Until I was a sophomore in college, I always believed that I was “going to heaven someday” because I was a “good person.” Yes, I believed that Jesus died on the cross for my sins, but deep down, it was as if I believed in myself more. While I believed the right things about Jesus, my sincere faith and trust were more in myself. What was I doing? What did I accomplish? What did I earn from God?
Basically, I was living like a modern-day pharisee, legalistically trying to check the boxes and earn my favor with God. Now, please realize, I was far from truly being a “good person.” I was not even close to living according to the Law of God, but I tried my best to “put on a good show” and “look the part.” Because I was, what I considered, “better than most” when it came to obeying God’s Word (even though I failed constantly), I was convinced that my goodness made me right with God.
Oh, how wrong I was!
Legalism is wicked and sinful because it distorts the truth of the gospel and is a mockery of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Essentially, legalism – adding to the Word of God a works-based burden that none of us can bear – declares that Christ’s substitutionary atonement was unnecessary. When you try to live a moral life for the wrong reasons – to earn God’s favor, rather than serving Him because of the gift of His favor through faith in Jesus, you have no way to actually earn God’s favor and instead will earn His eternal wrath in hell. Harsh as that sounds, it is the truth of the gospel. We need Jesus. He alone can save us from our sins, and He alone can enable us to grow in obedience to God’s Word.
Praise God for His grace! Until I was 20 years old, despite growing up in church and being “confirmed” in a Lutheran church when I was in eighth grade, I wrongfully believed that my standing with God was based on what I could do, rather than on what Christ had already done for me.
Thankfully, He opened my eyes in the fall of 1998 to see the truth. Then, I went from legalism to liberty, meaning I was released from the overwhelming and unachievable burden of trying to be good enough to earn God’s favor. Instead, I experienced the work of God’s grace in my life, realizing and embracing the freedom to trust in Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection for my salvation. Praise be to God!
On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be preaching from Galatians 2 on “The Work of Grace.” What a great chapter explaining the difference between legalism and liberty! Have you experienced the work of grace in your life?
“No one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified” (Galatians 2:16-17).
For so many years, I was trying to be justified (made right with God) by being good enough – by trying to obey the law, but I just kept failing and failing.
Well, I still fail, but now my sincere faith is in Jesus and what He did. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:19b-20).
Not ironically, I am actually more obedient to God’s Word now than I was when I thought I had to earn His favor. That is not because I have somehow figured things out and am a better person. Rather, it is because of the work of grace in my life. The same grace of God in Christ Jesus that saves me is the grace that changes me every day. Thank you, Jesus!
When I was a kid, one of my favorite songs was “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder. I am unsure if that is something about which to be embarrassed or proud. Depends on your taste in music, I suppose. I had that song memorized, though, and I loved listening to Stevie Wonder sing.
In life, we get a lot of calls, especially now, right? We carry our phones in our pockets and set them on our desks while we work. There are days when it seems like I spend more time responding to text messages and phone calls than anything else. Now, I am a pastor, so to some degree, that comes with the territory, and I am grateful for technology that allows me to respond so quickly to prayer concerns and ministry needs. No one has ever “just called to say, ‘I love you,'” though. But, I think I am okay with that. 😉
When it comes to the most important calls, however, we want to make sure we are available, do we not? If we know something really important is likely to come, like the birth of a child, important medical news, the result of a spouse’s job interview, etc., we want to be ready for those calls.
How much more so should that be the case for God’s call on our lives? While He does not, as far as I am aware or have heard, use cell phones for such communication, He does indeed call us. The only way we can be certain of His calling, though, is by seeking Him through His Word. Knowing His Word is the only way to know His calling on our lives.
On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be preaching through Galatians 1:11-24 on “The Calling of Grace.” I believe we can learn some lessons from Paul’s apostleship that apply to all who are called to follow Jesus. Have you heard and responded to that call? Are you fulfilling your calling as a follower of Jesus?
God does love you and proved that love by sending His Son to die on the cross for our sins. God did not “just call to say, ‘I love you,'” though. He called to say much more.
By the grace of God according to the Word of God, we can understand and follow His gracious calling on our lives. To do so, however, we must be in His Word, serving in His church, and living according to His mission (being a Christ-follower who is helping others to be Christ-followers). How are you doing? How are you helping others? Let us hear and respond to the most important of calls!
When we lived in Turkey, I learned to look both ways when turning the correct way onto a one-way street. The reason? It was not safe to assume others were all going the correct way. In fact, I have even continued that habit here in America because, while people do tend to be more aware and more obedient to traffic laws in this country, failures and rebellions still occur.
