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July 06, 2015

The church has always had some of those people associated with it. There have always been people who maintain an offensive disposition when it comes to their faith. These are the people who seem to love nothing more than a good fight. They bait every conversation with a few key words, hoping that you will blunder into a discussion they know they can win. They play one Christian off another. They might elevate themselves into positions of Christian leadership for the purpose of enriching themselves at everyone else’s expense.

Even back in the days when the Apostle Paul was traveling from city to city to preach the gospel and plant churches—even then there were people who had an unhealthy craving for controversy (see 1 Timothy 6). At one point he wrote Timothy to warn specifically about these people. He identified them as professed Christians who especially love to quarrel about theological nuances and who have a knack for causing fights between others. It’s a too-common “gift” this gift of spiritual discouragement.

But as I read 1 Timothy and hear Paul warn about these controversialists, I hear him sound a second warning as well. This is a warning about a second kind of person who sins very differently but no less seriously. If we have controversy on the one side of the equation, we have complacency on the other. This, too, is a sin and it, too, is very dangerous.

The complacent Christian is the one who is afraid to speak up even when the situation is serious and in dire need of attention. He is the one who cowers before men and who would rather not speak at all than risk offending another person or risk taking sides. He would allow his Christian brothers and sisters to face spiritual risk instead of speaking up in defense of the truth. As we read the New Testament it seems possible, and perhaps even likely, that Timothy’s temptation was toward complacency. Paul felt it necessary to remind Timothy of the importance of taking sides in order to protect the purity of the gospel and to defend God’s people.

As I thought about controversy and complacency, I realized that in my own way and in different contexts I am prone to both of them. In real life and in face to face conversation, my tendency is toward complacency. Fear of man can compel me or shame me into silence. I have to push myself to speak boldly when there is controversy that needs to be addressed or, even worse, controversialists who need to be rebuked.

But I’m a hero behind my keyboard and have a natural tendency to be bold and brave and, if I’m not careful, downright obnoxious. I have to push myself to resist the temptation to speak up about issues that do not concern me and for which I have no business offering an opinion.

Controversy and complacency—both are alive in the church today. Sadly, both are alive in me as well.

July 03, 2015

I imagine you have read Douglas Adams’ quip before: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” It’s funny because we can all identify with it. We all know the panic of approaching deadlines, the pain of watching them fly on by, the guilt of explaining why we missed again. We all the know problem of procrastination that leads to so many of those misses.

Procrastination is a tricky little problem that can take different and even opposite forms. Procrastination can come in the form of laziness or the form of busyness. We procrastinate lazily when we neglect productivity in favor of entertainment—getting lost in a novel instead of cleaning the house, or watching Netflix instead of writing that report. We procrastinate busily when we neglect the most urgent and important tasks in favor of ones that are less important but a whole lot easier—we answer emails instead of working on the sermon, or we sweep the house when we should be painting it. Procrastination can take a million different forms.

There was a time in my life where I was awfully good at procrastination. Or awfully bad, depending on your perspective. I still can be if I don’t watch it. But along the way I learned how to (mostly) beat it (most of the time). Today I am going to offer you 2 big-picture tips and follow them with 2 very practical ones. These are the very things that I have found so helpful in my own life.

First, I had to see this: Procrastination is a problem of spirituality before it is a problem of productivity. I came to understand that God has put me on this earth to bring glory to him by doing good for others. If that is the case, then procrastination hinders my ability to carry out my purpose. It is downright evil. Whether I am avoiding the most urgent tasks by being very busy or very lazy, procrastination stems from sin and leads to sin. I had to learn that of all the things I could do on a given day or in a given moment, I was responsible to focus on the one or the few that I should do. And the way to do this was to begin my day with prayer, to commit all of my tasks to the Lord, and to remind myself each day that the best and highest kind of productivity is to effectively steward my gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. I formally remind myself of this each and every day.

Second, I had to learn a very important lesson: Not all procrastination is bad. At least, not if we allow God to define it on his terms. In the Old Testament God set a pattern that we are wise to follow: a pattern of work and rest. God worked for 6 days and then rested for 1. And later he commanded his people to do the same, to work for 6 days and then to stop their labor for the 7th. While our relationship to the Law is not the same as it was for the theocracy of Israel, and while the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, the pattern is ingrained and enduring. We are wise to deliberately put off all of our tasks for 1 day out of every 7, to deliberately leave them for another time. When I take 1 day out of every 7 to focus on worship, fellowship, and rest, I am far more capable and motivated in the 6 that remain. I suffer no drop in productivity when I carefully and deliberately take a 24-hour period of rest each week.

