Why We Should Pray

Prayer is the indispensable and vital function of a leader. No aspect of leadership is more essential and crucial to the growth and health of the organization than spending time with God. We are never taller than when we are on our knees. We are never stronger than when we are confessing our weaknesses. We are never bolder in public than when we are quiet before God in private. Those individuals that have been mightily used by God, have been great men and women of prayer.

Prayer brings God to us. Prayer reminds us that we need God more than he needs us. The essence of prayer is to join God, not God joining us. We ask what is on God’s heart rather than telling God what is on our hearts. Prayer is the lifeline that saves the drowning soul. Prayer is the umbilical cord that provides nourishment to the starving spirit. Prayer is the channel by which God’s life-giving presence flows to us.

St. Augustine, the early church father and theologian, described prayer as like a man in a hapless boat who throws a rope at a rock. The rock provides the needed security and stability and life for the helpless man. When the rock is lassoed, it’s not the man pulling the rock to the boat (though it may appear that way); it is the pulling of the boat to the rock. Jesus is the rock, and we throw the rope through prayer.

Prayer changes us. The early disciples were once timid and afraid, hiding and secretive, embarrassed and ashamed. But when they prayed for boldness and power in public ministry, God changed them. He transformed wimps (weak, ineffectual, and insipid persons) into warriors (bold, courageous, and powerful people).

Richard Foster wrote, “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God, the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ.”

Don’t pray unless you want to change. Don’t pray unless you want to be propelled to action. Don’t pray unless you want to move on the offensive. Don’t pray unless you want to go to war. And, when you go to war, you need power.

Prayer unleashes the power of God. Prayer is the most powerful weapon in the leader’s arsenal. Is it any wonder that the Evil One seeks valiantly to keep Christ followers from praying? When we don’t pray, Satan has won the battle. But when we pray, the power of God is unleashed.

The power is felt on the human front. Sidlow Baxter wrote, “Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons, but they are helpless against our prayers.” The power is felt on the spiritual front. Samuel Chadwick said, “The one concern of the devil is to keep saints from prayer. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but trembles when we pray.”

Prayer equips us for battle. The battle of Christian leadership is for the hearts of men and women. God needs us on the front lines telling others about him. The war is won in the trenches of men and women’s will. Prayer equips us for that engagement.

How foolish one would be, to go to battle without proper preparation, training, and equipment. How foolish are we, to go to spiritual battles without prayer.

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When Your Gas Tank Is Empty

Whenever I drive my car on empty, certain feelings are always present. I become stressed. While on the outside, I’m calm; on the inside, my stomach is churning. My palms become sweaty. Tension rises like a thermometer on a hot sultry August afternoon. I fret. Driving, which often is pleasurable, becomes laborious. I fail to notice beautiful surroundings. I focus only on the needle and how many miles I’ve traveled since the needle ventured into the dangerous area of red. I become fearful of running out of gas miles from the nearest service station. Silently I berate myself. “How could you let this happen? Why do you always do this? When are you ever going to learn?”

Spiritually, I occasionally run on empty, too. I feel like the Psalmist who wrote, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1 NIV). During those times, I have no energy to engage in ministry. I find no enjoyment in reading the Bible. I have little peace and contentment. My empty spiritual tank is an invitation to disaster, like a car out of gas, I cough and sputter and pull over to the shoulder, out of service, unable to go any farther.

Spiritual emptiness is one of the most serious threats to Christian health. I can overcome spiritual emptiness by adhering to some basic soul and body maintenance practices.

Receive spiritual nourishment. Someone has said that if the intake does not exceed the output, then the upkeep will be one’s downfall. It is a spiritual law that the one who gives out much, must also take in much.      

Spiritual undernourishment can be covered up—for a while, but like a car that is not kept in running order, eventually disaster strikes.

The antidote to spiritual undernourishment is a consistent time alone with God—a deliberate time of personal nourishment with God through the Bible and prayer. 

The regular quiet time during Jesus’ ministry was a source of spiritual refueling and refreshment. Jesus was never too busy for it; in fact, when his ministry was the busiest, that’s when he made certain that he kept in daily touch with the Father.

