Sunday, April 5, 2020

It Only Works if You Mix in Faith

Faith 13

Note: This was the last post I had planned in this blog series about faith. Due to the situation in which we find ourselves I am going to extend my writing on faith for some time yet. I hope that you will find it a help in times like these.

Hebrews 3. 17  But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?
18  And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?
19  So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
4.1 ¶  Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
2  For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
3  For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

          In Hebrews, we often find the writer comparing the events of the New Testament era to the events of the Old Testament era. He does so here. He mentions the Jews fleeing Egypt could not enter into the Promised Land due to their unbelief. He goes on to explain that, just so, if we would enter into the rest of Jesus/Heaven it must be by belief. Along the way, almost as an aside, the writer discusses the concept of preaching and why it seems to help some people but not help others. Why did some Jews find preaching beneficial while others did not? For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
          Did you ever wonder why a sermon you hear can impact you so deeply while someone sitting right next to you snoozes through the entire thing? While we cannot see another’s heart, it is patently true the reception of the sermon itself is key to the amount of spiritual profit we would take away from it.
          Just the other day I happened to be watching a cooking competition. It was a team exercise. One of the courses the Blue Team was preparing happened to be polenta, and it was not going well. In fact, it was an utter disaster. At one point, five different chefs stood around the pot trying to come up with a plan to rescue the dish. One of the guys hit upon the idea of adding milk. He stirred it in and, voila!, everything turned out splendidly. So it with preaching. As a pastor, I can preach the pure Word of God diligently until I am blue in the face, but if that preaching is not mixed with faith in a receptive heart the preaching will be unprofitable.
          With that by way of introduction, let me give you three corollaries to this idea. First, let me say that the hearer must have absolute faith in the Word of God. Faith in God must include faith in His Word. Do not tell me you trust me if you do not trust what I say. There must be, driven deep into the heart of each hearer, an absolute embrace of the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of God’s Word. It is never wrong. About anything. It says so repeatedly, and I must believe that if I claim to be a believer in God.

Psalm 12:6 The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Psalm 19:8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
Psalm 119:140 Thy word is very pure: Therefore thy servant loveth it.
Proverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
Romans 7:12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

          This unshakeable faith is a necessity for preaching to minister to you.
          Second, in addition to an absolute faith in the Scriptures, the hearer must have some level of faith in the preacher. I write this cautiously. Obviously, I believe our faith must be placed in the Lord. But there is a sense in which I must have some measure of trust in the preacher to whom I am listening if I am going to get anything out of the message.
          Many years ago, I was out door-to-door soul winning in Niles, Ohio, with my father. At one particular door, a distinguished looking gentleman answered our knock, and in answer to our queries explained that he was a born again Christian. He went on to say that he was active in his church, teaching the young married couples class. In the course of our conversation, the fact that he was divorced happened to come up for some reason or other. As we walked away, my father quietly said to me, “Would you put a divorced man in charge of a married couples class?” I have never forgotten the wisdom of that quiet statement. Why? For the same reason I do not give weight loss advice. Quite plainly, it is not my area of expertise. The sad truth is if you do not have some level of confidence in a preacher you will respond to his preaching with suspicion at best and/or criticism and bitterness at worst as you reject everything he says.
          Paul understood this. He often cites his own experiences in order to help people understand that he knows what he is talking about. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus (Galatians 4.13-14).

