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Disappointment and Boring Bible Study

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In the course of my ministry discipling other men, I’ve found no habit more difficult to pass along than Bible study. For some, sharing the gospel comes naturally. The extroverts dig right in. For others, confession becomes a habit of life that is a constant life-giving source. I can name off many that have become selfless servants, gifted encouragers, worship leaders, self-styled theologians or even the near-mythological oft-spoken-of “prayer warriors”.

Perhaps no habit of Christian discipline has left them all more frustrated than regular Bible study. Maybe you have been a part of a mentoring relationship or accountability group before where conversations enter the shame spiral when the question comes up: “How’s your time in the Word?” or “Have you been reading your Bible?” I sure have been.

There’s a lot of reasons that regular Bible reading is hard. Sin. Lack of proper past teaching. Laziness. Distractions.

But I think there’s an even bigger factor holding many people back from vibrant Bible study.

Disappointment.

Do you remember the first time you really got the gospel of grace? When you heard it like you had new ears and saw it like you never had eyes until just that very moment. When the gospel was so real and tangible that you felt like it was wrapping you up in a hug.

And they told you then that to meet with this God every day — the way to hear from God himself — was to open up your Bible. And so you did. At first it was ok, then really great and then it was a legal manual. Then it was chronologies. Then it was Tiglath-Pileser (who?) and exiles. Then it was prophecies in metaphors you didn’t understand, with backgrounds you didn’t know. Then your Study Bible made it less “hearing from God” and more “you better have that homework done before school.”

And you felt disappointment. I get it. You heard the famous preachers and teachers talk about their rich, deep times in the Word. You heard about tears and joy and being filled with the Spirit, and you thought that if you ever cried over those pages it was because of frustration and not filling, shame and not surprising joy.

Our disappointment tells us that when Beth Moore or Rick Warren, Billy Graham or John Piper, J.D. Greear or Kay Arthur open up their Bibles in the morning, the pages glow. A cloud of understanding—the shekina glory itself—descends upon them. They meet over those pages with God like Moses met with him in the tabernacle: face to face. They’re special and for them it’s always been that way. And what’s more: it is not and never will be for you.

Let me tell you something important: that’s not true. Bible reading isn’t a spiritual gift. It’s a spiritual discipline. These men and women, as well as every believer from the widow’s Sunday School class to the church fathers, have learned to love and revere the Bible through discipline. Paul knew this. He did not tell Timothy  “one day it will just come to you,” but “Train yourself for godliness.

Meet Disappointment with Discipline

In our Bible study, we will all have days where we feel as if we are hearing nothing and understanding little. We will all have days we are tempted to read Philippians again for the 32,413th time. Some days, we should give in to that urge. Above all, however, we need to press into the whole Word of God. Seek intimacy over newness. We need to refuse to come to the Word expecting something new, shocking, or entertaining. Instead, we need to come to the Word of God for God. Intimacy with God is the prize.

In those difficult times of Bible study, we need to follow the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

Ask. Seek. Knock.

There is no promise that the moment we ask, the instant we set our hearts to seek Him, or that when our hand is still upon the knocker that He will reply. But He will reply. Everyone who loves their Bible and loves time with the Lord in Bible study has gotten there through struggling, praying, seeking. There is no other way. Days where it seems the heavens are shut up are sowing for us a bounty of glory in ordinary, boring Bible study. We need to wrestle with the Word like Jacob wrestled with God: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” We must train ourselves for godliness.

It’s hard. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. There’s a reason attack of the yawns happens when we sit down in front of the Word. There’s a reason everything else suddenly seems pressing and interesting. But if we will discipline ourselves to be in the word, what awaits us on the other side is glory. In 2 Corinthians, we read that when the covenant words (The Scriptures) are read that, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

That’s why we press in. Intimacy with God in His Word changes us. When we discipline ourselves to look into His Word to see Jesus, the Word itself changes us more and more into his image. Jesus is on every page. It will take countless days, failed attempts, successes, frustrations, and joys. Over time, you will see the beauty of Bible study, because of your prolonged exposure to the beauty of Christ. That’s what we ask for, seek for, knock for: that by the Spirit we would see Jesus and become like him.

