Thursday, August 18, 2011

What does it mean to "Wait on the Lord"

Dear JimBob,
What does it really mean to "wait upon the Lord"? I understand that God is sovereign and knows what's best for us. I was recently reminded through a devotion in Streams in the Desert that, "If we have completely entrusted something to God, we must keep our hands off it. He can guard it better than we can, and He does not need our help."  I guess I'm confused about "godly inactivity", waiting quietly to hear from Him, versus the whole idea of taking active steps of faith into the unknown and watching Him work it all out, like the Levites stepping into the Jordan. How do I know whether I should be "sitting on the bank of the river" listening for God or taking the steps of faith to move forward just trusting Him? Sometimes we're faced with challenges that seem to demand an immediate response, so how do we slow things down to figure out which "waiting" to do?

Anxiously waiting

Dear Anxious,
            GREAT question. One I’ve wrestled with my entire Christian journey. I’m still waiting for THE ultimate answer. Until then, I’ll share what I’ve learned.
            Because of space, I edited the scriptures you referenced, but the word typically translated “wait” in many Bible translations (including the ones us used) usually means one of two things: 1) Stop what you’re doing and wait, or 2) Look to God with trusting anticipation that He is going to come through, that he is involved in your life. In regard to our relationship with God, the second appears most often. Isaiah 40:31 is probably the most popular example, “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.” In verse 31, the NIV translates “wait” as “hope.” Psalm 130:5 (which you also referenced) uses both “wait” and expectant hope, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.”
            In my humble little opinion, when the Bible uses the word “wait” (especially “wait on the Lord), it’s encouraging faithfulness and perseverance in the face of life’s trials. However, my suspicion is that what you’re really asking is, “How can I know if I’m running ahead of God or making rash decisions that may make a mess of things?”
            If that’s your question, here are a few observations:
1) Sometimes we’re given a clear time-line. In Acts 1:4, the resurrected Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem UNTIL they received the Holy Spirit. They were anxious to do something with this Good News, but Jesus knew they had to be equipped first.
2) Sometimes we get conflicting messages that cause us to freeze in indecision. In Acts 21:4, as Paul was making his way to Jerusalem, some well-meaning believers, “through the Spirit,” urged Paul not to go. Yet, Paul had already been told by Ananias that he was going to suffer for Christ. In fact, six verses later, in Acts 21, it says that a man named Agabus approached Paul, took Paul’s belt, bound Paul’s hands and declared that the Holy Spirit had told him that he was to suffer.            Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. Both groups were claiming insight from the Spirit. Should he wait until the message was clear, or go ahead and head to Jerusalem, trusting that God would be with him? He chose the later.
3) Sometimes God encourages us to use the spongy mass in our craniums to make logical, informed decisions. This weekend, my church is moving to two services on Sunday. I’ve not received a mystical message from God to do it. We’re making that move in order to meet some logical and logistical needs. We’ll “hope in the Lord” for good results.
4) Sometimes well make mistakes. But, how do we really know what is and what is not a “mistake?” The standard answer is, “You’ll know by the results.” However, if we’re honest, what we mean is that our decisions are right or wrong depending on how “successful” the result was as measured by the world’s standards. It’s important to note that God’s measures of success are not always ours. In his gospel, John consistently uses the phrase, “it was not his time” in referring to certain things Jesus did. The implication was that God had a perfect time for bringing about what Jesus was sent to accomplish. From the world’s standards, that time would have been the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus would have been made king for sure, had he allowed the passion of that day to sweep him toward an earthly throne. Yet, God’s perfect time resulted in rejection, torture, and death.
            Speaking for myself (and I suspect for many others), we tend to be paralyzed by our analysis of situations and God’s call on our lives not because we haven’t heard God’s starting gun go off, but because we’re waiting to be assured that if we do run the particular race set before us, everything is going to turn out “ok;” whatever that means. In your question, you referenced the Levites stepping into the Jordan (Joshua 3). God gave them the instructions and even the time-line, “Go, do it now.” God described the results, “The water will stand back in a heap.” But, in order for them to see the mighty words of God, they first had to put their toes in flood-stage level waters. My suspicion is that too many of us want to see the waters recede and dry land to appear before we put our toes forward into a dangers or uncertain situation.
            This is probably an over-simplification, but much of the work of God through believers is crippled by our tendency to respond to his calling with, “Ready, Aim. Ready, Aim. Ready, Aim.” We may make some mistakes, but I believe a lost world is waiting for us to live, “Ready, FIRE!” and hope in the Lord to clean up our heart-felt and loving attempts at faithful obedience. Said another way, “It’s easier to steer a moving car.”