          Along this line, let me offer two appropriate suggestions. First, cultivate a balanced faith in the preacher, with the key word of this sentence being “balanced”. Yes, he is God’s man but he is still just a man. The authority is in God’s Words, not his. By the same token, he just a man, but he is a good man. He is a genuine man. He is a tested man. He loves you, loves his family, loves his neighbor, and loves God. Grant him a measure of trust and esteem. It will open your heart to the truths of God’s Word he is holding before you.
          Additionally, I might suggest that you be wary of the tendency all of us to allow our spiritual discernment to morph into fleshly criticism. Do not check your brain at the door. Do not swallow anything whole that anybody says. If a preacher is wrong you ought to know your Bible well enough to spot it. By the same token, when you see a critical spirit developing in your heart, fight it. The preacher you are listening probably is not on par with Jim Jones. He is human, yes, but not evil. It is highly doubtful he spent all week in his office plotting how to manipulate you into something spiritually dubious. Have a – important word here next – little faith in him.
          Thus far, in looking at the importance of mixing faith with preaching, we have looked at the necessity for faith in the Word of God and the help there is in having some level of faith in the preacher. Third, then, I would counsel that the hearer should mix in this specific mental approach to every sermon: “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it.” Seven times in James 2 we find some form of the phrase faith without works is dead. If I am going to mix faith in with the message I hear that faith, if it is a genuine faith, will result in some work or action on my part. In other words, if the sermons I listen to do not cause my life to change at all then I must not be mixing them with faith. Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (James 1.22).
          I realize that some sermons do not call on me to do anything differently. This is the case if I am already practicing what is being preached. If the message is about forgiving my enemies and I already have then nothing needs to change there. If it is addressing bitterness and I am not bitter then I not need to take action. Other messages I hear from time to time do not apply to me. If I take my teenagers to a Youth Conference, and the preacher waxes eloquent on choosing the right spouse carefully I can sit back and pitch in with a hearty Amen, but I do not need to do anything about the message necessarily. But many, if not most, sermons do have an application that I should personally incorporate. And my default approach must be that if there is a personal application that applies to me in a sermon then I will seek to apply it. This approach should be foundational. It should be part of who we are at our core. We should think this way with every message we hear.
          I love to preach, but I am neverendingly frustrated with some people who sit in my church. Week after week, month after month, year after year there is no change. Meanwhile, Bro. So-and-so who sits one row over is growing like gangbusters. Why? Bro. So-and-so had the wisdom to mix in faith.
          You will hear some preaching this week. Do not sit there like a bump on a log, challenging God and the preacher to move you. No, beloved. Bring to it an absolute faith in God’s Word. Throw in some trust in the preacher. Add in a dash of “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it”. And it will taste so much better.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