Engage your spiritual gifts in service. A car will rust out faster sitting idly in the driveway than by being run every day. Likewise, believers in Christ have been endowed and equipped to serve. We will “dry rot” and “rust out” quicker than when engaged in ministry.

The antidote to my idleness is to give myself away in service and to disburse my gifts in ministry. For every quiet time, I need a “try it” time. A “try it” time is putting my faith into action.

Avoid over commitment. In the Christian life, over commitment is a condition of spiritual overstrains. At times, too much of a good thing can be damaging, like too much oil for the car. This condition is often expressed through the poor theology, “The devil never takes a day off, so why should I?” But, who said we were supposed to be like the devil?

If one is spiritually empty due to spiritual overstrain, it would not make sense to prescribe for that person to pray more, study the Bible longer, and attend more meetings.  This would be the same as advising a diabetic to eat more sweets. Or to think that if a small amount of fertilizer is good for the lawn, then a larger amount could only be better.

When I am spiritually empty due to spiritual overstrain, I limit my devotional time to a minimum, abstain from reading religious books, and step back from congregational activities for a while. I limit my spiritual disciplines until the appetite for spiritual things is aroused again. And you know what? It eventually returns.  

Replenish your physical and spiritual resources. A disregard of my physical body will affect my psychological health and cause spiritual drought. The bow that is always bent, will eventually break. Even the fine-tuned cars that race in the Indianapolis 500 need pit stops. We cannot separate body and soul. They are linked together. To ignore the body, will reap serious consequences on the soul, with an inevitable result of spiritual emptiness.

That is why God commanded us to have a day of rest. The antidote for physical overwork is a Sabbath—the times of personal and spiritual replenishment that renew our spirit, soul, and body.

The Christian life is not like a drag race. It is more like a cross-country road race. And to survive for the long haul, we need to constantly and consistently engage in those activities that keep the body, mind, and soul running in top condition.

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Why We Need Rest

Rest and relaxation are not optional. Rest was never meant to be a luxury, but a necessity for growth, maturity, and health. Rest is so important that God included it in the Ten Commandments. We do not rest because our work is done; we rest because God commanded it and created us to have a need for it. The Sabbath was made for man because God knows that our physical, emotional, and spiritual well being demands periodic breaks. The old proverb is true, “If you don’t come apart, you will come apart.”

The Sabbath reminds us that life has a rhythm. When you listen to an orchestra, all the parts work together in harmony. The music has balance and rhythm. Without rhythm, the music is awkward and out of sync. It just doesn’t flow right.

Have you ever felt as if your life isn’t flowing right, as if you’ve lost the rhythm? To have rhythm in your life, four ingredients are necessary: rest, worship, play, and work. Too many of us change and reverse these ingredients and end up with work, work, work, and perhaps a little play. Gordon Dahl wrote, “Most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, to work at their play, and to play at their worship. As a result, their meanings and values are distorted. Their relationships disintegrate faster than they can keep them in repair, and their lifestyles resemble a cast of characters in search of a plot.” Or to keep with our metaphor, their lifestyles resemble a song in dire need of rhythm.

The Sabbath renews our reverence of God. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8 NIV). “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Gen. 2:3 NIV). The Sabbath is a holy day because it is God’s.

This usually raises some questions like these: “Does that mean it’s all right to watch television on Sunday? Is it all right to go to a ballgame on Sunday? Can we eat out, read the newspaper, play softball, or go grocery shopping on Sunday?” Those are good questions. The only thing wrong with them is that you have asked the wrong person. It’s not my day. It’s the Lord’s Day. Ask him, “Lord, how can I honor you on this day?

The word holy literally means set apart. Let me encourage you to set apart one day a week as a Sabbath to reverence God and rest your bodies. When you do, you not only gain a physical and emotional benefit, but a spiritual benefit as well.

The Sabbath renews our reliance on God. The Sabbath is a testimony of trust. Perhaps one reason we hurry so much, has little to do with poor time management or economic necessity, as much as it does with faith in God. Perhaps we simply do not believe that God will be true to his word. Perhaps we are not confident that God will take care of our needs.

There’s the story of the two birds perched high above a busy city watching all the people busily scurrying from one activity to another. The Robin said to the Sparrow, “Why do those humans scurry to and fro?” “Perhaps,” said the Sparrow, “they do not realize they have a heavenly Father like ours that cares for them so.”

