Ears Itching for the Obvious

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry
— 2 Timothy 4:1-5
This engrossment in first principles has an adverse effect upon the evangelical church. It is as if an intelligent child should be forced to stay in the third grade five or six years. The monotony is just too great. The mind cannot remain alert when the elements of surprise and disclosure are missing. Personally I sit through the average orthodox sermon with the same sense of bored frustration one might feel who was reading a mystery story through for the twelfth time.
— A. W. Tozer The Warfare of the Spirit: Religious Ritual Versus the Presence of the Indwelling Christ

Two of the schools I have attended made this verse in 2 Timothy 4 one of their institutional life verses. For seven years of my academic life I was taught the importance of teaching expositionally — preaching verse by verse through the Bible. The value, I was told, was that it forced you to teach on subjects you would normally prefer to avoid. And, a quick reading of Paul’s words to Timothy, would seem to advocate for that same thinking. “Preach the word,” he tells his young protege. This matters because “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching.” Paul says that some people will have “itching ears” — eager for teachers that will tell them what they want to hear. So, my many teachers say, commit yourself to bible exposition and teaching theology, that’s how you fulfill this call. 

But I have noticed something unexpected. Many pastors preach expositionally…and it’s dull. It has been a long time since I have heard anything in any sermon that stirred me, or taught me something new about God. Don’t think that I am so arrogant that no one can teach me anything. It’s simply that I have encountered only a small number of preachers that seem to study the text and emerge with any fresh insight about themselves, about us, about our community, or anything else. Too many want to preserve the heritage of the Reformers and the Puritans, but too few want to wrestle with the text like Jacob wrestled with God—not quitting until he heard something in return. Jacob refused to yield until God spoke to him something that would wound him, heal him, and rename him. Most preachers and congregations are content with the same three points we have always heard and the threadbare poem that always elicits a tear. 

This is not a new problem. Two generations ago, A.W. Tozer expressed his frustration with many preachers. He says that "The vast majority of our Bible conferences are dedicated to the obvious. Each of the brethren (usually advertised as “widely sought after as a conference speaker”) ranges afar throughout the Scriptures to discover additional passages to support truth already known to and believed by 99 percent of his hearers” (67). He describes this experience they way he imagines someone "who was reading a mystery story through for the twelfth time.” This endless belaboring the obvious is the “result of our lack of prophetic insight and our failure to meet God in living encounter.” He continues, 

“The knowledge of God presents a million facets, each one shining with a new ravishing light. The teacher who lives in the heart of God, reads Scriptures with warm devotion, undergoes the discipline and chastisement of the Holy Spirit and presses on toward perfection is sure every now and again to come upon fresh and blessed vistas of truth, old indeed as the Word itself, but bright as the dew on the grass in the morning. The heart that has seen the far glimpses of advanced truth will never be able to keep quiet about them. His experiences will get into his sermons one way or another, and his messages will carry an element of surprise and delight altogether absent from the ordinary Bible talks heard everywhere these days.”
— A. W. Tozer, The Warfare of the Spirit (67)



For most of my life I was taught that 2 Timothy 4:1-5 meant that people would reject sound teaching for obvious heresy. I don’t think that is entirely what Paul meant. Of course it is true that some people will reject sound doctrine for something obviously divergent. It’s so obvious I’m am not convinced that it deserves a warning. The greater danger—and I think the danger that Tozer describes—is a rejection of the deeper things of God because our ears are itching for the obvious. The greater danger is rejecting the Word that rebukes, corrects, and trains—pushing aside the Sword of the Spirit that pierces into even the most fundamental and hidden parts of who we are—because it might reveal some new facet of God, leading us to our knees again. 

 Photo by  Alvan Nee  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

The gods that pose the greatest threat to Jesus are not Allah, Shiva, Brahman, or the common atheist. The greatest threat to Jesus is his statue. It resembles him in every way, except the one which matters most: the real Jesus is alive. The real Jesus is calling us to know him personally, while most of us are content with knowing a picture of the real Jesus. 

I believe that there is one meaning that each human author of Scripture had as they wrote their respective books. I also believe that God had his own layers of intent as he inspired the writer and the writing of Scripture. As a collection of books whose writing was superintended by God himself, they have one meaning and thousands of applications. Paul says that the Scripture “rebukes, corrects, and trains” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The author of Hebrews calls Scripture “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) that pierces "the division between of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and [discerns] the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” When we approach the Scripture, not as a word-puzzle to be untangled, but a powerful, life-giving, interaction with the living God, then any exposition or meditation or homily becomes filled with God’s presence. Without that, any preaching, expository or not, will lack the power of God’s presence. 

The thing that is important to remember is that the Scriptures are inspired but their power and authority is secondary. There is nothing like the Bible to transform a person’s heart and mind. But the Bible is authoritative and powerful because it was “breathed out” by God (2 Tim 3:16-17). These are God’s Words and that is the source of their power. We have to walk a fine line between maintaining the Bible’s sole authority and conflating the Bible with the God who gave it to us. Otherwise we risk reducing the living God to stories and ideas confined to ink and paper. Our ideas about God, however true, cannot transform. But the living God, revealed to us by the Spirit through Scripture, can soften the hardest heart and breathe new life into those long-dead.

