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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 / 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.

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.

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

The Reformation at 500

October 31, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-10-31 at 4.35.31 PM
MADRID —
After a productive week in Malaysia at the Asian Pastors Equipping Conference (aka APEC), Deborah and I boarded a plane to Spain to teach the “same ole boring strokes” and to preach at the sixth anniversary of our Every Nation church in Madrid. There is so much to report from both Asia and Europe, but I thought that since today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I would have our resident historian write us a guest post on the history and theological significance of the Reformation. William (my oldest son) wrote and taught the Church History course for Leadership 215 and is currently finishing his PhD in history at Vanderbilt University. Enjoy.

On October 31st, 1517—exactly 500 years ago today—a German monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. Though it may not have been his original intention, this simple act sparked a revolution within European Christianity—a revolution that would have massive implications for every area of Western society including politics, education, culture, the arts, and even the economy.

Although Luther’s grievances with the Catholic church—and in particular with the system of indulgences—were very specific to the time and place in which he lived, three perennial questions were behind the ninety-five theses.

The first question was theological: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God? The second question was practical: How do we receive God’s gift of forgiveness? And the third question was epistemological: How can I know with any certainty that God has forgiven me?

These three questions plagued Luther personally for much of his career as a monk; and as it turns out, these questions also plagued European society as a whole.

In 1517, if you were to ask a Christian on the street in Wittenburg to answer these questions, you might have heard something like this:

Q: How is it possible for you, a sinful human, to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace and by great effort, we can be justified.

Q: How do you receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through sincere penance and buying papal indulgences.

Q: How can you know with any certainty that God has forgiven you?
A: Because the priest has declared me absolved and the pope has issued the indulgence.

Luther was unsatisfied with these answers.

Reflecting on his frustrations with the system of indulgences, Luther wrote, “For however irreproachably I lived as a monk, I felt myself in the presence of God to be a sinner with a most unquiet conscience, nor could I believe that I pleased him with my satisfactions. I did not love, indeed I hated this just God…”

However, while teaching a course on the book of Romans in 1515, Luther received the life-changing revelation that “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

About this moment, Luther wrote: “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”

For Luther, this revelation gave him new answers to the old questions that had plagued him his entire life.

Q: How is it possible for a sinful human to be justified before a holy God?
A: By God’s grace alone (Sola Gratia). Luther recognized that our justification before God was entirely dependent on His sovereign grace. No good work or human merit could ever accomplish (or even add to) the work of Jesus on the cross. Luther was so convinced of the efficacy of God’s grace in our salvation that he offered this humorous (and slightly dangerous) advice: “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”

Q: How do we receive God’s forgiveness?
A: Through faith alone (Sola Fide). Reading Romans, Luther realized that we receive God’s forgiveness by faith. That’s it. We must simply accept that we are accepted because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. On faith, Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you happy, joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures.”

Q: How can we know with certainty that God has forgiven us?
A: God has told us through His Word (Sola Scriptura). And God cannot lie. Luther, who had always struggled with assurance, realized that he could be confident in God’s grace because He could trust God’s Word. For Luther, it was no longer the words of the priest or even the pope that brought assurance but rather the Word of God reminding Him of the truth. On the Bible, Luther wrote, “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me… A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a cardinal without it.”

I sometimes wonder how people in our churches would answer Luther’s three big questions in 2017.

Would their answers sound like Luther? Or would they sound more like the man on the street in Wittenburg in 1517?

Whether or not we know the Latin phrases (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, & Sola Scriptura), my prayer is that every disciple in our churches would know the truth in their hearts that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Discipleship / Miscellaneous

A Three-Year-Old’s Theology: On Gratitude

October 18, 2017
The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

The Ark Encounter in Kentucky.

TOKYO AIRPORT — A few weeks ago, I wrote about my granddaughter, Josephine, and her theologically profound comments about tragedy and natural disaster. This was neither the first nor the last time that Josephine’s words have cause me to think deeply about God, the Bible, and life.

This should not surprise us.

In the gospels, we frequently find Jesus making time to be with children. When his disciples would try to push them away, he would say things like this: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall not enter it” (Luke 19:16-17).

What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God like a little child? For one, it involves seriously engaging their thoughts and perspectives about life to see what God might be revealing to us about Himself and His kingdom through their eyes.

I am reminded of this whenever I hear Josephine pray.

Her parents began teaching her to pray as soon as she could talk. And at first, she would simply follow their words as they prayed with her each night and before meals. But recently, she has begun praying on her own. You never really know what she is going to say, except at the beginning of her prayers.

She begins most prayers like this: “Lord, thank you for Noah’s Ark and for Disney World…” Then she goes on to thank God for more normal things like family, friends, her teachers at school, the weather, etc.

