Fruit of Faithfulness

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Romans 5:3-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

Both James and Paul experienced the same process in the Christian life–they saw the same pattern emerge–and then wrote about it. Life brings us trials and suffering. If we let them, they produce in us a kind of perseverance, a relentlessness, an endurance. And, over time, this establishes maturity in our character. Those who are mature in their character never seem to run out of hope.

What is happening when we have been long-suffering in our faithfulness and still aren’t seeing fruit from it?

When ongoing faithfulness doesn’t produce outward fruit, it is producing inner formation

If you aren’t seeing the fruit of your faithfulness outwardly, it might be because it is growing on the inside. Babies develop on the inside first before they are introduced to the world. Maybe what God is birthing in you has to start on the inside first.

Hopeful

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:13

There are many hopeful things happening right now in our society. COVID numbers are dropping rapidly. Vaccinations are up and are changing the landscape of this pandemic. Schools are re-opening (even if only in a hybrid model). These are all good things and are reasons to be hopeful.

Yet, we need to remember that our ultimate hope is in the Lord. Our hope is not grounded in politics. Our hope is not grounded in a vaccine. Our hope is not dependent on restrictions being lifted or not lifted. We do not live with a conditional hope that changes on the whims of our society. We, as followers of Christ, have an unconditional hope. We have an unyielding hope that is rooted and grounded in the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

As we trust in the God of hope, He is able to fill us with all joy and peace regardless of our circumstances. When this happens, we overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. We need the power of the Spirit to access this kind of unconditional hope. It all comes down to trusting the God of hope. Our trust is directly proportional to our hope. No matter what circumstances surround us, if we can trust the Lord, then–through the Holy Spirit–we can overflow with hope. The psalmist said it well in Psalm 33:

No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
    despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you.

Psalm 33:16-22

Notice again the link between trusting the Lord and having hope. People wrongly assume that their lack of hope has to do with their bleak outlook or poor circumstances. Yet, it has more to do with their ability to trust the Lord when they don’t understand. Trust is the bedrock of hope, and hope is the soil where faith grows. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

Yes, our circumstances are looking more hopeful, and this is great news! But if you want lasting, enduring, unconditional hope, you will only find it by trusting your life to Jesus Christ. Trusting Him is the foundation of real hope!

End of the Pandemic

I had a dream last night that I was boarding a plane with my family and no one in the airport or boarding the plane had a mask on. It was such a weird feeling yet so freeing. I’m not claiming this dream was prophetic, but it was encouraging. In fact, you don’t need to be prophetic to see that this pandemic is coming to an end. Many news outlets aren’t talking about it yet because they don’t want to give people false hope. But if you look at the numbers, it is clear.

I want to encourage you today! The COVID numbers right now in my state (Maryland) are back to where they were at the beginning of June 2020. You remember June, right? We had been trapped inside all spring but in June all the COVID numbers started dropping. Things started opening back up. We all came out of our hibernation. Not only were the numbers good in June, but they kept getting better into July. That is where all the numbers are trending right now, and it’s only the end of February. That’s really good news!

The positivity rate in Maryland is now below 3.5% and trending downward. Vaccinations are up and continue to grow. Think of it this way, if the numbers in March 2021 look like June 2020, then we can assume April this year will match July of 2020. And if our numbers are that low in April, imagine how good May will be. Imagine how low these numbers will be as we start the summer!

Students in Baltimore County Schools are starting hybrid learning in March and April. They are reintroducing the kids in phases, some at the beginning of March, some at the end, and some at the beginning of April. Hybrid means that two days a week some students will be in schools learning in person. Just the psychological boost this will create for children and parents alike will be massive. Kids will be allowed to be kids again, at least in part.

All of this paints the same picture. The end of the pandemic is upon us. It may take a few months to fully arrive, but the beginning of the end is here. More and more people will continue to be vaccinated, especially our most vulnerable populations. COVID will be reduced to what we always wanted it to be, a common virus that we occasionally experience like the flu. This is cause for massive celebration! Be encouraged friend. Get your hopes up!

