Following the Presence

“When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before…”

Joshua told the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.”

Joshua 3:3-5

The people of God were directed to follow the ark into the Promised Land. The only way to enter into the promises that God has over our life is to follow His Presence. The ark represented the Presence of God. We follow His lead by watching to see where His Presence is and moving in that direction. We have to do this because we’ve never been where God is taking us. We’ve “never been this way before.”

If God seems to be moving in one area of our life, we go with it. We follow it. We pursue it. While they had the ark, we have the Holy Spirit. We have to grow in our ability to sense the movement of the Spirit. When He moves, we move. When He stops and stays, we stop and stay. This is what Paul was trying to describe when he told the Galatians, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit“(Galatians 5:25).

Consecrating our lives to the Lord is a big part of seeing God move in powerful ways. If we want to see God do amazing things among us, we must live lives of surrender, obedience, and holiness. The fire of God is a purifying fire.

I was talking to my oldest son the other day about the difference between following the law and following the Spirit. He asked me if there was a movie rating beyond “R.” I explained that there was NC-17 and pornography, both of which show things that no one should be watching.

He asked me if mommy and I watch rated R movies. I told him that sometimes we do but that, generally, we don’t. I told him that just because we are old enough to watch them doesn’t mean that we should watch them. We are allowed (the law) to watch but that doesn’t mean it would be spiritually or emotionally healthy to do so (the Spirit).

I went on to explain that sometimes following the Spirit means breaking the law (as Jesus did when He broke sabbath law to heal on the sabbath). And sometimes following the Spirit means not doing things that the law allows us to do (like watching movies that feed our mind harmful things).

I explained to my oldest son that sometimes mommy and I have started watching a show on Netflix only to realize that it was too violent or had too much graphic sexual content. So we stopped watching it. It’s not that we weren’t “allowed” to watch it but that it wasn’t feeding our mind and soul things that were helpful, holy, and healthy. Then I paraphrased Paul’s words to the Philippians:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

Philippians 4:8

Following the Spirit is about both consecration and direction. We follow the Spirit as He directs us into places in life we’ve never been before. We also follow the Spirit as He consecrates us and makes us holy. Both ways of following the Spirit are exercises in the submission of our will to His. The Christian life is more than a life of following religious principles. It is a life of following a Person.

With You Always

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:20

These are Jesus’s final words in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus tells His disciples (and us) that He is with us…always. He is ever-present. He knows us and likes to be with us. He likes to be near to us. His very Spirit dwells within us. He is closer to us than our own skin.

This truth should impact us in a few different ways. It should:

  1. Prompt holiness: There is no such thing as a secret sin. We walk exposed daily before the throne of grace, every heavenly being, and Jesus Himself. There is no hiding. Whatever sin we engage in is fully revealed and exposed.
  2. Destroy shame: It’s important that we not only know that our sin is daily exposed but that Jesus sees it all and still wants to be near to us. Our sin is not bigger than His grace and love. We don’t have to feel shame. We can receive daily the grace and forgiveness we need.
  3. Uproot loneliness: As a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is always with you. This means that the Father and the Son are also always with you according to John 14:10, 20, & 26. You are never alone. You also have at least one angel by your side at all times (Matthew 18:10). In other words, loneliness is a lie.
  4. Foster intimacy: Knowing that Jesus will always be with us should lead us to engage with Him daily. We need to spend time with this One who never leaves us. If He’s always present, we need to pay attention to Him, talk with Him, listen to Him and develop intimacy and friendship with Him.
  5. Repel lies: Jesus called Himself “the Truth”(John 14:6). He called the Holy Spirit the “Spirit of Truth”(John 14:17). With such wisdom and knowledge of truth in such close proximity, we should never have to waste our time believing lies. We need only to check in with the Truth and see if what is being whispered in our mind is really true or just a deception of the enemy.

If you are a follower of Jesus, He is with you…always.

How does the knowledge of this reality impact your daily life?

Unclean Heart

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Matthew 15:17-20

The Pharisees had the wrong understanding of what made a person “unclean.” They were hung up on traditions made by men that tried to keep people ritually clean through external purity. One of those traditions was to wash hands before eating so that the “uncleanness” from any Gentile item, dead or unclean animal that was touched in the marketplace would be washed away and not contaminate the food that was about to be eaten.

But Jesus clarifies to His own disciples that “cleanness” isn’t about what goes into one’s stomach, but what comes out of one’s heart. And one of the easiest ways to determine what is in our own hearts is to listen to what we say and how we say it.