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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Helping people grasp suffering for Christ

Dear JimBob,
In a conversation with two co-workers, the topic of choices and sacrifices for God came up.  I mentioned that I had read stories (Voice of the Martyrs) about people having to make choices between surrendering their children or denouncing their faith.  Both of my co-workers became very animated and declared that God would never, never ask a believer to make such a choice.  I replied that GOD was not asking them to make this choice, but rather the demand was being made by an earthly, non-believing human.  Again, my co-workers were adamant that "we" (meaning believers) would never be asked to make such a choice, because that would be an impossible thing to do. 
The truth is that these horrible choices are being made on a daily basis all over our world.  The Bible says that we must have nothing before our God, including our families.  My struggle is that I really didn’t know what to say to my co-workers. I didn't want to upset their beliefs, but I think they’re missing out on the real meat of the gospel.

Dear Silent,
            You are right. Today, Christians are being persecuted for their faith all over the world. The magazine you referenced, The Voice of the Martyrs (, has noted that more Christians suffered for their faith in the last century than in the previous 1900 years.
You’re also not off track in that there are numerous examples in the Bible where persons have had to make a choice between God and their families, their lives, their livelihood, or other precious attachments. In fact, God specifically asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:2). Thankfully, God gave Abraham an “out” before he actually did it. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Jesus said that to follow him was to die to self (Luke 9:24). Sometimes that dying to self entails making some of these tough choices.
At our church this past spring, we had a guest missionary from China who spoke on the persecution and suffering of Christians in China. Many found it hard to believe. Sometimes I find it hard to believe, or at least grasp the depth of that type of faith. Those of us who have been brought up in the prosperity of the American church (and especially those who have bought into the prosperity gospel) cannot fathom a God that would “make” or even allow someone to face the suffering thousands of believers face every day. But the ultimate question is if we are faced with the same choices, the same opportunities to demonstrate our love for God by surrendering something precious, would we? Do we love Him that much?
As far as how to respond to those who seem unwilling to acknowledge or embrace the more challenging aspects of the Christian faith, sometimes all we can do is what you did: Tell them the truth, share how it’s challenged your life, and pray that they’ll hear the truth before they’re faced with one of those choices. The read danger for those who expect only candy from God is that when they experience a cross, their belief system crashes.


PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dealing with destructive relationships

Dear JimBob,
If you have people in your life that are/were your friends, but because you've either grown up/matured, walked away from the type of lifestyle they live, and/or are brought down by being around these people; how do you go about breaking away without really hurting the other party?
Clean start

