It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything new on this blog. There are things I’ve been wanting to write about regarding various theological and church-related topics. I’ve also had thoughts to share concerning our current cultural and political situation, and how this relates to the church. When everything began to shut down due to COVID-19, I thought I’d have a lot of time for writing. The reality has been that during this pandemic I’ve actually been much busier than I could have anticipated. I’m not complaining about this! It’s wonderful to be active and useful. But there is much I’d like to share when I have a bit more time. Until then, here’s the most recent Bible study from the church I serve (The Orchard in Sacramento, CA). I don’t think I’ve ever posted one of our studies on this blog before, but I feel this addresses some truths that are vital to the church, especially during these times.
We will remain focused on our mission of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ:
- We must live as missionaries in our communities, workplaces, schools, etc. We must be real, seeking to live authentic, Christ-like lives that will be witnesses of God’s love and truth. We must strive to truly understand the culture around us, so that we can more effectively communicate and live out the gospel in the context where God has placed us.
- While we want everything we do to be well-organized and done with excellence, our priority must be what is most edifying spiritually, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
- We must follow and apply the consistent New Testament emphasis on teaching in the church. Our criteria for all ministries must be what best facilitates real worship and real learning and spiritual growth, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
- We must provide opportunities for genuine learning and spiritual growth for every age and level of spiritual maturity—from young children or non-Christian seekers to experienced believers who are biblically knowledgeable, and everything in between. Everyone in the church should be part of a process of growing as a disciple of Christ.
- Every believer is spiritually gifted and has an important part to play in this transforming, multiplying life of the church. We must help the people understand their gifting, provide training in how to develop their gifting and opportunities to use their gifts to love and edify others.
- The whole body does the work of ministry, not just the leaders. We must maintain a joyous expectation that every Christian be part of ministry. We must ensure they are not merely filling a needed ministry slot, but serving according to their gifting and passion. This is an integral part of the discipleship process.
- We must be faithful to provide substantive, effective, ongoing training and equipping for leaders and teachers in the church. This too is an integral part of the church’s discipleship process.
- We must intentionally foster a culture of discipleship (including evangelism) in the church. This should be a natural, organic part of everything we do, whether through structured classes or more relationally through informal fellowship.
- We must design our church gatherings and ministries in ways that most effectively produce real learning, real spiritual growth and real disciples of Christ. We must be willing to reevaluate and change anything we do to make us more effective at fulfilling this vital, biblical purpose.
Years ago, I was teaching a Bible study, and the topic of God’s guidance came up. A young man shared how much he desired the leading of God in every area of his life. “I want God to tell me when to go to the bathroom!” he said. “I want him to tell me what clothes to wear and what food to eat.”
Many of us will laugh when we read this, but it does sound kind of nice in a way, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great if God took away all the uncertainty and ambiguity in our lives? It would be so much easier if he would just tell us exactly what to do, and how, and when, and for how long.
Those of you who are parents, do you do this for your children? Well, sure you do, when they’re too young to make decisions themselves. You tell them when to get up and when to go to bed; you tell them what to eat and specify how they should eat (or more precisely how they should not eat); you tell them to brush their teeth, stop hitting their sister, and that, no, kitties don’t like to go swimming. This is all well and good if the child is 4 or 5, but what about when they’re 23? Should you still be giving this kind of detailed guidance when they’re mature adults? We forget sometimes that Scripture speaks of us growing up:
Then we will no longer be immature like children. . . . Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ.
Many translations read that we will instead “grow up” and be like Christ. And we shouldn’t forget what the writer of Hebrews had to say to his readers:
You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
What is the “will of God”?
We often talk about the will of God without really seeing how Scripture defines it. What does the Bible mean by the “will of God”? The Bible never actually speaks of the will of God the way we usually do. We find no place in Scripture where the will of God refers to who a person is to marry, where they are to live, which job they should take, etc. Not that these are unimportant decisions! The Bible does give us a lot of guidance regarding these areas. But it doesn’t speak of the will of God in the sense of whether I should choose what’s behind door #1 or #2. This idea of the “will of God” simply isn’t in there.
