Encouraged but Wanting More

Ministry is a glass half-empty or half-full proposition. There are so many things that can discourage us. Ministry is hard at the best of times, and it often feels like we’re losing, rather than taking, ground. At the local church level, many churches need revitalizing, which is an important work but also a long and sometimes difficult one. Also, planting is hard.

Despite all of this, I’m hugely encouraged. Here’s why.

Gospel — Not only have we seen a rediscovery of the gospel in recent years, but we haven’t moved on. Nor could we. Books like Gospel by Ray Ortlund really encourage me, because they push us to not only consider gospel doctrine, but weave the gospel into the very culture of the church. Having tasted this, even in small measures, it’s impossible to go back.

Resources — Never before have we been so well resourced. There are so many excellent books coming out that it’s impossible to keep up with them. There are so many thoughtful, theologically sound and beneficial blogs that I can’t possibly read them all. My laptop contains the resources of a small seminary library. I can listen to the best sermons preached last Sunday without leaving my home. It’s staggering.

Servants — The days demand servanthood, which is why I keep meeting humble people who are ready to go to tough churches and love them to health. I love meeting seminary students who realize that there are lots of ministry positions, but not a lot of ministry careers, and who still are preparing to serve. I love meeting quality pastors who serve in obscurity and are okay with that. I love the servants who drive across the city every week to help us set up chairs at our humble church plant.

Desperation and Prayer — I’m sensing a growing number of pastors and churches who are praying for each other, and longing for something to happen not just in their church but in their city and beyond.

All of this leaves me encouraged, but hungry for more. Let’s pray that God would bring renewal to our churches and cities, and that we’ll see these brushfires of hope turn into something more.

The Benefits of Brokenness

I have a pastor-friend who is unflappable. I think it would be impossible to tell him something that would surprise him. I know, because I’ve shared some things with him that might have raised some eyebrows. His never moved; he responded with the grace and strength that I needed at the time.

It’s hard to surprise my pastor-friend, because there isn’t much that he hasn’t experienced himself. He’s had the parenting problems. He struggled with an episode of major depression and burnout. He’s failed and succeeded in ministry. He’s stayed faithful over the long term, but he’s battered and bruised. He’s got a credibility that only comes from those who have stayed in the battle long enough to know that it’s tough.

He reminds me of another older man I met through Serge, the ministry started by Jack Miller. “There’s nothing you could tell me that would shock me,” he said. “There’s no way that you’re a worse sinner than I am.” Some could say that as a platitude; he said it as a truth. When you have been around long enough to have been humbled, and are still walking with God, you have a grace and a strength that’s hard to fake.

The older I get, the less I’m surprised by the struggles and foibles of others. I no longer have the quick answers and the simple advice. I am accumulating the wounds that I hope will one day give me the credibility that is able to stand in the middle of suffering and to say much without saying anything.

I’m no longer fighting the process of being broken. I’m learning what I couldn’t have known when I started ministry over twenty years ago: “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply” (A.W. Tozer).

He Gives More Grace

I ran out of grace this week. It happens quite often. People push me, and after a while I’ve expended any supply of grace that I have available. Even though I think of myself as a patient person, I reach the point at which I’ve exhausted all that I have to give, and I’m ready to push them away. It's sometimes easy to even write people off.

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I’m glad God isn’t like this. As I reached the end of my rope once again this week, I thought of a verse that brings me no end of comfort: “But he gives more grace” (James 4:6).

The context: James is writing about our tendency to make bad (read sinful) choices. He uses the starkest of terms. He compares our behavior to adultery. We turn our backs on God, and are completely unfaithful. It’s betrayal of the first order. Anyone who has experienced this type of betrayal, even in a friendship, knows how serious it is. How much more so when we are talking about our relationship with God? Not only that, but God is fiercely jealous for us (James 4:5).

