Who We Are

In the evangelical Christian world, we often treat “witnessing” as something on our to-do list. It’s what we are supposed to do (but very few of us do it…). Never mind that non-Christians aren’t tasks to be checked off but human beings to be loved. That’s an entirely different post. Or maybe it isn’t. We’ll just have to find out together where this thing is going…

It struck me today that this approaching evangelism as a verb might be incomplete, if not totally wrong.

The other day I sat with a woman who expressed frustration with evangelical Christians who have approached her to see if they could witness to her and then immediately moved on when it became clear to them they couldn’t. As an evangelical Christian myself, I more than shared her frustration.

More specifically, I welled up with anger and wanted to take this woman by the hands, look her in the eyes, and say, “I am so sorry people have treated you that way.” I wanted to assure her that Christians who treat witnessing as a task to be completed are not pleasing Jesus nor representing Him accurately.

That’s a pretty strong statement. And I stand by it. Because Jesus never treated people like projects. On the contrary, He treated them with dignity and love and respect and concern.

[The only people He got a little brash with were the self-proclaimed religious big-wigs who were too big for their britches and also completely wrong about who He was and what God wanted from people (ans: hearts that loved Him more than themselves instead of vice versa). In other words, people who needed to be knocked down a few pegs.]

In the first chapter of Acts, the resurrected Jesus spends over FORTY DAYS with His disciples. (Let that sink in…the 11 disciples didn’t all mass hallucinate the exact same thing for nearly 6 weeks, I don’t care how high quality the LSD was back then. I digress.)

[Was that too far? I feel like maybe the drug reference was a little too far…don’t send me emails.]

Throughout the 40+ days, Jesus tells His disciples about the kingdom of God. In verses 6-8 He gives them some final instructions. Verse 8 reads, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Aside from the improper use of a semicolon and/or conjunction, something significant stands out to me in this verse. Jesus says they will be His witnesses.

“Witness” is an identity. It is who they are, not what they do.  

Jesus did not tell them they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on them and then they will go witness in Jerusalem, etc. Rather, for better or for worse, those disciples would be Jesus’ witnesses.

When non-believers around them learned the disciples were close, personal friends of that Jesus character who caused a lot of brouhaha and wound up dead and somehow managed to amass a small following, those non-believers would associate everything else the disciples did and said with Jesus.

If the disciples loved well and verbally shared the gospel and teachings of Jesus, they would be positive witnesses of Jesus. Those they encountered would wonder if being a follower of Christ had something to do with the disciples’ abnormally selfless, peaceful, joyful dispositions, especially in the face of terrifying circumstances (to promote Jesus as the Messiah was to literally risk being killed by the Jewish elite).

If the disciples ran for their lives, however, and never spoke of Christ again, they would be negative witnesses of Jesus. People would think, “Jesus must not have been anything special if even His best friends don’t think He is worth talking about or obeying anymore.”

One way or another, those disciples would be Jesus’ witnesses all right.

And, of course, the same is true of us believers today. We are Jesus’ witnesses, whether we know it or not.

If we identify ourselves as Christ followers, every thing we say and do is associated with Him in the eyes of the non-believers around us. 

Now, don’t worry, that does not mean we have to be perfect or we will mar Jesus’ rep so badly no one will ever become a Christian again. We aren’t that powerful, thank goodness.

What it does mean is we need to be more mindful of how we are representing Jesus. Just like the original disciples, Christians today can be positive or negative witnesses of Jesus.

If people know we claim to be Christians but we never talk about Jesus or His working in our lives, and if we prop ourselves up on our achievements, hiding our need for Him, and if we harbor self-righteous pride in our relationships, and if we fail to rely on the power of the Spirit to help us live consistently with scripture (which is the only way we can live consistently with scripture, by the way), those we encounter will be inclined to think there is nothing special or different about “Christians”.

On the other hand, if people know we claim to be Christians and we love well and verbally share the gospel and teachings of Jesus, and if we admit when we screw up and ask for forgiveness from people we hurt, and if we make it plain that we are totally indebted to God’s grace, and if we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us live how scripture tells us to when we know full well we can’t in our own strength, those we encounter might wonder if being a follower of Christ has something to do with our abnormally selfless, peaceful, joyful dispositions, especially in the face of terrifying circumstances (like all the fun things life has to offer–sickness, death, adultery, job loss, broken relationships, etc.).

