SteveMurrell.com | Reluctant Leader

Blog / Discipleship

God’s Will and Our Will

February 16, 2018

 

Tower of BabelDUBAI—This past weekend, Deborah and I stopped in Singapore on our way to Every Nation’s 2018 Build Conference in Dubai. On Sunday, I had the privilege of preaching at Every Nation Church Singapore.

The church is going through a series in Genesis, and I was asked to preach about Genesis 11:1-9. My sermon centered on two questions:

1. What do YOU do when God’s plan for your life is different than your plan for your life?
2. What does GOD do when His plan for your life is different than your plan for your life?

You may be familiar with the story of the Tower of Babel. Here’s the key text: Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4).

In this text, we find an explicit articulation of the will of the people of Babel and an implicit reference to God’s will.

The people’s will: “let us build ourselves a city… lest we be dispersed” (Genesis 11:4).

God’s will: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’” (Genesis 9:1).

God wanted Noah’s descendants to go and fill the earth—to be His image bearers and agents of His will in every nation and among every people. But the people of Babel wanted to stay and settle—to make a name for themselves in the land of Shinar.

So what did God do? How did God respond to the disobedience of the people of Babel?

“So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8).

In short, the people of Babel’s disobedience did not stop God from accomplishing His will. By His grace, He confused their tongues and scattered them so that they could do what He called them to do.

Just think for a minute about the grace of God in this story.

He did not leave these people to pursue their own glory by building a city. He intervened. But God did not send fire down on Babel. He did not send a plague. He did not send an invading army.

Rather, He chose to give these people a gift—the “gift” of tongues. They probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. But think about how God displayed His mercy, creativity, and sovereignty in dealing with the people of Babel.

That’s how He deals with us.

We may not always like His will. We may not always pursue His will. But God will accomplish His purposes in our life anyway. By His grace, He does not punish us or abandon us. Rather, He gently frustrates our will, and time and again, repositions us to do what He called us to do.

Blog / Videos

Five-Minute Leadership: What Is Discipleship?

February 10, 2018

5minLeadership_Large_ColorIn my new video series, Five-Minute Leadership, we’re going back to the basics and discussing the same old boring strokes of discipleship.

Watch below for the opening discussion on “What is Discipleship?” You can also listen to the audio here.

Blog / Discipleship

God, Where Are You? A Four-Year-Old’s Theology on Prayer

January 31, 2018

janis-oppliger-(web)NASHVILLE — A few days ago, I was walking through a parking garage with my granddaughter Josephine, and out of nowhere, she started shouting these words: “God, are you there? God, where are you?”

Her questions echoed through the parking garage as we walked toward the elevator. Though somewhat amused by her shouted prayers, I decided to take her question seriously. “Jo,” I told her, “God can hear you. He is here right now.”

“But I can’t find Him anywhere!” she said before starting another round of questions to God.

“He is everywhere,” I said, “But He usually speaks to us very quietly. And we usually hear Him with our heart instead of our ears.”

Josephine responded to my attempts at four-year-old theologizing with another round of loud prayers: “God, are you there? God, where are you?”

My conversation with Josephine reminded me how strange, yet natural, prayer is. It is strange to speak—silently or at the top of our lungs—to a divine being that we cannot see. It is strange to speak to someone who usually doesn’t respond (at least with sound waves). And yet, prayer is so natural, my four-year-old granddaughter talks to God in a parking garage. Prayer is so natural that people who have never heard the gospel, who only know God from His creation, pray. Prayer is so natural that even secular people who doubt the existence of God pray—especially when they are in trouble. But whether you are a four-year-old from a Christian family, a Tibetan Buddhist, or a Western secularist, there is one question that often haunts our prayers: “God, are you there?”

It’s natural to ask this question, or feel this doubt, when we are speaking to someone whom we can’t see. It’s natural to ask this question when it seems like God is not answering your prayers. It’s natural to ask this question when we are walking through a valley. Whether you are a new Christian or an old Christian, a four-year-old or an eighty-four-year-old, there will be times when we do not sense God’s presence, when our most honest and urgent prayer is, “God, are you there?”

One of my good friends lost his adult son last week. His son was in his thirties with three kids and one on the way. I have no doubt that many people in his grieving family are praying prayers kind of like Josephine’s. If we are tempted to see these kinds of prayers as unspiritual or disappointing to God, consider how David prayed in Psalm 22:1-2: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O, my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, And by night, but I find no rest.

