From the monthly archives: November 2014

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The Dawn Comes Early: Grow in Joy this Christmas with John Piper's New Advent Devotional

By the time I arrived at Christmas last year, I was beyond weary and discouraged. Life circumstances and personal responsibilities took nearly all of my focus, and I somehow completely missed being able to celebrate joyfully and meaningfully.

Which stung, to be honest, because I love Christmas. My husband prefers Thanksgiving for its simplicity and lack of gift-exchanging pressure, but I love Christmas for its meaning and the extended days in which to celebrate and reflect upon the ramifications of an all-powerful, all-knowing God coming to earth and taking on our helpless, miserable form. Over the years, my favorite parts haven’t been the gifts or the social functions — they have been the moments when I have found myself alone in the stillness before everyone else wakes, the moments that only required me to sit and reflect on this singularly incredible joy.

Jesus said, “I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). His joy was the very joy of God. He promises to put that in us. That is what the Holy Spirit does. He pours out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5), and with it the joy of God in God. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy …” (Gal. 5:22). This is “great joy.” And it cannot be taken away. It is indestructible.

Ah, but it can go to sleep. That’s why Peter says, “I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder” (2 Pet. 1:13). Yes. It is very right. Because, oh, how wrong, how sad, when we stand before great wonders and feel nothing. (Preface, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy by John Piper)

I must admit I have stood before some great wonders this year and felt nothing but the burdens I have carried. I must admit that my joy has largely gone to sleep. I must admit that there are things I associate with Christmas that are difficult and painful.

But if there is any season in which I can ask of God that my heart be stirred by promise and joy, this is the one. After two millennia, the story remains astonishing in both its simplicity and its implications. He has offered fullness of joy. He has promised it is great and indestructible. 

For me — and for you.

The only thing that ensures my heart’s rapt attention to the truth of Christmas is to start early. I failed to do so last year and reaped a decided lack of gratitude and joy. When I sat down to reflect on the babe in the manger for the first time on Christmas Eve, I had already missed him. I don’t want to miss him again.

And, so, I ask you to join me as I engage my soul early by reading through John Piper’s The Dawning of Indestructible Joy. Paper copies of the Advent devotional will be available for free in the Lobby starting this Sunday, November 30 (until they run out) and a PDF copy can be found on our Christmas page.

I also highly recommend The Oh Hellos’ Family Christmas Album, but that’s another post altogether.

It's Personal: Why Thankfulness Begins with God's Love

This past year my wife Katie read a book that has been an instrumental blessing in her life. The book is Choosing Gratitude by Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

DeMoss writes about living in this materialistic, hedonistic and narcissistic culture, and how incredibly easy it is to allow ourselves to indulge in an attitude of entitlement.

“I’m entitled to a nice car.”
“I’m entitled to a nice house and a certain standard of living.”
“I’m entitled to regular vacations.”
“I’m entitled to a healthy, pain-free life.”
“I’m entitled to a great spouse, good friends and meaningful employment.”

Do you realize that the word “entitled” (or entitlement) isn’t in the Bible?

The concept of entitlement is a lie, and yet it’s an attitude that I’ve had many times in my Christian life. And it’s always been because I got my eyes off of the cross of Jesus Christ and onto all the ads and commercials and people who seemingly have it all.

In the introduction of her book, Nancy Leigh DeMoss writes, “Cultivating a thankful heart is a safeguard against becoming bitter, prickly, and sour. A grateful child of God can’t help but be a joyful, peaceful, radiant person.”

Isn’t that what all of us want?

Do you realize that it wasn’t just your salvation that Jesus purchased for you on the cross? Every single blessing, big or small, is a direct fruit of his agony and death. Every single blessing was that costly, that personal and that intentional. For the Christian, there is no such thing as a random, unintentional, impersonal blessing. It doesn’t exist.

Do not be deceived my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:16-17 )

Every good thing is from God. Not from fate, or chance, or Mother Nature, or karma, or coincidence — but from God.

Do you understand what that means?

Simply because you’re a Christian, you have a capacity for seeing the intentionality behind every single blessing, that the wealthiest of people in this world are oblivious to. Their bank accounts and possessions and experiences may exponentially exceed yours, but your capacity for joy and pleasure and satisfaction and delight should exponentially exceed theirs!

Why? Because yours is the only scenario where love is part of the equation—or at least your awareness of it. Let me share an example to drive this home.

Imagine that you’re struggling financially and one day you stumble across a $1,000 bill on the sidewalk. It’s yours for the taking, and it brings you much happiness. But now imagine a different scenario. A close friend learns of your hardship and works double shifts for a month so he can present you with a $1,000 gift. Which $1,000 will bring you more joy? The one that was intentional, rather than happenstance. The one that was motivated by love rather than someone’s misfortunate. The one that was based on relationship rather than luck.

The love of God is the one constant in your universe. And that constant is worth more than all of the comforts and pleasures that this world can offer! It is here that we find true gratitude, because it is based in God and his love. So, gratitude is not a function of happiness. Happiness is a function of gratitude.

