There I Am

This past weekend the students from Ignite Monmouth attended an Encounter Retreat in the hopes of encountering God. There were speaking sessions focused on the fact that God is enough for our lives. There was a prayer workshop to train students how to pray publicly. There were nights full of all-out worship that left us with sore throats the next morning. And there were encounters with God.

Normally on these retreats, students experience God in several ways. They might feel His presence during worship, and find the strength to raise their hands to the heavens. Others might experience the power of God through the communal prayer they experience. Still more might hear the gentle whispers of God during the time of silence on Saturday. But this time, God manifested in a new way.

On this retreat, God made Himself known through us. Students began to open up about past hurts and addictions, and when they did, their chains were broken. Students who had been dealing with depression suddenly found themselves with a renewed desire for Christ. Others who had been stuck in addictions for months found support amongst friends. Even more found that with the support of the group, the chains that bound them to past pains were broken, and forgiveness was able to rush in. Truly this was how God appeared this weekend.

For Jesus told us that, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” That was never truer than on this retreat. For where Jesus is, there is healing for the hurting, and forgiveness finally became a possibility for many. When Jesus shows up, there is freedom for the captives, and addictions that have plagued some for years suddenly paled in comparison to the freedom that Christ offers. In the presence of Jesus, there is strength for the weak, and students who were on the brink of giving up found themselves clinging to God for hope.

If you keep your struggles, your sins, and your pains to yourself, you will never find peace. If you keep those things in the dark, they will grow. But if you can find a support system to open up to, you can shed light on the once dark places and begin to heal. For where two or three gather in the name of Christ, He will bring healing. Do not keep your pain a secret any longer, for the path to freedom begins by opening up to others.

God Cheated

God and Satan have been playing a game against each other for a very long time. The game has been close, and every time one has tried to get ahead, the other has managed to frustrate the plan. Suddenly, Satan thinks he finally has what it takes to win. The last pieces of his game plan fall into place, and God plays right into his hands.

Satan has won the game

But God does not concede defeat. Instead, He declares that, in fact, Satan has NOT won, because it’s GOD’S game. God insists that because it is His game, all will play by His rules.

He. Wins.

If something like this happened to one of us, we would instantly accuse the other person of cheating. We would feel lied to, manipulated, and cheated. An argument would most certainly erupt.

And yet this exact scenario played out millennia ago when God sent His Son for our sins. God had made numerous promises to the Israelites, and Satan had tried relentlessly to ruin each one.

Abraham would become a great nation – but the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt.
Saul would be a king for God – but jealousy turned him into a tyrant.
Israel would be God’s chosen nation – but Assyria, Babylon, and Rome conquered them.

Then Jesus came.

This was Satan’s golden opportunity. He knew the Scriptures – if He could cause Jesus to sin or snuff out His mission, God would fail. e would successfully have corrupted The Almighty. None of his past failures to ruin God would matter, because if he could conquer Jesus, He would conquer God.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Satan put so much effort into killing Jesus.

He turned the Romans against Him.
He turned the Jews against Him.
He even turned one of His closest friends against Him.

Jesus was tortured, and Jesus died. Hell rejoiced. Satan had conquered God.

Imagine Satan’s surprise when three days later Heaven was rejoicing. In the ultimate show of His power and majesty, God raised Christ from the dead for the salvation of all humanity. In this one act, God both showed His infinite love for us while also showing to Satan and the entire world that no matter what, the plans of God will always prevail.

Satan probably walked away that day thinking one thing:
God cheated.

The world around us might seem like it is against us. We can’t seem to save money. Our relationships fall apart. Life just gets in the way. Yet God has a plan for each of us, and He wants nothing more than to fulfill that plan for us. He is strong enough to do it, and He is more than willing to do it. He broke the rules of a cosmic game for us once. He’s not going to let you fall apart.

Brokenness Redeemed

We’re all broken. We all have flaws. We all know those places in our lives we’d rather forget.

The recurring sin we can’t seem to break.
The heartbreak we endured at the hand of a friend.
The nagging insecurity, fear, or doubt.
The deep, dark secret we’re convinced no one could handle knowing about.
The broken relationship, broken dream, broken hope.

We’re all flawed, broken, and riddled with scars.
It’s part of the human experience.

It can be easy to look at our brokenness and feel disqualified to do, well, anything. We think if people know how we were broken, if they knew our flaws, if they knew the areas we continue to stumble in, they wouldn’t trust us. Or like us. Or allow us to speak into their lives.