Witnessing is not something we do; witnesses are what we are. We get to decide what kind of witnesses of Jesus we want to be.

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Above All

I have a love-hate relationship with relationships.

I love them when they’re going well, but I hate them when they’re going poorly. I love them when they are well-established and comfortable, but I hate them when they are new and awkward. I love them when they fulfill me and make me happy, but I hate them when they hurt me and leave me empty.

You, too?

Fortunately/Unfortunately, people are made for relationships…with each other and with God. Even us more introverted folks are made for relationships, and we cannot be well emotionally without participating in a few.

God knows this, which is why He “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6) and makes relationships the fabric of His Church.

As much as I wish it was the case sometimes, relationships are not optional. 

And given that relationships between two people are always relationships between two broken relaters, we’re going to find ourselves in relationships that are hard and messy and make us want to quit and move to the beach alone forever and ever, amen, far more often than we’d like.

Which is probably why the subtitle of the New Testament letters could be “How to Get Along with People in Ways that Make God Happy.”

Every one of Paul’s and Peter’s letters is brimming with instructions on how Christians are to relate to themselves, non-Christians, other Christians, and God, in a variety of different circumstances.

I’m not excited to report that I am currently in the middle of a great friendship that is going through a very not great rough patch. As I prayed about the situation this morning, I didn’t get any direction from God on what needs to occur next in this relationship. So I opened my Bible to read it in preparation for a Sunday School lesson my teacher would be leading me in a couple hours later.

We’ve been going through the whole book of 1 Peter, and it “just so happened” that we were going to be on chapter 4 today. And it “just so happened” that this morning I couldn’t remember which portion of chapter 4 we’d be learning about, so I decided to go ahead and read the whole thing.

In the letter Peter is encouraging believers who are experiencing severe persecution to live godly lives in the midst of their suffering. And in verse 8 Peter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

My eyes stopped and re-read that verse three or four times.

I pretended to not know how this instruction I “just so happened” to read had anything to do with my prayer for direction in a difficult friendship I had literally prayed 1 minute and 28 seconds prior to reading this verse.

I put on my best pensive face and said, “Lord, what do you mean? How does this verse apply to me right now?”

He didn’t even dignify those questions with a response.

I went to church and successfully avoided thinking about the verse 98% of the morning. But this afternoon I started praying about my struggling relationship again, and the verse popped right back in my mind. So I grit my teeth a little and said, “Ok, Lord, let’s look at this again.”

I opened my Bible and started reading 1 Peter 4 again. But this time verse 7 stood out to me in addition to verse 8. Verse 7 reads, “The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.”

I paused.

I had never considered that when we are not clear-minded and are out of control that we really can’t pray. But I think it’s true.

I was just telling the Lord prior to reading this verse that my friend and I are both out of control. We’re both very passionate people who have big emotions that can cloud our minds and blow our judgment out of the water.

And when I am in that kind of heightened emotional state, my prayers are hindered. I still pray…but my prayers are not usually efforts to understand what God is doing so much as they are efforts to tell God I want things to go differently than they are going.

And pushing my agenda on God is not an effective way to pray. Mostly because I am a moron who can’t discern a “good” plan from a “bad” one, meaning my agendas are usually not what’s best for me or anyone around me.

I need the Spirit to override the stupidity that comes with being fallen and to lead me into truth…the truth about what’s best for me and for others. That’s the purpose of prayer: to allow the Spirit to align my heart with God’s heart. And I just can’t go to God in prayer with a level-headed aim like that when I am not clear-minded and self-controlled.

I prayed verse 7 for my friend and me, and then I went on to verse 8.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

Above all.

Above all.

Loving each other deeply is more important than being clear-minded and more important than being self-controlled.

Hmm.

On the one hand, that sounds like good news for those of us who struggle with being clear-minded and self-controlled in the heat of emotions. If we can’t master those two things, maybe we can put all our energy into this most important thing and still come out all right…

But it’s really hard to love other fallen humans deeply without first having gained God’s heart for them through prayer. 

That Peter.

He’s not giving me a pass on the clear-mindedness and self-control. He’s not saying loving each other deeply trumps having clear-mindedness and self-control, so don’t worry about those last two.

He’s saying we have to be clear-minded and self-controlled so we can be strengthened by the Spirit through prayer to love each other deeply, the most important thing of all in relationships. 

Why?

Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

When we love each other deeply, we will still sin against one another. We will still blow it. We will still hurt each other. And when that happens, those things will still need to be addressed. But our deep love for one another will enable us to forgive quicker and get on with the business of loving one another all the more.

And when a watching world sees Christians who live this out–even and especially when we love/forgive/love over and over and over again–they see a picture of Christ. They see a picture of grace and mercy and redemption and unconditional love.

And isn’t that what we’re supposed to be known for?

Didn’t Jesus say, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35)?

Loving is hard. Relationships are hard. I have yet to ever be in any relationship of any value that didn’t have its rough patches…but when both parties commit to persevering through the hard times, both parties become better and better at loving one another deeply, above all.

Rely

I’m going through Beth Moore‘s Loving Well Bible study. Again. For the third time.

This is partly because it’s the study the director of women’s ministry at my church chose. But, let’s be honest, it’s mostly because I don’t love well.

Anyway, the bulk of the study focuses on the latter half of 1 John 4, where John illuminates what God’s love is, what our love is, and how the two are connected.

What caught my attention this week during Bible study was verse 16. For context’s sake, here is 15 and 16:

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.

Hmm.

Know and rely?

A lot of days I know God loves me. But do I rely on His love? What does that even mean anyway?

Well, I think John is speaking to our relying on God’s love for salvation through Jesus. Verse 9 reads, “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.” Christians are putting all their eternal hopes in one basket, and that basket is labeled, “Complete Forgiveness through Faith in Christ”. We’re relying on the love God has for us, believing that love spurred Him on to send Christ to die for us. If God didn’t love us enough to send His Son, we’ve all been duped. Worse, we’re all still in our sins, and when we die we’ll have to explain ourselves to the Lord.

But I think we can also rely on this same love – the love that went to extreme lengths to redeem us – in our daily lives.

When we’re worried about paying bills that are bigger than our paychecks, for example, we can rely on the love God has for us by recalling that time He loved us enough to send His Son to redeem us. We can trust that that same love will work out our financial needs.

When we’re feeling lonely or frustrated or angry, we can rely on the love God has for us by believing that the love that sacrificed Jesus for us is still loving us today. We can believe God is with us in our hard times and wants to comfort us with His love.

When we have no idea what we’re doing with our lives – what job to take, what ministry to serve in, whether or not to have another kid, where we should live, etc. – we can rely on the love God has for us by thinking about the compassion for us that prompted the Lord to send Jesus out of Heaven, to Earth, through extreme beatings, to a slow, violent death on a cross in order to win us back. We can have faith that that same all-encompassing love will guide us in our life decisions and won’t let us fail anymore than we need to in order to better know Him.

It’s easy to know intellectually that God loves us. It’s all over the pages of our Bibles, it’s in the lyrics of the worship songs we sing each week, and we can recall times in our lives when God really made it abundantly clear that He cares for us.

It’s much harder to consistently feel like God loves us and, in turn, to rely on the love He has for us. I think learning to actively depend on God’s love is more of a learned skill than a natural inclination of the Christian’s heart.

I wonder what would happen – how my mindset might improve – if the next time a challenge arises I ask, “How can I rely on God’s love for me in this situation?”

I know, answering that question takes effort. (I’m grumbling myself at the thought of doing this exercise.) It’s hard to see the forest for the trees, and even attempting to when you’re the one stuck in the brush may take more emotional energy than you have to spare. But I think it’s a question worth answering.

How to Be Satisfied with God When You Feel Dissatisfied with God

Sometimes it’s easy to feel God’s love.

For whatever reason, every worship song you hear and Bible verse you read floods you with absolute confidence in the Lord’s personal affection for you. You walk around with a smile on your face, knowing, like the psalmist, that His love really is better than life, and you have the warm tingly feeling in your soul to prove it (Psalm 63:3).

Other times, not so much.

No amount of Chris Tomlin lyrics or scripture perusing resonates. You feel empty as a tin can and can’t figure out why the Lord doesn’t seem to satisfy you. Your attempts to draw near to Him fall flat. And you feel guilty.

After all, He’s supposed to be all we need… He wants to be our heart’s main desire, everything and everyone else paling in comparison.

And we want that to be the case… but sometimes it just isn’t. We don’t feel His love all the time, and when the feeling escapes us, we often grow dissatisfied with Him.

Does it have to be that way?

What if we could learn to be satisfied with God even when we don’t feel warm, lovey feelings for or from Him?