Not only did David utter these words in prayer, Jesus did, too. From the cross, he spoke the words of this psalm as one of His last prayers to His Father. And it is there at the cross that we find hope.

When our prayers (and lives) seem haunted with God’s absence, we can be comforted that Jesus himself experienced God’s absence. He too prayed, “God, are you there?” But the story didn’t end there. Though Jesus’ prayers from the cross seemed to echo through the earth with no response from His Father, God’s answer came three days later at the empty tomb. The message of the gospel tells us that Jesus experienced God’s silence so we could hear God’s voice. It tells us that Jesus experienced God’s absence so we could know his presence forever. It tells us that after the cross is resurrection. It tells us that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

Praying and Fasting…and Singing

January 8, 2018

Prayer & Fasting_Announcement Slide

NASHVILLE—This week, churches from all over the Every Nation world will begin 2018 with a week of prayer, fasting, and consecration. If you are fasting and praying with us this week, I would encourage you to download our 2018 Every Nation devotional guide on the book of Ephesians, entitled, “In Christ.” Along with the guide, you can also watch our short five-minute devotional videos for each day of the fast.

One of my favorite features of the new devotional guide is that each lesson ends with an old hymn that echoes the particular truth that we studied in Ephesians. For example, today’s reading was Ephesians 2, with a particular emphasis on Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The hymn that was paired with this lesson is “Come Thou Fount,” written by Robert Robinson in 1758. I love the entire hymn but the third verse, in particular, beautifully articulates our daily reliance on God’s grace:

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.

Whether or not you are familiar with this hymn (and the others in the devotional guide), I would strongly encourage you to learn and sing these hymns during the fast. Sing them in the car on your way home from work. Sing them with your family. Sing them at your church prayer meeting (if you are in charge of the setlist).

One of the best ways to get the truth of the gospel deep into our hearts is to have it constantly on our lips. There is something about the repetition of truth-filled words—something about the sound of beautiful music— that God uses to form us into His image.

Maybe this is why, in Ephesians 5:19, when Paul is encouraging the church in Ephesus to “be imitators of God” and to “walk in love,” he commands them to sing, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”

So as we enter this week of prayer, fasting, and consecration, my prayer is that we would not only focus with what goes into our mouth (food)—but that we would focus on what comes out of our mouth (songs of worship). Fasting is certainly about the stomach and learning to deny ourselves. But it’s about more than that. Ultimately, fasting is about the heart and learning to love Jesus.

Blog / Miscellaneous

Top Ten Books I Read in 2017

January 2, 2018

Bookshelf

NASHVILLE—It’s often said that “reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Because of too many international flights, I did not exercise my body nearly enough in 2017. But those same flights that prevented physical exercise afforded plenty of time to read. I don’t sleep on planes—I read and occasionally watch a free movie or two. Thanks to the magic of Kindle, I get to carry a whole library on every flight.

To encourage my friends to read, at the end of most years, I post a Top Ten recommended reading list. Here are some of my previous lists: 2016, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2008. Books on my Top Ten lists are not necessarily the best books, the most popular books, or the most important books. They are simply the ten books that impacted me the most in the past twelve months.

MY TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2017:

Martin-Luther1. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (2017) by Eric Metaxas. Eric Metaxas, known for his biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has written another classic. With a gripping narrative and fascinating detail, Metaxas gives us an up-close look at Martin Luther the man, as well as big-picture perspective on the global implications of the religious revolution he started.

Stephen-SemandsPS2. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (2006) by Stephen Seamands. This was on the reading list for my Asbury Seminary course. If you are a pastor, church planter, campus missionary, or any other type of vocational minister, please read this one.  As good as the book was, the classroom lectures by Dr. Seamands were even better. Dr. Seamands started and ended every lecture with a few minutes of worship. What a humble and godly man. I hope and pray that my sermons and messages impact people the way his impacted me.

3. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1995), by LLesslie-Newbiginesslie Newbigin. Originally given as lectures to men and women preparing to go on the mission field, Newbigin’s introduction to the theology of mission has a palpable sense of urgency and the marks of deep theological reflection—a powerful combination that I hope will infect emerging leaders and missionaries in Every Nation.