Dear Clean,
            First, don’t do it on Facebook J. I say that somewhat jokingly, but I’ve actually heard stories of people ending friendships and relationships via Facebook. This may not be the most intellectual way to say it, but that’s just wrong, not to mention a little cowardly. While we’re talking about electronic extrication, email is not a good option either. My rule of thumb is to avoid using email as a medium for any loaded conversation.
“Conversation” is probably the best word to use for what you need to do. Though it’s an overused cliché, honesty really is the best policy. Granted, you can’t say something like, “I’m a Christian now, and because you’re not as holy as me, I’m ending our relationship.” First, just saying that would call to question your holiness. Second, your friend would probably walk away laughing more than hurting. Christ’s reputation would be the most likely thing hurt in that exchange.
            Though it’s tough, an honest, vulnerable, and loving conversation is typically the best way to go. You listed a few issues in your question and each one might call for a specific approach. As I said, I wouldn’t bring up the “grown up” or “mature” argument because one person’s “grown up” might be another persons “up-tight.” Avoid generalities and try to be specific, as in your reference to the lifestyle difference. Start off the conversation with, “You may be wondering why I’ve been reluctant to go to the bar with you,” and then share in a non-judgmental way, the change that has happened in your life and why it’s difficult for you to be exposed to the lifestyle you once “enjoyed.” Keep in mind that you are the one who has changed, so accentuate the joy you’ve found in a different lifestyle as opposed to pointing out why the old lifestyle (which still defines your friend) is so bad, wrong, or destructive.
            You need to think through what you mean by “brought down.” Do they make you feel depressed because of how you used to live? Do they make fun of you and tempt you to return to the old lifestyle? Do you have a more positive outlook on life and it’s their constant negativity that brings you down? Name it and share it in love. There’s no guaranteed way to approach someone about a loaded topic like this. Insecure and angry people become defense even when they’re told, “I love you.” To limit any possibly injury, your focus needs to be:
1) Share in love the hope and the difference that you now know. (1 Peter 3:15)
2) Establish healthy boundaries so that you don’t fall back into the lifestyle you’re trying to escape.
3) Be a witness for Jesus Christ.
            Let me end with a word or two about number three. One of the understandable mistakes Christians make (new and not-so-new Christians) is they sever all ties with persons from their questionable pasts. Christians find joy in being with people who love God. They grow more when they’re around people who are also seeking to grow. Just like the person who wants to play basketball needs to hang around with basketball players, it makes sense that those who want to grow in their Christian walk, need to hang out with strong Christians. However, keep in mind that Christ’s commission was to GO and make disciples. Way too often Christians hide in their holy huddles and loose the connections and relationships with the very persons whom God could reach through them IF they maintained those relationships. It’s a balance. There is always a fine line that needs to be drawn and guided by the Holy Spirit between maintaining relationships in order to be a witness and getting out of relationships that are cancerous to a believer. I would recommend, before having the above conversation, that you sit down with a trusted Christian friend and prayerfully discern God’s long term desire for the relationship you’re struggling with.

In Christ,

PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hearing God

Dear JimBob,

I am struggling to "hear" God.  I honestly want to go where God is leading me and do what He is asking me to do for Him but I just don't hear anything.

You have preached on this before and you said that to hear God we have to spend time with Him, in His word and in prayer.  Maybe I'm not doing that enough.  Do you suggest reading the Bible front to back on a daily basis repeatedly throughout the year?  Is it enough to just do a daily devotional?  And seriously, how do you pray without falling asleep or getting distracted in the middle because this is a MAJOR challenge for me!

Can you hear me now?

Dear Can,
            Throughout my entire faith journey, I have wrestled with the question of hearing God. There have been times when it was almost as if I could hear the audible voice of God, or a tangible nudge of the Spirit directing my path. Other times—and these “other times” have lasted months or years—God’s voice has been silent and his touch has been absent. The Bible paints the same frustrating reality for many of the great persons of faith. On my ever-growing list of “Things I’ll ask God when I get to heaven,” one of the top 10 is, “Why aren’t you more forth-coming with clear and distinct direction to those who desperately want to follow your will?” I’m sure there will be some justifiable answer, but it doesn’t lesson my (or your) aggravation right now.
            Though I readily admit I still struggle to hear God at times, there are some helpful hints I’ve discovered over the years that have opened my ears to the still small voice of God.

Scripture: There’s a reason why the Bible is called “The Word of God.” The Bible is a text recording (if there is such a thing) of what God has been whispering to humanity for thousands of years. There have been countless times in my life when I’ve needed to hear a word from God that a scripture would come to mind that specifically dealt with my need. Had I not been reading the Bible, God would have had one less vessel (and one of His prominent vessels) to speak through. Would it help to read your Bible more? Absolutely. Go through it every year. Memorize portions of it that speak to you. You will be amazed at how those verses will come back to mind at just the right time. In fact, you’ll discover so many “at just the right times” that you’ll be forced to see those times as anything but coincidences and realize they are the whisper of the Spirit.