What Do I Need to Know to Know God's Will? The Spirit Points to Jesus

Continuing in our series on how to discern God’s Will and the leading of the Holy Spirit, we come to the fourth pillar: The Spirit points to Jesus. If this is your first time reading this series, let me encourage you to check out the first two: Pillar One: Mere Christianity, Pillar Two: Spiritual Warfare.

Our seven pillars are based on a book by Reformed scholar, Cornelis Van Der Kooi. Concerning this third pillar, while allowing for the supernatural work of the Spirit, “it is Christ himself who draws near to us. Wherever acts of love and compassion occur, wherever people are placed in the light of the life-giving truth, wherever the new regime of God’s kingdom shakes up the social structure and God’s creatures are dealt with justly, there Christ is not far away.”

But the key element to recognizing the Spirit’s work is that “The Spirit does not claim attention for himself, for his own manifestations, but points away from himself and connects people to Christ.” The Spirit has never given gifts or miracles for the purpose of bringing attention to himself. His ministry has always been to demonstrate both the power of God and his intimacy.

This recognition is often where many Reformed theologians stop, failing to consider the fact that the Spirit, while his ministry is focused on the Father and Son, is still present and powerful. Van Der Kooi’s point teaches us that believers can expect the Spirit to respond to the prayer that asks for him to make Jesus and his kingdom present. It is an improper conclusion to say that, because the Spirit points to Jesus, the Spirit should be ignored, focusing only on Jesus. Rather than honoring the Spirit, this cuts him out and resists his work. It is an unintentional attempt to do the work of the Spirit in the place of the Spirit.

Van Der Kooi’s point also requires Reformed Christians to become more comfortable with praying to the Spirit and asking for him to do the work that he intends to do. It also requires more openness to the Spirit. Mastering the theology of the Holy Spirit but expecting (or requiring) the Spirit to work according to personal preferences or understanding will become one more way to quench the Spirit and usurp his role.

In fact, if we are content to focus on Jesus without any effort to remain attentive to the presence and leading of the Spirit, we risk falling into the very same errors our Protestant forefathers criticized the Medieval church about. Leading up the Protestant Reformation (1517 CE), the Catholic church used this catch-phrase to describe how the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper worked: ex opera operata. It is a Latin phrase that means, roughly, “in the working, it is worked.”

In other words, it was not faith that made the sacrament meaningful, like the Reformers insisted. What made the sacrament “work” was that the ritual leading up to and following it were performed properly. If this sounds more like casting a spell than a means of grace, that’s because it is.

What does this have to do with discerning the Spirit’s leading and presence? Well, if we reduce the Spirit’s work to predictable and external outcomes; if a “decent and orderly” worship gathering is how we define the Spirit’s presence and leading, then we are, at best, toeing the line of ex opera operata. Cutting the Spirit out of our gatherings does not bring more honor to Jesus. It ensures that our churches fall into the error of the Galatians: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3).

This is why it is so important for us to hold all of these pillars together. A working knowledge of essential Christian belief and some healthy self-awareness are going to go a long way in helping you recognize the Spirit’s presence. Otherwise we are only left with external expressions with a detached hope that God will be present and do his work. Letting the Spirit do his work, and learning to pay attention to him, will only bring us into greater intimacy with Jesus.

How Do You Know Who You Are?

A common refrain among young, Reformed Christians is the need to “find your identity in Christ.” There is a lot of biblical warrant for this idea. Let me give you a quick run-down:

  • “Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit” 1 Corinthians 6:17
  • “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” 2 Corinthians 5:17
  • "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
  • “[God the Father] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” Ephesians 1:5
  • “For in Christ, all the fullness of deity dwells bodily, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” Colossians 2:9-10

I remember when I first learned about the Bible’s teaching on Union with Christ. It’s powerful and meaningful. To know that God sees me as his son, like a brother to Jesus, all because of the faith He gave me to trust Jesus with the help of the Spirit. There is great freedom in knowing where we stand with God. This knowledge can provide us with tremendous hope, power, and motivation to fight sin. 

But here’s the problem: If God’s offer is merely to “find” our identity in Jesus, then what is offered is little more than a Christianized version of Buddhism. The goal of enlightenment in Buddhist thinking is to lose individuality by being enfolded into Brahman, the impersonal, amorphous-expression of ultimate reality. My Buddhist neighbors would be quite comfortable with the language of “finding your identity in Brahman” if all it means is losing myself.

Jesus does not ask us to find our identity in him. Instead, he offers to give us our true identity. 

What does it mean for us to not only receive our true identity from Jesus, but to have a “true identity” at all?