The pages won’t glow. But you might.

 

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?” 2 Corinthians 3:7-8

 

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

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Compassion is More than a Merit Badge

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Here’s something I wrote a while back for Radical, the resource ministry of IMB President David Platt, about how the gospel shapes our compassion:

Compassion is More Than a Merit Badge

As a part of my foster care advocacy work, I am constantly sharing with people about how the church should meet the needs of foster children. One trend I’ve noticed is how people will rush to tell me about the mission trip they went on years back, or how they watched a documentary on the subject, or how they know someone who did fill-in-the-blank kind of ministry once and how impressed they were by it. But, as everyone I’ve ever met in the non-profit world of compassion ministries (foster care, adoption, homeless, addiction rehab, etc.) can attest, the overwhelming response of self-proclaiming born again Christians is that these ministries are for someone else. God simply has not called them.

Click the link above to read the whole thing.

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Bible Reading: An Invitation To Meet With Jesus

I am grateful for an invitation from Radical, the resource ministry of IMB President David Platt, to write about Bible reading plans here at the beginning of a new year.

Bible Reading Is An Invitation, Not A Burden

Preview :

“…why start again? Life hasn’t gotten any less busy and no amount of willpower has succeeded so far. When we think about our Bible reading this way, we risk making Bible reading a burden instead of an invitation. So many of us act as if God sent his Son to earth to live a perfect life and die an atoning death, only to rise from the grave and wag a finger at us saying, “You’ll never be good enough for me unless you read your Bible every day!” Nothing could be further from the truth!

Click the linked title above to read more.

Fields of Faith

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I preached this sermon for my friend John Thweatt at FBC Pell City, AL on October 16, 2016. The sermon is from Jeremiah 32. In this Scripture, Jeremiah buys a field in Israel even as the nation is on the brink of destruction. Let’s look together at how this episode in Jeremiah’s life can teach us about God’s promise, God’s character, and God’s plan for Resurrection.

Listen in: 

Keeping the Cross at the Center of our Gospel Presentation

 

cross imageHere’s something I wrote a while back for Radical, the resource ministry of IMB President David Platt, about cross-centered evangelism:

Keeping the Cross at the Center of our Gospel Presentation

Many Christians have found that it is far easier to tell people of the great love of God by pointing to Jesus’ miraculous acts of mercy or God’s desire to know us as friends. After all, is it not easier for modern man to think of God in his benevolence and relate-ability rather than crucified and bleeding upon a cross? Isn’t the point simply that God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us? Why do we need to talk about the cross? For many, good intentions have hung the curtain over the bloody cross, hiding it and putting it in the background. We don’t want to turn people away. We don’t want to make things uncomfortable. We don’t want people to think we are like those Christians.

Click the link above to read the whole thing.

“High and Lifted Up For Salvation” | A Sermon on John 3:1-16

In December I preached this sermon at FBC Jackson, AL at the invitation of the pastor (and my friend), Pastor Ben Stubblefield. I hope you are encouraged by the message of Christ, who tells us to be born again, and then dies our death in order that we might be. The God of the world dying for the sins of the world in order that we may have eternal life with him! What could be better than that?

12 27 15 FBC Message from First Baptist Church on Vimeo.

