Truth in Advertising

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

Matthew 16:24-25

One of the major idols in America is the god of comfort and safety. The pandemic exposed this as people’s illusion of control was dismantled. Yet, so many churches have some sort of promise of “safety” on their websites. They advertise their church as a “safe place” to (fill in the blank). But I have never found following Jesus to be safe or comfortable. Jesus warned us about this when He invited us to take up our cross and follow Him. 

I long for a generation of churches that would rise up and boldly put the truth on their websites. It might look something like this:

Welcome to our church. We want you to be a part of our community. But we must warn you, this is not a safe place. Jesus, like Aslan, is good but not safe. If you want safe, the country club is down the street. No, here you will be asked to die. Following Jesus is not just a ticket to heaven. It’s a ticket to the cross that will then be followed by a resurrected life that you can’t fathom. 

You will be asked to sacrifice the things you most cherish. You’ll be invited to give beyond what you think is possible. You’ll be challenged to let go of your comforts and step into the unsafe world of risk and vulnerability. You will not be protected from life’s hardships. In fact, if you want to follow Jesus, those hardships will increase. 

You will witness extraordinary miracles. God will send his power to flow through you in unbelievable ways, and it will cost you everything. This is not just a hospital for sinners. This is the frontlines in a war that has been raging for 2000 years between followers of Jesus and the kingdom of darkness. We do have a medical tent when you need it. But don’t get too comfortable there because we need you to heal up and man your post. You can expect to get wounded along the way. You will then be asked to become a wounded healer once you are healed. So if you are ready to lay down your life so that you might find it, this is the place for you!”

I imagine the church in America would be much, much smaller and much, much more powerful. In other words, we’d look more like the book of Acts. 

Demons and Halloween: An Interview

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

Acts 16:16-18

Halloween, or All-Hallows-Eve, is upon us. Kids are excited to dress up in costumes and get obscene amounts of candy. Inevitably, this time of year, people in the church begin to discuss whether Christians should participate in a holiday that seems to celebrate witchcraft, darkness, satan and masked murderers. Some of these Halloween traditions seem to stem from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which was later supplanted by a church celebration on the eve of All Saints Day.

As a pastor and a parent, I usually advise parents that they need to make their own choices for their families. Yet, those choices should be informed and based in truth (not exaggerated fears or naive ignorance). What follows is a conversation between a Christian who has questions about all of this and their pastor. We’ll name the curious Christian “CC” and the pastor “P.”

CC: Why do some Christians get so uptight about Halloween?

P: I don’t know that I would call it “uptight” as much as I would call it “cautious.” There is some evidence that there used to be a pagan holiday where people dressed up in costumes to avoid getting harassed by the spirits of dead people. The belief was that the spirits of the dead would wander the earth for a year and that on their final day (the last day of the harvest season, just before the first day of the winter season, a.k.a. October 31st) they would haunt people in order to get revenge. The solution was to dress up in costumes to either hide or scare off these ghosts.

Some historians believe the Catholic Church, in an attempt to Christianize this pagan holiday, absorbed some of these traditions and beliefs and placed the celebration on the day before All Saints Day (which is on November 1st). The evidence for all of this is a little murky. Not all historians agree with this theory of the origins of Halloween. But, some parents don’t like that it is possibly rooted in a pagan holiday.

Other parents don’t like the emphasis on death and witchcraft that you see around Halloween. It is true that Wiccan groups, the church of satan, covens of witches, and others who participate in the occult do have satanic rituals that are celebrated on or around Halloween. These rituals often include animal sacrifice and other unseemly practices.

All of this leads to a kind of hesitation about wanting kids to participate in that.

CC: But isn’t Halloween just about kids dressing up in costumes and getting candy? I mean, all that witchcraft and satan stuff isn’t real, right?

P: Well, there are sort of two Halloweens that happen simultaneously. Yes, much of it is just kids dressing in harmless costumes and getting candy. There is definitely a fun, family aspect to Halloween. However, there is also a dark side to this holiday. Witchcraft is real. Satan is real. Demons are real. I’ve personally cast demons out of people in the name of Jesus. These things are not mythological. They are very real, and we can’t be naive about their reality.

CC: So, you don’t let your kids celebrate Halloween?

P: My wife and I do let our kids get dressed up in costumes and go door to door to get candy. As a family, we have fun walking around the neighborhood together. However, we don’t let our kids dress up as serial killers or mass murderers. We also don’t let our kids dress up in costumes that are demonic or overly sexualized. Again, demons are real. I’ve interacted with them on more occasions than I can count. They are evil and want only to steal, kill and destroy people. It’s not something to take lightly. (In Christ, it’s also not something to fear. Jesus has given us His authority over them.)

My question to you is this: Would you let your child dress up as a Nazi for Halloween? If not, why not? Most parents would not let their kid dress up like a Nazi because it makes light of something that was horrific and evil. It’s not something to joke around about. Evil has victims. And making light of that evil doesn’t honor those victims. The same is true when we make light of things like the occult, the demonic, mass murder, etc. That level of darkness has real victims, and I have see it firsthand. It’s not mythological or hypothetical. It’s real.

CC: Whoa, that’s intense! How often do you run into demons in your ministry?

P: More often than most people want to hear about. I’ve created a prayer ministry at my church that we call an intensive prayer ministry. In 2 to 3 hour prayer sessions, we address people’s deep need for inner healing. On a regular basis during these prayer sessions, we run into demons who are either “attached to” or “entrenched in” a person. These demons create havoc in a person’s life. They make a normal level 2 temptation feel like a level 8 (where it feels impossible to overcome). They harass and torment a person’s mind, emotions, and body. They foster fear, terror, and anxiety. They promote addictions. They breed self-hatred, depression, and bitterness. They hate their host and are assigned to oppress and, eventually, destroy their lives.

