How to be Good

This week at Youth Group we resumed our series, “Think About It: Christian Cliches… what’s this even mean?!”Other messages in the series include: “How to be a Strong Christian,” “What’s it Mean to Invite Jesus into Your Heart?,” “It’s Not My Gift,” and “Let Go, Let God.” 

If you were to measure the people on the scale below, where would you place them on a ‘goodness scale?’

Goodness Scale

Why would you put them there? What makes the Pope “better” than Bieber? How do you decide if Taylor Swift belongs? Really think about it… what does it mean to “be good.”
It all depends on how you’re measuring!

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Got Post-Christmas Depression?

Do you have PCD… Post-Christmas Depression?  What causes PCD, you ask?

  • Bad presents
  • Family tension and conflict
  • Sleep depravation

Obviously I’m making up PCD, but I do think many of us face something like it.  Maybe you got bad presents and thought, “Seriously, do you know me at all?  You thought I’d like this!?”  Maybe you’re upset because of what you didn’t get (“If you loved me then you’d know ______ is all I wanted, but you don’t care!”).  Sometimes the mentality that “It’s the thought that counts” makes us even more depressed… because we got things we like, but it’s obvious that very little thought went into the gift.  Post-Christmas Despression…

Maybe you’re upset because you saw too little (or too much!) of your family.  Maybe your parents are divorced or your family simply doesn’t get along, or maybe someone in your family is in the hospital or has recently passed away – for whatever reason, there was someone you love who wasn’t around this Christmas.  Post-Christmas Depression…

Here are a few questions to work you out of your PCD:

  1. Why are you so disappointed in presents?  You know that stuff can’t give you happiness, but still get that zing of excitement when you hold something shiny and new… and that “zing” can become addictive.  Presents are nice, I’ve got nothing against presents, but we need to be careful about finding love through receiving presents.  Find love through relationship with the gift-giver, not the gift (that works both in our relationship with God and with other people).
  2. How did you add to family conflict?  Are you a peacemaker who is quick to address conflict humble and work through it, or do you pass over conflict by either ignoring it completely or saying “I forgive you” or “I’m sorry”… even when it’s not true?  Conflict in your family simply means that you’re a family… of course there’s going to be conflict!  But I’m convinced you’ll grow stronger by working through conflict than by skirting around it.  Take your share of the blame, demonstrate your maturity, and be a peacemaker.
  3. Who were you missing, and why?  This is a tough one, because for a lot of people this is completely out of their hands.  Take the time to honor the person who was missed so deeply, and thank God for giving him/her to you and for teaching you so much through him/her.
  4. What do I really desire the most?  Do you desire intimacy and fellowship with Jesus Christ or do you really want fun/pleasure/success/recognition?  If you’re rolling your eyes saying, “Whatever Mike, that’s such a churchy thing to say!” then that probably means you should really think hard and long about this question.  If I desire an iPad more than I desire to conquer my sin, then that’s a problem.  If I desire a new Kindle more than I desire intimacy with God in my prayer-life, then I have some seriously messed up priorities.  Sure, ask for an iPad or Kindle, that’s not my point.  Maybe reason you’re suffering from Post-Christmas Depression is because you’re desiring the wrong things most.  
He created all things, yet became a part of his creation in order to save it…. Merry Christmas indeed!  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”  (Colossians 1:15, 16 )

Dug Down Deep 4: How We Change

What would you say if I told you that when I woke up in the morning I got dressed, showered, ate breakfast, then got out of bed.  That’s just not the right order to do those things.  Likewise, there are people who really believe that they need to clean up their lives before God will accept them or before we would want them to join the youth group or church.  This is the amazing thing about God – He sent Jesus Christ to die for you “While you were still a sinner” (Romans 5:8)!  God saves you by grace, and he changes you by grace… in that order.

