols out of our hands in order to give us Himself, which is better by far.

To really say, with Paul, that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), we must have a clear and compelling vision of who God is and what God has in store for us, and a clear and discerning understanding of how hopelessly dim and insignificant the things of this world are by comparison. If we viewed Christlikeness as the unparalleled treasure that it truly is, then we would readily undergo whatever painful surgery God felt was necessary in the sanctification process.

Sanctification (n.) —
1) The process by which God transforms us into His likeness as an adopted child.
2) The journey through which we, day-by-day, look less and less like rebellious Satan groupies and more and more like Jesus.

Read more about the goodness of God.

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