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.  

Monday, February 17, 2020

Six Things Faith Brings Us

Faith 7

There are more than seven hundred verses in the Bible that use some form of the word “faith” or its near synonyms. In preparation for this series I have carefully examined each one. As I did so, I placed them into categories or groups based on similarity. One of those groups or categories I labeled “what faith brings you.” There are substantially more than six thoughts in that category but here some of the best of the lot.
First, we see that faith brings us the Holy Spirit. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified) (John 7.39). The Holy Spirit may just be perhaps be the most marvelous gift that you and I possess this side of eternity. He is glorious. In the Old Testament era He only visited the saints, coming upon them from time to time. But in this era He indwells us, permanently. That means that all that He brings with Him is permanent as well, spiritual graces as grand and varied as comfort, conviction, leading, assurance, illumination, sealing, and fellowship. No wonder He is called the gift of the Spirit! And what brings us all of this? Just faith.
Second, we see that faith brings us victory over the world. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? (I John 5.4-5)
Too often, we allow ourselves to be intimidated. We see the swelling numbers walking opposite the Lord’s way. We feel pushed around by the media, the public education system, the music that surrounds us, the political and legal culture of our day, the sports-mad, money-chasing, carnality-loving, wickedness-celebrating, God-hating society in which we pass the days of our pilgrimage. We cower in the corners, hoping to remain unnoticed. In so doing, we entirely fail to understand we are looking at a whole lot of losers. Literally. They have already lost. The victory is already won. It is already over. And that victorious position from which we ought to live and move and have our being came via faith in God.
Third, we see that faith brings us joy. The sweet psalmist of Israel said, But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: Let them ever shout for joy (Psalm 5.11) To which Solomon adds his heart assent. Whose trusteth in the Lord, happy is he (Proverbs 16.20). I do not for one moment deny that this life can be a vale of tears. Burdens are real, heartaches are ever-present. But even in those tears there is joy. Even in those heart-aches there is blessing. We trust God. He blesses us. We count those blessing and joy fills our soul. We trust God. He uses us. We thrill in so being used and joy fills our soul. We trust God. He draws us to Him. We delight in Him. The praises of God overflow from our heart and lips. He has been marvelously good to us.
Fourth, we see that faith brings us companionship. The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: And none of them that trust in him shall be desolate (Psalm 34.22). God made us social creatures. That is why we want to go where everybody knows our name. That is why the worst punishment this side of capital punishment is solitary confinement. That is why people constantly form bad attachments. They are driven by their loneliness.
God’s people are not lonely people. I do not mean that they are not alone. Often, they are. But they are never lonely. Many times, if not most of the time, God blesses us with the sweetness of close friendships. David and Jonathan. Daniel and Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. Elijah and Elisha. Moses and Joshua. Jesus and the Apostles. In my own life there are several such men, men I love with all my heart, that I could kneel and pray with at any altar, and cover it in tears and praise. Beyond them, there are many others whose heart beats along with mine, coworkers in ministry laboring around the world, rejoicing and weeping together as we do so.
          Having said that, it is also true that as we follow on to know the Lord we are inevitably drawn directly to Him. Often, that involves a separating experience so that those around us, while no less loved than before, are no longer depended on. We find our souls drawn to Him alone. When we walk, we walk with God. And we are satisfied. David found in the Lord all the encouragement He needed. John found in Jesus a Saviour, a brother, a Lord, and a friend. Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him. Joshua tarried still at the Tabernacle, alone with the Lord long after Moses had left. Intimacy is an over-used and misunderstood word in our day, but it is a beautiful word nonetheless. The mature Christian finds great sweetness in the marrow of his intimacy with the Saviour.
          Fifth, we see that faith brings us safety. The fear of man bringeth a snare: But whose putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe (Proverbs 29.25). Faith is not a forcefield, magically protecting us from all ills. But faith in God means that everything that comes to us comes through Him. It also means that everything that comes to us finds Him with us. I will take those two facts all day long. Yes, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward but faith mitigates that mightily. Faith gives us a hedge around us.
          Lastly, we see that faith means God knows us. The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; And he knoweth them that trust in Him (Nahum 1.7). So many people spend so much time and effort networking, trying to get someone rich and/or famous to know them. You know when they succeed because they name drop. But in this scenario it is God that knows you. Charles Spurgeon said one time, “I want to live so close to God that when I look up to Heaven and whisper, ‘God, I love you,’ He looks down and says, ‘Charles, I know.’ “ To be known of God, to be known by God is priceless. The world sings, “Oh, how I need someone to watch over me.” We have Him, oh, beloved, we have Him. And it is beautiful. My beloved is mine, and I am his (Song of Solomon 2.16).
          …and all of this comes to us through faith.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Ye of Little Faith

