I Opened My Mouth Too Big About God’s Love

“Do you guys know how much God loves you?” asked my fellow youth leader, whose red-on-black vest that day, I might add, happened to make him an unavoidably spitting image of a younger Jean-Luc Picard.

Our teens bounced some answers back and forth, solid as ever. They’ve got great understanding.

I ventured my own. And I should have known God would call me on it.

I said, “I believe it in my head, but not in my heart.”

I went on to describe how we often have another set of beliefs, this one existing subconsciously as something closer to instincts than to something you say out loud. We can believe God’s love consciously, as in process it as intellectual fact, without actually living like it. If we did, we’d take risks when God leads us. We’d avoid traps when God labels them such. We’d turn from sin. Nothing else would be important.

“My life would look a lot different if my heart believed God loves me,” I said. “By his grace, I’d like to think it’s getting there.”

I should have known God would call me on it.

Not an hour later, another youth leader was sidling up to me and enthusiastically volunteering me to lead a sprawling, daunting, risky ministry project on a scale I’ve never tried before. One which would require – well, believing in God’s love. On a heart level.

It’s like he heard me teaching those youth and went, Great words. Pop quiz?

Ay-yay-yay.

I don’t know if it’ll even happen. It just got proposed today. A few stepping stones do appear to have been laid already.

But it forced me to confront ever more starkly the reality of my own words: if we lived as if we believe God loves us, our lives would be extraordinary. We would be living fireworks, as daring as the battered Hollywood stunt double or the suicidal YouTube extreme sportsman, as confident as any politician, and as steel-eyed and determined as the most grizzled solider. More so. And all, perhaps, without ever being seen by the masses.

That’s what happens when we’ve been with Jesus.

When they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they marveled and took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

“They” is the Sanhedrin, the religious enforcers of Jesus’ day, far beneath the kingdom of God and not above blows from the fist. Months before, while Jesus stood at his show trial toying with these power players, Peter had been lying about knowing him to mere streetfolk. Now he faced these power players himself – and they could see Jesus’ boldness in him. Jesus’ love transformed him. He didn’t care what the world thought anymore, because he’d found meaning in Someone else.

Maybe you’ve never felt bold. Maybe you’ve trotted out the whole “I can witness to people here in America” line a little too often, knowing you’re not actually doing it that much, while unreached people groups across the globe lack access to a Bible. God has grace for you. He also has boldness.

Go be with Jesus. It makes a difference.

 

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You are Not in Control of Your Own Happiness

I get it. The common sentiment that “you’re in control of your own happiness” is meant to bring us from a place of learned helplessness to one of responsibility. It’s intended to take our focus off external circumstances, to free us from waiting for the galaxy to align and make us happy, and instead empower us to take charge of our attitudes. On the surface, it sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

In reality, it’s jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Sure, there’s value in learning to shape our worldviews. It’s life-changing to realize that there are days in which we can stare our stresses and disappointments in the face, say “I can have a good day despite you,” and discover that it actually happens! It’s not every day, admittedly – the meter tends to bounce back and forth – but we do have a role to play. A limited one.

If we are ultimately in control of our own happiness, though, it’s a sentence of death and despair.

We are disasters. When you examine what Scripture says about our nature and our ability to honestly perceive ourselves, we are disasters. I nearly left the house wearing mismatched shoes last Thursday, and the Bible says that’s the least of my dysfunctions. Am I trustworthy with my own happiness? Not on your life. I know myself too well.

How do we really know what will bring us happiness? Most of us are willing to look back on mistakes we made five years ago and admit we were off the beaten track. But we’re still judging from the same vantage point: by what feels right. We may have some more wisdom to aid in the squinting, and that’s something, but we haven’t actually changed positions. It felt right back then, too, though we didn’t know why.

Isn’t anyone starting to suspect that we might not be the best judge in these matters? I’m looking for a better yardstick – something outside myself.