An Open Letter to My Son, Jack

Thirty-nine years ago, I fell in love with reading. I was in first grade, and by October I had read all my assigned literature books for the entire year, and started in on my sister’s books that were several grades in advance of my own. Before I turned ten, I had begun collecting books, lining them up along the edge of the floor in my room as I had no bookshelf. By the time I was twelve, I had begun serious reading, including Edward Gibbon’s massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which I had found haunting the stacks of the Girard Free Library. As a teenager, I discovered the classics of English, Russian, and American fiction, rummaging around in Dickens and Hugo and Scott. In high school, I discovered L’Amour and Asimov, and entirely out of step with those devoured John R. Rice’s academic tome on inspiration. College and the first five years of a bi-vocational pastorate left little time for reading, but when my church grew enough to support me on a full-time basis I happily rediscovered the joy of books. Now, for almost two decades, I have delighted again in study and, not surprisingly, become an author myself.
          Throughout these four decades, I have slowly gathered a library one book at a time. I hoarded books like other men hoard tools or collect baseball cards. For years they traveled with me from place to place in boxes. I would store them anywhere I could, and dream of the day I could unpack them all, and put them into a permanent home. Yet as the years passed, and my boxes of books multiplied, the spaces of my life proved too small to contain them. I crammed them into this spare corner and that one. I stowed them precariously along the stairs, banished others to the basement, and stacked still more double-deep on the shelves lining every square inch of my tiny church office.
         Last Fall I accepted the pastorate here in Dubuque. The first load that got moved was my books, this time housed in brand new plastic totes, an entire truckload of them. They got piled up on every available surface, including the floor, of my new office. One by one, my new church members would wander back to my office to see if the rumors were true. Did I really have that many books? Where was I going to put them all? Good question, I thought.
          Across the hall from my new office was another empty office. It would make a fine conference room, I thought, somewhere to hold deacon’s meetings and disciple new converts during the Sunday School hour. Then it dawned on me – why not line the walls with bookshelves and kill two or three birds with one stone? I could have space to breathe in my office, my books could finally have a permanent home, and the church could have a very usable mentoring/meeting space all at the same time.
          Eighteen years ago, God blessed our home with a fiery red-headed boy. He has challenged me and delighted me more than anything else in my life for the past almost twenty years. Three years ago, he began to develop an aptitude for working with his hands. At first, he built benches and boxes, carefully laboring over the tiny details. He spent hours on Youtube studying cabinet making and applying what he watched. Every bench he sold he plowed right back into buying more tools. Over time, he acquired machines and skill both unusual to find in a self-taught home-schooled high-school kid. He moved on from benches to tables and from tables to massive crosses and finely detailed pulpits. He was building a business right there in my garage. Then we moved.
          I stood in the empty room across the hall from my office that day and decided that I would risk my unproven capital at my new church. I did not understand how they functioned, financially, nor did they understand how I lead. But the father and the pastor in me both knew this was a good idea. Instead of just throwing up some shelving and calling it a day I would go to bat for the money necessary for the right materials. I would enlist Jack. And I would build a conference room and a permanent home for my books.
          The next day, I dragged Jack into the empty office. For two hours, we laid out a library. Oak. Built-in. More shelving space than I needed for once in my life since I have yet more books to acquire in future years. Different sizes of shelves. Decorative elements. Hand-made panels and pillars. Crown molding. The only thing I turned him down on was a coffered ceiling. We used every available inch of wall, including a closet that needed to be accessed but at the same time covered in shelves. Jack was delighted at the thought of building a secret door. Neither the father in me nor the pastor in me wanted to ask him to donate all of his time. His skills were beyond that. This was going to take hundreds of hours. He deserved to be compensated. But he would not be. He knew it, and I knew it. And he agreed to it without hesitation.
          For the last six months he has lived in that room, practically. Each day, after finishing his school work, he would head to the church. With his own money, he bought yet more equipment, the portable kind necessary for on location construction. All through the winter he worked. Everything but the finish work had to be done outside. He shoveled snow off of his work area, and learned to ignore the cold of an Iowa winter. He set up tents tied down with bricks and chairs to keep the rain off his equipment. He battled a room where every wall and the ceiling and the floor was out of square. He crafted each bookcase as a unit, and we carried them in together and set them in place. He moved outlets and heating vents. He fought the secret door tooth and nail for a couple of months. Along the way, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday. Last week, I helped him with the homestretch, and together we spent hour upon hour hand-rubbing Danish oil into the wood, watching the grain come alive.
          Many men are proud of their sons. They sit in the stands and watch them hunker down over the line of scrimmage. They schlep them from game to game, from tournament to tournament. At every chance, they brag to their friends of how smart or talented or dedicated or athletic or clever their sons are. That is natural. I am all for it. But – and forgive me for this – I do not know another father of my acquaintance whose teenage son has given him such a princely gift as Jack has given me. Because he loves me. Because he loves the Lord. And because he loves to do fine work. I do not know what he will do with his life but I have told him again and again that I cannot wait to see. Whatever he does, he will do it with excellence. The proof is right across the hall from my office.

          It is not enough, but this blog post is all I can offer by way of repayment.
          Thank you, Jack.
          I am proud of you.
          And I love you.  

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Faith and Love

Faith 12

          When God says something once it is worth noting. When God says something repeatedly it is worth emphasizing. One of the things God says repeatedly in Scripture is that faith and love are linked. For example:

Ephesians 6:23  Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1Thessalonians 3:6  But now when Timotheus came from you unto us, and brought us good tidings of your faith and charity, and that ye have good remembrance of us always, desiring greatly to see us, as we also to see you:
1Timothy 1:14  And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.

