Your Weaknesses Are Not a Problem for Jesus

By / Aug 21

I recently had a conversation with an older brother in Christ who was diagnosed two years ago with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer. He spoke to me about how God has used cancer to chip away at the sin in his life. He wasn’t shy about the pain and the drain associated with cancer, but he also emanated a child-like joy when he described how the Lord was ministering to him in this difficult time. I felt like I was in the presence of an angel with thick lensed glasses. A young believer sitting at the feet of a spiritual giant, I was trying to download all the wisdom I could from him. At one point, he said, “You know, we always talk about how we want to grow in Jesus. I’m finding as I get older that I only get smaller, and God gets bigger.”

This reminded me of two things. First, it reminded me of the words I had read from J. Todd Billings’ book, Rejoicing in Lament. Billings was also diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In the book, he shares a card he received from a young woman in his church. “Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!” He writes,

While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. “God is bigger than cancer!” Yes. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will suffer with you.” God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama. The sky was closing in, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger.[1]

Sometimes we get lost in the fog of life and shrink beneath the pain of a sinful world, but God remains bigger.

The man’s words also reminded me of John the Baptist. John’s disciples were bothered that their Rabbi’s ministry was losing numbers. The crowds were now going to Jesus, and this meant less notoriety for their teacher (Jn. 3:27) John was shrinking, but in the midst of his loss he had a guileless joy. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:29-30)

I am struck by the fact that growth in grace doesn’t look like us growing greater in Jesus, but Jesus growing greater in and through us. This is precisely the kind of growth many of us don’t want. We’re happy for the growth that places us on a pedestal and displays our gifts. We want to be examples of greatness, even Christian greatness. But true growth (and greatness) in God’s kingdom often looks like our dwindling so that the light of Christ can shine through us.  It’s in our smallness – our weaknesses – that God often displays himself most clearly to us and the world. It’s in our need that God becomes biggest.

God is never impressed by human greatness, but he delights to be made great through human weakness. If the gospel teaches us anything, it’s this: that in our deepest need, God was present, revealing himself crucified for us, all-glorious. It’s at the cross where true glory is revealed, and all those who want glory must embrace the cross for themselves. As we grow in grace, we die to ourselves, and the cross becomes more prominent in our lives. We find that we get smaller, but God gets bigger, and a mysterious joy blossoms out of our diminishing. You never grow great in Jesus, but Jesus wants to be great in you.

Notes

  1. ^ J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament, 1.


Sometimes Jesus Lets People Walk Away

By / Sep 12

Many of our problems in living for Jesus stem from the root problem that we think we can do it. We assume we have the power. So we set about trying to push the camel through the eye of a needle.

But understanding the impossibility is the first step to obedience. This is the true freedom of what it means to be a Christian: honestly facing up to the impossibility of my own obedience, which leads me not to despair but to the God who is able to do all things.

A man who thinks he can earn eternal life. 

Mark doesn’t tell us much about the man in Mark 10:17.  He simply introduces us to “a man”. As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The man gets a couple of things very right.

He wants to know what he needs to do to be part of God’s great kingdom. It’s good that he’s bothered about God’s kingdom—he can see that it really matters. God is bringing all things in this world together under his appointed King, Jesus. That is God’s plan for the world, and this anonymous man wants to know how to get in on it.

And it is good that he comes to Jesus. Clearly, he has understood that there is something about Jesus that is significant. The man cares about the right thing. He comes to the right place. But this man has got one thing very wrong. He wants to know what he has to do. He has a high view of his own ability. He has a lot of confidence in his power to obey. So that is where Jesus starts.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:18-19)

Jesus points the man to God as the ultimate standard of good and begins to list the commandments. The man is completely unperturbed by all this.

“Teacher … all these I have kept since I was a boy” (Mark 10:20).

He is oozing self-righteousness. What a staggering claim to make. He has worked hard; he has kept the rules; he has tried his best. It all looks good. But Jesus sees things differently.

Jesus loved the man. 

The next sentence is key. Here it is: Jesus looked at him and loved him.

This is the only man in the whole of Mark’s Gospel that we are explicitly told that Jesus loved. That’s striking because of what the love of Jesus looks like in this story. Jesus loves this man too much to allow him to continue in his self-deluded little world of sweat, hard work and determination. He is not willing to stroke the man’s ego and tell him how wonderful he is. Instead, Jesus issues a command.