The-Missional-Church4. The Missional Church and Leadership Formation: Helping Congregations Develop Leadership Capacity (2009), edited by Craig Van Gelder. From a professional perspective, this is one of the most helpful books I read in 2017—exactly what I needed as we begin building Every Nation Theological Seminary (ENTS) to train future pastors, church planters, and missionaries. Van Gelder writes that theological education is at a “crossroads of Christian formation (paideia) and academic acumen (Wissenschaft).” At ENTS, we don’t want to choose between academic acumen and spiritual formation—we plan to do both. Our goal is to inform the mind, transform the heart, and train the hands for ministry. I especially enjoyed Van Gelder’s brief history of theological education in America and his two-word descriptions of pastors in each period. He divided American seminary history into 6 periods—Colonial Period: Resident Theologian; Early 1800s: Gentlemen Pastor; Late 1800s: Churchly Pastor; Post WWII: Pastoral Director; 1970s/1980s: Therapeutic Pastor; Entrepreneurial Leader: 1990s/2000s.

Peter Scazzero5. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World Leader (2015) by Peter Scazzero. I never read psychological, introspective books unless I have to. Since this book was on my Asbury required list, I had to. It was painful but in a good way. I never realized how emotionally unhealthy I was until reading this. It helped me understand myself and my friends. Read it at your own risk.

Robert-Kegen6. Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (2009) by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. Despite being another introspective psychological thriller and another Asbury required reading, this might be the most important organizational and relational leadership book I have read in the past decade. It forced me to ask this question to my colleagues: “What one change can I make that will have the greatest impact on this organization?” As uncomfortable as their answers were, I think they helped me to lead better. This comes highly recommended for top leaders in all walks of life (it was originally written for corporate executives).

George-BushPortraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017) by George W. Bush. From the dust jacket: “A vibrant collection of oil paintings and stories by President George W. Bush honoring the sacrifice and courage of America’s military and veterans.” Each portrait and story features a soldier who sacrificed much when W was Commander in Chief. The proceeds of the book go to President Bush’s Military Service Initiative that focuses on helping post-9/11 veterans and their families successfully transition to civilian life. I was moved by each story and by the generosity and compassion of President Bush towards these men and women, some of whom lost limbs, family members, and friends in combat. I also appreciated the presidential art.

Miroslav-Volf8. A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (2011) by Miroslav Volf. It is easy to say that the gospel can and should impact every area of society. But in an increasingly pluralistic world, it is not easy to figure out exactly how the gospel relates to politics, education, economics, the arts, etc. In this helpful book, Volf attacks this issue head-on and explores some better (and worse) ways to think about Christianity as a public faith.

Christopher-Wright9. The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (2010) by Christopher J. H. Wright. If we want to bring the gospel into public life (see Volf’s book above), then we have to be clear about who “we” are. This is what Christopher Wright’s book is all about. Helping us understand the identity and the mission of the church in light of God’s mission for the world. Read it and have your understanding of mission expanded and your understanding of church deepened.

Craig-Keener10. IVP Biblical Background Commentary: New Testament (2014) by Craig Keener. This has become one of my favorite commentaries. Sometimes I just read it for fun, even when I’m not doing sermon research. Because, like all Keener books, it is a heavyweight, I suggest you purchase a digital copy.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

RUN: Endure the Pain, Keep the Faith, Finish the Race (Releasing 2018) by Ferdie Cabiling with Walter Walker. The only reason this book is not at the top of my list is because it doesn’t officially exist yet. It will certainly be on my 2018 list. I had the privilege of reading an advanced unedited version of Bishop Ferdie’s soon-to-be-released book. It encouraged, convicted, and inspired me—and even made my eyes sweat. You will love to read Run, even if, like me, you hate to run.

Marl-Lua-BransonChurches, Cultures, and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities (2011) by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez. If you are attempting to plant or lead a multiethhnic church or campus ministry, you are a member of a multiethnic church or campus ministry, and/or if you are in a multiethnic marriage, PLEASE READ THIS BOOK!

Blog / Miscellaneous

Remembering R.C. Sproul (1939-2017)

December 19, 2017

rc-sproul
NASHVILLE—Last Thursday (December 14), theologian and author R.C. Sproul passed away at the age of 78.

As a young believer in my teens and early twenties, I read Sproul’s books and listened to his radio show. Sproul’s influence on my theology and ministry is difficult to overstate, but it can be summed up in two phrases.

