When God doesn’t make sense

Maybe the toughest test of your life will be when you have absolutely no idea what God is doing or why.

Out of all the young women in the world, why am I (or my wife) the one who gets breast cancer?

After all my years of faithfulness to you, Lord, why do you choose to take my child?

Why am I devastated by unrelenting pain, or depression, or anxiety?

Why have you chosen to leave me unemployed?

Sometimes God doesn’t make sense at all.

I’m sure some combination of those thoughts filled Abraham’s mind when he trudged toward Mount Moriah with a little wood, some fire, and his son Isaac.

God had told him three days earlier to travel to this particular place for one terrifying purpose: to offer Isaac as a blood sacrifice. Human sacrifice was completely inconsistent with God’s character, which made it all the more perplexing for Abraham.

But he went anyway, apparently offering no objections, at least not where anyone could hear them.

Adding to Abraham’s bewilderment must’ve been the fact that he knew this son was the one God had given him for a special purpose: to extend his lineage so that God might bless the world through this family (Genesis 12:1-3).

And now God has told me to kill my son.

Have you been there?

Of course God hasn’t told you to sacrifice a child, but have you faced perplexing things, maddeningly incomprehensible situations?

What then?

I know it sounds trite. Any kind of advice, however well-intentioned, may be offensive. What does he know about what I’m going through?

But I’ll risk saying it anyway.

I think God wants you to do what Abraham did as he plodded up Moriah. He just kept walking, hoping, believing God would somehow work this out.

God wants us to trust Him and do what He says.

Abraham had been walking with the Lord long enough to know that God was faithful, even when things didn’t make sense.

So he walked all the way to the place of sacrifice . . . before God finally stopped him.

“Now I know that you fear God,” the Lord said (Genesis 22:12).

Maybe you’re facing a situation right now that’s incomprehensible.

Please trust God and keep walking.

He hasn’t promised that He’ll remove the struggle, but He’s promised He’ll take whatever it is and use it to accomplish His will in you. He’ll lead you closer to where you need to be, where God wants you to be.

Just keep walking, no matter what happens.

Have a great Monday!

In Christ,

Worship as respite

For some of you, perhaps most of you, the last week has been difficult. Long, tiring days, persistent stress, constant demands.

That’s one of the main reasons God gives you today, Sunday, His day.

I hope it will be a sabbath for you, a day of worship and rest. I pray that the Lord will refresh you as you gather with His people, your church family, a community of believers who come together simply to express adoration for God.

As you read the worship psalm below, ask the Lord to clear your heart of life’s distractions and enable you to worship Him simply, truthfully, passionately.

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth. Sing to the LORD and praise his name; every day tell how he saves us. Tell the nations of his glory; tell all peoples the miracles he does, because the LORD is great; he should be praised at all times. He should be honored more than all the gods, because all the gods of the nations are only idols, but the LORD made the heavens. The LORD has glory and majesty; he has power and beauty in his Temple.

Praise the LORD, all nations on earth; praise the LORD’s glory and power. Praise the glory of the LORD’s name. Bring an offering and come into his Temple courtyards. Worship the LORD because he is holy. Tremble before him, everyone on earth.

Tell the nations, “The LORD is king.” The earth is set, and it cannot be moved. He will judge the people fairly.

Let the skies rejoice and the earth be glad; let the sea and everything in it shout. Let the fields and everything in them rejoice. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD, because he is coming. He is coming to judge the world; he will judge the world with fairness and the peoples with truth (Psalm 96:1-13).

Please pray that God will use all of the worship leaders today to direct our focus away from ourselves and toward Him. That we will worship the only One who is worthy.

I pray that in worship today God’s Spirit will refresh and renew you. I hope that as you leave the assembly you will feel a sense of overwhelming confidence to face the challenges of a new week.

Have a great Sunday!

In Christ,

Where are the poor around us?

By any kind of worldly standard, you and I aren’t poor. In fact, we don’t really even know any poor people.

The churches we attend don’t really have any, and our friends aren’t poor. Our kids go to school with and play ball with kids who are in roughly the same socioeconomic class as we are. We know the poor are out there, but where? I don’t seem to see too many of them.

