Right now I am writing this post as I sit in an arm chair situated in the corner of our living room. I sit in this chair often, but until this morning I never thought that maybe someday this chair would stop supporting me. It could be next week… I could plop down in this chair like I always do and it could totally snap under the pressure. If that happened, what would my behavior around chairs be like? I would be a lot more apprehensive about sitting in them. I would probably do a little bit of testing to see if the chair I want to sit in could hold increasing amounts of weight before I could rest in it completely. All of the sudden, with one incident, chairs aren’t as strong and sturdy as I once thought. See, trials have a way of making us distrust the things we rely on in life. This is something to praise God for… let me explain.
God uses trials in our lives to strip away all the things we trust in that he knows will break under pressure. It just so happens that anything we trust in besides God will break under pressure, but that doesn’t stop us from trusting in those things more than Him. God knows He is the only one who won’t break under the pressure, so He sends us trials so that we will lean on Him instead of things that don’t have the capacity to hold our trust. Are you going through some trial right now… big or small? Ask yourself, is this trial exposing something in my life that I am trusting in besides God? Is it money? Money runs out. Is it your own personal strengths and abilities. Those things begin to diminish in your later years. Is it a parent or a spouse? Those people aren’t immortal or all-powerful. It could even be something as small as sleep. God used a trial to show me that I was trusting sleep to give me the energy I needed to take care of my responsibilities instead of Him. Because my trust was in sleep, when I didn’t get sleep I became anxious and angry thinking that I would not be able to perform my duties well. Sleep does not have the capacity to hold my trust… it breaks under the pressure of crying children and viruses that focus on the lower abdominal region. In Psalm 18 David writes, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (v.2). Too often we replace “The Lord” in that text with other things so that it reads “My savings account is my rock” or “My family is my rock” God sends trials to show us that those rocks can be easily shattered, so that we will return to the only rock that can’t be shattered… Himself!
If you’ve been part of a local church for a while, then Romans 8:28 is probably one of those verses you’ve heard repeated a gazillion times. There is a reason why that’s true… because the verse is amazingly comforting! However, as time goes by, verses like this one that are used over and over start to lose their potency and effect as they become more familiar to us. Like John 3:16, we simply hear the reference to Romans 8:28 and we shut down mentally because we think we already know everything there is to know about such texts. Today I want to urge you not to abandon those pet verses the church likes to use in certain circumstances. Rather, to revive their freshness in your hearts, write out what the verse means in your own words according to its context in the Bible. Let’s use Romans 8:28 as a test drive for this practice.
Here’s the ESV translation of the verse. I’ve included the first part of verse 29 as well to give context.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…
Often what happens with Romans 8:28 is that people read “all things work together for good” and instead on letting the context define what the “good” is, they define the “good” themselves. In their minds “all things work together for good” means “Eventually, I’ll get what I want”. That’s a wrong and harmful interpretation. The “good” according to verse 29 is “to be conformed to the image of his Son”. So, in view of the proper interpretation, here’s how I’ve written out Romans 8:28 in my owns words:
If you love God, then He has tailor-made everything in your life so that you will become more like Jesus.
Why is it that you are single and so many of your friends are married? Or why can’t you find a job? Or why does it seem like your child is the only one who can’t sit still for more than two seconds? Or why do you have to have major surgery? Answer: Because God knows exactly what you need to become more like Jesus for His glory and your joy and He has designed your life accordingly. Your hardships are specifically designed for you and my hardships are specifically designed for me… with loving intent, perfect clarity and an all-powerful hand!
We all have trials. Some of them are huge, life-altering trials and some of them are small, nagging trials, but trials are something we all share in common because we’re all sinners living in a sinful world. When it comes to our smaller trials, another thing I think a lot of us have in common is the tendency to see them as if they were 50 stories tall. If we’re not careful we can create a false perception of those smaller trials that blows them out of proportion. Suddenly, in our thinking, a kid who won’t potty train becomes this mountain we must climb instead of a foothill. It usually doesn’t start out this way, but gradually over time the trial grows in our estimation until we become discontent, fearful, anxious or just plain mad. In this false perception of our smaller trials, there’s no accountability. We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking that we have 20/20 vision when it comes to viewing our trials so we don’t see the need to tell anyone about them… surely someone else can’t tell us something we don’t already know.