Let me tackle the question of true identity first. In Colossians 3:1-17 Paul uses the language of “old self” and “new self” in describing the transformation that takes place in a person’s life because of Jesus. Verse 9 of Colossians 3 captures this well. There he clarifies that the “old self” is best seen in particular “practices.” Paul contrasts this list of “old self” practices and character traits with the “new self” and it’s transformed desires, traits, and motivations. The new self is described in both experience (3:15) and knowledge (3:16). Paul says something similar in Romans 13:14 when he tells us to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” In both places Paul stresses the power of love in the life of the “new self.”

Before you begin to think this language of “new self” is just a rhetorical device, Jesus, in John 10:3 says “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (emphasis added). At this point it is essential to remember that God often gives people new names. We have become familiar with the names that God gives to people, but all you have to do is look down at the footnotes to realize that these names are filled with meaning and are nothing less than prophetic. 

As an example, when Abraham is initially called by God in Genesis 12, his named is Abram (meaning “exalted father”). His wife’s name is Sarai (“Princess”). After Abram received God’s covenant in Genesis 12 and 15, he received the sign of the covenant in Genesis 17 and after this point, God changes his name from Abram to Abraham (“Father of many nations”) and changes Sarai’s to Sarah. The meaning of her name is the same, though the second form is a newer spelling, suggesting that she is going to be a Princess over something very new. It is in this context that God promises them both that the formerly barren 90 year-olds will have a son. 

In the New Testament, in Matthew 16, Jesus gives Simon his new name: “Peter.” Peter’s new name is a play on words that becomes clear as Jesus proceeds to tell him, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:17-19). This new name comes on the heels of Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “who do you say I am?” Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-16). 

There are many other people that we could point to that would continue to prove my point. But the fact remains that God doesn’t just want us to lose ourselves in Jesus, so that we are indistinguishable from him. Instead, in keeping with the transformation of our character, our thinking, and our behavior, God has a new name for each us. All you have to do is ask him. If you have two or three friends who will pray and listen with you, even better. Whatever you hear from him may take a lifetime to unfold it’s full meaning, but you can be sure that you will find greater intimacy with him, greater understanding of his word, greater faith in trying circumstances, and greater effectiveness for the Kingdom of God. 

So just ask.

If you’re willing, would you share what you’ve heard from the Lord?

Raising David's under a Generation of Saul's

Yesterday I met with a man, a devout Catholic, who told me he wasn’t sure what to make of the church anymore. I can’t say that I don’t feel the same. The church and the message of Jesus’ Kingdom are not meant to be separated. But what does a generation make of the institution which taught them the faith, while showing herself to be about the business of anything but?

Too many Evangelicals in my circles rush to defend the church. They will offer a pious-sounding, but vaguely threatening, “I wouldn’t let you talk bad about my bride, and neither will Jesus!” The problem is that Jesus knows his bride is a whore (Hosea 1:2-3), but he married her anyway. He knows that his bride has used people and hurt them deeply—often in his name. He knows the she runs to the arms of other lovers more than his. He loves her all the same.

The second problem with that dismissive attitude is that it fails to recognize that often those who voice their frustration and pain are already Christians! This is not a third party slandering Jesus’ bride. This is the body of his spouse screaming that a bone is broken. Imagine if I fractured my leg and, rather than go to a doctor to have him set the bone, I continually yelled at my leg, “This is my body, don’t you dare say something is seriously wrong with it!” We would have that person committed. Why is it, then, that we are so calloused and dismissive of those who expose the broken and painful places in the body of Jesus?

The third problem is that it leaves these men and women with an impossible choice: leave their own people—the church, their brothers and sisters— or stay and continue to be treated like a problem and not an asset.

We don’t have to look far to recognize that the majority of those who have been leading the church for the last 30-40 years are a generation of King Saul’s. Too many pastors and churches have chosen leaders and pastors based on worldly qualifications (1 Samuel 8:5; 9:1-2), all while plastering a spiritual veneer over them. Lest I remind you of the almost daily revelations of leaders stealing money from the church, abusing children, and assaulting women. Too many pastors take matters into their own hands against the direction of God, only to be praised as “catalytic” by the people and regrettable by God (1 Samuel 15:35).

Saul’s replacement was barely a teenager. On top of that, he wasn’t even well-known or recognized for anything. David was so insignificant that when Samuel came to Jesse’s house, he called all of David’s brothers, leaving David with the livestock. Jesse was no better than Saul or the rest of Israel. They thought in worldly terms. Worse than that, they had no concept of hearing from God. Samuel, initially, shows himself to think similar to Jesse and Saul. He assumes the first-born son would be the new King. But God allows him to move through every son until God insists that Samuel call David in from the field. The last-born, overlooked, sheep babysitter is the one God most desired to be King. And for only one reason: David loved Yahweh.

When was the last time a search committee met with a candidate and only prayed together? No questions, no predictable interviewing nonsense. Just praying together and listening to what God said.

In my experience, and that of my friends, I know of only one instance. The church he leads now has been thriving under his leadership. Before this congregation, he served a small and easily overlooked people outside a major metropolitan area. It’s almost as if God does what he says he will do if only we will be willing to listen to him.

