The Hidden Work and Power of God’s Word

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Winter is coming.  And I hate shoveling snow.  But I’ve found a way to make it more bearable.

When I’m shoveling and I’m tempted to grumble I tell myself, “I’ll be glad for this snow next August when I’m eating sweet breat and butter corn on the cob.”  The effects of snow aren’t immediately observable.  But over the months as it lays on the ground and soaks into the earth, it has a hidden work and power.  God compares the hidden work and power of his word to that of rain and snow in Isaiah 55:10-11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

When I’m preaching on Sundays I can’t see what’s happening in people’s hearts. I can’t see if any are born again, or encouraged or sustained or convicted. Some people may be smiling or nodding, but many have unreadable expressions.  If I were to judge by some peoples’ faces I’d guess nothing was happening in their hearts.  When we’d have family devotions when the kids were young, most days they were sleepy, distracted and squirmy.  I couldn’t tell if God’s word was having any effect on my kids.  Often when I share the gospel with someone I’m met with a blank stare or “Oh yeah I believe in Jesus. I go to church.”  They don’t cry out “Brother, what should I do?” like on the day of Pentecost.  And even when I read God’s word myself, I don’t experience fireworks or goosebumps. At times I’m convicted or challenged or encouraged by a Scripture, but many mornings my devotions feel rather routine and unremarkable.

But our lack of seeing immediate fruit in our children when we read the Bible to them or in fellow believers when we encourage them with Scripture or unbelievers when we share the good news of Jesus or even in ourselves when we read God’s word, doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening. God’s word is at work.

In Isaiah 55 God compares his word to the rain and snow that fall from the sky. When they soak into the earth, we don’t see anything happening. We can’t see the hidden work and power of water on the seeds buried in the earth. Yet the rain and snow make the earth “bring forth and sprout” and produce a harvest months later.  That’s how it is with God’s word. He sends it forth with a purpose and it never fails to accomplish that purpose. But we don’t see it right away. Snow in January produces corn in August. God’s word “SHALL succeed.”

Snow in January produces corn in August

So pastor, keep on preaching God’s word, even if it seems like nothing’s happening in your church. Mom, Dad, keep on teaching children about Jesus, even if they’re fidgety and punching each other while you do. Believer, keep sharing the good news of Jesus with people, even if no one gets saved when you do. Keep reading God’s word and meditating on it, even when you feel dry and lifeless.
God’s word won’t return to him void. You might not see the results, but God will. And God will be successful. His word never fails.

Three Simple Ways To Bless The Socks Off Your Pastor

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Contrary to the popular conception of the pastor who only works one day a week (see Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons), real pastoral ministry is tough, draining, and emotionally taxing. It’s not for the faint of heart. It requires a unique combination of battle toughness and fatherly tenderness. A pastor is closely connected to the lives of the people he serves, and vicariously experiences both the joy and heartbreak that his people experience. When a young man gets married, the pastor rejoices. When the same young man gets cancer, the pastor is heartbroken. When a couple has a child, the pastor is elated. When the same couple gets divorced five years later, the pastor is heartbroken.

Given the unique challenges of pastoral ministry, pastors desperately need encouragement. Encouragement is what keeps the pastor going. Encouragement is fuel for the pastoral engine. It’s like a spiritual adrenaline shot.

Because I’m not currently a pastor, I can write this post, which, in the past, would have seemed self-serving. So how can you encourage your pastor? Here are some simple ways.

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO HIS SERMONS, THEN THANK HIM FOR SPECIFIC ASPECTS OF HIS SERMONS

Preaching is a funny thing. A pastor can spend anywhere between 10 to 30 hours on a sermon. This sermon prep involves prayerfully wrestling through difficult passages (have you ever tried explaining Revelation?), figuring out how best to apply the passage to everyday life (what does an Ethiopian eunuch have in common with a stay at home mom?), and organizing the sermon in a coherent manner. On Sunday he stands up in front of his congregation and pours himself out for forty minutes, and then it’s over. Thirty hours of prep for a forty minute sermon. And he has to do the same thing again next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. It’s a joyful, exhausting, delighful, brutal grind.