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
    praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Psalm 30:1-5

Tragedy

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

There was Jesus, a completely innocent man in his thirties hanging on the cross for crimes He didn’t commit. He had brought healing, restoration, and freedom to thousands. He had so much more life to live. More than that, He was the Son of God sent to usher in the Kingdom of God. He was supposed to reign as the messianic king of God’s people. All of those hopes and dreams were now dashed, nailed to an ignoble Roman cross.

It seemed like the enemy had won. Yet, what seemed like the enemy’s greatest victory was his greatest defeat. What seemed like God’s greatest failure was His moment of triumphant victory. If the enemy knew how God would use this moment to save the world, he would have never let it happen. He would have sent his demonic hordes to stop the trial and prevent the crucifixion.

It was a tragedy, no doubt about it. It was tragic in the moment. But God was about to use it to triumph over sin and death. If the disciples had known all the variables, they would have knelt in gratitude at the foot of the cross instead of running in fear. We can’t see all the variables that God sees. We don’t hear all the prayer that He hears. This is especially true in the midst of personal tragedy.

Bad things happen in this world as a result of the brokenness of the world, the sin of humanity, and the work of the evil one. Things happen that God doesn’t want to happen. And while I don’t believe God causes tragedy in this world, I do believe He finds ways to beautifully bring good out of the bad.

Jesus only does that which is most loving. If we perceive that Jesus’s action or inaction is unloving, it only means that we are missing some of the variables. There are things we can’t see, things we can’t know, pieces of the puzzle that are missing. And if we had all the pieces that Jesus has, we would understand. As it is, we must live in mystery, trusting the nature and character of a loving God.

One day it will all become clear. One day it will make sense. One day we will know fully even as, right now, we are fully known by the One who created us. Until then we trust that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose“(Romans 8:28).

The Ineffectiveness of Shame

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… 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

When engaging in social issues, we must remember that the above scripture verse is true of the victim and the victimizer. God sees people differently than we see them. We see a “scary black man” and the Lord sees a gentle friend and father. We see a “blue collar white guy” covered in demonic-looking tattoos and the Lord sees a teacher and a mentor to young men.

One thing we learned when we started a nonprofit to fight human trafficking in the Baltimore area was that you can’t create cultural/systemic change with shame. We saw some organizations trying to do just that. But shame creates either defensiveness or hiddenness in the person who needs to hear your message. They will either become more entrenched in defending their sin or just learn how to hide their sin better. Trying to shame people into change is the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only that but, practically speaking, shame doesn’t work.

Instead, the message must be delivered with hope. We must see people the way God sees them, past their sin and into who God created them to be. In our case, instead of trying to shame men into not buying sex or pornography, it looked like inviting men to be the protectors and defenders of the vulnerable that God had created them to be. It meant not only raising awareness but raising hope and rejecting shame.

Shame disempowers and debilitates people into inaction. It does this to the very people you need to be active and engaged. If shame is your primary way of trying change the culture of racism, it’s time to find a more effective tactic and one that aligns with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is what is so radically different about the gospel. God looked at Saul (who would become Paul) and instead of just seeing someone who was persecuting the Church, He saw the future apostle who would write most of the New Testament. If Saul the persecutor lived in our culture today, one group would try to shame him into changing and another group would just want to sentence him to life in prison. If it was up to these groups in our country, Saul would have never become Paul.

Whenever one person dehumanizes another, they themselves become dehumanized. Whenever one person degrades another, they themselves become degraded. Both the victim and the victimizer simultaneously get degraded and dehumanized in the same act of injustice. The antidote is seeing the image of God in the victim and calling out the injustice. The antidote also involves seeing the image of God in the victimizer and bringing conviction instead of shame. Conviction is a combination of hard truth mixed with hope and love. Conviction says your actions are wrong but your identity was created for more. It speaks to the heart of who God created a person to be.

