Preaching the Hard Stuff

I have a lot of sympathy for Pastors who are intimidated to avoid preaching the hard stuff. The Hard Stuff includes exposing errant belief, sinful attitudes and ungodly behaviour. The Hard stuff is calling people to sacrificial living, giving their whole life to God to use.

This must be difficult. As a lay preacher it can be hard enough speaking uncomfortable truths to friends. But throw into the mix the added complications of preaching to people who in effect ‘pay your wages’, or may leave your church for a more “comfortable one”…or at the very least, you will have to speak to over coffee face to face straight after.

And yet, we know that true unity, harmony and joy is not achieved by avoiding the hard stuff.

The apostle Paul, knew that challenging people was hard and so he encouraged the young leader Timothy in this area. The message of 1 Timothy 4 could be read: “convince, rebuke, exhort, correct, don’t let older people intimidate you or tick you off. Don’t be timid, guard your gospel carefully, don’t compromise and don’t let anyone whittle you down.”

But how, how can we be steadfast in our preaching:

  1. Be informed (spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically). Have you done your homework?
  2. With love. When we preach with love, this will produce in us a desire to be informed. When Paul wrote a challenging letter to the Corinthian Church he said: “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you” (2 Cor 2:4). In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul emphasises the dangers of teaching with knowledge alone, and without love.
  3. Find confidence in the solid ground of scripture. I remember a time when I had been asked to preach on suffering, using Psalm 139. I remember feeling very inadequate as my life at that point, had had relatively little levels of suffering. I knew that many in the Church had faced intense trial and hardship, and here was a young 20-something, with very little life experience, teaching on suffering. I felt unqualified to say the least. What God taught me, was that my confidence in preaching, should never come from my own life experience, knowledge, education or anything else! Rather it must come in the steadfast truthfulness of Scripture. Again, Paul wrote to Timothy, that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness. When we preach the hard stuff, we must lean upon the power and authority of Scripture. It truly is a solid rock upon which to build our house.
  4. With a deep and searching prayer life. Not just for our congregation, this goes without saying. We need to be addressing issues that God places on our hearts for the Church, not just the latest trendy call to radical discipleship etc. But we must also have a deep and searching prayer life for our own hearts. Coming to God with questions like: why do I want to preach this, where am I in these lessons, where do I still fall short. Not only will these prayers promote in us a loving compassion on those we speak to, but they will also provide the crucial integrity check of our hearts. Many times we will need to preach a hard message, and confess that we are still struggling to apply the message ourselves.
  5. With vulnerability. After writing a challenging letter to one Church, Paul ended with the words: ‘not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself to have already taken hold of it, but one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.” This will dismantle pride in us. This will provide hope for those who hear us. This will demonstrate that our need of God’s grace is just as great as theirs is. This will glorify God, for His power is [shown to be] perfect in our weaknesses.

Discussion: Does God’s Hidden Will make Him Duplicitous?

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law. – Deuteronomy 29:29

Whilst I was studying systematic theology last year I came across a concept that I still spend some time thinking about randomly even today. It is the concept of God’s hidden will.

From my, albeit limited, understanding. God presents His will to us in two different ways. 1) By revealing it. 2) By hiding it. It is a concept that provides us with a framework and understanding for why evil happens, when there exists an all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving God. For example:

Revealed Will: You shall not murder
Hidden Will: People do murder, but I intend to turn it for my glory, the good of the Church and the salvation of the lost.

In this example we can see that God’s revealed will is that man should not murder each other. This is what God wants, just as He wants no man to perish in hell (2 Peter 3:9). Since this is not the case, men do murder each other and men do frequently reject the offer of eternal life, we must conclude that God has a Hidden will. Especially when we consider that all God’s plans do succeed (Isaiah 14:24), and that from a logical point of view, a god who could not accomplish his intentions would be no god.

Hence the concept of God’s hidden will.

Another way to understand it is:
Revealed will: how we should behave (e.g. make disciples, love our neighbours, turn the other cheek)
Hidden will: God’s ability to distribute grace when we fail.

We are not called to know or even act upon His hidden will. Rather we are called to have faith that His hidden will is also Good, Sovereign, Loving, and Powerful. We must believe without seeing. This requires faith.

  1. We know (Revealed will) that God desires no one to perish, and all to come to Him for salvation…and yet (Hidden will) God has predestined some chosen few to come to faith in Him. Since we do not know who, and it is not for us to know, we ought to be relentless in our obedience to Matthew 28’s great commission (to make disciples of all nations)
  2. To violate His revealed will in our actions is sin, and is therefore punishable. Even though His is powerful enough and intends to work it for His good.
  3. We should pray with sensitivity to His willingness, not His goodness, love or power, which He has revealed to us.

