Popular Passage, New Perspective

I’ll try to keep this brief and to the point. Philippians 4:13 is one of the most well known passages in all of scripture: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

It is said by athletes after victories, people dedicating themselves to diets or fasting, even people getting back to the gym or working on resolutions. While those are all fine and well I found myself looking at this passage (and it’s prior two verses) very differently.

As some of you may know I’ve been in a pretty difficult season for the last couple of months for various reasons (which are touched on in two posts prior to this one Trembling… and A Hope That Overwhelms Grief), and I believe that as I am coming out of this season (praise God!), I see these two spectrums more clearly than ever before. Let’s take a brief look:

“I have learned in whatever situation (that) I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” ~ Philippians 4:11b-13 (ESV)

I have come to realize (for myself, and perhaps for you as well), that it takes both ends of the spectrum–lowly and abounding, plenty and hunger, abundance and need–to see this sort of true contentment Paul talks about.

Experiencing both ends of the spectrum have made me realize that in this world there is constant change and fluctuation, and sometimes these changes can be indescribably difficult, but we can echo with Paul that in the midst of these changes there is a True Stability, and that Stability is something so necessary and so ever-present for us. This Stability is the means by which we are strengthened and the reason we can praise God, even in the midst of the most seemingly unbearable situations.

Paul is revealing a truth all of us must realize today: This true stability and abiding presence that we long for–that sustains us in all of these seasons whether good or bad–is Jesus Christ Himself.

In Him and Him alone will you find this contentment “in any and every circumstance” and a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

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Trembling, Spread Thin, and the Need for Discipline

As a brief preface before getting into the entry, I just wanted to let you know that this blog post will hit on a number of different topics–most specifically the idea of thinking through a Gospel-lens, how suffering/trials are used for our good, and how we must discipline ourselves to remember this and work towards various goals.

I suppose I could publish them in multiple different posts, but I feel like they are coherent enough to lead into each other, and that seen as a whole they provide a synthesized context to think over and work to implement.

This is something I’ve been mulling around in my head for quite some time and I pray that you will find it useful.

———

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” ~ Isaiah 66:2

Not the religious guy who thinks he’s got his life together.

Not the legalist who worships a checklist Christianity (which, let’s be honest, is no Christianity at all).

But he who is humble. He who understands his depravity and unworthiness and yet can rejoice in his worth in Christ!

The one who trembles at the word of God because he understands that it has the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21) and is living and active (and therefore applicable, meaningful, and piercing)(see Hebrews 4:12).

This is humbling to me because if I’m not careful and intentional to remember this truth I will drift into the first category. It’s like the old hymn says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.”

A.W. Tozer has a very telling quote on this topic. He says, “You can know the truth and quote it verbatim, but you’re spiritually cross-eyed until it changes how you live.” We must know from the outset that this Gospel deeply affects every part of us. Furthermore, the Gospel provides a proper lens on our lives and circumstances–a sort of proper view of things as they ought to be seen.

Left to myself it is easy for me to become overwhelmed with what’s going on in and around me: jobless and struggling to get hired somewhere, relationship-less (in the context of a girlfriend/future spouse/etc.), prone to constant idolatry and slipping into pointless sins that I know will not satisfy, enslaved to the need to be approved and liked by others, insecurities and deficiencies ever on my mind–likely because I’m comparing myself to others instead of to Jesus.

Not only does the Gospel expose all of these in me, but it also reinforces my identity because of the Gospel. I am not “sinner” but “saint”; not unwanted but adopted; not defeated but victorious. In addition to these truths the Gospel also provides examples I can draw on to instill hope.

In a sense, when things are going poorly in some area (or many areas) of my life I have a tendency to amplify it/them like it’s the most painful and hopeless thing to ever happen.

Enter Paul:

imprisoned, beaten, lashed, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, lost at sea, constantly pursued to be killed, hungry/thirsty frequently (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28) and yet he is the one who proclaims that all these things are happening for a purpose (and even more so, are happening for a good purpose)!

He says “I am afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; constantly reminded of the death of Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Why?

That His life (that is, Jesus’ life) might also be declared and made known as great in us (2 Corinthians 4:10)! And “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Now I come to terms with a very sobering question I have to ask myself: If God is intentionally at work in these difficulties, who am I to believe that He is absent and inactive in my own? It is for this purpose that we ought to be more wrapped up in the treasures of the Gospel than the pressures in and around us. This is how Paul is able to proclaim in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

The following quotes really set the tone for where I am going next:

“The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” ~ Thomas Chalmers

 

“[Christians are] a people conquered by a Superior Affection.” ~ David Platt

This is where we must necessarily shift gears for a bit. I touched on it a little bit earlier but I see it absolutely necessary to flesh this out in a little more detail.