          This is because, in a very real sense, the point of our obedience to Him ought to be faith and love. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned (I Timothy 1.5). There are two ditches on either side of the road of obedience. There is the ditch of pragmatism – I obey so I can do something or accomplish something. There is also the ditch of pharisaism – I obey so I can be proud of my obedience. Truth is almost always balanced, lying between extremes of error. Obedience ought to be so foundational that we do not obey in order to do/accomplish something, but it ought not be so foundational that the obedience itself it the point. There is a larger point, the end of the commandment i.e. the aim or point. What is it? Faith and love. If our Christian obedience does not result in greater faith and love than our obedience is faulty.
          The simple truth is where we find one healthy we ought so find the other. We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth (II Thessalonians 1.3). A great faith in God is not found without a great love for God and a great love for God is not found without a great faith in God. As of this writing, I have been married for twenty years. I love my wife more now than I did twenty years ago when we began this journey. Not coincidentally, I trust her with absolutely everything in my life. Those two elements – my love for her and my trust in her – have grown together.
          Faith that does not operate out of or in love is a lousy faith. For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love (Galatians 5.6). In other words, love must be a prime motivating factor in that which causes us to believe God for something, to rest in Him for something, or to depend upon Him for something. If I am to exercise faith in God to provide us with a larger church facility that ought to be driven by love – a love for God and a love for people. Faith motivates God. It swings God into action, so to speak. He loves when we trust Him. But if my love for Him and for those around me is not motivation to put Him into action I have a deep spiritual problem.

          I am an independent, fundamental Baptist and not in the least ashamed of that. I do not apologize for my doctrinal positions. But I must hold those doctrinal positions in faith and love. Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 1.13). If I do not trust in God as I hold my precious doctrinal positions I will end up in serious trouble. Because pride will get me. Leaning on my knowledge and understanding and/or trusting the strength of my own backbone develops my pride. I must lean on Him. Likewise, if I do not love God and love people as I hold my doctrinal positions I will end up in serious trouble. Because I will move past the balance of grace and truth into a downright bitter spirit. I will become harsh where I ought to become Christlike.
          Beloved, let us stand for what we believe in, but let us do so trusting in God and loving Him and those around us while we do so. Let us minister and serve out of both together. For in doing, we will find a great protection. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love (I Thessalonians 5.8).      

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Faith and Prayer and Doubt

Faith 11

          We have this idea that faith in prayer means we are not allowed to have any doubt at all. This concept of faith/prayer contains more belief for than belief in, so to speak. It says, “If I believe in God strongly enough He will do for me whatever it is that I ask.”
          There is some scriptural warrant for such a position in Mark 11.24. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. I do not deny this verse. I celebrate it. But I also state that internalizing and applying this verse can only be done from an incredibly spiritual position. Furthermore, I freely admit that even after decades of walking with God I have not yet arrived at that position. If you are there, I am happy for you. Pray for me, would you?
          Understanding this, it then follows that there must be some connection between faith and prayer that is more reachable, more obtainable for the typical Christian than a faith unmixed with doubt. As I wrote of earlier in this series, faith and doubt are often intermingled. Is there a way to bring prayer into that? I think the answer is a resounding yes. It is a prayer that does not require an unswerving belief that God will but rather that God can. Confident that He can, it asks Him if He will. It does not demand. Indeed, it trembles that He will not. But it asks because it knows He can.
          We find this exact scenario in the utterly human prayer meeting found in Acts 12. Herod, spurred on by a demonically motivated Sanhedrin frustrated that killing Jesus did not kill Christianity, went after the pastor of the church in Jerusalem, James. After assassinating James, Peter was next and the church knew it. Arrested and imprisoned, Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him (Acts 12.5). That prayer meeting was long and intense. Miraculously, while it was ongoing, Peter was released from his shackles by an angel and pointed toward the prayer meeting. Arriving, in one of the funniest stories in the Bible, he has trouble gaining admittance to the very prayer meeting beseeching God for his deliverance. Why? He was assumed to be a ghost. When she knew Peter’s voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. And they said unto her, Thou art mad. But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel. But Peter continued knocking: and when they had opened the door, and saw him, they were astonished (Acts 12.14-16).
          We see here an undeniable fact. The church assembled had enough faith to
Liberation of St. Peter by Bartolome Esteban Murillo
c 1667
believe God could get Peter out of prison; they were asking Him that, after all. At the same time, they did not have enough faith to believe that God would get Peter out of prison; thus, the shock at his release. Which leads directly to this glorious thought – God answered their prayer even though they only had a limited faith. Unlimited faith in an unlimited God will get unlimited answers to prayer, but even limited faith in an unlimited God can get amazing answers to prayer.
          What has God brought to your heart in the few short moments it has taken you to read this? Ask Him for it, beloved. I know you think He might not, perhaps even probably will not. But if it is something that is right and good, ask Him anyway. You know He can. He is honored when we ask.
          Perhaps, just perhaps, He will.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Two Ways to Build Someone Else’s Faith