Therefore, God’s hidden will does not make Him duplicitous but rather:

  1. Demonstrates His graciousness towards us, who frequently disobey and fall short of even His revealed will.
  2. Demonstrates His sovereignty and power in the midst of legitimate free will and rebellion.
  3. Demonstrates His justice in His judgements, since He has told us exactly what He requires from us.

The Divine Will – if you make me vile

As many of you will know I am slowly working my way through a book called The Valley of Vision it is a book filled with profound, deep and insightful prayers from the Puritans. And whilst I do not agree with all that the Puritans did, I have been frequently flawed and brought closer to God in my times of prayer by reading through and praying along with them.

(How great it is to be part of such an amazing Church and cloud of witnesses!)

But recently, I have been struck by a line in the prayer:

‘If thy mercy make me poor and vile, blessed be thou!
[For] Prayers arising from my needs are preparations for future mercies’

Right now in life, my wife and I are experiencing such a season of material blessing. We both have jobs, disposable incomes, a roof over our heads, new furniture (A new bookshelf!), even a fancy coffee machine. We are blessed in our health, physically able to do most of what we want and need to do in life. We are blessed in our relationships with family, friends and Church.

It really is something to be grateful for!

And yet, Biblical faith calls us to worship God in the midst of trial as well as triumph.

This test came rather embarrassingly for me with the arrival of a new webcam. I was setting up the camera on my monitor at home in preparation for a meeting. Vain person that I am, I wanted to check the lighting in the room, and that the camera was well-positioned. And then I saw, the camera was programmed in such a way, to highlight all the imperfections in my complexion. (AKA: make bright red a spot on my forehead!). Now, I looked in the mirror and the spot didn’t look too bad, it was a faded red. But on the camera…wow, that thing was difficult to ignore.

I became a little self-conscious and embarrassed, even considered not using a camera for the meeting and just using audio.

But then I remembered this prayer, ‘if You make me poor and vile…I will bless you. For prayers arising from needs are preparations for future mercies’.

And I started to thank God, for using this moment of (embarrassingly minuscule) trial to call me to lean upon His mercies.

In that moment I needed to remember to bless God, even though I felt “vile”. In that moment I needed to receive His mercy, not just to give me confidence when my physical appearance wasn’t doing it, but also because this moment of insecurity had revealed to me how much confidence and pride I was taking in my appearance. My confidence should have always rested upon God and His verdict over me. Not my complexion, not my webcam set-up, not my possessions or even my preparation for the meeting. On God and God alone.

In that moment I felt a need, and God supplied mercy.

If thy mercy make me poor and vile, blessed be thou!
[For] Prayers arising from my needs are preparations for future mercies

At a crossroads

Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16

Whether we are in a mid-life crises, or choosing what to buy in our weekly food shop. I think many Christians would benefit from the advice of this verse.

How often do we stop, look and ask for directions from God. How often do we consider the decisions we make, whether they are financial, time-related, work, relationship, family related. Do we stand still? Do we look at the possibilities? Do we ask God for direction?

If we don’t is it surprising that we don’t experience rest for our souls?

Stand at the crossroads. This means stop walking. Stop going on without thinking. Stop and stand. How often in the Bible, God commands His people to stand firm. In fact in one place He says, don’t fight, this battle is not yours, simply stand firm. Elsewhere, God tells us to don the armour of spiritual warfare and stand firm. When the breath of God enters the army of dry bones, what do they do? Advance? No, they ‘stood on their feet’. Stand.

And look. So often we are oblivious to the many options presented to us. But after, even a short while of observation, we can see many roads and directions ahead of us. We must be careful not to be overwhelmed by ‘decision fatigue’. But at the same time, we may end up fatigued by staying on the incorrect path. Look.

Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is. Do we do this? Do we invite God to direct us in the small decisions as well as the big ones? I challenge you today, to try asking God whenever a decision presents itself, however small. You may hear nothing, you may be directed in an unusual way. But take the time to ask. What time shall I wake up tomorrow? Which route shall I take to work? What should be my first words to colleagues? Shall I have lunch or shall I fast? Does God want me to call anyone on my commute home? How shall I spend my evening? Is there a part of the Bible I need to re-read tonight? Etc etc. Ask.

Finally, we need to – walk in it. So often, it is easy to hear God’s word and direction and to ignore it. No this promise is tied, undeniably, not just to stopping, looking, asking but also to obeying. The promise of rest for our souls is based in part on our obedience to God’s direction. Just like the wise man who built his house on the rock, is like the man who not only hears Jesus’ words, but also ‘puts them into practice’. Walk in it.

Blessings

Praying like Jacob

I stumbled across the following prayer from Genesis 32:9-12 last week, where Jacob is talking to God about a family reunion his is dreading with his older brother Esau. For those who don’t know, when the two brothers were younger, Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright as a firstborn son. Later on, Jacob would then deceive his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Leaving Esau out of pocket and furious.

