The Book That Wrote Me

Nearly two years ago, in a burst of unusual energy, I wrote the first few chapters of a book. At the time, God was working in my life in a number of ways, but He seemed to be continually convicting me of pride. Like many (most?) people, I struggle at times with the desire to be applauded and noticed.

As the Lord was shaping me, I wrote down the rough outline of a book on the subject of humility. It was definitely not a book about how humble I am, but just the opposite. I compared the example of Jesus — primarily using Philippians 2:5-11 as my text — with the self-promoting attitude of our culture. I recognized way too much of that attitude in myself, and still do at times.

After writing the first three chapters, I turned it into a book proposal, which is basically an executive summary of the book’s purpose and outline. I attached the first few chapters and emailed it to a number of Christian literary agents. To my surprise, one or two of them were actually interested in shopping the book to publishers for me. I signed a contract with a fantastic and well-regarded agent, and after he coached me a bit on my book’s format and content, he began to send my proposal to a variety of publishers.

To make a long story short, we never found a publisher for that particular book. For awhile I considered completing the project and selling it as an ebook, but other matters occupied my attention (for example, the emergence of my son into full-blown toddlerhood), and it never came to fruition. Perhaps someday.

Although the experience was disappointing, in many ways this book “wrote me” even as I worked on writing it. Among other lessons, I learned that God was asking me to practice what I had written about humility . Every rejection notice I received was a new opportunity to grow in that virtue.

In addition, I learned a great deal about trusting God’s timing. I found myself praying that God would speak the message of this book to His people through other messengers if I wasn’t the right person for the job. To my delight, I’ve seen several books on similar subjects in the past year or two.

Finally, God used the process to lead to the publication of the Ordinary Greatness Bible study series, which was just released this month. He paved the way for me to embark on a new phase of my ministry, and to help Grace Bible Church expand its reach across the world.

I want to share the first two chapters of that book with my blog readers. Frankly, I’d share more with you, but there isn’t much more of it to share. I think from these chapters you will have a good sense of the book’s key ideas and flow of thought, and how it centers around Christ’s wonderful example of humility.

So, without further ado, here it is: Beyond Fans and Followers Chapters

If anybody has time to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. 

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Practicing “Restaurant Patience”

Most articles I’ve seen on the subject of patience focus on the big stuff: waiting to get married, finish school, have a baby, or some other momentous event.

For me, though, patience is more often a struggle in everyday circumstances: driving behind slow cars on my way home from work, standing in line at the grocery store, or waiting for a table at a restaurant. My wife and I often joke that God seems to use restaurants in particular to teach us how to be patient. Few circumstances are more nerve-wracking than standing in the waiting area of a crowded restaurant, with three hungry (i.e. cranky and out-of-control) little kids, watching every other customer sit down before you and your family. Frankly, I think it would be enough to test the patience of Job himself.

Lately, though, I have been convicted that my impatience doesn’t serve any productive purpose. More than that, patience is listed with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, so it must be an important character trait. For that reason alone, I want to learn what I call “restaurant patience,” that discipline that will allow me to remain calm and kind even when life seems to be moving frustratingly slow.

So when I’m tempted to throttle my waiter for dawdling or to blast my horn in anger at a slow driver, here are a few things I want to keep in mind: 

First, patience reflects Christ’s character. Jesus reserved His frustration for big things: hypocrisy, spiritual dullness, the commercialization of the Temple. It’s hard to imagine Him flying into a rage because His donkey was stuck behind some slow women carrying water pots. He demonstrated supernatural patience toward His disciples, even when they were confused, unbelieving, sleepy, or just plain silly. He certainly demonstrates that patience toward me on a daily basis. Since His Spirit lives in me, I can also reflect His patience in frustrating circumstances.

Second, the people around me are more important than my need for efficiency. I’m trying to remember that the waiter and the hostess and the guy in the car in front of me are actual people, made in God’s image, for whom Jesus died. My responses to them are reflective of how I see them in that moment. Furthermore, I have an opportunity to either show them the love and grace of Jesus, or to show them how angry and pushy I can be. In the grand scheme of eternity, a 10-minute delay is not nearly as important as the way I treat other people.

Third, I want my kids to learn patience, and they are looking at me as a role model. I probably should not confess this in a blog post, but I have heard one of my kids yell impatiently at a slow driver. “Come on, guy! GO!” Where do kids learn this crazy stuff?

