Changing Desires

“The creation of a new heart, the renewing of a right spirit is an omnipotent work of God. Leave it to the Creator.”
– Henry Drummond

“Dad, do you believe I am a Christian?”

Silence.

Each second that passed felt like a minute. We had just had an hour-long phone debate about my life, my struggles, and where I was headed. I felt unheard. I felt talked down to. Then, I finally asked that question.

Silence filled the space.

His answer came.

Working through that one answer has brought me to a question most of us struggle with. We publicly claim to be a Christian, but then someone calls us out for something and stating we are not who we say we are. After a while, we can become paranoid of others, suspicious of ourselves, and scared of our salvation.

What if I do this? What will happen? Will I still go to Heaven? Am I still saved? Does God still love me?

Those questions swarm us like piranhas in the Amazon ready to strip bare the hope we cling to.

What really signifies we are saved? What does it mean when people say our desires will change? Has our desires changed?

A New Life Has Begun

I bet you immediately thought of II Corinthians 5:17. It is the classic verse stating that belonging to Jesus means the old life has passed away, and a new life has begun.

We all love new starts, fresh beginnings, and slates wiped clean. I have a dear friend who one time I said something most cruel to him. My words shocked even me. We did not speak for about two weeks. Then we realized we could not quit each other. I asked for his forgiveness, and what I said emotionally tore me up inside. He forgave me, and he still hasn’t let go of me. Recently, I went through something quite dark, and that friend was right by my side. My shame told me I was rejected, but his love and friendship said, “Fall on me. You’re the reason I’m here.”

That is the love of Jesus. Our sin and wandering away from God is like spitting in his face or (pardon my language) pissing on the cross of Christ. He still looks at us and tells us to fall on him, because we are the reason he came to us. When we do, we experience a new life. Our old life is gone. He doesn’t see us like we once were. Instead, he sees us as we will be – perfected by the righteousness of his Son.

This verse isn’t just a hallmark card of well-wishes. It is a God-given promise. When we come to Christ through faith receiving his grace, our new life starts. It isn’t a question of if a new life is there. No! There is new life! It has started in you and me immediately.

What About My Desires?

However, many of us look at other Christians or our desires and say, “How can I be saved if I still want this?” Sometimes others look at us and think, “How can that person be a Christian if he does that or she does this or has those thoughts?”

Then starts a lot of talk about the changing of desires. Many of us hear about how our new life brings new desires. But, have you realized no one agrees what those desires look like. Everyone says you will desire the things of God, but when pushed for specifics, things get fuzzy.

Romans 6:4 tells us to live in a new way. Ephesians 4:22-24 urges us to put off our old self, and clothe ourselves with a new life renewed after the image of God. Many other passages get thrown around, but none of them state a specific path. Many times we immediately go to what actions we do – what movies are we watching, what music is on our playlist, what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, how we are perceived, how good we are before God and others, and the list has more red tape than a government mandate.

What does Scripture tell us? The key is actually found in I John 2:6. Our lives are to reflect the way Jesus lived. The way Jesus lived is the way the Father is (John 1:14 & 18). Therefore, when we follow Christ’s example of living, then we are living a new life that is fashioned after the image of God.

His desires were to do the will of the Father, to bring life, to love on people, to heal the sick, to preach the Kingdom of Heaven, to give his life as a ransom for many, to bring sinners to salvation, to build the church, and to restore all things that have been crushed by sin’s curse.

If our desires are beginning to align with those things, then everything else will fall into place. I truly believe Matthew 6:33 applies to this. When we seek God’s Kingdom first, then our desires will change to align to God’s desires. The specifics do not matter, because they will come to order in our life when we seek God’s Kingdom first. We mess things up when we seek specifics before we seek to live out the desires Jesus had.

What About That “Christian”?

But, the specifics still stick with us, don’t they? Those lists we create become the way we look at other Christians. We even may put quotations around that term depending on who we are talking about. We may see a “Christian” drinking a beer, or a “Christian” with tattoos, or a “Christian” who is a single mom, or a “Christian”… you fill in the blank. To be blunt, we judge Christians who do not look identical to our specifics. We say, “I can’t believe they said this, did that, believe this, or think that way!”

How many of us have had that said about us? It doesn’t feel nice.

Scripture guides us in this discussion in I Corinthians 8-10. What Paul boils everything down to is that the heart of the matter is where our heart is. If we are loving God and loving people, we are free. We use our freedoms to love God by showing love to others. We create an environment of grace for each other to grow in God’s grace and knowledge.

Peter experienced this in Acts 10. God gave him a vision to stretch his thinking outside of regulations into a mindset of a relationship with God through his Spirit. Because of Jesus, we are free. But, our relational love with God, because of Jesus, constrains us to live and make each moment about God. This will be in how we love others.

But, what about the specifics? Leave the specifics to the Spirit. Seek God’s Kingdom first. Jesus promises us the Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13). Do you think the Spirit will lead us astray if we are seeking God’s Kingdom? He will show us how to live in each moment and how to make decisions about things the Scriptures are not black and white about.

We judge so many people if they do not fit our version of the Christian life. But the better question is…

Do you fit the Spirit’s version of the Christian life? Do you follow after the desires of Christ? When we do, that other “Christian” becomes a brother more than someone to question.

The Unfinished Artwork

Ever seen a painter work? While they work, we may see things that look like a picture, but it looks strange. We may even give advice on what colors we would use and disagree with what they are doing. Yet, who’s artwork is it?

It is the same with other Christians and our changing desires. God is the artist. We are not. We need to give space for the Spirit to move and finish the artwork of God’s love in another person’s soul before we try to form that individual in our image. Encourage them to pursue Christ’s desires and God’s Kingdom. Then, step back and watch God work. Read through the Old Testament. Many of those people were messed up. One family had the struggle of lying (Abraham and Isaac; like father like son), plenty of murderers (Moses and David), plenty of doubters (Esther), a king who liked to have a new woman every day (Solomon), and a prophet who cursed God when he didn’t nuke a nation (Jonah). Yet, he still made their lives beautiful. They are recorded in Scripture for our encouragement.

No one is a finished canvas. God will fashion our desires as we seek his Kingdom. The new life is there. As we follow the Spirit everything else will fall into place.

When The Silence Breaks

So, what did my dad say to me when I asked if he thought I was a Christian?

He said because he felt my desires were not pursuing the things of God, he doubted if I was still a Christian.

That was May 2, 2021. I remember the date so clearly. It was a Sunday afternoon. His words hurt deeply. Our relationship has not been good since. Would I like a relationship with my family? Yes, but right now it seems impossible. All because of disagreements of the Christian life. In my family there was no space to grow in grace. Instead, it is one way – their way.

Do you think I am a Christian?

It is a tough question to ask. The silence and the answer can crush a soul and suffocate hope out. But, our hope is not in our actions, our specifics, or in how we are perceived. It is in Jesus Christ, our living hope. He breaks the chains, his Spirit changes our desires, and he will finish our canvas. Our life will become his beautiful artwork he will display for all to see.

When we ask that question, we need to preach the Kingdom of God to our heart. What is the river running through this Kingdom? It is the blood of Jesus poured out for us as the seal for God’s new covenant. We have a relationship. We have bold access. We have his Spirit baptizing our life. We need to start with that, then all the specifics will fall into place.

Our desires will change as we seek God’s Kingdom. We should never align our desires after a Christian image made by man. Instead, let’s align our desires to be changed by the desires of Jesus. There is a reason the Gospels are in Scripture and not just a list of do’s and don’ts. It is because it is in the Gospels we see our living hope living out God’s desires.

Let the Spirit change you. Let the Spirit change others. Let’s work together to be more like Jesus and to seek God’s kingdom first…

Then our desires will change to be God’s desires.

The Path of the Vulnerable

It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success.
– John Steinbeck

Once it is said, you can’t take it back. No matter how your try, they know. You do feel a huge weight off your chest, but now comes the worst part –

They know

Now they begin to look at you in a different way. They may avoid you, label you, exclude you, replace you, or treat you only with shallow kindness which is easily wiped away with a makeup wipe.