When people finally get free, when these demons are cast out, they feel completely different. They experience a level of freedom and lightness they had only dreamed about. This freedom is made possible only by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only by His power and His authority is this possible.

So, like I said, this isn’t something to take lightly. Caricature costumes of the demonic are only acceptable when you don’t think demons really exist. But they do.

CC: So with everything that you just said, I’m surprised that you let your kids do Halloween. Why are you okay with it?

P: Well, I’m not okay with certain costumes, and I’m not okay with the darker side of Halloween. But I am okay with my kids dressing up as movie characters or cartoon characters and getting candy. I compare it to how Paul addressed food sacrificed to idols. Think about it. There were bulls and goats literally sacrificed in pagan rituals to pagan demonic gods. Then Christians in the first century had to decide if they were okay eating that meat. Paul’s conclusion was that he was fine eating the meat because of his freedom in Christ. His main concern was not causing others to stumble who were less mature in their faith. If Paul was okay eating meat that was literally sacrificed to a pagan god, I think I’m okay with my kids dressing up and getting candy.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it‘”(1 Corinthians 10:25-26). He went on to say, “If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?“(1 Corinthians 10:30). His main point is that Christ has given us a freedom that allows us to enjoy certain things, even things that have been co-opted by satan and pagan worship. In other words, satan doesn’t get to steal things that are God’s in the first place. For me this includes costumes, candy, and the family fun of Halloween.

CC: What do you say to parents who don’t let their kids do Halloween?

P: I totally understand that decision and respect it, especially based on everything I’ve already said about demonization and the occult. I think those of us who are Christian parents who do allow our kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating have to be careful not to fall into a kind of blind, naive, indifference or ignorance to the real evil that exists in the spirit realm. And we need to know that the day of (and the days around) Halloween are days of intensified spiritual warfare due to the increase in satanic rituals.

And I think those of us who are Christian parents who do not allow our kids to dress up and go trick-or-treating have to be careful not to fall into a kind of legalistic, religious fear that gives satan too much credit. Some things, even things rooted in paganism, can be redeemed and enjoyed by God’s people.

Back in Paul’s day, in the early church, there were some who were fine eating meat sacrificed to idols and some who were not. Both existed in the church together.

CC: Any final advice to parents about Halloween?

P: Yes. In a word, “Taxes.” That’s what I say really loudly just as I reach into my kids’ Halloween candy and steal some. I reach into their Halloween bags and yell, “TAXES!” I then take and eat some of their best candy. And then I remind them about how if the government can take 30% of our income, then surely parents get to take 30% of their kids’ candy. I tell them I’m just trying to prepare them for the real world. So, parents, don’t forget to collect “taxes” from your kids this year!

Valid Opinions

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…

James 1:19

Sometimes we say things that are well-meaning but untrue. We say these things without much thought or reflection because in the moment we’re trying to care for people’s hearts. Yet, when I hear some of these statements, the lack of truth becomes glaring. Just like some people’s skin gets irritated by wool sweaters, my brain gets itchy and irritated when people say well-meaning cliches that aren’t true.

For instance, we like to say things like, “There is no bad question” to help students overcome their insecurities about asking questions. But every teacher knows that statement isn’t true. There are bad questions. Like, right after you give students the syllabus for the class and then someone asks a question that is answered in the first few lines of the syllabus. Bad question. 

Similarly, it’s common in our society to hear someone say, “Everyone’s opinion is valid.” But what do people really mean by that? What do they mean by the word valid? Sure, everyone has a right to their own opinion, but does that make every opinion equally valid? Is your neighbor’s opinion about that growth on your skin just as valid as the dermatologist’s? I don’t think so. Not everyone’s opinion should carry the same weight. 

When people want their opinion “validated” they usually just mean they want to be respected enough to be listened to. And that’s a good thing. Mostly people want to be validated as a person. They want to know that they themselves are valuable, regardless of what their opinion is. And, again, that’s a good thing. But to me, validating the worth of a person is different than calling all opinions valid.

Here’s what valid actually means: having a sound basis in logic or fact; reasonable or cogent. With that definition in mind, it’s clear to me that not every opinion has a sound basis in fact. Not every opinion is equally informed or cogent.

This is why, for me, not every opinion is equally valid. Uninformed and weakly formed opinions are everywhere, but they are not as valid as an informed opinion that took time to develop. I like how leadership guru Carey Nieuwhof said it: 

“…a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. We live in an age of strongly held, weakly formed opinions. Too many people’s worldviews are three questions away from collapsing. So learn broadly and be slow to draw conclusions. Wisdom takes time and input.”

Carey Nieuwhof

And we could rightly add that valid opinions take time and input. Valid opinions are well-thought-out, well-researched, informed opinions. Forming a strong, valid opinion is like smoking meat. There is no short cut. It has to be “low and slow” or it’s going to lack truth and wisdom. 

So, no, everyone’s opinion is not valid. You have to earn the right to have a valid opinion about a subject and that means doing your homework*. It means doing more than just listening to one podcast, Googling it, or reading WebMD. People want their weakly formed and uninformed opinions validated, but we need to stop doing this for people. It plays into a kind of deception that pretends all opinions are weighted equally, and they’re not. 

I have lots of uninformed opinions about a lot of things, but humility dictates that I pay deference to those who have spent more time formulating their opinions on a subject. Humility says that I need to listen to people with informed opinions when mine is uninformed. If I demand that my uninformed or weakly formed opinion be validated, then it usually means I’m operating out of insecurity or arrogance rather than humility.