If you want to bless your pastor, thank him very specifically for each sermon. Don’t simply say, “Lovely sermon pastor.” Instead, thank him for specific phrases, specific application points, and specific ways God used the sermon to change and challenge you. This specific encouragement will echo in his mind as he prepares his next sermon. Pay close attention, then thank your pastor specifically.

CHEERFULLY SUPPORT YOUR PASTOR’S LEADERSHIP

This doesn’t mean that you blindly support your pastor, no matter what decision he makes. This isn’t 1984, groupthink, follow the leader kind of support. It simply means that you maintain a general attitude of cheerful support toward your pastor, knowing that he is seeking to lead the church to the best of his ability, for the glory of God. I think this is the heart behind Hebrews 13:17, which says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Do you want your pastor to experience joy? Then cheerfully submit to his leadership. When you have the opportunity, thank your pastor for specific aspects of his leadership. Does your pastor place a strong leadership emphasis on sound doctrine? Thank him for that. Does your pastor place a strong leadership emphasis on evangelism? Thank him for that. Does your pastor place a strong leadership emphasis on mentoring others? Thank him for that. You can encourage your pastor by cheerfully supporting his leadership.

TAKE LEADERSHIP INITIATIVE

One of the things that constantly haunts pastors is the sense that there is always more to be done and not enough time to do it. There is more evangelism to be done, more Bible studies to be started, more homebound folks to visit, more community outreach to initiate. Most pastors are burdened by all they are leaving undone.

If you want to bless the socks off of your pastor, take the initiative in ministry. Instead of asking your pastor to start more Bible studies, ask your pastor if you can start a Bible study. Instead of asking your pastor to create a prayer team, ask your pastor if you can start a prayer team. Instead of asking your pastor for more women’s ministry, ask your pastor if you can start a women’s ministry.

The work of ministry is not primarily done by pastors; it’s done by the members of the church. Ephesians 4:11-12 tells us that the pastor is supposed to equip the people in his church for the work of ministry:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…

Do you want to bless your pastor? Step up to the plate and take some initiative. Don’t blame your pastor for the absence of a particular ministry. Rather, be the one who starts that ministry.

Trust me: your pastor is desperate for encouragement. Pastoral ministry is often done behind the scenes, with little or no thanks. And Satan loves to discourage pastors, because few things are more dangerous than a faith-filled, thoroughly encouraged pastor. Encourage your pastor today. It’s for your good and his.

Is Small Talk Unspiritual?

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Scripture gives great significance to our words:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29)

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6)

As men and women created in the image of a speaking God, our words have great capacity to build up or tear down. What we say or don’t say matters. But that raises a question. If, as Jesus says, we will give an account for every careless word; and if, as Paul says, all our speech is to be gracious and good for building others up – is it a sin to small talk? Is conversation about the weather or sports or any other insignificant topic an absolute waste of time?

I know – this might sound like hyper-spirituality. But as apparently small an area of life as it is, our view of small talk is significant. Because it’s the most mundane area of our conversation it reveals much about how we think about all conversation. Or, to put it another way, it’s the place where we’re most likely to have our guard down, and therefore the one that shows what we really think about our words. We can boil it down to one question: does your small talk build walls or bridges?[1]

The difference is not so much in what’s said, but why it’s said. Building walls is when your conversation about the latest sports news or the weather is just a means of keeping someone at arm’s length. It might be because you don’t really care about them – at the precise moment of your conversation, baseball is more important to you than what’s going on in your neighbor’s life. It might be because you’re afraid of what will happen if the conversation gets serious – better keep it on the weather or you’re going to end up on a subject you’re not prepared to handle! But the end result is that you use your small talk to build a wall. And that is ultimately wall-building is a failure of love.