Herein lies the concept of discipline.

I mentioned before that if unchecked I will drift into a self-centered mentality and it would be easy to become overwhelmed by my circumstances and slip into a “woe is me” mentality, and with that in mind we must be disciplined and urgent/intentional in our approach to this.

The idea of disciplining ourselves is anything but natural. I mean just be honest.. what went through your mind when I brought up the idea of discipline? Likely not “Yes! I really hoped I would get called out to do things I didn’t really want to do!”

Think about the various examples in our everyday lives (excerpted from a Desiring God blogpost by Jon Bloom found here: http://ow.ly/ngCB0 ):

–Healthy, nutritious food often requires discipline to prepare and eat while junk food is convenient, tasty, and addictive.

–Keeping the body healthy and strong requires frequent deliberate discomfort while it only takes constant comfort (laziness, no change in routine, etc.) to [head in the opposite direction].

–You have to make yourself pick up that nourishing but intellectually challenging book while popping in a DVD is as easy and inviting as coasting downhill.

–You frequently have to force yourself to get to devotions and prayer while sleeping in or catching up on sports or checking Facebook is almost effortless.

–Learning to skillfully play beautiful music requires thousands of hours of tedious practice.

–Excelling in sports requires monotonous drills ad nauseum

–Learning to write well requires writing, writing, writing, and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And usually requires voluminous reading.

–It takes years of schooling just to make certain vocational opportunities possible.

You get the idea. The pattern is this: the greater joys are obtained through struggle, difficulty, and pain, while brief, unsatisfying, and often destructive “joys” are right at our fingertips.

Why is this?

Because God, in His great mercy, is showing us everywhere, in things that are just shadows of heavenly realities, that there is great reward for those who struggle through and persevere (Hebrews 10:32-35). He is reminding us almost everywhere to walk by faith in a promised future and not by sight of immediate gratification (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Paul speaks further into this issue by using the analogy of an athlete. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 says that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul is saying many things in this passage, but for our sake he is saying that he “exercises self-control.. not aimlessly” (so there’s a purpose and objective to it!) and that he does it for an “imperishable (reward).” This athlete analogy helps us envision someone who has a clear goal in mind and trains and disciplines himself (or herself!) to obtain that goal.

Now that we’ve fleshed out this idea conceptually, let’s make it a little more practical, shall we?

Personally, I tend to say things like “I want to know more about what the Bible says than what John Piper (or Mark Driscoll, or [insert your favorite pastor’s/author’s name here]) says.” … You know what that requires of me? To actually stop reading that blog/book and pick up my Bible.

I say “I want to have wisdom and a breadth of knowledge like Tim Keller has” and yet I neglect to pursue the breadth of sources Keller does (and still I expect somehow to absorb information and perspectives that I’m not even encountering!)

I so often expect (progressive) results from my inactivity and a differing set of affections from implementing no change at all into my routine and time spent.

How foolish!

Now pay attention to this next part because I think this really gets at the heart of this issue.

I believe wholeheartedly that much of this struggle comes because our attention and affections are spread so thin in so many directions.

I think as a generation (speaking as a Millennial, at least, I can’t speak on this issue for everyone else) we are content with being OK at a lot of different things, and not exceptional at a few things. We want to know a lot of different technologies, facts, songs, play a bunch of different things (sports, video games) or be a part of a hundred different university clubs, but we don’t often identify those two or three things we truly want to flourish in.

I would challenge you in this: Identify those things for you personally.

I believe everyone has those deep desires and longings and I would encourage you to spend some time (undistracted! imagine that!) identifying what those are for you; then discipline yourself to make progress on them.

Once you have narrowed your focus, I think it’s incredibly important to remember one key principle: it is a process. Usain Bolt didn’t just wake up one morning, walk into a sprinting competition, and break world records or win olympic gold. Tim Keller didn’t walk out of a nursery quoting Sociologists and providing ministry-shaping ideas on urban contextualization. They identifies what they wanted to pursue and they worked towards it (incrementally).

One man I know has memorized entire books of the Bible. I took some time to ask him how he did it and what the process was like and you know what he said?

“I started with a verse.”

Take the time to really think hard about what thing (or few things) you want to flourish and excel in–perhaps what you want to be defined by–and take the first step.

