May 20, 2014

"Like the spring rain"

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my nearly two decades as a Christian is the great need for (and hope of!) revival.  Not revival meetings ... but genuine, Holy Spirit-sent refreshing from on high. Because there are drought seasons in the Christian life. There are times – in the life of the individual believer, in the life of the local church, and sometimes in the broader Christian world – when the showers of the Holy Spirit seem few and far between, and when the fruit seems scarce and unripe, and when the ground all around seems hard to the gospel. Both history and experience tell us these times will come. Perhaps you are in the midst of one of them even now – maybe by means of your own sin and neglect; maybe because of Satan’s attack; or maybe for reasons you can’t quite pinpoint. But you know that you are dry. Or perhaps the ground around you seems hard, and dusty, and inhospitable to the words about Jesus that you have been trying to share. And maybe you’ve begun to simply punch the clock a little bit. You’ve lost your zeal, or your hope, or your dreams. And spiritually speaking, you are just going through the motions. And why not, really? No matter how often you read the Bible, or share Jesus, or come to Sunday meeting … very little seems to change. Maybe this is all there is. Just trust Jesus so that your sins are forgiven, and then muddle through life as best as you can.

I understand these feelings completely – the sighs, the resignation, the aridity of soul. I understand the desire to just stop caring so much, to stop trying so hard, and to just hunker down.  But such feelings also make me think of one of my favorite passages of Scripture: Hosea 6.1-3. The people of Israel and Judah had grieved the Lord, and brought down His discipline upon themselves because of their sin. And, as a result, they were “torn” and “wounded” (v.1), and in the midst of spiritual drought. And it may have seemed like hope was gone. They may have been tempted to just roll over and die. But Hosea exhorts them – even in the midst of their sin and drought – to “return to the LORD” and to believe in Him for healing and revival (vv.1-2). And then he makes this remarkable statement about the Lord’s faithfulness and refreshing (v.3):

“So let us know, let us press on to know the LORD.
His going forth is as certain as the dawn;
And He will come to us like the rain,
Like the spring rain watering the earth.”

What a promise! If His people would but seek Him, God would come “like the spring rain” to water their dry, cracked souls. He would water the ground again! He would cause the blossoms and the fruit to grow once more – if His people would “press on to know the LORD.”

And if He is willing to do so for those whose drought has been brought about by their own sin and idolatry (as in Hosea) … then surely He will also do so for those who are oppressed by the devil; or who are just spiritually exhausted; or who have been dried out by the hot winds of difficult circumstances. “He will come to us like the rain, like the spring rain watering the earth” (emphasis mine). If we will press on; if we will not roll over or quit; if we will not lose hope … but continue praying, continue fellowshipping with the people of God, and continue sowing the seed of the word (both on our own hearts, and on those of others), then we can be sure that the rain will eventually begin to fall (and the fruit begin to blossom) once more!

Sometimes the showers we were praying for may not fall on the land until after we have left it in the hands of others. Sometimes it may not be until eternity that we see how God did indeed come “like the spring rain” to revive His people and His cause. But He will not fail to come. He will not fail to satisfy your soul if you will “press on to know” Him. He will not allow the seed of His word to lie dormant on the ground forever.

A few years ago our family watched a film about one of the great deserts of our planet – a vast stretch of ground which can go for months and months on end without seeing any significant rain. And, of course, the ground is barren, cracked, and almost completely devoid of plant life. Until one day the skies darken, and the heavens open, and the rain comes down in buckets, drenching the ground with a torrent of water. And soon the desert floor is covered, garden-like, with the lushest green plants!

But how can that be? Where did the seed come from, in such a barren place, to produce all that life? It came from the last downpour, and the last flourishing of plant life on the dessert floor! Those plants grew, and blossomed, and eventually wilted back to the earth … leaving their seeds lying dormant on the desert floor. And they laid there, and laid there, and laid there – seemingly pointlessly. Had they been planted by a farmer, he may have long since given up and moved on. But when God sends the great rains, everything is different! “He changes a wilderness into a pool of water and a dry land into springs” (Psalm 107.35).

And so it is in the Christian life. Often because of our own neglect; and sometimes because of factors beyond our control, the spiritual ground (inside and outside of the church) can seem almost like the floor of a dessert. Sometimes our own hearts may seem like a wilderness. But in my nearly twenty years of following Jesus, I have come to a place of hope that God will not leave the seeds lying dormant forever; that God delights in reviving His work "in the midst of the years" (Habakkuk 3.2).  If we will “press on” with our God, the rain will eventually come. God Himself “will come like the spring rain watering the earth.” The Holy Spirit will come in revival.  So “let us press on to know the LORD.”

May 6, 2014

"First place"

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

“That in all things he might have the preeminence” (Colossians 1.18, KJV). Those words were placarded here and there around the campus where I attended seminary. And why wouldn’t they be? The “he” in that verse is the Lord Jesus … and doesn’t every Christian want to give Him “first place” (as the NASB translates it)? Colossians 1.18 is, of course, explaining what God thinks of His Son. The Father has designed the world and the plan of redemption so that Jesus “will come to have first place in everything.” But shouldn’t we have the same heartbeat? The very fact that we are called Christians would indicate that we are all about Christ, wouldn’t it? And so the seminary chose wisely in making Colossians 1.18 a touchstone that we students would see posted before us day by day. Jesus must “come to have first place in everything.”