Faith 10

          One of the things that mature Christians must constantly guard against is spiritual selfishness. By this I mean our natural tendency to be so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the needs of others. Our prayer life is often a sad illustration of this very fact. Too often we spend the bulk of our time praying for things that concern us, things we care about, rather than praying for someone else’s needs.
          Please do not misunderstand me. I ought always to be working on myself, seeking to grow in grace. Paul told Timothy, Take heed to thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee (I Timothy 4.16). If I am weak I cannot lift the fallen very well and I am great danger myself. Yet it is still true that I can get so inwardly focused, naval-gazing myself to death, that I neglect those around me to their hurt and mine. The hermits of the Middle Ages come to mind here. Thus it is that I must constantly be asking myself, “What I just learned – can I teach that to someone else? Can I help someone else with that? Can I pour into someone else’s life what God has just poured into mine?”
          Faith is, by definition, a very personal thing. Seeking to build someone else’s faith is a little bit like trying to change the weather – it is often not wise, and it is never easy. But I am not content to sit back, recuse myself from all responsibility, and allocate that to the Lord to manage. I want to build my children’s faith. I want to build my people’s faith. I want to build your faith. So how can I do that?
          The obvious answer is to give people the Word of God, to speak it, teach it, sing it, say it, preach it, emphasize it, thrust people into it. Faith comes by hearing the Word of God. But is that the only way faith comes? Is there not something practical, something concrete I can do to help edify the faith of those around me that I love so much?
          Yes, there is. Two, actually.
          I can build the faith of those around me with my pain.
          Did you know Jesus did exactly that? No, I am not talking about His atoning death on the cross. I am talking about something slightly more approachable for us, a little closer to where we really live. He wept. Jesus wept (John 11.35). But what was the context of that weeping? The death of His dear friend, Lazarus, you reply, and the fact He had to recall Him from Heaven to Earth. Yet Jesus could have avoided all of that, as He tells us earlier in the story, if He had just chosen to go to Bethany as soon as He heard the news of Lazarus’ illness. So why did He tarry? Why wait? Why cause Lazarus to endure that pain? Why cause Himself to go through pain? But I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe (John 11.15). Jesus waited – and thus endured unnecessary pain – in order to strengthen the faith of His Apostles, and by extension of us. In other words, Jesus willingly embraced suffering and then was open about it in order that He might help the faith of others to grow.