You cannot expect to be a master theologian overnight.

You cannot expect to climb half-dome or Everest if you haven’t even taken a hike in the hills in your city.

Figure out where you want to be, what it’ll take to get there, and just start taking a step, then a second, then a third, and sooner or later you’ll be amazed at the progress that is being made. But it takes that intentionality and discipline to follow through to even work towards that progress.

You don’t get there overnight, but you can ask yourself “what can I do today to enable me to be able to do tomorrow what I wasn’t able to do yesterday?”

Even with this perspective change in mind, there will still be barriers to this discipline. For me, I know I often come into contact with the fear of not doing well at something. I find it hard to pick up running again because my asthma acts up–because I’m not in cardio-shape, and therefore my asthma picks up; see the dilemma? Or I find it hard to get back into rock climbing because I know how good I used to be, and it’s a blow to my pride to not be as good as I know I used to be, and therefore have to appear like a beginner again.

Essentially, I have a fear of failing and a fear of not living up to expectations (even when the expectations being placed on me are my own).

The Gospel helps remind me that because of Christ’s death on the cross and victory over the grave I know that my failures and struggles will ultimately help shape my future successes and that though I may stumble and fall, I am not defeated, and that I can continue with strength that comes from the Lord (see Philippians 4:13).

So I feel like I’m a little scattered with all this, but I hope you see the concepts really merging together. There’s a lot I wanted to say, and I’m sure a lot of it didn’t come together as ideally as I intended, but I hope that in each area something stuck out at you and stuck with you.

My hope is that this post in some way triggers some thoughts and actions for you to begin assessing and implementing to work towards this concept of “disciplining yourself” as Paul said above.

And ultimately you MUST remember this: there is grace.

We can rejoice and operate in freedom because these strivings and our ability to attain goals do not define us. Christ has accomplished it all for us because He knew we would fall short. He knew we’d mess up, get distracted, and run to other things we know do not ultimately satisfy. And guess what? He STILL chose to die for you.

Christ STILL calls you “brother” and “sister” and accomplished for you adoption into the family of God. This should free us to strive all the more–not to earn what we cannot earn, but because our place is secure in Him and this instills in us a new set of hopes and desires to love and follow Jesus and make much of God with our lives!

God is bigger and more inclusive than you imagine

The following excerpt has really been challenging my paradigm of God. In times of suffering, difficulty, and trial it is so easy for me to get focused inward–on myself or my own circumstances–and lose track of looking outward–particularly to the Gospel truths and who God is amidst it. In a world where there is so much turmoil, inconsistency, and pain God promises to be a steadfast, firm foundation whose promises are always true and who is eternally unchanging (see Psalm 118, Hebrews 12:26-28, 2 Timothy 2:19, and Hebrews 13:8).

“Over the years I’ve seen Christians shaping God in their own image–in each case a dreadfully small God. Some Roman Catholics still believe only they will grace heaven’s green pastures.. There is the God who has a special affection for capitalist America, regards the workaholic, and the God who loves only the poor and the underprivileged. There is a God who marches with victorious armies, and the God who loves only the meek who turns the other cheek. Some, like the elder brother in Luke, sulk and pout when the father rocks and rolls, (and) serves surf-and-turf for a prodigal son who has spent his last cent on whores. Some, tragically, refuse to believe that God can or will forgive them, for: my sin is too great.

This is not the God of grace who “wants everyone to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). This is not the God embodied in Jesus that Matthew came to know. This is not the God who calls sinners–which, as you and I know, means everybody.”

From The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning (p.42).

—–

I could dissect this quote for hours, but for the purpose of this particular posting I will draw out only one thing that comes to mind: God is so much bigger and so much more inclusive than I give Him credit for or imagine; and when I reflect on this truth it is so remarkably calming–freeing, even. This massive God is powerful, not particular. Sovereign, not slave-driving. Victorious, not defeated (or defeatable!).

This is the God who sees me at my lowest and has the power and compassion to lift me up. This is the God that, as the book of Hebrews says, aligns with me in my weakness and is “mindful of me” (Psalm 8:4). This is the God I sing about, pray to, look towards, and live to proclaim. This is not some manmade idea to help make sense of a complex world. This is a God both higher than our intellect while also closer than our most intimate emotions.

Quite simply: This is a God worthy of our worship.

