I must admit that I love competition. I suppose it offers me the closest thing that I know to a justifiable war which somewhat satisfies and placates the warrior in me. I enjoy the challenge of competition and the struggle – it heightens my senses; it makes my pulse quicken. I worked for a man who once told me that the spirit of competition was so strong within him that if he saw two ants fighting on the sidewalk that he would stop and cheer for one of them. Competition can be good and healthy; but there is one place where competition has no place…within the work of the Lord. In the gospel of Luke we are told that the disciple John felt a sense of competition rise up within him when he said to Jesus, “Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn’t in our group.” John was under the impression that the work of the Lord and the advancement of his kingdom could only progress through their group and he was ready to condemn anyone else that would try. But notice what Jesus says in response to John’s competitive spirit, “Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.” Wow! In one sentence Jesus reminds us of several truths. FIRST, the work of the Lord belongs to the Lord. The advancement of God’s kingdom is about God and not about me or you. It does not matter so much who gets the message of truth to the world as long as the message of truth gets to the world. SECOND, just because someone belongs to a different group does not mean that they cannot be involved in real ministry for the Lord. That means different denominations can be effective for the Lord. It means that different personalities can be effective for the Lord. It means that God can use anyone he wants, anytime he wants. THIRD, I should not feel infringed upon when God chooses to use someone else different than me. Jesus would say in John 17:20-21 – “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (NKJV) God does not want us to have a spirit of competition within the body of Christ; he wants us to have a spirit of cooperation. God is going to ask us to work with people that aren’t easy to work with. He is going to ask us to work with people that we don’t see eye to eye with. He is going to ask us to work together because his kingdom is more important than our denominations, our preferences, and our personalities. God deserves our cooperation so save the competition for the church softball league.
Today is another birthday and I am up early thinking about it, which makes little sense because it is Saturday. Two passages of Scripture keep coming to my mind this morning: Psalms 90:12 – So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom; and Ephesians 5:15-16 – See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. I am wondering if at 41 I have any more wisdom than I did when I was 31, because I don’t feel any smarter. It seems that I make a lot of the same mistakes now that I did then. It seems that I am still struggling with a lot of the same issues in my life now as I was ten years ago – that is a little discouraging. Birthdays are a good time for self-assessments and I am assessing that I am a very slow learner. Forty-one years of my life are gone. Taking into consideration that the Bible says in Psalms 90 that the average length of life is seventy years and eighty if we have the strength for it, then most of my life is behind me. WOW! That is a happy thought! James was right, our life is like a vapor; that is why God instructs us to number our days so that we don’t waste them. Yes, I might be a slow learner, but I am determined not to waste what God has given me. I know each day is precious, and if Solomon is right that Wisdom cries out in the street, then I want to be a better listener. Paul instructs us in Ephesians to buy back time – redeem it. Redeeming the time is not easy because the Devil wants me to squander it. The Bible calls the Devil the god of this world – but he does not deserve the world – he does not deserve my time – he does not deserve my efforts – he does not deserve any of my days. There is only One who deserves all these things, the Lord Almighty – the One who saved me. So I am determined on my 41 birthday to redeem these evil days and buy them back for the Lord. The reality is I still feel really young – I am 18 with 41 years of experience. God, give me wisdom today. Help me to make a few less mistakes this year than I did last year. God, give me grit today. Help me to finish strong no matter how many years you give me. God, give me your mercy today because as badly as I want to redeem the time and gain a heart of wisdom right now I know that I will still make some stupid mistakes. It is going to be a great birthday today because I have a very patient and loving God who is helping me grow up and he promised me that he will finish what he started. Forty-one…….I guess it doesn’t sound too bad after all.