Scripture: I know I just said this one, but your initial quest had to do with hearing God’s voice as it relates to His desire and direction for your life. I’ve said countless times that if we would simply try to follow the directions already clearly offered throughout the Bible, we would have little time to worry about some of the more self-related questions we spend so much time hoping God will speak to directly, i.e. where should you live? What about the multiple job opportunities? Etc.

Closed & opened doors: Sometimes we are so emotionally involved in a decision that all we can do is pray, “Lord, I need you to close doors I’m not supposed to walk through and open others that are in line with your will,” and then trust God’s “voice” when we encounter those doors. My presence in Texas is an open door. Five years ago, I had multiple options available to serve in ministry. Though Texas was one of those options, it was not even on my personal radar. My only exposure to Texas was driving I-40 through Amarillo. No offence to panhandle Texans, but that area looks like a huge, hot litter box. I wasn’t too excited about going to Texas, but I couldn’t shake the “feeling” that it may be an option. Finally, I had to ask God to open and close doors. Some doors slammed shut and others slowly creaked closed, but in the end, Texas was the only door wide open and inviting. After I walked through it, more things happened to verify that God was in the process.

Drop of oil in a five gallon bucket: I’m stealing this picture from my father (who probably stole it from someone else). He used to say that sometimes God spoke like a drop of oil in a five gallon bucket of water. If you don’t like the drop at the top, put a stick in the bucket and swirl the oil to the bottom. It’s out of sight…for a time. Given time, the oil will work its way back up to the top and you’ll have to deal with it again. Sometimes God speaks through a recurring thought that despite our best efforts we simply cannot shake. I’ve heard countless ministers say that for years they ran away from God’s call, but He just wouldn’t let them be; the oil (call) kept coming back to the surface.

Still small voice that we can recognize: As I said, I’ve wrestled with hearing God all of my faith journey. Part of my issue was that I was waiting for God to speak audibly, or appear in a beam of light at the foot of my bed. About 15 years ago, I realized that there had been many times in my life when a person in my church came crashing into my mind. I would often ignore the thought and go back to whatever I was doing. Many times, I would later hear (2-3 days later) that person had died or was in the hospital. It finally dawned on me that the impulse I was “feeling” when that name occurred to me was the Spirit urging me to reach out to that person in his/her time of need. Once I became aware of that reality, I started being sensitive to that same impulse in regard to other aspects of my life. Do I get it right all of the time? No. There are still times when I’m probably hearing my own neurotic thoughts. But frequently, that impulse has put me in the right place at the right time. By the way, this doesn’t come to those who sit and wait. It comes to those who are out and doing. And you’ll probably never be able to discern the genuine voice of God from your own inner thoughts until you’re willing to make some mistakes and learn.

Clean out your ears: This probably should have been listed first, but, if we’re honest, sometimes, though we talk about wanting to hear God and walk His path, we really want God to justify or validate our own selfish agenda. In other words, we’re often not able to hear God because our spiritual ears are clogged with sins that blunt or cripple our sensitivity to the Spirit. The only remedy for that is to ask the Spirit to make those sins known, confess them, and then take them to the cross.

Stay faithful to last thing God said: I’m the type of guy who wants God to lay out every detail for me, to tell me exactly what the next step is, not to mention the next step and the step after that. However, I’ve discovered that, like a good parent, God wants His children to grow up and mature. A part of that is letting us venture out in life on our own. By “on our own,” I don’t mean that God actually leaves us. Jesus promised he would be with us always (Matt. 28:20). Rather, God withholds his tangible presence; He pulls his hands back from underneath our arms so that we would be able to stand and walk on our own. Sometimes God is helping us develop our trust in Him and/or our perseverance as to faithfully following his commands. If God gave you a clear leading at some point in the past and has not closed a door or given any indication that he wants you to divert off the path He already placed you on, stay the course.

I know these don’t fully answer your question, but I hope they will give you some helpful handles for the journey.