Renewing Your Mind. This was the title of Sproul’s radio show. In each show, Sproul would engage a particular theological or philosophical topic like the doctrine of imputation, Calvin’s ecclesiology, or the philosophical inheritance of Kierkegaard. For twenty-four minutes, Sproul would make complex ideas simple and, at the same time, stretch his listeners to think more deeply about God and world. His radio show was a constant reminder that in order to love God with our minds, we need to renew our minds. As a young disciple, who soon found himself in vocational ministry, I learned from Sproul the necessity of continually renewing my mind and never being satisfied with where I was in my theological understanding. We can always go deeper. Today, Sproul’s radio show is now a podcast, and I still often listen to it on the way to work.

The Holiness of God. This was the title of one of Sproul’s most famous books. I read it when it first came out in 1985, and it changed my life. Though Sproul was popularizing a larger Reformed tradition and was himself influenced by the works of Edwards, Luther, and Calvin, he was the first person who helped me begin to understand the heights of God’s holiness and the depths of man’s sinfulness. The centrality of God’s holiness in Sproul’s theology has deeply shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I preach, and the way I walk with God. My original marked-up copy of The Holiness of God is still in my study. I have read it probably a dozen times over the last thirty years.

When I think of Sproul’s influence on my life, I am reminded of a quote from The Holiness of God that nicely summarizes his life’s pursuit:

It’s dangerous to assume that because a person is drawn to holiness in his study that he is thereby a holy man. There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to learn of the holiness of God is precisely because I am not holy. I am a profane man—a man who spends more time out of the temple than in it. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.

Though I will miss hearing his raspy voice on the “Renewing Your Mind” podcast, I am glad for Sproul that today he is experiencing what he most longed for in life. I am glad that he is now before the throne of God, joining with the angels singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

To learn more about R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries, visit the Ligonier Ministries’ website

Blog / Family

A Three-Year Old’s Theology on the Incarnation

December 6, 2017

NativityORLANDO—A few days ago, I embarked on the annual tradition of setting up our family Christmas tree. As I wrote last year, the agony of pine needles and tangled lights is outweighed by the joy of seeing my grandchildren, Jo and Liam, caught up in the wonder and expectation of the Advent season.

Part of the reason why Jo loves December so much is that her birthday is just ten days before Christmas. Since December 15 and December 25 are so close, we all work hard to distinguish between Jo’s birthday and Christmas, which we have explained to her is Jesus’ birthday.

When looking at an Advent calendar in the kitchen, Jo pointed to December 15 and said, “This is my birthday, right?”

“Yes!” My son William, her dad, replied. “You are going to be four years old on your birthday.”

Pointing to December 25, Jo said, “And this is Jesus’ birthday. How old is he going to be—two or four?”

William smiled awkwardly, having no idea how to answer the question. “Well, Jesus had a second birthday and then two years later, he had a fourth birthday, just like you will be having.”

For the record, I don’t know if Jews in first-century Palestine celebrated birthdays the way we do. But Jo’s question reminds us of the mystery of the incarnation—that Jesus, like Jo, had a fourth birthday.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old bursting with energy who occasionally made big a mess in Joseph’s carpentry shop.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year old who made his parents laugh with his three-year-old sayings and pronunciations. (Josephine calls the month of December, “Becender.”)

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who needed mommy when he skinned his knee.

Jesus, like Jo, was a three-year-old who, on his best days, made Mary and Joseph wish that he would never grow up (and on his worst days, made Mary and Joseph wish he would hurry up and become an adult).

The mystery of the incarnation is that this same three-year-old—who could act like my granddaughter Josephine—was at the same time “begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made; of the same essence as the Father,” as it says in the Nicene Creed.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who occasionally could make a real mess in his earthly father’s workshop, was present with His Heavenly Father at the creation of the universe.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was still learning to speak and form words in His mother tongue (Aramaic), was the eternal Word of God—through whom all things (including our tongues) were made.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who needed mom to wipe the blood off his knees and the tears from his eyes, was the Lamb of God—who was destined to weep and bleed and bear sins of the world.

The mystery of the incarnation is that this three-year-old, who was the beloved son of Mary and Joseph, was at the same time the beloved Son of God.

Missions

Two Ways of Going on Mission

December 2, 2017
Lititz_Moravian_Church

The Moravian Church that we saw in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

NASHVILLE—Last week, Deborah and I spent time in central Pennsylvania where we enjoyed Thanksgiving with William and his wife’s family and attended a wedding in Lancaster. One of my highlights was visiting Lititz, a small town in Lancaster County that was founded by the Moravians in 1756.