Many times we complain, “If only I knew what God’s will was for me . . .” But we do know! Is it God’s will for you to love him with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength? Is it God’s will for you to grow spiritually? Is it God’s will for you to love others (and not just those who love you, but especially your enemies)? Is it God’s will for you to be a loving husband, wife, parent or child? Is it God’s will for you to be a diligent, hard-working, responsible employee (or a gracious, generous employer)? Is it God’s will for you to use the gifts he’s given you to love your fellow believers in the church? Is it God’s will for you to tell others the good news of Christ? We could go on with this all day, couldn’t we?
The Bible doesn’t speak of God’s will as some secret knowledge we have to somehow acquire or gain access to. In fact, we are held responsible to know God’s will:
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. . . . Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do [other translations: understand what the will of the Lord is].
No, O people, the LORD has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.
We are told specifically that it is God’s will that we stay away from all sexual sin (1 Thessalonians 4:13), that we be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and that our honorable lives would silence any who might accuse us (1 Peter 2:15). Finding the will of God is really not that difficult. God speaks to us through his Word and Spirit. We just have to listen.
The Bible never teaches us to seek God’s will;
it teaches us to seek God, and do his will.
But how am I supposed to make decisions?
Sometimes we think there’s one—and only one—choice that is the “perfect will of God,” only one perfect match for us in marriage, only one perfect job or ministry for us, one perfect car or house for us to buy. But we don’t find this idea in Scripture either. The Bible has a lot to say about how we make our decisions, but we don’t see in Scripture that Annette must somehow find God’s will as to whether she should marry Sam or Santosh, or that Andre must receive some sign from God before he decides to move to Buenos Aires or Bangalore.
Let’s go back to Scripture. The New Testament was written during the electrifying first decades of the church, when the Holy Spirit seemed to be at work in amazingly direct, supernatural ways. So how did these leaders make decisions? We should see them consistently waiting on direct guidance from God (or at least a strong feeling of “being led”), shouldn’t we? But that’s not what what we find:
Finally, when we could stand it no longer, we decided to stay alone in Athens, and we sent Timothy to visit you.
1 Thessalonians 3:1-2
Meanwhile, I thought I should send Epaphroditus back to you. . . . I am sending him because he has been longing to see you, and he was very distressed that you heard he was ill.
So I thought I should send these brothers ahead of me . . .
2 Corinthians 9:5
And if it seems appropriate for me to go along, they can travel with me.
1 Corinthians 16:4
You may be asking why I changed my plan. Do you think I make my plans carelessly? Do you think I am like people of the world who say “Yes” when they really mean “No”?
2 Corinthians 1:17
This is just a small sample to give us a flavor. It’s not hard to find examples of this kind of decision making throughout Acts and the letters to the churches. And it’s not just something the apostles did; Paul expected the same kind of decision making from the people in the churches as well. To those who had to decide between two believers in conflict, he says:
Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?
1 Corinthians 6:5
And, on the issue of who a widow should marry, he instructs:
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:39
Notice the will of God is that she marry only another believer, but beyond that she is free to marry anyone she wishes! Paul never even hints that she should seek God’s will regarding the individual she should marry (nor does he instruct this to anyone else in this long chapter on marriage). So how can she know which Christian man to marry? Here’s what we need to distinguish:
We aren’t seeking to find the one right choice,
but to make a wise choice.
“But wait a minute,” someone might protest, “didn’t God supernaturally direct Paul’s ministry?” And, of course, this is true. God gave Paul very clear, direct guidance at certain times. The Holy Spirit instructed the elders of the church in Antioch to send out Barnabas and Saul (aka Paul). In Acts 19:21, we’re told that Paul was compelled by the Spirit to go to Macedonia and Achaia before going on to Jerusalem.