Everyone’s relationship with Christ is different and we all face different challenges.  Some people make a serious mess of their lives before they meet Christ, and then their lives are radically changed forever.  Others experience a rollercoaster: one moment their faith is strong, the next it’s in the toilet, and back and forth.  Others have the blessing of being protected from ever living through too much messiness (as in, they never partied and might consider their testimony “boring”), and they have a legit faith in Christ but seem to constantly struggle with one particular sin that they just can’t seem to “beat.”

“Sanctification is the process of becoming more like Jesus.  Think of it this way: when we first believe in Jesus, we’re born again – that’s regeneration.  But then just like a newborn baby, we don’t stay a baby.  We have to grow up.  And that’s what sanctification is: it’s growing up as a Christian in our new life in Jesus.” Josh Harris, Dug Down Deep

You see, God calls us to himself just as we are… but He doesn’t leave us that way.  He causes us to believe in Him, to love Him, and to want to be more and more like Him.  Do you desire to be more like Jesus?  If you think being like Jesus sounds lame and you’re not interested, then there’s a problem… maybe you don’t know Jesus as much as you think you do.

I just love Romans 8:12-13, “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

When you hear “Sinful Nature,” what sin comes to mind?  That’s probably the sin you struggle with the most, right?  It might be alcohol, drugs, lust, sex, anger, gossip, bitterness, or a hundred other things.  Whatever it is – STARVE IT!  If you feed your sinful nature it will grow even stronger.  Think of it as a Sumo Wrestler that you need to do battle with… starve the Sumo for long enough and you’ll have a better chance at winning.  Meanwhile the Holy Spirit is giving you strength to overcome – so you’re getting stronger while the Sumo is getting weaker.

As Christians, we can’t get away with thinking, “I’ll do whatever I want and Jesus will forgive me.”  If that’s the way you’ve been thinking, then maybe you’re not really a Christian – because a Christian is someone who has believed on Christ for salvation and is trusting in Jesus to make him/her more like Christ.  As Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).

So how can you Dig Down Deep – build your life on solid foundations that will last through the storms of life.

  • Ask the hard questions.  God’s not afraid of tough questions.  The question is whether or not you’re considering yourself God’s judge, or someone who simply has questions.
  • Believe the Gospel.  Jesus died in your place, rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and will return again.  That’s real, and it makes all the difference in eternity between yourself and God.  But it also makes all the difference in today!  Do you really believe the Gospel with all your life, or just with your head?
  • Read your Bible so your beliefs about God are actually what the Bible teaches!  You don’t want to trust God to do things He never promised to do.  You also don’t want to miss out on promises He HAS given!  Remember, good theology leads to good living; messed up theology leads to messed up living.
  • Trust Christ each day.  You might have some tough decisions to make, some friendships to end, habits to break and new habits to make… but it’s worth it.  Starve your sinful nature, and walk daily with Christ and just watch God at work in your life.

The Pilgrim/Indigenizing Principle: How Christians can Faithfully Live in Culture

I have recently come across Andrew Walls’ “Pilgrim & Indigenous Principle” and have found it a very helpful guide for how Christians can faithfully live in their culture.  Justin Taylor has written an excellent and far more in-depth take on Wall’s principle than I intend to provide here: “Two Essential Gospel Impulses: The Indigenizing Principle and the Pilgrim Principle.”

I’ve written on this issue before by referring to what’s been labeled “Cave Dwellers & Feflon Christians.” “Cave Dwellers” take the stance that we should reject culture completely in order to prevent it from having a negative influence on us.  “Teflon Christians” are those who deny that culture even has an influence on them, and so they just do/watch/listen to/consume whatever they want while believing it makes no impact on their faith.  I’m going off on a limb and am going to make a very general statement saying that most American Christians fall more into the Teflon Christian camp… at least that’s how it seems when we look around.

Pilgrims are simply men and women who are traveling through a country in order to get somewhere else.  They are not residents of the country where they are presently, rather, they consider themselves as citizens of their homeland.  The “Pilgrim Principle” has to do with what makes us Christian.  Paul tells us “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) and Scripture reaffirms this teaching that we must not squeeze ourselves into the mold of the world/culture around us.  Rather, we must proclaim Christ Jesus and obey the Lord.  Christians should be different from everyone else… if you are a Christian and people can’t tell there’s anything different between you and your non-Christian neighbor then there’s a problem.  It’s good to revisit 1 Corinthians 8 and to remember Paul’s warnings about the strong leading the weak into sin by exercising their freedom.

