Married Life

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 

Ephesians 6:31-32

I’ve had friends fall away from their relationship with Christ just as I’ve had friends get a divorce. The similarities in these two scenarios are striking.

When we get married we happily choose our spouse. What we may not realize is that we will have to continue to choose them. It’s easy enough to choose them when we are in that honeymoon phase and we see them at their best. But what happens when you’re a decade or more into marriage? What happens when they are not at their best and you are not at yours?

The challenge of marriage is not what you will do when everyone is 100%. The challenge is to still choose your spouse when they are running on fumes after sleepless nights with kids, job changes, hospital visits, unpaid bills, credit card debt, misunderstandings, arguments, and life transitions. The challenge is to still choose them after you see all their failures, weaknesses, and shortcomings. It’s much harder to choose them when they change on you and it feels like you’re married to someone completely different. This person standing in front of you isn’t who you signed up for, after all.

In the midst of this, the enemy will often provide you an “out.” The way out of the marriage can come in a variety of forms. It can come as a secret escapism that you hide from your spouse. It can come as the numbing distance of living parallel lives. It can come as an addiction that you try to keep private. It can come in the form of an affair. It can come as a strong desire to throw in the towel and get a divorce. Choosing your spouse will feel like fighting a force that is pulling you apart because that is exactly what is happening. The enemy is intentional.

My point in highlighting this reality of marriage is not to give marriage counseling. My point is that this is the same pattern that applies to our relationship with Jesus. Our intimacy and connection with Him will often go through a similar cycle. We willingly choose Jesus at the beginning of our faith journey, but we will have to continue to choose Him if we want to stay connected to Him. It is a relationship that must be cultivated and cared for.

A decade or two into your relationship with Jesus you will have to decide to choose Him again. Only this time you will not be naive about the obstacles you will face. You will have to choose Jesus not as He invites you to drop your nets and follow Him (Matthew 4:19-20), but you’ll have to choose Him as He invites you to take up your cross and go with Him to Golgotha.

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 

Luke 9:23-24

The disciples faced a moment of decision like this with Jesus. They were all so excited to follow Him and witness all the healings and miracles that Jesus performed. They were excited to leave behind their old life and join the Messiah on His quest toward Jerusalem. But then Jesus decided to prune the crowds with a hard teaching, and most of them turned away.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

…From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:60, 66-69

Each of us who follow Jesus will face this same question. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” In this moment, we’ll have to deny ourselves, lay down our “right” to understand, give up our plans, and choose Jesus all over again, knowing that we’re not headed to the palace but to the cross.

Will we say “Yes” to Jesus again?

One Wish

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

1 Kings 3:5

Solomon had just become king over the people of God. This huge responsibility weighed on him. Then God came to him in a dream one day and essentially gave him one wish.

If God did this with you, what would you ask for? Or, in an attempt to say the “right” thing, would you assume that in humility you shouldn’t ask for anything?

Solomon did ask for something. He understood the difference between real humility and false humility. False humility doesn’t ask for anything, assuming that’s the right thing to do in this situation. Real humility doesn’t shrink back from asking for God’s blessings and gifts, but asks for things that will benefit others.

“Now, Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

1 Kings 3:7-9

Remember that Solomon is asking for this in a dream. We can’t fake it when we are standing before God and especially not in a dream. Solomon was in a situation where God was seeing the true contents of Solomon’s heart. What Solomon truly wanted was a discerning heart so that he could rule over the people with wisdom and justice. God loved this about Solomon.

Notice God’s response. God doesn’t say, “Because you were humble and didn’t ask for anything…” No, God didn’t have time for that kind of false humility. God loves that Solomon truly wanted a gift from God that would ultimately benefit all of the people of God and not just himself.

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.

1 Kings 3:10-13

So what would you ask for if God let you pick one thing? We all could use a little more wisdom, but we’re not all kings, so wisdom may not be the thing that would be most beneficial. Would it be more love? More grace? More power? More authority?

When we start talking about God’s power and authority many Christians get squeamish. I’ve noticed that people get skeptical about those who would ask for more of God’s power or more of God’s authority. People automatically assume poor motives when power and authority enter the conversation.

If someone asks you, as a follower of Jesus, if you want more of God’s power and more of God’s authority, do not shrink back into the lie of false humility. Many Christians think they are being humble and holy by saying, “Oh no, I’m not interested in getting more of God’s power or authority.” But this is the epitome of false humility.

The purpose of God giving you more of His power and His authority is not about you; it is for the sake of others. With an increase of God’s power and authority in your life, you will be used to help set others free from things that oppressively hinder their life with Christ. It could be sickness and disease. It could be demonic oppression. Whatever it is, you’re going to need all the power and authority you are able to carry in order to help that person get free. By shrinking back in false humility, you’re essentially saying you have no desire to help others get free.