In every situation, in every circumstance, at all times throughout our day, we have a choice: To either recognize God’s grace, or to not recognize it. Author Max Lucado says it so well:

I wake up in a world of miracles every morning. Every time I breathe and use the oxygen and incorporate it into my body, it is a miracle. Every time I open my eyes and see the beauty that surrounds me, that’s a miracle. Every time I touch the hand of a baby, that’s a miracle. Every time I take a morsel of food and put it into my mouth and chew it, and my body digests it and uses the energy from it, that’s a miracle. Just as surely as it was a miracle when God opened the waters of the Red Sea, just as surely as it was a miracle when Jesus fed the multitudes, just as surely as it was a miracle when Jesus healed the blind man, we wake up in a world of miracles every day. And some of us have the audacity to want more.

This Thanksgiving, revel in the personal and intentional love that is behind every single blessing you have, and then share that blessing with others. It will increase your happiness exponentially.

Digital Interval for the Week of November 23: "When God's Wisdom Doesn't Make Sense"

The cross of Christ doesn't make sense to us humans. Its counterintuitive nature reveals the difference between God's way of doing things and our way of doing things. God's views of power, circumstances, sin and the ability to live a "good" life cut against our self-focused paradigms.

To watch/listen to the whole sermon, click here.

12 Ways to Grow in Contentment

The American way of life is characterized by being consistently discontent with your current circumstances. We love to buck the norm and pursue the next horizons in our lives. Our preoccupation with pursuing “our best life now” can get in the way of God’s sanctifying purposes in our lives. One of Paul’s secrets was that he “learned in whatever situation…to be content” (Philippians 4:11). So often we place our contentment in our accomplishments, money, relationship status, job title or a myriad of other things. The futile search to secure hope and joy in our circumstances only drives our discontentment deeper.

Below are 12 points that Jeremiah Burroughs lays out in his book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (written in 1648), along with helpful thoughts from Burroughs on each point. They have been a great help to me in my heart lately, and I hope they lift your eyes off your circumstances and onto the Giver.

1. All the rules and helps in the world will do us little good unless we get a good temper within our hearts.

“There is nothing outside us that can keep our hearts in a steady, constant way, but what is within us: grace is within the soul, and it will do this.”

2. If you would get a contented life, do not grasp too much of the world, do not take in more of the business of the world than God calls you to.

“Do not be greedy of taking in a great deal of the world, for if a man goes among thorns, when he may take a simpler way, he has no reason to complain that he is pricked with them. You go among thorns – is it your way? Must you of necessity go among them?”

3. Be sure of your call to every business you go about.

“Nothing in the world will quiet the heart so much as this: when I meet with any cross, I know I am where God would have me, in may place and calling; I am about the work that God has set me.”

4. Walk by rule in the work that I am called to.

“When I know that I have not put myself on the work, but God has called me to it, and I walk by the rule of the Word in it, then, whatever may come, God will take care of me there.”

5. Exercise much faith.

“Exercise faith, not only in the promise that all shall work together for good to them that fear God, but likewise exercise faith in God himself; as well as in his Word, in the attributes of God. …

“So what do you get by being a believer, a Christian? What can you do by your faith? I can do this: I can in all states cast my care upon God, cast my burden upon God, I can commit my way to God in peace: faith can do this.”

6. Labor to be spiritually minded.

“Be much in spiritual thoughts, in conversing with things above. Many Christians who have an interest in the things of Heaven converse but very little with them; their meditations are not much upon heavenly things. Conversing with spiritual things would lift us above the things of the world.”

7. Do not promise yourselves too much beforehand; do not reckon on too great things.

“Those who look at high things in the world meet with disappointments, and so they come to be discontented. Be as high as you will in spiritual meditations; God gives liberty there to any one of you to be as high as you will, above angels. But, for your outward estate, God would not have you aim at high things; ‘Seekest thou great things?’ said the Lord to Baruch, ‘seek them not’ (Jeremiah 45:5).”

8. Labor to get your hearts mortified to the world, dead to the world.

“Let afflictions and troubles find you with a mortified heart to the world, and they will not break your bones; those whose bones are broken by crosses and afflictions are those who are alive to the world, who are not dead to the world. But no afflictions or troubles will break the bones of one who has a mortified heart and is dead to the world.”

9. Let not men and women pore [ponder] too much upon their afflictions.

“When they awake at night their thoughts are on their afflictions, and when they converse with others – it may be even when they are praying to God – they are thinking of their afflictions. Oh, no marvel that you live a discontented life, if your thoughts are always poring over such things. You should rather labor to have your thoughts on those things that may comfort you.”

10. Make a good interpretation of God’s ways towards you.

“If you should converse with people with whom you cannot speak a word, but they are ready to make a bad interpretation of it, and to take it in an ill sense, you would think their company very tedious to you. It is very tedious to the Spirit of God when we make such bad interpretations of his ways towards us. Thus, when an affliction befalls you, many good senses may be made of God’s works toward you.”