It’s easy enough to flex our religious muscles and makes sure we sound holy around certain people. But when we are pressed in life, what comes out of our mouth then?

When we squeeze an orange, we expect orange juice to come out. When we press an olive, we expect olive oil to come out. What a peculiar sight it would be to squeeze a lemon and have motor oil come out. How strange it would be to press a cluster of grapes and have corrosive bleach leak out.

Yet, what Jesus is saying is that this is how we discover the broken places in our own hearts. This is exactly what happens to us. Evil thoughts come from the heart. Murderous rage comes from the heart. The roaming eye of adultery comes from the heart. The need to find acceptance and love by giving away our body to many different people through sexual immorality comes from the heart. The compulsion to take what is not ours comes from the heart. The tendency to lie, deceive, gossip, and slander comes from the heart. Harsh and critical words come from the heart.

When a Christian is pressed or squeezed by life circumstances, we should expect the fruit of the Spirit to come leaking out: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we get pressed by life and something else comes out of our heart, we need to see it like a warning light on the dashboard of our life. Something is broken in the deep places of our soul. Something in our heart needs healing.

So, what comes out of your mouth when life squeezes you? Pay attention to anything unclean that comes up. Use it as a diagnostic tool to understand that this is a place in your heart that needs healing. Our damaging and destructive words, our foul language, our bitter gossip and biting criticism are all products of a heart that needs healed by the love of God.

Attack from Both Sides

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Matthew 11:18-19

Do not be surprised if our culture, which is so heavily influenced by the kingdom of darkness, attacks people trying to follow Jesus from both sides. This has always been the strategy of the enemy. This is the strategy we see the enemy employ against Jesus and John the Baptist.

The culture of Jesus’s day found a way to be offended by both John the Baptist, living in the strictest holiness, and Jesus, living in the freedom of grace. John’s holiness was seen as demonic and Jesus’s freedom was seen as sinful.

Our culture is currently following the same strategy of the enemy. Recently it was reported that some politicians were trying to follow the “Billy Graham rule.” This rule is basically a commitment by a man not to be alone with a woman who is not his wife, especially in private settings, as it could lead to accusations of impropriety or actual impropriety. There has been a lot of exposure of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the highest levels of society recently, so this Billy Graham rule seems like a healthy safeguard.

Yet, in response to this desire to honor women and honor their wives, these men were attacked for being sexist. So we have a situation where if a politician is seen being alone with another women who is not his wife, he’s easily attacked with claims of impropriety. Yet, if he tries to safeguard against those accusations, he gets attacked as sexist. If they live in the freedom of grace, they’ll be attacked as morally corrupt. If they hold to a high standard of holiness, they’re called sexists. The “attack from both sides” strategy has been around since Jesus and continues to be alive and well today.

I remember encountering an adolescent version of this in high school. I told my friends that I didn’t want to “hook up” with a particularly attractive girl that was interested in me. As a high school boy, turning down sex with a beautiful girl a year older than you was a radical stand. Yet, because I was striving to live a life of holiness, my classmates who couldn’t understand my stance began to accuse me of being gay.

My response to accusations of being gay was that I didn’t believe homosexuality was God’s design for human sexuality. I told them that I had nothing against a person who is gay, but I disagreed with a lifestyle where one chooses to engage in same-sex sexual activity. This also didn’t fit their paradigm of understanding. They didn’t know what to do with me. So then I started to receive accusations of being homophobic.

Can you see the “attack from both sides” strategy? One minute I am being accused of being gay and the next I’m being accused of being homophobic. This often happens when you try to live a biblical standard of holiness. A life of following Jesus doesn’t make sense to the world. It doesn’t fit all of their neat little judgmental categories. They don’t know which condemning box to put you in. But they did this with Jesus and John the Baptist, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens to us.

I fought for and advocated for women in the strongest way possible as I helped to create and launch a nonprofit that addresses human trafficking in the Baltimore area. I stood side-by-side with women who were some of the most progressive, feminist activists I’ve ever met. And as a staunch Pro-Life advocate, I continue to fight for women and their well-being but in a way that is foreign to most of my colleagues in the human trafficking world. I don’t fit into a nice neat category. This is true of most Christians, which is why the strategy of the enemy is often to attack from both sides.

The desire to stop being attacked from both sides often draws Christians into error and compromise. It’s a powerful temptation to want to be liked and thought of as compassionate and insightful by at least one side of the cultural battle. So some Christians begin to compromise truth in order to win favor with one side or the other. But that is not where Jesus stands.