Last month, I was one of those failures. Somehow, I missed a one-way sign when turning onto a road in a town in which I am not familiar driving, and my family noticed a lady standing in front of a business glaring at me and shaking her head in disappointment. Oops! Thankfully, I did not meet any other vehicles before I was able to turn off that street. What I did, though, did not change the law or the reality that I was going the wrong way.
Unfortunately, the same problem that has existed throughout human history still exists today – the lie of “my truth.” Yes, it seems to be much worse now, but I think that might only be because of social media, our country’s growing liberal agenda, and the ease of disseminating information. People have always been tempted, however, to replace the truth with their own personal truth.
Regardless, one way is one way. The truth is the truth, no matter how you and I feel about it. Sure, I can go the wrong way down a one-way street and claim the street does not need to be one-way. “Cars can fit in both directions, and I’m only going a block,” I might declare. The law is still the law, though, and I have broken the law. My feelings and/or logic cannot change that truth.
So it is with God’s Truth according to His Word. There is one way to have eternal life, and every other way leads to eternal death. There is One God who rules over all, and every other supposed god is false and unworthy of our devotion. There is One Savior of the world, and every supposed prophet or messiah who contradicts Him is a liar.
On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be preaching from Galatians 1:6-10 on “The Way of Grace.” The way of grace is the singular gospel of Jesus Christ – His life, death, and resurrection for our salvation. No other way will do.
For that reason, “If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!” (Galatians 1:9). That is strong, harsh language for anyone who tries to promote another way besides Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Are you tempted to trust another way? Eternal damnation will be the result. Are you tempted to proclaim another way? Eternal damnation will be the result. One way = ONE way. No other way will satisfy beyond the fleeting pleasures of this short life.
Trust, live, and proclaim the way of grace alone. You will not regret it. To God be the glory!
Have you ever thought to yourself, “God sure is lucky to have me on His team. He’s done so much for me, but now He needs me to _______ for Him.”? Maybe you have said and/or thought less-pompous things than that but still consider yourself to be needed by God to complete “your end of the deal.”
For years, this is how I viewed things. Sure, I believed everything the Bible says about God’s love, the basics of the gospel, and my sin. Yet, I thought my eternal life depended on a combination of God’s work and my work… God’s grace and my good deeds.
No, I do not ever recall thinking that God had let me down or that He was insufficient, but my sincere theology said otherwise. After all, if God depends on me (or you) to complete the work of salvation, then His Son’s death on the cross for our sins was insufficient. And, His Son’s resurrection from the dead did not accomplish victory.
The gospel is enough, though. Thankfully, my mind and heart have changed since I was a young man, and I want to challenge you to consider what you believe. Here are the two options and how I went from death to life.
MY WORK + GOD’S WORK = DEATH
Again, while I believed the right things about Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection for as long as I can remember, my hope for life was just as much in my efforts and accomplishments. Practically and theologically, I was living as if, “Jesus did His work. Now, He needs me to do my work – to hold up my end of the deal.”
No matter how hard I tried, though, I could never find peace. My legalism (good works to try to earn God’s favor) grew and grew, but inner peace did not reciprocate. So, I just tried to do more and more, getting even more legalistic. For example, instead of just reading my Bible, I started highlighting chapter numbers as I read them, just to “check them off the list.” Instead of just attending church services, I volunteered for different ministry opportunities and even some volunteer leadership roles. Talking the talk, I appeared to those around me like I was also walking the walk. Deep down, though, I knew something was missing. Was I not working hard enough? Are peace with God and assurance of salvation just not things that are possible? My good works surely outweigh my sins, though, right? So, is that not enough?
Really, that is what it came down to for any sense of assurance I (along with Satan, I believe) tricked myself into finding – my good outweighs my bad, so I am fine. Still, there was no lasting peace. I may have become more and more religious and more and more “proper” when people were watching, but I could sense something was missing.
That, of course, was the work of God in my heart and mind. He was convicting me of sin, despite my efforts to push Him aside and do things in my own power and self-righteousness. I was headed for eternal death in hell because I had not truly trusted and surrendered my life to the Lord.
GOD’S WORK + 0 = LIFE
God is perfectly holy, and so one sin is enough to condemn me (and you) for all of eternity. One sin makes us guilty before a God who is without sin. Even human law, which is not perfect, does not allow good deeds to cancel out broken laws. How much more, though, does our perfect God require perfection in His presence? Thus, only our perfection and complete obedience to God’s Word would warrant our works playing a role in our salvation.