I have been reading the book of Jonah in my devotions this week, and I must say that when I got to the part where he started running from God I really started in on him in my mind. “What a fool!” I thought to myself. Why would he run from God? Doesn’t he know how powerful God is? Doesn’t he know that God’s ways are higher than his ways? Doesn’t he understand that he really can’t run from God anyway? Then I got to the part where the people of Nineveh repent from their wickedness and Jonah starts complaining about God’s mercy. “Wow!” I thought – that is pretty bold! I mean just a short time before this Jonah was in the belly of a great fish praying that God would have mercy on him and that the fish would find him distasteful. So what does Jonah want? Does he want God to be a merciful God or not? Then after God spares Nineveh Jonah sits down and pouts because he didn’t want God to show mercy. He finds his only comfort in a plant that provides shade, but an aggressive worm with a big appetite destroys the plant and leaves Jonah exposed to the hot sun. So what does Jonah do? He whines, big time! Jonah didn’t like the assignment that he got from God, so he ran. When running didn’t work, he reluctantly obeyed. And when God didn’t see things Jonah’s way, Jonah complained and moped around showing everyone how horrible his life was because God didn’t do what he wanted him to do. And that’s when it hit me…I AM JONAH – minus all the seaweed! That was a horrible realization. I want God to want what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. I am full of delightful service as long as God works in ways that I think he should work. But what about those times that he shows mercy to people I don’t like (Yes, pastors struggle with liking everyone)? What about those times that he gives me an assignment that goes against the grain of my desires? What about when God asks me to do something difficult that I do not understand? That is when I am tempted to either run or pout because I did not get my way. I have done my fair share of whining – and I have a pretty good whiny voice. But I don’t want to be a Jonah! I want to be a servant of God who does the will of God no matter what. Philippians 2:14 – Do all things without complaining and disputing. God help me to put away my whiny voice when you decide not to do things my way. Help me to trust you and do your will even when it does not make sense to me. I don’t want to be a Jonah…I don’t even care for fish!
I am tired of myself! I think I would like to escape from myself, but I never seem to run fast enough to get away. I’m not struggling with self-esteem or anything, because on a good day I love who I am. I guess that I am just frustrated. I feel like I should be better at living for the Lord than what I am. The desire is there, but my self-discipline is greatly lacking. DISCIPLINE…I’m not sure I like that word because it has a very audible harshness to it. I can’t even say it out loud without having scowl on my face…DISCIPLINE. I am very thankful to my parents, coaches, teachers and college professors that did their best to help me develop self-discipline in my life, but I am not sure it ever really got a firm root in my soul. I admire people in this life that have the ability to tell their body and soul what to do. I love their focus and the consistency in which they tackle their goals. It isn’t easy…I know…I’ve tried. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have gone on a diet, tomorrow; and how many 5 mile runs have turned into 2.5 mile runs; and how many workout sessions have turned into me sitting on my exercise ball watching an interesting TV show. Learning to say no to your feelings and impulses is tough. Doing something that doesn’t come easily and that takes grit is even tougher. But I also know that great success only comes through self-discipline. That is true physically and it is true spiritually. Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection.” I guess I having been hoping for the pill version – or something like spiritual liposuction where you go into some office and they suck all the bad attitudes and thoughts, worries, selfishness, discontentment, and pride right out of you and then you are good to go. It won’t happen that way – spiritual success takes effort…a lot of it! So what am I going to do? I know I can’t focus in on my own strength because that only brings failure. I take encouragement from Isaiah 41:10 – Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. God is offering me help and I know I need to take it. I also need to understand that my life is a journey with a good ending – the apostle Paul says in Philippians 1:6 – Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. God is working on me and he will not fail to make me what he wants me to be – that should motivate me to work with him in a greater way. And lastly I need to pay better attention to the small things in my life. There is a famous rhyme, based on the defeat of King Richard III of England at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which illustrates the importance of paying attention to small details:
For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,
And all for want of a horseshoe nail.
How I start my day makes a difference to my whole day. What I entertain for a half hour can impact my whole thought life. Choosing to pray in times of difficulty can greatly impact my whole attitude. The little things make a big difference in my life and so I must learn to concentrate better on the details.
I think that we can all agree that a life lived for Christ can be extremely wearisome. I want to be better at it and I know that it will happen only as I bring my body into subjection. The good news is that there can be success as I acknowledge the Lord and allow him to direct my paths in all I do. Maybe you are where I am today – frustrated, annoyed and a little discouraged. Don’t give up! God has got great plans for you and he is working on them at this very moment. If you are down, get up. If you are defeated, try again. If you are tired, don’t give up. It will be worth it all when we see Christ!