So we hide our faults.
Bury our shame.
And convince ourselves we’ve messed up too much to be of any value to the kingdom of God.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Romans 8:28

God has a habit of redeeming our mistakes – of taking those areas in our lives where we’ve messed up, stumbled, ran away from Him to follow our own path, and turning them into something beautiful.

He takes our weakness and turns it into our greatest strength.

The very thing we’re ashamed of, the sin we beat ourselves up over, the mistakes we’ve made, brokenness we try to conceal, and heartbreak we endure have the potential to become something beautiful in the hands of our redeemer.

To break someone else out of the same struggle.
To help those struggling with the same insecurities.
To boldly proclaim that sin, death, and shame cannot hold down the one who trusts in the Lord.

Every mistake. Every flaw. Every scar.
God redeems them all into something more beautiful than we could ever imagine.

Where has God taken your weakness and made it into a strength?

Heavens and Depths

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
Psalm 139:7-8

David had a deep understanding about what it meant to be loved by God.

Here was a man who accomplished great things for God. He stood up to and defeated the Philistine champion. He honored Saul even though he was trying to kill David. He killed tens of thousands of the enemies of God. He established the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. He drew up plans for the temple of God. He was even called a man after God’s heart.

David had a dark side as well. He committed adultery with the wife of one of his trusted generals. He tried to cover up his sin, devised a plan, and ordered Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed. He lied to the prophet of God, tried to vindicate himself before God, and allowed pride to control his heart.

David had his ups and downs.
His times of passionately pursuing God, and times where he deliberately disobeyed.

And yet, he knew he was loved.

Before David accomplished anything, before he performed great exploits, before he sinned and fell and had to face the consequences of his choices, he had a revelation about God’s love.

No matter where he went, no matter what he did, God was still there.

Whether David found himself in the heavens, pursuing God with all he had, obeying His commands, growing his relationship, and doing everything a good God-follower is meant to do, or whether he turned his back, made his bed in the depths of sin, despair, and darkness, God was there.

God wasn’t going to leave David.
He wasn’t going to abandon him.
He wouldn’t love David any more or any less based on what he did.

And it changed David’s life.

God’s love transcends our actions.
Goes beyond our choices.
And pursues us whether we pursue Him or not.

We are loved and we are accepted by the God of the universe.
Whether we go up to the heavens, or make our bed in the depths.

He will pursue us, He will find us, and He will love and accept us no matter what we’ve done.

So, my brothers and sisters, as you journey towards the cross this Lenten season, may you find the overwhelming love of God pursuing you. May you realize you are loved and accepted no matter what you have done. And may you, as you embrace that love, find the strength to cast off every sin and passionately pursue Him in return.

Where in your life do you need to be reminded that you are loved and accepted?

A Crouching Enemy

“But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:7

Sin. We all do it.

We all have those areas in our lives where we fail to live up to God’s standard. Where we put our own desires and cravings before the needs of others. Where we allow the lusts of the flesh to take over and do things we wish we hadn’t.

It’s part of our inherent nature.

We stumble.
Struggle with those sinful temptations that assault our minds.

Sin is seen as nothing more than failing to do what is right.
A lack of good judgement and a promise to do better next time.

But God paints a different image of this beast.

After refusing Cain’s offering, God warns him about the dangers of not doing what is right – that it unleashes a force in our lives ready to destroy us.

Sin isn’t some bad behavior, mistake, poor judgment, or temptation we struggle with. It’s not just breaking a command, dealing with jealousy or anger or selfishness or vanity. Sin isn’t breaking away from some ancient code found in the Bible.

It’s an animal crouching.
Looking for the right opportunity to pounce and devour its prey.

Sin is a living force ready and waiting to attack the moment we choose anything less than God’s standard. It has motives, plans, desires to consume every aspect of our lives and rip us apart. It wants nothing more than to see us maimed and bloody, lying in the gutter of what was meant to be our lives.

Sin is not to be taken lightly.

It’s an enemy to be defeated.
A force to be subdued.
An animal to be mastered, brought into submission and dealt with.

Otherwise, it sits by, crouching, waiting for that opportune moment when our guard is down to pounce…and destroy the life God intended us to live.

So, my brothers and sisters, as we begin this season of Lent, may you be reminded of the severity of your sin. May you find yourself mastering that beast within. And may you, as you focus on the saving power of Jesus Christ, find that the crouching lion of sin has turned into a docile cat with no power over your life.

What area of sin in your life do you need to master?

Righteousness of God

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
2 Corinthians 5:21

We are new creations.
Who we used to be, what we used to struggle with, is no longer part of our identity.

It’s not an easy concept to live out.

Sure, we’ll say we are new creations.
We’ll even tell others we are new.
But when it comes to messing up, when it comes to sinning yet again, we don’t always understand our newness.