*Note: I do believe there is at least one exception to this truth (if not more). In situations where a team might be brainstorming, innovating, creating, or experimenting with something new, sometimes the most helpful opinions are the least informed opinions. During times of innovation, sometimes people with well-informed opinions about a subject can get stuck in what they already know. This makes it difficult for them to think creatively. So, during times of experimentation or innovation, validating the weakly formed or uninformed opinions in the room might be necessary. 

Does God Favor the Poor?

“God does not show favoritism.”

Romans 2:11

A friend of mine posted on his Facebook page that he often tells his kids, “If you want to find God, find the person with the least amount of power in the room and stand next to them.” This statement got me thinking about whether God shows favoritism, especially to those who are powerless and marginalized. This seems to be a popular notion going around the church right now.

After some contemplating over that statement, I’ve made some observations. First, I think that statement comes from a place in my friend’s heart that is good and compassionate. He is a guy who cares about the marginalized and has lived a life that cares for the poor (who are all too often overlooked). Secondly, however, I think the statement isn’t exactly true, or at least it is a misleading half-truth.

The statement is a claim about power, specifically socio-economic power, and that God seems to favor those who society counts as powerless. If you want to find God, He’ll be among the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten. And there is a lot of truth in that. But again, it’s a half-truth. In the Gospels, we do often find Jesus among the outcasts, the powerless, and the marginalized of His day. But that’s only part of the story of scripture.

I am reminded that God also regularly partnered with the powerful in scripture (Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Samson, David, Solomon, Daniel, Matthew the tax-collector, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Lydia [Acts 16:13-15], the centurion who showed great faith [Matthew 8:5-13], etc). All of these people either had great wealth, power, position, or some combination of the three. And they were the ones of their day to stand next to if you wanted to find God.

Think about it. Abraham was extremely wealthy. God used Moses to confront Pharaoh using the power of God, power unlike we’ve ever seen. And Moses led an entire nation of people for many years. Joseph was the right-hand man to Pharaoh and was extremely wealthy. Samson wielded incredible physical power. David and Solomon were wealthy, powerful kings. Daniel was the number one advisor to the king of a massive empire. Matthew accrued great wealth as a trusted employee of the Roman empire. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were members of the most powerful religious groups in the first century. Lydia was likely a wealthy business owner dealing in the expensive and fashionable Tyrian purple fabrics. She likely had a large house that was used to hosting people of upper-class society. A centurion wielded the sword of Rome to occupy and oppress weaker people groups.

Can we really look at the biographies of these people and say that if you want to find God you have to look among the powerless? If you only had these stories from the Bible, would that be your slogan about finding God? I don’t think so.

Instead, your slogan might sound something like: “If you want to find God, stand next to the MOST powerful person in the room who hasn’t let their wealth and power destroy their dependency on God.” Or maybe it would be: “If you want to find God, stand next to the one who wields tremendous power but does so for the sake of the Kingdom of God rather than for their own selfish gains.” Or possibly: “If you want to find God, stand next to the person who humbled themselves (or who was humbled by God) to the point where God then raised them up to power.”

This last slogan strikes at the heart of the matter. One of God’s promises in scripture is this: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up“(James 4:10). What this means is that, when we see someone who has power, sometimes we are looking at a person who unjustly clawed and climbed their way to the top, and yet other times we are looking at someone who humbled themselves and God raised into power. Just the mention of this idea is scandalous to our culture today, and yet we see God do this over and over in scripture.

Let’s look at the life of Joseph as an example. If we believe that God favors the poor and powerless, that if we really want to find God we will find Him primarily among the marginalized, then we will cheer at the middle of Joseph’s life. That’s when we find God with Joseph through hardship, false imprisonment, and pain.

But what do we do with the beginning of his life when he was the favored son of wealthy Jacob? And what do we do with the end of his life? What do we do with the Joseph who was second only to Pharaoh in power and wealth in Egypt? Do we declare that God can’t be favoring Joseph in that moment? Do we stick to the modern narrative that God isn’t among the wealthy and elevated, that He doesn’t bless the powerful and privileged?

Or, could it be that the picture of God’s favor is a bit more nuanced than our popular slogans admit?

What about the life of Daniel? We may feel good about the popular truism that God will be found among the outcasts when Daniel is down in the lion’s den. But what happens to our theory when Daniel gets elevated to King Nebuchadnezzar’s most trusted advisor?

And what about Jesus? Do we identify Him as one of the poor outcasts–a peasant Jewish carpenter of the first century under political and economic oppression from Rome and religious oppression from the Pharisees? Or do we identify Him as a powerful miracle-worker and rabbi who had thousands of people following Him and expecting a revolution? You can’t really look at Jesus walking on water, calming the seas, healing the sick, and casting out demons and call Him “powerless.” Or, further still, do we identify Jesus as God-incarnate, the Son of God, the Almighty God-with-us, now seated at the right hand of the Father wielding all power and all authority?

The thing is, He was (and is) all of these things. He was simultaneously powerless and the most powerful.

This is precisely why I believe my friend’s statement is misleading. God isn’t just among the powerless. God is also quite at home among the powerful (as scandalous as that might be for some). In fact, God loves to take the powerless who are humble and raise them up to be powerful. He often does this in order to use them mightily in His Kingdom and for His glory.

For God, it’s not about your socio-economic status but about your heart. What is the condition of your heart? Regardless of your race, the size of your bank account, or the positions and titles you hold, do you still acknowledge your deep dependence on the Lord and your poverty of soul? Are you still teachable? Are you pursuing humility?

These are not things that can automatically be seen on the outside. These are renovations that happen on the inside. Which is why if you are in a room and you try to stand next to the person who is “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), and you try to base that on appearance, you’ll likely get it wrong. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart“(1 Samuel 16:7).