The Sabbath restores our souls. Do you remember snow days? As a child, when it snowed, you would get up in the morning and immediately turn on the radio to see if school was going to be closed, and when it was canceled, you rejoiced. You had a free day, completely unplanned, in which you could do anything you wanted. It was a gift.

We need to create our own snow days, or at least some snow time. We need blocks of time on a regular basis to recharge our souls, or as the Africans would say, to let our souls catch up with our bodies, in order to remain free of burnout and breakdown. That time, that snow day, is the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is a day of remembrance. The Sabbath is more than simply resting our bodies. It’s greater than merely restoring our souls. It’s higher than recharging our minds. The Sabbath is foremost a day of remembering God’s role in our lives. Remembering, worshipping, and resting are acts of contemplation. Yet in the midst of our busyness, we are starved for contemplation. We need that time to remember what God has done for us in our lives. First and foremost, the price he paid for our salvation, and then every good and perfect gift that comes from the Father. Let’s remember him.

Rest is not just a psychological convenience; it is a spiritual and biological necessity. “Remember the Sabbath” is more than simply a lifestyle suggestion. It is a commandment, an ethical precept as serious as prohibitions against killing, stealing, and lying. To forget it is dangerous—personally, morally, and socially.

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The Truth

We are not very good at telling the truth. Diogenes would have a tough time in America today. The legendary Greek who sought for an honest man would be hard pressed to find many.

One survey revealed that 30% of those consulted admitted that they would cheat on their taxes—to a point. The assumption is, a huge lie is more likely to be audited than a small one. That same survey reported that 64% agreed with the statement, “I will lie when it suits me, so long as it doesn’t cause any real damage.” Another survey indicated that about one out of three people admits to deceiving a best friend about something, within the last year. And nearly half predict that if they scratched another car in the parking lot, they would drive away without leaving a note.”

Pollster George Gallup Jr., writing in The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90s, finds that most people who consider themselves religious do not see truth as a high priority. He states, “While religion is highly popular in America, it is to a large extent superficial. [There is] a ‘knowledge gap’ between American’s stated faith and the lack of the most basic knowledge about that faith.”

How can we hope to tell the truth today?

Pursue the truth.

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 NIV). We must comprehend through diligent study and earnest prayer what God has graciously revealed in Scripture. Too many people give false testimony against God himself through ignorance of the Bible.

We must fill our minds with the truth of Scripture. We live in a culture that adheres to relativism, subjectivism, and pragmatism. We must make a concentrated effort to resist these influences by allowing our minds to be transformed by the truth of God’s Word. As we study and meditate on the riches of God’s revealed truth, we will know instinctively truth from error.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was right when he observed, “Many of you have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit.”

Speak the truth.

The apostle Paul exhorted, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (Eph. 4:25 NIV). I would encourage you to make the following commitment, “From this day forward, with the help of God, I will speak only the truth, always and in every situation, for the rest of my life.” Such a commitment will inevitably improve our relationship with God and with everyone else.

Examine your heart. Ask some tough questions. Am I being completely honest with my spouse and children? Are my relationships marked by candor? Am I honest in my dealings in my business, at school, with friends?

Practice the truth.

If we are to proclaim truth, we must live truthfully; otherwise we are merely hypocrites.

Let’s take a test. Does my walk match my talk? Do people know me as an honest and trustworthy person? Can I be counted on? Do people trust me? Do I tell the truth, always?

As you read the poem, “The Question,” answer the single question it asks.

Were the whole world good as you—not an atom better—

Were it just as pure and true,

Just as pure and true as you;

Just as strong in faith and works;

Just as free from crafty quirks;

All extortion, all deceit;

Schemes its neighbors to defeat;

Schemes its neighbors to defraud;

Schemes some culprit to applaud—

Would this world be better?

If the whole world followed you—followed to the letter—

Would it be a nobler world,

All deceit and falsehood hurled

From it altogether;

Malice, selfishness, and lust,

Banished from beneath the crust,

Covering human hearts from view—

Tell me, if it followed you, Would the world be better?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was correct: “The greatest homage we can pay to truth is to use it.”