Yet, none of us is perfect. Not even close. One sin would be great – one sin per day – but we have all sinned more times than we can count, and that is probably just today. There is no amount of work we can do to take away our sins. Even our best efforts are insufficient.
“All of us have become like something unclean, and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind” (Isaiah 64:6).
Thankfully, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this – that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). What Jesus did on the cross and accomplished in the resurrection have no need for our help. The victory is already won. We simply have to trust in Him. We simply have to receive the gift. We simply have to turn to Him. No work but rather faith.
Now, the Bible is abundantly clear that faith without works is dead (illegitimate). See James 2 for more on that. The good works are what prove sincere faith to be real, though. Those who have experienced the grace of God in Christ do not do good works to earn God’s favor but rather because we have already received God’s favor.
Not ironically, I do a lot more “good works” now than I ever could when I thought they were necessary for my salvation. That is not because I am somehow better now and have “figured things out.” Rather, it is because I have received the Holy Spirit, who enables me to grow in obedience to God’s Word. What a blessing for all who know and follow Jesus!
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Yes, we are created for those “good works,” but salvation is 100% God’s gift. The works, when they continue and endure to the end, prove the salvation is real.
On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I will be starting a new sermon series through Galatians on A Gospel of Grace. Preaching my first message from Galatians 1:1-5 on “The Grace of God,” I hope to communicate that God does not need us for our salvation to be realized. His grace is free, or it would not be grace.
God does not need me. He does not need you, either. Yes, we are responsible to rightly respond to Him in faith and repentance. Then, works will follow. May we never fail to realize, though, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of grace.
When was the last time you held back saying something to someone, though you knew you should have, because what needed to be said would have been hard to hear? We have all been there, right? Perhaps we even hold back sharing truth under the supposed act of “love” for that person. We might say or think something like, “Well, I love them and don’t want to hurt them, so I’ll just look the other way [(or accept them as they are) or (let them live their lives)].”
To be clear, though, that is not love. Love demands truth.
You cannot claim to love someone, for example, while at the same time being okay with them playing Russian Roulette. If you know what Russian Roulette is, you know that “dangerous game” is an understated description. Furthermore, if someone continues to play Russian Roulette, they will eventually “lose” (and die). Love, then, demands we share the truth with them.
To say something foolish like, “I know playing Russian Roulette makes you happy, and I want you to be happy. If that makes you happy, play on,” is not a loving thing to do. No, the loving thing to do is to beg and plead with them to put the revolver down and live. Do not take such chances with your life. Please!
As dangerous and devastating as Russian Roulette can be, how much more dangerous and devastating is the eternal death that comes as a result of sin. It is the death we all deserve because of our sin, but God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to “take that bullet” for us. Now, everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.
Refusing to turn from sin and surrender your life to Jesus, though, is like playing the ultimate horrifying game of Russian Roulette. The consequences are so much worse than a bullet to the brain and the end of physical life. The consequences are eternal death.
We cannot be sure when this life will end for any of us. We cannot be sure when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. And, once this life is over, the chance for repentance and faith will be too late. That is why God’s Word appeals to all, “‘Don’t receive God’s grace in vain.’ For God says: ‘I heard you in an acceptable time, and I helped you in the day of salvation. Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation‘” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
Do not play Russian Roulette with your spiritual life. Do not be content with any plan other than God’s plan for you (according to His Word). And, do not think that the loving thing to do is to sit by while others play Russian Roulette with their spiritual lives. We cannot take the gun out of their hands, but we can love them enough to tell them of the consequences and plead with them to surrender their all to Jesus and let God “take the gun.”
We discussed in our adult Bible study with our church family last night the calling of Jesus on our lives – “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them — this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
If you were so blinded from the truth that you thought Russian Roulette was the right thing to do, would you not want someone to tell you? Would you not want someone to do whatever they could to get that gun out of your hand and help you experience hope and healing? Of course you would! To love someone is to act on that love. To love someone is to speak the truth into their lives.
God alone saves. He alone has the solution to our eternal problem. Have you surrendered your all to Him and begun to experience that solution? Do you love others enough to tell them?
Probably the biggest ongoing frustration of my 24.5 years of being a Christian is my prayer life. Like all sinners, I have struggled with various things, even since placing my faith in Jesus in 1998. The one thing I am regularly unsatisfied about, though, is my prayer life.