But in Acts 16:6-8 we see an intriguing account that reveals how Paul made ministry decisions. He and Silas travel through a couple of areas and then head for the province of Asia—but the Holy Spirit prevents them from going there. Now, at this point wouldn’t we expect them to “seek the will of God” as to which direction they should go? But that’s not what they do. Instead, they reconsider their options and make their next best choice—which God also halts. (“. . . but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.”) So they figure the third time’s the charm and settle for Plan C! And that night Paul has a vision from God leading them on into Greece, which they obey. All of this illustrates biblical principles that we see throughout Scripture:
- God may at times give us very clear, unambiguous direction. When he does, it will be unmistakeable and undeniable. We won’t need to guess. Our only decision will be whether to obey God or not.
- Most of the time God doesn’t give this kind of supernatural direction. When he has chosen not to give us this kind of guidance, we aren’t to keep seeking a sign from him or try to manufacture it on our own.
- If God hasn’t clearly shown us which choice to make, then he is expecting us to use the wisdom he has given us. He wants us to grow up and become like him, knowing right from wrong, and what is wise from what is foolish. Instead of trying to get some sign as to the right choice, we’re to strive to make the wisest choice possible.
- Even when we don’t see God’s supernatural guidance, he’s orchestrating our lives and guiding us behind the scenes. He already knows the decisions we’re going to make, and he’s incorporated all of this into his plans for us. If we’re sincerely trying to live a godly, wise life, we can trust him to steer us away from danger.
But I don’t have this kind of wisdom!
No, we don’t, and it’s good that we realize it. But we have the source to all the wisdom we need. James 1:5 says:
If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you.
And Romans 12:2 gives us an even more clear picture how we can grow in this wisdom, and know more fully the will of God:
Don’t copy the behavior
and customs of this world,
but let God transform you into a new person
by changing the way you think.
Then you will learn to know God’s will for you,
which is good and pleasing and perfect.
She said she really needed to talk to me after the meeting. So after the Bible study and some fellowship with the rest of the group, we found a quiet corner of the room away from the others and sat down at a table. She was struggling with her relationship with God, and she wanted help. I could tell there was something she wanted to say, but she seemed embarrassed about expressing her real problem. Finally, after some gentle encouragement, she blurted out, “Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”
That was many years ago, but I still recall the question because I think it’s an important one. There’s a bit of a paradox to the way we experience prayer. In some ways, prayer is instinctual. When we’re suddenly faced with an overwhelming situation in our lives, there’s something within us that cries out to the Someone out there, “God help me!” That seems natural to most of us, and it’s something everyone has done at one time or another. But when we try to pursue prayer much beyond that simple cry for help, it can become surprisingly awkward—even for committed Christians. Why doesn’t rich, meaningful prayer come more naturally to all of us?
For many, if not most, prayer is something we do when we’re dealing with an emergency or urgent need. Other than during these times of crisis, prayer is often superficial—if it’s practiced at all. Even for people who have been believers for years, prayer can become routine, another chore to be crossed off the list. That’s why when people talk to me about struggling with their prayer life, I’m usually encouraged. It shows that the person is beginning to understand what prayer really is. They’re no longer happy with the routine and superficial, they want something that’s real in their experience of prayer—and they’re not going to be satisfied with less.
When you think about it, prayer is one of the most foreign things we do as Christians. We read other things besides the Bible and Christian books. It’s common for us to socialize with others, sing songs together and even occasionally discuss ethics and morality—even in non-religious settings. But prayer is exclusively a spiritual practice. Think about it. We’re talking (sometimes out loud) to someone we don’t see, usually don’t hear, and often don’t even sense or feel. And yet, we know this is supposed to be very important for our Christian lives. No wonder it feels strange to some people! They’re just recognizing how unnatural real prayer can be. It’s the most explicitly spiritual thing we do as Christians. Because of this, it can be the most challenging aspect of our spiritual lives, but also one of the most rewarding. And the good news is that deep, significant prayer can become not only natural to us, but an integral, vital part of our daily lives.