I’m just throwing out the question because, as the valedictorian of basing beliefs on feelings instead of facts, my personal opinion is this tall order feels dang near impossible. (There I go again, letting my feelings tell me what’s true/possible…)

In Romans 5 Paul talks about how we have peace with God through faith in Jesus, and that brings us hope (Romans 5:1-2).

Verse 5 reads, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us,” (Romans 5:5).

In other words, believers have God’s love in their hearts… all the time… whether they feel it or not. It’s a permanent condition of our souls, to be inhabited by the love of God. It’s a fact.

So even when we don’t feel love for or loved by God, we can choose to believe the truth that we are loved by Him, and we have His love within us (and Romans 5:5) to prove it.

God’s love is in our hearts – the feeling component of ourselves. If we aren’t feeling it, something is askew. We need to ask Him to help us feel His love again.

In the meantime, perhaps we can choose to be satisfied with the knowledge that His love has not left us and that He will help us feel it again, sooner or later.

How He Loves Us

“Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This sentence stole my breath yesterday.

I came across it in the Gospel of Mark, where an account of Jesus’ interaction with a rich man is detailed.

Mark 10:17-22 reads like this,

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Some things strike me about this account.

The rich man obviously respected and revered Jesus, falling on his knees and calling Jesus “good teacher”. The man appeared to be a devout Jew, upholding these major commandments Jesus mentions. And, yet, the man was very concerned that he might need to do even more to inherit eternal life… It seems this guy wanted Jesus, a leading Rabbi, to confirm that he had dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s when it came to his salvation. He wanted assurance, something, ironically, he would not find in doing anything more.

There he was, pleading his case to Jesus that he had done everything required of him by Jewish law (or at least the “important” things as expressed in the 10 commandments), but he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand that his eternal destiny didn’t depend upon him doing anything…

Instead of wringing the man’s neck in anger… instead of shaking His head in disappointment… instead of throwing His hands up in frustration… Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus validated this man’s worth by looking at him instead of away from him, and Jesus loved him in spite of his failure to understand what Jesus was saying to him. 

Jesus continued, explaining to the man that what he really needed to gain eternal life was to place his faith in Jesus, by way of selling his possessions and following Christ. Unfortunately, this man wasn’t willing to do that.

Two thoughts cross my mind.

One, do we approach the lost this way? When we share the Gospel and people don’t get it, do we look at them and love them anyway? Do we treat them with dignity and respect? Do we continue to care for them in our hearts?

The second thought I have is far more personal. I am often the rich man in this story; I don’t get what Jesus is saying to me, or, worse, I get it and choose not to follow Him. But just as He did with this man, Jesus looks at me and loves me anyway. His is a beautiful compassion that does not waver in response to my behaviors or short-comings. 

And He feels the same way about you. No matter where you are in your journey with Him, He is looking at you with the loving, healing, calming, faithful gaze that only our perfect Savior can sustain. May your heart be steadied by His look and His love today.

How to Abide in Christ

There is this concept that sounds like it is straight out of the mouths of powerhouse Christians from the 1800’s: abide in Christ.

In fact, one of those dudes, Andrew Murray, wrote a book by the same name, and I happen to be reading it now. (You can, too, for free, here.)

Turns out Murray wasn’t the first person to use the word “abide” in relation to our interaction with Jesus. In the famous “I am the Vine, you are the branches” teaching, Jesus instructed the disciples to “abide in me” (at least in the KJV, John 15:4).

To be honest, the word “abide” is pretty ambiguous to me.  As is the alternate word other translations use: “remain in me”.

How – I’ve often wondered – are we to “abide” or “remain” in Jesus? Practically speaking, what does that look like?

I’m not entirely sure. But Colossians 2:6-7 may give us a clue. It reads, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

There’s another ambiguous phrase: “continue to live your lives in him”. What does that mean?

When I think about what we can do to root and build up our lives in Jesus, I think about things like prayer and Bible reading. I think about cultivating a lifestyle of thanksgiving and praise. I think about making Him and His Word the basis for all our decisions.

When I think about what kind of things strengthen my faith, I think about all the same things. But I also think about swapping God-stories with others. When someone experiences the Lord’s faithfulness in a personal way and they tell me about it, my faith is strengthened. What’s more, if someone let’s me walk along side them during a crisis and we get to witness the Lord’s faithfulness together, that strengthens my faith even more.