Sure, I pray daily and set aside time for prayer, and while that time in prayer could always be better, what I am especially referring to is ongoing prayer throughout the day. Ultimately, this boils down to prideful foolishness because even though I never consciously think that I do not need to pray and rely upon the Lord, my failure to do so is a wrongful, foolish reliance upon myself and my own abilities. I get busy and try to keep up in my own power and wisdom, both of which are far from sufficient. Like you and every other person on this earth, I need the Lord. Apart from His grace and provision, we can do nothing good.
In thinking about my struggles with prayer, I wanted to share some things that have helped. Also, though, I would love to hear from you. What are some practical things that have helped your prayer life? What follows are some suggestions I have. They are not in any particular order of importance or effectiveness but rather just various things that have helped me over the years.
1. PRAY THE BIBLE.
One thing I am always grateful for when I am disciplined to do it is praying God’s Word back to Him. The Psalms are especially helpful for this, but there are also several other prayers throughout Scripture that you can use – prayers from Jesus, Paul, Jonah, etc. One of my favorites is from Colossians 1:9-12. Adjusting this as a personal prayer, you might pray, “Lord, please fill me with the knowledge of Your will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that I may walk worthy of You, fully pleasing to You, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of You. Please strengthen me with all power, according to Your glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy and help me to give thanks to You, who have enabled me to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light.“
A really helpful book with examples, tips, structure, and teaching on this idea is Praying the Bible by Donald Whitney. In fact, if you are part of our church family, we have a case of these books coming soon, so you can have one. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I encourage you to pray the Bible.
2. HAVE SOME STRUCTURE
While we never want to fall into the trap of legalism and simply “checking things off a list,” I have found structure to be very helpful in my prayer life. If I simply think that I am just going to pray about things and be a prayerful person but do not have a plan to do so, I will usually fail. I need some structure.
Unless you are very unusual, you probably need some structure, too. Try to discipline yourself to start your day off right by spending time in God’s Word and in prayer. I have yet to meet someone who regrets getting up 30 minutes earlier (or making some changes to their schedule) for the purpose of seeking God through His Word and prayer before starting their day. Such structure will set the tone for the rest of the day.
Want to have a more consistent prayer life? Have some structure.
3. USE AN APP
Now, this is not for everyone, but I have found a prayer app to be extremely helpful with my need for structure. After using a few, the one I have settled on and used for years now is PrayerMate. I use PrayerMate almost every day, and I can customize it with prayers from the Bible, personal prayer needs, prayers for family and friends, prayers for my church family, prayers for unbelievers, prayers for the advancement of the gospel, etc. Nothing structures my prayer life and helps me not to forget to pray for people more than PrayerMate.
Some people might find an app and the temptation to look at phone notifications to be unhelpful, but if you want to improve your prayer life and have not yet tried something like this, why not give using an app like PrayerMate a shot?
4. TAKE A WALK
This goes along with the structure and app I just talked about, as I really enjoy walking when I get up in the morning and praying through the prayer requests on my daily PrayerMate list, which changes everyday. Not only does this keep things fresh; it also helps me to feel more awake and alert before I dig into God’s Word.
Most of the time, I do this outside, and I especially like these prayer walks in the summer because I can enjoy the sunrise and God’s creation. If there is rainy or bitter-cold weather, though, I might get on the treadmill or even walk laps around our family room while I pray.
Again, this might not work for everyone, but I have found walking while praying to be beneficial, both spiritually and physically. This even helps some throughout the day, too, as I have that mindset of, “Hey, while I’m walking from here to there, why not pray?” Take a walk.
5. SET REMINDERS
While technology can often distract us from praying and can even be used as evil and lead us astray, technology can also be used for good. One really simple way this is true is to set reminders to pray for certain things. In fact, it can be as simple as, “Hey, Google (or Siri or Alexa or _____). Remind me tomorrow morning at 7 to pray for Tom’s surgery.” Then, just like that, you have a reminder set on your phone (or smart speaker, computer, tablet, etc.) to pray for something specific at a particular time.
Do not simply say you will pray for someone. Pray. Set reminders, if and when necessary, and make prayer a priority.
6. PRAY WITH OTHERS
Having a conversation with someone who needs prayer? Why not pray with them right then? Usually, this is not only appropriate but appreciated. If not, set a reminder and/or pray silently in that moment.
Does your church have a prayer meeting like we do (our weekly prayer gathering is at 9:00 on Sunday mornings)? Join that prayer meeting and pray with others. Pray for others. Pray for God to be glorified in the life of your church.