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Lust: The Deadly Second Look

David was king of Israel. He wrote many of the Psalms. As a devout Jew, he was a person of faith and character. But one spring night, he became careless and curious. He should have been out with his men fighting a war, but instead, he takes a stroll on the roof of the palace. And down below, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. He glances, and then he stares. This is a beautiful woman he thinks to himself. His thoughts are not innocent. He desires her; he craves her. He is alone; and he is lonely. He finds out about her. He sends for her. He seduces her. He wanted what he wanted, and being king, of course, he could get it. And he got it. Eventually, he has his lover’s husband killed to cover up his sin. And, to add to the ugliness of this picture, the baby she conceives dies.

What’s wrong with this picture? David was in the wrong place. He should have been leading his men on the battlefront. Instead he relaxed at the palace with time on his hands. He was alone. He lacked the emotional support he needed to keep his hormones in check. He allowed his mind to wander. He was thinking impure thoughts. He lounges, then he lingers, then he lusts.

Lust reaps its greatest havoc on our lives when we are in a tempting place, when our mind is not guarded, when we choose to face life alone, and when we are spiritually distant from God.

Lust is a craving, a yearning, a longing, and a passion. Lust, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, “is a sexual craving, especially when excessive; to have an inordinate desire, especially a sexual desire.”1 While we most often think of lust involving sex, it is not limited to that domain. We can lust for power, for a car, for a house, or for children.

Lust always starts in the mind. Adultery starts in the head, before the bed. First, Satan gets our attention. Then, he engages our feelings resulting in action. Once something has our attention, then it is easier to get our feelings. And once our feelings are engaged, then it is easier for our actions to follow.

I recently shopped for a new car. Each time I visited a car dealership, the salesperson encouraged me, “Go ahead. Take it for a test drive.” He wanted to engage my emotions and my feelings with the smell of the new car and the feel of the drive. And once something or someone has my feelings, then it is easier for my actions to follow. Satan knows that.

This is what happened to David when he seduced Bathsheba. He was out for a walk. He looked. Then he looked again. It has been said, “You can’t help the first look, but you can avoid the second look that becomes lust.” The woman got David’s attention. Then, lust got his feelings. The second look created the desire. And once his feelings kicked in, he was easy prey for temptation.

Lust gives no thought to the consequences, no consideration of what might lay ahead, simply the thrill of a particular moment’s challenge.

Have you noticed that we lust for or lust after? Lust, then, always involves objects. At its most basic level, it is a preoccupation with objects of our desire. We lust after or for something or someone, not with something or someone. Lust reduces the other person to a non-person. Lust accepts any partner for a momentary service. It has nothing to give. It has nothing to ask. It reduces everything to a mere object, one to be acquired, then discarded when it’s used up.

Lust treats people like football players treat a football. That ball is cradled and cuddled. Players will risk life and limb to protect the ball when their team has it on offense. But once the football crosses the goal line and a touchdown is scored, then it is thrown, pounded, and spun on the ground. Then, the player will dance around and mock it. Finally, it is ignored. Its purpose has been served. It was merely an object used to accomplish a goal.

If you have been the object of someone’s lust, you know how demeaning it feels.

Lust is deadly. Oh, surely not, you say. But think about it. Where do promiscuity, rape, incest, pornography, prostitution, adultery, many unhappy marriages, and a lot of divorces come from, if not from lust? And to add to its destruction, it causes bitterness, guilt, disillusionment, and strained relationships. Its consequences are mental, social, vocational, and spiritual heartbreak.

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Celebrate Together

We were born to celebrate. God never intended for fun and laughter to be crowded out of our lives. God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, is like a wedding reception where he wants his friends to celebrate with him as though he were the bridegroom. God’s church is the ultimate party place—a place of rejoicing, celebration, and laughter. It is a foretaste of what is to come in heaven.

We have a God that celebrates. Celebration is at the heart of God himself. We will never understand the significance of celebration in human life until we understand its importance to God. I suspect that most of us seriously underestimate God’s capacity for celebration.

And God’s intent was that his creation—you and me—would mirror his celebration. We should be his biggest fans. We are the recipients of grace, the receivers of love, the beneficiary of hope. We’re convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. We’re expectant of his return. We’re changed men and women.