The way forward is simple: we need leaders who listen to God and do what he says. We don’t need pastors who lead like CEO’s or turn their teaching ministry into a brand. We need pastors who follow God and do what he says, it’s that simple.

The sad thing is that it takes courage and faith to listen to God.
Time will tell.

All it took to raise a king like David, was a prophet like Samuel. Samuel himself was the answered prayer of one godly woman. The barren wife of a polygamist, mocked for her infertility, became God’s chosen agent for generational change. Samuel was born during a time in Israel’s history when the chief-most priest was blind. His literal blindness is highlighted to show the nation’s spiritual and emotional blindness. In the dark, somewhere between sunset and sunrise, a young Samuel hears God’s voice. Eli knows enough to teach Samuel to hear, but not enough to hear for himself.

Samuel’s ministry was not without it’s flaws. His own sons were corrupt (1 Samuel 8:2-3). By the time he came to Bethlehem, he learned enough to check with the Lord before assuming he knew best.

The church desperately needs a generation of David’s. Those currently leading have the choice: lead like Samuel and trust God to lead you or lead like Saul and become a leader God regrets (1 Samuel 15:35).

What Do I Need to Know to Know God's Will? Spiritual Warfare Prayer

On Wednesday I wrote a brief introduction to the reality of spiritual warfare. Before moving on to the other pillars of knowing God’s will, I knew that it would be important to give a follow up post. Many of us would be willing to admit our belief in angels and demons. Very few, however, would feel the freedom to engage in spiritual warfare. The reasons we have created spiritual pacifists are that we (1) think it is the realm of Pentecostals and Catholics and/or (2) it has been more comfortable to ignore it. 

In this post, I won’t repeat the information I shared in the other piece on spiritual warfare. I am assuming that you have read that information and understand it. 

Spiritual Warfare is part of the Kingdom of God
Spiritual warfare is a common element of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, when Jesus begins his ministry, Mark records him saying that “the Kingdom of God has drawn near” (1:). He immediately begins to move into the demonstration of the Kingdom of God. This involves teaching, healing diseases and ailments, and delivering those demonized. The presence of Jesus, and therefore the Kingdom of God, seems to defined, in part, by instruction and restoration. For our purpose, it’s important to recognize that deliverance and spiritual warfare was a regular and persistent part of Jesus’ ministry. 

Later in his ministry, when he sends out the twelve and then the seventy-two, he instructs and empowers them to do those same two things: instruct and restore. This pattern continues in the book of Acts through its focus on both Peter (Acts 1-12) and Paul (Acts 13-28). It should not surprise us, then, that spiritual warfare is an assumed experience in the New Testament. For example, James tells us to “resist the Devil” (James 4:7). Peter tells us to “Resist him [Satan]” (1 Peter 5:9). Paul tells us that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). These passages also share a similar explanation of the means of our resistance: prayer.

Prayer is the Primary Weapon
In his book on Paul’s theology of demons and spiritual warfare, Powers of Darkness, New Testament scholar, Clinton Arnold, says this: 

"If Paul were to summarize the primary way of gaining access to the power of God for waging successful spiritual warfare, he would unwaveringly affirm that it is through prayer. Prayer is given much greater prominence in the spiritual warfare passage than any of the other implements. Prayer is also the only spiritual piece of armor that is not given a corresponding physical weapon (like a breastplate or a shield)” [Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 158.]

The way that we engage in spiritual warfare; or, to quote James and Peter, the way we “resist the Devil” is through prayer. 

Key Ingredients in Spiritual Warfare Prayer
What does it look like to pray as spiritual warfare?

Let me explain each component briefly. This is not a procedure (first, second, third), it is more like a recipe for a cake. Take away one ingredient and it may technically be a cake but it won’t be one that anyone is excited to eat!

  1. Confess Your Submission to Jesus’ Authority.

    Contrary to the culture’s view of exorcism, spiritual warfare is not a sweat-soaked battle against demonic powers that are more powerful than people. The demonic is powerful, but our authority comes from Jesus. After his resurrection, Jesus tells his followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28:18). Paul, in Colossians 2, says that Jesus’ death and resurrection has put the enemy to open shame; meaning that he has stripped them of their power and authority. In Philippians 2:10-11, Paul says that “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Jesus has the authority. No relics or crosses or holy water are necessary. Satan himself cannot resist Jesus’ authority.

     

  2. Ask Jesus to Show You Anything that the Enemy Could Use against You

    Jesus tells us that “the truth will set you free.” When we acknowledge that we have been living contrary to the truth of Jesus, that’s called confession. It is merely telling the truth. When we pray Psalm 139:23-24 (“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”), we are simply asking the Spirit to show us where we have strayed from thinking, believing, or acting in truth. When we are living against the truth, Paul says that it gives the enemy a “foothold” (Eph 4:27). Confession and repentance strips the enemy of any leverage against us. So ask the Spirit to reveal anything that might give the enemy leverage against you. 