Indigenous” means that something has to do with culture in which it is found.  A great example is folktales: every culture has its own folktales that are well known by the people of that culture, but it makes no sense to those outside the culture (try dressing up like Johnny Appleseed in Beijing and ask people who you look like!).  So the “Indigenizing Principle” teaches that there are aspects of culture that are entirely appropriate for Christians and the Church to embrace.  For instance, unless you read the Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek then your church has adopted the Indigenizing Principle to some degree, because you read the Bible in the language of your culture!  Jesus prayed, “I ask that you do not take them out of the world, but that you keep them free from the evil one” (John 17:15).  Ultimately, God himself embraced this principle by sending God the Son to take on flesh, to live in our world in order to redeem it (Remember, “Emmanuel” means “God with us!”).  We also see the Apostle Paul embracing this in Acts 17 while in Athens.

So what does this mean for us as Christians as we seek to go about our days, praying and seeking to faithfully honor Jesus Christ in all that we do so that the lost might receive the Word of Life and be given the gift of faith and eternal life?  I believe we must hold these two principles in tension: Be a Pilgrim (don’t conform to the pattern of this world) and Be Indigenous (be all things to all people so that some might come to know Christ).

Most importantly of all: Focus on Christ.  As soon as we shift our focus onto being “relevant” we’re missing the point.   We do not work to make Scripture relevant, we work in order to demonstrate that it already is!  As we give our lives to Christ each day, focus on Him and pray for those around you…


Know Your Enemy: Study Culture

When I was a teenager the movie “The Usual Suspects” came out and was one of the more popular movies among my generation.  One of the last lines of the movie is one of those lines you hear, think about, and think “Wow, that is so true!”  Throughout the course of the movie a handicapped accomplice is giving his testimony to a detective about a major crime and is given his freedom in exchange for information about the notorious mob boss.  At the end, the detective figures out he’s been hoodwinked and the handicapped man really was the mob boss himself and he replays their discussion in his head when you hear the line:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”

As a Christian, my enemy is not homosexuality, lust, anger, abortion, murder, lies, gossip, poverty, suffering… my enemy is Satan.  Our enemy is not an idea, agenda, or godlessness in general.  Our enemy is active and wants to take us over.

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” (1 Peter 5:8–9)

“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Ephesians 6:11–13)

I believe there are some Christians who give the devil too much credit and blame him for every sin they’ve ever committed.  But from what I have observed the majority of American Christians treat the devil like he’s not even real, as if he’s a fairy tale that’s useful for scaring us into godliness, but not actually real.  Yet at the same time, many who don’t give the devil a second thought also affirm that the Bible is entirely true and is God’s Word!  Brothers and sister, we must be very careful about this: Know your enemy.

I’ve heard it said that Christians should walk throughout the day with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  We must study our culture and look at the world around us and discern where God is at work then discern where the devil may be lurking.

Here’s a hypothetical example:  Suppose Bill struggles with anger and when he comes home from work his family is walking on egg shells so they don’t set him off.  But Bill is a Christian, and he really wants to overcome his anger… what should he do?  It’s not as simple as saying “focus on being less angry.”  If Bill focuses on being less angry, he’s stiff focusing on his anger… he’s still focusing on sin.  Some might say, “Bill should focus on patience, since that’s the antidote to anger.”  But I’d say Bill ought to focus his mind and passions on Jesus Christ.  As Hebrews 12:1-2 says,  “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Some Christians claim we only need to study Scripture, only study the Truth, in order to live the godly lives we are called to.  Many of us are probably familiar with the anecdote that IRS agents don’t study counterfeits, they study the real thing in order to identify the fake dollar bills.  True enough, and we ought to spend our greatest effort immersed in the Bible.  However, IRS agents study the real thing and then are tested by having to identify a which bills are counterfeit and which are real.  If IRS agents and bank tellers never see a counterfeit in their training I highly doubt they will be able to quickly identify one when it is passed.  We must train ourself and train our children to know the truth and be able to engage the culture around them in order to discern what is true and what is a lie and give them the integrity to choose what is right.

