LOVING IN GOD’S WAY

Right now, I know many Christians on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to the major issue of the present time: terrorism and refugees. These two issues have become so inter-connected and so filled with rumor, half-truth and speculation that a strong division is developing in the faith.

Some feel it is a basic part of our faith to help the refugees of the world, even to the point of welcoming them into our country and supplying the money they need to successfully integrate into our culture. Others feel that helping refugees is a slippery slope that will lead to our culture and country being taken over by Islam, complete with the introduction of Sheria law. ( That, by the way is a redundant expression–Sheria means law in Arabic.)

So, while some Christians are working hard raising money to fund refugee settlement, others are seeking ways to slow or even stop the process. Some are adopting hard line attitudes that sees a terrorist in every refugee and every Muslim as part of a grand scheme to take over the world.

For me, a basic question we need to ask in this increasingly noisy debate is a very basic theological question: “Does God love refugees?” A related and perhaps even more important question is: “Does God love Muslims?” If the answer is that God doesn’t love refugees or Muslims, than we can continue on our way, ignoring them, bombing them, shooting them, excluding them.

But if the answer is yes, then we have to adopt a very different approach, an approach that shows God’s love clearly and powerfully. We are obligated, for example, to apply to them the words of Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (NIV)

So, if we are running away from a war that has destroyed our home, killed family members and made our lives a living hell, would we not want someone to help us? Would we not want someone to give us a new life, one far removed from the pain and suffering we experience now?

If the answer is yes, we are obligated to adopt a different attitude to terrorists. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5.44-45: ” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (NIV)

If the answer is yes, then we are obligated to adopt a different attitude towards Islam. We are told in John 3.16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV) Since God loves them, they are included when Jesus tells us in Matthew 28.19: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (NIV)

If the answer is yes that God loves refugees and terrorists and Muslims, we need to be willing to live out that truth–and remember that living out our faith isn’t a call to safe and comfortable and peaceful and predictable. Living out our faith can be costly. In fact, living out his faith proved extremely costly for Jesus. He preached and taught and lived a life of loving enemies and offering God’s love to all and look what it got him–a cross and an early grave.

But the answer to the question is yes. God does love refugees, terrorists and Muslims, along with whatever group or individual happens to be the controversy of the day or week or month or year. There are no exceptions to the yes of God’s love–and therefore no exceptions to our need to show that love. Certainly, we can be wise and insist our government do security checks. Definitely, we can take steps to limit what terrorists can do.

But whatever else we do, we need to be looking for the best and most effective ways to show the love of God. If that means bringing a Muslim refugee family to be our next door neighbour, we do it–it might take some serious prayer, some soul-searching repentance, some significant work of the Holy Spirit, but it is our calling and what we have committed ourselves to in accepting God’s grace.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT WE DO OR HOW WE DO IT?

Today, I want to begin with the story of First Community Church, a small congregation of 50 or so who meet in a nice building and have been in existence for 100 years–a middle-aged church in my area. The church, unlike many small churches, is actually enjoying some growth due to a new business in the area that is attracting new families and some of those families have become part of the church.

However, their attendance has created some tensions in the congregation. Some of the “new” people and some of the “established” people are not completely happy with the style of worship that has been used in the church as long as people can remember. Others in the congregation, primarily those who have been there the longest, find real comfort and blessing from the worship as it is.

At this point, the congregation faces a problem that many face over a variety of issues–what is God’s will for the congregation? For this congregation, the crucial question quickly becomes: “Is God asking them to throw away the worship that has meant so much to so many for so long and replace it with new styles that might attract even more new people?” Other congregations with other problems will have different crucial questions but the results will be the same.

The results of such crucial questions is often a long, painful, drawn out fight with people getting angry and some leaving. Sides form and reform, schemes are schemed, meetings are planned and sabotaged and stacked and the end result, no matter which side wins, is a weaker congregation or two weaker congregations if a split results; fewer people overall attending worship and a wider community that is not much interested in what the church has to say or offer.