So before we continue repeating statements about God that fit really well into our current cultural milieu, we need to check to make sure they also hold up to what God has revealed about Himself in scripture. And while saying that God is primarily among the powerless has a compassionate ring to it, in the end it is a well-meaning half-truth that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Instead of my friend’s slogan, I think the truth is something closer to this: “If you want to find God, find the person with a humble heart who deeply loves Jesus, who admits their poverty of soul, and who has experienced great loss from great sacrifice for God.” And I’d add: “You won’t be able to tell who that person is by how they look. You’ll have to speak to them to hear their heart.” 

DNA of the Spirit

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Matthew 3:11

Whenever I tell people that the Lord has taken me through a journey of deeper engagement with the Holy Spirit, people often assume something about tongues or becoming charismatic. But this kind of assumption totally misses the point.

In order to give a more holistic picture of what has really happened in my life, I tend to say that I got a download of the “DNA of the Spirit.” This happened at God’s initiation and invitation, not my own. Using language from the charismatic stream, we might call this a filling of the Spirit or “baptism” of the Spirit. But many people are uncomfortable with that language for various reasons.

Using language from the spiritual formation/contemplative stream, we might say that this DNA of the Spirit is often the result of Jesus moving us from mansion 3 to mansion 4 or 5 in our interior life with God (according to the seven mansions laid out by St. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle paradigm of spiritual formation [read this if you want to learn more about this paradigm]). 

In order to bring greater clarity to what I’ve experienced, I list here some of the common characteristics that I’ve noticed accompany a download of the DNA of the Spirit. This DNA is not just about having the Spirit or interacting with the Spirit. This is something more. I write this as a person who for many years did not operate with this DNA and now does (I was a Christian for 25 years and a pastor for 10 years before experiencing this).

A person who embraces the DNA of the Spirit will often experience: 
1. An increase in awareness of and prioritizing of the unseen realm/spirit realm 
2. An increase in deep intimacy with the Lord, often accompanied by supernatural encounters with the Lord
3. An increase in two-way conversational dialog with the Lord, often accompanied by a desire to spend more time with Him
4. An increase in the sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s tangible presence and the Holy Spirit’s activity in the room, including a desire to notice and obey spontaneous promptings of the Spirit
5. An increase in the use of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12)
6. An increase in the power of the Spirit and the authority of Christ
7. An increase in the awareness of spiritual warfare as a regular part of the Christian life (including demonization and casting out demons) 
8. An increase in the conviction that the gospel is true and that Jesus is the only way (any residue of unbelief gets washed away)
9. An increase in the amount of God’s Kingdom that is believed to be available to us “already,” this side of heaven
10. An increase in prioritizing ministering to the Lord (rather than just to people) and hosting His Presence (rather than just hosting people) 
11. An increase in willingness to obey God even when it might seem weird to the people around you and you might be misunderstood [an increase in boldness is often a result of a “filling of the Spirit” (see Acts 4:31)]
12. An increase in a desire for holiness and purity, often accompanied by a reduction in desire for sin
13. An increase in expectancy as it relates to God moving supernaturally
14. An increase in the desire to speak about the above realities so that others may become awakened to them in similar ways

Most Christians can relate to one or two (or even a few) of the above characteristics. But imagine if you experienced all of these at once (or in a very short amount of time). That’s what a download of the DNA of the Spirit feels like. For me it was both a process and an event. It was a year and a half process of wading out into deeper waters of the Spirit (like slowly walking out into the ocean) followed by an event of being overwhelmed by the Spirit (like a wave of the Spirit crashing over me). This, then, was followed by a lifestyle of living in the deeper waters and experiencing continual wave after wave of the Spirit crashing upon my life. Once you’ve experienced these things, you want them for everyone you love and everyone around you. 

Yet, there is another reality to experiencing the DNA of the Spirit that’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some difficult aspects of it as well. 

Here are some things that are difficult that also tend to accompany a download of the DNA of the Spirit:
1. An increase in misunderstanding from people: I don’t think I’ve ever been more misunderstood than I have during this time. The amount of misunderstanding that has come from the DNA of the Spirit in my life has been disorienting. When one begins to try to explain this new engagement with the Holy Spirit, it is often met with skepticism, confusion, and false assumptions. When one becomes a Christian, it is difficult to describe to your non-Christian friends what exactly has happened to you. When you’re married with kids, it’s difficult to describe your new life to your single friends. There are certain things in life that will be misunderstood until they are experienced firsthand, and this is one of those things.

2. An increase in attacks from the enemy: The enemy will begin to recognize you as a greater threat to the kingdom of darkness and will respond accordingly. He will launch all manner of attack against your life including illness, grief, loss, betrayal, false accusations, and an increase in temptations. The goal is to ruin your reputation and limit your impact for the Kingdom of God.

3. An increase in testing from the Lord: The strangest thing to experience is that God allows the above things to happen, both misunderstandings and attacks, in order to test your character. He begins to test the clarity of the “well water” of your soul, not at the surface but at the deeper levels. And down in the depths of your soul is where you will find sediment that you didn’t know was there. It’s a painful process as you get As on some tests from the Lord and Fs on others. Your character is pressed and stressed to see where it is weak. The gold of your heart is thrown into the Refiner’s fire in order to clean out the dross and purify your desires. The point of all of this is so that God can trust you with the weight of “more” without crushing you under it. He has to sure up the weak parts of your character so that it won’t break under the weight of His glory.

You may have noticed by now how often I’ve used the word “increase.” And that is the main theme of receiving a download of the DNA of the Spirit. You get “more.” You get more intimacy and connection with God; you get more gifts; you get more passion, conviction, revelation and insight. But you also get more challenges and testing. You get an “increase” and an “upgrade” on all fronts.