True conviction always carries with it hopefulness. This is what allows a person not to retreat into defensiveness or hiddenness. It’s hope and love that help someone face their sin long enough to move into repentance. Shame can never do that.

Jesus, help us to have eyes to see people the way You see them. Help us to see past the sin in a person’s life and into who You created them to be. And move us past shame, Lord. Convict us of our own sin and give us the hopefulness of the gospel, that You are changing us from the inside out through Your Holy Spirit. May we not shame ourselves or others. Instead, Jesus, may we move from conviction into repentance. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Years From Now

When Jehu came to Samaria, he killed all who were left there of Ahab’s family;he destroyed them, according to the word of the Lord spoken to Elijah.

2 Kings 10:17

Jehu is anointed King of Israel and goes about destroying the entire family of wicked king Ahab. Both him becoming king and his campaign to rid Israel of Ahab’s family was prophesied by Elijah. What struck me about the above passage is that Elijah had been gone for sometime. Roughly 15 years had passed from the time Elijah prophesied this to the time it actually came about. Fifteen years!

The Lord told Elijah to anoint Jehu king when Elijah had run away and was hiding on Mt. Horeb. This is also when the still, small voice came to him. It was also when Elijah was told to anoint Elisha as prophet to succeed him (1 Kings 19). A couple years after this Elijah would prophesy the total destruction of Ahab’s family. Yet, Elijah didn’t get to see any of this.

Elisha became prophet of Israel, and Elisha is the one who anoints Jehu as king. Elisha gets to see the fulfillment of a word that came to Elijah.

What did your life look like 15 years ago? For me, I had just started pastoral ministry. I was dating my wife but was not married, and I didn’t have three kids. I was a brand new pastor with no wife, no kids, no house and no idea what the next 15 years would hold. If someone had given me a prophetic word about the coronavirus during that time, would I have believed them? And even if I believed them for the first few years, would I have continued to believe it after so many years?

Jesus did something similar in His own ministry. The disciples are overwhelmingly impressed with the splendor and grandeur of the Temple. Then Jesus prophesied about the destruction of the Temple, something that wouldn’t happen for another 40 years.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Mark 13:1-2

In our fast-food world, prophetic words like this are really difficult for us to process. It seems that in ancient cultures there was a better understanding of how things take time. Maybe personal experience with farming helps a culture understand cultivation and the nature of time. There was a generational approach to things. It was assumed that one might not see something in their lifetime but that it would be important to build toward it for the sake of children or grandchildren. Today, that idea seems so foreign. We don’t plan and build with the next few generations in mind. We want things now.

Maybe God has given you a word or a promise that hasn’t come to pass. And maybe you’re starting to doubt that it ever will. But God’s timing is very different than ours. It could be coming years from now. It could even be coming in the next generation, something you won’t see firsthand. But one thing we can trust is that God keeps His promises. He keeps His word.

Suddenly

Ben-Hadad king of Aram mobilized his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria. There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels…

Elisha replied, “Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of the finest flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.”

The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”

“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha, “but you will not eat any of it!”

2 Kings 6:24-25; 7:1-2

The king of Aram had laid siege to the capitol city of the northern kingdom of Israel. The army surrounded the city and didn’t let any food or other products in or out of the city. Eventually the people ran out of food and money. Donkeys were considered an unclean animal and, not only were they eating them, but they were in high demand. Cannibalism had even set in. Hopelessness and despair were crushing the people of the city.

The king of Israel asked the prophet Elisha to seek the Lord for guidance. Elisha declares that their situation would change so suddenly that not only would they have food but they would have an overabundance. Prices on all goods would dramatically drop because of the outpouring of provision. Not only that, but all of this would happen within 24 hours.