Now, let me give two practical tips that have been especially important for me.

The first is to do the hardest thing on your list first. As I said earlier, we can masquerade as efficient people by doing many things, but still neglect the most important things. At the end of the day, it is far more important that I prepare my sermon than complete those 11 other small tasks. But it is easier and can feel far more fulfilling to go after the list and start crossing them off. After all, there is a feeling of accomplishment that comes when I can say at 11 AM that I have already accomplished 11 out of 12 things. But what I have actually done is used my best, most focused, and most productive hours of the day to avoid the task that takes the most focus and creative energy. So I always try to force myself to do the hardest thing first. I need to use the best of my day to do the single most important thing. It is a hard discipline, but a very important one.

My second tip is to break big tasks into small ones. Sometimes I find myself procrastinating because the task before me is daunting in its sheer size. “Write a book” is an overwhelming task. “Write chapter 1” is far more attainable, and “Write 1,000 words” even more so. I can overcome task paralysis by making my tasks much more reasonable in their size. Sure, it’s all really a mind trick, but it is an effective one that can motivate action.

There is much more I could say on the subject, of course. I have read many books and many articles on procrastination, but do believe that these 4 tips are the ones that have most helped me in overcoming what was once a losing battle. I hope they prove valuable to you.

Image credit: Shutterstock

July 01, 2015

You don’t really know who your friends are until their relationship with you becomes a liability instead of a benefit. Many celebrities, and even Christian celebrities, have learned this lesson the hard way. In the blink of an eye, or the release of a news story, they went from fêted to ignored, from celebrated to invisible. They learned quickly that many of their so-called friends had actually not been friends at all, but people thriving on a kind of symbiotic relationship where each benefited the other. When the relationship become a liability, their friends were suddenly nowhere to be found.

This happened to Jesus. When he was performing miracles and laying verbal beatings on the Pharisees and healing men who had been born blind, his friends were only too happy to ally themselves with him. They were proud to know him, to be known in relation to him, and to be in his inner circle. But when he became a hated criminal, when he was dragged before the courts and accused of crimes, his friends quickly made themselves scarce. They disappeared into the night, leaving him to fend for himself.

For as long as you and I have lived, at least if you have lived in this Western, first-world culture, friendship with Jesus has been beneficial. At worst this friendship has been neutral so the benefits have balanced the drawbacks. And while I am no prognosticator of doom, it seems increasingly clear that a relationship with Jesus will soon be more and a more of a liability before this watching, judging world.

Looking at the people around me who have professed faith in Christ, and looking at many of the Christians I know through social media, I see two kinds of concerning reaction.

Some are denying him and rejecting him. They have determined that the cost of associating with Jesus is too high, and they have walked away from him altogether. Any association with Jesus typecasts them as bigoted, as intolerant, as judgmental, as trapped in an appallingly outmoded system of morality. They have chosen to leave him behind.

Many more are redefining the terms of their friendship by redefining their friend. They are creating a new version of their friend Jesus, rewriting him in their own image, or in the image of the culture around them, making him into a figure who has been misunderstood and who is far more tolerant, far more accepting, far more palatable. This inoffensive Jesus loves without judgment, he gives without expectation, he proudly waves a rainbow flag.

But, of course, Jesus is unchanged and unchanging. He will not bow to the changing culture, he will not cede to the rising tide. Jesus will only ever be who he is and who he has always been. And each of us has a choice to make.

You don’t really know who your friends are until their relationship with you becomes a liability instead of a benefit. We don’t really know who Jesus’ friends are until a relationship with him becomes a liability instead of a benefit. We know that Jesus is proud to be the friend of sinners, and in the days to come, we will discover which sinners are truly proud to be friends with him.

Image credit: Shutterstock

June 29, 2015

I suppose we are all familiar with the categories of sin and depravity. We are all familiar with the Bible’s ugly descriptions of fallen humanity and equally familiar with the internal corroboration of our hearts and the external corroboration of our lives. The simple fact is, we are sinners. We are people who have offended a holy God and people who act out that rebellion every day.

I know you have read the second chapter of Ephesians and reveled in the beauty of what God has done in calling some people away from a life of rebellion and toward a life of righteousness. What Christian hasn’t read it with joy? What Christian hasn’t seen the word “but” there and rejoiced that God entered in and changed everything? “But God…”

I wonder if you’ve noticed one fascinating little part of the text—the change in actors or the change in agency.