What happens when we celebrate?

God is encountered.

This is the element of worship. Worship is not a weekly pep talk to encourage the team to win the game. Worship doesn’t have to be the Christian alternative to a Saturday night rock concert, and it isn’t defined as a 45-minute lecture on biblical truths. Worship occurs when people who have fallen in love with the God of the universe meet him. When we encounter God, we can’t help but celebrate, for we’ll see God as he is and we’ll understand who we are. Then our worship becomes celebration.

Joy is expressed.

As products of God’s creation, creatures made in his image, we are to reflect God’s fierce joy in life. That is why the Bible speaks not just about our need for joy in general but a particular kind of joy that characterizes God. Celebration is felt when we express the “joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.” Lewis Smedes put it this way: “To miss out on joy is to miss out on the reason for your existence. C. S. Lewis said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” The apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4 NIV). The Bible puts joy in the non-optional category. Joy is a command. Biblical scholar William Barclay said, “A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms.” Joy is the outward expression of the inward knowledge that God has everything under control. Joy is the flag that flies above the castle of our hearts, announcing that the King is in residence. Joy is the knowledge that the game is not over. The final outcome is that because of Christ, we win. This infectious joy convinces a watching world that Christianity is real and that Christ can transform a life—no matter what the circumstances.

Lives are intertwined.

A McDonald’s commercial shows a man sitting alone in his kitchen pretending someone over a loud speaker is asking for any millionaires. The man raises his hand and gets all giddy and excited because he’s won a million dollars. It’s a cute commercial, but it misses a very important point. Celebration, whether it’s winning a lottery, receiving a big promotion, or becoming a Christian, is best done in community. There’s a relational aspect to celebration. It’s most meaningful when lives are intertwined and connected. Church can be the ultimate place of celebration with others. Through our corporate services and small groups, we provide a place where celebration can be shared among friends with a common cause..

The Special Olympics features mentally and physically disabled athletes from around the world. One of the most memorable events that happened during the Special Olympics was a foot race among a group of people with Down syndrome. The runners were close together as they came around the track toward the finish line. One of them stumbled and fell. When that happened, the rest of the runners stopped. They went back as a group, helped the runner who had fallen to stand up, and then all ran across the finish line together. Once across, they hugged and congratulated each other for finishing the race.

I can think of no better picture of authentic community than that. A place where people who are disabled by sin help each other stand up, link arms, and celebrate the finished race together.

That’s who we are as a church. We are a community of believers who have come together to worship the living God. We are a celebrating community. If we don’t celebrate, we have missed the heart of Christianity. And when we do celebrate those outside walls cannot help but want to be inside the walls.

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Unity Matters

On the last night of his life, Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-21, 23 NIV).

How precious are these words. Knowing the end was near, Jesus prayed one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it? With death breathing down his neck, Jesus prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness. He prayed for their unity, as they would fulfill his purpose. He prayed that they would love each other, as they went forward to love the world to him. He prayed for his disciples and for all those who would come to faith in Jesus Christ, becoming his followers. That means you and me. In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one.

Of all the lessons we can draw from these verses, don’t miss the most important: Unity matters to God. The Father does not want his kids to squabble. Disunity disturbs him. Why? Because “all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). Unity creates belief. How will the world believe that God sent Jesus? Not if we agree with each other. Not if we solve every controversy. Not if we are unanimous on each vote. Not if we never make a doctrinal error. But if we love each other.

If unity creates belief, then disunity fosters disbelief. How can the world come to believe the gospel if those who already believe it are battling among themselves? When the world sees Catholics and Protestants dueling over power and territory in Northern Ireland, or young and old members of the same congregation dueling over worship styles, or a church splitting over the color of the new carpet, it says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Disunity is not merely a scandal for unbelievers; it is also a stumbling block for them coming to faith. Paul Billheimer may very well be right when he says: “The continuous and widespread fragmentation of the Church has been the scandal of the ages. It has been Satan’s master strategy. The sin of disunity probably has caused more souls to be lost than all other sins combined.”

Could it be that unity is the key to reaching the world for Christ?

