My idols I cannot see

It’s easy to see idols in other people’s lives.

I’ve occasionally scoffed at how someone seemed obsessed with something that is obviously (to me) unworthy of much time, attention, or money.

The problem with that is that idols trouble us all, and focusing on how other people’s priorities are misaligned obscures my own struggle with them.

Jesus couldn’t have been more in-your-face than he was here:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:37-39).

He takes the most personal of relationships—those within the family—to urge us all to consider our allegiances.

Who’s first? What’s most important? Who sits on the throne of your heart?

I’ve often wrestled with Jesus’ words in this passage, particularly when I think about my wife and kids. How could I love anyone more than them?

Does that struggle resonate with you?

These are important questions.

Tough questions, extremely tough.

The Lord’s words here may be uncomfortable to think about, but their message is easy to understand.

He expects to be loved more than anything else we’ve got, and that includes our loved ones, our hobbies, our jobs, our things.

Let’s pray about this today.

Let’s ask the Lord to help us see where our danger spots are.

Let’s ask him to help us think more seriously about what he says here—to put him first, to love him more, to obey him more consistently.

We’ve got idols, but our blindness to them is what makes them so dangerous.

Our goal today is for God to help us see them for what they are—obstacles that keep us from enjoying the true spiritual intimacy that comes from enthroning the Lord.

Let’s pray today that God will help us lose our lives in him so that he might give us the lives we were created to live.

Jesus’ “thin ’em out” message

Most of us in church work worry when attendance numbers go down; Jesus seemed to worry when they went up.

He had what we might call “Thin ‘em out” sermons—messages he preached, it seems, to push people away.

That wasn’t his intent, of course, but his message certainly didn’t fit well within any Church Growth book I’ve read.

We often try to make the gospel more palatable; Jesus gave it to the crowds straight and unmixed.

Sometimes, when he finished preaching, people turned away and never came back.

Today that kind of preacher might not be able to find a job, or, if he did, probably wouldn’t keep it for long.

Here’s one of those short messages:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39).

I wonder what he saw in the crowd that day.

Had some of the folks misinterpreted him and thought following him meant an obstacle-free life?

Did they think discipleship meant all-you-can-eat buffets and miracles-on-demand?

Whatever it was, Jesus felt the need to set them straight.

And thin them out.

He wanted it to be crystal clear: following him meant rocky times ahead.

Some people—maybe even family—wouldn’t understand their wholesale commitment to Jesus and would get angry, or worse.

Disciples would be forced to choose between being martyred or turning away from Christ.

It wouldn’t be for the faint of heart or the weak of faith.

This message, I think, is one our world needs now.

It’s one we need.

I live in the Bible Belt, and 84% of the people in my state call themselves Christians.

When the numbers are that high, and when you see myriad issues that are inconsistent with Christian faith, perhaps the Lord’s message to us would be the same as it was then.

Are you truly committed?

Or do you have just enough Jesus to make you feel religious?

I think these are tough but important questions we all need to ask ourselves.

Many of us live in a culture that approves of the Christian label, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

Jesus says nothing could be more serious.

To borrow Kyle Idleman’s words, are we fans of Jesus or followers of Jesus?

There’s a huge difference.

Have you taken it to the Lord?

I wonder how much we miss out on just because we don’t ask God?

Or because we don’t really ask him.

I’ve had times in my life when I was thinking about something for several days, then I realize I haven’t talked to the Lord about it.

Oh, I’ve worried about it. Lost sleep over it. Fretted and wrung my hands and contemplated all sorts of bad scenarios.

But haven’t taken it to the Lord.

I think that’s what James is talking about in this passage.

He’s just told a group of Christians that they need to rejoice when they suffer, and he probably anticipated their response.

What?

How could we possibly do that?

So he writes this:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5).

It’s natural to struggle with the meaning of the tough stuff of life.

Lord . . . why?

And that’s exactly what we need to do when it happens, according to James.

We need to beg God to help us see what he’s trying to accomplish.

That’s the “wisdom” James is talking about—the ability to see God’s hand at work in all of life’s messiness.

The wisdom to see that he can bring good out of bad, that he cares about what we’re facing.