It is a trait we all honor, but never respect. It is a position we desire to be at, but we treat with disdain. To be vulnerable and open seems to be so free, yet our reality shows us it is a prison.

Opening up and being vulnerable can be a very lonely road. People do not know what to do with you. You see yourself only by the news of what is revealed. Whatever difficult secret has been unveiled is given away out of trust, and it is either shared with everyone or cherished. To be honest, how many times has the latter been portrayed only to have the former become our reality?

How do we walk down a road spoken with praise, but hardly a hiker spotted along its path?

A Disdained Value

We all know what it is like to be open and vulnerable. We carry that weight of a dark secret. It is like a tumor we must show in order for healing to happen. We all know this! We hear pastors laud the praise of stepping into the light and finding God’s forgiveness to soothe our weary souls.

Yet, what really happens? We step out of the dark. We take off the mask, and, immediately, shunned. Some are told to put the mask back on. Some lose positions. Some put into counseling. But, all are silenced. Sure, those things can be good depending on the situation. But, all are silenced so no one knows. We would rather uphold an image of perfection than allow flaws to flaunt.

But, is vulnerability flaunting?

A Mindset Honored

The truth is vulnerability is a mindset to be honored. It is something to be practiced and treated with honor.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults before each other, so we can intercede in prayer for each other. Galatians 6:2 presses the need to share our burdens. Why should we help each other with the burdens they carry? Because Jesus carries our burdens for us (Matthew 11:28-30). Our savior carries our burdens out of love. He gives his life to shoulder what is too heavy for us. This is how he loves us, and this is how we are to love each other.

The qualification for Jesus to bear your burden is to come with your heaviest weight and to give it to him. He does not care if it is pretty or dirty. He doesn’t mind being seen in public with your load. He was stripped bare for the public in order to take your sin upon himself. Do you think he is embarrassed by your burden?

Unfortunately, we say yes. It is because we are embarrassed by it. Our vulnerability is scorned. We have experienced what Bartimaeus endured. He cried out for Jesus to heal him. He only wanted Jesus, and people tried to hush him up. The ones who should have loved him enough to bring him to Jesus silence him. It wasn’t until Jesus called him that the crowd’s attitude changed (Matthew 10:46-52).

The majority of people Jesus healed had to become vulnerable in order for healing to happen. God honors those who have a vulnerable mindset. His light truly heals when we are vulnerable.

No Longer A Curse

So often we know the consequences of being open. We lose friends, family, positions, reputation… shall I keep going?

I remember when I opened up to my family about being same-sex attracted. Instead of listening to understand, they began to debate me. They could no longer say with certainty if I was a Christian or not. They began to stalk and google friends who were supporting me. I was called weak-minded. It got to the point, that a “picturesque family gathering” could no longer happen. The relationship I have with them is shallow. I have a better relationship with my students than my own family. In fact, a dog has taken my place.

I opened up. I had to be honest with them, yet I was met with debating and shunning.

To many of us, we fear what I experienced as we decide if we should be vulnerable. All the “If” statements crowd our thoughts and create our anxiety to go through the roof. Or, if we have opened up, we can only think of the “If only I had…”

How many friends have we lost? How has our family relationship slowly disappeared because of us wanting to be honest?

Doesn’t vulnerability seem to be a curse?

Scripture actually calls the open and vulnerable blessed. In fact, it is the first beatitude. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs (Matthew 5:3).”

If we realize our need for him, then we become open. Our vulnerability reveals our poverty of spirit. It is the lack of vulnerability that poisons our life with the deception of an image.

It is no longer a curse! Jesus wants us to boldly come to him. He wants to take our burden and give rest and grace. He empowers and commands the church to take the shame of vulnerability and turn it into a blessing for those who are will receive the King of Heaven.

The Path Ahead

Vulnerability is so difficult to do. We know what will happen. We will be shamed, shunned, while those who hear are shocked while showing their surface smiles.

I have learned that being open can bring a lot of pain. It ruins relationships. It rips apart a reputation. It mutilates that mask we grasp so closely. Yet, it has healed a lot of my deep wounds. It opens a deeper relationship with Jesus and shows me the power of the Holy Spirit.

I remember one Sunday going to my pastor for prayer. Our lives turned a chapter we had to pretty much read upside-down. The burdens were too great for us. He then said he was proud of our vulnerability. I couldn’t believe my ears. So many times I was shunned for opening up about our struggles. Yet, for once I heard a pastor tell me how proud he was for me being open. I never even got that from my own father.

That is what the church is to be about. Fear is what keeps us from being open. Protection of an image keeps us from allowing others to open up. Yet, who was known as the friend of sinners who ate and drank with them? Who was the one whose disciples and followers were not seen as the most impressive people? It was Jesus. He did not come to preserve an image or fear what others were thinking. He came to bring life. In order to do that he created an environment of grace so the people around him could open up.

Does our life create that environment of grace? Do our churches value traditions and images over bringing people into the life-giving presence of God?

Look, I’m not perfect. I do not even strive for perfection. It is not mine to strive for. I struggle with depression, anxiety, body shame, and same-sex attraction. I’m a mess. No “good” church would want me on their leadership. I stumble, fall, get angry, blow up, and hurt others. Yet, I pursue and seek God daily. I have to be in his Word. I have to pray. I am not who I was, but I’m not yet where God’s vision is directing me.

If being vulnerable has taught me anything, it has taught me to let go of my image, my mask, and go pursue Jesus. If I am vulnerable, then the darkness loses control to light. If I am open, then the light of Jesus can flood in and awaken my soul.

It has not been easy. It is harder to do than to say. Yet, I am blessed to know that I do not have to hide. I do not have to avoid people or church just because of a secret controlling my life.

Without vulnerability there is no light.

The path of vulnerability is lit with the lamps of grace fueled by the blood of Jesus.

and…

The path of the vulnerable should be the path of the Christian.

No Prescription Available

“A lot of what is most beautiful about the world arises from struggle.” – Malcolm Gladwell

“Pray.”
“Read this passage.”
“Go see this therapist.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“It’s just a phase.”
“Just get over it.”

The voices of instruction, criticism, and advice swarm your head like bees attacking an intruder at the hive. They see the problem, and that problem must be eradicated. You swat the bees away before you are stung again. Their words are good, but their help is no better than taking sugar pills hoping the disease will go away.

You’ve tried everything. Your mental medicine cabinet is stocked with empty prescription written by another friend, another counselor, another pastor. You fake a smile out of gratitude, but deep inside you know the infection is still there. The struggle is real. You can’t take anymore pills. You are annoyed with the next person offering you a “magical cure” as one would be with an essential oils salesperson.

Do I just give in? Do I give up? How long can I hang on?

When the loneliness of night finds you surrounded by your empty prescription bottles, your mind and heart tearing you apart, where do you turn?

When no prescription is available, what do you do?

Spent

We’ve all been there. Hopelessly spent. Our wallets empty, our minds deleting all the spam advice messages, and our hearts sick of all the prescriptions we’ve taken.

We find ourselves in Chapter 5 of Mark and John. (John 5:1-15; Mark 5:24-34)

A woman invisible in the crowd. A man with no one. They all had a disease no one could cure. The woman ran out of money. The man ran out of hope.

The woman couldn’t stop the bleeding. She went broke searching. The man had been lame for thirty-eight years. The healing pool in arms reach, yet he had no one to place him in when the waters stirred. Everyone else seemed to be healed or living the dream, but them.

How spent am I with my struggles? I have mentally spent everything fighting. I’ve spent everything emotionally working through things. I have physically spent too much searching for that one thing. I can look through Barnes and Nobles’ thousands of titles and come up empty. I can pray and pray and spiritually I feel like I am on the Titanic with no help around; only to be met by the icy cold touch of the ominous ocean.

Seen

Yet, the stories do not leave that man and woman without hope. Each of them met someone when all else failed. They met Jesus.