My wife said something last night that I think is brilliant when it comes to our smaller trials. Up until recently, our four year-old has had no desire to potty train… it seemed like the kid was always going to be content to walk around with a bulging diaper full of waste. Keri and I had been working to try and “inspire” our son to embrace the diaper-less life, but nothing was working, so we got discouraged, discontent and angry. We saw the trial as a mountain instead of foothill. So last night as Keri and I were talking she said, “It sounds so stupid when you say it out loud… ‘The biggest trial in my life right now is a kid who won’t potty train.'” I think she hit on something important in saying this. We need to talk about our trials out loud. I don’t mean that we should declare their existence into the air; I mean we need to talk to other Christians about them. We need this because we often have a disproportionate, skewed view of our circumstances when we let them run free, unchecked in our minds. Sharing our trials with other believers will give us a perception of our trials that is closer to reality and then help us craft the proper biblical response. The author of Hebrews says, “But exhort one another every day as long as it is called ‘today’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). He is expressing the need for us to speak into each others’ lives so that we won’t be hardened by sin, but we can’t speak into each others’ lives if we don’t know what’s going on. So, say it out loud! Don’t believe the lie that you can be your own counselor.
As a pastor, I find that a significant part of my job is helping to motivate people to consistently read and meditate on God’s Word. At times this can be a rather challenging task with all of the busyness and stress of the times we live in. There are many helpful things that we should remember about the Bible that can help to keep us in its pages… things like remembering that the Bible is the only perfect book because it is the only book authored by God and the fact that we exist to please God and the Bible is the book that tells how to do that. But this morning I want to ask a simple question that, surprisingly, many people have responded positively to in terms of reading the Bible regularly. Here it is: On those days when you force yourself to read the Bible because you don’t feel like doing it, do you ever get done reading and think to yourself, “Wow, that was a complete waste of time”? The vast majority of people that I’ve asked that question have responded by saying “no” and it helped to open their eyes to an important reality. Simply put, we find God when we read and ponder the truths of Scripture. Even if we don’t learn something brand new or fall to the ground in worship upon reading a text like Isaiah 6, we are refreshed and encouraged by the little reminders of who God is and what He has done for us. When we read the Bible we find that it is unlike any other book in that it is “living and active” and we experience the truthfulness of James’ words “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Hebrews 4:12 and James 4:8). There are loads of things that we conclude are a waste of time when we finish them. How many movies have you watched where the ending didn’t resolve anything or how many department store sales failed to produce anything without an animal print? I can’t remember ever thinking that spending time in God’s Word was a waste of my time because, at the very least, when I read it I am reminded of something true about the God who loves me and saved me.
Keri and I were sitting in Taco Bueno with the kids eating dinner this past weekend when the old song, “Rock a Bye” by Shawn Mullins started playing (remember, the song where the guy basically just talks during the verses and then kicks it into high falsetto during the chorus). You may remember it because the chorus just repeats the phrase, “Everything is gonna be alright” over and over. After the song had been playing for a bit, Keri said, “Do you remember when you were a kid how comforting it was to have your mom or dad hug you and tell you ‘it’s gonna be alright’ after you hurt yourself or got scared?”
Her question got me thinking about how we comfort one another. I do remember being comforted by those words as a kid because I knew that my parents knew things that I didn’t. Their experiences in life gave them the knowledge that the pain of a bloody knee would pass and the likelihood of being struck by lightning during a storm while inside our house was pretty slim. Often times, however, the words “It’s gonna be alright” are used in our world to comfort others without much certainty at all. It happens in movies all the time. Something tragic takes place and, sure enough, a main character repeats those words to calm people down and give them hope. But the reality is that without certainty, the words “It’s gonna be alright” only provide empty comfort and false assurance or, at best, a shadow of those things.