We still feel like the same, old people.

In his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul makes an astounding statement:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The readers of Paul’s letter would have found this idea revolutionary.

The Jews in Jesus’ time believed their righteousness came from what they did. They had roughly 660 laws in the Old Testament they had to keep, and their righteousness, or right standing with God, was based on how well they kept the law.

Those who followed the law closely were considered to be in right-standing with God.

Those who broke they law were considered unrighteousness, and were required to bring a sacrifice at least once a year to pay for their unrighteousness and push back the unleashing of God’s wrath one more year.

But Christ changed all that.
He not only paid for our sins, but He gave us a new identity of being righteous.

Paul used covenant language in the verse above, something the original readers would have picked up on. Whenever someone in that time created covenant with another person, a series of rituals were performed to make the agreement lifelong.

The covenant partners would exchange belts, symbolizing a sharing of each other’s strengths.
They would exchange weapon, symbolizing their enemies would become each other’s enemies.
They pronounced blessings and curses over each other, should they keep or break the covenant, respectively.

But the very first ritual was the exchange of robes.

In that day, your robe was your identity. It’s how someone would know who was coming down the road. It showed them what class of citizen you found yourself in. It portrayed whether you were rich or poor, favored or an outcast, respected or despised.

Exchanging your robes meant you exchanged identities, and carried with you the good and bad of the person with which you came into covenant.

Jesus wore a robe a righteousness.
We wear robes of sin.

When He went to the cross for our sin, He put on our identity of sin and gave us His identity of righteousness.

Now when God looks at us, He doesn’t define us by our sin, our shame, or our mistakes.
He defines us by the righteousness of His son.
And doesn’t hold our sin against us any longer.

So, my brothers and sisters, as you wrestle with your shortcomings, may you remember you are no longer defined by your sin. May you see yourself the way God sees you: as righteous. And may you, as you learn to fully embrace the new creation that you are, find your identity being formed by who Christ is and what He has done, not on what you’ve done.

How can you begin living out the truth that your identity is righteous, even when you sin?

Photo Credit: Leland Francisco (Creative Commons)

Removing our Masks

“He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy”
Proverbs 28:13

We all wear masks.
We all have those facades we hide behind.

We tell people we’re doing great, when really, it feels like life is falling apart.
We pretend we have everything together, when really we’re clueless as to what is going on.
We act as if our finances are in order, when really we wonder how we will pay this month’s bills.
We show acceptance and love to those who have hurt us, when really, we’re dying from the pain inside.
We go to church, small group, help with the youth ministry and act as if we are close to God, when really He feels a million miles away.

We don’t like people to see where we’re broken.

We make a mistake, we sin, we step outside God’s plan for our lives and our immediate reaction is to hide.
Cover it up.
Pretend everything is okay.

It’s something we’ve been doing since the Garden.

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, when the disobeyed God and followed their own longings, when their eyes were opened and they saw what they had done, they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves.

They didn’t want God to see their flaws.
They didn’t want Him knowing their failures.
They didn’t want Him seeing their shame and nakedness.
They didn’t want to hear that they messed up, disappointed God and had consequences to face.

So they hid.

We do the same today.

We don’t want people seeing our weaknesses.
We don’t want others to know where our lives are falling apart.
We’re afraid to share our shame and guilt and sin.

So we hide.
We keep people at an arm’s length.
We cover it up with religious obligations.

And try to work out our weakness on our own.

But covering up our sin doesn’t change it.
Hiding our weakness won’t make it go away.
Pretending we have everything together doesn’t fix our lives.

It’s only when we confess, only when we share, only when we remove our mask, open up about our faults and flaws and brokenness, and let others see what is really going on, that we are able to find hope and healing.

We need others to help overcome our sin.
And it starts by taking off our masks.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as you come up against sin, may you remember that hiding it doesn’t help heal you. May you find a handful of people who you can open up to and share your weaknesses. And may you, as you remove your masks and reveal your brokenness, find healing and hope to change.

How do you try to hide your brokenness?

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Running from God

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.”
Jonah 1:1-3

Following God is not always easy.

It requires us to move past our own wants and desires. It means we have to change the way we think about and treat others. It means we will be pushed and challenged and moved out of our comfort zones.

Jonah knew this first hand.

God shows up and tells Jonah to go to the city of Ninevah and preach against it. Jonah decides he doesn’t want to go, buys a ticket on a boat and heads to the city of Tarshish instead – going in the exact opposite direction God told him to go.

Jonah had no desire to go to Nineveh.

