“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years… In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure”. Genesis 15:12-16
God confuses me. I’ve been reading the book of Genesis, and His whole treatment of Abraham seems like a bundle of contradictions.
First, God told Abraham he would make him into a great nation (Gen. 12:2), only to withhold the birth of Isaac for twenty-five years. Then God told Abraham to “look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever” (Gen. 13:14-15), while in chapter 15 God tells Abraham his descendants would live as slaves in Egypt for four hundred years before they would come back and possess the land. I’ve discovered that reading the Bible is a bit like reading a spy novel; you really don’t know how all the pieces fit together until you’ve finished the last chapter. Of course, the same thing could be about my life. I won’t really know how all the parts fit together until I’ve lived the final chapter.
This is what challenges me about Genesis 15—sometimes when I think I’ve missed God’s direction for my life, it turns out that God has factored in my detours. Furthermore, about the time I think my detours are a result of sin, I often find they are God’s gift to prepare me for my promise.
Until your life is over and there are daisies over your grave, you cannot truly miss God. And even if you try to hide from Him like Adam and Eve did, He still has a way of finding you! He knows the detours you will take and factors them into the equation of your life. Ps. 139:16 says God has counted all our days, and He even makes allowances for the times we think we’ve missed His will and direction. Time away from our Promised Land is a time for growth. The Israelites needed to grow large and strong as a nation and a family before the appointed time when God would release them to possess their inheritance. We may think the days and years we’ve spent doing things other than possessing our promises are wasted years, but this is not true in the economy of God.
Sometimes the detours in your life are simply God preparing you for your future, as He did with the Israelites. But God not only prepares us, He prepares the place we are going to inhabit. This hit home when I finally saw Gen. 15:16, where God told Abraham his descendants would return after four hundred years, “For the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction” (New Living Testament).
God will not punish a nation or an individual until the time warrants their destruction, or as the NIV phrases it, reaches “its full measure.” Not only is God preparing you and me for the next phase or our lives, He is also waiting patiently for others to find their place in His will. God would not give the land of Canaan to the Israelites because the Amorites did not yet deserve to be removed. God’s loving patience with others may be the reason I’m in the middle of a detour. But that is good, for ultimately God takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33:11). God’s patience with sinners does not mean He approves of their behavior, but that He is allowing them time to repent. And until the time and place was prepared, the Israelites were not ready to inherit the land of God’s promise. Likewise, until others have had a chance to obey the Lord, it may not be time for us to move in and accomplish His will.
Phil. 1:6 says, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (NLT). So take heart if you do not know your future. Don’t despair if you think you’ve taken one detour after another in your travels with the Lord. God knows where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. And if you find yourself on a detour, you might as well enjoy the scenery along the way.
Dipping in the River of Humility
When I read the story about Naaman, two things stand out and cause me pause. First, why does the Old Testament give an entire chapter to this one character and his leprosy? And two, why am I so familiar with just how Naaman must have felt when he was told to wash in the puny Jordan River?
Regarding the first question: I haven’t a clue as to why an entire chapter is given over to this story. I figure God thought it important but hasn’t told me why. Regarding the second question: I am truly bothered by Naaman’s response to Elijah’s directives to go wash in the Jordan. Here is a highly regarded warrior whom the king of Aram knew to be a great man, “because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram” (vs. 1). Aram, by the way, is also known as Syria, whose capital is Damascus. But I digress.
Naaman is a great warrior, esteemed by all, adored by the masses and rich enough to own a slave girl imported from Israel. His only problem seemed to be a small case of leprosy, which is a bit more distressing than acute acne by not as bad terminal cancer. He’s a great warrior and respected by his peers. He’s a bit like me, if you will; a warrior with words and respected by the dozens of people who know I like to write.
Now comes the crisis (leprosy, or cancer or something tragic in my life like another rejection letter from an editor) and the solution (go bathe in a muddy stream, or bow to God or apologize to your family for being selfish or something equally mundane). “Wait!” I want to shout, “I’m a SOMEBODY. Elijah, you can’t be serious. Don’t just send out your maid and tell me to do something mundane. I’m special and I want special treatment!”
That’s it, right? I know I’m somebody special and I want the world to acknowledge it. But God isn’t interested in my feelings; He’s interested in my obedience (Have you noticed how Scripture is painfully lacking when it comes to God’s concern for our feelings?). And you know, perhaps if I were a tad quicker in my obedience, I’d be less popular during my times of disobedience. Do I really want almost an entire chapter in Scripture given over to one verse of compliments and eighteen verses of me acting selfish and childish?