The woman heard of Jesus. Her hope rested on touching just a thread of Jesus’ garment. The man wanted someone to put him into the healing pool, yet he heard something said to him. Jesus saw both of them. The woman he sought, after he felt power leave him. The man was offered a chance to be healed in that moment. Jesus saw them.

He sees me. He sees you. In the darkest struggle where no pathway or solution is clear, Jesus sees you. His heart breaks for us as our hope begins to break. He isn’t so high that he can’t relate to us. He, also, isn’t so low that he can’t do anything about our struggles.

Jesus never followed the “correct path” for healing. The woman was healed by touching his garment. The man healed by the word of Jesus. Jesus always takes the unexpected route in order to show how loving he is.

In my darkest hour, Jesus sees me. He has the perfect path. I am not just an invisible ghost attempting to get his attention. He sees the battle. He sees my whole self being torn apart.

Shining

So many times we want to be fixed and healed now. We hate the struggle. I know I do. I hate when my mind and heart are at war. I hate when nothing seems to work. I hate myself so much that I just wish I would die. I wish an end would come rather than feeling like my struggle is choking every last breath out of me.

Yet, maybe the salvation isn’t in a silver bullet or in a prescription. Maybe it is in the struggle. Maybe what shines a light in our struggle is knowing it is ok to struggle. God never used perfect people. They were people who struggled each step of the way. Yet, we read their stories over and over in the Bible. We miss the mark when we romanticize these people. They were sinners redeemed by God like you and me. They struggled deeply like you and I.

A man who is pursuing God’s heart isn’t one who has it all together. It is a man who can’t breathe without God. That’s what it means to shine. The power isn’t in the perfection. It is in the persistance.

My good doesn’t come from beating my struggle. It comes from Jesus. My perfection doesn’t come from my image or reputation. My perfection comes from Jesus.

Too often we think we will shine if we have a certain image. That thinking only reduces the Gospel to clothing, outward looks, and the daily masks we choose from. Shining comes from the dawn of Christ breaking through our darkness. Shining is Christ working through us. The mess is what makes his light shine brighter; not our self-righteousness.

Standing

Too often I focus on how often I fall or how others will see my struggle. I feel like a beast meant to crawl on my belly. But, whether or not I fall, Jesus makes me stand.

Jesus made the woman with the issue of blood and the lame man stand in confidence. They had none, but he gave them all. He gives us the same hope, the same confidence, and the same feet grounded in the Gospel of peace soothing our souls.

We can stand despite what we struggle with. We are grounded in the Gospel. Jesus isn’t going anywhere. When the Gospel becomes our ground, we can stand with confidence, because it is not of ourselves but of Jesus.

Surrounded

Not only am I seen, shining, and standing, but I am surrounded. God purposefully places people in our lives to show us himself.

He never leaves us alone. We think we are alone, because we do not look from God’s perspective. It is like playing chess. We look at the board from one end thinking we are losing, but if we switch to God’s side, we will see all the pieces surrounding us to keep us safe.

I remember, two weeks ago, experiencing something awful. I couldn’t do anything to fix a situation. Yet, when I breathed and prayed for help. God didn’t relieve the situation. He opened my eyes to see who was near me. It was overwhelming.

We need to see the same in our struggles. Sure, there may not be a prescription to fix it, but we are never alone. We just need to raise our eyes and voice our struggle. We have a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, and eyes to look into telling us to keep going.

I must no longer look for the next prescription, I need to look for help from the body of Christ. It is in the body where we find the perfect anti-bodies to stand up to the infection which plagues us.

Striding

How many times have I asked God to take away my struggle? Too many times. Too many wasted prayers. Wasted? Yes. Because, it isn’t about me being cured. It isn’t about the miracle.

It is about being seen, shining in the dark, standing on the Gospel, and being surrounded by the body of Christ. The testimony doesn’t rely on what I once was. It is a story of what I am becoming. It is the story of my strides not my sins, shames, and slips.

Yes, there are days I feel like I cannot get up. But, I can still stride down the foggy path. My story becomes like messages in a bottle thrown to those coming behind me in these uncharted waters.

I do not have answers. I do not have the magical pill. I can only give my struggle to Jesus each day. It is a burden too much for me that he alone can carry. When he carries it, I can stride. When he carries my burden, I can be who I am created to be – his image bearer.

What is stronger? A story of a perceived perfect person? Or a story of a stumbling, yet striving saint?

These are the thoughts of someone who struggles with same-sex attraction. A battle I never chose. Something I have prayed over and over about. It is not easy to live with. There is no quick answer. All I can say is realize you are seen by Jesus. You were created to shine. You can stand despite what people say. You are surrounded by more than you realize. And, you can be striding each step of the way by following the Spirit. It is one day at a time. One step at a time. Follow the Spirit. It is not easy revealing my struggle. I have lost family and friends over it. I can only accept it and give it to Jesus each day. I have no answers expect Jesus has to take control of it. I have to be led by the Spirit to stride. I am imperfect. I am broken. I am not the example to follow. But, I can leave notes in a bottle to give some sort of map through these uncharted waters.

Light In Our Dystopia

We are living a life of shadows, of echoes, of fake distant whispers of what once made is real.” The Giver

Dystopia

Some of us are familiar with this word. It is defined as, “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” Dystopia appears in many of our literature and movies – The Hunger Games, The Giver, The Maze Runner, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Divergent (to give some examples).

This world is usually characterized by rules in order to prevent something or to keep something out. The people live in fear. The key trait of Dystopia is fear. Fear to live outside the rules, and fear to do anything that might break the norm.

We may look at stories like these, and immediately think our government is leading to that or our culture is heading that way.

However, I want to ask you another question…

Are our churches heading this direction? As Christians, we all agree that the world goes further away from God. But, are we as well? Are we moving away from freedom to dystopia?

The Jewish Dystopia

There is an interesting verse in John 9. It is the story of Jesus healing the man who was born blind. Once healed, the religious leaders call him in for questioning. How was this man healed? Who healed him? Was this man truly blind to begin with? The interrogation of the religious leaders could have landed them jobs with the FBI. They didn’t leave a stone unturned. Then after a while, they call in the man’s parents. His parents quickly try to escape the questioning saying this man id their son, but being an adult, he could answer. Then the reason for their answer strikes me each time I read it –

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had announced that anyone saying Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue.” – John 9:22

Fear gripped their heart. They did not want to be excommunicated. The religious leaders ran the show in this day. Sure, the Romans had power. But, the religious leaders struck more fear in the people than the Romans. Going against them meant they could become an outcast. The religious leaders controlled how people viewed God, lived their life, and went about their daily routines. In essence, they were living in what could be characterized as a dystopia.

Even Jesus acknowledged this control in Matthew 23:13. He explained the religious leaders wouldn’t walk down God’s path while at the same time not allowing other people to enter as well. They had control, and they did not want to give it up. Their envy of Jesus lead them to kill him (Matthew 27:18).

New Thoughts, New Way, New Covenant

Why were they envious of Jesus? It was more than just his popularity. Jesus brought something to the table which threatened the dystopia of the religious leaders – a new way.

Throughout the Gospels, we see the religious leaders always questioning why Jesus was doing something or what authority he had to say something. Jesus does reply in one particular instance in Mark 2:22. He says new wine calls for new wineskin. This passage is all about how we need a new heart in order to fully understand the new way Jesus brings. This new way is established and sealed by the blood oath of Jesus’ sacrifice to bring about a new covenant (Luke 22:20).

Jesus brings a new way to relate to the Father, a new relationship with man through the indwelling of the Spirit, and a new way to live that is not based in fear of laws and regulations. Instead, the death and resurrection of Jesus brings a freedom and a new life (II Corinthians 5:17). We no longer live to a law, but under the grace of Jesus. Why do you think many of the epistles start with grace and peace from the Father to us? It is because this is how we live.

In Christ we find new thoughts, a new way established in a new covenant to bring about a new life.

