Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Danger of Teaching

I love to teach. Specifically, I love to teach the Bible. And I particularly love to teach the Bible to people desperate to learn. Fortunately, I have a consistent opportunity to do so – at the church I pastor, at the seminary where I teach, and on occasion, in another nation (such as in Kenya on my most recent trip). But, as I teach, wherever I teach, I am often reminded of one verse, written by James, that warns of a stricter judgment on those who teach (James 3.1). That warning has never been more appropriate than this week.

On Sunday, I preached from Matthew 5.21-30. In this passage, Jesus equates unwarranted anger with murder and lustful looks with adultery. Talk about raising the bar! As humans, we may think these comparisons are unfair, but Jesus is not referring to our living as citizens of earth; rather, He is revealing what a citizen of heaven will do. The purpose of Jesus' sermon is to show what kingdom living and kingdom thinking are to be. He has introduced the kingdom (Matthew 4.17), called others to follow Him (4.19), and now is teaching about how to live accordingly. The teachings are not easy for us, but that is the point. Jesus raises the bar in such a way to show that we cannot be righteous without Him (c.f. 5.20).

And yet, as a teacher, I am held even more accountable. My righteousness comes from Jesus alone, but while we are all to live in a manner worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4.1), the calling of a teacher and pastor is a step above. Thus, it would be easier not to teach passages that are challenging in hopes I could claim ignorance. But such a claim would not hold even if I could say it truthfully – which is, in part, what James 3 is referencing.

Beyond Sunday, I taught at the seminary on Monday. This week’s topics were on how to listen for one class and keeping true to a vision for the other. Admittedly, I am not the best listener. I know the principles of listening, but I allow myself to be too busy at times to truly take the time to listen well. Thus, James 3.1 was relevant again. Then, a few hours later, I was teaching principles of leading a church based upon the corporate (and personal) vision. As I spoke, I was reminded of principles which I need to do a much better job of following.

So, three times in two days, James 3.1 was brought to the forefront of my mind. But teaching is a gift God has given me, and a calling He has made of me. I must teach which means I must strive to be better at the practicing of what I preach/teach. It is not that my desire is to not do what I teach (although as I blogged a couple of week’s ago, I/we am/are all hypocrites). But to do what you know to do, and what you teach others to do, requires extreme commitment. For instance, someone might respond to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5.21 that they haven’t physically murdered anyone. But can the same response be given about being unjustly angry at someone per Matthew 5.22? Only those who are extreme in their commitment will strive for such a goal. According to James 3.1, a teacher should be a person with that kind of extreme commitment. As a teacher, I hope that can be said of me – perhaps not always now, but prayerfully, it is who I am becoming.

So, yes, James warning must be understood by those who desire to teach. It is a dangerous position to hold in one sense, but it is a tremendous blessing to be called of God to help others know Him better (and about Him more). If God calls you to teach, I encourage you to respond eagerly for there is no greater honor, but heed James warning to be true to all parts of God’s truth – now matter how difficult the concept is to live by or to teach.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Hearing God’s Voice

Our world has many competing voices. Whether the sides are chosen politically, artistically, or related to entertainment people have opinions of the right or best approach/understanding/type on all kinds of matters. The problem is that in many cultures the “winner” in these discussions (debates) is the one who yells the loudest and/or the longest.

Ironically, God can be louder than anyone, and His message and existence is certainly longer than anyone can fathom. However, although God could be louder and longer than others, His typical modus operandi is to speak to people personally, and often softly. And since the coming of the Holy Spirit, God often speaks to us internally rather than audibly. (Some do not believe that God speaks audibly any longer, but if He wants to do so, He can!) The question is do we hear what He is saying? Do we know how?

I am convinced that for all who are born again, God speaks to us continually. A good father will speak to his children, and as God’s children, our perfect Father will speak to us. But as we choose to listen to the other voices in our lives, God’s voice gets drowned out. Over time, we become more and more skeptical when we hear others say that God spoke to them. Of course, we should be discerning to ensure that what others claim to have heard from God fits with God’s character and Word (1 John 4.1-3). But just because we may be skeptical of God speaking to others does not mean He does not. For how can the Spirit lead us into all truth if He is not speaking to us (John 14.25-26).

So, how can we answer the two questions above? Books and studies have been written on this topic (a search on Google can keep you busy for awhile), but very simply I believe our hearing from God requires two things – an openness to hear from Him and taking the time to do so. Let me briefly explain.