It isn’t hard to understand what Jesus is saying. He isn’t being vague and unspecific. But this one command undermines the whole foundation that the man has built his life on. Here’s the command: “One thing you lack,” [Jesus] said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v 21) There is no room for negotiation or confusion. Here is what Jesus requires of this man. He must sell everything.

At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth. (v 22) The man slowly turns around and starts to walk away. Only at this point in the story does Mark tell us the critical piece of information about this man—he had great wealth.

It’s a very poignant moment. Jesus loves the man— and he lets him walk away. Does that surprise you? Jesus doesn’t chase after the man and lower the bar. He doesn’t negotiate and settle on a figure that the man will be willing to give. Jesus demands it all. That is the command, and there is no budging. It’s not just a hard command, it’s impossible, and it was supposed to be.

Why did Jesus set the bar so high?

The bar is too high. Why would Jesus set the bar so impossibly high? Why would Jesus demand something that cannot be done? Not because he is cruel and harsh, but precisely because he loves this man. The man had reduced God’s commands to something he could achieve. He had a view of God’s word that meant its commands were within his power. Yes, I can do that.

The right response to the command would be to fall on his knees and, with a quivering voice, speak the words, “I can’t do it.” Only then, with his self-confidence in tatters and his heart exposed, would he be ready to receive the kingdom of God like a little child (Mark 10:15). I can’t do it. They are such hard words for us to say, but they are essential words for the Christian to learn.

Jesus loves us far too much to stroke our egos and tell us how fabulous we are. Instead, he issues commands that are far beyond our ability to obey in order to drive us to him. We aren’t supposed to take the commands of God and work out a strategy for how we can make them doable. Think back to what Jesus said to that rich young man. When he says, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor,” we can very quickly find our reaction becoming, Of course he doesn’t mean I should do that. That would be ridiculous and impractical. He was just talking to that man. He just means I should be more generous. Yes, I think I can manage to be a bit more generous. I will try and give a bit more money this week. Great—well done me.

No, that is precisely the problem. We think we can do it. We find a solution to the problem of obeying the commands—but we aren’t obeying him at all.

Instead, stop and feel the weight of the commands Jesus gives. Feel the way money holds a power over your heart. Let the very commands of Jesus expose you. Every command found in the pages of the Bible will have that effect on us if we stop and listen. Don’t run from that. It doesn’t feel comfortable; it doesn’t give us a warm, fuzzy feeling about how great we are—but it is there, in that place of weakness, that we will truly learn to whisper these two words: I can’t. And that honors God more than you will ever know. It is the first step on the road to joyful, deep and satisfying obedience.


This content originally published here. Used with permission The Good Book Co. 



Worship Is Not a Reflection of How You Feel

By / Aug 29

Joy is not something that comes naturally. In fact, it is a choice. We have to choose along the way to rejoice: “We also rejoice … because we know …” (Romans 5:3 CSB). Rejoicing comes from reminding yourself of something that you know.

It’s amazing how many times in Scripture we are commanded to worship—and not just if we feel like it. Throughout the Psalms, the people of God are told to raise their hands in worship, to sing aloud, to shout, to clap—even to dance. We’re commanded to do these things whether or not we feel like it because worship is a choice. In worship, we choose to rejoice, by faith, in a reality that God declares to be true. Sometimes that choice aligns with our feelings. Often that choice defies our feelings.

Many of us go to church thinking about how we feel. But worshipping is not a reflection of how we feel; it’s a reflection of what we know to be true and what God has promised in his Word. It’s a declaration of what God is worthy of. Here’s what God often (and graciously) allows to happen: As we declare it, we begin to feel it. Sometimes even the posture of our body will actually guide our heart, which is one reason we are commanded to raise our hands and shout in worship.

When I kneel in prayer, I feel submissive. When I raise my hands, I feel surrendered. When I open my hands, I feel needy. The posture guides the heart. Worship is not a depiction of our feelings, but a declaration of our faith. It’s a defiant declaration that “I am not how I feel. My life is not what circumstances may make it look like it is. What God says is true is true, and I am going to act like it.”

Choosing Joy

Worshiping despite our feelings is a fight, but it is a godly fight. And it is a fight for joy. Choosing to fight for joy is never more important than when we are walking through a season of deep suffering. When we suffer, it is very easy to allow our circumstances to define us and become our identity: “I’m a kid without a dad.” “I’m terminally ill.” “I’m a divorcee.”