Faith 6

          Did you ever feel like your faith is relatively small compared to others? Did you ever think to yourself, “I understand why God would bless So-and-so but I don’t have near the faith they have.” If that is the case then you are exactly who I am aiming at with today’s post – ye of little faith.
          Jesus used the phrase “little faith” four times in Matthew when addressing various situations. It is also found once in Luke in a reiteration of one of the stories previously found in Matthew. I want to briefly look at these four events and see what we can learn from them. What is it to be of little faith? What are those who of little faith supposed to do about it?
Matthew 6:30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?

Matthew 8:23–26
23 And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.
24 And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep.
25 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
26 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.

Matthew 14:30–31
30 But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.
31 And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

Matthew 16:5–11
5 And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread.
6 Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.
7 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread.
8 Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread?
9 Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?
10 Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?
11 How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?

          The underlined phrase above is actually one particular word in the original language. It is the same original language word in all five places the phrase is found in the New Testament. Defined in the original, it literally means lacking confidence.
          In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was referencing people who lack confidence in God’s willingness or ability to provide for their future needs. In the story of the ship on the sea in the storm Jesus was referencing people who lack confidence in God’s willingness or ability to keep them safe from harm. In the story of Peter walking on the water Jesus was referencing Peter’s lack of confidence in following through on His instructions. In the story about the bread and the leaven Jesus was referencing the Apostles’ lack of confidence in His reasoning. They thought He was mixed up or mistaken.
          We see clearly then that “little faith” means little confidence in God.
          These four instances divide broadly into two areas: first, a lack of confidence that God will meet our needs, and second, a lack of confidence that God knows what He is doing. Which makes perfect sense in my own life. I have often had less than sterling confidence that God was going to provide for some need or other. Even more often, I have had less than sterling confidence that God knew what He was doing as He manipulated events in my life. In other words, it is fairly common for me to be tempted by the thought that God made a mistake somehow in His dealings with me. And I think if you were honest you would say the exact same thing.
          Having established what it means to be one of those of little faith, the next question is how do we fight that? To use another analogy, if being of little faith is the disease of little confidence in God what is the cure? What is the medicine that strengthens us, enabling us to grow spiritually healthy again?

          There are three things the Bible specifically mentions in relation to increasing our confidence in the Lord. First, we find that the fear of the Lord does so. In the fear of the Lord is strong confidence: And his children shall have a place of refuge. (Proverbs 14.26) The fear of the Lord brings with it a veritable plethora of benefits, including this one. What is it to fear the Lord? I am reminded here of Isaiah. He saw the Lord as high, holy, and lifted up in Isaiah 6. He saw Him as being a very big God in Isaiah 40, One who knew everything and controlled everything. Seeing God in such a way – as He really is, in truth – cannot help but increase our confidence in Him.
          Second, we find that confidence is paired with the quietness of a steady walk with God. To reference Isaiah again, quoting the Lord he said, In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength (Isaiah 30.15). That phrase reminds me of the matchless Psalm 46.10, Be still and know that I am God. It the calm that comes to the soul as we contemplate all that God is, a contemplation that ought to be part and parcel of every man’s walk with God. I pair that with a New Testament exhortation such as I John 2.28. And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before him at his coming.
          As I quietly abide in Christ – walking with Him, walking in the Spirit, living out my day to day life practicing the presence of Christ – confidence seeps into my life. It is not a confidence in myself, in my own talents, experience, strength, or ability. No, beloved, it is a confidence in Him. The more time I spend with Him and the more consistently I do it the more I come to know Him. And the more I come to know Him the more confidence that I have in Him. Do you know why those senior saints in your church have an unshakeable confidence in the Lord? Because they have consistently and quietly walked with Him for decades.
          The third thing Scripture tells us builds our confidence is a clear conscience. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God (I John 3.20-21). So much of my lack of confidence in God is actually a lack of confidence in the state of my relationship with God. My sin takes an ax to the tree of my relationship with Him. It destroys whatever had been growing. As I learn to live in the victory over sin Christ has granted me I find my level of intimacy with Him develops unabated. That, in turn, builds my confidence in us, if you will allow me to use that phrase. It builds my confidence that He knows me, notices me, cares about me, and has my best interests at heart. Then, when God does not appear to be meeting my needs in a timely way instead of reacting with little faith I react with a quiet confidence in Jesus, lover of my soul.
          We see, then, that being of little faith solves itself. It disappears, receding gradually into the distance as I cultivate a fear of God, a walk with God, and a clear conscience before Him.