This all too common scene is often the result of a lack of understanding of a critical reality. This reality is that in many situations, God’s will isn’t found in what we do but in how we do it. If worship is truly seeking to enable the worshippers to connect with God, I don’t think he cares is we use traditional hymns from the hymn book or contemporary choruses projected on a screen. He probably doesn’t care which translation of the Bible we use or what colour the pulpit covering is. The kind of musical instruments and style of music aren’t particularly important to God as long as the praise they produce is sincere and in Spirit and Truth.

God’s will in many issues the church faces is found in how we deal with the issue. In our own lives, that is probably true in more things than we want to realize as well. There is much more teaching in the New Testament about how believers approach issues than there is about the issues themselves. We find passages like:

• John 13.34-35, which tells us our love for one another becomes the visible sign of our faith.
• Matthew 18.15-17, which gives us a powerful dispute settling mechanism.
• I Corinthians 13 which describes the importance of love and what it looks like.
• Galatians 5.19-21 which tells us what unacceptable behaviours look like.
• Galatians 5.22-23 which shows us the thing we need to seek to put in place in our lives and relationships.

There is no mention of a prescribed style of worship, which type of music delights God, which translation of the Bible he authorizes, what colour represents which part of the church year–most of the trapping and activity of the faith aren’t prescribed by God in the Bible probably because it doesn’t really matter much.

But how we relate does matter–and there is a great deal of information, guidance and wisdom on that. God likely doesn’t much care how we answer most of the questions we think are so important–but he clearly cares that we follow his will in the way we answer our questions. If we spent more time and effort on how we dealt with questions and issues, we would be better off and more within God’s will. But it is always easier to focus on issues than on relationships.

There are certainly some issues that matter–but even they need to be handled in a Christian manner because in the end, the way we deal with things is at least as important as the results–and in many things, the way we deal with things is more important than anything else.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOING THE WRONG WAY

Suppose we work hard at discovering God’s will, using all the resources at our disposal: we pray diligently, we meditate seriously, we consult unbiased believers, we admit what we want and surrender it to God, we allow sufficient time. We work hard and eventually, we make a decision that God is calling is to write a blog or teach a kindergarten Sunday School class or become a trustee or pastor a church. We have put our best effort into the process and made the best decision that we can.

Unfortunately, once we get involved, we discover that it was the wrong decision. What do we do then? Are we stuck in the wrong place? Are we going to be punished for doing the wrong thing? Can we get out of it and still be doing what God wants?

Given that church leaders often pressure people into filling church positions that they are not called to, this may well be a issue for more people than it first appears. As I have thought about this over the years, I have developed some ideas on what we can do in such situations where we have sincerely sought the leading of God but have somehow got it wrong.

First, I think we need to remember that this isn’t the end of the world. Since all of us are human and thus imperfect, we are all going to have this situation occur in our spiritual journey at some point–or, more likely, at many points in our life.

We can then look carefully at where we are and where we are supposed to be. It may be a relatively simple process–we confess that we are in the wrong place and leave it to go where we are supposed to be. A long time ago, I responded to a call to be a Sunday School teacher because it seemed like the right thing at the time. Shortly after that, I was called to another volunteer position which was clearly where God was leading me. While it was a bit hard on the pride to resign as a Sunday School teacher, it was the right thing to do.

Some things may be more complicated and harder to get out of. The Sunday School I was leaving was blessed with more teachers than they really needed and I could be replaced immediately. Had they been struggling to find teachers, I may have had to stay there a while until a replacement was found.

If, as a pastor, I accept a call to a church and discover after a short period of time that I have misread the call, the problem gets more complicated. It is both demoralizing and expensive for a church when a pastor moves in and resigns almost immediately. It demoralizes them because they feel rejected. It is expensive because they have paid a lot of money to move the pastor and will have to turn around and spend more for another pastor.

In that cases and others where the misunderstanding of God’s call puts us in places where leaving immediately will cause hardship to others, we should think carefully about what to do. It may be that we will have to accept the mistake and continue on. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. We serve a truly wonderful God who is able to do all things, including make use of us in a place where he might not have wanted us in the first place but since we are there, he will use us.