Read the first three verses of the text, and allow me just a little bit of liberty with the pronouns:

And I was dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked, as I followed the course of this world, as I followed the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in me and in all the sons of disobedience—among whom I once lived in the passions of my flesh, carrying out the desires of my body and my mind, and I was by nature a child of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

You can hardly fail to notice that it’s all about me. This is who I am when left on my own, when left to live my own life in my own way. And it’s not a pretty picture. It’s an ugly plummet from sin to sin, from spiritual disobedience to spiritual death and destruction.

And then there is the word “but,” and look what happens after that.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which God loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and God raised us up with him and God seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

You can hardly fail to notice that it’s all about God. This is who God is when God acts in accordance with his character. And it’s a beautiful picture. It’s a beautiful progression from love to mercy to grace to life to righteousness to glory.

The point and the purpose is simple. When we take action, we find only destruction. When God begins to move, we are given grace.

June 24, 2015

This week marks the 150th anniversary of Hudson Taylor’s Brighton Beach experience. It was there and then that he made a decision that would forever shape church history. In honor of it, my friend Tim Keesee has prepared this excellent article. He also invites you visit his site to watch a video clip from his film No Regrets, No Retreat.


One of my favorite quotes from Hudson Taylor, the very quotable pioneer missionary to China is “There are three stages in every great work of God: first, it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.” Taylor knew about impossible. Impossible was going to the other side of the world to untold millions who had yet to hear the Gospel even once. To do that would take months of risky sea passage to reach them, then learning their utterly confounding language, while facing diseases that if they didn’t kill you, then the people you were devoting your life to just might. On top of all that, to evangelize such a large country of large extremes, it would take an army of Cross-bearers. Impossible. 

The second and third stages—difficult and done—are not reached by Samson-like strength or Job-like patience. Hudson Taylor would be the first to correct such thinking. He said, “All God’s giants have been weak men, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.” And, he added, “Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength.” So the three stages are God’s work from man’s perspective: impossible—difficult—done. But the men and women witnessing this tide turn are not spectators or armchair critics—they are men and women of faith. Faith is not a warm, upward thought. Rather faith is action displayed and lived out in the arena of our days to the glory of God and the advance of His Gospel. Paul described his preaching, teaching, travel—and jail trips in between—as hard labor energized by God, “Struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29). Therefore, faith is speaking and writing for the sake of the Gospel. It is working and risking. It is winning and losing. It is going and not always returning. It is asking, seeking, and knocking. It’s what Jesus said “moves mountains.”

China MillionsReaching vast China with the Gospel at a time when it was closed, dangerous, and distant, was never impossible for God. But who could believe this enough to follow Him and see Him work? Apparently hundreds—even thousands—could! One of the treasures I “unearthed” during the making of the most recent film in the Dispatches from the Front series, No Regrets, No Retreat,  was a pristine, original edition of China Inland Mission’s annual report from 1888. China’s Millions was a year’s compilation of journal entries and reports from Hudson Taylor and his fellow missionaries. The pages recount the baptisms and the beatings, riots and new arrivals. But the most striking page in the book for me was one that resembled a high school yearbook—only older in every way. Row upon sepia-tinted row of pictures of the 100 missionaries who had left for China the previous year. 

Look into their faces. Look beyond the stiff, monochrome formality of the photography, and see their faces blush with life. I wish I could talk with them, hear their voices, ask them where they came from and what happened after they reached the other side of the world. When these men and women set out for China, they must have parted from their families with kisses and tears, but also with the joy that rushes the heart when Jesus is near. They crossed the world to tell people about their Friend and Saviour. They crossed the world, but some never re-crossed it. For them, missionary service was a one-way ticket. Of course, cross-bearing is a one-way ticket, too.

Still, more and more would follow; and whether through a lifetime of faithful ministry or through the witness of an untimely grave, the Gospel advanced deep into unreached China. God was moving them from the impossible, through the difficult, but they would not see it done, because God had a bigger plan. Hudson Taylor with Gospel-rooted vision and methods wrote in 1873:

The work … is steadily growing and spreading—especially in that most important department, native help. The helpers themselves need much help, much care and instruction; but they are growing more and more efficient as well as more numerous; and the future hope of China doubtless lies in them. I look on all us foreign missionaries as platform work round a rising building; the sooner it can be dispensed with the better; or rather, the sooner it can be transferred to other places, to serve the same temporary purpose … and the better for the places yet to be evangelized.