Thank you for Noah’s Ark…

This point of gratitude is less bizarre if you know that Noah’s Ark is one of Josephine’s favorite Bible stories. She has Noah’s Ark toys; she has bookmarked Noah’s Ark in her children’s Bible; and she even got to visit the “real thing” in Kentucky with me and Deborah a few months ago.

And for Disney World…

In July after the Build Conference, we took Josephine to Disney World for the first time in her life. Ever since then, she has been obsessed with all things Minnie Mouse. She has Minnie Mouse pajamas, Minnie Mouse dolls, Minnie Mouse ears, Minnie Mouse coloring books, Minnie Mouse socks, etc.

While it might be tempting to write off Josephine’s prayer as three-year-old cuteness and nothing more, I think there is something profound that we can learn about gratitude and the kingdom.

First, we (like Josephine) should thank God more often for Noah’s Ark. His decision to save one man and his family was an act of sovereign grace that changed the course of redemptive history. Of course, Noah’s Ark points to a later, more complete work of redemption in Jesus. But this early story of God’s saving work provides us with a beautiful picture of God’s grace in the face of man’s depravity and God’s care for His creation in the midst of natural disaster. Stories like this are making a gospel imprint on little Josephine’s imagination and should never stop impressing on our imaginations either.

Second, though many adults (including myself) wish Disney World didn’t exist (or at least had shorter lines and less humidity), Josephine’s love of Magic Kingdom demonstrates that all humans—three-year-olds to ninety-three-year-olds—are longing for a kingdom where joy, celebration, awe, and wonder are the norm. We, like Josephine, know that most places are not like Disney World. Most places we inhabit are marked with suffering, futility, and lack. We, like Josephine, long for the coming of God’s kingdom—when every tear will be wiped away, every relationship will be restored, and every heart will be glad. For Josephine, Disney World is one of the closest representations of that kingdom reality (that she has personally experienced), not only because of the castles and real life princesses, but also because her entire family (aunts, uncles, grandparents, parents, etc.) spent the money and endured the heat to make the day special for her.

While the opening words of Josephine’s prayer offer an unexpected juxtaposition (Noah’s Ark and Disney World), they point us to two things we should all thank God for everyday: His redemptive work in history and His coming kingdom.

Blog / Discipleship

When Jesus Takes Your Lunch

July 31, 2017

Preaching Workshop

NASHVILLE—Last week, I returned from our annual Every Nation Build Conference in Orlando, where pastors, church planters, and campus missionaries from all over North America gathered for a time of fellowship, worship, and vision-building.

For those who couldn’t attend, you can still check out a quick recap video and listen to the messages here. I have many highlights from this year’s conference. One of them was leading the Biblical Preaching workshop with Pastor Brian Taylor of Bethel Cincinnati and Pastor Chris Johnson of Divine Unity Community Church. My good friend and executive director of Every Nation, Kevin York, moderated our session. Brian and Chris are excellent preachers, and I was honored to share the stage with them.

On the last evening of the conference, I preached the familiar story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 from John 6. This story is rich with potential for preaching.

You could preach about the contrast between ministering to crowds and making disciples. Jesus did both but prioritized the latter (John 6:2-3). You could preach about how Jesus “tested” Philip to see if he would view the food shortage through the eyes of faith (John 6:5-6). You could preach about signs and wonders and the sad reality that people often follow (even worship) signs rather than realize that the signs are meant to point us to Jesus (John 6:2, 14). You could preach about provision, and how Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with just five loaves and two fish.

However, in my sermon, rather than focusing on the crowds or the disciples, I focused on that young nameless boy whose lunch Jesus used to do a miracle.

Though I have read (and preached) this text many times before, in preparation for my message, I was struck by a phrase that I had never noticed. After Andrew and Philip explain to Jesus how expensive it would be to buy bread for the large crowd, they add that there is a boy with five barley loaves and two fish.

Then John says, “Jesus then took the loaves…” (6:11)

I don’t know if Jesus asked or if the boy offered, but all we know from the text is that Jesus “took” the loaves. Again, the text doesn’t say, but I would be shocked if this boy was the only person out of 5,000 who had brought along some lunch.

So why did Jesus take the loaves from this boy? Is that really fair? How did the boy respond?

If I were him, I might have complained about being treated unfairly. I might have wanted some say over how Jesus and His disciples planned to use this bread and fish. I might have asked that they pay me back after their next fishing trip. I might have been offended and then just walked away.

What do you do when Jesus takes your last loaf?
What do you do when Jesus exerts His will upon your life?
What do you do when Jesus takes something from you without warning and without asking?

Though I had never realized it before, this story is about lordship. If anyone else had taken that boy’s bread and fish, it would have been unjust and self-serving. But because Jesus was the one doing the taking, the end result was blessing and multiplication.