God has a primary will for all–but since the entry of human sin, he has been working on other levels of will as he seeks to repair the damage of human sin. This is the promise we find in Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (NIV)
If I sincerely seek God’s will and make the best decision I can at the time but it ends up being the wrong one, God is not stopped nor angry. In his love, he will either show me a way back to the primary will or he will begin to use me where I am. It may not be his first choice for me or the situation, but such is his love and power that he and will take my mistakes and weave them into his plan to being about the fullness of his kingdom.
May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IF WE GET IT WRONG?

I have realized as a result of hundreds of pastoral contacts over the years that some of the underlying fears when it comes to knowing God’s will focus concern the fear of getting it wrong. If our faith is significant at all, we want to do what God wants of us. We can end up being afraid of failing God, either because we don’t want to disappoint him or because we have a touch of Old Testament legalism and we fear what God will do to us if we get it wrong.

To begin with, the concern about getting it wrong is real but probably gets blown out of proportion. The difficult reality we must understand is that nobody ever gets it right every time. We are all going to get God’s will and leading wrong at some point. Everything I have written in this blog about the subject along with everything everyone else has written and preached and counselled over the 2000 years of the Christian faith is there to help minimize the number of mistakes we make but nothing can take away the reality that all of us are going to get it wrong at some point.

Sometimes, we will consciously and clearly make the mistake because we disagree with God’s will. We become like Jonah, running away from God’s will. Jonah knew what God wanted but he personally didn’t want that so he tried to evade it. This is not just an Old Testament problem–there are many believers today who know God’s will and run from it.

Jonah knew exactly what he was doing. In Jonah 1.10, we discover that he had actually told the sailors on the ship that he was running from God. But all who run may not admit that they are running from the will of God. In fact, such are the complexities of the human mind that that we can know something and act on it while at the same time be able to convince ourselves that we don’t know what we really know. If that sounds a bit farfetched, sit down with a counsellor some time and ask him/her about it–a good counsellor knows this reality all too well.

It is relatively to cover the running with excuses that sound valid: I am too (old, young, afraid, etc) to do it; I am not mature enough in my faith; I don’t know enough; I couldn’t do it; It’s not the right time. I won’t give any more examples in case I suggest one you haven’t used yet.

While we serve a God who respects our freedom, we also serve a God who knows what is best for us and for the Kingdom so when we know his will and make the mistake of running from it, he continues to work, seeking to get us to return to his will. In spite of what some may think or say, this is not punishment–this is God using what is available to get us to do what is best for us.

I have know many people who have felt that God is calling them to some form of ministry. They have chosen to run from this call–and many of them experience a deep sense of dissatisfaction in their lives. Some I know have move from career to career, doing well in everything but always looking for something. Their spirit will not rest until they are doing what they are called and gifted to do. God is using this dissatisfaction to persuade them to follow the call he has given. Many believers spend time in the belly of a great fish because they make a mistake in trying to run from the will of God.

When we make this mistake, we really have only two choices: we can keep running, experiencing the dissatisfaction and discomfort that goes with it or we can surrender and accept what God has revealed to us.

The first choice keeps us from having to do what we are running from–but it really takes a lot of effort to keep running and it affects our ability to be comfortable within ourselves and our faith. If we are called by God to something, we will not be comfortable until we do that. We can stay in the belly of the fish but in truth, that isn’t really a nice place to stay.

We are better off in the end if we confess our mistake and surrender to the will of God, doing what he has called and prepared us to do.

Tomorrow, we will look at what happens when we genuinely think we are doing God’s will but it turns out that we were wrong.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IS GOD SAYING?

During the time I have been working on this current theme about knowing God’s will, I have run into variations of the theme several times. At a recent meeting, I pastor whom I respect and whose ministry I appreciate was telling the group how he realized on Saturday evening that he had to change his sermon for the next day because of significant events that he felt people would need to have help dealing with–and he felt that God wanted him to deal with. That isn’t quite as bad as throwing away the prepared sermon just before the worship service begins but it is pretty close.