Think for a second: how many do you know? Do you know anyone who misses meals because he doesn’t have any food? Do you know someone who struggles to feed her children and clothe them adequately?
Jesus’ world had lots of poor folks in it, and I find a statement He made a bit curious in view of the way most of us live.
John the Baptist had asked for some evidence that Jesus really was the Messiah, and here’s Jesus’ response:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4-6).
The first part doesn’t really surprise us: Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God by the miracles that He did: healing the blind and lame and raising the dead.
But then he throws in something that seems out of place. He says that the fact that “the poor have good news preached to them” points to His deity as well (v. 6).
I’ve always told people that they should believe in Jesus because of the amazing things that He did: He restored sight to the blind, healed lepers, gave speech to the mute, and walked on water.
But I guess I’d never worked His preaching to the poor into any of my sermons as evidence of His being God.
That has something to say to us Christians today.
Are we reaching out to the poor?
Could it be said that Jesus is present among us only to the extent that we carry His message to the dispossessed and marginalized?
Most of us probably need to broaden our circles of acquaintances somewhat, get outside our comfort zones, spend time with people who are different from us.
That’s what Jesus did, and He said that was evidence that He was the Son of God.
If one of the identifying characteristics of Jesus as God was that He preached to the poor, why aren’t there poor people in our churches? Jesus was surrounded by them.
I suppose it’s something we ought to think about.
In Christ,

What about my doubts?

Most of us occasionally struggle with doubts.

Maybe it’s normal life doubts, like whom to date or marry, which career path to follow, or where to invest our 401(k).

It’s more serious, but no less expected, to have doubts about matters of faith.

Abraham had them (“You mean I’m going to have a son?”).

Moses had them (“Pharaoh will definitely not listen to me”).

David had them (“Why are my enemies surrounding me?).

Elijah had them (“I’m the only faithful prophet alive”).

But if you read about John the Baptist, you might peg him as the type of guy who never wavers. He’s the one who ate grasshoppers and honey and dressed in clothes made out of camel’s hair. He was the first-century tough guy who balked at nothing.

He never doubted his role as the one who would prepare the people to listen to Jesus. He knew exactly who he was and what his purpose was. Some people once asked him if he was the Messiah, but he never wavered. “No, I’m not.”

The very next day he saw Jesus and pointed to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). Again, no wavering.

He even looked King Herod in the eyes and told him he shouldn’t have stolen his brother’s wife. (He ended up in prison for that one)

But here is where John does something I thought he’d never do.

He blinked.

From prison he sends some disciples to Jesus to ask a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

Remember this is the same man who had unequivocally pointed out Jesus as the Messiah.

But now he’s got doubts.

Why? We don’t know for sure, but it probably had something to do with the fact that he was in prison. He was alone, he was idle, he had time to think.

And he began to wonder if he had been wrong all along.

Maybe today you’re where John was then. In the past you’ve been fully confident in your faith, but certain circumstances have led you to a place where you’re wandering about a few things. You’ve got questions.

What should you do?

Sometimes people think they’d better keep their doubts to themselves or someone might think they’ve lost their faith. Real Christians don’t doubt, right?

But I urge you to do what John did. Ask questions. Seek answers. Look for evidence.

Jesus didn’t fuss at John for doubting. In fact, He did the opposite. He gave John the evidence he was looking for.

And He does the same for us. If we have honest doubts about matters of faith and really want to know the truth, God will lead us to it.

Doubts help us grow, and I’m even a little suspicious of folks who say they never question anything.

I believe that when we think we question, and when we question, we sometimes doubt.

But when we seek we find, and when we find, we’re stronger than we were before.

Have a great Friday!

In Christ,

I helped a guy last night

I stopped to refuel on my way out of Tuscaloosa last night, and a guy approached me and asked me if I could buy him some food or some gas for his car.

I’m embarrassed to admit a couple of things to you: I wish I could say I was thrilled that the Lord had sent someone with needs into my path so that I might share some of the Lord’s kindness, but actually I was a little more bothered than I was thrilled. I had just finished speaking and was tired, I was ready to be home, and I wasn’t entirely convinced the guy was being honest—all perfectly illegitimate and irrelevant excuses.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a little work to do to get to “Good Samaritan” levels of spontaneous selflessness.

But then I helped the guy some, not really very much, and I had my next embarrassing thought. Wouldn’t it be neat if one of the church members drove by and saw me pumping some gas into this guy’s car? They’d probably think I was really generous.

And so what Jesus said in Matthew 6 about helping people secretly went out the door, and my only reward for helping the guy was whatever credit it earned me from whoever happened to observe my less-than-sacrificial act. I’m pretty sure I didn’t store up any treasure in heaven.

At least that’s what Jesus said about situations like that.

He knows we’re like this, so the main point of this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is to help us think about why we do what we do.

To avoid our temptation to put on a show for others, Jesus urges us to do things secretly.

When you give, do it with no fanfare (Matthew 6:2-4).

When you pray, find a secret place for you to have some private time with the Father (Matthew 6:6).

When you fast, act and dress as you do every other day so that no one will know (Matthew 6:17-18).

That’s hard, isn’t it?

When I help someone or make a hospital visit, I find myself trying to work it into a conversation somehow so that people will know.

And sometimes we come up with some really spiritual-sounding reasons why we need to tell people about our good deeds.