          I have often found this to be the case in my life. As a teenager, I watched the movie “Twice Given” and was moved to a greater faith. As a college student, I watched Pastor Scott Willis of Chicago bury six of his children after a horrific vehicle accident and was moved to a greater faith. I could, of course, furnish numerous examples less well known in the years since. Their pain and their grace filled reaction to it strengthened my own faith.
          Some time ago, I made a conscious decision to be more public about various burdens in my life. I have blogged about the death of our daughter. [link]. In my newest book, Freed From Sin, I am open about how complicated my life has become due to Meniere’s disease. Just in this series I have written about some of my struggles as a young pastor. I do not want to whine. I do not want to get attention. But neither do I want to waste my pain. I do not want you to waste yours either. When you hurt, and you trust God in it, it helps to develop the faith of those around you.
          The second way you can build the faith of those around you is with your song. The psalmist said it excellently well: He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, And set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord (Psalm 40.1-3). Have you ever been in a miry pit? Did God deliver you from it? Then shout about it every once in a while. Open your mouth and sing praise to the Lord. As others around you see this their trust in the Lord grows.
          You say, “But God hasn’t delivered me yet. You don’t expect me to have a song on my lips in the middle of a trial, do you?” If you have ever read Psalms you know it is a book that beautifully combines a broken heart with lips overflowing in praise. God gave him a song in the night (Psalm 77.6) long before the burdens were ever lifted. When you and I, like Paul and Silas, can sing our praises at midnight, people are drawn to Christ.
          Life hurts. In that hurt, sing His praises. And you will strengthen the faith of those around you.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Work of Faith

Faith 9

          I once heard the Christian life likened to a man shoveling sand. It is not complicated but it is hard work. Growing in grace is hard work. Loving your wife like Christ loves the church is hard work. Loving your enemies is hard work. Overcoming bitterness is hard work. Prevailing prayer is hard work. Witnessing is hard work. Bible study is hard work. Bringing your children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is hard work. Faithful church attendance is hard work. In fact, after twenty-three years in the pastorate, I am convinced that one of the primary reasons many people are carnal is sheer laziness. They just are not willing to do the hard work necessary to become a transformational Christian.
          God intended for our Christianity to cost something. We are told to buy the truth (Proverbs 23.23). Being a deacon is a prime example of this. The good ones do not hold a position so much as serve a pastor and a flock. And that costs something. For they have used the office of a deacon well purchase to themselves a good degree (I Timothy 3.13). Like other spiritual graces, God structured faith the same way. If we are going to have it and use it, and grow in those it is going to take hard work.
          Before I continue, let me hasten to establish that my work/s has no part in the faith that brings me salvation. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Romans 4.5). I am not saying that because faith takes work that we are working our way to Heaven, not at all. Salvation is the gift of God, not of works. Saving faith still includes work but that work is all of God. Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent (John 6.29). He convicts us of sin, He gifts us the faith necessary to place in Himself, He gifts us salvation, and He gifts us eternal life. I just sit there and accept it all by faith.
          Having said that, it is also true that a faith that is going to grow beyond the infancy of being born again does take work on our part. Paul stated, Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (I Thessalonians 1.3). The writer of Hebrews likewise connects laboring and faith, calling on us to diligent work. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief (Hebrews 4.11).
          In my opinion, there are several ways to approach this. First, we ought to work at getting faith. How do you do that, you ask? Well, how does faith come? Through hearing the Word of God, of course. So as I read, meditate, study, sing the Scriptures my faith grows. As I sit under the teaching and preaching of the Word of God my faith grows. Making such things a routine priority in my life cannot be done without working at it.
          Next, I propose that we ought to work at exercising our faith. Exercise is the constant use of something, so much so that we become proficient at it. We see this fact spiritually applied in Hebrews 5.14. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. In the original language “exercise” here means to control oneself by thorough discipline, as in a gymnast training for the Olympics. Such exercise is nothing less than work, and a lot of it. Paul likewise tells us in the pastoral epistles to exercise ourselves unto godliness (I Timothy 4.7). Three times in the last seven days I purposely set aside time to work out. One was a long several hour hike. The other two were lifting sessions at the gym. All of that exercise was nothing short of work.
          How do I exercise my faith? I discipline myself to trust God. I welcome God’s working in my life, even the ways that force me to trust Him beyond my comfort zone. Is not that how I grow my muscular structure? I sit down at the machine regularly, set a weight level slightly above my comfort zone, and repeatedly lift that amount to the point of exhaustion. So I stretch my faith, pushing it beyond where I am comfortable, exercising it repeatedly. I am working at growing my faith.
          Third, we must fight the natural inclination of our flesh to trust ourselves. My natural inclination is to lay in bed when the alarm goes off. I have to fight myself to get up, put my togs on, and head for the gym. Likewise, my natural inclination is to trust my own ability, my own experience, my own talent, my own perspective and reason. I must fight that inclination, that instinctive reliance upon myself. I must fight to turn to God instead, and to do so faithfully and consistently.
          Lastly, we must live out with good works the faith we do claim. Is not this James’ entire point in that oh-so-difficult second chapter of his epistle?