Do you have family or roommates with whom you live? Pray with them. Pray for them. Ask them to pray for you. My wife and I pray each night before bed, and while I am sometimes tired and/or lazy and might not desire to pray, not once have I prayed and thought, “Well, that was a mistake. Shouldn’t have thanked God for all He does and shouldn’t have asked for His help.” We pray with our kids before they head to school in the mornings, and we need to be better about praying together during the summer months. Again, though, never do I regret praying with my kids and having them pray aloud for various things.
Pray with others. Prayer is not the last resort but rather our first priority because we always need the Lord, and He is always worthy of our praise.
7. KEEP A LIST
Perhaps you will do this through journaling, with a prayer app, on a notepad, on a piece of paper you keep in your Bible, on a dry-erase board on your fridge, or in some other way, but keep a list. This can help you from getting distracted, remind you of prayer needs you might otherwise forget, and even be a useful tool in reminding you to pray throughout the day.
Our memories can fail us. Our structures can crumble. Our discipline can be insufficient. Keep a prayer list.
8. PRAY OUT LOUD
Maybe you struggle to stay awake while praying, or maybe you struggle with your mind wandering. If so, you are not alone. One of the most helpful ways to combat struggles like that is to pray out loud. Not only that, but praying out loud (whether you are by yourself or with others) can better train you to get more and more comfortable praying with/for others out loud.
Have you ever been asked to pray but were not comfortable doing so? Pray out loud in your personal times of prayer each day, and this can help you get used to praying out loud in public. While being comfortable praying out loud in public (like at a church prayer gathering) is not necessary for one to be a faithful Christian, you can really be a blessing and example if you do so.
Regardless of your comfort level around larger groups of people, be intentional about praying out loud regularly, even if you are only doing so alone and with people in your household, small group, friends, etc.
9. SING PRAYERS
This is something I do not do nearly enough, but I always love singing prayers and praises to God. Why do I not do so more often?! Sometimes, I might be sitting in my quiet home office before the kids are awake, and I do not want my prayers to come out like a curse. The same might be true if I sing too loudly outside…
“If one blesses his neighbor with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be counted as a curse to him” (Proverbs 27:14).
Still, I really have no excuse as to why I do not sing prayers more often. There are plenty of great songs of prayer and praise that I have memorized, and so this would be a great way to improve my prayer life.
10. PRAY FOR PRAYER
Many days, the first thing that comes to my mind when I wake up in the morning is how pathetic I was the day before in persistently praying throughout the day. Thus, I might pray immediately, “God, please help me to be more prayerful today. Please remind me of Your presence throughout the day. Please give me a growing desire to seek You and trust You and depend on You.”
Not only that, I find myself asking others to pray for my prayer life. In fact, I would ask if you would pray for my prayer life? And, if you have any other tips for me, I would love to hear them.
Pray for prayer. We need the Lord, so let us not fail to constantly turn to Him and give Him thanks.
I love being a pastor. Really, there is no other job I want, nor one that has ever been so fulfilling. Furthermore, I love my church family – one of the primary reasons I so love being a pastor. Richland Baptist Church has been so good to my family and me, and we regularly praise the Lord for the blessing of having such a great church family.
Our church really is our family. For that reason, the most painful part of pastoring is not the long hours, the continued necessary preparation work, the middle-of-the-night calls or texts, the occasional confrontations, or even the funerals, as overwhelming as those can be at times. Because church is family, the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave the church family.
Now, I am not talking about when people leave because they moved away. Sure, that is not easy either, but it is obviously understandable. No, what I am talking about is when people leave without explanation or with an unbiblical explanation. They might leave for another church nearby or for no other church at all, but it always hurts.
“It’s not personal, but…,” might be something that is said if an explanation is given, but as a pastor who loves my church family, it is personal for me when people leave. How could it not be? Would anyone really want to be part of a church in which it would not be personal to leave?
If someone in your family said to you, “You know, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to be part of this family anymore. There is a family that lives in a nearby town that I am going to join instead. It’s not personal against you, but I’m leaving our family for them. They’re going to be my new family,” would you take that personally? Of course. Would it hurt you deeply? Of course, if you love your family.
You might be thinking, “Nick, that’s ridiculous. You can’t compare leaving a church to leaving a family,” but why not? Some of the closest relationships I have are with my church family. The people I spend the most time with on a consistent basis (next to my immediate family) are the people who are active in our church (which, of course, includes my immediate family). The people with whom I share the most important beliefs, values, priorities, commitments, and goals in life are the people with whom I have covenanted with in church membership. Our church is our family is a statement of truth that makes up part of the mission and purpose of our church.