So, this is the best I know how to describe what has happened in my life. It still doesn’t do it justice, but it’s a good summary of the experience. What is most amazing to me about it all is that it was initiated by the Lord. It wasn’t something I was interested in or something I was asking for. It was an invitation that He initiated on His own for His own purposes.

The only way I know how to describe this humbling feeling is to imagine being a first century beggar on the side of the road as Jesus and His disciples come into town. I know all too well that Jesus could have passed me by. He could have kept walking (and probably should have). Instead, on His own initiative, He decided to stop just for me. And in doing so He forever changed my life, my family, and my ministry. And he’ll do the same for you if you’re willing.

Worshiping Justice

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

Acts 28:1-6

The apostle Paul had been arrested because of false charges against him. After a couple years of being imprisoned for no reason, Paul appealed to Caesar–his legal right as a Roman citizen. However, on the journey from Caesarea to Rome, his ship was mercilessly battered by strong, early winter storms in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Shipwrecked and exhausted, Paul and the other 275 people on board swam to shore on the tiny island of Malta, located just 80 miles south of Sicily, Italy.

The people there were hospitable to the haggard sailors, passengers, and prisoners, building them a fire as they came ashore. Even Paul pitched in to help build the fire. Yet when a venomous snake, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on Paul’s hand, the pagan islanders assumed that it was the work of the goddess of Justice [called Dike (pronounced “dee-kay”) in the Greek pantheon of gods and Justicia in the Roman pantheon of gods].

It’s clear that their understanding of justice was very different than the justice we see implemented by God in the Bible. The activity of the goddess Dike (Justice) was more like a combination of vengeance and karma. If something bad happened to you, then it must be because of some wrong you had done. This kind of thinking is what we find in the modern concept of karma. Only for the ancient Greeks, this kind of karma was the personified vengeance of the goddess Dike.

So when Paul was bitten by a venomous snake after having been shipwrecked, the assumption was that he did something really, really bad (like murder). Justice (the goddess Dike) was getting her revenge on Paul. The only problem was that, as they waited for Paul to die, nothing happened. He suffered no ill effects from the snake bite. So not only was he saved from the Mediterranean storm and shipwreck, but now he was miraculously unaffected by the venomous snake bite.

Because of their warped view of justice, the pendulum now swung completely in the opposite direction. Not only was the goddess Justice not getting revenge, but Paul’s survival could only mean one thing: he was a “god” himself.

In this story I see our own culture’s obsession with “justice” and how misunderstood biblical justice really is. Yes, our God is a God of true justice, but our culture has severely warped any sense of real justice. Instead of worshiping at the feet of a God who delivers biblical justice, our culture bows down to the goddess Dike, the goddess of Justice who favors karma over grace and vengeance over restoration. “Cancel Culture” is the bastard offspring of Dike and her demonic ideology of warped justice.

The Bible is clear that the pantheon of pagan gods were not just fictitious mythologies, but instead were dressed up demonic forces who gained power by having humans worship them.

Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 

1 Corinthians 10:19-20

So the goddess Dike (or Justicia) is a demonic entity that loves to distort proper, biblical justice. The demonic Dike loves to enforce karma and enact vengeance and call it justice. Isn’t our culture, especially “cancel culture,” rife with this warped understanding of justice? And how many hundreds of action movies pretend to seek “justice” for some wrong that was done but are essentially bloodbaths of vengeance. Dike and her demonic minions are running rampant in our culture.

True biblical justice doesn’t come from worshiping Justice herself, but comes as a byproduct of worshiping the One True God, Yahweh, The Lord Jesus Christ. True biblical justice always comes seasoned with grace, redemptive consequences, and restoration. The prophets of the Old Testament regularly called for true justice yet always left room for the return of Israel, the redemptive process of discipline, and the restoration of a people.

Shame, guilt, condemnation, and violence are never the final word when we’re operating in true justice. Instead, they are tools of the demonic goddess Dike and her karmic vengeance. If we worship Justice, we’ll never actually attain true justice. When we build an idol out of anything, including justice, it will inevitably be warped and hijacked by the enemy.

A Girl Tormented

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. 

Luke 9:37-39

It happened at a conference, at the end of the evening worship service, when people were invited down front to receive prayer if they needed it. I’ll never forget the scene that unfolded.

At Global Awakening conferences I am what’s called a “Revival Leader.” Among other things, we help serve as the ministry team that stands down front and prays for people when the worship services are over.

On this particular night I had already prayed for physical healing for a couple people and was interviewing a young woman who had redness and sensitivity on the skin of her hands. As I asked about her condition, there was some commotion to my right. I ignored it the best that I could because I wanted to give this young lady and her husband my complete attention. But, just as I began to pray for her hands, the commotion got louder.

There was a young girl on the ground to my right who seemed to be about 12 or 13 years old. She was screaming and growling and writhing as she bicycled her legs and spun in a circle. Four or five adults were around her praying very loudly, and in some cases, yelling. They weren’t yelling at her but at the demonic spirits that they believed were causing the problem. There were also a number of teenagers, who seemed to be from her youth group, circled around her watching this bizarre scene.

As I looked over and assessed the scene, I stopped praying for the young woman’s hands and apologized. I told her that I had to deal with what was happening next to us but that, if she would wait for me, I would come back and continue to pray for her healing. She and her husband agreed.

As I stepped into the chaotic scene to my right, I realized that no one had established control or authority in the situation and no one seemed to really know what to do. In that moment, something rose up inside of me that I can only describe as a holy and righteous anger. Not anger with the people for not knowing what to do, but anger at the enemy for abusing, tormenting, and embarrassing this young girl.

The other thing that I immediately became aware of is that somehow I knew exactly what to do. Because of the intensive prayer ministry at my church, I had encountered demonic spirits and demonic manifestations in people on a semi-regular basis. So, oddly enough, I had a lot of experience with situations like this. But there was also a kind of “knowing” that came from the Holy Spirit in that moment. It was like God knew what needed to happen and He downloaded that information to me in an instant.