But the exact same conversation – “How about that game?” or “Starting to feel like fall, isn’t it?” – can be a means of building a bridge towards someone. Maybe you don’t have an established relationship. Casual conversation is a first step towards turning a stranger into a friend. Maybe you do have a solid friendship, and sharing sports news is one of the things you enjoy together. A conversation that touches nothing deeper than Peyton Manning’s latest game can still be a way of moving towards your friend, strengthening and reinforcing your relationship. The bridge is there, even if you don’t walk all the way across it in this conversation.

So is it a sin for Christians to engage in small talk? No, not at all – provided it isn’t used to build a wall separating you from a person God’s called you to love. Use your words to tear down walls and build bridges – because that’s what God for you.

“In the beginning was the Word…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

 

[1] I’m indebted to David Powlison in his counseling class “Dynamics of Biblical Change” for this question and image.

Photo by Bert Kaufmann

Emancipated! No Longer Slaves Of Sin

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Sin often comes on strong, and we feel like we have to give in to it.

That temptation to lust is just too strong. We just can’t stop worrying. If we don’t give vent to our anger we feel we’ll explode. We’re born slaves of sin and do its bidding all our lives – UNTIL Jesus saves us. And he saves us not only from the GUILT of sin, but from the ENSLAVING POWER of sin.  We can conquer sin.  We can put it to death.  I’m NOT saying it is easy, or that we don’t have to fight, that we won’t fail and struggle at times, but I believe the Bible says we CAN overcome it and make progress in becoming more like Christ.  We are not hopeless, powerless slaves any more.

In Romans 6, Paul tells us:

WE DIED

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (1-2)

We must stop sinning because we’ve died to it. A dead person doesn’t get angry or covet or lust. He’s dead to those things. We’re spiritually dead to those things. Done with them, even if we FEEL like we have to give in to them. We died to sin when we were joined to Jesus:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (3)

When we believe in Jesus God baptizes us into Christ. Plunges us into him, makes us one with him. One with his death and burial. We’re dead and buried to our old life of sin. And…

WE HAVE NEW LIFE

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (4-5)

One with Jesus’ resurrection, we can now walk in newness of life. We have a new power to conquer sin.  The old life is gone.  As a result,

WE’RE NO LONGER SLAVES

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (6)

Imagine a slave in the days of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. As he leaves his old life walking away from the plantation where he was a slave  his master sees him and yells, “Get back here!” At first the former slave feels all the old fears come rushing in. His first instinct is “I have to do what he says.” Then he remembers, “Wait a minute! I’m no longer a slave! I don’t have to do what you say.”

WE’RE FREE

For one who has died has been set free from sin. (7)

This is the truth whether we feel like it or not. We’ve died. We don’t have to sin. We have been set free from its enslaving power.  But when we’re tempted we still FEEL like we have to sin. What do we do?

CONSIDER

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (8-11)

In his earthly life, Jesus was subject to temptation. But when he died he died to sin. He was finished with all temptation. So, since we are one with him, we are to CONSIDER ourselves dead to sin. No matter how strong the urge, we can say, “I’m dead to that.”

DETHRONE

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. (12)

Don’t let sin rule you. Dethrone it.  Don’t obey those passions and feelings. You don’t have to. And especially…

DON’T PRESENT

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness…. (13)

Flee temptation. Don’t drink if you’re tempted to get drunk. Put the computer where everyone can see the screen if you’re tempted to impurity. Here’s the principle: Stay as far away from the edge of the cliff as you can. Don’t offer your eyes, ears, hands or any part of your body to sin.

DO PRESENT

…but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (13)

Present yourself to God in prayer. Use your body for righteousness. Use your hands to serve someone. Use your tongue to encourage someone.

SIN DOESN’T HAVE TO DOMINATE US

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (14)

You’re in a new place – under grace – not under the dominion of sin. Grace will transform you.

Remember, you don’t HAVE to sin. You died to it and rose to a new life in Jesus.  It’s a fight.  You will fail at times.  When you do, simply confess your sins to Jesus our advocate in heaven and he will forgive and cleanse you.  But no matter how many times you fail don’t forget the reality of your new life in Christ.  Sin will have no dominion over you!