Exchanging Freedom

However, to many Christians that freedom does not last long. We ask God to forgive us our sins, bring Jesus into our life, and are baptized. But, what tends to happen? Our expected freedom seems to turn into a tangle of demands, standards, and images we need to uphold. We are told to what church we must belong to, what theological position we must hold, what translations are bad and which ones are good, what music to listen to, which worldly things to avoid, and how to keep ourselves from being corrupted by the world.

In all of this, our view of what makes a good Christian is measured by keeping rules. All of us do not want to be seen as a “bad Christian.” In order to do that, we create lists in our minds. What have we done when we do that?

In essence, we have exchanged the freedom of God’s grace for an idol. That idol is our image. Our worship is out of fear. Our relationship is one sucked dry of boldness before God. We worship an image of a good Christian rather than the Creator of our new heart (Romans 1:21-23).

This exchange was happening in the church of Galatia. Paul’s heart broke for these people, and the Spirit prompted him to write Galatians. In Galatians 1:6-7, Paul is astounded how the people exchanged the Gospel for a list of rules. See, a group of teachers came in saying, “Since being saved, to please God you must do these certain things.” When the church began to do that, it traded Christ’s grace for the law; which means they treated Christ’s sacrifice as meaningless (Galatians 2:21).

Is there anything wrong with standards? No. Is there anything wrong with a personal code of ethics? No. However, the problem lies in when our “goodness” before God is questioned, because of our adherence or lack of adherence to certain standards.

Have our churches and ourselves exchanged the freedom found in the grace of God for a dystopian Christian life?

Freedom Claimed

Then, what is Christ’s freedom?

First, it is being made alive from the death of our sins into the life of Christ by his grace (Ephesians 2:1-9). It is in this grace we are blessed with every spiritual blessing from the Father – the sealing of the Spirit, the inheritance of Christ, our living hope, the gifts of the Spirit, bold access to the throne of grace among many, many things (Ephesians 1; 1 Peter 1:3; I Corinthians 12:1-11; Hebrews 4:15-16).

Think about it. We now have the Spirit of Truth inside of us leading us into all truth. As we pursue the Spirit, we will be changed into the image of Christ, because then the fruit of the Spirit will begin to grow. Christ’s freedom is found in loving others and allowing grace to teach us to put away worthless things in order to follow God.

We are new creations called to live a new life. In this new life, we have an indwelling divine in ourselves – the Holy Spirit. He guides, comforts, and works in us and through us. We no longer please God out of adherence to the Mosaic law. It is because of our relationship of faith which pleases God.

This relationship brings so much freedom. This is what we are exchanging.

Bringing The Light

One of my favorite dystopian movies is The Giver. The people have eradicated all memories and keep a barrier so the memories do not reenter their community. They understand the human nature brings so much evil. When people choose, they choose wrong. Love can turn ugly at any moment. So, they exchanged the memories of being human for a dystopian existence.

I want you to watch the final speech of the movie – Watch Here

We are living a life of shadows, of echoes, of fake distant whispers of what once made is real.

We are living a life of shadows. We look at the love of God, and we recoil at how it can turn into a Christianity that is “unbiblical.” But, isn’t it the love of God which sent Jesus, which held Jesus to the cross, which brought the resurrection three days later, and which bought your salvation and new life?

We are living a life of faint whispers of what once made us real. God’s love whispers throughout our churches, our worship, and our quiet times. Yet, we would rather stick to our rules to make sure we are “good Christians.” This only develops into a Christian dystopia.

Jesus calls us out in Revelation 2:1-7. He sees our hard works, our keeping false teachers away, and everything else we do. But, we have exchanged our love and Christ’s love for a world like one found in The Giver.

We must go back. We must read Scripture again, and see what it truly says. God loves us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants us to believe in Jesus, live in a faith-based relationship with him, and enjoy all that he has given us.

What makes us real? The work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in our life. Yet, we keep it all bottled up for the sake of an image we worship instead of the Creator. We need to let that out. Remember who Jesus is. Remember his love for us. Remember what he has done and given to us.

Until our daily life is a worship song in the Spirit to the Father because of Jesus, we will remain in a dystopia of our own making. Let’s remember his love and spread those memories far and wide. He is the light, and in him is no darkness, no prison, and no slavery. A slave is loved based on his performance, but a son or daughter is loved always unconditionally.

Let’s not give into another form of slavery, but break the chains of our dystopia by bringing to light who Jesus is, what he has done, what he has given to us, and the beautiful relationship of faith and grace with Jesus through the Spirit.

When Your Theology Breaks

“Life is God’s novel. Let him write it.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer

Ever have something break you in life?
Was it a loss of a loved one?
A move to another place?

Yet, many Christians hardly talk about their theology breaking. What I mean here is that learned theology or inner theology we all carry. It is filled with terms, support passages, arguments for this side, and arguments against that side. Some Christians spend years studying theology. They are able to take an issue like salvation, sanctification, eschatology, and other topics and study them in-depth. They know which denominations and authors believe what, and where they stand on the issue.

When we hear of a Christian’s theology breaking, we worry for them. We pray for their soul to get right with God. We may see new things pop up on Facebook, and we pray God would bring them back to walk in light of the truth. We may send them verses, try to counsel them, or do anything to bring them back to our side (I mean God’s side, of course).

But, have you ever been in a situation where a red flag came up regarding your inner theology? Did the flight or fight mentality kick in? Or did you lean into it to see why the flag was raised?

God, You Want Me To Do What?

Recently, I was studying through the book of Acts. It was at this time, I noticed the phrase “the Spirit” appearing over and over. Soon, I saw things like the laying on of hands to receive the Spirit, the speaking in tongues, prophesying, and other things that leaped off the page at me.

Then the weekend came. Our church was holding a Prophetic Presbytery. It is a time of prophetic word, word in season, and allowing the Spirit to speak to us. As any “good conservative theologian,” I was skeptical. I was scared. I was ready for people falling on the floor, convulsing, speaking in gibberish, and chaos to erupt. My heart told me it was time to fight or flee.

Yet…
That did not happen.

The morning before the event, I was back in Acts. The perceived omen of the evening loomed like a dark cloud. Then a quite whisper said, “Lay aside your training and inner theology. Be still, and watch me work.”

It has been over a week since. I was amazed at the working of God that weekend. He taught me so much.

But, he wasn’t done with me yet.

I finished studying through Acts, and one clear conviction came –
“Stephen, go forward in church. Have someone pray over you to receive the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.”

God, you want me to do what?!

Suspicion

Don’t you love a good cliff hanger? Or a good, suspenseful story? My favorites are murder mysteries. There is a good build of suspicion towards one character or another. My wife hates to watch murder shows with me, because I will talk out my thoughts all the way through.

Suspicion is key to any good mystery writing. It is defined as, “a feeling or thought that something is possible, likely, or true.” Our thoughts may be true, our evidence may add up, or our theory may fall flat.

Mark 9:38-41 is a story of suspicion. John, the beloved disciple, runs to Christ (probably frantically). “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name. Guess what?! They are not apart of this group. So I told him to stop.”

(Sounds like something a student would say to me out at recess)

John saw someone doing something he felt was not right. He went to report it to stop it. Suspicion of “this isn’t right” drove him to tell Jesus. I doubt John was expecting to hear Jesus’ response – “Don’t stop him! No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us.”

What?! That guy wasn’t apart of the group! Jesus said nothing wrong was happening and to let it go. Jesus does not even stop it.

How often do we see something, and we are quick to judge it? Suspicion turns into prayers to God to stop that person or event.

Sheet of Animals and Changed Theology

Yet, that isn’t the only story of Jesus changing a disciple’s viewpoint. In Acts 10:9-20, Peter gets a wake up call. As he takes a nap, God gives him a dream of a sheet of fabric containing all sorts of animals. Then God tells him to kill and eat. Much to Peter’s horror he refuses, because it would go against the Law. How dare he cross the Mosaic Law. But God speaks softly, “Do not call unclean what I have called clean.”