One of the chief officers of the king couldn’t believe what Elisha was saying. He was a practical kind of guy. He reasoned that even if the siege somehow miraculously lifted, it would take weeks and months to get back to normal. Then it would take another set of miracles for crops to do well and for there to be an abundance. As this officer did the math, practically speaking, even if Elisha’s prophetic word came to be true, it would take months and months to happen. It was impossible for it to happen so suddenly.

Yet, that is exactly what happened. In the middle of the night, while the city of Samaria was asleep:

…the Lord had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, “Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!” So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.

2 Kings 7:6-7

So within 24 hours, the Israelites had an overabundance of food, clothing, gold, silver, horses and all the other items that the Aramean army left behind. The Israelites could not have predicted what God did nor how He did it.

Over and over again in scripture we see that God is not only a God of process but also the God of the “suddenlies.” After a lifetime of having no children, Abraham and Sarah suddenly have a son. After a lifetime of deceptive actions, Jacob has a night of wrestling with the Lord and suddenly becomes Israel, the father of a nation. After 400 years in slavery, the Hebrews were suddenly set free. After 400 years of waiting for the Messiah, Jesus was suddenly born. After 30 years of living a normal life, Jesus suddenly gets baptized and starts His public ministry. After waiting 40 days from the time Jesus resurrected, the disciples suddenly experience an outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. After persecuting the early church, Saul, who becomes the apostle Paul, suddenly encounters the glorified Jesus on the road to Damascus. After being a faithful, God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius hears the gospel and suddenly has a life-changing encounter with the Holy Spirit.

We worship the God of the suddenlies. There seems to be a period of waiting before every suddenly of God. But when God decides to act, things move quickly. Things change faster than what a normal process would allow for. Things fall into place in rapid succession. Through the prophet Isaiah, God describes His tendency to act in this way:

I foretold the former things long ago,
    my mouth announced them and I made them known;
    then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass.

Isaiah 48:3

Notice that there is often a prophetic word first, then a time of waiting, then a sudden action from the Lord. This is a biblical pattern that happens over and over again in scripture.

I believe we are living out this pattern right now with the COVID-19 crisis. As the coronavirus was first hitting the U.S. a number of prophetic voices said that this thing would end suddenly. In other words, they were saying that it won’t take a year to get back to normal. Right now, many of the experts would disagree with those prophetic words because they are doing the math on how long normal processes would take. But what if God is about to do a “suddenly?”

Just like the people of Samaria, I have no scientific evidence to suggest that there is a “suddenly” coming. All I have is the word of the Lord delivered by prophetic people who may or may not have heard the Lord correctly. But I am choosing to lean into faith and believe that a suddenly of God is right around the corner. I don’t know if that means months, weeks or days. But in the waiting, I am going to choose to believe. Count me among the foolish ones who are choosing to live by faith and not by sight.

Lord, may your sudden action surprise and delight us all, and may Your Name be lifted up and glorified through it all!

Valley Victories

The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.

The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’”

1 Kings 20:26-28

Aram was just to the north of Israel. The king of Aram, Ben-Hadad, had come down in order to try to conquer the kingdom of Israel. But as they fought in the hill country, God gave Israel the victory. The armies of Aram had to flee for their lives.

However, Ben-Hadad wasn’t done. He decided to spend the year rebuilding his armies so that he could attack again. He thought that Israel’s “god” was the god of the hills and not a god of the valleys. That was Ben-Hadad’s explanation for why they lost the first time. So his strategy this time was to fight Israel in the flat part of the valley.

A prophet came and told all of this to the king of Israel. God’s intention was that Israel would once again defeat the Aramean armies in order to show conclusively that the God of Israel is the Lord and that He is the God of the hills and the God of the valleys.

I couldn’t help but be encouraged by this truth as we continue to face this global pandemic. God is God over the hills, the mountains, and the heights. But God is also God over the valleys, the plains, and the low places. God is able to give His people victory in the hills and victory in the valleys. Even when we feel surrounded and outnumbered, as the army of Israel was, the Lord is able to bring victory out of the most hopeless situations.