When the boys were little they were not so aware of their surroundings, so when it came to crossing a busy street Laura and I would tell them that they had to hold our hand. They were not always eager to grab hold because it felt like some kind of infringement on their personal freedom – like we were telling them to hold our hand because we wanted to bridle their fun. But that was not the case at all. We wanted them to hold our hand because we loved them, and we did not want a speeding bus to ruin their fun forever. It is interesting how knowledge makes a big difference in perspective. Because our boys were naïve about the dangers of traffic they viewed holding their parents hand as restrictive and overbearing. But because Laura and I knew of the dangers, we viewed holding their hand as loving and protective. I read today in the Message in the book of Proverbs, “Don’t stealthily move back the boundary lines.” I thought about how many times that I have tried surreptitiously to adjust the boundary lines of God to my advantage – or what I thought was my advantage. I have asked myself the same question that Satan posed to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Did God really say…” It is so easy to think that God’s boundaries are not always in our best interest. We can convince ourselves that we have a “special” situation, and that his boundaries obviously don’t apply to our circumstances. I remember the time that an elderly neighbor gave my older sister two ten dollar bills that he wanted to give to the church. He didn’t exactly say in so many words that he wanted to give it to the church, but it was definitely implied. So as we sat together we sought to justify splitting the money between the two of us – by the time we got done talking we had assured each other that he actually wanted us to have it. The truth is we were stealing the money, and we had sought to stealthily move back the boundary lines that God had established. We thought it would be better for us, but when Monday arrived we were already feeling guilty. It didn’t help that the next time we saw the elderly man that he asked us if we had put the money in the offering plate. We instantly felt trapped and then we lied. Now we felt even worse. What we thought was going to bring us so much pleasure was now actually causing us a great deal of discomfort. Satan has continued to challenge God’s boundaries over and over again in my life. He knows that I don’t like to feel confined and fenced in so he constantly raises the question, “Did God really say…” It is so easy to convince yourself in that moment that the line is negotiable; but God’s lines are never negotiable. They are non-negotiable because they are there for my good! I can’t always see it – just like my boys couldn’t always see the dangers of traffic – but God’s boundaries always protect me. I am learning not to challenge the lines of God, but it is happening slowly. I am learning how to walk by faith; but that is proving difficult as well because I want God to show me how things work out and how his boundaries are protecting me. However, God never promised me full disclosure; he did promise me that if I trusted completely in him that he would direct my paths. I am reminded of another proverb of Solomon, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” When I neglect the boundaries of God there is always a negative consequence. I may not understand what God is doing; I may be frustrated with his lines; I may not see how his commands benefit me; but I must trust that God is much smarter than me – he knows things that I cannot know and he sees things that I cannot see. The prophet Isaiah said, “The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” When Satan whispers in your ear, “Did God really say…,” answer him quickly, “My God loves me and he will protect me even when I don’t know I need to be protected.” The boundary lines of God may not always be convenient to our immediate happiness, but they are always there for our eternal good.
10. [ASSUME EVERYTHING] – First, assume that every job that needs to get done in ministry is being done by someone else. Second, assume that you don’t matter in the body of Christ – so if you are not there it is no big deal. Third, assume the worst about other people instead of the best – this is a sure way to keep your church from any spiritual growth.
9. [JUST ENOUGH] – Do just enough to be able to cross “did church” off your list of things to do in your week. Don’t volunteer for anything; don’t attend any prayer meetings, fellowships or activities; don’t get to know anyone; don’t introduce yourself to anyone you don’t know; and never smile – do just enough.
8. [COME LATE, LEAVE EARLY] – When you do decide to go to church always show up late – that way you don’t have to feel obligated to talk to anyone. Always stay up really late on Saturday night so you have a difficult time getting up in time for church. Once in the service prepare for departure as soon as possible by gathering up all your belongings a few minutes before the closing prayer that way when you hear the final “AMEN” you can bolt out the door avoiding any unwelcome good-bye hugs or handshakes. This is a surefire way of keeping your church from gaining any spiritual ground.
7. [GETTING, NOT GIVING] – Go to church with only yourself in mind every Sunday. Use the phrase “I didn’t get anything out of that!” as often as you can. Look as bored as possible when you don’t feel entertained or amused. Never go to church with a giving attitude. Never give warm welcomes, hugs, or handshakes. Never ask God where you can involve yourself in helping others. Constantly ask yourself the question, “Why am I here again?” These are proven ways of keeping your church from growing.
6. [I HATE KIDS] – Develop an anti-children attitude. If at all possible discourage young parents from feeling comfortable in your church by giving them dirty looks every time their child makes a sound that you deem inappropriate. If you do have kids in your church constantly tell them not to run, skip, jump, play, yell, play games or anything else that you can think of that a child might enjoy doing. Never foster the imagination of children – this will only encourage them to show up again. Never smile at a child. If you are forced to look at a child always look cantankerous and skeptical of their “real” motives. Children bring with them life and where there is life there is the possibility of growth so discourage the idea of a child-friendly church at any cost.
5. [NOT ME] – Never, and I mean never, commit to anything! Never sign up for anything that would require any kind of obligation. It is safer to have a foot-loose and fancy free attitude when it comes to service. Tell people that you are too busy to commit to anything. Use the phrase “I like to keep my options open” because that gives a semblance of wanting to serve without really committing to anything. When the church leaders ask for help never make yourself visible – stare at the floor or better yet escape to the bathroom!