11. Do not so much regard the fancies of other men, as what indeed you feel yourselves.

“You may think your wealth to be small and you are thereupon discontented, and it is a grievous affliction to you; but if all men in the world were poorer than you, then you would not be discontented, then you would rejoice in your estates though you had not a penny more than you have. You would have no more then than you have now; therefore it appears by this that it is rather from the fancies of other men than what you feel that makes you think your condition to be so grievous, for if all the men in the world looked upon you as happy, more happy than themselves, then you would be contented.”

12. Be not inordinately taken up with the comforts of this world when you have them.

“When you have them, do not take too much satisfaction in them. It is a certain rule: however inordinate any man or woman is in sorrow when a comfort is taken from them, so were they immoderate in their rejoicing in the comfort when they had it.”

Returning a Tithe: It's Not (All) about the 10 Percent

It’s impossible to cover every issue, caveat and question about tithing in a single blog post. But, I am going to focus on a few practical areas that the Lord has been pressing on my heart in regards to tithing. Hopefully, some of you will also identify with or benefit from what the Lord has been showing and asking me lately.

First, I’m convinced that giving a tithe is not just giving 10 percent of our income. Sure, a tithe is 10 percent. A "tenth" is what the word "tithe" means, but is giving 10 percent of our income all that the Lord wants from us in our giving?

I believe God desires more from us than a check or electronic payment of 10 percent of the money placed under our stewardship. However, I'm not talking only about how much money we give or what percent of our income we give. I want to look more at our hearts.

It is easy to get wrapped up in what percentage or amount we "should" be giving. We want to make sure we hit that 10 percent down to the dollar, lest we cheat the Lord by a dollar, or, worse yet, cheat ourselves out of a dollar. For those who don't want to be legalistic about their giving, there are examples in Scripture that demonstrate the giving of amounts significantly beyond 10 percent (2 Corinthians 8:5). We are free to give more.

In any case, when we get caught up in this mindset, I believe we miss much of the Lord's intention and blessing for us in our tithing. So, I want to ask the question: Is it possible to give a full tithe (or more) without obligation or compulsion (2 Corinthians 9:7), and yet still give in a way that falls short of what the Lord wants from us in our giving?

It's More Than a Simple Transaction

To be honest, simply giving a tenth of “my” income has rarely been a struggle for me (I share this in humility, and I am not claiming to be a generous person). My parents had me practice giving to the Lord from a fairly young age and helped me learn the discipline of setting aside 10 percent to give back to the Lord. I can’t say that I fully understood and engaged with it on a heart level, but even as a boy I began to learn to tithe. 

The truth is that I've often viewed tithing primarily as obedience to the Lord, which, as it turns out, I am able to do without engaging my heart. This can easily turn my giving into nothing more than a financial transaction. It's almost like paying the mortgage. I understand that it must be paid, I don't have a problem or complaint with paying it, so I simply pull out the checkbook and "make the payment." Then I move on to the next thing, often not giving it another thought.

As I examine my heart in this area, I don’t think this is what the Lord fully intends when it comes to my tithing. Should I not instead give joyfully (2 Corinthians 9:7), prayerfully (1 Chronicles 29:10-19) and faithfully (Mark12:41-44)?

What if in my giving I sincerely asked the Lord to use my tithe to build his Kingdom, to bless and provide for our church and pastors, to bring the Good News to our city, to help those in need, to remind me of his salvation and complete provision for me? Might the Lord respond to that prayer? Might my heart be full of gratitude toward God? How much more joyfully and freely could I give if this was my heart and prayer in it?

The First 10 Percent Is Not the Same as the Last 10 Percent

Being self-employed for nearly my entire professional career has made it relatively simple to calculate a tenth of what I'm paid. There is no employer to pay half of my Social Security and Medicare tax and to auto deduct the other half from my paycheck. There are no federal or state taxes withheld. There are no health insurance premiums or 401k deductions or contributions for which to account. I just write myself a check and that’s pretty much it. 

Calculating 10 percent off the top is easy for me. Unfortunately, giving the first 10 percent is not. I know that 10 percent of $1,000 is $100 no matter if it is the first $100 or the last $100. It’s $100 either way. However, I’m convinced the Lord wants the first and best from us in our tithing (Proverbs 3:9). It demonstrates the importance and priority we give to the Lord, our finances and other things in our lives. It is a clear reflection of the condition of our hearts.  

We typically spend our money first on things that are most important to us. If I’m giving the last 10 percent to God after I've paid my car insurance, my Internet bill, my trash bill and after I pocket my fun money, what does that say about my heart in regards to my finances and giving back to the Lord? It's still the same dollar amount, but is that really what God wants from me? Is that where I want to place God on my list of priorities, the one who's given me every penny I've ever touched?

Examining Our Hearts

I can't help but wonder, and I challenge you to consider, if we can actually miss the blessing God offers (Malachi 3:9-12, Proverbs 3:9-10) when our giving is merely a transaction that we make at our convenience.

If we don't give the first and best of our income with a joyful, prayerful and faithful heart, are we giving the "whole tithe" that God wants from us?

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