The “building” Taylor referred to would rise far beyond what anyone at the time could think possible. Today there is a vast army of Chinese believers—60-80 million by conservative estimates. That’s not to say Gospel work is done in China. Hardly. Every generation must reach its own generation. Yet, despite the political, religious, ethnic, and geographic barriers in China, the Gospel continues to advance from the teeming coastal cities and westward to the walls of the Himalayas and beyond. No great walls and no great armies can stop Christ from building His Church! The impossible is now being done all over China. 

But what about today? Where does Gospel advance appear really impossible? This isn’t about our willpower. It’s about God’s power—and the faith in action to believe and follow Him. Yet, as His servants, we so often see only the bricks and barbed wire, the risks and unfavorable statistics. And so, we settle for what we can see and find comfort in the shadow of the wall—never seeing God shake Jericho or move mountains!

June 22, 2015

In Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the great Reformer penned these memorable words: “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” One little word. One little word is all that stands between Satan and his complete destruction.

Satan may rule as prince in this world, but his reign is fragile. He can reign only as long as the King permits. We see a powerful glimpse of his fragile power in one of Jesus’ greatest miracles.

Jesus and His disciples have sailed across the Sea of Galilee and landed on the far shore. They have arrived at a place inhabited by one of the most pathetic and tragic figures we could ever imagine—a man oppressed by not only one demon, but an entire legion of them. He has been driven far beyond the brink of insanity. He lives in the tombs outside the town. He runs naked through the hills, crying out in agony, bashing and bruising himself with rocks, attacking anyone who passes by. Chains cannot hold him; friends and family cannot restrain him. He is under the full control of the powerful Prince of Darkness.

And then Jesus arrives. The very moment Jesus sets foot on the shore, this man comes running. He comes running, naked and bleeding and unkempt, and falls down at Jesus’ feet. He falls down in submission, in terror. One of those demons cries out and says, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” And just like that, the tables have turned. The powerful demons are quaking in fear of One infinitely more powerful.

I recently taught this story to children and told them this: Imagine you are outside playing when the neighborhood bully comes your way. He walks up to you, shakes his fist in your face, and says, “I am going to pound you.” You know he is too strong for you, so you grit your teeth and prepare to get hurt. But then suddenly his eyes grow wide, his expression changes—is it fear?—and a bead of sweat trickles down his face. He raises his hands in surrender, backs away, turns around, and runs.

What happened? You turn around, and just a little bit behind you, you see your dad. He is marching toward you and toward that bully. He is rolling up his sleeves. He is coming to your defense. That bully is powerless in the presence of someone much stronger than he is.

And this is exactly the situation we find here. The demons, who had held such power over this man, are utterly powerless in the presence of Jesus. With a word, just one little word, He drives them from that man, He sends them into a herd of pigs, and they are destroyed. And He does it all to prove this: Satan may be the prince of this world, but Jesus is the King.

Lion
Image credit: Shutterstock

June 15, 2015

You just got your first smartphone! This is a major milestone in your life. That phone you are about to take out of the box is one of the most amazing devices ever created, and it is going to be your constant companion for the next couple of years. It is an incredible piece of technology that can be used in many different ways.

It can be used to do so many good things, but if you are not wary, it can also be used to do an awful lot of bad things. So before you power it on for the first time, I think it would be wise to invest just a few minutes in thinking and planning.

God Has a Purpose for Your Phone

Technology is a gift from God. When we read the Bible, we find that at the beginning of time, God created two people, naked and alone in a little garden, and gave them a worldwide task: to spread out across this world and exercise dominion over it. In order to do that, they would need to invent technologies.

If they were going to plant and harvest crops to feed their family, they would first need to invent a plow. If they were going to spread out across the earth to settle countries and build cities, they would need to invent bridges and boats. In that way, technology is good. Technology is a means through which we can carry out the very purpose for which God created us.

Then, when Jesus was on this earth, he gave his people a new job description that is meant to go along with the first. He told us to take the gospel, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, into all the world. And again, one of the ways we do so is through inventing and using technologies. No wonder, then, that Christians are always paying attention when a new technology shakes the world. Every technology is an opportunity.