As I mentioned above, many are skeptical that God speaks today. Because we cannot see God, many believe we cannot hear from Him. But it only takes a little bit of faith to change that. As the father said to Jesus in Mark 9.24, “I believe; help my unbelief.” A statement like this man’s is perfectly honest and can be helpful in overcoming our doubts. But it may not be quite enough. If we have ignored the voice of God, we need to seek forgiveness as we repent. God may have stopped communicating because you or I did not show interest in communicating with Him. As we sense this might be the case, we need to ask for forgiveness, then show our intent and willingness to listen.

That willingness means we must take time to do listen and hear. Jesus repeatedly said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The idea is that our ears pick up many sounds throughout the day. Our ears are always listening, but much of what enters our ears is never fully processed as sound. It is simply background noise. For instance, as I type this, the soundwaves entering my ear include paper being wadded up, my keyboard, a low hum from my pc, a few internal noises from the pc, and the heat being blown from the furnace. Before I typed that sentence, I had not considered any of those noises. I had ears to hear, but I had not “heard.” So, Jesus words are an encouragement to pay attention to what we may actually hear. So, we must pay attention, but we must also take the time.

Psalm 46.10 reminds us to be still and know that God is God. Being still is not common in today’s western world. My recent trip to Kenya reminds me that once removed from the hustle and bustle of life, we can find a different type of peace. As our team said, there is time and then there is Kenyan time. Many in the world can relate to this idea, but not the western world. As such, we do not know how to take time to be still. We may pray to God, but we do not take time to hear from God. Prayer is communicating with God, but communication is meant to be two-way. When we only unload our requests, and don’t take time to hear God’s response or desires for us, then we miss an invaluable opportunity to become more like the individuals He wants us to be. So, we must take time. Maybe it is only one minute this week, then five next week, and over time, we take fifteen minutes or even an hour. But if we do not start somewhere, we will never hear Him, and we will be no different than we are now.

Finally, when we do hear from Him, we must respond. God doesn’t need to talk to us to hear His voice. He talks to us for us to respond in obedience. John 14 repeatedly says that those who love Jesus will obey His commandments. If we hear God leading us to do something and we do not respond, then we cannot say we love Him. And, over time, like I mentioned above, we will likely stop hearing from Him again. So, listen, hear, and respond. When we do, we are showing God that we truly wish to honor Him.

Hearing from God should be natural for any Christian (John 10.3-4). But we must be intentional about our listening – whether audibly or internally. To do so will likely require us to stop listening so intently to all the voices that fill our days. As we take the time to begin to listen to God, we will learn to distinguish His voice, and over time, we will desire to hear more from Him. It will take time. And it will take discernment, but what a gift it is to have the Creator want to communicate with us. Let us receive what He wants to share, and respond for His glory.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Greater Righteousness

In Matthew 5.17-20, Jesus shocks those listening by stating that only those who have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees. Modern readers who understand the nature of these two groups have little issue understanding why Jesus said this, but those hearing the words then would have been greatly troubled.

The scribes and Pharisees were the teachers and interpreters of the Law – the Mosaic Law (Law of Moses). The rules set by these groups were designed to “help” the people refrain from breaking God’s laws. The problem was that the rules were focused on actions (the exterior), not the intent (interior). Jesus said the Law must be kept perfectly, but it must be understood properly. In the verses mentioned above, Jesus sets the table for the rest of this section of His sermon (what we call Chapter 5).

The challenge for the people then was that the scribes and Pharisees seemed righteous because of their actions. No one in that time period was more “righteous” than these groups. However, these groups were self-righteous, not righteous before God. Therefore, a greater righteousness (one from God) was indeed needed. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and make God’s righteousness available to all (remember, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness, v. 6).

The same thoughts that trapped the Jews in the first century are present today. Some people are self-righteous and think their actions will justify them before God. Other people look at how “good” others are and lose any hope of being “good” themselves thinking they could never measure up. But that is Jesus point, we cannot measure up on our own. We can only be righteous through Jesus. When our life is yielded to Him, it is not about our actions, it is about His actions through us. Yes, our actions matter, but a life yielded to Jesus (i.e. Jesus is Lord) will desire to do the things He wants us to do.

When we do what He wants, it is because we are becoming like He is. That is when any self-righteous actions begin to truly transform into a truly righteous attitude. Of course, we will make mistakes, but that is why the intent is more important than the action – if indeed we try. Intent by itself is not faith, it is missed opportunity. But action with pure intent is an exercise of faith. Such action is “successful” whether or not the outcome is as expected.

So, yes, we are to have a righteousness that exceeds even those people who seem to be the most holy. Only God knows who is truly righteous through the blood of Jesus. The fruit of our labor should reveal our righteousness, but God truly looks at the heart. So don’t settle for trying to do righteous deeds. Instead find true righteousness in Jesus. It is the only way. As we become righteous, we will do what is righteous as well.