Here’s the point: When Jesus takes your last loaf, it’s not because He needs it. It’s not because He wants to make your life miserable. It’s because He wants to do something in you and through you. He wants to take the natural and do something supernatural. He wants to take your ordinary life and do something extraordinary.

But that only happens when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord and allow Him to take from us those things we’d rather hold on to.

Blog / Church / Discipleship / Leadership

Attracting Crowds or Making Disciples?

July 3, 2017

TOKYO AIRPORT — Observing the life of Jesus in the gospels is often an abrupt and painful reality check, especially in our social media saturated do-anything-for-fame ministry culture. I can’t imagine Jesus being obsessed with how many people “liked” his latest pithy post or how many people “friended” or “shared” his content.

His only obsession was to please the Father. We should be likewise obsessed.

Matthew reported that Jesus preached the gospel and healed the sick all over Galilee. (4:23) Because of his preaching and healing “His fame spread” which resulted in even more preaching and healing. (4:24) The predictable result of all this preaching and healing was that “great crowds followed him.” (4:25)

So, Jesus now has fame and crowds. The only thing missing (for modern success) is the fortune. But great fame, a massive following, and financial fortune did not matter to Jesus. And it should not matter to us. But it often does. Even in ministry.

What did Jesus do with his new found fame and huge following? How did he “leverage his platforms” in order to increase his following? How did he alter his “content” to increase his followers? How did he monetize his influence? That’s what we would do, right?

Notice carefully what Jesus did. “Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5:1 ESV)

Two important words: crowds and disciples.

1. “Seeing the CROWDS, he went up to the mountain.” Today when we see crowds in our Sunday service, in our campus ministry, or on social media we think we have succeeded. We must be doing something right and God is must be blessing our efforts. In order to be good stewards of our success, we do everything imaginable to maintain and grow our audience. Our first move is to leverage our platform for growth and influence. Jesus did the opposite. His first move was to walk away from the crowd.

2. “And when he sat down, his DISCIPLES came to him.” Unimpressed with his ever-increasing popularity, Jesus ignored the crowd and ascended the mountain. He traded a massive crowd of adorning followers for a small group of committed disciples. A careful reading of the gospels will reveal that the more crowds followed Jesus, the more he retreated to be alone with the Father and with his disciples.

Every leader of a growing ministry will be faced with an important decision: attract crowds or make disciples. Will we leave the crowds in order to make disciples, or will we allow the demands of the crowd to pull us away from small group discipleship?

Too many pastors and ministry leaders choose the crowds.

The irony of the situation is that very often, the leaders who choose making disciples over attracting crowds actually end up with massive crowds, but not crowds of fawning fickle miracle-seekers, crowds of disciples.

When your ministry starts to grow, choose wisely, my friends.

Blog / Discipleship / Missions

How to Pray in a Time of Global Terror

June 14, 2017

Terrorism

MANILA—Since I landed in the Philippines last week, the nation has been gripped with the ongoing crisis in the southern island of Mindanao. Islamic militants have taken the city of Marawi and declared allegiance to ISIS. Hundreds have been killed and thousands displaced since the violence began on May 23.

Over the last few weeks, terror attacks have seemed ubiquitous around the world.

The day before Marawi, the Manchester bombing took the lives of twenty-three young people attending a concert. Last week, the London Bridge attack took the lives of eight people and injured another forty-eight when terrorists drove a van into a crowded area and began stabbing random people.

Though less publicized, the Middle East has seen the worst terror attacks of all over the last few weeks, with suicide bombings in Kabul (May 3), Tehran (June 7), and Karbala (June 9), each claiming the lives of dozens of civilians and injuring hundreds more.

How should we as Christians respond to such tragic events, to such evil? How should we pray in a time of global terror?

I have begun praying Psalm 83.

O God, do not keep silence;
do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
For behold, your enemies make an uproar;
those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
they consult together against your treasured ones.

These are the first few verses of one of a handful of imprecatory psalms in the Bible—psalms that lament human evil and suffering and ask God to judge the wicked. If, like me, much of your Christian life has been one of relative comfort and safety, imprecatory psalms can be very weird to read, much less pray.

But for Christians who have lived in a war-torn region or who face real persecution, then imprecatory psalms speak directly to their experience in a way that nothing else can. I used to assume that imprecatory psalms were exclusively useful for those in extreme, life-threatening situations. But now, I’m beginning to realize that they are useful for all Christians who are confronted (even secondhand) with the depths of human evil and suffering.

Why? Because imprecatory psalms give us a healthy way to voice our anger, fear, terror, and sense of helplessness in the face of human evil. They give us a way to talk to God—to appeal to His justice, His sovereignty, His mercy—when we have no words of our own. They teach us how to think—and more importantly how to feel—about something like a suicide bombing in Manchester or children being shot by snipers in Marawi.