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

          There is a scriptural sense in which I rest in my faith. There is another scriptural sense in which even the work I do in relation to faith is still of faith, accomplished only by trusting God’s enabling help. But there is yet another scriptural sense in which my faith is not passive, is not stationary. It is an active thing, something I am cultivating, working on like I work on my tomato crop every year. And just as with those tomatoes, when that crop of faith comes in, that faith that was grown in the soil of hard work, what rejoicing there will be!
          Your faith is small, you say. Your faith is weak, you say. Your faith is a frail, cob-webby thing. Alright then. Be not content with such things. Go to work on it, hammer and tongs. Beloved, build up yourselves on your most holy faith.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Trial of Your Faith

Faith 8

          One of the most precious passages in all of Scripture must be I Peter 1.-7. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. Let us briefly and simply examine this text and see what we may learn from it about faith.
          We see, first of all, that our faith will be tried. Just mark it down. It is a fact as sure as death and taxes, one we see all through the Word of God. The first man, Adam, had to trust God through the murder of one child and the banishment of another. Noah had to trust God during the unreasonably commanded and monstrously long task of building the ark. Abraham had to trust God while leaving his country, while waiting decades for promised descendants, while walking up Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son, and while casting out another son he loved with all of his heart. Jacob had to trust God during his long wait for Rachel, when he was commanded to return and face Esau, during the decades he thought Joseph was dead, and while dealing with famine. Joseph had to trust God with the betrayal by his brothers, through slavery, and into prison. And we have not even gotten out of the book of Genesis yet. No wonder Peter tells us elsewhere in his first epistle, Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you (I Peter 4.12). Job, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Malachi, Paul, James, and John join Peter in specifically telling us in Scripture that God will try us.
          Second, we sadly see that these trials will be painful. We are tried by fire. These are fiery trials. There are certainly cases where that was literally true i.e. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the burning fiery furnace, not to mention the thousands of saints through the centuries whose last prayers ascended to their Lord on the smoke of the fires in which they were burned at the stake. But, generally speaking, it is also true that you and I probably will not be called upon to face such literal fiery trials. Our testing is usually more similar to the heartaches David expresses in the Psalms, or the bereavement of a puzzling and hurting Job.
          I am not here to sell you a creampuff Christianity. I let the heretical prosperity gospel preachers in their thousands do that job. And what do they build with their creampuff sermons? Creampuff saints and creampuff churches, a Christianity with zero staying power and no actual faith in the God of Heaven. No, beloved, I write out of a desire to edify the brethren. I seek to develop scripturally literate, deeply committed, spiritually mature saints. In my local ministry here in Dubuque, I seek the same. In my home, I relentlessly pursue this as well. I want to develop a strong and deep Christianity in all whom I have the opportunity to influence. And to get that I must tell the truth. Christianity often hurts. A lot.
          The third fact we find in this passage, and a most encouraging fact it is, is that these trials will be purifying. Peter likens it to that which gold endures, an idea we find elsewhere in the Word of God. Malachi, God’s messenger to a post-captivity Israel said, And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver (Malachi 3.3). In this he followed the leading of Isaiah two centuries before who quotes God as saying, Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver: I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction (Isaiah 48.10). That last phrase is horrendously accurate and yet somehow sweetly ministers to us at the same time. These fiery trials purify us, bringing the dross of our flesh to the surface, where God peels the scum off a layer at a time.