As Christians, however, we have certainty that everything will be alright; maybe not today or next week or even next year, but at some point in the future everything will be alright… actually, so much more than alright. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul spends a few verses instructing his Christian brothers and sisters about the return of Jesus. He tells them that Jesus will descend “with the sound of the trumpet of God” and those Christians who were alive will join those who were dead in the sky with Jesus (vv. 14-17). At the end of verse 17, Paul gives these words of certainty to the Thessalonians, “so we will always be with the Lord”. Then, in verse 18, he tells them, “encourage one another with these words”. So, how do Christians say “It’s gonna be alright”? By saying, “A day is coming when we will always be with the Lord!” That’s comfort and hope that is anchored in something true! Most likely you will encounter a Christian this week who is hurting or struggling through hardship. Choose to give that person real hope about a real future, established in a real Savior, who really died and really came back to life!
Once upon a time, Charles Spurgeon was asked what he thought was the secret to his great influence. To answer, he did not rattle off a complex methodology or quote Winston Churchill (yes… I know Churchill wasn’t alive at the time). Rather, he said, “My people pray for me” (John Piper, On Protecting the Church). Maybe this answer seems strange to you because you think of your pastor as the person in the church who needs prayer the least due to his high level of holiness or maybe this statement is convicting to you because you take very little time to pray for your pastor at all. Either way, we need to take action.
Think about your pastor’s job for a minute. Contrary to what some seem to think, pastors work more than one day a week. In fact, if your pastor is a faithful one, then he probably works at least five days each week and is on call the rest of the time. Also, by the mouth of God, your pastor is held to a high standard as someone who cares for God’s people. James tells us teachers will incur a stricter judgment (3:1) and the author of Hebrews says that the leaders in your church will have to give an account of how they watched over your souls (13:17). Furthermore, your pastor has the sobering and difficult job of accurately preaching the Word of God each week so that you can understand and apply it. This is not to mention that your pastor is a sinner too who has to battle temptation from Satan, the world, and his own flesh. Finally, your pastor, by virtue of his office, is naturally going to be a lightning rod for criticism and complaints. Many of us slip into the mindset that the pastor works for us, so like any caring employer, we let him know what needs to change… but perhaps with a little more of that Christian sweetness we’re so good at sprinkling into our words. =)
If your pastor is anything like mine then his job is hard, but he loves it because he loves God and God’s people. However, he is a man and he’s not perfect… and in a very real sense he is responsible for the souls of you and the rest of your congregation. Every time someone is going in for surgery we pray something like, “Lord give wisdom and skill to the doctor as he performs this task”. But how often do we pray something similar for our pastors before they step into the pulpit to preach the Word? It may seem like surgery is of more importance, but I would argue that unpacking the words of God with precision and care so that God’s people can grow to be more like Jesus exceeds it. We won’t keep these bodies forever, but we will keep thee souls, so pray for your pastor! Do it this weekend before Sunday and encourage others to do the same.
In reading through the book Life in the Father’s House by Wayne Mack and Dave Swavely, I was reminded of something that every Christian should believe and act upon: we’re all ministers, even if you don’t get paid. Listen to what Paul writes in Ephesians 4:11-12, “And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds (pastors), and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry…” Paul is saying that it’s the job of pastors (and others) to prepare and train the members of a local church so that they minister, or do ministry. In that way we are all ministers.
What does this mean for you if you’re not on the paid staff of your church? It means you don’t get to sit back and let church happen to you! It is true that you should go to church to get spiritually fed through God’s Word and His people, but it also means you need to pick up a serving tray and get busy. Whether you have a formal role in some church program or you simply converse with other Christians when you’re at church, we should all be there to receive blessing and give blessing. Remember also, that everything your pastors and teachers are doing on a Sunday morning or Wednesday night is meant to move you toward the goal of equipping you to do the work of ministry. As I heard another pastor say once, your pastor isn’t just preaching so you can nod your head in agreement and furrow your brow in serious contemplation, only to have you vomit up everything you heard in the parking lot on the way to the car so that you don’t do a single thing with God’s truth. What we receive at church should improve how we serve at church. In view of this reality, what will you change this Sunday?