     

  3. Ask Jesus to Show You How the Enemy is at Work against You

    In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 Paul tells the Corinthians that he forgives them “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his designs.” He repeats the word “schemes” (or “designs”) in Ephesians 6:11 that the armor of God helps protect believers from. Satan is not an unpredictable force of chaos. He has intentional plans and schemes against humanity. The first verse we just looked at tells us that stoking unforgiveness and bitterness among believers is one of Satan’s plans. Paul’s encouragement to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7 would indicate that fear is also a powerful tactic. In fact, Satan’s three temptations to Jesus in the wilderness reveal the major element of all of his plans against us: to receive God’s promises without following his ways. 

     

  4. Ask Jesus to Rebuke Satan, His Demons, their Works and Effects.

    After Satan’s third temptation, Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan!” and then Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16. What happens? “Then the devil left him” (Mt 4:11). Even Satan himself has to obey Jesus. Even though the believer is “in Jesus,” meaning that everything Jesus has done for us, it is credited to us and everything that belongs to Jesus is given to us (Eph 1), it is shaky ground to begin rebuking Satan. It is wiser to follow the example of Michael the Archangel. As an illustration of his point, Jude quotes a Jewish legend about Michael battling Satan over Moses’ body. Even though he was at least equal to Satan and was a messenger of God, Michael would not go beyond the proper boundaries. Instead he says, “The Lord rebuke you” (Jude 9). When you have confessed and repented and God has affirmed that there is some form of spiritual warfare happening, asking Jesus to rebuke Satan, his demons, their works and effects is a wise and biblical prayer. 

     

  5. Ask Jesus to Protect You from Additional Attack

    Jesus offers an interesting teaching tucked away in just three verses. In Matthew 12:43-45 and Luke 11:24-26 Jesus says the same thing. When a evil spirit is removed from a person, rather than wander in some sort of spiritual wasteland (“waterless places seeking rest, and finding none”) Jesus says the demonic will attempt to return, bringing “seven other spirits more evil than itself” (Luke 11:26). Like any soldiers ordered to hold a location, if they have been defeated they will regroup, maybe find more weapons or secure a better vantage point. We don’t need to be afraid of demonic reprisal, but we also need not be presumptuous. Wisdom calls us to be mindful and aware. This is why it should not surprise us that moments of great sin or spiritual attack can follow on the heels of a powerful time with the Lord. Or, do we think it’s a mere coincidence that we can have a powerful experience with God on a retreat only to fall right back into the same old habits and patterns when we return home?

These five essential ingredients will help you to find success against the schemes of the enemy. More importantly, they will also help develop a more personal and intimate relationship with God. You may also find greater and greater freedom from thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that you have long felt powerless against. 

Share your questions and feedback in the comments. I am most interested to know: which of these five ingredients is the most helpful to you?

What Do I Need to Know to Know God's Will? Spiritual Warfare

This post is about the third pillar of knowing God's Will. If you want to know what I mean when I talk about “God’s Will,” start here. If you have not been following this series on the Foundations for Knowing God’s Will you can find the first, here. The second is here. This series is composed of seven parts, which lay the essential foundation for knowing God's will and recognizing his presence. 

Today's post is connected to Monday's, where we explored the idea of "spiritual intelligence.” As a quick recap, Similar to the idea of emotional intelligence, spiritual intelligence is learning to pay attention to the immaterial aspects of our lives. On Monday, our focus was on the need to recognize the difference between our own spirit and the Holy Spirit. Today, we want to briefly explore a second important element to spiritual intelligence: spiritual warfare. 

In the first post in this series, I explained that these seven pillars are from a book by Dutch scholar, Cornelis Van Der Kooi. He argues that there are seven criteria for Reformed believers to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. One of those pillars 

Before we look at a few key Bible verses that deal with this subject, let me tell you something interesting and unexpected that happened to me a couple years ago. 

An Experience with the Demonic
I was working with a local church planting network and had been offered to teach a Bible study on the other side of town. A lay leader at one of key partner-churches wanted someone to teach a bible study once a week for the employees at his small company. I began teaching every week on Friday afternoons. To get from where I lived to where his company was located required me to drive down I-45 through a rough part of town. It was an area with high crime, known for drug use and trafficking. One week, while I was still on the freeway, I began to feel sick to my stomach. It came on so strong and so fast that I nearly had to pull over. Then a thought jumped through my mind, leaving as quickly as it came: "Tell it to stop, in Jesus' name." Motivated as I was to not get sick on myself, in my car, I thought, "what do I have to lose." So I did. In my car, I declared, "Stop. In Jesus' Name." The crazy thing? I felt better. Immediately.

Needless to say, my theoretical views on spiritual warfare became solidified (and personal) after that experience. 

Behind Every Kingdom, There are Only Two Kingdoms
What do we make of a story like this? Well, the Bible offers a view of the world that is made up of both material and immaterial beings. Our Western, Post-Enlightenment, materialistic culture laughs at the idea of personal, spiritual beings -- malevolent or otherwise. But in the neighborhood of humanity, across time and cultures, we stand alone in that belief. And, for Christians, nothing in the Bible justifies the material-alone view of the universe. 