These things will help us abide or remain in Christ. But we both know we can’t/don’t do these things constantly.

Yet the very definitions of the words imply we are to continuously remain/abide/live in Christ. How can we do that when we know we can’t do that?!

One thing about the Lord… He doesn’t ask us to do things we cannot do in Christ. (Note: He asks us to do A LOT of things we cannot do in our own strength.)

Murray suggests in his book that our job is to believe that Jesus will help us abide in Him, and the rest, basically, is up to Him. It’s true, we can’t abide in Christ for very long. But, just as He was able to rescue us from our sins, He is able to empower us to live continuously in Him. We were saved, Murray says, by faith. It should be no shocker, then, that we abide by faith as well.

If we truly believe that He is the vine (and meditate on the implications of such a claim [paragraph 6]), and if we truly believe that we are in Him (and meditate on the implications of such a position [paragraph 7]), we will be abiding.

To abide in Christ is to have faith that He is our everything at every moment and that we are forever being perfectly held and kept by Him.

Thanks be to Him that His grace makes these things so.

Our Father

I spent last week here:

 

Our Father
Panama City Beach, FL

Yeah, I’m rubbing it in.

But more to the point, my husband and I went to the beach with 130+ high schoolers from our church for a retreat. As retreats tend to go, we had a great time connecting with the Lord outside of our normal daily routines.

The most impactful part for me occurred the third night. During the message, the speaker, Greg Speck, invited students to accept Christ, to rededicate themselves to living for the Lord if they felt they had wandered off the beaten path, or to commit to continue pursuing Him fervently.

This is a pretty standard part of retreats, so I was not surprised by the invitation. But, almost as a side note, the speaker took an unexpected detour and began talking to the kids whose fathers have left them.

Understand, we are a predominantly white church located in an upper-middle class suburb. In other words, we have a higher rate of dads in the home than other sections of Memphis.

But for whatever reason, the speaker, an experienced communicator with teenagers and a man with four grown children of his own, felt the need to address abandoned kids. I found this a little odd given our demographic.

He explained that when he leaves, in the dad’s spot is a hole in his kids’ hearts only Jesus can fill. Counselors who knew this to be true looked at one another with tears in their eyes.

Then the speaker said something like this to the students, “If it’s been a long time since you’ve had a fatherly hug, or if you just need someone to speak some fatherly truth to you about who you are in Jesus, I’d be glad to do that at the end of the message.”

More tears.

I had only known most these kids about 3 days and already 3 popped into my mind whose dads had either left them or passed away. But what happened after the message blew me away.

Student after student lined up to wait for a dad hug. 

Students from affluent suburbs. Students who more than likely knew their dad at one time. Students who now come from broken homes because the divorce rate knows no economic nor spiritual boundaries. But also students whose dads are physically present in their homes but completely checked out emotionally.

The line stretched down the aisle as teenagers – people who are highly sensitive to what their friends might think about them – cast aside their egos out of their desperate emotional need for a connection with a father figure.

More tears.

The following evening – the last evening with the speaker – kids walked up to say goodbye and thank you to him. Others, still starved for father attention, humbly requested one more father hug.

The best part?

The speaker was not playing the hero to these students; he was pointing them to the only One who can permanently rescue them from their pain – their Heavenly Father. 

I watched this fallen, kind-hearted, imperfect man offer all he could – a hug and some words – and it was a beautiful example to these students of what God’s fatherly love looks like.  With his words and actions, the speaker not only modeled God’s love, but he purposefully pointed these kids to their true Father as the ultimate, perfect Source of fatherly love.

And you know what?

The speaker’s humble offering was enough. It was enough to give the students a glimpse of the One who can fill their hearts eternally and perfectly. It was enough to crack the shell that some of these abandoned students had around their hearts. It was enough to encourage some of them to open their hearts to God for the first time or once again after months or years of having turned away from Him.

And my hope in sharing this story is that it will be enough for you, too. You whose dad has died. You whose dad left before you were born. You whose dad left when you were a kid. You whose dad stayed physically but abandoned you emotionally. You whose dad is not enough. And, when we get down to it, that’s all of us.

Max Lucado tweeted this week, “We never outgrow our need for a father’s love. We were wired to receive it.”

Scripture says we believers are children of God (John 1:12). He is our Father, our perfect, never-failing, more-than-enough Dad of dads. 

Amen.