A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer

As we look out at the church today, there is so much that encourages us and fills us with gratitude. There is renewed zeal among God’s people for the spread of God’s glory across the earth. Like never before we hear brothers and sisters in different circles and different streams of contemporary Christianity talking about the gospel and mission, about transforming cities and reaching unreached people groups. These conversations are essential, and we hope they will continue with even greater intensity and intentionality in the days ahead.

But sometimes what we are not hearing can be as illuminating as what we do hear. It reminds us of an exchange in an old Sherlock Holmes mystery, where Holmes refers to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” during a robbery. A fellow detective, confused at Holmes’s comment, responds that “the dog did nothing in the nighttime” — to which Holmes responds: “That was the curious incident.” Despite the proliferation of Christian publishing and Christian conferences, J. I. Packer’s observation of our own curious incident still rings true:

When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology — but rarely of their daily experience of God.

Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service — but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God.

Our sermons contain much sound doctrine — but little relating to the converse between the soul and the Saviour.

We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters.

Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us.

Think about it. Where are the passionate conversations today about communing with God through fasting and prayer? We seem to find it easier to talk much of plans and principles for proclaiming the gospel and planting churches, and to talk little of the power of God that is necessary for this gospel to be proclaimed and the church to be planted.

If we really want to be a part of seeing disciples made and churches multiplied throughout North America and to the ends of the earth, we would be wise to begin on our knees.

It is for this reason that we gladly commend the new edition of John Piper’s Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer. If you have read or heard anything from Piper, you know that he is rightly and biblically passionate about the spread of God’s glory. But at the same time, he is acutely and biblically aware of our need for God’s grace. He knows that apart from dependence on and desperation for God, we will not only miss the ultimate point of our mission, but we will also neglect the ultimate need of our souls.

We were made to feast on God. In the words of the psalmist, we were created to cry:

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. (Psalm 63:1–5)

We have read the sad statistics about the number of young people who turn away from the church once they are out of their parents’ home. We have heard people explain that they have “tried God” when they were young but that it didn’t work for them. But we have to wonder: did they “earnestly” seek him with their whole hearts? Did they cry out to him in fasting and prayer? Sometimes we “earnestly seek” after things from God rather than God himself. It is hard for us to imagine anyone leaving the presence of the living God — the maker and sustainer of heaven and earth — and looking for something better!

There is spiritual delight to be found in God that far supersedes the physical diet of this world, and fasting is the means by which we say to God, “More than our stomachs want food, our souls want you.” Once we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8), the things of the world no longer appeal to us in the same way.

As Piper says in the opening pages of this book, “Beware of books on fasting.” This is not a book of legalism. It’s not a book of technique. It does not contain a twelve-step plan. At the end of the day, it’s a book more about our hearts than about our stomachs. Abstaining from food (or other things) for a period of time is not an end in itself but a means to cause us to learn about and increase our love for Christ. As Piper explains in this book, the Bible gives us many reasons to fast:

  • We fast because we’re hungry for God’s Word and God’s Spirit in our lives.
  • We fast because we long for God’s glory to resound in the church and God’s praise to resound among the nations.
  • We fast because we yearn for God’s Son to return and God’s kingdom to come.
  • Ultimately we fast simply because we want God more than we want anything this world has to offer us.

Few things are as frustrating as trying to convince our loved ones of the greatness and grandeur of God. We are jealous for our neighbors and our faith family and the nations to find satisfaction in God alone. As we recently reread the book you hold in your hands, we have tried to imagine what it would be like if our churches were filled with believers fasting regularly and biblically. What might God be pleased to do if his church rises up to say, “This much, O God, we want you!”? We encourage you to read this book, asking great things from God, “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think!” (Ephesians 3:20).


For a free pdf of the book, as well as options to purchase paperback or Kindle versions, see Desiring God’s updated resource page for a Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer.

This post is transcribed from DesiringGod.org with permission

Everything For Your Good

God is so great that he works out a plan, a plan to work everything out for your good if you belong to him, and his glory, which takes into consideration your choices, and still works his plan out infallibly.

 

Jacob lied to his father, Isaac, and wanted his birthright. He cheated his older brother out of it. Because he cheated, because he lied, he had to flee from his family. Was he guilty? Yes. Did he experience pain in his life because of that choice? Yes. Was he punished for it? Yes. But because he sinned he went and found his wife, Rachel, through whom the Messiah came. Was it all right then that he sinned?

 

No, but don’t you see because Jacob sinned, though God held him responsible for that choice, did that put him on an eternal plan B? Did he say, ‘I’ve ruined it from now on because of this sin. God will never give me the best?’ My friends, no. When he sinned he went into the best for him. God is far greater than your stupid choices.