Jacob fled, and started a new life, married and had kids, but knew that the time had come for him to come home.

Maybe we have something dreaded around the corner, whether its family or work-related. But we might find encouragement and guidance in the prayer of Jacob.

  • Recognition and Worship: Oh God of my father Abraham and Isaac. When we start we can remember who God is, that He is personal and intimate with us. He is also God over us. Too often we dive straight into petition, and our faith is weaker, because we do not first remember Who it is that we are speaking to. Somehow, faith arises in us when we recall Who God is.
  • Gratitude: I am unworthy of all the kindeness and faithfulness you have shown me. Similarly our faith increases when we recall God’s goodness to us. I was recently reading a Puritan Prayer which started similarly:
  • Plea/Petition: Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother.
  • Honesty: For I am afraid he will come and attack me and my children. I think we are often scared to be honest with God in our prayers. Honest about our doubts, our sins, our failings and actually our feelings. But God is big enough, and He delights that we can come to Him honestly. This is one of the reasons Christ died for us, so He could meet us where we are at.
  • Holding to the promise: But You have said “I will surely make you prosper”… There are so many promises in the bible we can hold to and present to God in prayer. May we find verses of promise in His Word that give us hope in prayer.

Time Management – 6 Myths

Peter Drucker, known for much sage advice, has said that: ‘Time is inelastic (it can’t be stretched), irreplaceable (it can’t be replaced or reclaimed), and indispensable (it can’t be done without)!’

In other words, time is important and how we manage it is also important.

In order to manage our time well, it helps to understand it as well. To this end, please find below a list of 6 myths surrounding time management in a leadership context:

  1. We are individually responsible for saving the world. Few people will admit believing this myth, but our actions speak louder than words. I am definitely guilty of this, thinking the whole system rests on my shoulders. The clinical trial I work on in my day job. The wellbeing of my family and friends. The Spiritual health of those I’m discipling. It is so easy to succumb to the belief that it all rests on me. Not only is this bad time management, it is bad theology. Yes, may we take as much responsibility as is appropriate for our actions and input, but let us not mistake this responsibility for what it is. A gift from God, that we are to steward with thanksgiving, and humility. Humility to admit, it doesn’t all depend on me.

The Vision – as recorded by Pete Greig – in the 24/7 prayer movements has a couple of lines about the ‘rising generation’: “They pray as if it all depends on God and live as if it all depends on them!

May our prayers be the evidence that we do not hold to this myth.

2. Time is running out, too little is left of it. Yes, time is short and the days are evil. But just as the farmer has learned patience, he is the one who has learned that the best things grow in time. All we can do is follow the proper sequence of planting, cultivating and harvesting. No harvest can be enlarged by frantically hurrying about. In fact, to mix metaphors, if we pull an cake out of the oven before it is ready, we will have wasted time rather than saved it.

3. A leader must be constantly available for all emergencies. This comes out of the belief that was outlined above. God has made us in such a way that we are not omni-present. We are not everywhere at once and we can’t be. In fact when we try, we will only hurt, disillusion and frustrate others. Yes, there is a time to be sacrificial with our availability, but not at the expense of pretending to be God.

4. Rest and recreation are 2nd class uses of time. If you are anything like me, you will be tempted to view working time, and productive time, and efficient activities more highly than reading a book, having a quiet time, being still, watching tv, eating a nice meal. But God Himself, engaged in rest. And it was not a 2nd class use of His time. Rather it was a time where He blessed creation, dedicated it as holy, and admired His work. Next time, you are pressured to surrender rest and recreation, to the demands of workaholism. Consider, if this is wise.

5. Burn out is heroic. I used to think this one. Even though I never ever would have admitted it. I used to think the burnout pastor, spiritual leader was like a battle worn soldier. Until I came to that point myself. There is nothing heroic about burnout, and in fact, it is often symptomatic of a lack of faith and trust in God. Yes, may we be people – who like Paul – ‘strenuously contend with all the energy that Christ supplies us’ (Col 1:28-29). But may we not seek to go beyond that, into reserves of fuel that He has not provided. This is the path to bitterness, resentment and judgementalism.

6. Family must pay the price. Many a Pastor’s family have been told this lie. “Since your husband, wife, father, mother is in ministry you must lose out on deep relationship with him/her”. This is nonsense, and in fact, according to the Bible, will actually disqualify a person from leadership. For if a person cannot keep their house in order how can they be trusted with the household of God. Keeping our house in order, is more than forcing kids to go to school and not take drugs. It is about representing Christ to them, loving them sacrificially (even at the expense of work, reputation and promotion) and being so present that you become an example to them in their faith.