Bethel Church, Forgiving Jesus, and An Upside Down Atonement

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I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard of Bethel Church. I was at my own church. A few weeks before I had begun what would ultimately be a few months of preaching to our youth group while the church searched for a new youth pastor. One Wednesday night, I’m sitting in there and my buddy turns on this music video: “Walk In the Promise”, by Bethel Church. I remember thinking to myself, Who is that?!? I was stunned. I immediately fell for the music, and over the next few years regularly listened to music and musicians out of Bethel Church—Jeremy Riddle, Jesus Culture, Jenn Johnson, etc. I loved it. As I looked a little deeper, it became apparent to me that I had some real differences with the church itself. Good music is good music though, right? I pushed my concerns away. Then a friend sent me the video at the bottom of this page (and then troubling video after troubling video after that), and everything changed. I decided that, for better or worse, Bethel Church and I disagreed too much and too strongly for me to continue wholeheartedly endorsing their stuff. I was done. I’m still done.

For the most part, I’ve stayed away from Bethel, though many churches I have been a part of have sung and benefited from their songs. This week, however, I couldn’t stay silent any longer. I noticed this video popping up on my Facebook timeline over and over again, sometimes with angry comments and sometimes with wholehearted support. Too many people I love have liked it, shared it, or asked about it. In the video, children’s pastor Seth Dahl talks about coming to the point of forgiveness after a pastor deeply hurt him, but instead of forgiving the pastor, Dahl says that he had to forgive Jesus.

Watch it for yourself ( transcribed below):

“One time I was laying on the floor… and in a vision, an encounter with God, Jesus picks me up and holds me so close that I can’t see anything. And Jesus starts to weep. And he says, “Please forgive me. Please forgive me.” And I said, “What are you talking about, ‘please forgive you’?” He said, “When that pastor hurt you, it’s as if I hurt you because he is a member of my body. Please forgive me.” And when we hold onto pain from other believers or other leaders or old pastors or old Christians, look—the enemy is called the accuser of the brethren—any thought that accuses a brother had its origin with the devil. Any pain I hold onto from a believer, and unforgiveness that I hold onto from another believer, Jesus actually takes it. Think about the cross, what Jesus did: he did not sin but he paid for ours. He did not sin, but he let us kill him for our sin. He took the blame for us. He took our blame and let us punish him for our stuff. So why would he not look at you and say, “That pain you’re holding onto, that hurt you’re holding onto, that unforgiveness you’re holding onto, look—holding it against them is like you are holding it against me, because they are a member of my body.” And I wept when I realized that I had been in pain from God—from what I thought was God. I don’t know if that made sense. It wasn’t that God inflicted the pain. It’s that God took the blame for inflicting the pain, and holding it against my brother was like holding it against God. And I wept, and I wept, and I wept as I forgave Jesus for something he didn’t do but someone else did. And I didn’t realize until that moment that holding it against them, I was actually distancing myself from God. To distance myself from them, I was distancing myself from God.”

It’s easy to get riled up by a video like this. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, what Dahl is after is this: Jesus calls us to forgive those who sin against us, as we have been forgiven in Christ. Every pain, every grief that we hold in that becomes the root of bitterness for us is sin. When we refuse to forgive, we do not act like Christ—we deny the gospel by our actions.

At that level, Dahl is right. It cannot be ignored, though, how troubling what Dahl actually said is. Dahl reverses the logic of substitution of the cross, making Christ not just the bearer of sin but the sinner himself. Notices what “Jesus” says to him:

“Please forgive me. Please forgive me…”

Dahl goes on, “And I wept when I realized that I had been in pain from God—from what I thought was God. I don’t know if that made sense. It wasn’t that God inflicted the pain. It’s that God took the blame for inflicting the pain, and holding it against my brother was like holding it against God. And I wept, and I wept, and I wept as I forgave Jesus for something he didn’t do but someone else did.”

For Dahl then, who needs the forgiveness? Jesus does. Jesus becomes the offender. A video like this one is tough. Our gut reaction is to scream, “No!” or to be disgusted, but when we get down to it, it’s more problematic. “Jesus is the offender.” Isn’t that right? After all, doesn’t 2 Corinthians 5:21 say that , “…he who knew no sin became sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Didn’t Jesus become the “cursed” man (Gal. 3:13) for us? Of course he did. But that’s not what Dahl says.