Finally, my expressions of impatience never actually accomplish anything. Okay, that’s not entirely true: from time to time I have caused the service at a restaurant to move a bit quicker. It always comes at a cost, though, because the waiter usually becomes resentful or fearful. (For all I know, they’re back there spitting in my food.) Most of the time, I wring my hands and gnash my teeth for nothing. Everything goes at the same slow pace, and I just waste valuable time that I could use more productively. If I am in the car, I can pray or sing. If I am waiting at a restaurant, I can talk with my family. Anything would be better than fretting about time and inefficiency.

There you have it: I cannot claim yet to be a master of “restaurant patience,” but I hope to get there someday. What about you? What situations make you impatient and how do you handle them? 

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Ordinary Greatness Bible Studies

Yesterday was an exciting day for me and two of my fellow pastors. We received the first hard copies of our new Bible study series. They are available on Amazon now, and they’ll be available for Kindle on October 30th. The author royalties we receive will go back to the ministry of Grace Bible Church, in order to allow us to grow as a church and to be more effective in communicating the Gospel around the world. Although I rarely (i.e. almost never) engage in this sort of promotion on my blog, I am so excited about this that I had to let you know a bit about these studies.

The series is published by NavPress/TH1NK and is titled Ordinary Greatness. Each of the three studies examines the life of a different biblical character: Gideon, Daniel, and Peter. They are generally geared toward youth and college students, and particularly toward young men. However, we’ve done our best to write studies that are broad enough to be useful to anybody.

If you have ever used any of Grace’s Bible study curriculum, you will find the format of these studies familiar. Each lesson is divided into three sections: Look It Over (Observation), Think It Through (Interpretation), and Make It Real (Application). Our goal is to challenge those who study these characters to dig into the biblical text deeply and to wrestle with how it applies to their lives.

Here are some of the endorsements we received for these studies: 

“A good set of character Bible studies is hard to find. THE ORDINARY GREATNESS series is rich in its engagement with the text and directing users to practical reflection. This is a solid tool for spiritual growth.” — Dr. Darrell Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary

“Change is inevitable, but the right kind of change is special. God is the agent of lasting change in our lives. This series will help identify the changes God wants to make in you by showing you the changes He has made in biblical heroes.” — Gregg Matte, pastor, Houston’s First Baptist Church

“ORDINARY GREATNESS is a series that invites people to know the Word of God thoroughly, interpret it accurately, and apply it passionately. This is a key resource for anyone looking to break new ground in their knowledge of the Bible and their intimacy with the Lord.” — Timothy Ateek, Director, Vertical Ministries, Waco

“Many studies of biblical characters are designed to inspire and encourage, but this one aims at something different: transformation. By continually driving us back to God’s Word and pointing us to the person of Jesus, the ORDINARY GREATNESS series provides the perfect antidote to the boredom and inward focus of our day.” — John Dyer, Th.M., author of From the Garden to the City

It is our desire that God will use these studies, and more importantly His Word, to transform your life and to make you a more effective servant of Jesus. I hope you will consider using one or all of these for yourself or your Bible study group. Thank you for your continued support, not only of this project but of Grace Bible Church and this blog. It’s a privilege to connect with you each week and also to offer you tools and resources like these.

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Is the Gospel Simple or Complex?

I’ve noticed a recent trend in evangelical writings concerning the message of the Gospel. Many Christian leaders are encouraging us to rethink the Gospel, insisting that the message preached by most pastors and evangelists is incomplete. 

As you might imagine, though, the “missing” content varies from writer to writer. For some, the Gospel is incomplete without an exhortation to care for the poor and needy. Others claim that our Gospel is lacking if we don’t encourage political involvement. Still others tell us that the Gospel message is all-encompassing, urging us to not only believe in Jesus, but to transform our actions, our thoughts, and consequently our world. In other words, the Gospel is as big as the kingdom of God, and we ought to include this enormous vision of God’s kingdom in every evangelistic proclamation.

Although I agree that God’s kingdom is all-encompassing, I think this recent approach to the Gospel confuses the implications of the Gospel with the message of the Gospel. Biblically speaking, the Gospel (or “good news”) of Jesus is that He died for our sins and rose again so that those who believe in Him can participate in eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Even if we trace the good news back to the accounts of Jesus’ life (i.e. “the gospels”) we find that the message of His Gospel was that the promised King had arrived and would ultimately usher in God’s kingdom. The response Jesus called for was typically belief in Him in order to participate in the coming kingdom.