I hope this has helped debunk some common leadership related time-myths. For further reading:

Bible Stories: Moses (Exodus 18), Jesus (Matthew14:9-16)

Wisdom: Ephesians 5:15-16, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, James 4:13-15, Matthew 6:25-34 (with focus on verse 33).

Peace – is not dependent on circumstance

I recently came upon a quote that really really annoyed me. I was reading a book about Christian leadership and the author had used a quote from John Wesley.

“Though I am always in a haste, I am never in a hurry, because I never undertake more work than I can go through with perfect calmness of Spirit”

His point that we should be weary about becoming overburdened by the stresses of ministry. In fairness he had a point, many church leaders burnout and enter extreme moral failures because of overworking.

Nevertheless it still irked me. So much so I had to put the book down, pull out my notebook and dig deeper in my heart as to why this annoyed me so much. Here is my thought-splurge (please excuse my honesty):

Why this annoys me:

  • The Peace of Christ for our spirit is NOT dependent on how much work we undertake.
  • The poor, the weak, the uneducated, the desperate and tired, are the ones who God most delights to use! The single mum juggling three jobs, two infants and a terminal illness, is just as able to go through ‘with perfect calmness of spirit’, as the wealthy church leader who has the luxury to choose which work he will undertake each day.
  • Ultimately, even John Wesley, cannot determine every day, this is for the Lord to do. We have peace not because we choose our workloads but because we trust in God.
  • May we have more spiritual leaders who are examples, in that they can show us how to seek first God’s kingdom in the midst of busy schedules, hectic jobs and family chaos. May we have examples of people who maintain ‘perfect calmness of spirit’ in the midst of intense trial.

Downsizing Word Output

“Our instinct is too often to speak of everything we know, as if doing so is the only way to authenticate ourselves”.

“Talking too quickly, too much, and too cleverly is [oftentimes] destructive…the spiritual men and women I’ve come to admire were generally quiet-spirited and more silent than verbose”

It is probably ironic that on a blog, where it is my job to write, monologues of thoughts, I am recommending speaking less. Nevertheless, words are powerful and good, God-created and utilised by Him. Words are not the problem. Too many of them, used at the wrong time, in the wrong way – that is the problem.

How can we downsize our word output:

  • Ask more questions
  • Listen (to the person in front of us, as well as the Spirit of God who loves both of us)
  • Renounce fixing as a way of life – so often we are tempted to be the problem solvers in people’s lives. Rather than to be the people who sit with them in the midst of suffering.

Our opinion, our endorsement, our rebuke is often much less needed than our Presence.

The Bible agrees that we ought to downsize our word output: with God (Psalm 46:10, Ecclesiastes 5:1-3) and with Man (Job 2:13, James 1:19).

In fact when we look at one of the first interactions with God and man, we see that God is a man who asks questions before He speaks, judges, vindicates and promises (Genesis 3-4).

Trust in the Bible

Following on from yesterday’s post, I wanted to share a handful more thoughts and ideas around this concept of trust.

Trust is connected to love – we often make trust a separate factor. But the Bible teaches us that ‘love always trusts’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). This is a risky position to take, do we trust those we claim to “love”? (If I could put Selah in a blog post, without feeling pretentious I would!) But consider the love of God, who entrusted to us the body of His Son, knowing that we would crucify, mock, and reject Him. God is love, and He trusts us. When considering our giving of trust to others, let us not measure them and their “trustworthiness”, instead let us measure love. We may be surprised, by how little we actually love.

There is probably a caveat there. But I want to cover more.

Trust in God produces peace – Isaiah 26:3-4 says ‘You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you’. Our feelings of peace are not circumstantial. They are dependent on our trust in God. This is uncomfortable. This sounds insensitive. I know. And yet, does Jesus not say ‘do not worry’, and Paul ‘do not be anxious about anything….the peace of Christ, that transcends all understanding, will abide in you’?! This peace, which comes from trusting God, does not make sense, in the midst of unemployment, terminal illness, national suffering, COVID-19.

Quietness and Trust is Strength – Isaiah offers more wisdom on trust, in 30:13, when he says, ‘in quietness and trust is your strength’. Do you need strength, to get you through your days, the demands of your job, the pressures of family. Then seek it in quietness and trust. My mum would always say ‘the noise is always loudest in the shallow end’ (talking about public swimming pools)…likewise though, we often mistake strength for loudness. The way of God though is to give strength to the humble, grace to the weak and to hear the hidden prayers of the men and women who cry out to Him in their rooms with the door shut!

There are two further stories in the Bible of two characters in the Bible who exhibited trust. May we as people called to great love emulate them.

Ruth who trusted Naomi (Ruth 1:16-18)

The armour bearer who trusted Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:6-8): ‘Do all that you have in mind. Go ahead; I am with you heart and soul!”