In those moments, worship is a declaration that while suffering may be a part of our story, it’s not our whole story. And it’s not the end of our story. Worship re-centers our identity on who we are in Christ and defiantly declares the victory we have in him. It re-narrates our lives in the better, truer narrative that God provides.


This content originally published here. Used with permission. 



God Will Give You More Than You Can Handle

By / Jul 4

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. – Psalm 61:1-3

God will give you more than you can handle. Guaranteed.

I have heard many people say God will not give you more than you can handle and they often say it with good intentions – to try and comfort someone walking through difficulty or suffering. Maybe you have even said it. Let not your heart be troubled, I have said it many times myself.

 But the truth is, God will give you more than you can handle.

There are things that come into our lives that we can’t handle – all kinds of suffering, pain, and darkness. I know people in my church who have lost a spouse or a young child. There are people who have been betrayed by a business partner, a close friend, or a spouse. Others who watch their babies born nearly three months too early or walk with their elderly parents as they come to the end. And hardly any of them ever saw it coming.

You really have no idea what tomorrow will hold.

As a pastor, I have a front row seat to see the suffering of people and hardly a week goes by (sometimes a day) without a phone call or an email or a note that doesn’t make me shake my head and weep. Early on in ministry I would try to bring comfort to people by telling them how God would not give them more then they could handle and that if they could "only be strong for a little while" everything would soon turn around.

These days I am able to balance two profound truths in my head at simultaneously: God will give you more than you can handle, but He will nevergive you more than He can handle.

These are the two statements that now drive my preaching and counseling.

God gives you more than you can handle so that you can realize you can’t handle it on your own! He gives it to you so that it would drive you to Him.

Give the Lord your lament. Give the Lord your pain. Give the Lord your tears.

David writes in Psalm 61 that his heart has grown faint. He is experiencing far more than he can handle psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Where does he go when he is at his end?

He goes higher.

He writes in Psalm 61:2b-3: “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.”

There it is. That is where you go when everything is falling apart. The higher rock. The greater refuge. The stronger tower. God himself.

You will grow faint, you will tire, and you will get overwhelmed, but rest assured, God’s heart never grows faint. He never tires. He never gets overwhelmed. And with these beautiful assurances as our anchors in the storms, we can say to our faint hearts: “When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.” 


This content originally published here. Used with permission. 



Six Characteristics of Pastors you need to Avoid

By / Apr 29

Not everyone who identifies themselves as a pastor, or religious teacher, should be listened to. Peter warned the believers in his day, “But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…” (2 Pet. 2:1) The church today needs pastors who will faithfully represent Jesus in their preaching and lifestyles. If you sit under this type of ministry, give thanks to God. If you’re not sure whether you do, here are six characteristics of pastors you need to avoid:  

1. They rely more on personal intuition and feelings than they do God’s Word.  

God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (Jer. 23:16; See also Eze. 13:3) Pastors who are keen on sharing “what’s on their heart” and “how they feel” every Sunday, can come dangerously close to speaking the visions of their own minds. No matter how interesting your pastor’s personal life is, God has charged him to proclaim the life of another, Jesus.  Your pastor has the sobering task of letting you hear God’s voice through the text of Scripture every Sunday. When pastors spend more time sharing their thoughts than they do the text, they squelch Heaven’s voice. Any pastor who functionally ministers as though their words are more important than God’s, should be avoided at all costs. 

2. They’re self-appointed and weren’t sent by God or the church.

The apostle Paul assumed that those called by God to minister on His behalf were sent by local churches that had observed their integrity, and faithfulness to God’s word (1 Tim. 3:1-7). He wrote, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15). In the Bible, God’s call on a pastor’s life is confirmed by the external affirmation of believers within the local church. Self-appointed religious teachers may feel “called by God,” but if a body of believers isn’t affirming that call, there’s a cause for concern. Ordinarily, God calls people through the church, not apart from her. Self-called religious teachers can fall under the category of Jeremiah 14:14, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds.”(See also Jeremiah 23:21)

3. They don’t talk about sin or treat it lightly. 

Throughout the entire Bible, this is one of the key identifiers of a false teacher. Your pastor may have a great smile, and be very encouraging, but if he’s afraid to talk about sinhe’s a poor shepherd. This was God’s primary contention with the prophets in Jeremiah’s day. “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush.” (Jer. 6:14-15)