Imagine that a group of people are being held captive, and you’ve been assigned the mission to help them get free. Then someone comes up to you and says, “Before you go in there, I want to give you the gear that will help you accomplish the mission. I want to give you these weapons and this armor. Further, I want to deputize you as a federal marshal so that everyone understands you are operating in the authority of this government. All of this is going to greatly increase your chances of getting those people free.” Now imagine your response to that is false humility. Image you say, “Oh no, I don’t want all of that. I just want to stay humble.” Can you see the problem here?

The truth is that when God gives a person more of His power and authority, it is an incredibly humbling experience. Just as there is a weight to carrying heavy armor and heavy guns for the sake of other people’s freedom, there is a heavy weight to walking in the power and authority of God. It is a huge responsibility. But God is looking for those willing to take up the challenge.

So, if God asks you what you want, don’t be afraid to ask for more of His power and more of His authority. One of the most humbling things you can do is to ask for more power and authority because you know that, if He gives you more, it won’t be for you. Your life is not your own. You will now be commissioned to go and help others get free. Just know that whatever you ask for will come with its own weight, its own responsibility. God’s gifts are not toys for self-glorification. They are expressions of His love and weapons of spiritual warfare.

The Willing

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Matthew 21:28-32

I met with a Methodist pastor the other day who is not only engaging in the gifts of the Spirit but is also equipping his church to do the same. He is creating space in the Methodist liturgy to give words of knowledge, pray for healing, and give testimonies of those who have been healed. Before he was a pastor he had a career in computer science.

I’m meeting with an Anglican guy today who wants to engage his church in the things of the Spirit. He’s a post-doctoral research scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Applied Physics.

It may seem strange to some that individuals with very rational and intellectual backgrounds who are from mainline protestant denominations are engaging in the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. We have tended to relegate the things of the Holy Spirit to the Pentecostals and those “crazy” charismatics.

But this is a pattern that I see emerging in the Church right now. God is taking men and women who are highly intellectual–Ph.Ds, medical doctors, scientists, professors–and He is taking men and women from denominations not known for emotionalism or hype, and He is pouring out the supernatural gifts of the Spirit upon them. It is easy enough for our snobbish superiority complex to write off a trailer park guy from a Pentecostal church when he tells us about a supernatural encounter with God he had. But trying writing off an Anglican scientist who has a Ph.D from Hopkins. Our smug rationalism doesn’t know what to do with that.

Jesus told the parable above to remind us that He is less interested in what people will say they will do and is more interested in what people will actually do. Tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom ahead of the ones who knew the Jewish law so well.

Today, Methodist computer scientists and Anglican Ph.Ds are engaging in the Spirit of God ahead of many others simply because they are willing. They are willing to step out in faith and risk. They are willing to believe in the supernatural things of God. And so they are seeing people get healed in their churches, they are seeing people activated in the gifts of the Spirit, and they are seeing God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven simply because they are willing.

It doesn’t matter what denomination is on the church sign out front. It doesn’t matter if you call yourself charismatic or Pentecostal or “spirit-filled” or nondenominational. If you aren’t willing to step out in faith and believe in the supernatural, if you aren’t willing to engage in and practice the gifts of the Spirit, God will find those who are willing.

I don’t want to be like the second son who said that he would do it and then didn’t. I want my story to resemble the first son. Though at first I wasn’t sure about these supernatural experiences and supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit–maybe at first I was hesitant and too scared to step out in faith and give a prophetic word or a word of knowledge or pray for the sick–but eventually I decided I had to be obedient and do it. The question still stands, “Which of the two did what his Father wanted?”

No matter what our educational background, no matter what our denominational tradition, are we willing? Are we willing to explore and engage in the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit? If not, God will find those who are, and they will experience the Kingdom of God ahead of us!

Leaving

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

John 19:25-27

Jesus knew the pain and the promise of leaving. He had to look down from the cross, bloodied and beaten, and He had to see the pain of His grieving mother. He knew He had to leave her. He had to go. Knowing He couldn’t stay, Jesus asked His best friend John to step in as His mother’s son.

There was tremendous pain in leaving for Jesus. Yet, there was also incredible promise. Jesus, Himself, said to His disciples:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 

John 16;7

It was good that He was going away and returning to the Father because the Holy Spirit could then come and do what Jesus could not do. The Holy Spirit could fill every believer and fill the whole world with the Presence and power of God.

Leaving the people we love, leaving the things we love, leaving the places we love is painful. Yet, there is promise in the pain.

The apostle Paul knew the pain and promise of leaving. On his way to Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen to him there, he stopped by the region of Ephesus to say goodbye to his close friends.

Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you,from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents…And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there…

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.

Acts 20:17-22, 36-38

Paul knew he had to go, but it was painful to leave. God had called him to step into the unknown and face an uncertain future. And God had called the elders at Ephesus to stay and step into their own unknown and uncertain future.

