In Psalm 119:33-40, the Psalmist recognizes his complete dependency upon God to do for him what he cannot do for himself. This is nowhere more clearly stated than in v. 36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.”
There are two things gleaned from this verse to consider on this Ash Wednesday, the day when we publicly declare our frailty and sin, as well as the hope of forgiveness that we have in the cross of Jesus Christ:
1) In this verse there is a clear recognition of our sinful condition and corruption; that we are not naturally inclined to the things of God. David asks God to incline or bend his heart, which is not inclined to the law of God and not to leave him to his natural bent, which is to covetousness. (cf. Ps 141:4)
There are things towards which we are naturally inclined, but they are not the things of God. Paul’s depiction of the human condition in Romans 3 is hauntingly accurate; not only is there “no one righteous, no not one,” but there is “no one who understands or seeks after God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, no not one.” The Scripture is filled with examples of those who followed the natural inclinations of their hearts to covetousness at the expense of love and obedience to God:
- Balaam whose desire for earthly gain caused him to rebel against the very strong warnings of God.
- Ahab, whose desire for power blinded him to prophetic warnings and drove him to murderously possess what wasn’t his.
- David, whose covetousness took the form of lust and brought sexual dysfunction into his family.
- Achan, whose covetousness led him to steal and bring death to his family.
- Judas, whose greed led him to betray our Lord Jesus and bring overwhelming guilt to himself.
- Gehazi, whose greed led him to misuse his authority, lie to Elisha, and inherit Naaman’s leprosy.
This is why we believe (must believe) that God is sovereign in salvation and it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can overcome the inclinations of their own corrupt hearts and come to faith.
Jesus said, “This is why I told you that no one can come unto me me unless my Father draw him.” (John 6); “Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 16); “Unless a man is born again, he cannot perceive the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3) Also, in Acts 16 we read, “And the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16)
And so, the Psalmist acknowledges the natural corruption and crookedness of his own heart and asks that he be bent in a God-ward direction. “Incline my heart to your testimonies and not to covetousness.” I think David put this request in another way when in deep repentance he cries out in Ps 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me.”
2) The second thing I glean from Ps 119:36 is that we need to be vigilant and pay close attention to the condition of our souls, even as believers. Paul warned the Ephesian Elders to “pay attention to yourselves and to your flock” and told Timothy to “pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.”
The reason is, once again, that even as believers (those for whom Christ died) we are still engaged in a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit; between the law of sin in our members and the law of our mind; between the things towards which we are naturally inclined and the things of God. St Augustine and Martin Luther both described our natural inclination as incurvatus in se, to be curved in upon ourselves. We are naturally drawn to those things which are a means to the end of satisfying and glorifying ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of the follower of Christ which is why we are told to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ. SELF- is the greatest enemy of the church; a failure to consider others above ourselves. SELF- the greatest enemy of relationships, especially marriage where I have learned that the opposite of love is not HATE, it is SELF!
There are a thousand forms of covetousness which flow out of our self-preoccupation and which dis-incline us to love and obey God:
“You cannot love God and mammon… you cannot serve two masters.” (Matt 6) “But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Mk 4) “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Tim 6) “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me…” (2 Tim 4)
And so, we must come to the place along with the Psalmist and daily ask God to bend our hearts to His testimonies so we might listen, turn our eyes away from worthless things, and to love our God with our whole heart. This is the way of repentance, not just for today, but every day it should be our constant prayer; that our hearts be bent towards God, towards love and good works, and away from the natural inclination to love ourselves. If we are not vigilant in this repentance, then the weeds will grow and will begin to choke out the very life of God from our souls and make us unfruitful.
I will lift up my hands into your commandments which I have loved. Open my eyes and I shall see, incline my heart and I shall desire, order my steps and I shall walk in the way of your commandments.
O Lord, be my God, and let there be no other before you. Grant me to worship you and serve you according to your commandments: with truth in my spirit, with reverence in my body, with the blessing upon my lips – both in private and in public…
Help me to overcome evil with good, to be free from the love of money, and to be content with what I have. Help me to speak the truth in love, to be desirous not to lust, or to walk after the lusts of my flesh.
O Lord, help me: To bruise the serpent’s head. To consider the end of my days. To cut off occasions to sin…To make a covenant with my eyes. To bring my body into subjection. To give myself to prayer. To come to repentance. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(A Prayer by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1628)
I wanted to share with you some thoughts about an article I read in the most recent Voice of the Martyr’s magazine. Ashamedly, I have often become inured to a lot of the stories I hear about the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. However, the Lord used this particular article to stir my heart and I wanted to share that with you.