Though most Protestant communities that settled in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were fleeing religious persecution in Europe (like the Pilgrims from England and Holland), the Moravian settlements in North America and the Caribbean were founded in the pursuit of global mission.

This reminds me of two Greek words found in the New Testament that are commonly translated as “send” in English.

The first word is “apostello,” referring to someone who is “sent out” on a particular mission with honor and authority (see Matthew 10:5 when he sends out the twelve disciples).

The second word is “ekballo,” referring to someone who is “sent out” or “driven out” in a particularly violent manner. Jesus uses this verb once to discuss sending out laborers into the harvest field (see Matthew 9:38), but most of the time, this verb comes in the context of “driving out” demons (see Matthew 7:22).

When we look at the Bible, we find many examples of these two different ways that God “sends” His people out on mission.

In Genesis, we see that God’s original purpose for man was to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28; 9:7). God was sending (apostello) them out to be His image bearers and to cultivate the earth that He had made. But very quickly, we see people beginning to resist God’s purpose—most famously in the Tower of Babel where man’s purpose was to “build a name” for themselves and to avoid being “dispersed over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:4).

So what did God do? He confused their languages and “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:8). Instead of being “sent,” they were “driven out” to do what God had originally called them to do.

We see the same thing happen in Acts with the apostles. In Acts 1:8, Jesus’ followers are baptized with the Holy Spirit in order to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” But instead of going, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem. And it took a severe wave of persecution (see Acts 8:1) before the apostles got the hint and began taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.

All of church history is littered with stories of people who were either “sent out” (apostello) or “driven out” (ekballo) by God onto mission. Either way, God will accomplish His purposes in the world, but if it’s up to me, I’d rather cooperate with God and be “apostelloed” rather than “ekballoed.”

Discipleship / Uncategorized

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology on the Crucifixion

November 14, 2017

cropped Photo

NASHVILLE—Deborah and I arrived back in Nashville this weekend after an Asia and Europe swing that brought us from Manila to Madrid and everywhere in between. Glad to be back in time to catch the end of the beautiful autumn weather and to spend some time with my favorite little people, Josephine and Liam.

Jo’s parents have been reading her The Jesus Storybook Bible over the last few months, and it’s been amazing to see her fall in love with the Bible and its cast of characters. For a while, all she wanted to read were stories about Jonah and Noah (presumably because of the boats and animals involved). However, at the moment, her nightly bedtime request is to read the story of Jesus on the cross. It’s kind of difficult material to communicate to a three-year old, but the author, Sally Lloyd-Jones, does an amazing job.

A few days ago, William (my oldest son) was reading the story of the crucifixion to Jo at bedtime, and she asked him this question:

“Daddy, why isn’t Jesus wearing a shirt?” (Referring to a picture in her book of a shirtless Jesus on the cross.)

William: “Well, Jo, some mean people took Jesus’ shirt from him and put him on the cross.”

Jo: “We didn’t take Jesus’ shirt, did we?”

How do you answer this penetrating question from a three-year-old?

Technically, the answer is no. None of us were alive in the first century, so none of us were involved in taking Jesus’ shirt on Good Friday. But Josephine already knew that, and her question was getting at something deeper.

Somehow, at three, she already suspected her own complicity in the crucifixion. Somehow, she already knew the answer to the question she asked her dad.

Yes. We did take Jesus’ shirt. Josephine did. Her dad did. I did. We are all complicit in Jesus’ death—whether we live in the first century or the twenty-first century.

In the words of the hymn, “How Deep The Father’s Love“:

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finish.

Whether we are three or seventy-three, the most important reality we will have to confront in our lives is the fact that we took Jesus’ shirt. We must all come to the realization, “It was my sin that held Him there.”

But there’s good news.

We didn’t just take Jesus’ shirt. He took it off and gave it to us. He became naked on the cross, so that we might be clothed with his righteousness.

Isaiah says it this way, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord… for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).

As William tried to figure out how to answer Jo’s question, she asked another question:

“We’re Jesus’ friends, right?”

“Yes.” William answered. “We’re His friends.”

As sinners, we’ve all taken Jesus’ shirt.

But only Jesus’ friends realize whose shirt they’ve taken.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that the naked man on the cross should’ve been them.

Only Jesus’ friends realize that we were once his enemies, but now we’re his friends—not because we didn’t take his shirt but because by faith, we put it on.