There is pain and promise in leaving. The pain is the loss. The promise is that there is a stripping away, a disentangling, that happens which opens new doors and new possibilities. This combination of pain and promise, shedding and possibility, is perfectly articulated by the author of Hebrews.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

In the midst of leaving, it is easy for the person leaving and the person staying to grow weary and lose heart. Yet, if we can embrace the pain of leaving we might also be able to embrace the promise. In the leaving a disentanglement happens that allows us to run the race that was marked out for us. We have a race marked out for us that is unique to us, unique to our life. And so we keep our eyes on Jesus in the leaving, remembering that He endured the pain of leaving as He went to the cross. He endured this pain for the joy set before Him. The joy came from the promise on the other side of the pain. We must keep our eyes on Him so that we don’t grow weary and lose heart.

Leaving is painful. Leaving is full of promise. It’s both.

Leaving is loss. Leaving is a shedding that opens new possibilities. It’s both.

Let us grieve the pain of leaving, and, somehow, through the tears, open our eyes to the future we couldn’t see before.

Lenten Fasting

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Mark 2:18-20

Today the season of Lent begins and many people will consider giving something up as a way to honor the sacrifice of Jesus. Fasting has always been a part of the life of the Church. Jesus, in the above passage, indicates that once He has ascended to the Father, fasting will become a normal part of the life of a disciple. Jesus also gives instructions about fasting in the Sermon on the Mount.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

Notice that Jesus starts with “When you fast…” The assumption is that a normal part of the Christian life will include regular fasting. Also notice here that the focus is on the Father and not on the fast. Our eyes should be on God not on ourselves when we fast. And we should do it in a way that draws little attention to ourselves. Finally, Jesus specifically mentions that there are rewards from the Father for fasting.

The ultimate reward for fasting is an increased focus on the Lord, an increased awareness of His Presence. There is also often an increase in spiritual hunger, insight and breakthrough as a result of fasting, but it is important that we don’t fast in order to “get” something. We fast as a means of giving ourselves more fully to God. Though we often receive way more than we’ve given up, fasting is not an exercise in reciprocity with God. It is a response to the fact that God has already given us so much. It is a response to all that God has given us in Christ. And, in a small way, it is an identification with the sufferings of Christ.

With this in mind, here are some motivations to avoid when doing a Lenten fast:

  1. We don’t fast to get God’s attention: Fasting is more about getting our attention on Him not His attention on us. You are His beloved son or daughter. You already have His undivided attention. 
  2. We don’t fast to get what we want from God: Our relationship with God is governed by grace and mercy not reciprocity. We don’t surrender to get things. We surrender in response to the fact that He’s already given us everything!
  3. We don’t fast to lose weight or “detox”: Fasting is not about health benefits but spiritual connection to the Father. The thing most in need of “detox” is our soul. Often food covers buried sins and wounds. Fasting helps these things to emerge and be addressed. 

Especially if you fast from food or a favorite food item for Lent, don’t be surprised if things that control you are revealed. We often cover up things in our soul with food. When food is removed, those things can surface and be dealt with. Try to notice these buried sin issues without judging yourself too harshly. For instance, if pride or anger controls us, they will emerge when food is removed. This is an opportunity to surrender these things to the Lord. (If you are battling an eating disorder, have a medical condition that is prohibitive, or a nursing or pregnant mother, you should consider fasting something other than food.)

Here is some wisdom about fasting from Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline:

“We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface…Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.”  

“Fasting reminds us that we are sustained ‘by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4).  Food does not sustain us; God sustains us.”  

“Fasting helps keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives.  How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them.”   

“As with all the Disciplines, a progression should be observed; it is wise to learn to walk well before we try to run.  Begin with a partial fast of twenty-four hours’ duration; many have found lunch to lunch to be the best time.  This means that you would not eat two meals.  Fresh fruit juices are excellent to drink during the fast…In the beginning you will be fascinated with the physical aspects of your experience, but the most important thing to monitor is the inner attitude of the heart.  Outwardly you will be performing the regular duties of your day, but inwardly you will be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship. In a new way, cause every task of the day to be a sacred ministry to the Lord.”

“What goes on spiritually is much more important that what is happening bodily…Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way.”

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

These are all reasons why fasting for Lent should be seen not just as abstaining from food but as feasting on God through prayer and His Word. While our body is fasting and identifying with the sufferings of Christ, our spirit is feasting on the Presence of God and foreshadowing the coming wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-10).

What will you fast for Lent?

Heaviness

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.

Isaiah 61:1-3

When Jesus started His ministry in the synagogue of His own hometown of Nazareth, this is the passage that He read from in the scroll of Isaiah. This passage is the prophetic mission statement for the Messiah. After Jesus read this passage, He told the congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21). In other words, Jesus said, “I am the fulfillment of this passage, and I will do all that it says I will do.”