The article was titled “Do Not Fear” and the author wrote about two people in Muslim countries who were arrested, interrogated, and jailed for their Christian faith. The first was a man by the name of Hussein (not his real name), who was a leader of a house church. He was arrested and jailed, and became very anxious about what he would say at his coming interrogation. Would he break and reveal the names of other Christians? As he obsessed about this in prayer, he was overcome with the sense of God’s presence with him in that solitary cell. “I was in the presence of Jesus, and I was praying more boldly and confidently (recognizing) that Jesus had brought me there for a purpose. To hear God, like you hear water or anything else, I heard God…Jesus said to me, ‘There is no need for you to say anything because I am going to tell you what to say. Why are you afraid?'”
Hussein is still in prison, but he has experienced the favor of some of his guards and been given some amazing opportunities to share the gospel with other prisoners, especially some who will probably be executed.
The second account was about a woman named Shani, whose husband had already been arrested as a leader of a house church. For three months she had no word as to his whereabouts or even what the charges were that were filed against him. She knew her husband would not break, but could not imagine herself ever being arrested or interrogated. One night she prayer, “Dear God, please don’t allow them to find me. I can’t handle torture. I can’t handle a jail cell. You said you would not give us more than we can handle, so please make them not come and arrest me.” Have you ever prayed a similar prayer about something you feared?
The very next morning she was awakened by the police who arrested her and carted her off to jail. She remembers saying to the Lord, “Whatever happens now, God, it’s your fault.” That night they came and pulled her out of her cell into the interrogation room. A man sat across the table from her and angrily began to question why she evangelized; why she talked to Muslims about Jesus and what she and her husband hoped to gain from this illegal activity. Suddenly she felt a peace come over her as she looked at the man and said, “I have a right to evangelize and I am happy to do it. This is a commandment from Jesus Christ. Everyone needs to hear this good news. You need to hear this good news. God sent me here to tell you about Jesus. You are a poor man. I feel bad for you. You don’t have peace, you don’t have joy, you don’t have hope. You don’t even know why you are alive. The only way to truth is Jesus Christ. You are an interrogator, but one day you are going to stand before the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ, and he is going to examine you. Without him, you have no hope. And Jesus is going to ask you why you did these things to his servants.”
She couldn’t believe she said all that and neither could the interrogator who sent her back to her cell and told her he would deal with her later. In her cell that night she felt she had made a serious mistake and decided she would apologize to the interrogator the next time and take it all back. Two more times she was dragged before the same man with the intent of apologizing to him, and each time the Holy Spirit led her to share the gospel with him. On the fourth night, he came to her cell and said, “How did you know that my life is so crazy? I’ve tried everything in my religion and I could never seem to be happy. I learned from you that the only savior is Jesus Christ. When you were talking in the interrogation room, that really wasn’t you. I saw myself in God’s presence. Please help me to be saved.”
The article concludes by saying, “Maybe you have prayed prayers like Shani’s: Lord I can’t handle cancer. Lord, I can’t work for this difficult boss one more day. God, I can’t handle a rebellious teenager. Lord, I can’t endure the betrayal of my unfaithful spouse or the possibility of parenting alone. Shani told God that she couldn’t handle arrest…yet three times this seemingly timid, fearful woman shared the gospel with her interrogator.” And a fearful Hussein was given the comfort and peace of the Holy Spirit as he faced his tormentors.
So, it is really not about us and our fears, or about whether we could endure torture or suffering for for our faith or whether we would lose our courage, is it? It is really about the power of the Holy Spirit working through us in situations that we would never chose for ourselves. “It is about the Holy Spirit giving us the words to say or the ability to forgive or an opportunity to tell someone what Jesus has done for us.” This is why the Bible tell us on 366 occasions “don’t be afraid.” As Richard Wurmbrand, the founder of VOM, once said, “366 times, not merely 365, to account for leap year.” DON’T BE AFRAID!
My granddaughter, Davy, loves Curious George; a mischievous little monkey belonging to “the man in the yellow hat” named Ted (I bet you didn’t know that was his name). Almost every time she comes to my house we watch an episode or two (or more) together. There was one particular episode in which Ted was the scoutmaster for the Little Sprouts and took them for a hike in the woods. They got lost after relying on a young assistant leader’s GPS, and so Ted told George to climb up a tall tree and look around so he could help locate where they were.