To be fair, Dahl does say, “He did not sin.” That much is to his credit. But the way Dahl frames forgiveness here is deadly at worst and pastorally harmful at best. What kind of teaching is this? Who is God that he should need to be forgiven? 1 John 1:5 tells us, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” And yet Dahl says that Jesus himself told him that it was actually Him, Jesus, who did the misdeed. Because the one who sinned is in Christ, it is as if Christ himself sinned. Christ has become a sinner in need of forgiveness from his own creation.

Let’s get to the point: Dahl has totally subverted the truth of the gospel. He has flipped it on its head. Christ is our substitute, because he is without sin. It’s because Christ is not in need of forgiveness that he is a perfectly righteous substitute for us (2 Cor. 5:21) and advocate before God (1 John 2:1). Jesus is not empathetic with us because he becomes a sinner. Jesus is empathetic with us because he took on human flesh with all of its weakness and insufficiency and it was there, in the likeness of sinful flesh(Rom. 8:3) that he upheld the law completely. We “have a high priest who is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

I can not help but be reminded of Jesus touching the woman with an issue of blood in Luke 8:40-48. As Jesus traveled along his way, a crowd pressed in and a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years touched him. She was unclean. Under law, Jesus should have become unclean. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the woman is healed immediately (8:47). Likewise, when sinners in the church hurt people, it is not Jesus who is tainted. When sinners are in Christ, regardless of their sinfulness, it is they who are changed. Yes, Christ takes their sin away from them. But Christ has paid that penalty. He is a resurrected and glorified Lord, spotless and free from all sin. It is us who are changed by relationship with him; it is us who are cleansed.

At its best, Dahl’s message here misses the heart of the gospel message (and that’s not what you want to be best at), a message where the righteousness of God is revealed (Romans 1:17) and we see God as he is, as one who never needs forgiveness. At its worst, Dahl’s message is victim blaming. After all, Dahl does not merely encourage listeners to the imperative of the gospel (“forgive as the Lord has forgiven you”). Rather, he says that when we hold onto not just unforgiveness, but pain itself, we hold that very pain against God. It switches all of the responsibility off of the guilty party and on to the victim. He says, “Any thought that accuses a brother had its origin with the devil.” So now, if a victim does not immediately move from offense to forgiveness, what they are participating in is something demonic. This is just heaping on guilt, and shame, burdens too large to bear.

Everyone has a bad moment. I know as well as anyone that in the preaching moment, it is easy to mis-step. This, however, was no misspoken word. It’s clear that Dahl knew exactly what he was saying. He says that Jesus himself told him this in a vision. And it’s because of that, that claim to divine revelation, that I can’t help but look at what he’s teaching and look at how he says he got this message, and conclude that Dahl is teaching a lie. Worse still, he makes Jesus a liar, because he claims Jesus says something that so clearly contradicts the Scriptures. He’s saying thus says the Lord and the Lord has said no such thing. We should run from this. I probably wouldn’t say anything if this weren’t such a popular video, and such a regular occurrence out of Bethel Church. (For an even more egregious misrepresentation of the gospel, see the video below.)

I don’t take any joy in this. It isn’t fun to write a post like this—in fact, I never have before. A.W. Tozer is right, though: What comes to mind when we think about God is the most important about us. If we accept this sort of teaching, if we follow these sort of teachers, then we will come to worship a God who not only needs to forgive us, but who needs us to forgive him. A God like that is not only unworthy of the songs Bethel sings— He is unworthy of worship at all. A God who needs our forgiveness is a God who can not save. It is the God who is wholly righteous, the God of all grace, the God who has set Christ his Son as perfect head over the imperfect church, who is worthy of worship. Let’s listen to teachers that teach us about that God.

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Is this what we want? More important, is this really what God has shown us in his word that He wants? Surely not.

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