When a person leaves a church – at least a church as defined throughout the New Testament – he or she is leaving a family. That hurts, as it should.
PONDERING THE PAIN
This summer, I have been incredibly blessed to be on a short sabbatical for the purpose of rest, spiritual renewal, and more time with my wife and children. By far the hardest part of my sabbatical has been missing much of my church family (thankfully, I have still seen and spent time with some at our Saturday Men’s Fellowship and other visits and meetings), worshiping with them on Sunday mornings (I have been attending other church services and learning from other pastors and leaders), and enjoying the various times of weekly fellowship on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Why has that been the hard part of the sabbatical? Well, because my church is my family, and I need my family. Returning at the end of next month will be a sweet reunion for me, and I look forward to that, even though the sabbatical really has been a huge blessing and encouragement.
One of the best parts of my sabbatical, second only to being able to spend more time with my family, is more intentional time in prayer, reflection, and reading. Sure, all of those things are things I do a lot anyway (as a pastor and as a Christ-follower), but so much of my time spent doing those things is for the purpose of sermon and Bible study preparation, counseling, and church ministry. My focus this summer has been more on how I can be a better Christian, a better husband and dad, and a better pastor.
More than I have in years (or maybe ever), I have done a lot of time just “being still” this summer. Less rushed to finish my next sermon, prepare for the next Bible study, get to the next meeting, etc., I have been incredibly blessed to be able to slow down when reading my Bible, praying, reading encouraging Christian books, and just thinking about things.
When thinking through pastoral ministry, though, I cannot shake the pain of all those who have left our church in my nearly-nine years here. Please do not misunderstand me – the blessings of pastoring and being part of this church family far outweigh the discouragements, but the pain hurts. For whatever reason, perhaps because my sinful flesh has led me to dwell on the past rather than focus on more consistently rejoicing in the Lord and looking to the future He has for us, I have thought a lot about the pain of loss this summer – the loss of people leaving.
Regardless of why this has been on my mind, the truth is still the same for me (and I imagine for many other pastors) – the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave.
The same reason the hardest part of the sabbatical has been missing my church family is the reason the hardest pain of pastoring is when people leave our church family. Our church is our family.
As I have pondered this reality recently, I have realized that so often my response to the fear of more people leaving has been sinful. Rather than trusting the Lord for purpose and identity and relying on Him to be the husband, dad, and pastor He has called me to be, I so often focus on how I can do better to make others happy and not push people away. Granted, we should desire that others be happy and not be pushed away, but that desire should be rooted in our identity in Christ and our obedience to His Word and our fulfillment of His purpose for our lives. Only then can we truly be happy, content, and satisfied.
What I have realized that happens when I am obsessed with doing whatever I can so that someone(s) stays involved and does not leave the church is that I am a pathetic husband and dad. You see, never am I concerned that my wife is going to leave me. She is godly, faithful, loving, kind, and patient. Her leaving never even crosses my mind. Likewise, I am never concerned that my children will leave. Really, they cannot – at least not yet. Who would pay their bills and meet their needs? Plus, they have an amazing mom, even when their dad is a failure.
And, what happens when you have something secure but are fearful of losing something else? You focus on that something else and potentially neglect what you already have. Shame on me. I am neglecting my wife and children because I am fearful of more people leaving.
Church members leave, though. While I have so many great friends (family) in our church, history does not lie. Great friends (whom I considered family) left before. Thus, I cannot shake the feeling that what if more leave? No, it is not about the attendance numbers. While I care how many people are here and desire for us to reach more and more people for Jesus, helping more and more people to be disciples who make disciples, God has protected me from obsessing over numbers. I have no desire to leave for a bigger church. No, it is not about the numbers; it is about the people. It is personal for that very reason. Numbers are not personal. People are personal. So, when people leave, my heart hurts.
I have wept over people leaving. I have lost sleep over people leaving. I have wondered why people were leaving. I have not stopped thinking about people who have left.
Last week, I started to count in my mind the people who have left Richland in my time here, and I realized that I could not keep count without paper and pen, so I gave up. I realized that I ponder this pain so often because it is the greatest pain of being a pastor.
PRAYING FOR THE PEOPLE
When I add someone to my regular prayer list after they join our church, I do not remove them from that list when they leave our church, regardless of the reason. I continue to pray for them. Perhaps they left for sinful reasons. Perhaps they faded away and have proven themselves to not be genuine followers of Jesus (see 1 John 2:19). Perhaps I or someone in our church family sinned against them, and they have not been able and/or willing to get past that. Perhaps the Lord called them to a new place, including a different church. Regardless of the reason, I am praying and will continue praying, by the grace of God.