In Christ,

PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Anger and Hatred

Dear JimBob,
            I’m struggling as a Christian with how to deal with injustices like child abuse. I find myself getting angrier and angrier about situations that just shouldn’t be. Is it wrong for Christians to be angry? Does God understand? I find myself hating those who abuse others, especially children. What should I do?
Tired of it

Dear Tired,
The abbreviated answers to two of your questions are, “No,” and “Yes,” in that order. No, it is not wrong for Christians to be angry, and Yes, God definitely understands. The Bible is full of stories of God getting angry at injustice and disobedience. Matthew 21 tells the story of an angry Jesus driving the thieves out of the temple. God created the capacity for anger. He certainly doesn’t want us to hamstring one of the great driving forces in our lives. What I suspect God wants is for us to surrender that anger and channel it for His purposes.
MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is a great example of channeled anger. Candy Lightner’s 13 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Mrs. Lightner and one other friend were so enraged at not only the senseless death of this young girl, but the complete disregard on the part of the judicial system for the crime that they stormed the highways and byways of California until their cause received a hearing. MADD has been instrumental across the nation in changing public opinion and eventually the law regarding drunk driving.
Anger is not a sin. God created us to get fired up about injustices so that we might be driven to do something about those injustices. Don’t squelch your anger, fan it into flames that will move you to make a difference. Stay angry about child abuse, then do something. Maybe the Spirit is calling you to start doing something in the schools to not only help those who have experienced abuse, but change the home situations where it occurs.
            Hatred toward others—whether it be drunk drivers or child abusers—is more of a slippery pig to get “ahold of.” Though the Bible (specifically the Psalms) talks about hating persons, it’s important to remember that many of the Psalms are not intended to be a guide for moral behavior, but rather an example of the fact that we can bring all of our emotions to God. God understands. However, God understanding and God condoning hatred are two different things. The Bible is pretty clear that though God hates disobedience and evil, He does not hate persons.
            When it comes to people whom I have “unkind feelings toward” (that’s a pastoral way of saying “hate’), I’ve found that when I invite the Spirit into the picture, two healthy and productive things happen: 1) More and more I’m enabled to see the other person through God’s revealing eyes. We really can't start fixing child abuse until we understand the abuser. People don't have problems because they're child abusers; they're child abusers because they have problems. Condemning others rarely makes any headway toward rectifying unhealthy situations. But there's a difference between accepting and understanding. I'm talking about the later.
The second refers specifically to “unkind feelings” I have toward those who have wronged me personally: 2) God heals my broken and hurting heart. This is important, especially in light of how Christians are supposed to deal with injustice and anger. It’s always easier to make a more Spirit-inspired decision and react with a God-directed response when the decision process is not clouded by the cancer of bitterness and resentment in our own hearts.
This world is never an easy place to live and it may very well be that God is whispering into your ear and calling you to be a part of His making it at least a little better.

PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Preaching about the Second Coming

Dear JimBob,
Why don't we hear more sermons about the second coming of Jesus and His Return being very near? I’m not necessarily talking about your pulpit, but speaking in general. However, why don’t you talk about it more?