Peter had his theology changed. God was calling him to see the Gospel would go to the Gentiles, and Peter could enter their homes with fellowship.

How often does God reveal something to us and we almost gasp? It might be a calling or a change in a theological position. God is always bigger than the boxes we try to put him in. He is bigger than the writings of Grudem, Erickson, Enns, or Ryrie (some of the systematic theologians I’ve studied). It is good to study theology, but if our anchor is to a position and not the Word, then we can find ourselves driven by a position rather than the Word.

We would rather remain in our suspicion and comfort-zone regarding other Christians than allowing God to move us. We want to move God to fit our position, our arguments, and our traditions and ways.

But, is that how God works?

I Went Forward

God’s conviction about being baptized in the Holy Spirit was a tough thing for me to swallow. It went against all my training. We would mock people who claimed this. We avoided churches, and sometimes wondered if it was demonic. Yet, I could not escape the small voice inside of me. The verses in Acts swirled in my head like that one song you get stuck in your head. Unless you do something about it, that song will remain stuck.

So I began to pray, to search out Scripture, and to pray (yes, prayer is that important). This conviction was something I had no frame for. It was mysterious. But, I couldn’t shake the fact that many people had hands laid on them to receive the Holy Spirit resulting in tongues and prophecy. A lot of unknowns, controversies, and heated debates are wrapped up in this topic.

Confusion settled in, then peace. I became so scared of the unknown that I forgot who my God is. He gently reminded me that he is with me, gives peace, and would never do anything that crosses his Word. Do I trust him in that?

My fight or flight mentality regarding my inner theology had to turn to surrender. I had to lay down my training, the thing I prided in, in order to experience God in a whole new way. God is bigger than my seminary degree, and he works in more mysterious ways than my training wanted to admit. Just like John and Peter, I gave into God’s Word over what I was trained to believe.

That Sunday, after the service, I found my pastor. I told him I wanted to be baptized in the Spirit. I’ve never seen a pastor smile at me like that. He laid his hands on me, and I experienced something I cannot describe. I let go of my training in order to pick up faith. A faith that tells me God’s promises are true, his Word is true, and that what God prompts me to do is the right path. For we do not walk by our sight, our theological training, or our denomination. We walk by faith.

So often, we fight over our positions and authors. We become like the Corinthian church in I Corinthians 3:1-4. We argue and debate. We tell people if they don’t have verses ready to defend their position, then they can’t. We tell other Christians they are believing an aberrant theology. Paul says that is the way of the world. When our theological training becomes more important than the working of God in our hearts, we become the Pharisees making the Word of God not effective, because we would rather hand down our traditions (Mark 7:13).

“Anything in our lives that is influenced by religious tradition as opposed to Scripture becomes an obstacle to the will of God being accomplished in our lives. Religious tradition comes comes a millstone that weighs us done and keeps us down. It can diminish the potency of God’s promises for us.”
– Lee M. Cummings

When God moves, our inner theology can break. It feels like a priceless vase smashed on the floor. The value is worthless. Yet, the most valuable thing isn’t our training, our systematic theologies we’ve read or those ones we’ve avoided. Instead, it is in Christ. We put aside everything that packages Jesus into our boxes for the sake of knowing him more and more each day (Philippians 3:8). We need to be grateful for our inner theology, but not hold onto it so tight. We always need to be in a position to surrender for the sake of knowing Jesus more and more.

We may have our stacks of books, but Jesus comes before that. The cross must always be before our books. The red flags we experience may not be of the danger outside of us. A red flag may indicate a danger inside of us showing us how our inner theology needs to change.

My inner theology has broken. All those papers I wrote in seminary now seem like garbage. Did I learn a lot? Yes, but I do not count that as everything. Knowing Jesus is more important than holding onto a theological position and debating it. I need to choose faith to follow Jesus on his path filled with twists and turns and bumps rather than on a path that seems paved and systematically mapped out.

It is on his mysterious path I find surrender easier than on a path where I think I know the direction.

We can make this post all about my baptism in the Holy Spirit or we can make it about God changing my inner theology.

God will show himself in ways that breaks our inner theology and the red flags will appear. It is our answer to him which will determine where our heart is…

“My will be done”
or
“God, your will be done.”

Put Down The Books, And No One Gets Hurt

“You want weapons. We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Doctor Who

I spent five years in undergrad and two years in graduate school. I have a total of seven years of formal training. I have read countless pages in books about this topic. I know all the terms, all the arguments, all the history, and all the theories. I even know the original languages. I wrote many, many pages worth of papers on the various topics within this topic. In fact, I was given a page maximum, but the other students were given page minimums.

I studied the Bible. I studied for the ministry. I have a bachelor’s in youth ministry and a master’s in cross-cultural studies (missions focus). My master’s project was a 120 page paper titled, “Mission Strategies for 21st Century France: A Study in the Practice of Contextualization.” After graduation, I was an interim youth pastor for two years, then worked on a masters of divinity.

Then…

Like a tornado transporting Dorothy to Oz, I found myself in a place I never thought I’d be…

Watch Out!

One thing the college I went to prides itself in is the student’s ability to use the Bible. As students in their ministerial school and seminary, we were trained in biblical theology, systematic theology, original languages, and many other things. We were required to participate in weekly ministries. We were required to read the Bible through once a school year. I remember I went street-witnessing, and some nights it turned into debating people.

When I went home over the summer, I debated people on various issues in Christianity.

I upheld the theme verse that seemed to come out in every class –
Titus 1:9
“He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. (Emphasis on the last part)

Seminary students were a force to be reckoned with. I was one of them. We preached on sin, avoiding the world, and the dangers of “other churches out there.” Our education became a weapon. We could quick-draw from our stack of books faster than any gunslinger of the Old West. This attitude became our pride.

If you crossed my path, I wanted a debate. I would make sure you knew my position, and made sure you knew yours was wrong and potentially sending you to Hell.

Then…

A simple question…

Haven’t You Read?

My favorite Sunday lunch was Roast Pastor. As we would go to church, I would have a mental debate (greater than any presidential debate – the 2020 debate isn’t hard to beat). I would find any reason to dismiss the pastor.

May 25, 2021 arrived. I was out of work at the time. Struggles were real. A good friend knew the struggles I was going through and encouraged me to read Galatians. “Galatians?” I thought. “I know this book like the back of my hand, the chapter content, the key verses, the biblical theology, and the significance of it in church history.”

But, I sat at Barnes and Noble going to read one chapter, because (if you know me) I had a book list I wanted to get to. However, one chapter turned into two, then pretty soon I found myself at the end of Galatians with notes galore.

“Where was all this? Why haven’t I seen this before?”
I saw things like I never did. It was that day God made a change in my life. I texted my friend so much that day he probably put me on “ignore.” Then, I couldn’t put down the Bible. I would read whole books in one sitting.

Jesus asked the Pharisees a similar question: “Haven’t you read?” In fact, he asks this over a dozen times in the Gospels. When the Pharisees tried to debate Jesus, he most likely brought this question up. He questioned the reading comprehension of the most learned men in the New Testament.

And Jesus did the same to me. I began to see the Gospel in a whole new way. Yet, my books were still at my hip. Each one ready to be drawn and fired at a moment’s notice.

A question led me to the heart of Jesus…

But…

A weekend event led me to disarm…

“You are Home”

Prophetic Presbytery

“Ok,” I thought. “What is this? I hope this is biblical.” Our church was having it’s annual Prophetic Presbytery. Yet, this was the first time I had heard of this term. Not knowing what exactly was involved, my wife and I signed up to help usher.

Then a Tuesday breakfast with my small group leader sounded the alarm. He explained the event using terms like, “prophesying over people,” “word in season,” “hearing God’s message for you,” and many other things where all the alarms went off. Panic and anxiety settled it. My photographic memory kicked in as the many pages I had mentally scanned appeared in my vision. The ammo was loaded and ready. Unfortunately, it fired at this guy.