The Bible offers us a view of the universe different from the common-denominator of Western society. There are personal, spiritual beings that are either in full submission to God (angels) and those who rebelled against him, becoming malevolent spiritual agents (demons). Despite the proliferation of nations, languages, or “races,” the Bible presents all of creation as part of one of two Kingdoms: The Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Darkness.

The Three-Front War
The chief of these malevolent spiritual agents is introduced early in the Bible's story. In Genesis 3, he shows up to manipulate Adam and Eve by questioning what God meant by what God said. He does not cause our first parents to do anything. But he does leverage their natural vulnerability (benign as it is) so that they choose to act against God's words. In this instance, He makes war against their minds.

In Monday's post, I also briefly mentioned Zechariah 3:1-5. There the prophet has a vision of the high priest in Heaven. He is standing before God, while Satan "accuses" him by pointing out all of his dirt and symbolic corruption. Here, he makes war against their spirit. 

In numerous other places, sickness, disease, and physical impairment are directly connected to demonization. *It's important to note that not every instance of sickness, disease, or handicap in the Bible is presented as a spiritual malady.* For example, the demoniac in Mark 5 is presented as one with a severe case of mental illness. Jesus commands the demons to leave and he is restored to sanity. In Luke 11:14 a man who was mute was able to speak only after Jesus removed the demon. Two chapters later, in Luke 13:11, a woman who had been sick and physically deformed was healed after Jesus removed the demonic. Also, Mark 9, Matthew 17, and Luke 9 record a similar story of a man's son who had a demon and was mute, had seizures, and had suffered severe burns. In these places, the demonic makes war against the body.

In other words, Satan and demons can only pervert God’s good creation. Evil and darkness do not exist in and of themselves. Sin is a parasite, it cannot exist on it’s own. 

This should not surprise those who are familiar with their Bibles. Paul offers a succinct and helpful explanation of spiritual conflict as arising from our own sinful flesh (Romans 5; Galatians 5) and from the "powers and principalities" (Ephesians 6). They wage war in our minds by attempting to get us to question God's Word. They wage war against our spirits, by accusing us and keeping us locked in guilt and shame. And, finally, they wage war against our bodies by causing sickness or handicaps. 

Once again, it is essential that we recognize that not every instance of doubt, sickness, handicap, or feelings of guilt or shame can be attributed to demons. Sometimes we question God's word because our minds are still effected by sin and doubt God. Sometimes we get sick or experience physical handicap because sin still effects our bodies -- both in utero and throughout our lives. Sometimes we struggle to feel pardoned and free because our own spirits can accuse us. 

The War is Won, But the Battle Rages
As important as it is to recognize the reality of spiritual beings leveraging our own sinfulness in it’s war against God and his Kingdom, it is more important to recognize that these two Kingdoms are not equal to each other. Paul calls Satan “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) and Jesus calls him the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) just before he says that Satan “will be judged.” Despite this there are a number of occasions during Jesus’ ministry that describe Satan’s initial defeat. First, Luke 12, after the seventy-two disciples return, Jesus tells them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).This is recreated in dramatic fashion in Revelation 12. There he describes Satan’s removal from God’s presence and initial defeat in the incarnation of Jesus. After his death and resurrection, Jesus tells those present that he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Paul says that his death and resurrection has exposed the entire Kingdom of Darkness to open shame (Colossians 2:15). James tells us that we can “resist the devil” with God’s help and the enemy will flee (James 4:7-8). 

In the next post, I will give you a simple, practical, and biblical method for engaging in spiritual warfare. 

In the meantime, what is your biggest takeaway or most nagging question about spiritual warfare?

 

What Do I Need to Know to Know God's Will? Spiritual Awareness

This post is about the second pillar of knowing God's Will. You can find the first pillar, "The Most Important Thing" here. This series is composed of seven parts, which lay the essential foundation for knowing God's will and recognizing his presence. 

What do I need to know in order to know God's Will? Have you ever wondered that? Some people never even ask the question. Others might ask, but the only answer they can offer is some version of "do your homework and just do something." It's better than nothing, but it's not really helpful. There is also some point in every person's life when they feel the need for more specific guidance from God. Usually, these are situations where the decision is not 'right vs. wrong' but 'better v. best.'

 Photo by  Keenan Barber  on  Unsplash

I remember one specific time we were faced with a better v. best decision. Whitney and I had been married less than a year. I had been working at Starbucks and Whitney at a crisis pregnancy center, while we both lived with her parents. We knew that we could not stay in that setup forever, we had to make some move to help us move forward in life. Having eliminated a number of different options, we had decided that I would go back to graduate school at one of two schools. These were different schools with distinct strengths and unique weaknesses. 

How did we make this decision? We prayed. We listened. We talked to mentors, pastors, and family members. We also took a lot of time to pay attention to how we felt about either option. While we cannot follow our desires uncritically, what is often left under the banner of "desires" or "feelings" is the presence and work of the Spirit. 