Would you please pray for me, too? Pray that I will keep my eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Pray that I will be a better husband, better dad, and better pastor by being a better follower of Jesus.
Would you please pray for our church? Pray that we will be gospel-centered, biblical, united in Christ, and faithfully committed to God’s Word, His church, and His mission.
Would you please pray for at least one person you know who might be leaving his/her church for the wrong reasons? Maybe this person is living in sin and will not repent. Maybe this person is holding a grudge and will not forgive. Maybe this person looks at church like a consumer and desires something else because of what he/she can receive. Whatever the reason, that individual needs your prayers, just like we all need prayer.
May God help us to love Him in such a way that we desire to love and serve others, promoting the biblical unity of the church and investing ourselves in God’s only plan for fulfilling His Great Commission – the local church.
When it comes to commitments in life, we are often tempted to “ride the fence.” How will this commitment benefit me? How will it make me feel? What will it do for me? When we get favorable answers to those questions, count us in, right? Otherwise, we will teeter back and forth on our commitments (or at least be tempted to do so).
Usually, though, when it comes to the most important commitments and responsibilities, riding the fence will not do. This is especially true in our relationship with God. You are either in, or you are out. The King of kings and Lord of lords does not settle for half-hearted devotion and commitment, and He should not. Otherwise, He would cease to be Lord.
In 2 Kings 17, you can read about such an attempt at half-hearted devotion to God with the nation of Israel. “They feared the Lord, but they also worshiped their own gods according to the custom of the nations where they had been deported from” (2 Kings 17:33). Their supposed fear of and commitment to the Lord God Almighty was insincere. If they truly feared Him, they would have worshiped Him and Him alone.
And, as Charles Spurgeon said, “Another person’s shipwreck ought always to be a beacon to us.” Those who claimed to follow God in 2 Kings 17 were not truly following God. Let us learn from their failure and cry out to the Lord for His help to be sincere in our devotion to Him. If you read 2 Kings (and the rest of the Bible), you will recognize God’s clear judgment for sin. Yet, you will also recgnize His incredible mercy, grace, love, compassion, and forgiveness for all who turn to Him.
Are you in or are you out? If you are still breathing, it is not too late for you to fully surrender yourself to the Lord. Do not settle for less than sincere commitment and devotion.
Let us be in – all the way in. To God be the glory!
While I do not watch as many movies as I would often like, I really enjoy movies. I enjoy watching movies in the theater, and I enjoy watching them at home. Top Gun: Maverick, which I watched with Noah and Levi a few weeks ago, might be the best movie I have seen in a theater since my all-time favorite movie, Saving Private Ryan, back in 1998. Thankfully, my wife and I usually enjoy the same kinds of movies – action, adventure, and suspense. My kids have a similar taste in movies, and we have also enjoyed some good family-friendly movies with all seven of us over the years.
One of the reasons people often enjoy movies is because of the escape from reality, right? You can immerse yourself in a movie, be entertained, and kind of forget about other things for a while. Although that is not necessarily a good thing, that is the reality for many.
Because of that, though, we tend to think that movies are movies, and life is life. “It’s a movie,” someone might say when explaining or even defending something ridiculous on the screen. Usually, we say life simply is not like the movies, but in a couple of very important ways, life really is like movies.
1. THEY TELL A STORY
Life is a story, and movies tell a story. You have a story. I have a story. Everyone has a story. History tells countless stories.
One of the primary features that makes great movies great is the great way in which they tell their stories. Your story is your life. Movies tell stories, sometimes about the lives of people like you and me. In that way, life is like movies (or movies are like life).
2. THEY FAIL TO SATISFY
Movies also fail to satisfy our deepest longings, as does life. Now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second, that’s not true. Life does satisfy my deepest longings.” Or, maybe you’re even thinking that movies satisfy your deepest longings. While I doubt the second is true, I am sure many think the first is.
Please understand, though, that we were created to find our satisfaction in so much more than just this life can offer. Yes, life can be great. There can be many fantastic people and things and experiences in this life, but no person or thing or experience can satisfy our deepest longings for lasting hope, joy, contentment, and peace. And so, life is like movies in this way.