Have you experienced the “attack from both sides” strategy of the enemy in your own life? If so, you’re in good company.

The LGBTQ issue

I was praying while mowing my lawn the other day. I was frustrated that so many people think the biblical stance against same-sex relationships is about bigotry instead of holiness. So I asked the Lord a question and was surprised at His answer (and that He answered so clearly).

In my heart I said to the Lord, “Why do so many people in our culture think the biblical prohibition against same-sex romantic relationships is about bigotry, hatred, and homophobia instead of what it really is–a submission to the biblical sexual ethic…the way God designed human sexuality to operate?”

Those of you who pray know that these sorts of conversations in our heart and mind with the Lord happen instantaneously at the speed of thought. I didn’t actually articulate each of those words in my mind, but instead asked the question all at once.

Though I did ask God this question, I did not expect an answer right then. I was almost asking it rhetorically to the Lord, expressing my frustration with the unfair characterization of those like me who want to maintain God’s design and purposes for human sexuality. It is frustrating to always be so unfairly characterized as a bigot and a homophobe just because I want to adhere to God’s holiness through a biblical sexual ethic.

Within seconds, I heard the voice of the Lord speak to my heart (not audibly, but not exactly “still, small voice” either). He said, “People think that way because for many people holiness is just an excuse to cover their bigotry. They weren’t concerned with holiness when it came to adultery, abuse, pornography and promiscuity. For many people, they say it is about the Bible, but it is really about their homophobia.”

I was shocked! I stopped the mower. I stood still and said out loud, “Oh my goodness.” The Lord gave me a glimpse of what He saw in the Church, what He saw in the hearts of so many conservatives who claim to champion a biblical sexual ethic. Wow!

For some, standing against same-sex romantic relationship IS about God’s word, His sexual ethic, and His design for human sexuality. But for so many, the Bible has been used as a cover–an excuse–to prop up their bigotry. If it hadn’t been the voice of the Lord, I would have assumed this was just another progressive evangelical or mainline Protestant attempt to avoid dealing with immorality by launching accusations of “hate” against conservatives. But this wasn’t that. This was the Lord, heart-broken over the heart condition of His Bride.

It reminds me of how the Pro-Life movement didn’t gain much traction in our country until it proved that it loved the mother and the adopted child as much as the unborn child. The more the movement loves everyone involved, the more credibility its message has. I’m thinking the same thing is happening with the LGBTQ conversation. So long as the secret heart motivation behind standing against same-sex romantic relationships is homophobia and not holiness, we can expect a similar outcome. Yet if the heart-posture of the Church will change, maybe the LGBTQ community will begin to realize they can change too.

Change is possible…for all of us! https://changedmovement.com

God is Love

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.

1 John 4:7-12, 15-16

Here John teaches us about love. This is what we learn:

  1. God is love.
  2. Love comes from God.
  3. Loving others is a sign that we know God.
  4. God showed His love for us by sending His Son Jesus, that we might live through Him.
  5. Our love for God is a response to His love for us. He loved us first.
  6. Out of response to God’s love for us, we should love one another.
  7. God’s definition of love is this: Jesus came and died for us.
  8. The fullness of love is displayed in Jesus’s death and resurrection. Without this at the center, love becomes defined by our own preferences and selfishness.
  9. It is our acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God that allows God to come and live in us and allows us to live in God’s love.
  10. Our identity is rooted in God’s love for us (not our performance for Him).

What is clear from this passage is that there is no separation between God’s love and Jesus. We can’t somehow abstractly talk about the fact that “God is love” without also mentioning that “Jesus is Lord” and that Jesus is the “Son of God.” All of this is intricately woven together. Any attempts to separate talk of God’s love from talk of Jesus immediately depart from the biblical definition of love.

There is also this tendency, especially in progressive circles, to remove “God is love” from the context of this whole passage. Likewise, there is a tendency to remove “God is love” from the other New Testament descriptions of God. For example:

  1. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16)
  2. God is holy (1 Peter 1:16; Psalm 99:5,9; Rev 4:8)
  3. God is light (1 John 1:15; John 1:4-5)
  4. God is good (Mark 10:18; Psalm 34:8)
  5. God is faithful (1 Cor 10:13; 2 Thess 3:3)
  6. God is just (1 John 1:9; Hebrews 6:10; Isaiah 61:8)

This list could continue but I think we get the point. In God, these attributes never conflict. Does God bring love to the unloved? Yes. He also brings holiness to the impure parts of our lives. He brings light to the darkness of our lives. He brings goodness to the evil parts of our lives. He is faithful when we are unfaithful (2 Timothy 2:13). He brings justice to the injustices of our lives.