When you understand the orders God has given you, you see that God has great purposes in mind for your technologies, and even your smartphone. That phone can be used to organize your life better so you can accomplish more of the things that matter most; it can be used to communicate with others so you can speak good news into their lives; it can be used to read the Bible and list your prayers; it can be used in hundreds of ways that serve the purposes God has given you. Thank God for your smartphone!

Satan Has a Purpose for Your Phone

Unfortunately, there is far more to the story. No sooner did God create man and give him this worldwide mission than man fell into sin. Adam and Eve determined they would disobey God, and when they did that, they brought sin into this world. Technology did not escape unscathed. It, too, exists in this fallen world. This reality means that every technology, including your new phone, can be used to do things that are evil. God has a purpose for your phone, but so does Satan.

Because this is a world caught up in a great cosmic battle between good and evil, every new technology enters into the fight. Every technology brings some benefits and some risks. For every good thing your phone can do, there are other evil things it can do.

You will have the choice before you every day and every moment — will you use it for good or for evil? Will you use it to carry out the tasks God has given you, or will you use it to hinder those tasks? Will you use your phone to serve God or to serve Satan? Thank God for your smartphone, but plead with him for wisdom to use it well.

Your Heart Has a Purpose for Your Phone

What do you love more than you love God? In those times when you are not finding your joy and satisfaction in God, and in those times when sin seems so tempting, what is it that promises joy? What promises satisfaction? What is that thing you need so badly that you will even sin to get it?

For some people, it is money, and they are convinced that, unless they have lots of money, they can never be truly satisfied. They will even steal to get it. For some people, it is power, and they believe that the way to happiness is to accumulate power over others. They will trample or bully people to get it.

Whatever that thing is for you, the Bible calls it an idol. An idol is anything you raise up in place of God — something that, at least for a moment, takes first place in your heart. Whatever your idol is will prove a special kind of temptation for you when you use your phone.

If you idolize sexual pleasure, you will probably be tempted to use your phone to look at pornography. Did you know that more than half of all pornography is now viewed on mobile devices like yours? This means that many people like you bought a smartphone so they could text with their friends and take pictures of their vacation, but somehow they ended up using it to look at pornography. They used this great, God-given technology to do harm instead of good.

If you idolize popularity, if it is being admired and having lots of followers that makes you feel good about yourself, then you will be tempted to use your phone to pursue that idol. You may use the camera to take inappropriate photographs of yourself in Instagram, or you may use the Facebook app to say harsh words about other people. That phone that can be used to do so much good and to bring so much encouragement will now be used to cause harm.

There are not many people who buy a phone intending to use it to harm others or to look at pornography. But where your heart is, there your technology will be also. The way you use your technology reveals your heart. It shows whether your heart is oriented toward God and toward finding true joy and satisfaction in him, or whether you are attempting to find counterfeit joy and satisfaction in the things he forbids. At any moment, your heart has a purpose for your phone. Yes, thank God for your smartphone, plead with him for wisdom to use it well, and guard your heart.

Use It to the Glory of God

And now it is time to take that phone out of the box and to turn it on for the first time. As you hold it in your hand, why don’t you take a moment to pray? Ask God to help you to use that phone well. Commit before him right now that, to the best of your abilities, you will only ever use it to serve his purposes. Recruit a believing friend or two to be your accountability and check in regularly.

Then go and glorify him with and through it.

This article first appeared at DesiringGod.org. Image credit: Shutterstock

June 10, 2015

Martin Luther once compared the Christian to a drunk man trying to ride a horse. It’s a comically apt comparison. This man scrambles up one side of the horse, and promptly falls off the opposite side. So then he climbs up from that side, and falls right off the other. Luther meant to say that as Christians, we are prone to extremes. When we are not veering too far in one direction, we are swerving too far in the other.

One of the areas in which we are given to extremes is the area of Satan and his demons, and their work in this world. Some Christians are so obsessed with Satanic activity that they can hardly talk about anything else. Other Christians are so oblivious to it that they would rather not talk about it at all. Yet, as is so often the case, the Bible directs us to a much better middle ground where we are aware but not obsessed, where we are mindful of Satan’s activity but equally convinced of Christ’s victory.

The Bible does assure us that Satan is active in this world. Even though he is a defeated foe and, as Luther said, “his doom is sure,” he remains a dangerous foe. He is like a rattlesnake who, though crushed, continues to thrash in his death throes. His bite remains deadly and dripping with poison.