I have also had conversations with people struggling with what in the end is a struggle to know what God’s will for their lives is–and again, these were people I know and respect and who are seriously seeking God’s leading for their lives and who are involved in helping others follow God. Personally, I have been struggling with God’s leading and plan for me for over a year–I have been pretty sure there is a plan and that something is coming but as I have shared before, the “wait” answer and I have never been on really good terms.

I think that in the end, I at least have to admit that knowing God’s will isn’t always an easy task. While there may be times when it is clear what God wants, even then there are problems with our willingness to accept and follow that leading. There may be people for whom God’s leading is always clear and precise and east to follow but on my good days, I kind of think those people are few and far between.

On my bad days, I think that people who are so sure all the time may be somewhat self-deluded, guilty of substituting their own will and desire for God’s will and desire. Sometimes, I can see that I am right in this assessment because their version of God’s will fails to produce the harvest of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23), which is a requirement for anything that genuinely comes from God.

All of this leads me to one important aspect of my own personal search for God’s leading. I personally need to allow myself lots of time for the process to work itself out. And even when I think I have arrived at an understanding of the will and leading of God, I need to allow more time to ensure that I have got it right. There has been more than one time in my personal journey when I have begun rejoicing at finding God’s leading only to realize a day or two later that I had got it wrong and the real answer was something else.

This time allows me to think, meditate, pray and consult with others. All of these are important parts of the search process that have helped me over the years. Allowing lots of time has obviously made the process longer but when I allow the time, I eventually arrive at a “kairos” point, where the answer is clear and I am willing to follow the leading.

As a pastor and pastoral counsellor, I encourage individuals to allow sufficient time for an adequate search. I encourage congregations to take time to work through their searches–often, for example, I will introduce ideas and approaches to the congregation without asking for any kind of decision. This is to allow them to become comfortable with the idea and have adequate time to think and pray through the ideas.

How much time is enough time? I really don’t know. I think we have to make sure we allow time for the process and then in the end, we make a decision. Is there a change that we could make the wrong decision–definitely. I believe that the more honest searching time we allow, the more likely we are to come up with the right decision, there is always the very real possibility that we can get it wrong.

The thought of making the wrong decision about God’s leading can produce serious problems–we can get to the point where we are unwilling to make any decision. This spiritual paralysis is a real problem for some.

So, we will look at this topic–what happens if we get it wrong?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

When our search for God’s leading involves a specific question about direction, what to do, how to proceed or something like that, many people assume that there are two possible answers: yes or no. Some might anticipate a third answer: not yet. Knowing that there are three answers helps people in their search for God’s will.

When we receive a yes, that is probably the easiest answer to hear–and the more we ourselves want the yes, the easier it will be to hear. In fact, if we want a yes answer enough, we might even convince ourselves that we hear it when it isn’t the answer. That is why I suggested we begin by discovering what we want first so that we have at least the opportunity to allow for our biases in the search process.

Receiving a no answer is more difficult. We need to let ourselves be honest about our response to this answer from God. There is Christian peer pressure to put on a spiritual happy face and thank God for the answer when inside we are upset, angry, disappointed, hurt or frustrated. While many Christians will have difficulty with us if we voice these feelings when receiving an answer we don’t want, God isn’t going to be upset and we will have a healthier response if we are honest with ourselves. It is much easier to deal with the unwanted answer when we are honest than if we are trying to impress everyone with our spiritual maturity.

The third answer is one that some Christians really don’t anticipate. We often want a clear answer right now–but God can and does tell us that we may have to wait. The ultimate answer might be clear but include a waiting time or the final answer might not come until after we wait a while. The greatest difficulty I face when waiting is involved is that any wait is too long for me when I want a clear answer–and God doesn’t seem to share my sense of appropriate time.

David, for example, was told to wait on the question of building the Temple–and his wait was very long. He knew that the answer to building the Temple was yes but the actual work would only begin after his death. That must have been a frustrating answer for a man of action like David. (II Samuel 7)

While these three answers cover most of the requests that we make to God, there is actually a fourth answer that I have run into from time to time in my life and in the lives of others. When I am teaching on prayer, I like to call this answer “13”. The number isn’t really significant except for the fact that people aren’t expecting it–and that is the nature of the fourth answer: it is the thing that we are not expecting.