~ Tim Keller

Book Review: Why Cities Matter (Um & Buzzard)

“What will be remembered about the twenty-first century … is the great, and final, shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities. We will end this century as a wholly urban species.” ~ Doug Saunders

There has been a lot of buzz around the “city” these days. Everywhere I look it seems that someone is providing their opinion on the city and why it must be focused on. Maybe I’m just looking in all the right places to come across it, but I think they are all on to something. Tim Keller opens with a foreword detailing the power and potential that cities hold in shaping our future as a society; “the future of the world will be forged there (p.9). From experts in business, finance, economics, culture, politics, and even the church, leading voices in every field seem to be focusing on the importance of cities. “As cities go, so goes the world.”

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard seek to not only examine a view of how the Bible calls us to contribute to the peace (flourishing, shalom) of the city (see Jeremiah 29), but also outlines the importance and characteristics of cities as well. Um & Buzzard lay out the framework that we, as Christians, stand in a unique crossroads historically, and that we have the potential to be a part of an amazing move of God by investing in the city and culture around us:

“We live in a unique moment in history. At no other time in history has our world looked so similar to the setting of the early church. Read the book of Acts and you read about a world that looks much like our own — an urban, pluralistic, cosmopolitan, diverse, dynamic, rapidly changing, and fast-developing world. Two thousand years ago, God built His church through cities. The book of Acts is a story about the geographic expansion of the Gospel through cities. Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome represent where the Gospel was preached, disciples were made, and churches were established. These cities became healthier  communities because Christians were there.” (p.18)

To close, I thought it might be fitting to provide a brief snapshot of the book’s layout. For chapter 1, they tackle the general importance of cities (some of which, put briefly, is outlined above). Chapter 2 examines common characteristics of a city (after all, we ought to be in agreement as to what is and is not a city if we are to be invested in it, right?). Chapter 3 serves as a bridge, examining what the Bible has to say about cities. Chapter 4 examines contextualization of the Gospel in our cities. Chapter 5 examines how we ought to relate to our city’s dominant story line. And finally Chapter 6 wrestles through how we develop a ministerial vision for our city.

This book provides a practical, relevant, and (most importantly) biblical foundation for how we ought to view and approach cities, and what it will take to rightly contextualize the Gospel to urban centers. They do not handle the material lightly and understand that it is quite a task to take up, but the rewards are worth it. God is capable of moving today just as He did in the days of the early church; Um & Buzzard argue that the potential is even greater.

I think this book is precise, weighty, and well worth your time to read and reflect on the implications of reaching our cities with the Gospel. Pray, consider, and go forth.

A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by Crossway Publishing. I was not required to post a positive review and the views expressed in this review are my own.

Is God Committed to Your Happiness?

Is God committed to your happiness? Absolutely, and yet if you come to him to make you happy, you’re coming to a false god. If you say, ‘Well, I’m interested in this Christianity, and maybe I’ll come and bite on it if I can see it will help me reach my goals and make me happy.’ You’re not coming to God; you’re coming to a butler. Either God exists or he doesn’t exist. If he doesn’t exist you can’t come to him for happiness, right? But if he does exist, you have to realize you must come to him because he created you, and therefore, he owns you.

To not come to him and obey him would be an injustice. The only way to come to God rightly, the real God, is to come without conditions and to say, ‘Forget happiness. I owe you everything.’ There are only two ways to come to God. You can come to God on the basis of saying, ‘I owe you everything; you owe me nothing,’ or you can come on the basis of saying, ‘I’m going to come to you, but then you owe me a lot.’ The only way for you to know on what basis you have come is to see what happens in the bad seasons.

When things go wrong, do you get upset and say, ‘What good did it do me to come to church? What good did it do me to read the Bible?’ Do you know what that shows? You came to him on the basis of saying, ‘I will do this and this, as you owe me.’ In other words you’re saying, ‘My number one priority is happiness, and I’m using God as a way to get there’ as opposed to saying, ‘My number one priority is to serve God, and if happiness happens, great. To the degree it happens, great.’

Here is the irony: the less you’re concerned about your happiness and the more you’re concerned about him, the happier you get. This is not a trick. You can’t say, ‘Oh, great. I have it. I come to God, and I say this and this and this.’ You cannot bandy with the omnipotent and omniscient Lord of the universe. ‘Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.’ Happiness is a byproduct.

~Tim Keller