I was going to honor my word to serve, but my debating skills were revved up. However, I spent the weekdays before in the book of Acts. The morning before the first session, I sensed in my heart God telling me, “It is ok. Set down your seminary degree. Put the books down, and watch.”

I was so uptight that first session. I probably looked like I was going to pop. Yet, things got started. I experienced God in a way I had no box for, no label to put it under, or no way to even put words to it. On the drive home, my wife asked me what I thought. I could only respond with, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then Sunday morning came. We were serving as usual. Similar to the night before, they had another prophetic session. There was just some doubt in me. Then the service ended. We were about to leave, when our pastor came up to me. She said, “Stephen, I have a word for you. God gave it to me last night.”

She said it was for a man named Stephen. Of all places, she runs into my wife washing their hands in the bathroom and asks for my name. My wife leads her to me, and then my theology began to crumble. Our pastor began to explain my past in terms no one at the church new about (not even a very close friend there).

Her final words brought tears to my eyes:

“Stephen, you can stop striving. You are home.”

God had spoken to me. It was in a way we laughed at in our seminary classes. I even wrote papers disproving the use of prophecy and prophetic word in the modern church. But, God spoke to me in a very real way. My inner-trained theology laid broken on the floor.

Disarmed and Arms Up

But, isn’t that the best place to be?

When we encounter God in a way that does not fit into our boxes or under our labels, we see the Creator of the universe and our Savior as he truly is – bigger than we could ever imagine. We then begin to have an enchanted faith.

It is in those moment God says it is ok. It is ok to lay down our seminary degree, our theology books, our arguments and debates, and surrender to a God who still speaks and shows us that we truly walk by faith and not by sight.

When we disarm ourselves and give up our books, we can then begin to reach our arms to up to heaven saying, “God, I surrender. Your way is better.”

This week a song has been on my heart. It is beautiful and I highly suggest you listen to it here – Make Room

Here is where I lay it down
Every burden, every crown
This is my surrender
And I will make room for You
To do whatever You want to
Shake up the ground of all my tradition
Break down the walls of all my religion
Your way is better

Words like these are a dangerous prayer. God will answer. He did in my life. The need to be right, and the need to show others they are unbiblical has left (but doesn’t mean it won’t show up again and I need to keep surrendering).

I choose to lay my training, my books, every argument and debate down and say to God, “Show me you. Not in a way that fits in my boxes, but in a way that changes me. Allow your Spirit to open my eyes to see you as you are.”

There are two attitudes when we come to moments like these…

One of argument and debate –
“Put down the books, and no one gets hurt!”

or

One of surrender and a promise –
“Put down the books, and no one gets hurt.”

When disarm ourselves, we can surrender into the compassionate hands of our Savior who will not hurt us. We will be safe and at home.

Ephesians 3:17
“Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong.”

Anam Cara

“God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians.”– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ever felt invisible in a crowd?
Ever felt like you have learned to be lonely?
Ever felt a deep ache in your soul longing for a smile from a friend or an embrace?

Whether we admit it or not, we all have an ache for friendship. Despite trying not to look needy, we feel an ache when the stillness and silence of an empty room screams a created desire.

Each of us are created for connection. It is more than a cyber connection. It is a connection of soul to soul. It can only be compared to a connection of a family. It can be illustrated by how our various body parts are connected to each other. We desire the same connection to another human being.

Yet, we have lost this connection. We exchange a WIFI connection for a human connection. We trade the connection of souls for a connection of Facebook facades. We have churches filled with small groups and people, yet our smiles hide a disenchantment. We try to band-aid a God-given desire with religion. “I will never be alone if I have Jesus.” While that is true, it still does not satisfy what God has created.

We need our Anam Cara

The Lost Story of Friendship

Luke 5:17-26

Usually, we see the story of Jesus healing this paralyzed man as just a miracle. Yes, it shows Jesus in his glory as the Son of Man with the authority to heal and to forgive sins. Can I get an Amen? Yet, we miss something.

In days of Jesus, those who were disabled were considered an outcast. The disabled were a part of the “unclean.” Unable to go into the temple, unable to hold a job, the unclean really were disabled physically and socially. As a result, emotional disability infected their soul. Yet, this man had friends who never left him. Paralyzed and confined to a mat, this man could only beg and depend on others. I am guessing he thought himself a burden.

Did these friends view him as such? They removed a roof for their friend. They loved him so much. Their souls were connected. No one who isn’t connected at the soul would carry the weight of a human body, remove a tile roof, then lower a limp body down to the ground in the Israeli heat. But, this is exactly what happened.

What is surprising in this story is the idea to go to Jesus did not come from the paralyzed man. It came from his friends. “Seeing their faith (Luke 5:20),” Jesus forgives and heals the paralyzed man. Nothing was given to the others. This wasn’t The Wizard of Oz where everyone got something. These unknown friends knew their friend needed Jesus for his own good. That love and compassion sparked an action.

They were his Anam Cara.

Called To Connect

We all agree we feel that ache. Then, why do we say all we need is Jesus? Yes, it is true we need Jesus. But what was Jesus’ command to us? Jesus calls us to love one another. Throughout every New Testament book, the theme of loving each other pops out. It cannot be avoided. Have we avoided this theme because we would rather focus on the lists in Scripture so we can boast our spiritual image?

Being called to love is being called to connect. In order to show genuine love we have to connect with another soul. Kindness only goes so far. Love runs deeper. It covers a multitude of sins, it shows genuine affection, it never gives up, it is gracious, it bears burdens, and it is the heart beat of our Savior.

The friends of the paralyzed man were his soul friends. They loved him deeply. They bore his limp body to Jesus, and by their faith he was healed.

We are called to connect in the same way. We are to have soul friends. It is beyond a Facebook connection (even if it starts there). Soul friends bring each other to Jesus and love each other as Jesus did. They are not afraid of the difficult, the ugly, or the offensive in our lives. Instead, they sit at our table and allow us to lean against their chest. They share a meal with us as a public symbol of claiming association and friendship. They are not afraid to touch when we are untouchable. They are the living letters of Jesus.

Yet, why do we ignore this calling? Is it because we are scared of earthly labels and cutting critiques of our love for each other? Jesus received that. We are not greater than our master. So, we should continue to connect and love.

The Enchantment of Friends

I remember when I connected the first time with a guy who is now my older brother. We were at his place for Thanksgiving. He and I shared our stories as our wives went out Black Friday Shopping. The next day as we said our goodbyes, and he hugged me. Suddenly, tears streamed down my face. He and I connected and he loved me like Jesus. The side we mask was revealed and all I could do was cry. He saw me and brought me to Jesus for healing. I don’t see him as much as I would like, but that connection never fades even when doubts arise.

There is one friend I have who is a father to me. I still remember the first time he hugged me. It was in that moment I felt accepted, wanted, and loved. He knew all my faults, he has felt my verbal lashes, he has received many apologies, and yet he never kicks me to the curb. He always tells me he is proud of me. His love points me to Jesus even when my difficult and ugly comes out.

Two friends I may not see often, but they are my soul friends. Why are they my soul friends? They love me like Jesus. They bring me to Jesus. With their friendship comes an enchantment. I am not talking about a puppy love or anything like that. It is a magic that comes from outside of us that brings us to Jesus. And guess what? They allow me the space to love on them the same way.

In friendship comes a mystery of faith. We see the love of Jesus in each other. We begin to genuinely show affection for each other. The enchantment of friends brings love, not just kindness. When that enchantment is planted in our soul, we begin to see the mystery of the love of God in real life. If all we needed was Jesus, then why are there so many commands to love, to show affection, and longings to see each other throughout the New Testament? It is in the eyes, in the mouths, and in the souls of others we experience the enchantment of God’s love and the mystery of the Gospel of unconditional love.

Our Anam Cara

In the Celtic Christian tradition, we get this phrase: Anam Cara. It literally means, “soul friend.” They found the beauty and love of Jesus in others. It wasn’t some one-way relationship. Instead, it was a brotherhood. It was something we have lost.