If you want to learn how to recognize God's leading in your life and his will for you, then you have to learn to pay attention to what's going on inside you. 

Even someone who is relatively new to the Christian faith would recognize Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:37 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The main purpose in Jesus’ statement is to communicate the holistic nature of discipleship. But it also tells us something important about the nature of any one human being. '

We are more than what James K.A. Smith calls “brains on a stick.” We are more than our emotions or our bodies. An accurate and complete view of any one person according to the Bible is that there are several components. Believe it or not, some theologians spend parts of their careers debating whether the Bible presents men and women as two-parts (dichotomous = body and mind/spirit) or three-parts (trichotomous = body, mind, and spirit). Going any deeper into that subject will get us far afield of our focus. The main idea is to recognize that God made men and women with multiple parts and that we can discern where something is happening within ourselves. In other words, referring back to Jesus’ statement, we can ask ourselves, “Am I loving God with my mind? What about my body? My soul?"

Here's a simple way to let God teach you "spiritual intelligence": pray Psalm 139:23-24.

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
— Psalm 139:23-24

These two simple verses can become a powerful invitation for God to show you more about yourself and his presence with you. The first few times you pray these verses, you may recognize that you are praying them with some insincerity. You're afraid for God to really search you because you know the dark stuff hiding in there! Remember: fear is not from God (2 Timothy 1:7).

Anything unsavory that God uncovers is to free you from it, not to shame you. It may help you to read and meditate on Zechariah 3:1-5 before praying Psalm 139:23-24. Satan accuses and shames. God reveals and sets free. 

As you begin to pray this verse and practice this spiritual discipline of spiritual intelligence, what do you feel God is beginning to show you about yourself?

Please feel free to share in the comments.

What Do I Need to Know to Know God's Will? The Most Important Thing

In previous posts, I have begun to lay the groundwork for recognizing and discerning God's presence and leading in our lives (Part 1 is here. Part Two is here). It is essential that we recognize that God does, in fact, have a purpose for each person's life and that he is committed to us knowing that purpose and living it out. 

In the two previous posts, I have argued that believers can know God’s will for their lives because he does have plans for each of us. Those plans are not a mystery, nor does he remain passive or leave us to our own devices to discover it. Some of you reading this may come from traditions that embrace this, while others may not. This subject has less to do with what your tradition believes about the Holy Spirit or which gifts he still gives and it has more to do with the promise of Jesus as our shepherd (John 10), the presence of the Spirit within each believer, and reality of the church as Christ’s body (literally).

 Photo by  Keenan Barber  on  Unsplash

Photo by Keenan Barber on Unsplash

I will cover each of those last points in subsequent posts. For now, it is important to explore seven key pillars that help us to discern the Spirit’s presence and hear his voice. These seven insights are not original to me. They were taken from a recently published version of a series of lectures by Cornelis Van Der Kooi, who is a Reformed scholar and professor at the Free University of Amsterdam.

The first pillar for knowing God's will: Knowing Mere Christianity

John wrote his epistle in a day when there were all kinds of competing religions, many of those were also combinations of various cultural values and religious ideas (known as “syncretism”). Because of this, John knows there has to be something that clarifies truth from error. Where does a Christian begin to test any idea or experience? For John, the most important and clarifying test is the incarnation of Jesus. This might seem simplistic, but it is amazing how clarifying the belief in Jesus’ full humanity and full divinity can be.

The Apostle’s Creed is similar to 1 John 4 in its simplicity and clarifying power. If you’re not familiar with the Apostle’s Creed it is universally recognized as both (1) one of the earliest statements of Christian faith and (2) a distillation of essential Christian beliefs. In other words, the Apostle’s Creed has, for centuries, helped people of faith answer the question: what are the non-negotiables of Christianity? What does someone have to believe to be a Christian; or, if they reject any of the points, would put the validity of their faith in question? The Apostle’s Creed is a timeless expression of essential belief.

Here’s one translation:

I believe in God the Father, Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord
who was conceived of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, dead, and buried,
He descended into Hell.
On the third day he rose again from the dead,
He ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
From whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic [meaning = “universal”, not Roman Catholic] church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
— Apostle's Creed

Can I Know God's Will for My Life?

This post is the second in an on-going exploration of God's Will--what it is, if it's knowable, how we discover it, and practical guidelines for discerning his leading. You can read the first post here.

In the first part, I introduced the three-part understanding of God's will that Kevin DeYoung explains in his book, Just Do Something. Moving forward, we will focus our attention on the third, "God's will of direction." This one focuses on the lives of people and God's involvement in our decision making. 

After exploring the three different expressions of God's will, DeYoung affirms the idea that God has a specific plan for each believer’s life but rightly rejects the idea that God keeps it a secret from us. It would be outside his character to insist that we follow his will for our life and then either oppose us in discovering it or simply remain passive and indifferent towards our prayers for direction. God does not want us to spend our lives attempting to discover what we should do with our lives! On the basis of God’s providence and faithful kindness for his people, DeYoung advocates for a means of discerning God’s will, known as “The Way of Wisdom.” This affirms the ordinary ways of decision making that God offers us: Scripture, the church, common-grace wisdom, and our desires. 