And yet there are so many things in the Christian life (often good things!) that can vie for attention with Him. We can be zealous to turn over all the stones of end-times prophecy … without really giving much attention to the fact that the end times will bring us Jesus. We can be concerned to emphasize salvation by grace alone, through faith alone … but without reveling all that much in the Christ in whom we have come to place our faith. We can work tirelessly for biblical church life and order … but sometimes simply for the sake of order, and not because we are seeking to present a spotless bride to the Bridegroom. We can contend for doctrinal purity and clarity … and yet forget that good doctrine is meant to drive us to the Son of God. We can strive to promote Christian family values, but end up talking much more about family than about Christ! We can long for heaven, not because we desire so much to be with the Lord, but because we don’t want to have arthritis any more. And the list could go on, noticing ways in which we can sort of assume Jesus, but fail to actually glory in Him.

And so, if there is one thing that I hope I have learned (and am still learning) in these nearly two decades as a Christian, it is just this: Jesus must “come to have first place in everything.” “Moses and … all the prophets” speak about Him (Luke 24.27)! And we must learn to read them that way! Grace is only grace because of Him! And we must preach it that way! Heaven will be heaven because of His presence with us there! And we must think of it that way! Families are Christian because they hope in Christ, not merely in Christian parental strategies. And we must parent that way! All “so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” That is how God has ordered His world, according to Colossians 1.18. Shouldn’t we order ours in the same way?

Christ, fully God and fully man; Christ, in His offices of prophet, priest, and king; Christ, in His sinless life, and sacrificial death, and resurrection, and return – He is to be the centerpiece of our faith! He must be the theme of our song. He must be the grand topic of our preaching. He must be our hope when we send our prayers heavenward – that the Father would hear because of Him, not us! And He must be the one whose name we delight to hear when we walk into the church house each Sunday morning. His name, as John Newton wrote, must be manna to our hungry souls! He must be our chief desire, our greatest friend, our only hope. Christ Himself, not merely the right doctrine that points to Him! Christ Himself, not merely a Christian upbringing. Jesus, and not merely a sound church. Him, and not just our witness for Him. Christ, and not simply the grace that He gives!

O, if there is one thing that is most important of all; if there is one thing I hope I have learned in these nearly twenty years in the faith, it is “that in all things he might have the preeminence” (KJV, emphasis mine).

May 2, 2014

More Lessons from Suffering

Last week I wrote about the blessings that come along with suffering. Particularly I mentioned how, in my bouts with severe anxiety, the Lord has humbled me (showing me just how much I do not have it all together); and also how He’s given me, through my own months in the dungeon, a much deeper compassion for those who are mentally and emotionally perplexed.

Today I want to mention two more gifts the Lord has poured out on my life through the thunderstorm of suffering.

One is simply the gift of real Christian friendship. In my days of trial, many of God’s people were praying for me, and rallying around me. My dad drove all the way from Nashville at one point, just to be with me in my darkness. My church family, pastor friends, college friends, sisters, parents, and in-laws were all of tremendous help. And, O, what a blessing it was to see both my family and the body of Christ – both local and more widespread – uplifting the broken one.

Let me mention one friendship in particular. My friend, Anthony, knows (far more than I do) what it is to suffer. And he knows the Lord’s comfort, too. And, I think, out of “the comfort with which [he himself is] comforted by God,” he was able to comfort me – which is precisely the biblical pattern (2 Corinthians 1.3-4)! For some time, he called me more than once a week, just to check on me, and to find out how he could pray for me. One particular Saturday afternoon, Tobey called him and asked him to pray (because things were particularly bleak). And he not only prayed, but drove 300-plus miles, through the night, to be here with me the following morning, to preach in my place, and to spend the afternoon with me before driving all the way back to Virginia. Truly “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18.24). His name is Jesus, of course. But He is mirrored also in the people who, in His name, also “stick closer than a brother.” And sometimes it takes suffering before we realize just what good friends the Lord has given to us. “A brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17.17). Make sure you are that kind of brother or sister to someone in need.

Secondly, let me also mention that my trials have helped me better to realize that this world is not my home, and given me a longing for eternity. We all want to go to heaven, don’t we? But sometimes not quite yet. Because life seems pretty good here. Things are going, in many ways, the way we wanted them to go. And, while we know (Philippians 1.23) that “to depart and be with Christ … is very much better,” we don’t always truly long to do so. We’re distracted by and caught up in the stuff of this temporary world. And I am still very much that way, I admit. But not quite as much so as before. While in my dungeon of despair, I got a much more realistic look into the curse that is upon this world (including the brokenness and ugliness that is in my own soul). And it won’t all be made well until Jesus finally returns and makes “all things new.” And having seen how old and tattered things really are, I long just a little more for that day – and, I hope, for Him who will bring it with Him when He comes. And, while I hope I never, ever have to revisit the darkness of last spring and summer – if it has made me long, just a little bit more, for the light of eternity … well then, it was a good gift from a good heavenly Father.