But our enemy is not of flesh and blood… our enemy is active and looking to devour us.  This isn’t a Christian scare-tactic and I’m not saying “Run away, Run away!” from culture and hide out in a monastery.  I don’t believe we should all become Amish and escape from the devil’s schemes.  I simply believe that we need to remember who our enemy really is, and live accordingly.

Know your enemy, learn his war-tactics and how to fight against him…


If It’s Not Fun, Why Do It?

As my family and I were driving home last night from a short vacation I saw a bumper sticker that caught my attention.  I’ve basically had this blog post written in my head since then.  Here’s the bumper sticker that got me thinking:

This bumper sticker made me think of the Cheryl Crow song “If It Makes You Happy” that was popular when I was a teenager.  I just looked it up on YouTube and saw that Miley Cyrus recently sang it with Cheryl Crow… somehow that just seems very fitting.  The chorus of the song says, “If it makes you happy it can’t be that bad; If it makes you happy then why the hell are you so sad.”

This type of thinking sounds good: Do fun stuff and avoid what you don’t like.  The only problem comes when the police sirens chase you down for breaking traffic rules (“But officer, I don’t like stopping a lights, I have places to go!”) and the electricity in your house goes out because you don’t like paying bills.  Again, something that sounds good just doesn’t work.

Life isn’t all fun all the time… even if you’re a Christian and have the joy of the Holy Spirit.  The times we experience the deepest joy from God are often the times when we’re the most uncomfortable, while the times we crave joy are the times when we’re totally “secure” and “safe.”  So if you want to live with a “All fun all the time” lifestyle, then be prepared for very little joy… because God gives it to those who are willing to live bold, sometimes risky, always faith-filled lives.

LWAYG: “We Believe: In the Holy Spirit”

The Nicene Creed states, “And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.”

“God” and “Jesus” are both fairly well understood by most Christians, but I’m afraid the “Holy Spirit” remains something of a mystery to many of us.  After all, we can’t even decide whether or not we should call Him the “Holy Spirit” or the “Holy Ghost!”  We talk enough about God that we generally are pretty comfortable with Him.  Jesus is clearly pretty well understood (although most people have given very little thought to what God the Son was doing BEFORE Christmas day).  But the Holy Spirit remains somewhat mysterious.

When Jesus was telling his disciples that he would be leaving them he said, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:7–8).

Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the “Paraclete,” which is translated “Counselor” (other translations say “Helper,” “Comforter,” and “Advocate”).  This word Paraclete literally means “One who is called alongside.”  I like to think about the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete) as my sherpa.  A sherpa is a guide who helps a hiker navigate difficult terrain: he directs, advises, and generally aids the climber to the top of the mountain.  The sherpa is “called alongside” the climber in a similar way to how the Holy Spirit functions in our lives as Christians.

Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would convict the world (not only generally, but each of us individually too, which is clearly seen through Pentecost) of “guilt, righteousness, and judgment.”  This means that the Holy Spirit guides us from danger (sin/guilt), towards godliness (righteousness), and leads us to our heavenly destination (judgment, where we will receive the crown of life because of our faith in Jesus Christ).

But here’s the thing: All Christians receive the Holy Spirit upon repentance from sin and confession that Jesus Christ is Lord… but that doesn’t mean that we’re always filled up to the brim with godliness and wisdom and “warm fuzzies.”  We still sin.  We will neglect godliness.  We still fear judgment because we know it’s what we really deserve.  So what’s the deal!?

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:13-14,“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

We need to ask ourselves, “Am I living in submission to the Holy Spirit’s teaching?”  So often we fall into old habits of listening to what the world considers wisdom, and then we complain that our relationship with God is broken (and, obviously, it’s not OUR fault!).