There are two ways I have observed sin being taken lightly in the church today. First, there’s the attempt by some pastors to engage the outside world by having a soft view on sin. The church in this case not only welcomes sinners but sin as well. A person’s lifestyle whether or not it’s contrary to God’s word is embraced, and regardless of how a person lives, they’re treated as a member in good standing of the church. The repeated mantra is, “God is love” and “Who am I to judge?” This is attractive in our pluralistic society, but in the end, it only says “Peace, peace!” where there is none. You find this error in many mainline denominations, as well as in self-proclaimed progressive Christian churches. The second way I’ve seen sin being taken lightly is prominent in conservative Christian circles. Some pastors have no problem talking about the sin of society at large, but they’re unwilling to challenge internal sins. These ministers point the finger at the outside world and create an unhealthy culture within the church by failing to confront the sins of their own congregations. This is the pharisaical way of taking sin lightly, we make a big deal of everyone else’s sin, but we overlook the sin within us, and the sin of those closest to us. If your pastors are great at confronting everyone else’s sin, but they overlook the sin in their own lives and in the life of their congregation, it’s a recipe for disaster. Good ministers don’t downplay the sin within, or without. They welcome sinners of all stripes to the church (because they can identify with them), but they recognize that God’s Son gave himself to deliver us from our sins (Gal. 1:4). 

4. Their inward life doesn’t match their outward persona. 

Jesus was very clear in his warning, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”  (Matt. 7:15) False teachers are hypocrites, and while they may pretend to be followers of Christ, they’re actually ministers of Satan according to the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 11:14-15). This characteristic is difficult to see because we cannot observe what’s going on within a person’s heart.  Jesus continued, however, “You will recognize them by their fruits…” (Matt. 7:16). Rather than cultivating the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), false teachers are sensual and driven by their fleshly desires. Paul said, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” (Phil. 3:19) Although these sinful passions aren’t always immediately observable, over time they often become evident and cause great scandal to the church of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 3:13). 

5. Their doctrine is novel.

When it comes to teaching, pastors should be grounding us in what was known historically as the Rule of Faith (Latin Regula Fidei). This was the body of teaching that the apostles were entrusted with. Paul told Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (1 Tim. 1:13-14) Pastors today should be carrying the ancient baton that Peter and Paul held in their hands: the faith once for all delivered to the people of God (Jud. 1:3). False teachers jettison the public Rule of Faith for new, private “revelations” from God. If a pastor’s ministry is marked by beliefs that contradict the Rule of Faith, or if they are known for having unprecedented theological views, we should be concerned. In Paul’s words, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)

6. The main focus of their ministry isn’t Jesus Christ.

The central focus of the ministry of the Word is Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). One hallmark of false teachers is that they focus on just about everything else besides the cross. I am convinced that Satan is content getting the church’s eyes off of Jesus any way that he can.  John warned, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus Christ is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 Jn. 4:2-3) How can we know the Spirit of God? According to John, the Spirit of God is present where the Person and work of Christ are being confessed. If a pastor’s ministry isn’t about Jesus, then it isn’t worth following. 



A Funeral Sermon for My Friend Who Committed Suicide

By / Apr 7

Editor's Note: Many people are talking about suicide today and often do not know what to make of it. With the popularity of the Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, we wanted to offer this excerpt from a funeral sermon Michael Horton delivered several years ago. We pray this will encourage you. 

 

The story of Job has come down to us as the catch-all for moments like this one, with spin-off phrases such as, "the patience of Job," "Job's counselors," and the like. And yet, we come to this moment and to this place because we are scandalized by the suffering that brought Tim Brewer—husband, father, pastor and friend—to the end of his rope.

We find ourselves filled with a variety of emotions: pity, sorrow, rage, puzzlement, resentment and despair, and we wonder how things could possibly have ended this way. We wonder how someone who believed and preached the sufficiency of God's Word and his grace in the face of all trials of life could leave us this afternoon wondering, "If it was not sufficient for him, is it indeed sufficient for me?" What happens when Christianity doesn't work?

So often, when people come to Christ, they are promised “victory in Jesus.”