A real relationship
Everything else is worthless when compared
with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have discarded everything else,
counting it all as garbage,
so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.
. . . I want to know Christ.
One of the first things we have to realize about prayer is that it’s an essential ingredient in our relationship with God. A few years ago, I was with some friends talking about prayer, and one man shared how he usually prayed for an hour a day. (I’m not suggesting this as a standard; this is just what this fellow did.) Another man seemed shocked. “I don’t think I could pray for an hour. I don’t have that much to ask for!” This reveals a common misunderstand about prayer. While it’s perfectly legitimate to petition God in our prayers, prayer is much more than ‘asking God for stuff.’
Imagine if I came in once a day, stood in front of my wife, and said: ‘Dear Kelley, please take care of this, and this, and help me with that, and please help so-and-so with this other thing. Amen.’ And then turned around and walked out, not to speak to her again until the next day when I did the same thing! What kind of relationship would I have with my wife? And yet, this is the very concept that many of us have of prayer. (We even teach our kids to pray this way.) We’d feel pretty good about ourselves if we prayed like this once a day, especially if we made requests for others more than for ourselves. Yet real prayer, real communication, goes so far beyond this.
If you go to any conference or workshop on relationships, what is one of the first things they emphasize? Communication, right? We’re taught that communication is an essential component of any healthy relationship. Absolutely vital! We’re all savvy enough to know this by now. Well, if anything, this need for healthy, deep communication is even more true of our relationship with God. The more we come to understand that God calls us into a relationship with him, the closer we’ll actually grow to him in this relationship.
In the third chapter of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote that he considered everything else garbage (note: that’s everything, not just the bad stuff), compared to his one, primary passion: “I want to know Christ.” Are we satisfied with just knowing about Christ? Are we okay with just going through the motions and following the routines? Or are we driven to truly know Christ? To be one with him. And if we long to really know Christ, then real communication is vital, isn’t it?
What kind of prayer do we see in Scripture? Do we see the perfunctory prayers of the religious, or the heart-cries of those who desire to truly know God? Consider these words of David from Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
. . . Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
. . . I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you,
meditating on you through the night.
. . . I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you.
Do you sense any passion in these words?
So how can our own prayer time grow deeper and more meaningful? We’ll be exploring this in the next few studies. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of the wonderful examples for us in the Bible, and what they can teach us about our own prayer lives. But it begins with a hunger and thirst for more. A God-given desire to grow closer to him and to truly know him.
When I was just beginning in church leadership, a pastor friend gave me some wonderful advice on prayer. I was sharing with him that I was dissatisfied with my prayer life. He asked what I was doing about it, and I listed for him all of the books on prayer that I had been reading. He nodded appreciatively, and then he asked, “Have you prayed about it?” Hmm. Praying about my prayer life. I hadn’t thought of that! But it sure made sense. Who better to tell of my desire for more intimacy with God than . . . God. One of the best things we can do when we’re struggling with prayer is to simply talk to God about our struggles and desires. We can even ask God to give us the desire to know him more deeply.
Many years ago, in his classic book The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer compared the church of his day to Elijah on Mt Carmel. If you remember the story (in 1 Kings 18), Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. Both sides would offer their sacrifices, and whichever god answered by fire, he was the true God. When his turn came, Elijah built a simple altar out of twelve stones. He drenched it over and over again with water. And when he cried out to God, fire came down and consumed not only the sacrifice, but the water and stones as well. Tozer’s words about his contemporaries ring out to us today too:
[The current church] has laid the altar and divided the sacrifice into parts, but now seems satisfied to count the stones and rearrange the pieces with never a care that there is not a sign of fire upon the top of lofty Carmel. But God be thanked that there are a few who care. They are those who, while they love the altar and delight in the sacrifice, are yet unable to reconcile themselves to the continued absence of fire. They desire God above all. They are athirst to taste for themselves the “piercing sweetness” of the love of Christ about Whom all the holy prophets did write and the psalmists did sing.