The wisdom to know how to handle whatever the world throws at us.

I love what James says about God’s response: he “gives generously to all without reproach.”

In other words, he gives wisdom without begrudging it. Heloves to give.

So here are our options when the trials come:

We can keep our worries to ourselves and lose sleep and miss out on joy . . .

Or we can do what James says.

We can ask God to help us see his hand at work in everything that’s happening.

Why bad stuff happens (a short answer to a big question)

Why does bad stuff happen to Christians?

Why do we get cancer and heart disease?

Why do we lose our jobs and face money problems?

Why are we persecuted because of our faith?

There aren’t always good answers to these questions, and we certainly don’t want to trivialize anyone’s pain by responding with a cliché.

But part of the answer is found here:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

Be joyful when we suffer?

That’s certainly not the natural reaction.

It’s easier to blame someone, to feel sorry for ourselves, to wallow in self-pity.

But it’s important to understand what James says about why God lets us suffer: “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

The truth is, our faith never reaches its full potential if it’s untested. The believer who struggles is the believer who grows.

I’ve noticed something interesting about Christians. If you look closely, the people in the church whose faith is strongest are often those who’ve faced the most difficulties. Their past is littered with pain and struggle.

Some of you suffered last year, and you wondered why God let it happen.

It’s important to think about what he’s trying to create in you. If you kept trusting God, he used your struggles to make your faith stronger, deeper, more substantive.

Maybe now you’re on this side of the pain and you can see it more clearly.

But others of you are struggling now, and you’re wondering why.

One thing you can do is blame God, but then you’ll miss the lesson he’s trying to teach.

Another choice, a better choice, is to trust that he’s working out something in you that he wants to see.

Something that will be better, holier, more like Jesus.

I hope you’ll pray about this today. If you’re suffering, ask God to help you trust in him even when you don’t have all the answers.

If you’re not struggling, ask God to prepare you for the times when your faith will be tested.

The most important thing to remember is that God is always with us and that he always works out what’s best in the end.

How to make resolutions that stick

Are you a resolution-making kind of person?

It’s actually quite compatible with matters of faith.

It took an empty stomach and a nasty pigpen, but the runaway son finally recognized the decision he needed to make: “I will arise and go to my father . . .” (Luke 15:18).

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”—Joshua’s famous resolution—has stirred many of us with its power and simplicity.

So if you’re planning to make a commitment or two today, particularly faith-based commitments, you’re on pretty good biblical ground.

But you may be like many of us.

In past years you’ve made them with gusto and broken them by March.

Ever bought a One-Year Daily Bible and gotten bogged down by Deuteronomy in mid-February?

Welcome to the crowd.

But it can go better this year . . . here are three things that will help:

1. Trust in the power of God. You don’t have enough self-discipline, and neither do I. We just don’t, and we never will. But thankfully, it’s not up to us. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Admit to God that you simply don’t have the ability to make lasting change in yourself without his help. Ask him to empower you through his Spirit to do what he wills. That’s where the real power lies. Pray that prayer today . . .  and every day.

2. Commit small changes to God. God could—if he chose—make you into a spiritual giant by this time tomorrow, but that’s not the way he works. Abraham’s walk with God was decades old by the time he displayed amazing faith in offering Isaac. God had been working on Moses for about 80 years before he finally sent him to Egypt to become Israel’s leader. So recognize that you’re not going to be a Bible scholar or a willing Christian martyr in a few months. Begin with small changes, like committing to spend 15 minutes every morning with the Lord, or read two Bible chapters a day, or encourage three people every week with a note or call. Commit to small changes, and write them down.

3. Be specific. “I’m going to pray more” and “I’m going to be more faithful” sound good, but they’re not helpful. The commitments you make need to be measurable in some way; you should be able to know whether or not you fulfilled them. “I will serve at a homeless shelter once every three months” is workable, but “I’m going to help the poor more this year” isn’t.

It’s exciting, isn’t it?

Another year lies ahead, and it’s neat to think about what God might do in us and in the world in the next 12 months.

Let’s get off to a good start. Let’s commit ourselves to submitting to God so that he will do in us what he wants to do.

If that happens, it’ll certainly be a good year.