4. [ME FIRST] – Choose to put your own desires over God’s desires for you. If you would rather go fishing on Sunday then go fishing; if you just need a “Me” day then be sure to take it on a Sunday. Give God your leftovers that way you never have to sacrifice anything for Him. Take your cut of your time, money and energy first and then if there is anything left give some to God – but don’t get carried away. Only serve God when it is easy, convenient and costs nothing. A God-first heart is ripe for growth so make sure you always put yourself first.
3. [YOU KNOW WHAT I HEARD?] – Gossip, not just a little, but as often as possible. Talk about people and their problems – make stuff up if you have to, at least exaggerate. There is a proverb that tells the story of a person who repeated gossip – some rumor about a neighbor. Soon, the whole community had heard the rumor. Later, the person who spread the gossip learned that the rumor was untrue. The person was very sorry and went to an elder in the community who had a reputation for great wisdom to seek advice. The elder told the person, “Go to your home and take a feather pillow outside. Rip it open and scatter the feathers, then return to me tomorrow.” The person did as the elder had instructed. The next day, the person visited the elder. The elder said, “Go and collect the feathers you scattered yesterday and bring them back to me.” The person went home and searched for the feathers, but the wind had carried them all away. The person returned to the elder and said, “I could find none of the feathers I scattered yesterday.” “You see,” said the elder, “it’s easy to scatter the feathers but impossible to get them back.” So it is with gossip; it doesn’t take much to spread hurtful words, but once you do, you can never completely undo the damage. TOTALLY NOT TRUE! I am positive that you could find the feathers if you really wanted to! Gossip is a great way to judge others and build a sense of distrust, hurt and division – practice it often!
2. [NO MERCY] – Never forgive anyone for anything. Harbor bitterness in your heart and let it grow. Daydream about how nice it would be to pay back the person that wronged you with some kind of vindictive response. Never initiate a conversation with a person that hurt you – in fact, avoid them at all costs. Keep a list of all the people that have ever harmed you in any way and refer back to it often so you never lose track of all the people you need to be mad at. Just because Jesus forgave you doesn’t mean that you need to forgive anyone else!
1. AND THE NUMBER ONE WAY TO DESTROY CHURCH GROWTH IS… [WHATEVER] – Work hard at developing spiritual apathy – don’t care about anything that God cares about. Fall asleep in church and then tell people how good the sleep was. Tell your pastor that you never remember what he preaches. Forsake any kind of daily devotional life. Pray only when your life is in danger or when you really want something for yourself. Become hard-hearted and insensitive to truth. A “Whatever” attitude is the very best way to destroy church growth because God has chosen people to accomplish his work and if we don’t care then church growth will be impossible.
Mixed nuts are supposed to be an opportunity for the consumer to enjoy a potpourri of flavor and nutrition given in a variety of nuts; however, for me the prospect of mixed nuts only means a scavenger hunt for the cashews. I will finger through the pile until I find the nut that I am looking for – the rest of the nuts are simply garnish! There is no rule against it, so I do it without apology. I am allowed to be picky about the food I eat or don’t eat. When it comes to the application of truth found in the pages of the Bible though I am not allowed such a liberty; and yet that is exactly what I find myself wanting to do. I want to pick through all the “nuts” that are not so appealing and grab onto the ones that seem more suitable to my palate. When I read Philippians 3:10 – “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Well I am all for knowing Jesus. I mean who wouldn’t want to know Jesus? He is the smartest man that ever lived…God in flesh…he loved me all the way to the cross…he gives me life and forgiveness of sins. Yes, I want to know Jesus Christ. And I want to know the power of his resurrection. I am a man so the desire for POWER has been built into my DNA! The very thought that I could know the same kind of power that conquered death, hell and sin is fascinating and very attractive to me. But then I come to the part where Paul says that we should want to know the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. I’ve got to be honest with you – I’d just as soon skip over that part. When I read through the pages of the Bible I see that Jesus was misunderstood, misrepresented, mistreated, and murdered – that is some serious suffering. My natural inclination is to avoid suffering of any kind so while I am quick to embrace knowing Jesus and his power I want to leave the suffering “in the bowl” with the other things I want to avoid. However, when I get in the habit of picking and choosing from the Bible I end up robbing myself of God’s heart for me and the blessings that he wants for me. Suffering will never be fun, but it is often through suffering that we grow the most and demonstrate the magnificence of God the best. Suffering refines me and helps me depend upon the Lord in greater ways. I will never be excited about suffering – that would be morbid; but if God leads me to suffering then I want to embrace it knowing that his grace will always be sufficient for me and that his strength will be perfected in my life. Submitting to all the truth of the Bible will keep us under the spout were the blessings come out. So today if you don’t like walnuts thumb them aside; but let’s determine to give ourselves completely to God without any exceptions.