There are so many profound and important truths buried in this passage, but the one I want to highlight today is one from the very last line. Jesus, through the Spirit, is able to give us a “garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” The Modern English Version of the Bible calls it a “spirit of heaviness.”

Have you ever been in a season that felt heavy?

A season of heaviness is often a season of loss. We experience the loss of a loved one, a death in the family, a friend who moves away, a co-worker moves on, a job falls through, a marriage breaks down, an offer gets turned down. In a season of heaviness there is often a combination of losses that begin to pile up. When this happens a spirit of despair–a spirit of heaviness–can weigh down our soul.

Have you ever been there? Are you there now?

The Bible tells us that the antidote to this heaviness is a garment of praise. When we feel the heaviness set in, we need to praise the Lord. We need to worship even when it feels like the opposite of what we want to do. We need to praise Him, not for the circumstances we face, but for who He is despite the circumstances. We need to praise Him for His goodness, His kindness and His love for us. He is worthy! He is worthy!

Praising God in the midst of heaviness is like taking off in a rocket in the midst of a thick, dark, cloudy sky. In order to punch through the clouds we have to keep going. A garment is something you wear. It’s something that stays on you. In order for it to be a garment of praise, it has to be more than just once. It has to be a continual offering of praise. It has to be something we wear.

When we ask the Lord to clothe us in a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair, and when we begin to wear this garment of praise all day long, we will eventually punch through the clouds. The funny thing about clouds is that it is always sunny on the top side. Always. The sun never stops shining. Clouds only conceal the truth that the sun is shining, but the sun never stops shining. Praising God because He is worthy helps us bust through to the top side and see the sunshine that has been there all along.

If you are feeling the heaviness today, here is a song that will help you get to that place of praise. It’s a beautiful rendition of the Doxology.

Vengeance

When Shimei son of Gera crossed the Jordan, he fell prostrate before the king and said to him, “May my lord not hold me guilty. Do not remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. May the king put it out of his mind. For I your servant know that I have sinned, but today I have come here as the first from the tribes of Joseph to come down and meet my lord the king.”

Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said, “Shouldn’t Shimei be put to death for this? He cursed the Lord’s anointed.”

David replied, “What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? What right do you have to interfere? Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?” So the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king promised him on oath.

2 Samuel 19:18-23

When Absalom, David’s son, was trying to steal the throne and forcing David out of Jerusalem, Shimei was there to “greet” King David as he left. Shimei threw stones at King David as he cursed David and his reign. Scripture says that Shimei was “showering him with dirt” (2 Samuel 16:13) and calling King David a “scoundrel” (2 Samuel 16:7). These were things punishable by death, but David was too ashamed to respond.

This was a classic case of “piling on.” David’s own son was trying to steal the throne and forcing him out of Jerusalem and this man was joining in the fun. But what would happen when King David regains the throne and re-enters Jerusalem? Wouldn’t this man be the first to reap the vengeful wrath and justice of the newly restored King David? Abishai son of Zeruiah thought so.

Yet, we can all learn a lesson from King David’s response. Instead of righteous judgment, David dispenses grace. Instead of revenge, David gives forgiveness. King David had been fully exonerated, fully restored, and fully revealed as the rightful king. This was his moment to exact revenge on all of those people who joined Absalom’s bandwagon–all of those who betrayed him instead of being faithful servants–but instead David showed grace.

It wasn’t only Shimei that David treated with kindness and grace. He did the same to Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son (2 Samuel 19:24-30). He also showed grace to the royal concubines who had slept with Absalom. Though David could have put them out of the royal court to live destitute and in disgrace, instead he never slept with them again and yet provided for them the rest of their lives (2 Samuel 20:3).

How could King David have such a graceful response?

We get a clue from something David said to Abishai. When asked why he wouldn’t put Shimei to death, David said, “Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?” (2 Samuel 19:22). In other words, David could respond with grace and forgiveness because he knew who he was. It was about his identity. David was secure in his identity as king. He didn’t need to prove it to anyone with vengeance.

What is our response to those who have wronged us after it is revealed that we were in the right and they were in the wrong? When the truth finally catches up to those who’ve spoken lies about us, what do we do? When those who have betrayed us are finally exposed, how do we react?

Is it with grace? Is it with forgiveness? Is it with kindness? Or do we throttle them with revenge, condemnation, and judgment?

We who have been forgiven of so much, we who live by the grace of God, we who have been shown the kindness of God in the face of Jesus, we who had Christ die for us while we were yet sinners, we are called to respond the way King David did. If we are secure in our royal identity as children of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, if we know that we are co-heirs of God’s Kingdom, we will be able to respond in grace. The apostle Paul gave clear instructions to the Roman Christians about what we are supposed to do in these situations.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17