The time has come.
My Seattle Seahawks are again marching forward to war.
Every year, we go through this. We microanalyze the meaningless preseason games, discuss the September cutdowns to death, scrutinize every bit of offseason literature coming out of the city media, all in pursuit of one haunting question…do the Seahawks have a chance this year?
And every year, we Christians think about “that thing”. That breakthrough or victory or miracle or answer to prayer that we’re hoping for.
Maybe this will be the year that chronic illness finally goes into remission. The year you get out of debt. The year you get engaged. The year that gripping sin on your spouse finally gives way. Maybe you don’t know exactly what you want to see; you’re just hoping things will “get better” somehow.
Steven Furtick has a sermon called “Don’t Stop on Six”. It’s one of my favorites. The reference is to how the Israelites were commanded to march around Jericho seven times before releasing a shout, and how they would have missed the miracle had they stopped on the sixth lap. I love an inspirational sermon every once in a while, and “Don’t Stop on Six” is one of my favorites.
And yet…it makes me uneasy.
The Jesus you love will cost you, millennials.
That message has largely been lost in this age of emotional Christianity. But Jesus himself said it so insistently, so repeatedly, that we can conclude this: if sharing the Gospel is not costing you, you might want to ensure that it’s really the gospel you’re sharing.
The Jesus who did so many wonderful things – ate with outcasts, railed against Pharisees, whispered “neither do I condemn you” to the adulterous woman – also said some other things, difficult things, which many Christians my age hesitate to accept. He compassionately asks us to release cherished sins. He urges us to put his Word before our deepest feelings and most precious relationships. He commands us to look to him, not the world, for our definition of love. He speaks of hell. Often. He calls us to tell decent, law-abiding citizens that their efforts are not enough, and that only turning to Jesus in repentance can save them.
Perhaps you already want to dismiss me.
But most importantly and hopefully, God offers to reward us for these sacrifices.
Would it make the Christian life easier if we were completely convinced of that last part?
When we were young, our parents said “no” to save us. No, you can’t stay up all night watching scary movies. No, you can’t have that sucker that’s bigger than your head. No, you can’t hang out with that gang of boys reenacting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down the street. (Wish I’d listened before I got a nunchuk to the head.)
But there’s also the sense that parents say no simply to teach us that this ain’t Burger King and you don’t always get it your way. We all know what a kid becomes when he’s given whatever he wants: a spoiled brat. As a teacher, it wasn’t hard for me to spot the kids who’d never heard a “no” in their life. It was more often the “denied” students who exhibited respect, work ethic, and people skills in the classroom; it was those who’d been given less that actually had more.
And I like what I’ve become through my singleness.
We singles often think that God calls us to singleness mostly to help us dodge bad matches. That’s part of it. But let’s be honest: God could bring us a compatible person at any time. That he does not, suggests another purpose. (Sound Biblical theology is silent on the question of “one match for everyone”. As Steven Furtick has pointed out, such theology would require one who misses their match either stay single for life or marry the wrong person and thus cause a chain-reaction dislodging of God’s will for the entire human race.)
I want to say loud and clear: I don’t necessarily believe all singles are being kept there by God. Some are single because they choose it, or because they rarely groom themselves. But it’s undeniable that God has called some to this track. And when we see his hand in such a way, we have an opportunity to uncover an uncomfortable, but powerful, truth.
Like a coastal shelf carved by waves, sometimes God says no simply to refine our character.
This one might lose me a few followers.
Desires. Dreams. Prayers. Goals.
Whatever you want to call them, they are fire to Christians – powerful, vital, destructive when handled wrong. We must be careful with desires these days. There is such bad teaching out there about God and desires, so much energy mischanneled into pursuing your dreams without a thought as to God’s dreams, that we must handle the subject gingerly.
My testimony involves the sanctification of my desires. I found over the years that viewing God as annoyed, threatened, or dismissive of my desires did not bring me closer to him. Of course, nor did clinging to them ahead of his will and love. Neither view is flattering to God, nor entirely Biblical.
Jesus ran into a lot of deep desires in the course of his ministry. Healing, justice, provision, greatness, life. His responses to these pleadings contain surprises for everyone. He granted some, denied some, but most importantly there seemed to be a sifting. He didn’t always heal/feed/deliver immediately; he’d ask a question first, or deny a desire flat-out, in order to get at the heart of the person. Whatever the desire, Jesus was determined to sanctify it, to make it holy.
Interestingly, his denials seem to undergo three distinct tests: faith, paradox, or eternity.
This isn’t going where you think.
You probably had one of two reactions upon reading the title of this post.
The first was a groan. I don’t want to, Brandon. Not again. I’m tired of bringing these things before God and being met with silence and inaction week after week, month after month. I can’t keep doing that.
The other was a sharp intake of breath. That’s dangerous, Brandon. Don’t write that. We’ve got too much bad theology out there to risk this sort of thing. Talk about holiness and surrender instead.
Actually, you probably had a bit of both reactions.
Indeed, I cannot guarantee that praying for your heart’s desire will get you what you want. I know Psalm 37:4 seems to say it will. But we must guard our hearts. One look around the world should reveal that God isn’t exactly handing out heart’s desires like candy; there must be something more to that verse.
What if that’s not why we pray for our heart’s desire? What if there are other reasons?
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
Such a comforting verse. We trot out Jeremiah 29:11 like a “break glass in case of fear” extinguisher. When our lives seem to devolve into chaos, when we’re confronted with a fork in a murky road, or when we just need reminding that God’s in control, we turn to this verse. And why not? What could be more reassuring that our God is both completely in control and completely for us?
A friend was deciding what college to attend. The choice before her was either a state university or a trendy private Christian one. Being the ambitious and spiritual type, she wanted the Christian one. I probably would, too. As so many high school graduates do, when the choice seemed to swell and get too big in her mind, she would invoke Jeremiah 29:11 (amongst other verses) in order to find peace as she sought God’s will.
Although she was not demanding one choice from God, she – and I watching her, and many others before and since – was about to glean the true lesson of Jeremiah 29:11.
It’s not what you think.
You know what I mean.
You experience some amazing sermon or mountaintop experience and come out all fired up for the glory of God, proclaiming “God, take ALL of me! My finances, my physical location, my family, my occupation, my heart…everything is yours. I’m seeking what you want for my life!”
And then you pause and go, “Wait…what have I just done?” Your breath catches a little, as if you’ve just leaped off the edge of a fifty-foot cliff.
Because you know that’s a prayer God will answer. And you know he isn’t going to mind your comfort zone when he does. You start looking around nervously, half expecting a team of angels to appear and start packing your stuff for that move you’re hoping God won’t think of.
Some of us never make the leap. We just stand perpetually on the edge of the cliff, looking down, turning over in our minds the idea of asking God what he wants for our lives, left breathless by the knowledge of the floodgate that could open. He might have you move to Nigeria and do mission work for a year – or a half-century. He might choose not to heal your loved one of that heinous cancer. He might ask you to let go of that attractive guy/girl you can’t stop thinking about. He might ask you to walk away from a dream – or, perhaps more terrifying, to run towards it. He might tell you to forgive, or admit you were wrong, or make an annoyingly inconvenient change in your household. Or he might simply tell you to stay faithful and keep doing what you’re doing – the same exact “what” that you’ve been doing for seemingly decades.
Yep. Asking God what he wants can be a terrifying thing.
But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if instead, the terror reveals something about us that should not be?