But I still can’t help but identify with Naaman. I still want my name to be called out by the prophet and given a spectacular assignment that will seal my name and fame among the amassed throng of admirers. Yeah, I know that sounds silly, but I also know that it strikes a chord with many of us. Don’t you know that the spectacular is a tool of the devil to get our focus off God? Remember, it was Satan who took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down.” That would be a crowd-gatherer. But that wasn’t what Jesus was about. Instead, Jesus was so unspectacular that at the end of His life there were only about a half-dozen folk who even made it to His execution.
So here is the lesson: Beware of trading the simple life of obedience for the tug and temptation of the spectacular at the expense of your soul. Jesus told the devil what he could do with his suggestions (see Matthew 4:7) to place pride before purpose, and perhaps you and I should learn to do the same. God may choose to do great things through me, but it will never be at my suggestion. People will see God’s greatness in my life when I am willing to bow my heart in humble submission to His directions. I must learn to decrease so that He may increase.
As I’ve been reading Scripture for decades now, I’m convinced that not everything a demon says is a lie. Sure, we’ve all been taught that Satan is a liar and the father of lies. However, there are times that what the demons in our lives accuse us of is absolutely true, and we need to get used to it. In fact, I think we should learn not only to embrace their accusations, but to rejoice in them as well. Can you imagine living your life in such a manner that when the devil talks about you he tells the truth and glorifies God? I can.
In Acts 16, Paul is staying in the home of Lydia. One day as they head to the place of prayer, they are confronted by a demon-possessed slave girl who told fortunes and made money for her masters. For some reason, this girl went from making money for her masters to following Paul and his companions around and shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved” (vs.17). It reminds me of the demons who shouted at Jesus in the Gospels, calling Him the “Son of God” (Luke 4:41), “the Holy One sent from God” (Mark 1:25), and “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7).
Finally, Paul gets tired of this true but annoying publicity and casts the demon out of her. Like I said in the beginning, sometimes what the demons in our lives accuse us of is absolutely true. Knowing this has me asking a rather bothersome question: If a person with a demon were to follow me around, what would they accuse me of? Just to be fair, what would they accuse you of?
I’m not talking about your sins. We can all be truthfully accused of greed, lust, hatred, gossip, jealousy, etc. I’m talking about something different. What would the demons who’ve watched you live have to say about your character and the mission of your life? Would they accuse you of being a servant of the Most High God? Would they say your mission is to share the Gospel and tell people how do be saved? What would the demons accuse you of regarding the Kingdom of Heaven?
I want to live so if God ever points to me and says to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Jim? He fears God and shuns evil” (see Job 1:8), all Satan can do is deflect the question because he can’t deny it. Maybe I’m naïve, but I want to live my life so that when I head to a prayer meeting the demons say, “Uh-oh, here comes that servant of the Most High on His way to tell others of the greatness of God.” If I can live my life in such a way as to make that accusation of the devil come true, then I will not have lived in vain.
Moses had a choice, and it is the same choice we have. We can keep solidly to God’s path or we can lower our standards and walk in the praise and prestige of the world. Moses knew it was better to suffer for His God than own the treasures of Egypt. I believe the standards of Moses were firmly set in him by his parents who raised him until he was old enough to go back to Pharaoh’s daughter.
It never occurred to Moses that he could widen the instructions of God because he felt them to be to narrow. He knew that sharing in the oppression of God’s people meant that he would never be accepted in Pharaoh’s presence, and that was okay. He never says to God, “I see what You’re asking me to do, but I’d like a little lenience. Can I be accepted by my true family and not make Pharaoh mad?”
The fact is there are certain things that never change, because changing those things would invite chaos. If an athlete chooses to run the mile for his track team, it is the same mile if it is run in Kansas or in England. If I go to the high school and shoot a basketball, I’ll be trying to get that ball into an eighteen inch hoop. And if I go to Madison Square Gardens the diameter will be the same. If a kid grows up pitching a baseball, he knows that home plate will be seventeen inches wide in Little League and seventeen inches wide in college and seventeen inches wide if he makes it to the majors.
There isn’t a coach in the world who will say to his athlete, “Oh, is a mile too far for you to run? Then we’ll only make you run three-quarters of a mile and you can still be on the team.” If you can’t compete in the mile you don’t run on the team, right? Have you ever heard of a ref that says, “You mean you can’t make that basket? Then we’ll make that hoop twenty-three inches for you.” It never occurred to anyone to say to a pitcher, “What? You can’t get that baseball to stay within those seventeen inches? Then we’ll just make it twenty-five for you. It is more important that you feel better about yourself than it is to stick with the long-held standards of the game.” If a major-league pitcher can’t hit the plate, then he’s sent to the minors or to a different position. The seventeen inch standard of home plate is here to stay.