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7-8)

I found a great Tim Keller quote recently that basically says that the Bible’s contradiction of your own instincts and desires is actually proof of its veracity – that a Bible that never contradicts you, but somehow always conveniently echoes you, is probably one you should be highly suspicious of. Like spam in your email.

Something outside us, however, can be trusted – especially if its accuracy has been verified historically, as the Bible’s has (despite greatly exaggerated reports otherwise).

I’m glad the people in my life don’t want me to be happy. Well, they do, but they first want me to be holy, because they recognize that one comes before the other. God asks for some sacrifices in return for happiness, yes, but given the sacrifice he made for us, it’s not an unfair request. Without him, it would be a cross for us.

You’re not in control of your own happiness – and you don’t need to be. God is willing to take that over for you. That’s actually a relief, if you think about it.

 

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Can Loneliness Cut Us Off from God?

I’ve always had a heart for Christians dealing with chronic loneliness. Not just singleness, though that is a cousin – I’m talking social isolation.
Sometimes such isolation comes by a person’s choice. Sometimes it’s because of a person’s toxic attitude.
But a few people are born without the ability to relate. It isn’t really their fault. Those social cues and dynamics you regularly take for granted, like who takes which roles in a multi-person conversation, or reciprocating body language? Totally foreign to those folks, like a shuttered and darkened mall store. They just don’t get it.

These folks come in many different shades; some are almost normative, some learn their way out. But let’s be honest – it doesn’t take much to “bug” others. They spend much of their lives shunned. Their tanks are empty.

And what these people lack from others, they often perceive to lack from God. They feel abandoned. They feel left to their own devices. It’s a daily, pervasive pain that elbows its way into every aspect of life.
The Bible speaks honestly about loneliness, and in notably more somber tones than other trials. “For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up!” (Ecc. 4:10). Being stranded on a desert island is one of the most harrowing fates we know; prisons use solitary confinement to break souls. Mother Teresa said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness.” Even Jesus, blase as he is about human concerns like money, wanted companionship as his hour approached. He denies himself the fruit of the vine until he can drink it with us (Matt. 26:29).
If “all you need is God” were license to run off to the woods for a life of divine communion without seeing another human again, most theologians would hasten to correct. The Christian life wasn’t meant to be lived solo. We were made in the image of a Trinity that enjoys perfect internal companionship. Timothy Keller said, “Loneliness is the one problem you have because you’re made in the image of God.” So, with few exceptions (some driven by bitterness), our souls reach for companionship. And God, who works through means, intends great benefits for us through that community.

And when it doesn’t come for some, they wonder if they have been deprived of vast swaths of God’s kingdom.

They have few people to pray with them – “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matt. 18:20).

They enjoy less accountability – “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:2)

They have fewer kingdom resources to draw upon when in need (Romans 12:13).

And they cannot help but ask why God isn’t helping.

Put simply, if they feel that God’s hands and feet don’t care, why conclude that his heart does?

Can loneliness cut us off from God?

Something clicked with me from a sermon this week:

But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9a)

I cannot imagine that God spoke to Paul without empathy. He acknowledges pain of many kinds throughout Scripture and calls himself the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). God knew that Paul sought relief, peace, freedom. He did not deny the weakness and need.

He did, however, change the route. God’s message was clear: his grace is the only source of life.

Ultimately, it comes down to how you view the universe. Do we really believe that God is the single source of life and goodness? Life and Satan will challenge that assertion. We often only belt it at church, spending the other six days sidling slowly towards comfort TV or staring at stock tickers (guilty).

If we do believe God is the only source, we inevitably believe there is no path to either him or his provisions except going directly to him. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

C.S. Lewis said, “When the first things are put first, second things are not suppressed, but increased.” That applies even to the most profound needs and trials. Even if God agrees we need something we’re not getting, he remains first, not just by right, but by necessity. We should know from experience by now that the other way is booby-trapped, inverted, wrapped in paradox. Put a need before God and it will stagnate; put a need after God and it will be watered by his grace.