After the resurrection of Christ, Paul clarified the “good news” for the men and women to whom He was preaching. The good news is that Jesus, by His death and resurrection, had defeated sin and death and paved the way for sinners to enter God’s kingdom (i.e. receive eternal life).

For that reason, our works of mercy, our personal holiness, and our political involvement constitute applications of the Gospel, but they do not constitute part of the message of the Gospel itself. As Christians, of course we are called to reflect the characteristics of God’s kingdom in order to proclaim Christ to the world. We do this with our words and our actions. However, to state that the good news of Jesus Christ includes our acts of goodness or righteousness is a dangerous and incorrect form of preaching. The good news, of course, is that Jesus saved me from my sin even when I did nothing to deserve it (Romans 5:8). Yes, the message of the Gospel implies that Christians ought to participate in reflecting and promoting God’s kingdom, but the Gospel does not require those actions in order to receive eternal life.

This is a critical distinction — I’m not simply splitting hairs. I think that many writers and speakers, with the best of intentions, have added their pet concerns to the message of the Gospel in order to communicate the importance of what they’re trying to say. If I tell you that you haven’t really believed in the Gospel unless you are doing or saying the things I consider important, you’re probably going to listen to me more carefully than if I make it a matter of implication and application. In other words, dangling the threat of hell over your head might just scare you into seeing matters my way.

If we do that, though, I think we lose the shocking beauty of God’s grace. The Gospel is about what God has done for me in Jesus Christ, not about what I do for Him in response. My response flows out of the Gospel, but my response isn’t a part of the Gospel. The good news is that I am completely sinful and unworthy, but God provided a way for me to know Him through His only Son. That good news motivates me to obey and to serve Him, but we need to be careful not to give the impression that service and obedience are necessary components of God’s free gift. If the Gospel hinges on what I do for God, I don’t think it’s really good news at all.

What do you think? Does the Gospel truly include everything Jesus asks us to do, or is the Gospel simply the message of His death and resurrection to provide us with eternal life? 

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Listening to Your Loneliness (Repost)

(Note: This week has been a busy one, and I’ve been unable to muster the creativity for a new topic. This post was one of my personal favorites from the past year, so I’m sharing it again in case you missed it the first time).

When I feel lonely, oh that’s only a sign,
Some room is empty, 
That room is there by design,
When I feel hollow, 
That’s just my proof that there’s more for me to follow,
That’s what the lonely is for.

(David Wilcox)

We tend to think of loneliness as something we need to escape. Many of us have ideas about what would truly cure us of loneliness once and for all. College students and single adults often think that marriage will cure loneliness. Married people often think that a better spouse will cure loneliness. From time to time we all believe that popularity or fame would cure our loneliness. In the words of Adam Duritz, “When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely.”

Except, of course, you can. To be honest, some of my loneliest moments have been in the presence of crowds, people who know my name but don’t really know me. Maybe you can relate to that. I think loneliness is often most acute when we finally achieve what we believe would be the cure for our loneliness — a spouse, a date, popularity — yet we realize we’re not cured after all.

What if we’re thinking about loneliness incorrectly? Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard to avoid loneliness, but should instead carefully consider what it means. Perhaps loneliness isn’t located “out there” somewhere but is really located “in here,” inside our hearts and minds and spirits. Loneliness just might be God’s way of reminding us that the ultimate source of acceptance and comfort isn’t found in anything this world can offer.

Don’t get me wrong — we’re designed to be in community with others, and to some degree we even need it. We aren’t made to walk through life totally alone. On the other hand, we aren’t made to be completely satisfied with the sort of imperfect relationships that this present world provides. Even in the most intimate relationships, people still hide from one another and hurt one another and fear one another. Until Jesus returns and makes us new and perfect and complete, we just won’t be able to avoid the pain of loneliness.

But when Jesus returns, loneliness will disappear. We’ll have perfect relationships, free of sin and doubt and fear of abandonment. Free of the need to hide from Him and from one another.

So right now, our loneliness serves as a sign to remind us that all is not well, but one day it will be. Instead of trying to escape it, let’s allow it to draw us closer to the One who can remove it permanently. Let’s also use the loneliness to remember that others are lonely too. Just like us, they need to hear the life-giving message that it won’t last forever.

How do you handle loneliness in your own life?

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