The first thing I did was to quickly ask about the girl on the ground and ask how she is connected to the people who were gathered around her. I then told everyone to stop praying and to get their hands off of her. The group quieted down but the girl on the ground was still hissing, writhing, and growling. I knew that we had to get this girl to a more private place where ministry could continue. But before that, I knew I had to establish authority.

I bent down, placed my right hand on her shoulder, and in a commanding, authoritative voice (the kind of voice you would used if you saw your young child about to run out into the road) I said, “STOP!” I was not speaking to the girl or the people around her. I was speaking to the demons who were manifesting and controlling her movements.

I followed this, in the same authoritative tone, by saying, “Stop it right now!” And they did. The demons knew I was speaking to them with the authority of the name of Jesus. All the girl’s movements on the ground stopped.

I stayed kneeling down next to the girl and, using her first name, called to her. It is important in these situations to get the person to regain control of their voice and body. I kept calling to the girl and inviting her to regain control of herself. Slowly the look in her eyes changed and she regained control of her body. The demons were still fighting to reestablish authority, so I knew they weren’t gone, but the girl was finally able to sit up on her own.

Now, in a gentle voice, I began to speak directly to the girl. I told her that she was going to be okay. The look of confusion and fear in her eyes told me that she didn’t understand what had just happened to her. I continued to lovingly encourage her and let her know that she was okay and that she was safe. With the help of her youth leaders, we got her on her feet. I directed them to take her to the back of the conference room so that she could receive more private and personal prayer ministry.

As the girl walked away with the help of her leaders, a few of the adults and teens looked at me confused. Finally, one of the adults in the group, with more than a hint of indignation in her voice, said, “Why are you sending her away? Why aren’t you praying for her? Why aren’t you helping her get free?”

I nodded my head because I understood where the question was coming from. They wanted me to cast those demons out right there and, in their view, all I did was send her away. But that’s not what was really happening. So I explained, “The enemy loves to draw attention to himself. And he loves to embarrass people. I didn’t want to give the enemy any more attention, and I didn’t want her to be embarrassed anymore in front of this whole crowd. She will continue to receive prayer, but it will be in the back where there is more privacy and where we can protect her dignity.”

At that, another adult in the group responded, “Ohhh, I see. Yeah… That’s really wise.” Then the group dispersed and I went back to praying for the young woman with the skin condition on her hands. Later that night, my fellow Revival Leaders and I made sure that the young girl got private and personal prayer ministry from one of the conference speakers.

Sometimes I’ve wondered why the Lord has given me so much experience casting out demons. It’s such a strange thing in our American culture to have experience with. But in that moment, I was grateful for all the experience that the Lord has given me. I was grateful that, somehow, I knew exactly what to do. I was grateful that the Lord used me to bring order to the chaos and restore dignity to a young girl. I still have so much to learn. SO. MUCH. TO. LEARN. But it’s encouraging when what you have learned gets put into practice and ends up helping someone in need.

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Matthew 10:7-8

Labeling a Word from the Lord

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Acts 16:6-10

I was talking to a friend the other day about hearing God speak to us. This person asked me, “What is the purpose of labeling what we hear from God with names that come from the charismatic stream like “word of knowledge” or “prophetic word,” etc.? Can’t we ditch the labels?” It’s an important question that I want to unpack here.

First, Jesus is clear that God does speak to us and that we can hear Him (we’re not talking about audible voice here). We see this throughout the Bible.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 

John 10:2-4, 27

God can communicate with us through scripture, mental or emotional impressions, thoughts that are not our own (still, small voice), mental images, dreams, visions, patterns, life-circumstances, etc. And He most often does this through the Holy Spirit.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

Of course everything the Spirit says to us will align with the principles and truths of scripture. Anything outside of that is not from God. But in order to grow as a disciple of Jesus, we have to grow in our ability to hear and obey.

Traditions of the church that are not from the charismatic stream of Christianity hesitate to call this kind of direction communication from the Lord “revelation” because they don’t want to put it on par with scripture. And this is a good impulse. Even the charismatic stream makes a strong distinction between the authoritative revelation of scripture and the personal communication that comes from the Lord speaking directly to us. Scripture is what holds ultimate authority. Everything else from the Lord is more personal, subjective communication and must submit to scripture.

Traditions of the church that are not from the charismatic stream are also more comfortable with phrases like, “I got an impression from the Lord,” or “I felt prompted by the Lord,” or “I felt led by the Lord to…“, rather than saying things like, “I got a prophetic word,” or “I felt like I got a word of knowledge.” These terms that are often seen as “charismatic labels” simply come from language that the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 as he lists what are sometimes called the “supernatural gifts of the Spirit.”

But, as to our original question, why use these labels anyway if they can sometimes cause people to be skeptical or wary? There are a few reasons:

  1. First, sometimes it is best not to use these labels. If we can get our point across by saying “promptings of the Spirit” or “impression from the Lord” then we should do that. No need to overcomplicate things.
  2. The labels exist because they speak to the reality that prophecy, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and discerning the spirits all serve different functions. While they are all direct communication from the Lord, they accomplish different purposes. Mixing them up can be harmful. Let’s be clear about definitions:
    • A word of knowledge is when the Lord downloads a small bit of information about a person or situation to us through the Spirit. This gift is often a “door-opener” that can lead into physical healing, a prophetic word, or evangelism.
    • A word of wisdom is when the Lord downloads a small bit of His wisdom to us, usually in the form of advice or direction, about a person or situation. I believe many leaders of organizations and counselors get these and don’t know they are coming from the Lord.
    • Discerning the spirits is a diagnostic tool informing us about the human spirit (people’s motivations and desires), heavenly spirits (movements of the Holy Spirit or the angelic), and/or demonic spirits (how the enemy is attacking or manipulating a person or situation). This gift often diagnoses the problem.
    • Prophecy is hearing God’s heart for a person or situation (usually future-oriented, calling out a person’s real identity, how God sees them, or where God is taking them). Prophecy declares God’s word over a person or situation, which often has the power to bring about God’s purposes for that person or situation. If discerning the spirits diagnoses the problem, prophecy speaks to the solution.
  3. Because each of these forms of direction communication is essentially its own gift, they need to be responded to differently. Sharing information with people about themselves that we received supernaturally (a word of knowledge) can become just a parlor trick unless it has purpose (usually in the form of prayer for healing, a prophetic word, or evangelism). Discerning the spirits can help us diagnose the problem but we don’t prophesy the problem over people. We prophesy the solution. So, understanding what kind of communication we are getting from the Lord is just as important as the ability to receive that communication.

Unpacking these labels is really important for discipleship. Every follower of Jesus needs to know how to hear from the Lord and receive direction communication from the Holy Spirit. We also need to grow in our understanding of what to do with that word once we receive it.

Sometimes God’s direct communication is just for our own strengthening, encouragement, and comfort. Sometimes we get a word for someone else. Church leaders need to be training their people in knowing what to do when we get a word for someone else and how to deliver that word with care, wisdom, and love.

Words on a Plane

But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort…

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy…

1 Corinthians 14:3, 39

I sat down in my seat for my flight home from Texas. Missy would stay in Texas for a few extra days for a girl’s trip. The kids where already home with my parents awaiting my return. I’m not often by myself on a plane so this was a good chance to stretch my faith a little and see what God would do.

I sat in an aisle seat in a row with one guy already at the window seat. He was a young, African-American guy, maybe in his twenties. He had a durag on with a hoodie pulled over that. He had earbuds in listening to music from his phone and a mask on his face (though masks were optional on this flight). He had sweatpants on and slide-ons on his feet. His socks were some sort of cartoonish design. His posture gave the over all message, “Leave me alone.”

As more and more people filled the cabin, and seats were running low (this was a Southwest flight where you chose your own seat), a young woman decided to claim the center seat in our row. She looked to be in her twenties as well, fashionably dressed, and either Puerto Rican or mixed race. She had a lot of make up on but it was well done. Her nails too. She had one of those looks that could be confused with a number of different ethnicities.

We all settled in and I decided to tilt my head back onto the headrest, close my eyes, and begin to pray. I began with some prayers of gratitude and praise. Then I shifted into asking the Lord what I have asked Him a hundred different times when praying for people, “Lord, how do you see him/her?”

In my estimation, if this question works in church environments it should work everywhere. Meaning, if I can practice hearing what the Lord says about fellow Christians that I pray for in church, then I should also be able to hear what He says about the people around me in daily life. For some reason, the latter seems to demand more faith from me than the former.

As I began listening, I started with the African-American guy in the widow seat. The first thing I heard (“heard” meaning: a conversational thought that came to my mind that seemed not to be my own) was, “His IQ is very high, much higher than the people around him.” I don’t know what I was expecting God to say about him, but that definitely wasn’t it. Then I saw a picture in my mind’s eye of him at a computer. It seemed like he was playing video games on his computer but based on the first word, it could have been him doing programing or something. I wasn’t sure.

Feeling bolstered by what I heard for the guy by the window, I asked about the girl next to me in the center seat. I got a picture of her with children. She was helping them in some way. Then I heard, “She is good with kids. She helps kids who are forgotten and on the margins. She’s good with kids because she wasn’t allowed to have much of a childhood.”

This was all going so well, but I wasn’t sure any of it was accurate and I wasn’t sure when or how I would share these words with these people. I prayed for an opportunity to share and the courage to step out in faith.

I also asked about the lady across the center aisle from me who was sitting in the aisle seat directly next to mine. She was a heavyset hispanic lady that looked closer to my age. In my mind’s eye I saw a picture of her cooking tons of food for a big family. Nothing about her necessarily signaled that she was a mother, but it was as if she brought her family joy and connection through her cooking. Maybe a grandmother? I didn’t know.

The final word came for the lady sitting diagonally across the aisle from me in the seat in front of the hispanic lady. She was a well put together white lady in a business suit. I wondered if she had flown somewhere for business. The only thing I heard for her was, “The business deal will go through. It will work.” I had no idea what this meant or even if she was a business person. She could have been a teacher for all I knew. It’s just what I felt like I heard from the Lord.

I held on to these words waiting for opportunities to share them. After an hour, I was still waiting. It wasn’t until the girl next to me needed to get up and go to the bathroom that I felt like there was an opening.

After she left, I mustered up the courage to tap the guy in the window seat on the arm. He looked up surprised and took one of his earbuds out. I greeted him and explained that sometimes I’ll pray for people around me and ask God how He sees them. Then I asked, “Do you want to know what I heard Him say about you?” Still a little confused, he said that he did.

I said, “I heard the Lord say that your IQ is really high and that it is higher than the people around you. Then I saw a picture of you on a computer either programming or playing video games. Are you a computer programer or something?” He said, “No. But I do play a lot of video games.” I nodded, “Oh, okay, I must have mixed that up a little. Can I ask what you do?” He replied, “I’m going to be a doctor. I’m finishing up med school to be a radiologist.” Laughing I said, “Oh wow, that must be the whole thing with your IQ. I just want you to know that God has given you your intelligence as a gift and he wants you to use it for good. And it sounds like you already are!”

He thanked me for praying for him and asked about me. I shared that I was a pastor. He asked a few questions about my church just as the girl from our row returned from the bathroom. That seemed to go well and gave me a little more courage to try out the other words.