          My first year holding the exalted position of pastor of an independent Baptist
Lighthouse Baptist Church
Bessemer, Pennsylvania
my first pastorate
church was brutal. The last Sunday of July, 1997, I stood behind a cardboard box covered by a bathroom rug and greeted eleven people during the main service my first day as a pastor. Exactly one year later, on my first anniversary, I stood behind a cardboard box and greeted the eight that remained. There was zero growth, negative growth actually. The offerings were abysmal. The spirit was dreadful. Very few had been saved or baptized. The building had more cobwebs than people. No new ministries had started and the few we had limped along on life support. Missionary support cratered. I discovered debt, disenchantment, depression, and defeat. By all measurements, I had failed. Nor would the next few years be much better. Dozens of times I preached to crowds smaller than five people, hundreds of times to less than twenty. I know what it is like to craft a sermon, clean the building, prep an order of service, turn the lights on, and have not a soul show up. I know what it is like to have to wait for someone to show up so I could start the service. I know what it is like to wait for the sound of a single car pulling up, crunching on the gravel strewn driveway, knowing I was now going to have church. I know what it is like to be ignored by other area pastors, to be forgotten by your alma mater, to be as empty as dry heaves while you preach to your handful, to have your dreams of ministerial accomplishment go up in smoke. And then, my daughter died.
          In retrospect, there are several reasons God took me through that, but one jumps out at me like the monster under the bed. When I graduated from Bible college I was a proud young man. I was smart. I was dedicated. I had tremendous potential. I was an excellent preacher. I knew all that because I had been told it repeatedly by all the people who counted. Pride is the horse that pulls the cart of destruction. God did not desire my ministry to be destructive so he pummeled me. He beat me black and blue until my arrogance oozed out of me and puddled at my feet. He knew someday I would stand before great crowds, would hear glowing introductions, would be deferred to, respected, consulted, and otherwise tempted with being impressed with myself. So He purified me.
          Fourth, and wonderfully, we see that this trial will be precious, more precious than of gold that perisheth. In the original language the word “precious” implies something that is held in high honor, and thus highly valued. We cringe from trials, wriggling like mad to get out of them, beseeching God all the while to remove them. The simple truth is we ought to place them as crowns of gold around our head. They accomplish amazing things. In purifying me, they meet my deepest need, the need to become like Christ. In turn, God often uses them in later years to meet the needs of those around me. Let us welcome fiery trials with open arms and hearts; they are the means by which much of what God has for us and does with us is provided.
Gold Laurel Crown
Thessalonica, Greece
c BC 500
          Lastly, and gloriously, these trials produce praise, praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ. They do so in two ways. First, when we handle our fiery trials well often those around us end up praising God as they watch what He is doing in our lives. Daniel endured a night alone with a pride of hungry lions. The result was a decree by the Persian king that Daniel’s God was the living God, and stedfast for ever, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even unto the end (Daniel 6.26). Second, they also produce the praises of God in my heart. I come to see that God was right in throwing me into the furnace of affliction and leaving me to roast there. And I drive to church of a Sunday morning with tears rolling down my cheeks as I contemplate the goodness and wisdom of God displayed through my life over thirty-two years of walking with Him.
          Job, who paid perhaps the highest price of any saint recorded in Scripture, said it most beautifully when he penned these words: But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold (Job 23.10). The only way to get that gold to the surface is by thrusting you and me into the fire.
          Let us trust Him in the flames. It is a precious thing He asks of us.