It doesn’t diminish God to say that lonely people struggle. It does diminish God to say that something other than him must come before him.

Loneliness does not place us beyond God’s reach, nor does it restructure the universe so that we need the church to get to him. Indeed, it suggests that our best chance of having our needs filled – be they community, food, deliverance from any trial – is to abide in God first (John 15:1). Everything else is downstream.
There may still be time and effort involved. I can’t say where the delay comes from.

But when we find greater holes in our soul, God says, “challenge accepted”. As the challenge grows, so does his power. Approach him with your weakness; receive his power overflowing into all else. There is no cup he cannot fill.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

Healing Doesn’t Have to Be Self-Focused

A speaker I once heard said, “I believe the healing that God wants for this generation is emotional.”

It was not difficult to spot the wound driving his words. Three generations of compounded familial and sexual sin have left our society in critical condition. With each passing month, more and more people come of age who will never figure out who they are, or how to operate in this world, and whose brokenness will inevitably wound others – an ever-expanding cascade of infection. It certainly looks like our world could use a sickbed.

But some corners of Christendom depict healing, or any attention to self, as unholy. It’s a spiritual-sounding thing to do on the surface, since Christ preaches loss of self. They dismiss what they see as a self-focus problem and conclude the battle isn’t worth fighting. Don’t look for affirmation. Don’t look for healing. None of this makes God the center.

I struggled with this for a long time, for I have known wounding. What does Jesus mean by “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me?”

We know he meant surrender. Holiness. Following his Word. Mustering all the faculties that comprise “you” and retasking them to worship.

But did he mean that certain faculties – pain and emptiness – don’t exist, that they’re mere figments or projections, or inappropriate subjects of attention?

Again, it certainly sounds spiritual.

But not if Scripture says otherwise.

Here’s my case. It’s interesting to observe that if a human was heard uttering the phrase “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, he might get shot down by this very application of selflessness. We could make a day of rest sound self-focused in any circumstance. If he argued that it was needed, that we’re no good to God worn out, we could simply reply that it’s not about him. “The harvest is nigh. Work on the seventh day. It’s about God!” And immediately he’d feel shamed out of any response.

If a human was spotted seeking words of affirmation from God, we could easily label it an egocentric pursuit. “God’s not here to make you feel good about yourself,” we’d thunder from the pulpit. And immediately he’d feel shamed out of any response.

I have actually seen people attacked for merely looking forward to heaven’s termination of all tears and suffering. They were told that they should “instead” be anticipating the full revelation of God. “Focus on his glory!” they were told, as if they can’t do both. And immediately…you get the picture.

Yet all of these treasures proceed directly from the mouth of Christ (Mark 2:27, John 1:47,  Daniel 10:11) or within earshot of his throne (Rev. 21:3-4). That’s authoritative Scripture, which God saw fit to inspire.

So at what point is God having words put in his mouth here?

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

Guys, I’m not Earth’s smartest person. But if Scripture shows God offering aspirin, I’m probably not going to go around campaigning the evil of aspirin. If it reveals God prescribing physical therapy, I’m unlikely to go on television and dismiss physical therapy as a category. And if it depicts God recommending heart surgery, you won’t catch me trying to talk folks out of it. I’d instead suggest just doing what he says. (And if your denominational flavor emphasizes the dread of God’s wrath as part and parcel of his greatness and glory, I’d politely suggest that arguing with God’s prescriptions might be hazardous to your health. This is not scruffy-faced Dr. Bob down at the corner clinic we’re talking about.)

It’s possible to define self-focus so rigidly and extremely that one loses any reference point. Teachers of Scripture teach self-denial in one podcast, then (rightly) trusting God for our daily bread the next. Why not instead pretend we have no stomach? Isn’t it holier to label hunger as a failure to revel in God? Some have claimed that historically, and not just for themselves. Do you see where I’m going with this? Let this idea drift in the wrong direction for long enough and it starts to reek of Eastern mysticism – the “emptying” of ourselves. No, God is not against food. Scripture’s definitions of self-denial are a little more flexible than that. A few personal callings aside, you can eat. (Just honor God with what you eat.)