Let’s never lose our passion to truly know God.
“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?” [see above]
[This is the first of a series of ongoing weekly emails I’ll be sending out to our church family. I’m posting it here to encourage further discussion. Of course, all are welcome to join in!]
And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.
This is the prayer of every pastor, that their fellow believers would truly grow and mature as followers of Christ. Our passion is to do everything we can to see this growth take place. As Paul wrote earlier in the same letter: “We want to present them to God, mature in their relationship to Christ. That’s why I work and struggle so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me.”
A common topic of discussion in our elders’ meetings is: How can we be more effective at making disciples? We understand that—no matter how much we’re able to do on Sunday morning—we all still need more in order to grow stronger in our Christian walk. What can we do to facilitate this growth?
In the past, our main focus has been on midweek Bible studies. We believe in Bible studies! We love getting together with our brothers and sisters, digging into the Word together and sharing with each other what God is teaching us. We’d love to have a midweek Bible study in every community, from Aguadilla to Mayagüez. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start more studies in the future so that you will all have a Bible study close to you.
But even if we had a Bible study in every barrio, many of our people would still not be able to participate regularly. We’ve learned this in our experiences with the group we have right here in Rincón. So many have come to me and said that they would love to be a part of the study, but there’s just no way that they can be here when we meet. There are always logistical and scheduling issues to resolve and, unless we have groups meeting 24/7, someone inevitably gets left out. And we can’t forget those of us who travel frequently. For them, a weekly Bible study would be wonderful, but it’s usually not possible.
So, instead of trying to somehow plan Bible studies that everyone can attend at the same time, in the same place—we’re bringing the Bible study to you! This is to introduce Taking Root, a new, weekly Bible study that I’ll be sending out via email. We’ve been inspired by Nick’s Prayer Corner. Nick’s weekly email is a great blessing to many of us, and we don’t at all intend to replace it, but to supplement it. Where Nick is especially gifted at exhorting us (encouraging and challenging us) in our Christian walks, Taking Root will be more geared to teaching. Of course, Nick does some teaching, and I’ll be doing some encouraging and challenging! But we’re intending for our emails to complement each other, not be redundant.
This also isn’t intended to replace our current weekly Bible studies. We still hope to be able to start more studies in more communities to provide all of you opportunities for fellowship and spiritual growth during the week. But until we get enough groups planted—and for those who aren’t able to attend a midweek study—this is the next, best thing.
As with our midweek Bible studies, we’re not going to be doing much verse-by-verse study of whole books of the Bible. We love expository study of Scripture, but that’s what we do on Sunday morning, and we don’t want to just send out another sermon. This is our chance to explore the questions that you’re asking. So if there are any topics or issues that you’re wrestling with, let me know! Lately, I’ve been receiving a lot of questions on the subject of prayer, so beginning next week we’ll be taking a deeper look at prayer (which also ties in nicely with Nick’s Prayer Corner). If you have specific questions regarding prayer, send them in.
Each week, I’ll not only send out this email, but I’ll also post it on my blog. If you just want to read the email—great. But if you’d like to participate in some discussion on the topic for the week, you can follow the link to my blog and post any questions or comments that you have. For instance, if you’re interested in discussing this email, just go to:
Of course, I know what it’s like to be bombarded with emails! If you already have more than you can handle—and if this is simply one email too many—just let me know and I’ll take your name off the list. We want this to be a blessing, not another chore.
As always, feedback and ideas are welcome! But whatever we do, let’s strive to continue to follow Christ, to let our roots grow down into him, to let our lives be built on him, so that our faith will grow strong in the truth we were taught and we will overflow with thankfulness.
Grace and peace,