Imagine you have a cup filled with dirt: you’re the cup, and the dirt represents sin.  When we’re forgiven our sin (justified) our dirt/sin is dumped out and we’re filled with the Holy Spirit (mentally picture water in the cup representing the Holy Spirit).  As you go about your business and stray from Christ and sin, you notice Coke mixed into your cup, making it dark and polluted.  No one would say, “Yeah, give me a cup of that!”  It’s no good, but it’s not filled with dirt anymore, so it can’t be that bad, right!  Well… God wants more for you, He wants you to be pure.  So you repent and begin to listen to the Holy Spirit guiding you in walking with him (remember the Paraclete), and the Holy Spirit fills you up again and makes your cup filled with water again.

The Christian life isn’t perfect and none of us perfectly walk in step with the Holy Spirit.  But He is our Guide (notice that we do not refer to the Holy Spirit as an “it”… the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Trinity, not a “thing” of the Trinity!).

Galatians 5:25“Since we are filled with the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Don’t Build Your Faith on a Sinkhole

Don’t build your house here:

Does your faith look like this house?

Obviously no one would intentionally build their house on top of a sinkhole (which, technically, would be impossible anyway, since there would be nowhere to build on…).

In Matthew 7:24-27 Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Jesus is cautioning us against building our house on unstable ground.  Basically, how a sinkhole forms is from the earth being eroded away by water deep under the ground.  No one knows it’s happening, but little by little the water is cutting a cave into the earth.  As that underground cave (or hole) grows larger, it’s less capable of supporting whatever is built above it.  If you want a fuller explanation of how sinkholes work, go here.

We might seem to be in good spiritual health to others, but if we are not consistently taking in God’s Word and obeying it, then the ground beneath us will slowly erode away until the foundations of our faith are shaken.

Jesus does not say that those who ignore him are like those who build their house on the sand… he says this about those who listen but are disobedient.

As you look at these pictures, consider that it took a very long time for these sinkholes to form… but they formed silently.

  • What habits have formed in your heart and your behavior that you need to repent of?
  • Have you developed a consistent practice of the Spiritual Disciplines?

Got a Calloused Heart?

I play the guitar (not very well… but enough to say I play), so the fingertips on my left hand are calloused.  I remember learning to play while in college and my fingertips killed me the first few days.  The skin was thin and sensitive to the pressure required to push the strings against the fretboard, but the more I practiced the less my fingers hurt… because the skin was growing calloused and thick.

In Ephesians 4:18-20 (ESV translation) says, “They (the ungodly) are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.” Paul writes about people with calloused hearts – hearts that are hard, insensitive, and unfeeling to the things of God.  The irony is that our hearts grow calloused to God’s Word by not practicing obedience while our skin grows calloused by working hard (whether it’s playing the guitar or doing other manual labor).

What’s your heart’s condition?  When you open your Bible to read it, do you hear God speaking to you?  When you pray, do you know that God is hearing your prayer?  If you don’t, then prayerfully consider whether or not you have a heart-condition and ask yourself some hard questions:

  • Are you truly seeking the Lord, or are you only looking for a solution to a problem (using God as your ‘safety net’)?
  • Is there unconfessed sin you need to bring before Jesus Christ (and repent of it!)

Maybe your heart is in the right place and God has chosen to simply remain silent for a period of time in order to strengthen your faith.

“But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29)

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11–13)

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7)

Desiring Great Things

Too often, Christians (and by “Christians,” I’m talking about myself!) live as if they’re convinced our desires and plans are better than God’s.  Not True!

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “Plans to proper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

May you be encouraged along with me to reconsider whether or not you’re living for big enough dreams.  Today I’ve been reminded of the following two quotes:

1) C. S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory”

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

2) A portion of a prayer from “Valley of Vision” reads:

Help me not only to desire small things, but with holy boldness to desire great things for thy people, for myself, that they and I might live to show thy glory.