And yet.

And yet.

We know God calls us to die to ourselves. That’s got to be in here somehow.

So how do we escape this maddening paradox?

Well, nobody would argue if I say “embrace Scripture”. But let’s do it fully. Surrender to it. No bathwater theology, no throwing out things because idiots dirty it. Allow the Word to lead us, to reveal God doing whatever he fully well feels like, flexing and classifying things over our own instinctive and experiential definitions, without regard to how we (or our defining teachers and traditions) have seen things distorted by idiots. That kind of objectivity is tough. Yet I’d argue that it’s necessary to fully glorify God. If we were to deny every abuseable idea, we’d have to start with grace itself.

Go back to Psalm 147. It belongs to a stanza that opens with a praise call. It’s sandwiched between displays of his power, justice, and creativity. God is worshiped for all these different facets. It’s placed in the context of repatriating the exiles – a highly emotionally traumatic event. And it’s repeated in Isaiah 61:1 and Jeremiah 30:17, even as God acknowledges that he himself inflicts some of our wounds.

God does care about us. And that reveals his perfect nature. It leads to his glory.

I’m still firmly Baptist in my persuasions, so let me hasten to add that emotional healing goes hand-in-hand with holiness in our lives, not without. Our woundedness is no more an excuse to sin than grace is. We can obey while broken; we can praise from the hospital bed.

Also, healing comes solely and exclusively through Scripture’s provisions, not our own or the world’s. I also agree that the ultimate purpose of mankind’s healing is God’s fame and exaltation – not us walking out of the ER and not praising anybody.

And, honestly, I do think there are many days when it’s holy to just set ourselves aside for a while and do things for others’ gain, whether we benefit or not. As we heal, we do it more, and better. That’s where this is going.

But the point is, Scripture denies neither injury nor debilitation. It is sin to steal antibiotics; it is not sin to be sick in the first place. The holiness in healing lies not in denying the problem, but in accepting God’s solutions. God’s Word reveals that he cares very much about our hearts, that he acknowledges its tangible impact in the here and now, and that he has solutions. He’s not asking you to pretend there’s no wound, or to just shut out the pain. He’s offering to heal.

And then rush out and tell others about what Jesus did for you.

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!

No Single Christian Left Behind

Brandon J. Adams

I have the privilege of doing youth work with a couple of guys I graduated high school with. They’re married with kids.

Several students I’ve mentored in that youth ministry have gotten hitched. One’s even had a couple daughters.

I saw an old (now married) girlfriend in the store the other day. She looked…I’m bad at this…six or seven months pregnant? I was certainly happy for her.

joggers

But it’s certainly enough to make a bachelor feel left behind.

In years gone by, I would often reassure myself with Don’t worry, they’re a lot older than you. You’ve got time. Then one day I woke up and was their age. So much for that arrow in the quiver. In fact, the pastor at one of our offshoot churches has a salt-and-pepper beard, a seminary degree, and a small tribe running around his wife’s ankles – and my jaw dropped when I…

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4 Things to Ask If You’re Not Getting Blog Followers

Are you sinking endless time into your blog, hoping to expand it, only to find yourself scraping for likes and comments?

Are you tossing out deep, powerful insights that honor God and his Word, but watching everyone meander past like browsers at a farmers’ market?

Are you sharing the absolute bottom depths of your heart, knowing full well there are others undergoing the same struggle, yet wondering why they never show up?

It’s not sinful to desire a larger platform through your blog. It can be, if your motives are wrong. But if your passion is elevating God and encouraging others, it’s unlikely that he has a problem with your goals.

But, as we’ve figured out by now (and of course this is what often drives us to blogging), God allows the world’s rules to matter. If you need a job, you have to submit resumes. If you want friends, you have to put in the effort. If you want to hike the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll need to be in shape. God’s favor and faithfulness will rarely bypass these realities. Though he does intervene, it behooves us to put in the hard work, and hard work includes knowing the rules.

