The Blessing of Affliction

It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees. Psalm 119:71

A recent bout with pneumonia “clothes-lined” me and then side-lined me. I have been blessed with great health all my life. Rarely have I contracted a sickness that lasted more than a day or two. Rarely have I missed more than a day of work because of illness. But this illness has knocked me down for a week.

Compared to some of the things that many people have dealt with, it is still a small thing. Lots of people have had life-threatening diseases, or still struggle with chronic problems that require daily attention. The last thing I want to do is sound like a light-weight whiner by making any illegitimate comparisons. That is not my aim.

But, though my bout with illness is small in comparison with many, it has still been a time of learning for me. The Psalmist said something that sounds so strange to our ears – it was good for me to be afflicted…It doesn’t seem natural for us to look upon affliction as something good. But the truth is that some of our biggest steps forward in spiritual growth take place during times of affliction, including sickness.

Puritan Thomas Watson said, The sharp frosts of affliction bring on the spring flowers of grace. Sickness does several things to promote the growth of those flowers of grace in our lives. Let me share a few things that I have been reminded of recently.

I am weak, vulnerable, and dependent. Sickness is a reminder of our creaturely status. We are not invincible. We are dependent on God for our very breath. We are also dependent on others around us like doctors who give us medicine to promote healing, family members who care for us in our sickness, and coworkers who take up the slack when we cannot fulfill our duties. Sickness reminds us to lean hard on Christ with a humble heart.

I am a sinner who needs to examine myself. Sickness is not always a discipline from God but it can be. I have been trying to search my heart and life and check myself spiritually to see if God is disciplining me. I want to be teachable.

I am thankful. I am thankful to be surrounded by people who love me and assist me in such times. My wife has cared for me and served me. My coworkers have stepped in and covered for me. My church family has encouraged me with their prayers and words of love. I am thankful for medicine that is helping my body mend.

I am longing. I long for the day when my body will be transformed to be like Jesus’ glorious body. Then sickness will be done forever. Pain will be gone. The effects of sin will be totally reversed. I will be with my Savior along with all who know Him. Sickness makes us long to be with Christ.

I pray that the flowers of His grace will continue to bloom in my life. We must not forget that He will sometimes use affliction to cultivate these graces in us. Let’s learn to say with David, it was good that I was afflicted.

Paul, a Volunteer…?

Volunteer is a word often associated with ministry. There are lots of articles about “mobilizing church volunteers” and such. If by volunteer we mean “unpaid”, I get that. However, I am afraid that volunteer is a term often used to mask an attitude which is roughly equivalent to “don’t bust my chops about how I do this ministry,  you’re lucky to have someone filling this slot.” For instance, to emphasize showing up on time, being prepared, and giving your best energy to a ministry is often met with surprise. “I’m a busy person. Don’t you know I’m a volunteer?”

It struck me last week as I was studying Titus 1:1-4 how often Paul frames his life in terms that make us “volunteers” cringe. We read things like, “Paul, a bondslave of God…” The Greek term doulos is defined in one lexicon as follows:

a slave, bondman, man of servile condition

  1. a slave
  2. metaph., one who gives himself up to another’s will, those whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing his cause among men
  3. devoted to another to the disregard of one’s own interests

A bondslave doesn’t set his own agenda. He or she serves at the pleasure of the master with the interests of the master as their primary focus. It is hard to imagine Paul opening one of his letters with, “Paul, a volunteer for God…” Whether he is tackling marriage, parenting, work, or ministry, Paul consistently frames the discussion in terms of the service of the believer to Christ. Christ is the Master, we are his servants.

I don’t think this is just quibbling over terminology. If I view my ministry in the church primarily in terms of volunteerism, it will affect the way I think about and practice ministry.

  • Volunteers sometimes come across as though ministry is an imposition. Servants approach ministry as a privilege.
  • Volunteers sometimes cut corners when it comes to the quality of preparation. Servants prepare to give their best to Christ.
  • Volunteers will cut ministry if something else competes for their time. Servants prioritize ministry.
  • Volunteers may be offended if they are not recognized for their contribution. Servants deflect the glory to Christ.

It is disappointing when Christians treat their ministry responsibilities in ways they would never dream of treating their secular responsibilities. They wouldn’t think of showing up late or not at all to work. They wouldn’t turn in a half-baked report to their boss. They wouldn’t “wing it” on an important presentation with little or no prep work. Yet, these kinds of things are all too common in local church life.

This kind of behavior betrays a volunteer mentality rather than a servant mentality. Let’s restore the biblical vocabulary of servanthood when it comes to the way we think about and practice ministry.

Mohler on Digital Church

Al Mohler on the limitations of digital churches:

Christ clearly intends for his people to be gathered together into congregations. The fellowship of the saints is a vital means of grace for the disciple of Christ. We can be enriched by means of listening to sermons online and by delving deeply into the ocean of knowledge found within Christian websites, but these cannot replace the authenticity that comes only by means of the local church and its ministry.

Believers need the accountability found only within the local church. We need to hear sermons preached by flesh-and-blood preachers in the real-time experience of Christian worship. We need to confess the faith together through the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We need to confess our sins and declare forgiveness by the blood of Christ together. We need to be deployed for service in Christ’s name together.

Without apology, we can learn much from preaching heard or seen over the Internet. Churches should engage digital technologies with the same eagerness that we use jet aircraft, copy machines, the printing press, and the telephone. At the same time, none of these can replace the fellowship of the saints and the centrality of the local church.