Smiling, happy people tell about how they once were unhappy, and now they are filled with buoyant exultation. Broken marriages are fixed, wayward children are returned to the straight and narrow, and depression is banished to the old life.

But, of course, those of you who knew Tim and his preaching are fully aware that this was not his message. He did not see Christianity as the solution to every earthly problem, nor did he worship Jesus as Mr. Fix-It, but as the Friend of Sinners, Redeemer and Shepherd of his sheep. He knew that there was a greater problem that we as fallen creatures faced, though he did not dismiss as irrelevant or trivial earthly challenges, but he placed them in their proper eternal perspective.

But even if Christianity does not answer every problem we have in this life, surely that eternal perspective helps us cope with them, so why, we wonder, did our father, brother, husband, friend and pastor cut his life short?

Whatever was wrong in Tim's life, he had an unshakable conviction that his witness is in heaven. He knew that Jesus Christ was his intercessor, a friend to whom he could pour out tears to God and he knew that Jesus Christ, his Elder Brother, was pleading on his behalf with God as a man pleads for his friend.

So why didn't this confidence keep our brother from ending his life? We cannot answer that question any better perhaps than Job's friends could resolve the riddle of their friend's suffering. But I can say this: Even if we are too weak to hang on to Christ, he is strong enough to hang on to us. Even though we may not be able to face tomorrow, Christ has already passed through death to the other side and has taken away death's sting for us.

We are not called here this afternoon to judge God.

God didn't promise any of us health, wealth, and happiness. In fact, he tells us that we who expect to share in Christ's glory will also participate in his suffering.

Christianity is true, not because it works for people in that pragmatic, utilitarian way, but because nearly 2,000 years ago, outside of the center-city of Jerusalem, the Son of God was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification.

We are not here to judge God today. But neither are we here to judge Tim Brewer. No one can justify his action, but Tim Brewer is justified before God. You see, being accepted before God is not a matter of what we have done or left undone, or we would all be lost. It is a matter of trusting in that which Christ has done, for he has finished the work of our redemption, he has paid the ransom for our sins and satisfied the justice that our guilt required.

As Job said that if only he had an advocate, a mediator, he could lift his eyes up to God in his suffering, so all of us can cry on our Father's shoulder this afternoon because we have nothing to fear. It is not his wrath that has sent us pain and suffering if we belong to him, for he intercepts Satan's designs and fashions even sin and evil into messengers of grace.

With Job and with Paul, Tim knew his Redeemer lived, even though he himself did not think he could go on living here below. There will be no death, no suffering, no pain, no disease or disappointment. Even now, Tim is awaiting his new body as he is already enjoying the immediate presence of God. If God's grace is greater than all our sin, even this sin of suicide, then surely every one of us is warmly invited by the Risen Christ, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened down, and I will give you rest.” And with Job and with Paul, he will reign with Christ because his Redeemer lives.

Because Christ's tomb is empty, Tim's grave will also be empty on the last day.

With Job, Tim can say, "I will see him in my flesh," in the very body that, at 18 years old, fell 75 feet while rock-climbing, leaving him with a broken back and reconstructed feet; in that body that witnessed the death of his brother by leukemia and his father's death while Tim was in college.

It is in that body that, together with Beth, held two children with severe learning disabilities as gifts from God, and in the body that just four months ago was struck by a train, that Tim will see God. It will be a body reconstructed not by the skillful hands of doctors below, but by the hand of his Creator, the Great Physician, that Tim's body will be perfectly mended and free of pain. On that day, Scripture assures us, "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

Until then, he is in God's presence without his body, awaiting that triumphal entry of God's liberated captives arriving in triumphal procession together through the gates of the eternal city after a long, hard winter through the wilderness.

To Beth and the rest of the family, I know you have lost your husband, son, father and brother. Although I myself have lost one of my closest friends, I cannot begin to know your suffering, but God knows what this is like. For he too lost his Son. He committed his Son to dreadful suffering and a cruel death because through it, he could save people who hated him and make them his own sons and daughters.

You can turn to him as your Father not only because he knows how you feel, but because his loss secured your adoption into his family and made Tim a joint-heir with Christ. And for all of us here who are afraid of death, or of life, the good news is that this man is still at God's right hand, this advocate who pleads our case. His name is Jesus Christ and if your faith is in this Rock of Ages and in this Mighty Fortress, he will be your friend, in this world and in the world to come.