It was a city that deep within Assyrian territory, making it a place no God-fearing Israelite would ever step foot. The Ninevites had turned away from God, embraced a life of sin and shame, and displayed their depravity on the street. Prostitutes, drug dealers, and thieves would line the streets waiting for business.

Nineveh was not the kind of place you visit to encounter God.

It was hot.
And dirty.
And sin was displayed on every corner.

So Jonah ran.
And bought a ticket for Tarshish.
And tried to get as far from Nineveh as possible.

Jonah’s journey took him away from the very place he needed to be.

God wasn’t in Tarshish. He wasn’t on the boat Jonah used to get away from Ninevah. He wasn’t found in the belly of the whale or the decision to head to Tarshish in the first place.

God called Jonah to go to Nineveh.
To a place of darkness and discomfort.
And had every intention of meeting with Jonah.

Once Jonah made his way to Nineveh, true healing and repentance began to happen.

Sometimes, the very thing we run from is the very place we’ll find God.

The hurts and pains of our past.
The job we despise working.
The school that seems to be destroying us.
The relationships that keep falling apart.

God is in them all, and calls us to endure a season of darkness so we can experience true healing.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as you face situations and conflicts you would rather run away from, may you be reminded that it is always darkest before the dawn. May you see that the hurts and pains you endure are producing a new level of healing in your life. And may you, as you journey into some dark places, find that God was there all along, working everything out for your good.

How could God be working in your areas of darkness to bring true healing?

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“Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 3:13-14

Paul knew the kind of man he was becoming.

He knew where he had come from. He knew the former zeal he had for the law. He knew all about his old reliance on rules and traditions and deeds to make himself right with God. He accepted the fact that he was formerly against God, persecuting and killing those who served the true God.

Paul was intimate with the details of who he used to be.

But he didn’t let that define the man he would become.

He didn’t allow his past sins to stop him. He didn’t let his old thought life hinder him. He wasn’t going to continue letting his old self dictate who he was.

Paul recognized that every action he took, every command from God he obeyed, every time he stepped out in faith, every thing he did was shaping the person he would become.

Both good and bad.

So Paul did the one thing many of us hesitate to do.

Paul took the time to work on his character.

He allowed God to point out the areas of sin in his life. He wrestled with destructive thoughts in his life. He pushed and pulled and faced the shame of his old self. He made amends with those he hurt.

Paul focused less on what he was doing for God and more on who he was becoming in God.

That’s not an easy path to take.

It’s easier to do stuff for God. We can put a value on what we do. How many messages we’ve given, how many people we “won” to Christ, how often we’ve evangelized, how many people are in our ministry, how many times we’ve volunteered. It’s easy to figure out what you’ve done for Him.

But who we are becoming? There’s no quantitative value to show how far we’ve come. It’s all about looking inward, dealing with areas of nagging sin, working on character flaws, dredging up the dirt and muck in our lives and dealing with the things we’d rather keep buried.

Who really enjoys finding their flaws and trying to fix them?

If we want to do big things for God, if we want to make a lasting impact in the lives of those around us, we need to develop our character.

Those nagging sins and character flaws we think aren’t a big deal, have the potential to bring a lot of hardship and pain into our lives.

  • “Just looking” at that guy or girl will eventually lead to you wanting more.
  • Telling little white lies to get what you want will lead to bigger, and more hurtful lies.
  • Finding value in popularity or job status will lead you to use others.
  • Pretending to be someone you’re not will eventually blow up in your face…or cause you to lose yourself in the lie.
  • Spending more time watching TV than with God or your family will eventually cause you to be disconnected and alone.

Every decision you make today – how you spend your time, how you respond to hurts and pain, who you hang out with, how you respond to criticism – all will set the pace of who you will be in 10, 20, 30…even 50 years from now.

And so, my brothers and sisters, as we prepare ourselves to experience resurrection, may you remember that what you do is not more important than who you are. May you have courage to do the hard work of shaping your character. And may you, as you prepare yourself to experience the risen Christ, find that you are changing who you are becoming for the better.

How is God working on your character?

Lent Deeper: Made New

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
2 Corinthians 5:17

It’s not always easy to believe that we’ve been made new.

We know our sins. We know our mistakes. We know the ways in which our minds haven’t been renewed. We know the regrets that still haunt us. We could immediately point out those temptations that still plague us. We still have those deep dark secrets we hide from the world.

No point in time in our walk with Christ can we honestly say we don’t know how we’ve sinned.

We know the mistakes we made yesterday.
The thoughts we let run through our minds last night.
And the selfish desires that run through our hearts on a daily basis.

We are intimate with our faults.
Which makes it hard to believe that we’ve changed.

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