If you’re frustrated with your blog’s inchworm growth, here are a few things you can ask yourself:

 

1. Am I relying too heavily on real-life friends?

I have a few blessed real-life friends who actively follow and interact with my blog. It took me a while to figure out why I wasn’t getting more.

Eventually I realized something that should have been obvious from the start: for the most part, the average cross-section of one’s real-life squad are not blog readers. Or readers of any kind, come to think of it.

When you offer a post to the WordPress community, you’re offering to a crowd that’s all bloggers to begin with. When you offer the same to your church crowd, it’s a very different composition of folks.

Only a certain type of person tends to peruse blogs as a habit. They have to be 1) given to social media habits, 2) possessed of at least some spare time, and 3) appreciative of reading. As you apply each condition, your audience shrinks. And it’s only then that we get to the question of whether your content actually resonates with the real-life chums you happen to know. It might not.

Don’t expect your entire real-life crowd to come flocking to your blog. Lean on the ones who do; encourage them to share on social media and invite the bloggy types they know. But to really grow your platform, you will, at some point, have to rely pretty heavily on pursuing other bloggers. That’s where you’re likely to find some of your biggest and most loyal followers.

 

2. Am I just posting Bible verses?

“The Bible is all we need,” you think to yourself as you post the 1,945th straight blog article containing one Scripture passage and no other content. “If people are going to pass me over because they think the Scripture I present is boring and insufficient, that’s on them, not me.”

You’re right that Scripture is all we need. But you’re still looking at an empty blog. And that may yet be on you. I know how this sounds on the surface, but as a blogger, you do need more than just reproduction of Scripture.

Keep in mind two things. One, Scripture itself tells us that it requires teaching. The practice of humans expounding the Bible is well-established throughout God’s Word, particularly in Paul’s pastoral letters – 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. If quoting Scripture alone were all that’s required, pastors wouldn’t be needed. (I know a few highly literal minds out there actually feel this way – that none of us should be teaching each other, that our words’ inferiority to Scripture means that our words should not be heard. But that’s a theological debate for another day, and not one in which church history has generally fallen on your side.)

More importantly, though, remember that many of your potential readers are already getting their Bible reading from other places. They attend church; they have personal study and devotional plans; they read together with others. They aren’t coming to you for that. When they seek you out, they’re looking for tertiary sources of spiritual education, blended with witty or evocative writing, soaked in themes they resonate with. That’s what blogging is, and that’s what potential readers are expecting. If all they get from you is the same thing they’re getting in five other channels, they’ll probably just move on.

Make it interesting. Tell a story from your life that illustrates a Scriptural truth. Offer an insight that popped into your head recently. Share something that gets you good and mad. Give them something they won’t get from the Bible sitting right next to their computer. You’re not sinning by doing any of this. You’re doing what pastors and teachers have been doing for generations – leading them back to the Word, just in a creative way.

(Technical note: when you do share Scripture verses – and make sure you do! – don’t make them the first words in your post. The WordPress Reader uses your first words as the teaser for your post, and if all people see is unvarnished Scripture in every teaser of yours, they may pass you up for the unfortunate but understandable reasons I’ve mentioned above.)

 

3. Am I interacting with my readers?

Funny story. It was New Years’ Eve 2016, and I was looking to push my yearly viewer count over a certain number threshold. In the waning hours, as I played Pandemic with friends (a board game I highly recommend) while staring at the WordPress dashboard on my phone, I threw good taste to the wind and simply started liking every post in my Reader. Immediately I got a huge, unprecedented spurt of likes and site hits. By midnight, I’d blown right past my threshold.

For the next 16 months, having learned my lesson, I kept up a high level of interaction with other bloggers. I liked a lot, I commented a lot, and in an attempt to maintain a certain integrity in all this, I actually read their stuff, too. It did take me an hour or so each day to really get myself out there in the WordPress blogosphere, but it brought a lot of attention back to my own blog.

