Three Avenues to Joy

When I look back at what I’ve experienced in church planting these past two or so years, three joys stand out:

  1. The joy of risk — There’s something joyful about sticking your neck out and risking for the sake of the kingdom. It’s far more joyful than playing it safe. I don’t think I’d want to go back.
  2. The joy of evangelism — My best friends are increasingly outside of the church. I am intentionally cultivating relationships in my community and being present in my neighborhood.
  3. The joy of reliance — I am learning new levels of dependence on God. I am also much more aware of my reliance on other people for prayer support, as well as practical support.

If you want to ask me what I love about church planting, these three joys would rank near the top.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need to be a church planter to experience these three joys. Sadly, I pastored many years without experiencing them as much as I am now, but they where there for the taking.

Risk. Evangelize. Rely. I’m finding that these are three avenues of joy available to all of us for the asking.

God Wants Us to Want

I used to think that God was happy with our grudging obedience. Do the right thing, grit your teeth, and everything is good with God. I’ve been increasingly learning that God doesn’t want us to do the right thing so much as he wants us to want to do the right thing. Big difference.

Two examples:

Peter writes to elders in churches that are experiencing some suffering. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight,” he writes, “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). There’s a world of difference between elders who serve because they have to, and elders who serve because they want to. God, Peter says, desires the latter. God wants elders who want to serve him, even under the pressure of suffering.

Paul writes to the Corinthians to ask for money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. He doesn’t tell them to dig deep until it hurts. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). There it is again, something to avoid: compulsion. God wants our willingness, our eagerness, and our cheerfulness.

C.S. Lewis was insightful when he wrote:

A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc) can do the journey on their own.

The perfect man or woman acts not out of duty, but of delight. We're all in process, but this is God’s desire for us.

God wants to change us not at the level of our obedience, but at the level of our affections. God wants us to want.

Thoughts on Sexual Temptation

“Many people have asked me if I have ever looked at pornography,” writes William Struthers in his book Wired for Intimacy. “When I tell them that I find many things on television or on newsstands pornographic, they frown…Yes, I have viewed pornography because it is everywhere. You cannot get away from it; if you don’t view it intentionally, you will unintentionally.”

Here are ten thoughts on living in a world of sexual temptation as guys:

One: Porn is everywhere. Struthers is right. The reason why his statement is so shocking is that we’ve become desensitized to the amount of explicit material present we see everyday.

Two: Society is conflicted about this. One recent article on the leaked Jennifer Lawrence nude photos illustrates this. To the extent that we buy into culture’s views on sex, we will be conflicted and confused as well.

Three: Sexual temptation for men is a given. It’s safe to say that if you are a male, you will face sexual temptation. This isn’t to say that you are actively succumbing to that temptation, but it’s safe to say that it's a battle. We shouldn't be surprised.

Four: Sexual temptation is powerful, but it often goes deeper than we realize. It’s not just about the sex. It’s usually a sign that something else is off. The acronym HALT is helpful: temptation can be acute when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. “In the middle of trouble, when you are in the heat of the battle, you will run somewhere for refuge. You will run somewhere for rest, comfort, peace, encouragement, wisdom, healing, and strength…” (Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling). Many men run to sex for refuge.

Five: Pastors aren’t exempt. As Tripp wrote in Dangerous Calling, pastors are nothing more than people in the midst of their own sanctification.

Six: Most men struggle alone. Men feel a deep sense of shame about their struggle with this temptation, and therefore keep it private. The problem: we cannot find a private solution to this private problem.

Seven: Secrecy and shame are one of Satan’s greatest tools to keep us in bondage to sexual sin. Sin is like mushrooms: it grows in the dark.

Eight: When men reach out for help, they often reach out too late — after the temptation, and not in the middle of it.

Nine: Shame is lifted when we encounter God’s grace. “The gospel declares that there is nothing that could ever be uncovered about you and me that hasn’t already been covered” (Tripp).

Ten: The key to this struggle is not willpower, but a radical encounter with God’s grace in community. There are many practical steps to take, but they begin with ceasing to struggle in secrecy and in your own power. “The tide will begin to turn in your struggle against pornography when you begin to grasp forgiving grace and transforming grace, as you learn to repent,” writes Heath Lambert in Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace. He writes:

A living, breathing relationship with the Savior of the world will drive porn out of your life quicker than anything else. When you turn your eyes to Jesus, there isn't room for anything else in your heart because he fills it up. When you open the blinds of a pitch-black room, the sunlight drives away the darkness.

There are many good books on this subject. Finally Free and Samson and the Pirate Monks are ones I highly recommend. I also hear good things about Wired for Intimacy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this important topic.

Risk in Ministry

I was really struck by this tweet by Ray Ortlund recently:

Bang on. This tweet is proof that you can say a lot in 140 characters or less. The third criterion is one that is often missed, but it's crucial.

Risk is one of the most undervalued ingredients of successful ministry. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) teaches us, in part, that risk avoidance reveals a fearful mindset based on a deficient view of God. It reminds us that there is a place for wise, risky investment of what God has given us.

I'm glad to see risk emphasized recently. John Piper has written a book called Risk is Right. Owen Strachan has written a good book called Risky Gospel. "We're saved to plunge headlong into a life of God-inspired, Christ-centered, gospel-driven risk," he writes.

There may be some who need to be told to pull back and risk less. Most of us struggle with the opposite: succumbing to lives of comfort, safety, and in the end, deadness.

Ironically, playing it safe is one of the riskiest ways to live.

My deepest regrets in ministry have been the times that I've played it safe. My most joyful moments have been when I have refused to play it safe, and have embarked in a risky ministry venture. Church planting comes to mind. I am not arguing for recklessness; I am saying that comfort and safety are overrated when it comes to investing all that we have for the cause of Christ.

What are you risking these days?



Sobering Up: The Prerequisite to a Good Prayer Life

I struggle with prayer. It’s some comfort, I suppose, to understand that others do as well. A recent story about renowned preacher Sinclair Ferguson illustrates that even those who seem to be mature Christian leaders feel that they have lots to learn when it comes to prayer.

When it comes to praying more, I wonder if we start at the wrong end of the problem. We want to pray more. Good! That is admirable. But we shouldn’t begin there. Our efforts to pray more fall flat, and it isn’t long before we are just as discouraged as before. The cycle of good intentions leading to failure and guilt is not one that leads to the prayer life we desire.

What if there is a prerequisite to prayer? That seems to be what Peter teaches in 1 Peter 4:7:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. (1 Peter 4:7)

Peter could have said, “The end of all things is at hand; pray more!” but he doesn’t. He instead instructs us to develop a self-controlled and sober-minded mindset that leads to prayer. Before we can pray, we need a mindset that leads us to prayer. We need to sober up. It's the prerequisite to a good prayer life.

Sobering up means that we see reality as it really is; that we recognize that time is short; that we give up any thoughts of trying to live or serve apart from the enablement that only God can offer. I confessed to our church last weekend that I am in the process of “sobering up” when it comes to prayer. Rather than beginning with a deeper resolve to pray, I’m beginning with thinking in a self-controlled and sober-minded way that should cultivate a life of prayer.

It’s time to sober up and deal with the prerequisite to a good prayer life. Will you join me