In Psalm 121:1, 2 the writer says, ” I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The opening verses of this Song of Ascent could be understood in two ways. One interpretation is that the hills were recognized as a place of idolatry and thus “looking unto the hills” could represent a dependency on humanly created instruments of salvation and deliverance. The writer affirms that his reliance is upon the Lord. An other interpretation says that the hills represented the holy hill of Zion (Jerusalem) where the Temple was built and where God “dwelt.” Thus “looking unto the hills” in this case meant acknowledging God as The Psalmist’s ultimte source of deliverance. Both interpretations land us in the same place; in the midst of the circumstances that surround us we should not place our confidence and hope in any form of human deliverance, but only in God who is good, merciful, and sovereign. However, to do this we must “lift up our eyes” (or go climb a tree with George) and look for God above our circumstances.
Why is it that we don’t lift up our eyes and look for God? I think it is because of our pride and self-sufficiency. Perhaps we think we know what is best and conclude that we can figure things out. We are often like a child who thinks she knows how to put on her coat even though she can’t and has a fit if you try and help her. And so we like stubborn children close in upon ourselves and live in a world where things begin and end with us and with our interpretation of reality.
I’m reminded of the testimony of Chuck Colson’s conversion. Colson, a former Marine captain and Special Counsel to Richard Nixon, was convicted and sent to prison for complicity in the Watergate scandel of the 1970’s. He was given a copy of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and was overpowered by this quote: “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free…the vice I’m talking about is Pride…. Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people, and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see somethng that is above you.”
If I might be so bold as to make an observation about how many people have framed their joy or disappointment at the outcome of the recent election. As Christians, we can often be guilty of failing to lift up our eyes and see what is above us. We can easily demonstrate pride and self-sufficiency when we see only what we want to see; refuse to listen to an other perspective; and, most of all, fail to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and power. I am deeply concerned that many have chosen to drumroll their political views at the risk of hindering their effectiveness in sharing the gospel and/or of sacrificing their relationships within the Body of Christ.
When I had a church in Massachusetts, in a very liberal college town, I chose never to put a political sign on my lawn or sticker on my car. I stuck with this decision even when one of my elders decided to run for Congress against a very liberal (notice I don’t use the word progressive) encumbent. Though I voted for my dear brother, who lost in a landslide, I was most concerned that if I wore my political leanings on my lawn or bumper, my neighbors would pigeon-hole me politically and reject the gospel for reasons other than the gospel.
It is no secret that I am very concerned about the character and rhetoric of our President-elect. I am also very concerned about the cultural vitriol being expressed for him and against him. I understand the variety of reasons for why many evangelicals voted for Trump; not all are sexist, racist, and ethnocentrists. However, I also understand the pain of many minority Christians who are very concerned and fearful because they have experienced these -ists first hand.
I believe that when we lift up our eyes to our God and reaffirm our dependency upon him and our commitment to the gospel, we will see that our main concern as evangelicals should not be whether we won or lost politically, but how we treat the broken and suffering people around us; both in the Church and those in our culture who are truly “lost.” We also will come to see that racism and sexism are spiritual issues embedded deep in the hearts and systems of all humanity, which is why we need a savior…why I need a savior!
Let us once again hear the prophetic voice: “Look unto me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).
If the following post seems familiar, it is because I am reblogging a post written 3 months ago. I think that much of the content is relevant to the upcoming election and that is why I changed only the title.
This past July 4th, I was re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.
Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.” First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.
Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”
What resonates with me, mostly because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning and debates, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.
Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character. Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.
George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)
In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.
I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”
Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)
Vote your conscience and may God have mercy on America!
This final blog on the danger of being a pastor will focus on
THE DANGER OF LOSING the JOY of MINISTRY…
Paul David Tripp writes to pastors, “This is where it inevitably leads. You’ve lost sight of the gospel in your personal life; you feel a growing disconnect between your private life and your public ministry persona; your ministry is no longer fueled by your own worship; your feel misunderstood by the people around you… and you are increasingly spiritually empty because you are looking for spiritual life where it cannot be found. The impact of all these things taken together is that you find your ministry less and less a privilege and a joy and more and more a burden and a duty.” (Dangerous Calling, p. 37)
Pastoral ministry is tough and tiring and sometimes you just need a break from the constant feeling that you are like a snack machine into which people put their money, push the button, and get whatever they want. In addition, you are always on; the late night calls, the hospital visits, the death bed vigils, the marital interventions, going with a husband to identify his wife’s body and then going home with him while he tells his 5 little children mom is not coming home. I could go on and on with situations that have had happened in my ministry, but one humorous illustration reflects the fact that a pastor is always on the job. One evening I had to show up a little late from an elders meeting to one of my son’s basketball games. I came somewhere in the 2nd quarter when his team was playing a very important game against an arch rival. My wife had saved me a seat, right in back of another couple from our church. I greeted them and then got down to watching my son play, and I mean watch – my wife will tell you that I focus on the game and do not like conversation. After about ten minutes, the very sincere brother from my church turned to me and said, “Hey Dave, since I have you here, can you explain the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism?” (By the way, I told him we’d talk later.)