Satan hates God and hates anyone created in the image of God. He has made a long and intense study of humanity. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows our secret desires. Satan knows how to custom-craft temptations to fit each one of us.

In his book Tempted and Tried, Russell Moore suggests a way to think about how Satan may be tempting you:

Imagine you could do anything, you could make it happen exactly as you wish, and could then go back and reverse time so that it had never happened—no consequences for your life, your work, your family, or Judgment Day. What would it be? Whatever comes to mind might be a pretty good insight into where it is your desires are being formed.

What would it be? Your answer will be different from my answer. We are unique beings, with unique desires and unique temptations. Wherever you could sin without consequence and without judgment, wherever you could fulfill an evil desire without fear of repercussion, that is exactly the kind of place Satan will tempt you. As he steers you toward sin, he will eventually convince you that you can sin without consequence. He will convince you that you can get away with it. After all, this is the lie he told Adam and Eve all along, namely, that they could sin with impunity. And while the times change, his strategies remain much the same.

Where you would sin if you could sin—that very well may be the place you will sin when you are tempted to sin.

June 08, 2015

Life is full of difficult circumstances. Life inevitably involves circumstances that we would never have chosen on our own. Yet, the Bible assures, God does not work his grace in his people despite circumstances, but right through the middle of them.

As we look at life’s difficult circumstances, we can sometimes be confused about what this thing is and what it is meant to accomplish. The Bible tells us that there are at least two categories of difficult circumstances: there are tests and there are temptations (see James 1). Both of these exist, but they have very different sources and very different purposes. Every test is an invitation to grow in your faith and draw closer to God; every temptation is an invitation to weaken your faith and push God away. You face that battle every day.

The tricky thing is that the very same circumstances that bring us great blessing also tend to bring us sore temptation. Is this a test or a temptation? It may be both.

For some people, your trying circumstance may be another person’s success. It may be that you are uniquely prone to the sin of envy, and God makes you aware of another person’s success in order to test you, in order to allow you the opportunity to find joy in that person’s accomplishment. God’s desire is for you to rejoice at what that other person has done and to praise God for his wisdom and blessing. But right there in the test you will face the temptation toward envy. You will face the temptation to resent or even hate that other person; you will face the swell of pride that you are the one who deserves the accomplishment and the accolades. Your evil desires have come raging forth and now the test has become a temptation to sin.

For some people, your difficult circumstance may be related to your sexuality. You have a natural desire to engage in a sexual relationship, but God has not provided you with a spouse or perhaps your spouse is in some way unable or unavailable for a time. God means to test you here and to allow you to discover all the joy he can bring you. He means to show you that you can find satisfaction in him if only you will endure and pass the test. And yet right here you may also find temptation—temptation to despair or resentment or even illicit sexual activity.

Because each of us is unique, we face unique circumstances that bring about unique tests and unique temptations. But we only get to experience the joy of the test if we endure it. We lose all the joy if we succumb to the temptation. Alec Motyer says it so well: “The same circumstances which are, on the one hand, opportunities to go forward are, on the other hand, temptations to go back.” In every trying circumstance you need to ask and you need to decide: Will you go forward into increased maturity and increased holiness, or will you go back, and slide back into immaturity and sinfulness?

God does not promise that he will take away the circumstance you are wrestling with. He doesn’t promise to give you everything you want or everything you think you need. But he does promise to give you himself. And in your tests and in your temptations, nothing could be better than that.

Image credit: Shutterstock

June 01, 2015

Of the many legacies of the Protestant Reformation, few have had greater and wider-reaching impact than the rediscovery of the biblical understanding of vocation. Before the Reformation, the only people with a vocation or calling were those who were engaged in full-time church work—monks, nuns, or priests. As Gene Veith writes in God at Work:

The ordinary occupations of life—being a peasant farmer or kitchen maid, making tools or clothing, being a soldier or even king—were acknowledged as necessary but worldly. Such people could be saved, but they were mired in the world. To serve God fully, to live a life that is truly spiritual, required a full-time commitment.

As the Reformers looked past uninspired traditions in their return to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word, they found that full-time ministry was a vocation, but it was by no means the only vocation. They saw that each of us has a vocation and that each vocation has dignity and value in the eyes of the Lord. We can all honor God in the work we do.