With the psalmists we can pray of terror groups, like ISIS or Abu Sayyaf, like Psalm 83 shows here:

O my God, make them like the whirling dust,
like chaff before the wind.
As fire consumes the forest,
as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
so may you pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your hurricane!

Yes, it’s biblical to pray that God would bring His terror to the very people who are inflicting terror on others. And it is biblical to pray that God would bring righteous judgement on a group like ISIS.

But as you begin to pray these kinds of prayers, don’t forget that we should hate evil but love sinners. We should hate ISIS and the demonic principalities and powers that animate such wickedness, but we should forgive terrorists and pray that God reveals himself to them.

Even Psalm 83, with all its righteous anger, ends with a redemptive tone:

Fill their faces with shame,
that they may seek your name, O Lord.
Let them be put to shame and dismayed forever;
let them perish in disgrace
that they may know that you alone,
whose name is the Lord,
are the Most High over all the earth.

But does this really happen? Can God’s justice (and eventual mercy) toward the wicked result in some turning to Him?

The short answer is yes. Think about the apostle Paul, who persecuted the church, then had a radical encounter with God on the road to Damascus. Think about the people in our Every Nation family in the Muslim world who were members of al-Qaeda before they met Jesus. Think about own your life before conversion, which was no less worthy of God’s judgment than that of a terrorist.

In his short time on earth, Jesus prayed both imprecatory psalms and prayers of forgiveness towards His enemies. And so should we.

Blog / Discipleship / Leadership

How and Why to Decrease as a Leader

May 25, 2017

LIFT

NASHVILLE—Though I believe strongly that all leaders should grow and that they should continually increase in their character and leadership skills, there is one sense in which all leaders should decrease.

When Jesus first began his ministry in Galilee, some of John the Baptist’s followers were concerned that this new teacher might gain a larger following than John. Even some of John’s key disciples (like Andrew) had started following Jesus. When John’s disciples brought this concern to his attention, John’s response was completely counterintuitive from a leadership perspective: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John’s decrease message raises two important questions—one discipleship question and one leadership question.

The Discipleship Question. Everyone who is attempting to be a disciple and attempting to make disciples should ask themselves: How can I decrease so that Jesus can increase? Like most discipleship questions, this is a Lordship question. Every disciple of Jesus should continually ask this question, whether you’re a new believer or a spiritual giant, like John the Baptist.

The Leadership Question. Once discipleship and the Lordship of Christ are established as the foundation, we can move on to the leadership question: How can I decrease so that emerging leaders around me can increase? From a discipleship perspective, Jesus was the rabbi and John was His follower. But from a leadership perspective (in John 3), John was an established leader and Jesus was an emerging leader. So when John said that he needed to decrease and Jesus needed to increase, he was also making a statement about how biblical leadership is supposed to work.

Established leaders who want emerging leaders to grow, will have to continually find ways to decrease. For John, this meant empowering and releasing some of his own disciples to Jesus. This also meant smaller crowds and fewer baptisms. John willingly relinquished platforms and influence so that Jesus’ new ministry could grow.

When pondering this text a few days ago, I asked myself what leadership decrease means in my context. I quickly jotted down four words: Listen, Include, Finance, Trust.

1. Listen: One way that I can decrease so emerging leaders can increase is simply by talking less and listening more. Whether it’s in a staff meeting or in a private conversation, whenever I give next-generation leaders a voice, they increase and the whole team benefits.

2. Include: Another way I can decrease so that emerging leaders can increase is by including them, whether it’s in a conference speaker slot or in a lunch meeting with other senior leaders. The more we can make space at the table for young leaders, the better—even if that sometimes means giving up our seat or a session.

3. Finance: Here’s where things get practical, and expensive. In my context, if I am really serious about empowering emerging leaders, it is going to cost money. Whether than means paying for a lunch or a plane ticket, or even a seminary degree, if we are serious about elevating emerging leaders in our churches and organizations, we have to be willing to finance those leaders and their growth.

4. Trust: Trusting emerging leader sounds great, until we realize that it involves letting go of control and cleaning up the inevitable messes that occur when young leaders are empowered. But if we are serious about the growth of emerging leaders, we must continually decrease our control and trust them. They will make mistakes; but consider their mistakes as moments for growth. And continue to trust and empower.

I originally wrote these four words and brief thoughts in my Moleskine in my usual stream-of-conscience devotional writing style (that would be unreadable to anyone but me). Then I took a step back and realized that the four words (accidentally) created an acronym: LIFT! Unlike most of my devotional scribblings, I decided to blog these thoughts.

So here’s the question: What does LIFT look like for you as a leader? How can you decrease, so that emerging leaders around you can increase?