Movies can help us escape, can deeply entertain us, can make us happy, can give us fulfillment, can give us hope, and can even – depending on the story – give us a sense of peace. None of that will remain, though, and so it is with the greatest pleasures of life. We can find so much good, and yet what happens when that person or that thing or that experience fades away? The satisfaction will fade away (or quickly vanish).
When I watched Top Gun: Maverick last month, I was deeply satisfied during the movie. I was reminded of my childhood, when the first Top Gun movie came out, and I got immersed in the story yet again, finding myself entertained and delighted. Even when I left the theater, I am pretty sure I had a smile on my face. Weeks later, I still enjoy reminiscing about the movie with other people who enjoyed it. Still, the benefits of that movie did not last. They are far less now than when I was sitting in the theater.
Top Gun: Maverick satisfied me for over two hours, and while I can get split-seconds of satisfaction with some reminiscing or maybe eventually if I watch it again, the satisfaction has greatly waned.
Life is like movies in this way. There are extremely satisfying moments in life, but then the satisfaction disappears. “Absolute futility,” as Ecclesiastes declares. Things can seem so great, and then everything can come crashing down, like a fighter jet in the sky. That is life. Life tells our story, but life fails to satisfy. We need more.
LONGING FOR SOMETHING MORE
You and I were given life by the Creator of the universe, but we were also created for much more than this life, much more than what this life can offer. This life, like the movies, fails us because life, like the movies, will end. We need more than this life. We need eternal life. We need to know and follow the God who created us and has the perfect plan for our lives – lives that will never end if we trust in His One and Only Son for our salvation.
Sure, enjoy some movies, as long as they have redeeming qualities and do not cause you to stumble into sins like lust, hate, rebellion, gossip, etc. Likewise, enjoy life, as long as you do so seeking the One who gave you life, and the One who is able to give you eternal life. Otherwise, you will never be satisfied, and you will eventually be horrified.
“So if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:1-4).
If you have not been “raised with the Messiah,” turn to Him today. Only then will your life (now and forever) be better than even the greatest of movies.
Do you ever feel far from God and wonder why? Do you sometimes wonder if your prayers are in vain? Because you, like me, are a sinner, the answer to those questions is surely yes, at least occasionally. Why, though? Why do we sometimes not feel as close to God as we would like (for those of us who desire such closeness)?
While there are a lot of things we could discuss regarding closeness to God, I want to focus on prayer. To be clear, though, feeling distant from God is never God’s fault. He is not playing hide-n-seek and desiring for you to feel alone and abandoned. Rather, feeling far from God can only be the result of our sin – our failure to sincerely seek Him, surrender to Him, serve Him, and obey Him.
God does not make mistakes. We do. God is perfectly faithful. We are not.
Specifically, then, what does this mean about our prayer life? Is God listening? Similar to our awareness of God’s presence in our lives is the promise of God’s ear to our requests. If we are genuinely seeking Him in faith, then we can be assured of His presence and provision (spiritually). He is not a genie, though, that is simply waiting for our wishes regardless of our hearts’ affections.
“Anyone who turns his ear away from hearing the law — even his prayer is detestable” (Proverbs 28:9).
In other words, if you are not seeking to honor God with your life, He despises your prayers to Him. If ever I am struggling in my prayer life and in my relationship with God, I must examine my heart and consider, “Have I been turning my ear away from hearing God’s law?” If so, it is no wonder I am struggling.
Let us consider such important truth, then. Are you walking with God? If not, do not expect Him to listen to your prayers. You have no such guarantee.
“The sacrifice of the wicked is detestable to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is His delight” (Proverbs 15:8).
And so, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29).
The primary problem, then, is that none of us is righteous. We are all sinners and thus only deserving of God’s judgment and wrath (see HERE). Praise God, though, that in and through Jesus Christ, we can be counted as righteous (see HERE).
Thus, that is the first and most important thing you must do – make sure you have trusted in Jesus for your salvation and righteousness. Otherwise, you have no right to even bring your requests to God, let alone for Him to listen to them.
Then, though, you must also make sure that you are continuing to walk with Him according to His Word. Otherwise, as referenced above in Proverbs 28:9, your prayer is detestable.
A blind man healed by Jesus was right when he said, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to him” (John 9:31).
We are all sinners, but if you have trusted in Jesus by faith and are walking with Him (the proof that you have trusted in Him), then your status with God is one of right standing. Worship Him and live according to His Word, and you will be aware of His presence and experience the closeness that He desires for you.
Is God listening to you? If you know and follow Him according to His Word, then yes, He is. If not, cry out to Him today. He desires that you do and is faithful and merciful to our sincere surrender.