If we want God to love us but we don’t want His holiness, goodness, and light to purify us, then we want some of God but not all of God. It is partial surrender. It is half-hearted faith. He absolutely loves us. God is love. And He loves us enough to want us to get free from our sinful lifestyles that damage our soul. God is holy. God is light. God is just. God is love.

What Does Love Look Like?

There was a quote from pastor Brian Zahnd that was going around on Facebook. It read:

“We all make errors in our theology; you and me both. So my recommendation is to err on the side of love. Why? Because… God is not doctrine. God is not denomination. God is not war. God is not law. God is not hate. God is not hell…God is love.”

Brian Zahnd

And while on the surface I agreed with this sentiment, the more I read it, the more it bothered me. There was a subtle, trojan-horse kind of lie buried in this quote that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, after I noticed some of my friends on Facebook using this quote to justify sin, I realized what the problem was.

First, it is true that God is love, but we have manipulated the definition of love in our society to mean something very close to “permissiveness.” The faulty thinking is that if you really love someone, you let them do what they want. But we know that isn’t what real love looks like. Good, healthy parenting doesn’t let kids do whatever they want. That kind of permissiveness leads to all kinds of personal and social problems. And if enough parents buy into this faulty definition of love, as we have seen in our own culture, it creates society-wide problems.

In good and healthy marriages, spouses don’t say, “Sure, do whatever you want, sleep with whomever you want, go wherever you want and stay out as late as you want.” This level of permissiveness is not loving. It is the opposite of love.

When people equate “love” with “permissiveness” this quote gets twisted into meaning, “If you aren’t sure what to believe theologically, then just go with the theology that is most permissive. Because, after all, that’s what God is like. He’s the cool parent that lets you do what you want because He ‘loves’ you so much.” You can see the problem here, right? Permissiveness isn’t loving.

The second problem with this quote is that while it is true that God is love, it is only part of the truth about God. The other reality about God that must be held in tension with “God is love” is the truth that “God is holy.” We could just as easily say, “We all make errors in our theology; you and me both. So my recommendation is to err on the side of holiness. Why? Because God is Holy.” Actually, scripture does say something pretty close to this.

“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”

1 Peter 1:15-16

All manner of heresy in the Church has been created by not holding tensions. By holding one truth without the other, we fall into false teaching. We must hold together the truths that Jesus was God and man, not one over the other. We must hold together the truths that God is immanent and transcendent, not one over the other. We must hold together the truths that God is sovereign and He has given us free will. Over and over again, the fullness of truth in the Christian life is really about holding two paradoxical truths together in tension.

We must hold together the truth that God is love and that God is holy, not one over the other. The reason Jesus went to the cross is because God is love and God is holy. The reason someone had to pay for sin is because God is holy. The reason Jesus paid for our sin is because God is love.

God is not a permissive, single dad. God does not choose between being holy or being loving. He is both loving and holy simultaneously and continuously. God is not “okay” with our sin. God hates sin. God is holy. God doesn’t want sin to separate us from Him, and since He knows that is exactly what sin does, He paid the price for our sin so that He could draw us near to Him. God is love.

We would never recommend to someone to “err on the side of Jesus’s divinity over His humanity,” or to “err on the side of Jesus’s humanity over His divinity.” We would never recommend to someone to “err on the side of God’s transcendence over His immanence” or “err on the side of God’s immanence over His transcendence.” This sort of advice is nonsensical. To experience the fullness of what is true of God we must hold both simultaneously.

And the same is true of the nonsensical advice to “err on the side of love” as if leaving holiness behind somehow honors a holy God. It doesn’t! Don’t err on the side of love if doing so leaves holiness in the dust. Love should include holiness and holiness should include love. They are inseparable.

I see this Brian Zahnd quote being used a lot for people who are confused over the LGBTQ issue and whether homosexuality is sinful. Basically, people are saying if you aren’t sure about the homosexuality issue then err on the side of love (and of course by that they mean permissiveness).

I wish they meant love your LGBTQ friends regardless of your understanding of the sinfulness of their sexual choices. But they don’t. Usually, they mean to create the false dichotomy between love and holiness. What is forgotten is that to encourage holiness is loving because it is encouraging us to imitate God with our whole lives, including our sexuality. Why not err on the side of the truth of scripture? Jesus is The Truth. Why not err on the side of holiness? God is holy. All of these–truth, holiness, love–are things we can lean into because they all are attributes of God.