Well, I wanted to encourage them in the Lord. (Throw “in the Lord” at the end of any sentence and it makes almost anything sound really spiritual.)

You know, the Lord just opened up a door for me to be a blessing to him. Sounds quite godly, doesn’t it?

Jesus throws this little phrase in that I must’ve overlooked before: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).

He seems to be saying that we should practice giving so much that we get to the point that we don’t even congratulate ourselves for the good we’ve done. Not only do we not seek others’ glory; we don’t even pat ourselves on the back. We just act instinctively.

Instead of performing for the crowd or doing it to make ourselves feel better, we serve others because we love the Lord, we love people, and it’s the right thing to do.

So . . . the next time you help someone, don’t tell anyone, and see if you can keep it a secret from yourself. When you can, you’re well on your way to learning the lesson Jesus teaches us here.

And the Lord will reward you openly.

Have a great Thursday!

In Christ,

Impression Management

It’s a little embarrassing when you really think about it. At first blush, most of us will probably try to say that we don’t do it.

Social psychologists call it “Impression Management,” and it’s the way we (sub)consciously try to control what others think about us.

It’s so obvious in others . . . the intellectual, the jock, the beauty queen. We smile when we think of how shallow they are.

But we do it too.

We wear what we wear to make a point. The words we use, the way we use them, the intonation of our voices – we’re crafting an image for the world to see.

The first-century Pharisees were professionals at impression management. They had the “I’m so religious I’m almost God” look down to a tee. They prayed to impress, and they gave to be noticed. They wanted the respect of the commoners, to be perceived as hyper-religious, super-spiritual, next in line for the Trinity.

And they succeeded. The masses loved them for their Bible knowledge and self-discipline.

Jesus said it was a sham. With most people Jesus was kind and gentle and patient.

But not with the Pharisees. Their emphasis on outward religiosity and impression management disgusted Him, and He minced no words with them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves . . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:13-15, 25-28).

As you reflect on this passage today, think about the role that religious impression management might play in your life.

I’m tempted to act a certain way at church so that people think I’m really spiritual, truly godly. Do you ever do that?

Sometimes we might let the “secret” of our helping someone get out so that others will think we’re great Jesus followers. Or we might sing a little louder, or pray more fervently, or practice the “I love Jesus so much” look.

It’s a dangerous area, one that Jesus had little patience for.

Let’s just focus on following Jesus, and when those “I hope someone notices this” thoughts pop up, get rid of them immediately. Immediately focus your thoughts heavenward.

If we focus on walking with the Lord—if our character is genuine—we won’t need to worry about crafting a reputation, and what people think of us won’t matter anyway. We’ll know we’re at peace with the Lord, which is the only thing that matters anyway.

Have a great Wednesday!

In Christ,

Play to win?

Pretty much everyone I know likes to win. This competitive drive starts in the sandbox, I suppose, and it apparently never dies.

Who’s the fastest on the playground? Who kicks the ball the hardest during recess? Who got the highest score on the test?

Adults do the same thing, only in slightly more “mature” ways. Who made VP the fastest? Who brought in the most clients? Who made the most money? Whose kids are the prettiest, smartest, most athletic, best-dressed?

I think a little good-natured competition between friends is harmless and can encourage camaraderie and clean fun.

But competition has a dark side. Some people never feel fulfilled because there’s always someone who does it better. He made partner three years faster than I did. She got the job I wanted. Why does it seem like they catch all the breaks?

Some people never truly connect with God because they’re too busy running the 21st-century rat race to get to the top of the pile.

It started at the beginning. Cain felt “out-sacrificed” by his brother, which led to envy and culminated in murder.

Leah and Rachel vied for Jacob’s love. Jacob and Esau fought over their father’s birthright. Joseph’s brothers envied and abandoned him. King Saul was furious over David’s successes. The apostles incessantly argued about who was the greatest.

It’s a good thing it only happens “out there” and not in the church.

Or not.

Do we occasionally feel spiritual competitiveness? A preacher envies the more talented, more sought-after speaker at the bigger church across town. A Christian craves more recognition than she’s getting at church, or resents someone else’s prominent position in a church ministry.

Why didn’t the church leadership go with his idea and not mine? Why does no one listen to me?

It’s the same problem we’ve been struggling with since Adam ate the fruit, isn’t it? We’re just a little bit too caught up in self and the earthly and the trivial. We don’t like anyone getting the best of us.

Resist justifying it with the old excuse, “Well, I’m just a competitive person.”

If we’re comparing ourselves to others — at work, school, or church — we need to remind ourselves passionately that our acceptance with God will never be based on how well we perform. Obsessing over competing with other people smacks of self-centeredness and pride and should be avoided drastically by Christians.