As Christians we have a standard to live by, and that unchanging standard is the Word of God. Heb. 13:8-9 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas.” Nowhere in God’s Word is it acceptable to change the standards of God’s law to meet our opinions, desires or lack of discipline. There are some strange, new ideas floating around regarding what it means to be a Christian and which practices are acceptable, but if these practices are opposed to the Word of God, then no amount of debate or justification will make them okay. Being a disciple of Christ is the same for everyone. It means Jesus is your Lord and your feelings, hopes, dreams and ambitions take second place to the purposes of God in your life. You can’t stay in Egypt and cross the Red Sea at the same time. You can’t say, “I know God’s Word calls this lifestyle a sin, but God made me this way and you have to accept me and give me a job in your church and not discriminate against me.” No, I do not and will not. The standard of God’s Word remains. It isn’t my rule. If you don’t like it, take it up with the Rule Maker. I just want everyone here to know that in this church, as long as I am the pastor, the standard of God’s Word will be the standard for everything we do.
A few years ago my wife and I found ourselves “between ministry assignments” and endeavored to find a new church home. We visited about sixteen congregations before we found one we committed to, however briefly.
Granted, I was, and still are, a hard sell when it comes to the local church. I’ve been around too long simply to “go to church” because that’s what Christians are supposed to do. Besides, I’m beyond going to a church so it can “meet my needs.” If I don’t have a place to invest the gifts God has given me, then I don’t feel I have a place in that congregation.
Knowing of my situation when I wasn’t a pastor, a friend on Facebook said to me, “So, curiosity begs to know what it is you are looking for in a church. It’s tough to find a “fit” when you don’t match any of the standard molds. I’m just wondering what blend would be “your” chosen church?”
That got me thinking, so here is a partial list of what I would like to see in my “chosen church.” And before you think I’m dreaming, I know that everything I’ve listed is already taking place in some form in churches across America, with possible exception of number 6.
1. Ephesians. 4:10-13 Leadership – After Jesus ascended He gave gifts to the Church, including Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher. I would like to be part of a church that has all five of these gifts working together in a leadership capacity “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (vs. 12). In this model, the “pastor” would only be one part of the leadership model. The pastor would pastor people, the teacher would be the primary speaker, and the evangelist wouldn’t even be in church on Sunday. He or she would be out evangelizing people who aren’t in church on Sunday. What a novel idea!
2. 80/20 Reversal – Most of us know that 80% of the work is usually done by 20% of the people. I would like to see that reversed. I know there will never be 100% of the people who will work for the Kingdom, but it is possible to see a higher percentage using their gifts for God’s glory.
3. Intentional Equipping of the Saints – And I mean INTENTIONAL. The vision statement for my first church was to see people caught, taught, increased and released. This means we actively look for ways to catch people by the love of God and see them saved, teach them the Word, increase their effectiveness as a person and minister by understanding their gifts and giftedness, and then release them to use those gifts for the Kingdom. This also means we must be creative in finding ways for those gifts to be used. Naturally, most of these gifts will be used outside the four walls of the church, and that is as it should be. Too often, leadership implies that if we are not working in the church, we’re not working for the Kingdom. Fortunately, that idea is starting to fade.
4. Staff Performance Based on Leaders Equipped Versus People Accumulated – Most often, churches evaluate a staff member on how well they do their job. The music minister is evaluated on how well he or she leads worship, and the youth pastor is evaluated on how many kids are in the youth group. I’d like to see performance evaluations based upon the people who are equipped to use their gifts for the Kingdom. Numbers are not as necessary as proper training and mentoring. Jesus only had a base of twelve, but they were properly and intentionally discipled to continue His work after the resurrection. This leads me to my next point.
5. Leaders Who Lead To Replace Themselves – Jesus knew He was training His replacements, and since that time, every Christian is working to see the original mandate of Christ fulfilled in their generation. Leading to replace yourself is obvious in every part of our lives. Parents raise children who will replace them on earth. Teachers teach students who will one day replace them as teachers. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters and roofers all take on apprentices to teach them the fine points of their trade. Why is this such a foreign concept in most churches? I recently read that the purpose of an apple tree is not to produce apples, but to produce more apple trees. I want to be part of a church where the leadership culture is intentional about training the next generation of leaders.
6. Musical Worship That Is God Centered, Not Performance Centered – I recently went to a church where the worship leader had great talent but little ability to lead people in worship. His was mostly a performance, and as such, it was very hard to follow. Even those songs I was familiar with were hard to follow because he sang them in his own unique style. Worship leaders have the responsibility to use their talents to bring people into the presence of God through music. They are not to use their time to show the world just how talented they are. I would like to see a church where only the musicians are on stage and the lead singers are standing in the audience with wireless microphones. My ultimate dream would be to have a church in the round. This would help eliminate the feeling that we are watching a performance on stage. Furthermore, everybody in the congregation would be able to see one another and not just that backs of people’s heads and the faces of the worship team.
These are just a few of my ideas for the ideal church. Naturally, many people will disagree with me or will have other ideas. If so, I’d be delighted to hear them.