Monday, February 3, 2020

I Had Fainted Unless I Had Believed

Faith 5

          Why do people quit? God’s people. Why do they quit on their marriage, on a diligent approach to parenting, on soul winning and tithing and praying and teaching Sunday School? Why do they give up their bus route? Why do they, in the worse cases, quit on church and on God completely? I do not mean what excuse do they sell/tell us as their rationale. I mean why does it happen?
I want to know the answer to that question because I do not want to be a quitter. My college president, Dr. Wendall Evans, said, “Christianity is not measured in years; it is measured in decades.” I want to serve Him for numerous decades. So what causes people to quit on God and on God’s work, and how can I avoid it?
The psalmist gives us a thought provoking answer to that question in Psalm 27. I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord: Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: Wait, I say, on the Lord. Somehow or other, amongst all the other excuses and/or reasons, we will always find this at the core of a quitter’s quitting – he failed to believe. The devil tempted him, trolling any number of false truths across his path like a fly fisherman does in the late summer sunshine, and the quitter bit. He stopped believing God and instead began to believe the deceitful lies of the devil. So he quit.
When you take a moment and examine this psalm you will find it is actually filled with quite a few specific examples of this. Take, for instance, the discussion of fear in the first three verses. The psalmist tells us his enemies are after him, and discusses fear specifically at least three times. But in spite of those enemies and in spite of that fear his confidence is in the Lord.
Fear, while not precisely the opposite of faith, is here set in contradistinction to it. Fear attacks my faith. In my life, fear has done that through finances – losing a job, losing health insurance, taking a pay cut, etc. In the sixteen years I lived in the inner city, fear attacked me via crime and the threat of crime more times than I can count – fear for myself, fear for my wife, fear for my children, fear for my church. Fear has attacked me via my health. Meniere’s Disease, my long affliction, is incurable and regressive. Will tinnitus eventually drive me mad? Is deafness in my future? Will drop attacks come and rob me of my ability to preach and to minister? See? Fear. Flies flashing in the late summer sun above the river.

What kept/keeps me going through those fears? Faith in God. I had fainted unless I had believed.
Yet another example the psalmist furnishes us with is the pain of loneliness, the emotional scarring of abandonment. In verses nine and ten he talks about his father and mother forsaking him and says to God, leave me not neither forsake me. Yet often, it seems He has. David penning a psalm in the flickering light of a candle deep in the bowels of a damp cave. Paul, shivering without his cloak in the Mamertine prison. Jeremiah, up to his armpits in mud in a dry well used as a temporary dungeon. John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison. “Art thou he that should come or do we look for another?” And on and on it goes. Friendless. Orphaned. Childless. Imprisoned. Desperately single. Alone. Bereft. Forsaken. Flies flashing in the late summer sun above the river.
You will faint unless you believe.
What should have been one of the happiest days of my life, my college graduation, was one of the most miserable. I had a long-term serious relationship in high school that came to nothing, and did so painfully. In college, I had another long-term serious relationship that came to nothing, and did so painfully. Here I was, about to walk down the aisle, accept my hard-earned diploma, and head out into the ministry. Only I could not, of course, because I was single. Who hires a single youth pastor? What church is desperate enough to vote in a single pastor? I was frustrated, lonely, sad, and increasingly bitter. I do not exaggerate when I state that my senior year of college was a blur of pain. Nor did it end there. Month after month, nothing changed. I lost jobs. I fell into debt. I gained weight. I clung with fierce determination to the only thing in my life that mattered – my bus route – while my dreams of ministry success and family life crunched underfoot.
Years passed this way. And each time I thought the exile of loneliness was about to end I would find the oasis I ran toward was just another hollow mirage, mocking my sorrow. Needless to say, along the way, the master fly fisherman known as the devil cast a few lines my way. He very nearly snagged me. At one point, beyond weary of it all, I quit my job, closed my bank account, packed up my car, and was on the brink of heading out of town, heading nowhere, just leaving it all behind. It is perhaps the closest I have ever come in my life to quitting on God. Indeed, I practically had. Till God, in the nick of time, sent a dear friend across my path that night  to tell me that God still loved me, that He was still good, and that I should trust Him in spite of it all. And I believed.
I had fainted unless I had believed.
So will you.