It is like we ask God if we should be a pastor or not and he tells us that he wants us to go to Kenya as a teacher. Or we ask if we should teach Sunday School and he tells us to become the head usher instead. The unexpected answer is perhaps the hardest of all to deal with because it is generally outside both our desires and our boundaries. Receiving a “13” answer upsets everything because it will take us in directions we didn’t think of and so are not ready for.

But it is a valid answer to our desire for God’s direction and is probably more common than we want to realize–it may be that many “unanswered” prayers that sit there nagging at our faith have been answered with a “13” that we are unprepared or unwilling to see. The frustration and spiritual struggle we have over the lack of answers can provide a distraction that keeps us from thinking about the possibility of a “13” answer.

When we are in search of specific answers from God, we need to keep all the possible answers in mind. This is important because it is too easy for us to determine what the answer should be and look only for that one. The more we realize that the answer we want is only one possible answer, the easier it will be for us to at least look for the others. We won’t always like the answers that God gives, but we will be better able to receive them.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW LONG, O LORD?

The title of this blog entry comes from the opening words of Psalm 13, a powerful, often overlooked Psalm that has a great deal to teach us about honest faith. Today, rather than open the whole Psalm, I just want to use these words as an introduction to another troubling aspect of knowing God’s will. While there have been some times in my life when I have very quickly and clearly seen God’s will, there have been many more times when I have struggled for what seems like an eternity before discovering God’s will.

I don’t like waiting. Even though I have spent a lot of time in the Kenyan culture where waiting is simply a part of the culture, I don’t like it. When I want answers, I want them now–or before that if possible. But there have been times when I have spend not just days and weeks but months and years seeking leading and guidance and not getting it.

This definitely causes problems in my spiritual life. Since I am prone to depression, that tends to be the end stage in many of my waiting periods. Before I reach the depression point, I go through frustration, anger, demanding, bargaining, despair and on and on. Sometimes, the cycle repeats itself many times.

So, you can imagine my increased frustration when someone tells me that God clearly gave them their answers to equally big questions before their prayer was finished. What you might not be able to imagine is my glee when their answer turns out to have been more from one of the other two influences rather than the Holy Spirit as is sometimes the case.

Part of the answer to the waiting period is that God works on “kairos” time rather than “chronos” time. These Greek words are important to helping understand the waiting process. “Chronos” is clock time, the scale we are comfortable with and which we want our answers to use. “Kairos” time is based on conditions and context and everything being right, which is the way God tends to work, including our prayers, petitions and demands. God’s answers come in God’s time, not ours.

Another part of the answer, as much as I dislike it, probably has to do with our need to learn patience before God. That may be just something that affects me alone but I doubt it. Most of us would be better off learning some patience–just remember how it feels to be well back in a long, slow line to see the truth of that.

There are likely other factors as play as well, such as the answer may well have come early in the process but because it wasn’t what we expected or wanted, we can’t or won’t see it. But in the end, I think we need to deal with the fact that knowing God’s leading isn’t always an easy or quick process. It is likely going to take time as God works within us, overcoming the other two influences in our lives and dealing with our tendency to run ahead of God.

For me, this has translated into a suspicion of quick answers to my desire to know God’s leading. I have decided that I need to allow time for the process–and at times, it seems that God has decided that I need even more time than I would allow.

I began thinking about writing a blog early this year but wasn’t sure I was interested or if it was God’s will so put it aside. The idea came back a few weeks later and I was a bit more interested but put it aside again. Finally, I felt it was part of God’s leading and began writing. Now, it seems clear that I probably could have begun the first time I thought of it.

But there have been lots of times when the first thought has proven wrong. I have been contacted by many churches over the years and sometimes, my initial response was “Yes–this is it”. Fortunately, my commitment to allowing sufficient time made me wait and eventually discover that this wasn’t my calling.

Discovering God’s leading takes the amount of time it takes because it is on God’s time, not ours. We seek and pray and learn to wait, as well as learn to deal with ourselves in the process, which is probably another of the reasons it sometimes takes so long.

May the peace of God be with you.