Dear Waiting,
            Obviously, I can’t really speak to why you don’t hear many sermons about Jesus’ coming. To tell you the truth, I hear it mentioned often, especially from TV preachers. Maybe you’re just not listening to the right programs or going to the “right” churches. J By “right,” I don’t mean if the minister frequently speaks about the second coming, the church is more spiritual than churches that do not. I simply mean that there are denominations that emphasize certain aspects of Christianity more than others, and there are certainly groups and denominations that focus a great deal of attention on Christ’s return. You may not being hearing a lot about it because you’re not tuned into the right channel. The implied question is: “Why do some churches focus on the second coming and others don’t?” You’ll need to talk to the other churches (and pastors) to find an answer to that.
            However, since you asked me why I don’t preach on it often (or ever), my Reader’s Digest response is twofold: 1) I try to be sensitive to what I feel the Spirit leads me to preach on. I pray and earnestly seek to not get in the way of God’s leading, and hope that I don’t. But the Spirit rarely leads me to preach a full sermon on Christ’s return. 2) People have been standing on rooftops for 2000 years pointing to the skies and talking about Jesus’ immanent return, yet, still no second coming. Simply put, though I may be wrong, I’m just not convinced Jesus is about to return, so I don’t make a big deal out of it.
If you look back over Christian history, about every 40 or so years, there was a renewed emphasis on Christ’s return. It seems every generation believes that surely the world can’t go on after they’ve left, so Jesus must be coming in order to bring all of this to a close. It also seems that every time a major crisis occurs (world war or series of natural disasters), people start talking about the end of the world. Even Paul thought Jesus’ return was just around the corner (1 Cor 7:27).
My first exposure to a significant emphasis on Christ’s return was in the early 1980’s. The logic was that since Israel was made a nation in 1948, Jesus was going to return in 1987 or ‘88 (depending on how you counted 40 years from ’48). Either Jesus didn’t return, or the rapture (an event that some believe is supposed to accompany Jesus’ return) was very quiet. The next big focal point was 2000 since it was 2000 years after Christ’s birth. But most scholars believe Jesus was actually born in 4 BC, which means the 2000 year anniversary of Jesus’ birth was 1996. Either way, even Y2K was a bust, much less the advent of the end of the world as we know it.
Personally, I think it’s important to realize that eventually Jesus IS going to return. The Bible is clear that at the close of the ages, Christ will gather his people to him and we will spend all eternity in heaven. I’m a huge fan of being a part of “in crowd” in that particular scenario. However, I feel God’s clear call on my life to be helping people fall in love with the God who loves them now rather than spend an inordinate amount of time emphasizing a day that may be another 2000 years in the future. It’s not that either emphasis is right or wrong, but a personal preference based on the path I believe God’s Spirit has called me to walk.


PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Church attendance

Dear JimBob,
I have a friend who wanted to know if they had to attend a Church in order to go to heaven. I explained about the fellowship, discipleship, and where one or more are gathered in His name, etc., but the friend said “We meet and study the Bible together. So, what's the difference?”
The friend has an anxiety issue about being around large groups of people and it really puts them out of their comfort zone, so to speak. What would be the best thing to tell my friend?

Dear Goer,
            If your friend is considering whether or not he (or she) needs to come to The River, then tell them that if they go to church every Sunday, God will love them more.
            Just kidding. Although, I might love them more. But that’s not really the question, is it?
            The abbreviated answer to your question is that church attendance is in no way a requirement for going to heaven. While hanging on the cross, Jesus said to the repentant thief, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Obviously the thief wasn’t going to have enough time to buy a new suit and get “gussied up” (that’s an old person’s way of saying dressed up) for Sunday services before he died. Our acceptance of Christ as Lord and the forgiveness offered through his sacrifice on the cross is the one and only requirement for admission into the presence of God. As far as what you need to say to your friend, give him this word of encouragement, and then ask him to tell you about his relationship with Christ. Sit down and have a cup of coffee together and share with each other what God has done in your lives. When you stand up to walk away, you will have just had church (Matthew 18:20).
            Remember that “church” does not necessarily mean a large building with stained glass and a steeple, but rather the gathered people of God. Having said that, there are at least four significant benefits that come to my mind when it comes to what most of us think of when we talk about regular church attendance:
1) We can better learn to play ball. My dad used to say that someone could learn some things about basketball by watching it on TV. He could learn a more by playing a little one-on-one with someone else. But if someone truly wanted to master the craft, he needed to join a team and get in the game. The same is true for the Christian faith.
2) We are challenged to grow and go beyond our comfort zone. Small groups of Christians tend to stay limited in scope to people who are like them and believe like them. The larger the group, the better the chance that we will be challenged in our beliefs and consequently grow in our faith.
3) More people can make a greater impact for God’s Kingdom. It goes without saying that 100 people pulling in the same direction will accomplish more than one or even two.
4) It gives ministers something to do so that we don’t have to find “real” jobs.
            I threw that last one in there because I know there’s someone out there who is thinking it.
            All kidding aside, church attendance is not required for salvation, but it is extremely important toward living out one’s salvation.
            See you Sunday!


PS: If you would like to pose a question anonymously, click here.