A digital preacher will not preach your funeral. The deep limitations of digital technologies become evident where the church is most needed. Don’t allow the Internet to become your congregation. YouTube is a horrible place to go to church.

Preaching Like a Dying Man to Dying Men

Makers of Puritan History

Marcus L. Loane provides a brief but powerful description of the preaching of Richard Baxter. Baxter himself stated that he preached “as a dying man to dying men.” Loane writes several memorable sentences which support this view of the gravity of Baxter’s preaching.

All his sermons were aimed at heart and conscience and were preached with a fire and passion which could not be ignored. The fire might burn at white heat, but it shone with a clear flame…(p. 182)

Men who did hear him felt that he spoke as one who had come from the unseen presence of God and they listened as men would listen for the voice of eternity. (p. 182)

His words were like point-blank-gun-shots fired at the breast of a startled congregation: men had to be forced to listen when the stake was nothing less than their souls. (p. 183)

Thus his warnings were forged with the thunder of wrath and the terror of hell, but they were matched by the persuasive tenderness with which he strove to win men back for God. (p. 183)

Baxter was a man who toiled and preached with heaven and hell before his eyes…(p. 183)

Baxter’s passion burned so fervently in preaching because his heart and mind were gripped with the eternal realities about which he spoke from the pulpit. May it be so in my life and preaching as well.

 

 

Isaiah 5:20 in Action

Planned Parenthood launches their 40 Days of Prayer campaign for abortion. This is simply appalling. Read the article and weep.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/religious-right-now/post/planned-parenthoods-abortion-prayer/2012/04/18/gIQABL46RT_blog.html

 

Calvin on Miracle-Driven Faith

Calvin’s comments on John 4:48 where Jesus chided the Galileans for their insistence miracles:

And first, it was exceedingly wicked that they were so stupid and carnal as to have no reverence for doctrine, unless they had been aroused by miracles; for they must have been well acquainted with the word of God, in which they had been educated from their infancy. Secondly, when miracles were performed, they were so far from profiting aright, that they remained in a state of stupidity and amazement. Thus they had no religion, no knowledge of God, no practice of godliness, except what consisted in miracles. 

To the same purpose is that reproach which Paul brings against them, the Jews demand signs, (1 Corinthians 1:22.) For he means that they were unreasonably and immoderately attached to signs, and cared little about the grace of Christ, or the promises of eternal life, or the secret power of the Spirit, but, on the contrary, rejected the Gospel with haughty disdain, because they had no relish for any thing but miracles. I wish there were not many persons in the present day affected by the same disease; but nothing is more common than this saying, “Let them first perform miracles, and then we will lend an ear to their doctrine;” as if we ought to despise and disdain the truth of Christ, unless it derive support from some other quarter. But though God were to overwhelm them by a huge mass of miracles, still they speak falsely when they say that they would believe. Some outward astonishment would be produced, but they would not be a whit more attentive to doctrine.

Bumper Sticker Verses: John 3:30

He must increase, I must decrease. John the Baptist said those words recorded in John 3:30. It is a really good T-shirt verse or bumper sticker verse. But I fear that many who would approvingly quote it (or wear it), myself included, don’t think deeply enough about the implications of this verse.

John said these words in response to his followers who were up in arms about the growing popularity of Jesus. It seems that Jesus was getting bigger crowds than John. The John movement was losing ground in the polls to the Jesus movement. They complained that Jesus was also baptizing and everyone was now going to him. You know how it can rub you the wrong way when another pastor records more baptisms than you. John’s followers were complaining to him about this popularity shift.

John’s response was pointed.

  • No one can receive anything unless it is given to him by God.
  • I already told you I am not the Christ.
  • Jesus is the groom, I’m just the best man.
  • My greatest joy is to see Jesus magnified.
  • He must increase, I must decrease.

It seems to me that if we are going to approvingly quote this verse, we need to be ready to view ourselves the way John did. Two things stand out about his posture toward the growing popularity of Jesus and his own waning popularity.

We must joyfully embrace the providence of God regarding the reach of our influence. John’s viewpoint was that whatever influence we have has been given to us from God. God ultimately controls whether our circle of influence grows or wanes. The word “must” in verse 30 speaks of divine providence. John was saying, “This is God’s plan. This is how it has to be.” And John didn’t simply resign himself to that providence in frustration. Rather, he embraced it with joy.

We must joyfully celebrate the purpose of God in magnifying Christ through our lives. John knew his role. He was the friend of the groom. His job was not to insert himself as the main character. He was not the headliner. Jesus was. His role was to prepare things for the bridegroom. He rejoiced to hear the bridegroom’s voice. It was John’s great joy to see Jesus getting the attention that He alone deserved.

The truth is that it is hard for American Christians to envision that Jesus’ increasing might really mean our own decreasing. We (I) have a hard time finding joy in the possibility that God might purpose to glorify His Son through personal loss instead of gain, through suffering rather than prosperity, through obscurity rather than popularity. Most of the scenarios for ministry that play in mind always include movement from smaller to larger. John’s words hit hard and cut deep. Amazingly, John is not just OK with God’s plan for his decrease and Jesus’ increase, he is overjoyed about it. Why? Because the most important thing to him was not him. It was the magnification of Jesus.

John 3:30 is a great verse. But it is also a devastating verse. It will explode some of our fantasies about the trajectory of our life or ministry. But if we really start to live it, this truth will be a gateway to a deep and satisfying joy.

 

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