If unity is the key to fulfilling the God-ordained purpose of spreading the message of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t it have precedence in our churches? If unity matters to God, then shouldn’t unity matter to us? If unity is a priority in heaven, then shouldn’t it be a priority on earth?

Nowhere, by the way, are we told to build unity. We are instructed simply to keep unity. From God’s perspective there is but “one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16 NIV). Unity does not need to be created; it simply needs to be protected.

How do we do that? How do we make every effort to keep the unity? Does that mean we compromise our convictions? No. Does that mean we abandon the truths we cherish? No. But it does mean we look long and hard at the attitudes we carry. Unity doesn’t begin in examining others but in examining self. Unity begins, not in demanding that others change, but in admitting that we aren’t prefect ourselves. Unity grows as we learn to accept others differences and to forgive when wronged. Unity continues as we humbly serve those who are different. Unity is favored as we loving take the message of Jesus Christ to a divided world. Unity is fulfilled as focus on who we believe in rather what we believe in.

I’m reminded of a statement by E. Stanley Jones. “Talk about what you believe and you have disunity. Talk about who you believe in and you have unity.”

May I urge you to focus on Jesus.

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What is a Christian?

Interestingly, the Bible only mentions the word Christian three times (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16). When the term Christian was used in Acts, it was initially used by the unsaved people of Antioch and Agrippa as a kind of derisive nickname used to make fun of the followers of Christ. Christians called themselves by different names—disciples, believers, brethren, saints, the elect, etc. The word Christian literally means, “belonging to the party of Christ” or an “adherent or follower of Christ.” Initially, it was a term of contempt or ridicule. Over time this derogatory term became a positive designation. Also, as Peter admonished, there was a sense of suffering and distress attached to the word Christian in the New Testament.

What is a Christian? If were are discussing the Christian brand, it would be helpful to know what it means to be a Christian so we can understand what our personal brand should look like when we call ourselves a Christian.

1. A Christian is someone who has been chosen by God. Sometimes we speak of finding the Lord, but if he had not found us first, we would never have found him at all. Salvation begins with God, not with us. He chooses us, and then we believe. Salvation is all by grace, all of God, all the time. A Christian, then, is a person who has been called and chosen by God himself. Being a Christian is not a work of merit or a personal accomplishment but an act of God’s free grace.

2. A Christian is someone who responds to the gospel message. The good news becomes effective in us through the preaching of the gospel. When the Word is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, it produces deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers. Even when preachers have done their best, it will count for nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the hearers. That’s why “full conviction” matters so much. It means people are so deeply convicted of their sin and their need for a Savior that they run to the cross and embrace Jesus as their only hope of heaven.

3. A Christian is someone who regards Christ as infinitely more valuable than earthly suffering. In the early days of the Christian movement, new followers faced enormous cultural pressure. No doubt some faced opposition from family members who thought they were nuts to believe in Jesus. It wasn’t popular to be a “Christ-follower.” This response is often seen in those places today where being a Christian really costs something. A more profound joy is evidenced than is seen among American Christians. Here we tend to take our blessings for granted. Where persecution exists, every day is a gift from God, and every Sunday is an oasis in the desert of suffering. Jesus never invited us to receive him on a trial basis, although some try to do just that. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” True conversion means that we continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough.

4. A Christian is someone whose life has been genuinely changed by Jesus Christ. The person who claims to be a Christian, but whose life does not change, is only fooling himself. Those whom God chooses; he changes. This does not mean they are perfect, but they are possessors of a new life that cannot be hidden.

5. A Christian is one who cannot keep silent about Jesus. The evidence of true Christianity occurs when a believer receives God’s Word gladly, then lives it out daily. As they do, the message of the gospel reverberates in every direction. And those around begin to sit up and take notice. They are witnesses of the wondrous work that Jesus has done in their lives. We all know that a satisfied customer is always the best advertisement for any product. The best place for us to make an impact for Christ is right where we are. We don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary. We can start by living for Christ and showing others the difference he makes daily.

6. A Christian is someone who has gone “all in” on Jesus. There comes a moment when a believer has to decide to go “all in” about what they believe. They look at their cards, look at their chips, and then say, “All in.” They risk everything on that one hand. If they’re right, they win it all. If they’re wrong, they lose it all. It’s that way in the Christian life also. We can’t hold on to our cards forever. Somewhere along the way we’ve got to make a stand. We’ve got to go “all in” with Jesus.