In the 20 months since, I’ve let all that go, and my numbers have languished. There are certain reasons, and sure it takes some time, but it boils down to me. When you stop reciprocating other bloggers’ attention and participating in the community, your traffic drops until you’re left with only your most loyal followers. While they’re invaluable and treasured (hi guys! I love you!), they alone can’t be the platform you need for expansion.

Blogging is a community. We already feel alone in this world; why bring that here, too? Participate in the community. Explore others’ stuff. Cheer them on and let them know they’re doing great. Prioritize the ones who do swing by your blog.

 

4. Are my topics relevant?

I’m friends with a handful of published authors, and one once said: “If I see a blog post containing information, I don’t even think about clicking it.”

You might be excited about the doctrinal knowledge you’ve attained and eager to share it with the world. I won’t even call it pride. You just love learning about God and want others to join in your exploration.

Problem is, Karen, your average potential reader, is tottering through the kitchen with four deafening children on her heels, just found out her father has melanoma, and is teetering on bankruptcy from bailing her younger brother out of prison so many times. She just does not care about your formal dissertation on the doctrines of grace right now. She’s crying out to God.

What do you have for her, blogger?

This, I might venture, is where many male bloggers stumble. They have a tendency to dive deep into the apologetics or hermeneutics or discernment categories that come so naturally to them and don’t realize that, frankly, they’re niche categories. You can get a following there, but it’s even harder than ordinary blogging because your target audience is slim pickings at the outset (and already captured by more established bloggers). It takes a ton of pizazz and talent to even get people into such posts, much less expound this stuff in an engaging, relatable way.

You’re much more likely to make headway when your passions intersect with a topic that more people are dealing with this very day. That is not to say you can’t write about your other passions. Most likely, you will want to diversify your content. If you love breaking down the minutiae of the symbologies of baptism and think you’ve got the writing chops to get people intrigued, go right ahead, but Karen will probably respond more readily to your post last week about God’s fierce attention to the cries of his overwhelmed saints. It’s just how people are, and at one point, we have to play by those rules.

 

I hope this helped someone today. Keep it up. Don’t forget to use intriguing titles – delay a post for a week if you can’t think of one. Don’t post too much, or too seldom. Pray before you write – it makes a huge difference!

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you’ve found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media.

 

 

 

Why the Tearful Search for Someone Worthy Matters

I’m struck by John’s confession in Revelation 5:4, in part because it seems at first so alien to us:

“But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or even to look in it. And I cried and cried because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or even to look in it.” – Revelation 5:3-4

Why would the old apostle be so torn up about getting a scroll looked at? It feels like one of those distant, stained-glass religious enigmas that we know we should care about more, but don’t, try as we might. A matter for saints and philosophers, while we stagger about just hoping that we’ll find a cheaper daycare next month, or that our boss will be on vacation just for one day tomorrow.

But then I realize, this is a longing we’re all sharing: the search for a hero. The hero to end all heroes, and to end all sufferings.

Heaven knows where we’ve looked for that. Self, others, philosophies, substances, even death itself.

Revelation 5 presents the final obstacle to which no hero can be found, something against which nobody and nothing will ever cut the mustard.

Benson’s commentary says, “Without tears the Revelation was not written, neither can it without tears be understood.” In some profound way, the scroll of Revelation 5:4 is the final boss, the league championship, the holy grail of suffering itself. We have no answer. No pastor, author, political figure, relationship, or accomplishment will satisfy mankind’s desperate longing to be finished with suffering – no more resurrections a la Palpatine in Episode IX, no more of that old Eastern instinct of “it will always come back around”. An end. To match the beginning.

And then Revelation 5:5 finds someone worthy.

Thanks to my friend Nate for turning me on to this:

 

I’ll let that end this post.

 

I’m glad you tuned in today. If you found this post to be of value, please feel free to share it on social media. Thanks a bunch!