We’ll never find real peace there anyway. What happens if you run the race and win the big prize at the end? It’s nothing but fool’s gold.

Peace is found in knowing that God accepts us on the basis of the merits of Christ. We live Christianly because of what He did, not so that we may earn His approval.

Sure, go ahead and enjoy the harmless fun of ribbing each other over the weekend’s games or innocent competitions, but don’t let your competitive spirit cause you to emphasize performance over acceptance. Don’t get caught up in the ridiculous races that so many people around us are stressed out about.

If you’re a disciple of Christ, He’s accepted you into His family, so you can stop trying to beat everyone to the finish line. You’re already there.

Have a great Tuesday!

In Christ,


Approval addiction: Should we care what others think of us?

I like to be liked, don’t you? Most of us feel better about ourselves when we receive regular words of encouragement from the people around us.

But we can get too caught up in it.

In his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg writes about approval addiction. By that he means our obsession with what others think of us.

Sometimes our sense of self-worth is tied to the Siskels and Eberts of the world who give their thumbs up or thumbs down to what we do and who we are. If we ever receive a thumbs down, it ruins our day.

Do you struggle with this? Does your state of mind depend on your spouse’s saying the right thing to you in the morning? Do you think habitually about whether or not your parents are proud of what you’re doing?

Reflect on Paul’s words:

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God (1 Cor 4:3-5).

If we’re ever going to achieve true contentment and self-assurance in this life, we must realize that we can’t try to please people.

Henri Nouwen wrote: “At issue here is the question: ‘To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?’ Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. . . . Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.”

But when we realize that we are God’s children, and that He loves us and approves of us, it helps us see the pettiness and silliness in obsessing over what people think about us.

We serve the King of kings, and He’s pleased with us!

What else matters?

Have a great Monday!

In Christ,

Worshiping actively

Some things can be done mindlessly. I went to the ballpark yesterday and enjoyed sitting in my comfortable chair on a beautiful fall afternoon. I didn’t really put much effort into it, only clapping occasionally and shouting a few words of encouragement. It didn’t take any mental effort at all.

I like going to concerts occasionally as well, but I don’t contribute much there either. I just sit back and relax and take it all in, amazed at the ability of an entertainer to perform beautiful music.

Movies, too, are fun, but other than giving the theater half a week’s pay for a ticket and popcorn, I don’t contribute anything to the movie to make it better or worse. It is what it is, with or without my help.

I’m an observer, a receiver, a taker. I go to get, not give.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I often struggle to worship God properly. Maybe I’m confusing our place of worship with a different kind of arena with givers and receivers, presenters and observers, performers and critics.

But as we worship God today, we need to remember that He is our audience, and we are the performers. We’re active, not passive; givers, not takers.

Meditate on this well-known psalm this morning as you prepare for worship:

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand (Psalm 95:1-7).

Let’s worship God today from our hearts. Let’s give Him our best—our focus, our hearts, our devotion.

He’s much more worthy of our devotion that the most talented athlete or performer, so let’s offer Him the best we have. Let’s fight the urge to sit back and observe and take; instead, let’s throw ourselves into worship with excitement and gratitude.

Have a great Sunday!

In Christ,

Learning from a crazy guy

We can learn a lot from crazy people.

Jesus once recruited a crazy man to be one of his evangelists, even though the would-be soul-winner hadn’t exactly finished at the top of the class in one of the leading seminaries . . .

You’ve probably heard the story about this man. He was possessed by a whole host of demons who made his life miserable; he was violent, annoying, and uncontrollable.

A perfect candidate for the How to be a Soul Winnerclass at church, don’t you think?

Here’s what the Lord did for him: he threw the demons out, and he gave him his life back.

Can you imagine how wonderful that must’ve been for this guy?

Living a horrible, self-obsessed life characterized by constant pain and misery, only to have a stranger come along one day and give you the life you thought you’d lost forever?

This man knew he had been given a sweet deal, and he suddenly felt a call to ministry. As Jesus was leaving, the man did everything but stow himself away on the boat. He begged the Lord to allow him to go with him.

Here’s the Lord’s response: And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).

Go home and tell your story. Tell your friends what I did for you. Tell your family how I gave you your life back.

In other words, be an evangelist, because that’s what evangelists do. They don’t wear suits and scream and shout on TV. They don’t necessarily work for a church, surrounded by books and desks and diplomas.

Evangelists do what this man did. They go home to their friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for them, and how he has had mercy on them.

Has the Lord saved you? Has He given you your life back? Has He given you a reason to live, something to hope for?

Do what the crazy man did. Go to your friends and family and tell them what Jesus did for you.

You’ll be an evangelist, even without the diploma.

Have a great Saturday!

In Christ,