Years ago I decided to go “all in” on Jesus. I pushed my chips to the center of the table and I went “all in” that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that he is the Lord of the universe, and that he will someday take me to heaven.

That’s what it means to be a Christian. Are you one?

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Beautiful: Inside and Out

“Esther was the daughter of Abihail, the uncle of Mordecai who had adopted her as his own daughter. . . . Esther gained favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her. . . . The king loved Esther more than all the other women. She won more favor and approval from him . . . He placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen in place of Vashti” (Esther 2:15-17).

Do you know any beauty queens? Let me introduce you to Esther. Esther’s Jewish name was Hadassah which means “Myrtle,” a beautiful fragrant tree. Her Persian name Esther means “star,” as in Venus, a symbol of beauty and good fortune. Esther embodied her name. Esther had natural beauty and charm that required no unique adornments to make her more attractive. She was one of the four most beautiful women in history along with Sarah, Rahab, and Abigail, according to Jewish tradition.

What set Esther apart was not only her beauty without; it was her beauty within. She modeled grace before everyone. She displayed an unusual restraint, in telling no one she was Jewish. She had a teachable spirit, following instruction. She never got a big head, thinking she knew it all. Before seeing the king, she refused pampering, excess bathing, and oil treatment. She did not succumb to the temptations around her. Maybe she had no driving ambition to be the queen. Maybe her life did not revolve around her physical appearance or making a king happy. She was content “in her own skin.” She was authentic. She was real—just the way God created her.

As a result, she found favor with all whom she came into contact from the king’s servant to the women who were competing against her for being the Queen to the king himself. She had a pleasant, delightful, and winsome demeanor. People were drawn to her. She was engaging. Perhaps those are the real reasons she became Queen.

What can we learn from Esther’s life?

Character and inner attractiveness can be cultivated. We may not get to choose our height, complexion, body size, or facial features, but we can decide to live with integrity, humility, grace, and respect for others that emanates from the inside. As we live in close contact with God, his grace, mercy, and hope will rub off on us and, therefore, be expressed to others. Let’s emphasize a joyful spirit and grace over physical appearance and outward beautifications. Inward beauty trumps outward beauty in the long run.

Circumstances cannot be controlled. While we can plan and prepare for where we go to school, who we chose to befriend, what will be our vocation; many situations are beyond our control. We can’t wait for the circumstances to be perfect. In those moments, the strength of character and personal resolve will come to the forefront. Positive attitude and hopeful perseverance will enable us to thrive even in less than ideal circumstances.

Remember Esther. She was a slave in a foreign land. At the height of competition, surrounded by sensual, greedy, superficial girls, Esther stood alone. And, amazingly, God gave her favor in others’ eyes. She’s a great model for us all.

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Work Out Your Salvation

Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians could enter a little room, push a button, and in a matter of seconds be instantly transformed from spiritual infants to spiritual giants? The physical maturation process does not work that way, and neither does the spiritual growth process. It takes effort, time, and discipline. No shortcuts exist for spiritual maturity.

The spiritual growth process involves God working in us, the individual believer working out what God is working in, teachers working with us to train and to equip, and fellow believers working together to develop Christ-likeness. The apostle Paul revealed God’s process for spiritual growth in the letter written to the church at Philippi.

God Works In

Paul wrote, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13 NIV). The initial step of faith begins the journey of God working in us. Just as a process led to our conversion, so a process moves us toward spiritual maturity. In fact, God works in us before he can work through us. Our English word energy comes from the word translated work in verse 13. It is God’s divine energy at work in us and through us to accomplish spiritual maturity. God is always at work in us in the spiritual growth process. He uses people, circumstances, and events to achieve his work. When a believer comes into relationship with Christ, their eternal destiny is altered. A radical reorientation of priorities occurs. Life’s purpose emerges. But instant liberation from every bad habit or character flaw we’ve ever possessed rarely happens. God working in us is like the landing of an invading army on a beach, and the subsequent rooting out of the enemy as the army fights and claws its way inland to occupy and control the island. At salvation, God establishes a beachhead. The total occupation will come in time as the believer grows and matures, submitting to God’s rule and reign.