While DeYoung affirms the idea that God can still give visions, dreams, or any other means of unusual direction, he insists that we ought not to expect it or seek it. He argues that these supernatural means were unusual, even in Scripture. Pointing to Paul’s statement in Acts 15:28-29 DeYoung says “most of the time Paul made decisions like the rest of us. He used rather tentative phrases like, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15:28–29).” It is beyond the scope of these posts to examine Paul’s practice of decision making or his language in Acts 15. However, it is worth pointing out that Paul’s language here indicates the opposite of DeYoung’s point: the Spirit was active in Paul’s decision making. If he was not, then Paul’s language here is both misleading and presumptuous.

While DeYoung is a cessationist (meaning, he believes that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer given to Christians), he affirms the same assessment that Bruce Waltke gives: “Too many conservative scholars have no place for God’s special intercession because they have no control over it. We can’t force God to talk, yet sometimes He completely surprises us and talks anyway.” And yet, it seems that DeYoung is unable to provide any help in discerning God’s special intercession or the Spirit’s leading. It seems that DeYoung believes the Spirit is only able (or willing) to offer guidance in unusual, extraordinary ways. Because of that, he maintains that the Spirit’s leading will be so infrequent it is essentially nonexistent.

The ultimate issue here is not about which gifts of the Spirit are still offered today. The real issue is that so few of us believe that (1) God cares all that much about the particular details of my life or (2) that what he wants for my life is going to be painful and only require sacrifice. The issue is the fear, guilt, and shame that dominates the interior life of so many Christians that prevents us from seeking, believing, or recognizing God's leading when he offers it. 

You can know God's will. And in the next post I will share some foundational ideas of knowing God's will. 

What Does God's Will Have to Do with You?

I have never forgotten the pain in her voice. Asking a simple question, she inadvertently opened her heart to the real issue. Carried by wires and sounds waves, a woman asked the radio show host, "How do I know God's will for my life? I just want to know what he wants me to do." The host responded by asking her, "Do you mind sharing, specifically, what you're wanting to know?" Her response was honest without being exhibitionist, "My life just hasn't been really meaningful and I feel like I haven't done very much for him and I just want my life to count for something."

Don't we all, sister.

The fear behind her question and her courage to reveal it on the radio has never left me. I imagine that some of the staying power has to do with the fact that I have felt this myself. We want to know what God wants us to do in any given situation, but especially during difficult seasons. Behind that, it is also important for us to recognize the false assumptions we make. When we find that life/work/relationships/etc are easy and experiencing success, we assume that we have God's favor. The opposite is also true. When we find that life/work/relationships/etc are difficult and we are experiencing failure, we assume that something we have done is preventing God's favor. 

 Photo by  Jens Lelie  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

When it comes to discerning God’s leading, Evangelicals have a way of creating more confusion than clarity. The prevailing paradigm, particularly among Reformed Christians, is known as “The Way of Wisdom.” One more recent example is Kevin DeYoung’s book, Just Do Something, in which DeYoung attempts to demystify the concept of finding God’s will.

He says that the phrase, “God’s Will,” can mean one of three different things: first, there is God’s will of decree—this is God’s providential, superintending of all things towards the fulfillment of his own purposes; second, God’s will of desire is God’s command expressed in language of prohibition and permission. The third way DeYoung calls the “will of direction” This is where far too many Christians get stuck; where the caller from the radio felt she had gotten everything wrong. God may order and superintend all things in every corner of creation, but it can feel as though he fails to make his will known to us with any clarity or confidence.

 Photo by  Yeshi Kangrang  on  Unsplash

Despite the confusion we may feel about God's will, don't miss the fact that these three different expressions of God's will share something in common: God's will cannot be thwarted. Despite anything we may attempt to do to the contrary, the sun still rises in the East and sets in the West. Though we may insist that we can live however we like and face no consequences, the reality is that the universe was set in motion with a certain rhythm to it. Anything that goes against that rhythm is going to kill us and those around us to varying degrees. We may choose to do the opposite, but even God's moral will is inescapable. That means his personal will for each of our lives is just as unavoidable as the others. 

There is also something to recognize about each of these three expressions of God's will. Each step moving from God's will in creation to his moral will and then to his personal will is an exponential increase in intimacy. God does not ask us to participate with him in "holding all things together" (Col 1). He invites all people to respond to the convicting work of the Spirit to turn from their false self and towards their true self in Jesus -- whether we do or not is part of his personal engagement with us. The last step, God's personal will, is intensely personal. In John 10, Jesus speaks of men and women who belong to him, they follow him as their Shepherd and he leads them where they need to go. 

God has a will for your life and mine. But he is not asking us to guess what it might be; he is not trying to keep it hidden from us. He wants us to walk in intimate, personal communion with him as he shows us who we are in him and what he has made us to do. In the next post, we will wrestle with the next question every one of us has at this point: Can I know God's personal will?