The plane landed and parked at the jetway. I stood up to stretch my legs as people prepared to leave the plane. I didn’t want the girl next to me to leave before giving her the word. So I decided just to jump in and explain to her that sometimes I pray and ask God how He sees the people around me. I asked her if she wanted to know what I heard God say about her. She looked very skeptical. And with more than a little attitude she said, “Sure.”

Unexpectedly, the guy next to the window chimed in and said, “He did the same for me. And he was right. Trust me, it will be good.” Now I was the one a little shocked. This guy who I just met was helping me out. So cool. The girl confirmed again that she wanted to hear what I had to say.

I said, “I heard the Lord say that you’re really good with kids. I saw a picture of you helping kids who had been forgotten and on the margins. He said you are good with kids because you weren’t given the chance to have much of a childhood.” Still looking skeptical, she nodded and said, “Okay?” She seemed to be processing it all and not knowing what to do with it.

I asked, “Can I ask you what you do?” She said, “I’m a nurse.” Pointing to the guy next to the window I said, “Oh great, he’s a doctor.” Surprised, she turned and had a short conversation with him about what he was doing in medicine. She then turned back to me and said, “Yeah, I’m a travel nurse but I used to work in pediatrics.”

This was a gracious lifeline to me. She could have left that detail out, but she decided to throw me a bone. I was so encouraged by this little detail because it meant that I wasn’t totally off in hearing the Lord. I said, “Oh wow, so you are good with kids, and probably some of those kids were really struggling.” She nodded in agreement. I said, “Well, maybe God will give you an opportunity to return to pediatrics. Clearly, you are really good with kids and God loves that about you.” She was still reserved in her response and didn’t seem totally convinced, but I considered that conversation a win.

We were all getting off the plane before I could deliver the other two words to the other two ladies. But then I noticed that the heavyset hispanic lady was walking right beside me as we entered the airport terminal. I tried my best to give a quick, 30-second summary of how I listen to the Lord and that, for her, I got a word about her cooking for her family. She looked a little freaked out and nodded in a way that said, “Please leave me alone.” Ha! She quickly darted in the the women’s restroom before any conversation could happen, and I was off to baggage claim. I never caught up with the lady in the business suit.

Two out of four ain’t bad. But it confirmed to me that God has thoughts about every person on the planet (read Psalm 139:17-18). He knows us intimately and in the most detailed ways. His heart posture toward us is love, not condemnation.

As followers of Jesus, not only is God willing to share his thoughts through the Holy Spirit (read 1 Corinthians 2:9-13), but He is willing to share his feelings as well. When God gives me words about people, I find that I can’t help but love them in that moment. It’s like God’s love is so big that the residue of His love sticks to every prophetic word He gives. Each word is just a fragment of all the thoughts He has for that person, and each one carries a tiny fragment of His love with it. As His word for them flows through me, the residue of His love for them rubs off on me and changes my heart for them.

Prophetic words weren’t designed to come as raw data. They were meant to come wrapped in His love. They are a kind of incarnation. The word becomes flesh, even on a plane.

A Word for A Stylist

When I pray for people at church, I often ask the Lord how He sees the person I’m praying for, I listen, then I share what I hear the Spirit put on my heart or an image that comes to mind. But these kind of prophetic words aren’t just meant for inside the walls of the church. So I do this same exercise in listening when I interact with people throughout the day.

For instance, I’ve made it a practice to ask the Lord how He sees the person who is about to cut my hair. I go to one of those places where I have a new hairstylist just about every time. Here’s what I heard the Lord say yesterday when I got my hair cut.

Usually, my stylist is a woman. Yesterday it was a heavily-tatooed African-American man. I asked the Lord, “How do you see him?” Here’s what I heard, “He’s an artist but he grew up in an environment that didn’t appreciate art. He’s creative like me.” (When I say, “Here’s what I heard…”, I don’t mean the audible voice of God. I mean a conversational thought goes through my mind–a still, small voice–that I recognize as not my own.)

A few seconds later I mustered up the courage to start a conversation with him by saying, “So what other kinds of art do you do?” He looked shocked and said, “What makes you think I do art? How do you know I do art?” Instead of telling him the real answer just yet, I told him I assumed because of his tatoos that he was an artist. He told me he paints and draws and wishes he could do more with his art. We then had a conversation about art and artists. I said to him (based on the other part of the word from the Lord), “You probably didn’t have people around you who really appreciated art, did you?” He confirmed.

Later, when he was shampooing my hair, I heard the Lord say, “His mom is a praying woman.” When the Lord speaks to you, He often wants you to do something with it. Since I heard the first word correctly, I knew the Lord was asking me to step out and take another risk with this second word. After I mustered up the courage, I asked, “Is your mom a praying woman?” He said, “Ohhh yeah. She definitely is.” Then I said, “She’s a church lady, huh?” He opened up a little, “She very much is. But I’m not fully convinced.”

That’s when I decided to let the cat out of the bag. I told him I was a pastor and that I usually prayed for whomever cut my hair. I told him how I would ask God how he saw the person and then try to listen.

He asked, “What did He say about me?” I told him, “God said you were an artist but you didn’t grow up in an environment that appreciates art. That’s why I originally asked you about your art. God also told me your mom was a praying woman. I want you to know that God gave you that creativity. He loves that about you. You’re creative like He’s creative.”

After that we exchanged some small talk about my church and about his vacation coming up. But I hope that he has a better picture of how God sees him. God loves him and is for him. God created him uniquely and with purpose. I hope that he got a glimpse of how God sees him through the gift of prophecy. Prophetic words aren’t about “thus saith the Lord.” They are about revealing the heart of the Father to a world who needs to know how much they are loved.