Yet that old tradition is never far off, and if we do not constantly return to God’s Word and allow it to correct us, we will soon drift back. It is encouraging that today we find many Christian pastors and authors exploring what it means to be ordinary Christians doing ordinary work as part of their ordinary lives. It is encouraging to see these leaders affirming the worth of all vocations. The questions every Christian faces at one time or another are these: Are Christian plumbers, cooks, doctors, and businessmen lesser Christians because they are not in “full-time” ministry? And what of Christian mothers and homemakers? Can they honor God even through very ordinary lives? Can we honor God through ordinary lives without tacitly promoting a dangerous kind of spiritual complacency? What does it mean to avoid being conformed to this world and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2) in this area of vocation?

As we would expect, God’s Word addresses these questions. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul responds to questions he had received from the people of the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, one of the questions they asked the Apostle was something like this: How can we live lives that are pleasing to God (see 4:1–12)? They had been told of God’s creation mandate, that God created us and placed us on this earth so we could exercise dominion over it as His representatives. They had been told of Christ’s Great Commission, that His people are to take the gospel to the farthest corners of the earth, and as more and more people come out of darkness and into light, to train them in the things of the Lord.

This church knew those big-picture commands, but they found themselves looking to Paul for specific guidance. What does it look like for ordinary people in ordinary places and ordinary times to live out the creation mandate and the Great Commission? Does it require full-time ministry? Does it require moving to the far side of the globe? What is the life that is pleasing to God?

Paul’s response is fascinating and perfectly consistent with the doctrine of vocation. His response addresses three issues: sexual morality, the local church, and work.

Life Under Control

The first thing Paul tells this church is that if they want to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to avoid sexual immorality and instead pursue sexual purity: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thess. 4:3). The Thessalonians needed to reject the worldly counterfeits of sex and relationships to instead pursue godliness in those areas.

Life in Community

The second thing Paul tells this church is that if they are to live lives that are pleasing to God, they need to commit to loving the people in their local churches: “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another….But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more” (vv. 9–10). While Christians are to extend love to all men without discrimination, they are to focus their love especially on the brothers and sisters in their local church.

Life at Work

Paul’s third point is especially important to ordinary Christian work. He tells these Christians to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (vv. 11–12). If the Bible was going to tell believers that full-time ministry was a better or higher calling, if it was going to tell us that the best Christians are the ones who sell all they own and move to the other side of the planet, this is exactly where we would expect to find it. But we do not. We find something altogether different.

In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul gives very simple instructions that transcend time, geography, and culture. He tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, to mind their own business, and to work with their hands. When he tells them to live quietly, he means for them to be content to be unknown and unnoticed. There is a paradox here: they are to work hard to be still, or to make it their ambition to be free from worldly ambition. They are to be content with their lot and to know that this contentment is how they can best honor God. When Paul tells them to mind their own business, he means for them to focus on their own work and to avoid being busybodies, who are busy with everything but what matters most. And when he tells them to work with their own hands, he means for them to carry on the work in which they are engaged, even (or especially) if that work involves manual labor. He could call them to all of this because their work had intrinsic value simply because it was their calling—their God-given vocation.

As far as we know, Paul was not writing to a group of brand-new Christians here. He was not giving them the basic instructions that would carry them through their early years, before they eventually graduated to better and more difficult things. This church appears to be strong and spiritually mature, and still Paul’s word to them is very simple: you bring honor and glory to God through your very ordinary lives.

Life on Mission

In case the instruction was not sufficient, and before he moves on to other matters, Paul explains the importance and the effect of doing these very simple things. He wants them to do this “so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one” (4:12). Here Paul shows that Christians live out God’s desires for them through their ordinary work and their ordinary lives. This quiet life, this life of minding one’s own business and working hard, allows them to carry out the Great Commission. After all, if they do these things—if they pursue sexual purity, if they love one another, and if they work hard—Paul assures them they will be walking properly before outsiders. Not only that, but they will be displaying love for their Christian brothers and sisters.

Let’s be clear: this is not a call to complacency or a call to a bare minimum. It is a call to be faithful right where we are and to know that God is pleased with His people when they live out their ordinary lives.

There will be some who are called to full-time church ministry as their vocation. There will be some who will put aside manual labor in order to be trained and tasked as full-time pastors, dependent on the support of others. There will be some who will stop working with their hands to go into the mission field. This is good, and it honors God. But it is not a higher call or a better call or a surer path to pleasing God. We please God—we thrill God— when we live as ordinary people in ordinary lives who use our ordinary circumstances to proclaim and live out an extraordinary gospel.

This article originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine. Image credit: Shutterstock

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