How does a fiercely jealous God, the one who is called a consuming fire, react to us in our unfaithfulness? He gives us more grace. As Augustine said, “God gives what he demands.” There is always a greater supply of grace than our need for grace. “For daily need there is daily grace; for sudden need, sudden grace; for overwhelming need, overwhelming grace,” says John Blanchard.

I reached the limits of my grace this week, but I’ve never come close to reaching the limits of God’s grace. As I again have reached my own limits, I’m reminded of the comfort that I’ve never come close to reaching the limits of God’s supply of what I need. He gives more grace, and that is exactly what I need

Five Practices That Are Better than Resolutions

A few days into the New Year, people have already bailed on many of their resolutions and goals. It’s because we are not good at changing ourselves. Our good intentions do not result in the life change that we’re looking for.

There’s good news, though. There are a few simple practices that will make this year a good one, even if our record at self-improvement isn’t that great.

Here are five practices that you can implement that will make a big difference in your spiritual life.

One: Find and attend a good church. By “good church” I mean one that majors on who Jesus is and what he has done to make us right with God. If you find one that focuses on Jesus and the gospel — about what he has done to make us right with God more than on what we must do —plug in there and get involved. Don’t just attend occasionally. Be intentional about getting involved. It will sometimes be hard, just like family, but it’s worth it.

Two: Get into the Bible. I know it sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how many people don’t read the Bible. Find a good reading plan, and make sure that it’s so simple that you can’t help but follow it. Right now I’m using a two-year plan using the Gospel Transformation Bible. I’ve read the Bible in one year before, but I’m really enjoying the slower pace. Find a plan that works for you, and read a good Bible with notes (like the one I mentioned) that will help you understand what you’re reading.

Three: Be honest in your prayers. A lot of us struggle to pray because we think we have to be someone that we aren’t. The good news is that in prayer, we don’t have to pretend before God. We can come with our doubts, struggles, questions, and fears. Don’t wait until you’re holy to pray; start where you are. Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel write:

Everything that comes out of our hearts in the presence of the Lord is an invitation to be known by him. Whether it is fear, shame, pride, anxiety, or even lust, our call is to open those things before him and receive redemption as those who desperately need it. In prayer we come to fully understand the nature of our redemption; prayer is the place where we become truly known by God. (Beloved Dust)

Four: Tell somebody who knows the gospel about your deepest sins and struggles. If you’re like me, you tend to struggle alone. The problem is that sin is like mushrooms: it grows best in the dark. Find someone safe who understands the gospel, and share your sins and your struggles. Resolve to end the secrecy in your life. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject for men is Samson and the Pirate Monks. Read it and practice it. The gospel means that we don't have to pose or pretend.

Five: Major in the gospel. The gospel will always be counterintuitive no matter how long we live. That’s why it’s important to continually right ourselves by majoring in the gospel. Make sure you attend a church that regularly talks about the gospel (see the first practice). Read blogs that talk about the gospel. Read books like Gospel by J.D. Greear or New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp. Do whatever it takes to soak yourself in the gospel all year long.

These five practices are the opposite of self-improvement. They are all admissions of sorts that we need help outside of ourselves, and they all point us to the help that is readily available to us through Jesus.

He Entered the Water

I love this story from Jack Miller in his devotional Saving Grace.

A missionary linguist was working in a remote village in Laos. He was trying to find a word to translate Savior. He asked villagers the word they would use to describe the person who saved someone from a tiger's attack, or a child from falling off a cliff. "Pa," they said.

A couple of days later, the missionary set out on a raft with two women to cross a river. The water was turbulent, and the raft flipped. The missionary grabbed the two women and swam with them to shore.

The missionary asked them what word they would use to describe saving them from drowning. "Not pa, but che," they responded. "Pa is when you reach down to help someone from above and che is when you were in the water yourself."

Miller writes, "That's what Jesus did. He went into the depths of the water and pulled us out — a real Savior who became like us, lived with us, and gave his life for us."

I wish you all the best this Christmas!