In our days of Facebook facades and shallow snaps, we have made relationships one-way. We allow people to follow us and message us as long as they fulfill the image we want. If their ugly or difficulties come out, we block and no longer follow. Our friendships become how good will that person make me look on social media. What would Jesus say? The Savior labeled as the friend of sinners wasn’t concerned about image. His concern was showing God’s love to each other. He then command us to love each other. This means a two-way relationship. We love and allow others to love us.

When we have that love for one another, we connect at the soul level and become soul friends. We become Anam Cara with each other.

Richard Beck, in Hunting Magic Eels, writes about Saint Patrick (The greatest Celtic Christian) and soul friends in this manner – “When Patrick prays ‘Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ to the left of me,’ that presence comes mostly through our soul friends, the people blocking for us, watching our backs, and holding our hands. Enchantment comes to us through other human beings.”

Holding hands? Yes, why not? Jesus said to love each other. Jesus tells us to show genuine affection for each other. Stop letting the cutting critiques of others define and box in our Christ-like love for others.

Our “Christian culture” would prefer us to point people to Jesus by saying the worst Christian cliche ever: I’ll be praying for you. In saying those words, we fall into the description of James 2:15-16. Our faith has a lot of words, but no actions. The actions James describes are not standards and lists. Instead, they are acts of love toward each other. What if someone just needs you to hold their hand, hug them, or (heaven forbid) greet them with a holy kiss? Soul friends are willing to give up an image in order to love and see their friend healed by Jesus than worry about what the Pharisees say. Our connection and love goes further by even the terms we use: brother, father, child, son, daughter, etc. These are used throughout the New Testament to ascribe that soul friend love.

We are commanded to love each other in this way. The world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the way we love. It is not the love of a kind heart. It is the love of an Anam Cara.

Famous Name’s Study Bible: A Review of the “Grace and Truth Study Bible”

“This generation must get deadly serious about the problem of Biblical illiteracy.”
– R. Al Mohler, Jr.

I love when new study Bibles come into a bookstore. Whenever I am at Barnes and Noble, I peruse the Bible section looking for new ones to appear. If I heard there is one by a certain author, then my interested is captured. I want to know what they will say, how they will set up their study Bible, and how I can use it for my own growth.

The Grace and Truth Study Bible is no exception. With the name Al Mohler on it, I wanted to know more. I put it on my Amazon Wishlist. Then I received an email from BibleGateway to review this Bible. It was a no-brainer. I put my name in and counted the days till it arrived…

As The Binding Cracked Open

The box arrived. I immediately opened it. I heard that new study Bible crackle as I opened the long-awaited book.

At first glance, I saw lots of notes. The seminary graduate in me geeked-out. The academic in me enjoyed every moment. The pages of notes. The detail in the notes. All of it was mind boggling. I felt like I was back in seminary digging in.

Yet, something in me stopped my academic partying. A quiet thought entered my mind, “Stephen, what about your heart?” My mind was happy, but my heart was not interacting with this study Bible. Our mind and intellect can become so enwrapped in understanding the Bible, that we have forgotten to have a relationship with God’s Word which blossoms in our heart.

As I cracked opened this Bible, it cracked my heart open to reveal the ache of an interactive relationship with God’s Word to me. We as Christians have forgotten to interact with God’s Word in exchange for the “right” intellectual and theological relationship with God. What this does is take away that experience of God and replaces it with the study of God.

The Grace and Truth Study Bible Details

I loved the font. I liked the numerous notes. I liked the reference guide on every page. The notes bring great depth to Biblical study.

However, it felt like reading a textbook. There was nothing in this study Bible to make it more interactive. I expected more from a great name on a Bible. If someone it passionate about the Word getting into the hands and hearts of individuals, then we need to contextualize it.

The introductions to each book are long paragraphs. The notes can get quite lengthy at times. The content is great. It is the presentation I found to be more like a textbook than a great tool to use.

Would I Recommend?

This review may come across as harsh to some or even to Al Mohler himself. However, these are my thoughts. If you are planning to do deep Bible study, sermon or teaching, or anything along those lines, then this is a great study Bible to use. If you are looking for something to deepen your faith and encounter God, then you might get bogged down in the details of this particular Bible.

Would I put it on my shelf? If I was in seminary, yes. If I was a new believer, not yet.

A famous name producing a study Bible doesn’t automatically make it a great study Bible. As Christians, we need to keep that balance of an intellectual and emotional mindset towards are faith. Great for deep study of the Word. It is not the best for experiencing the Word on that emotional level.

So, I am torn with my recommendation.

Purchase Grace and Truth Study Bible Here

*I received a free copy of this study Bible from BibleGateway to review as I am a member of their Blogger Grid

I Didn’t Choose This…

“God will meet you where you are in order to take you where He wants you to go.”
– Tony Evans

“Stephen, I hate you. I hate your disability, and I hate you being same-sex attracted. You are just a burden. Everyone only sees your struggles. Sure, they say you have a big heart, but all you’re known for are your struggles.”

These words have haunted my mind late at night. These thoughts have forced tears out of my eyes.

“Was it not enough for God to make me disabled? He also had to give me the struggle of same-sex attraction?”

I see my reflection in the mirror – a freak. Bullied for walking with a limp. Mocked for having bathroom issues. Family and friends reject me for being same-sex attracted. Some days, I feel like an outcast avoiding to be seen, yet wanting a kind hand to reach out.

“I never chose these struggles. I never chose any of this.”

How many of us have that one thing in our life we despise at times, because we did not choose it. We constantly give it to God, make spiritual decisions regarding it, and yet, we can’t unchain ourselves from it.

These things cause deep depression and tumultuous thoughts. “God, forgive me again. God help me. Please!” Our prayers turn into drunken pleas.

Yet, lately a passage has given me an exit to this maze of mirrors.

Stop

Matthew 16:24

It is a passage I have read and memorized many times. I have heard countless sermons on turning from your sins, picking up the cross of the Christian life, and following Jesus.

However, I am wrong. This passage holds a treasure to relooking at those things I did not choose.

The first part of the verse Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way…” Interestingly, there is no mention of sin. If we want to be his follower, then we must give up our own way. What is our own way? It is anything we want to spearhead. It is the path we decide to take, because we think it is the best.

How many books have I read on topics regarding my struggles? How much money have I spent? How much money have you spent figuring out answers to your questions? There are days I flee to Barnes and Noble’s Christian Living Section looking for answers. I peruse each title hoping the next one I purchase will have the answer tucked away like a hidden gem in a cave.

With Jesus, I need to give up my search for the answers. I must give up hunting the gem I think I need. This is what it means to give up my own way. Yes, I am disabled and same-sex attracted. Yes, I have spent hundreds of dollars trying to find the answers to stop hating myself over these things. All of it was my own way. Disappointed sighs breathe out frustration leading to another bout with depression. All because this is my own way of dealing with the issue.

Jesus calls me to stop pursuing my own way. He says, “Stephen, I know you’re hurting. I know you want answers. I know this is all confusing. But, stop. Stop following your own way. This is the only way to become my follower. Stop following the next book, the next author, the next speaker.”

Have we stopped our pursuit of our answers and paused?

Accept

In all the chaos of our struggles, Jesus calls us to stop. Then he says, “Take up your cross.”

Many Christians claim Jesus is calling us to take up the hardships of the Christian faith. What about the word, “Your”? It is an individual cross. – some thing in our life we find to be a symbol of death. Being disabled brings money issues. Every month it seems to be the death of our budget. Also, due to my disability my wife and I may never have children. One of the most difficult things a husband can go through is knowing you cannot give your wife the gift of motherhood. Being same-sex attracted makes you a freak or a pervert to others. My family rejected me over it. My own father told me he did not believe I was a Christian due to having this struggle. In March 2020, it almost became the literal death of me.