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

Psalm 23:4-6

The Toxicity of Unbelief

“Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” … Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 

John 12:36-37

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 

So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Hebrews 3:12 & 19

Living in a culture that celebrates doubt can cause us to forget all the warnings from Jesus and from the rest of the New Testament against unbelief. Scripture does not paint unbelief as something that everyone should embrace as a “normal” part of life. Instead, unbelief is regularly warned against as something that is toxic and damaging.

Imagine you are in an ancient army, fighting a foreign enemy for the sake of your King and the Kingdom to which you belong. Battle can become wearisome. Armor can get heavy. There are always casualties of war and that, by itself, can be discouraging. But imagine you press through all of this to continue to fight valiantly for your King.

Now imagine as you enter the battlefield one of the soldiers behind you says, “You know, I’m not sure I believe in our king anymore. I’m not sure we even have a king. Further, I don’t think that army over there is real either. I have serious doubts that we are even in a war. This army that you talk about us fighting against, maybe it’s just a figment of your imagination. Yesterday I was talking to this nice merchant who sells furs, I think her name was Lucy, and she told me she’d pay me a bonus fee to go home. I’m tired anyway, so I think I’m going to take her up on her offer.”

What is your response to your fellow soldier? Are you inclined to coddle them with, “Oh, I totally understand. It’s normal to question whether the King is real and whether that army over there is just a fictitious mirage. Take your time and go home. We’ll be here bleeding and fighting if you ever think you might want to return.” Is that what you’d say? I hope not.

My guess is that most of us would tap into our inner Master Sergeant and begin to challenge our fellow soldier to stay in the fight. We would remind him not to be deceived by Lucy’s lies and not to give up. We’d remind him of how much we need him supporting our flank and how being tired should never lead us into unbelief, no matter how tired we get. The King has called us to war and the Kingdom needs us to be all in! It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the King’s army, even when it’s hard.

Let’s call unbelief what it really is. It is deception. And the end result of unbelief is cowardice. It’s choosing the comfort of the couch over the challenge of the battlefield.

Rise of Skywalker: Biblical Themes

I took my oldest son to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker yesterday while my younger son was seeing it with a friend for his friend’s birthday party. We absolutely loved it! It had everything you’d want in a Star Wars movie. Without giving away too much, I noticed a couple biblical themes in the movie.

1. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

If you’ve seen the movie, you might think I was quoting from something that was said to Poe Dameron. But this actually comes from a section of scripture in 2 Kings. The king of Aram was trying to attack the prophet Elisha. When Elisha’s servant saw the vast army surrounding the city they were in, he felt overwhelmed. But Elisha could see what the servant could not. Here’s what happens:

“Go, find out where he (Elisha) is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.” Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

2 Kings 6:13-17

While all seemed lost and hopeless because of the vast army of Aram, Elisha knew that the Lord had sent an even greater army–an angel army–to guard and protect him and his servant. The army of Aram was sent into mass confusion that day and never touched Elisha.

This same thing happened when the resistance fighters, specifically Poe, thought they were outnumbered and alone. The massive force that was coming against them seemed overwhelming. Yet, two different times, Poe was reminded that there were more that were with him than were against him. We often need to be reminded of this as well.

2. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” &
“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…”

The first quote is Jesus’s final words in Matthew 28:20 before He ascends to the right hand of the Father in heaven. He is always with us. We are never alone.

The second quote is from Hebrews 12:1. The writer of Hebrews had just reminded the readers, in Hebrews 11, of all the great men and women of faith that had gone before them. Then he starts chapter 12 by saying that, because we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on from heaven, we can boldly accomplish our own mission.

Both of these passages came to mind as Rey gained strength from all the Jedi who had gone before her. She could accomplish her own mission knowing that she was the culmination of all the great Jedi who had gone before her and were now cheering her on. She was not alone. She was never alone. Neither are we.