All of this is to say, pastoral ministry is often wearying and difficult. But don’t feel sorry for us because this is to what we have been called. I wouldn’t want to do what some of you do. Give us some vacation and study leave, and we will rest, recoup, and will be good as new. I always come back from vacations excited to get going in ministry again. However, there are some pastors who do not want to come back at all. They have come to see that ministry is a burden. They have lost the joy of serving their congregation and the vision of seeing what they will become in Christ. They no longer resonate with what Paul tells Timothy; “For this end we toil and strive because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim 4:10)
Pray that your pastor would never lose his/her joy in serving you or their vision and hope for what you can become in Christ. Pray also that they would never lose sight of the gospel in their private life, that his/her ministry would always be fueled by worship, that they would keep their family as a priority so that their spouse or kids would never become jealous of the church, and that your pastor would take time off for rest and refreshment.
I am sorry to say that I preached a similar message for a pastor many years ago at his installation. In fact, I carry with me the bulletin for this service and my message was “The Dangers of Being a Pastor.” Within just a few years, this man had an affair, left his church and the ministry. The seeds of destruction were already in this man’s ministry, hidden and secreted away from public view. It is an ever-present reminder to me of how serious is the business of pastoral ministry.
I am not suggesting that your pastor has secrets that will do them in, but I am strongly suggesting that there are some serious dangers in the ministry that every pastor faces. We are in desperate need of the grace of God and the prayers of our people, lest we are left to ourselves and bring it all to destruction.
If I can be of any help to a pastor who is struggling in ministry, it would be my privilege. If you are that person or know of someone, I would be happy to talk to you/them. You can begin by emailing me at email@example.com and we can go from there. It may not be much that I offer, but at least you’ll know that you are not alone. Blessings.
In my last blog I mentioned the danger of feeding others at the expense of nourishing one’s own soul. In this blog I want to mention a third danger of being a pastor,
THE DANGER OF THE PASTOR NOT RECEIVING PASTORAL CARE…
The pastor is in a unique position of inherited authority and is automatically placed upon a kind of pedestal in the minds of many in his congregation. He is used to being quoted and usually what he says is the final word on most theological and life issues in the church. Sometimes the larger the church, the bigger the pastor’s influence and the bigger his ego grows. Everyone knows he is not perfect, but few view him with flaws mainly because they don’t want to see their pastor in that way. Who wants an imperfect pastor anyway? This constant pedestal of deference and respect coupled with the functional anonymity of the pulpit, the fact that few people really know the pastor and can speak into his life, create a situation where self-deception can breed. And this is especially dangerous because it seems that the pastor is often the only person in the church who does not benefit from the pastoral care he works so hard to give everyone else. Who pastors the pastor? Who continues to mentor him? Who speaks into his life?
The writer of Hebrews warns all believers (pastors included), “Take care brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil and unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” (Heb 3:12) Thus the Body of Christ has been designed to protect, encourage, warn, and restore us on our spiritual journey so that we do not become self-deceived and hardened by indwelling sin. And if every pastor is on the same journey in his discipleship, then there is something terribly wrong when a church allows its pastor to live a basically anonymous and independent life, WITH NO ONE TO SPEAK INTO IT.
Every pastor must daily admit to himself that he/she is basically broken and in constant need of God’s forgiveness and transforming grace. They must carry about in them the spirit of Martin Luther’s Sacristy prayer, “Use me as an instrument in Thy service, only do not Thou forsake me for if I am left to myself I will bring it all to destruction.” Every pastor must also be constantly preaching the gospel to him/herself and must fundamentally believe that what they need the most is found only in Jesus Christ, who loves them, died for them and forgave their sin completely. As C.S.Lewis has said “He who has God and everything else, has nothing more than God alone.”
The pastor does not need to find his/her identity in their own importance, performance, the size of their congregation, or how much they are sought after as a conference speaker; only in Jesus Christ. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame (merit or accomplishment of my own) but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
So pray for your pastor, that this would be the cry of his/her heart and that they would build and maintain a system of spiritual care for themselves made up of accountability and mentoring by people who love them unconditionally and have permission to speak into their life. Pray that he/she will be driven by the Holy Spirit to seek every means available for their own growth and development (not just yours) to make sure they hold firm to their confession all the way to the end of the race.
Next week’s blog: The Danger of Losing the Joy of Ministry