A cross is not something pretty. Especially the crosses in our life. Each of us know that symbol of death hanging over our head. We know the consequences it brings. Yet, Christ does not say to just identify your cross. He says to take it up. This is a term of acceptance. Accept this symbol of death is in your life. It may be the death of your physical body or social life or image. But, Jesus says take it up. Claim it as your own. He already knows it’s buried under the floor boards. So, pick it up and accept it.

The things we did not choose (which seem like a symbol of death) are the things Jesus tells us to accept.

Follow

The last part Jesus tells us to do is to follow him. No destination given, no road map. Just, “Follow me.”

Often, when it comes to my struggles, I want to know how people see me. I want to control the outcome and my image. My control is pursuing my own way.

Following Jesus is a mystery. It is a path with many unknowns and haunted with questions – What will people think if they find out? What will happen to me? What if I lose everything? On and on our brain tries to solve the mystery. All Jesus says is, “Stephen, put down the book trying to solve this on your own. Pick up what you are hiding. Accept it. Follow me.”

Being his follower means I must accept the mystery of his path. What does it look like to be a Christian with a disability? Honestly, I do not know. I just need to follow Jesus. What does it look like to be a Christian with same-sex attraction? I do not know. I just need to follow Jesus. It is in the mystery of his path I find the humility of surrender and the peace of his providence.

A Promise To Calm My Fears

I did not choose to be disabled. I did not choose to be same-sex attracted. If you said I did, I would respond with, “Yes, I chose these things, because they just always fill me with joy.” My eyes might even roll so hard it would count as a cardio workout.

Yet, the truth remains. I did not choose these things. There are days I hate myself. I would rather punch my reflection in a mirror than keep looking at it.

The cacophony of thoughts crowd out the truth. Jesus cuts through that noise. He calmly tells me to stop pursuing my own way. Accept my cross. Then, follow him as he leads me down a path. Even though I protest, debating him about why I need to continue to find the answers and fix my issues, he takes my face in his hands. He looks me in the eyes gently speaking these words:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

The result of stopping, accepting, and following is rest. No more striving. No more hiding. No more anxiety. It is in this promise we see the revelation of Jesus as our shepherd who restores our soul (Psalm 23).

These past two weeks, I have struggled with self-hatred. I looked on myself with disgust. Yet, each day is an invitation to stop pursuing my own solutions, accept my struggles, and follow Jesus into life’s greatest mystery.

When anxiety controls me over being disabled and being same-sex attracted, then depression down casts my soul. Yet, I must remember to stop, accept myself as God made me, and follow him.

It is when I follow Jesus I find the things I did not choose becoming the things most beautiful in my life.

Momento Amemini

“Someone said that God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.”
– J.M. Barrie

Depression sweeps in like a blizzard. The snow swirls, the chill freezes the mind, and the ice makes a heart, once on fire, grow cold till the body stiffens with hypothermia.

What brings on these battling blizzards? Changes in weather. Sometimes we see them coming, and other times they hit without warning. Whiteout conditions blind our eyes and sting our lungs. The path before us is covered in white; visibility nonexistent. We cry out for help, but the cold and ice burn our lungs and silence our cries. We shelter inside our car, attempting to create warmth, praying the storm will pass.

Each storm depression brings, we always hear advice: pray, it is all in your head, listen to Scripture, Christians do not struggle with depression – are you sure you’re saved? The advice doesn’t feel like deliverance, but instead like snow and ice flung at us. So we do anything to warm ourselves up hoping we do not freeze to death.

Yet, in all the ice and snow, God does provide something to warm us up in the blizzard of depression.

The Unseen Simple Command

Many times when the thoughts of depression become a battle, we first think of what we can do. We look through Scripture finding any task we may have missed or sin we have forgotten to confess. Yet, this only brings the chills straight to our bones.

240 times God tells us to remember – to call to complete memory. Psalm 42 paints a soul in desperate need of water and encouragement. Most people jump to “hope in God.” Yet, that is not how it works. We cannot just hope in something. He must first remember God in order to spark the fire of hope inside him (Psalm 42:6). The Psalms are lit up by the word “remember.” We see what happens when people do not remember God’s deeds and the hope and joy remembrance brings.

Remembrance is the flint on which hope is sparked.

Depression’s Deception

In the midst of depression, it can be almost impossible to remember. Our tumultuous thoughts whisper things we would rather keep unsaid – “You are only a burden.” “Where is everyone?” “No one is communicating back, what does that say about you?” “I bet everyone only tolerates you and not really loves you.” “Those memories are not what they seem.”

Depression’s degradations feel like whip lashes digging deeper and deeper into our flesh. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but… A cute phrase to say, yet we would gladly cut our own skin with sticks and stones than be pummeled by the words of depression.

The worst thing depression says to us, “You can’t even remember God. How pathetic is that?” The deepest attack goes against the simplest command.

God doesn’t shame us for our lack of remembrance. This is clear in Scripture. There is no shame for not remembering his work. Instead, he gives us another miracle, another experience, another memory to hold onto.

Look in Matthew 15:32-39. We read the story of the feeding of the 4,000. Curious there is the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000. Why? The stories appear to be identical. Switch your view and follow the disciples. Jesus requests of them the same thing in both stories (Matthew 14:16; Matthew 15:32) – feed the people. The disciples have the exact same response in both stories, “Where are we going to get enough food?!” I imagine Jesus just smirks and leads them through the same miracle. He doesn’t reprimand them or scolds them. Instead, he shows them the same miracle.

We have the same issue. We forget the work of God in our life. We give into depression’s deception. Depression wipes the memory clean or buries our memories deep in snow. Yet, God is patient with us. He knows how desperately we need to remember so he performs the miracle again. It may be seeing something to remind us of a friend, a sermon, a song, a piece of art, or anything that brings a memory, face, or truth back in mind.

Forgetting is God’s way of saying, “Want to see me do it again?” And he will.

Rose Seeds

However, roses cannot grow in our toughest seasons without being planted. God’s can’t remove the snow in order to show us what is underneath if there is nothing there. We must plant rose seeds in order to have roses in winter.

These seeds can be pictures, an item to remember an event or person, or whatever plants that seed in your mind to remember. This is the start of remembering.

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites were told to set up memorials. These memorials were to cause stories to be told of God’s workings in their lives. The most famous story of these memorials is the crossing of the Jordan River into the Promise Land (Joshua 4:6-7). The stones plucked from the river were to spark stories and recall memories. These became the roses during their winters.

We need to plant seeds. We need to enchant ourselves with the magic of remembrance. I wear a ring with elephants on it to remind me of a group of men who have never let go. During my toughest times, they have surrounded me until I was strengthened to stand again. A wall in our home features the pictures of individuals who mean a lot to us (even if we do not see them as much as we want). I have a tattoo which says, “Burn the Ships.” I got it on the one-year anniversary after my suicide attempt to remind me how far God has brought me. These are not to guilt trip me or cause shame. Instead, they gently whisper, “Remember, you are loved.”

We have forgotten the art of making memorials. The seeds need to be planted. It may be simple as a stuffed animal bearing the name of a close friend. Whatever it may be, the seeds must be planted in order to remember.

Seeds cause the roses to be planted. God uses those seeds to show us the roses during our winters.

Warmth During Depression

Depression may seem like an unending blizzard, but we do not have to freeze to death. We yearn for something to spark the fire of hope deep in our souls. Yet, we forget the rose seeds we have planted. Depression causes us to look at those seeds with sorrow wanting to turn back time. Yet, God shows us to bask in the memory. Bask in the warmth of the love he showed us through the individuals or in the events he brought us through.

Seasons of blizzards come and go. The length may seem to last more than we would like. No matter the length of the storm, we can feel warmth during depression. It comes from the sparks off the flint of remembrance. Keep these memories close. Continually create memories to plant. It is then in our winters God reveals the beautiful roses.

Depression chills us to the bone feeling that we will only die. It howls in the wind, “Remember, you will die.”

However, God shows us the roses and gently whispers…

Momento Amemini

Remember, you are loved