Individuals Work Out

Paul added, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12 NIV). Notice that Paul didn’t say, “Work for your salvation.” To work for something means to earn it, to deserve it, to merit it. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not something we gain by doing good works. It is a free gift of God’s grace. The verb work out means “to labor to full completion,” such as working out a problem in mathematics. In Paul’s day, the word was used for “working a mine,” getting out of the mine all the valuable ore or “working a field” to harvest a bountiful crop. Today, we use the term work out to describe the physical exercise that results in health and stamina. When Paul wrote, “Work out your salvation,” he was talking about a “spiritual workout” or “spiritual training.” Spiritual growth doesn’t happen by trying harder; it comes about through training. Merely desiring spiritual maturity will never bring it about. I can try very hard to bench press three hundred pounds, but it’s not going to happen. For me to bench press three hundred pounds, I need to begin training, starting with lighter weights until I build up my muscles so I can, in time, bench press the heavier weight. Remember Yoda’s statement from Star Wars: “Do or do not, there is no try.” Training necessitates engaging in spiritual disciplines. We do the things Jesus did to live the way Jesus lived. To live a Christ-like life, we order our lives around the practices of prayer, solitude, worship, giving, sacrificing, and serving. These habits need to be consistently practiced.

Teachers Work With

Paul continued, “As you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out . . .” (Phil. 2:12 NIV). Spiritual growth rarely happens in a vacuum. Maturing believers need the counsel and guidance of teachers. Paul was a teacher to the Philippians. He had instructed and had modeled for them the Christ-like life. He was the teacher; they were the students. He was faithful to his calling; they were obedient to his instructions. Optimal growth occurs when believers fall under teachers who inspire, instruct, and challenges believers to new heights. The spiritually hungry student will be open to the instructions, insights, and guidelines of a teacher. Two key elements are necessary for effective teaching: A well-prepared, learned teacher and a teachable, obedient student. A teacher can present insightful and encouraging truth, but if the student fails to hear and to apply the truth, it becomes void. Spiritual growth demands hearing and using the truth.

Believers Work Together

Paul began his sentence by indicating his fondness of the Christians in Philippi, “Therefore, my dear friends . . .” (Phil. 2:12 NIV). Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. They were a spiritual family. Believers growing spiritually are in a relationship with other believers. Just as we have a relationship with Christ, we have a relationship with like-minded believers who are pursuing spiritual maturity and Christ-like behavior.

Business people and athletes talk about the power of a team. Well, the Christian community is no different. We are a team. We need each other. Spiritual growth was never intended to be a solo event. It was always meant to be a relational activity, where believers are accountable to each other, challenge each other, encourage each other, and provide each other support in the growth process. That is why small groups and Bible study classes are so critical to spiritual growth. Together we go farther and learn more profound truths.

Three tools are used in this partnership and process to enable believers to develop spiritually. One, God’s Word teaches us how to live.

One serious about spiritual growth will live according to Biblical principles, precepts, and promises. Therefore, a believer will read, study, memorize, meditate on, and apply God’s Word.

Two, God’s Spirit guides and informs us on how to grow. The Holy Spirit provides the power, conviction, and the direction for spiritual growth. The Holy Spirit acts as an internal warning system when we begin to make wrong steps and like an applauding crowd when we take the right steps toward becoming like Jesus. God’s ultimate purpose is to make us like his Son. God’s Spirit uses God’s Word to make God’s child more like God’s Son.

Three, God uses circumstances to mature us. Events are the problems, pressures, heartaches, difficulties, and stresses of life. We rarely grow with opportunities; we grow in the midst of obstacles. Those unfortunate events often cause suffering. And, suffering gets our attention like nothing else. C. S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Painful circumstances—whether we bring them on ourselves, or other people cause them, or the Devil incites them—are used by God to help us grow to Christ-likeness as we follow the Spirit’s guidance and learn from God’s Word.

The spiritual growth process won’t be quick or painless, but it will be profitable. As we submit to God, able teachers, and fellow believers, we will mature into Christ-likeness.

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