Is Following Jesus Hard?

Recently, I saw tweet from Rick Warren posted on Facebook.  It said, “Saying I’m a ‘spiritual’ person is easy. Modern spirituality is self-centered and narcissistic. Following Jesus is hard.”  Warren is spouting what has been taught for many, many years in the church, that following Jesus is hard and difficult to do.

But is that true?

I believe that this common statement actually demonstrates that so many church leaders have taught and believers believe that the gospel has a form of the Old Covenant superimposed upon it.  And because of this, in both approach and practice, they deny something very important that is what actually makes the good news good.

As Paul demonstrates in Romans 7:5-24, following the law under the Old Covenant was hard.  A person would know what was right to do, and inevitably, no matter how hard that person would try, eventually s/he would break the law.  It would be like him/her saying, “Don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t do that.  Oh, man, I did it!”  That’s how things worked under the Old Covenant while the followers of God were still in the natural or flesh nature.  This was so because under the Old Covenant, God only visited upon people, never to stay, so their nature remained unchanged.

So, following God while under the Old Covenant was hard, very hard.

If it’s the same under the New Covenant, how is that good news?  That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.  It’s not good news.

The biggest change from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant is that those who have believed the message of Christ have had their natures changed from that of the flesh, which was killed when they participated (were crucified with) in Christ’s death, to that of Christ (as their one and only true nature) when they also participated in the resurrection, resurrected to walk in newness of life as Christ was.

Paul says in Galatians 2:19b-20, “I have been crucified with Christ; and no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me; and now, that which I live in the flesh, I live by faith, that of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

This change in nature is a very significant and crucial change that occurred from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  God, through the Spirit of His Son, now inhabits those who are His adopted sons and daughters.  And now, because of this, following Jesus is the natural thing to do.

And because it is the natural thing to do, it is not hard.  Think about a habit that you have, even a bad one.  I have the bad habit of biting my fingernails.  I often do it subconsciously.  I have been doing it practically all of my life.  It is very easy to do.  I don’t have to think to bite my nails, but I do have to think to not bite my nails.  That’s because it’s part of my nature.

In the same way, the adopted sons and daughters of God must truly realize that they now possess a different nature.  And because of having that new nature and identity, following Jesus isn’t hard; rather, it’s natural. Because, just as Paul said in Galatians 2, it is Christ living in him, and every follower.  And I think it’s the natural thing for Christ to live according to his nature.

It is so important, actually it’s CRUCIAL, for the leaders of God’s people to teach the full gospel and why it is GOOD NEWS!  That means it cannot, must not, be subjected to being superimposed by how things were done under the Old Covenant.  Yet, this tweet by Warren demonstrates that he truly views the gospel through the lens of the Old Covenant.  And he’s not alone in that view.

So, in a nutshell, here’s why I disagree with the phrase, “following Jesus is hard.”  When I believed, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into my heart (Gal 4) to be my one, only, and true nature.  Because it is Jesus living in me, it is natural for Jesus to live according to His nature and, therefore, it is easy for me to follow Jesus because it’s Him living.  What’s hard is when I decide to intervene and do something different, because I have forgotten that my old self, my old nature, is dead.  That takes effort and thinking because now I have to dig up my old self.

If followers of Jesus truly realize this reality, they will realize that following Jesus is the natural (easy) thing to do.  And that’s why the gospel is GOOD news.


How Does the Church Grow?

How does the kingdom of God, and, by indirect result, the church grow?  By the church reaching into the community in which it exists.  And this cannot only be in doing good deeds which demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom and the characteristics of it.  What is done must also be connected to the reason behind it.

It is true that the demonstration of the qualities of the kingdom in view of a community gives a platform and a connection to people, but it is only that.  It is not sufficient in itself to build the kingdom.  The church must open their mouths and share the “reason for the hope they have.”  Having only the first part will not build the kingdom, while only having the second part will typically result in having almost no one listen.

If a church is experiencing decline, each person must ask him/herself this question: “What am I doing to reach other people?”  In a church that is in decline, the common answers to this question is something along the lines of, “Well, someone else will do it” or “That’s not my gifting” or “That’s not my calling” or “That’s the pastor’s responsibility.”

The problem, though, is that the vast majority of the church, if not practically all, is answering the same way.  “Someone else will do it.”  And when this is the case, is it any wonder that a church is in decline?

Now, I realize there are other factors that can be present as well, but even if these other factors were not present, if no one is actually reaching out and sharing in word and deed, the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus, the result will still be the same.

So, my question to you and the question to the person in the mirror when I look in it is this,”Exactly who is it that you are actually seeking to reach with the kingdom of God and the good news of Jesus?”

And consider this – if there isn’t anyone you are actually seeking to reach to build the kingdom of God, do you have any grounds or right to complain about the church declining?

What Choosing When or Not to Make a Statement Says about Us

Have you ever considered the fact that the situations in which we choose to make a statement about God and the situations in which we choose to not make that same statement says something about how we view God and believe about Him?

Let me give two examples based upon my experience as a pastor (and I don’t think it’s unique).

Here’s the first situation: a person announces that s/he is having a test that will reveal whether or not s/he has cancer.  If…

…the test comes back negative for cancer, the common statement is “Praise God, God is good.”

…the test comes back positive for cancer, the common statement is “(not praise God, God is good).”

Here’s the second situation: a car accident or nearly a car accident.  If…

…nearly an accident, a common statement from people is “God must have been watching over you.”

…the accident does happen, “(not ‘God must have been watching over you’).”

What’s the common element that determines when the statement is or isn’t made?  Whether or not the outcome is the one the person desires.

The outcomes where we choose to make a statement or choose not to make that same statement reveals much about our true belief, view, and approach to God.  I believe there are many who, though they wouldn’t admit it, but determined by when they choose to make or not make a statement about God, truly have a “genie in the lamp” view of God.  God is judged through what happens to us.

And God becomes an “arbitrary” God, choosing on whims to do or allow this or that, all depending on His mood at that particular moment and whether or not He likes a person at that time.

For example, two people have tests for cancer.  One comes back negative while the other comes back positive.  When the statement, “Praise God, God is good,” about God is only made in response to the negative result, the next logical step in a person’s mind is that God cared more about the person who received the negative result than the one who received the positive result.  Because, so the logical reasoning goes, if God truly cared about them both and not just the one, wouldn’t He have given them both a negative result?

See how that could give a person a skewed view of God?

What all of this forgets is what God says to the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 – “And He answered me, ‘My grace is enough for you, for the power is perfected in weakness.’  Therefore, most gladly, I will all the more boast in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ my dwell upon me.”

Why does God choose to allow one person to have a negative test result while another to have a positive one?  I cannot answer that specifically, but this I do know: He doesn’t do it arbitrarily, but His decision will be the best path for His power to be revealed in a person’s life.  It will also be the best way that He can be what He needs to be for that person at that time.

Therefore, our responses should be the same whether we consider the outcome positive or negative because, no matter the result, God is always working and using all things to demonstrate His power and to be what He needs to be for us at that time so that His goal of conforming us to the image of Christ is furthered.

A New Venture

During the worship gatherings of those known as the First Baptist Church of Fort Dodge, it is typical for us to recite together the Lord’s Prayer.  A few months ago, I decided to change up slightly how that prayer reads.  I did so to bring it closer to home and make it much more personal in our own community.

Instead of saying, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we now say, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, in Fort Dodge as it is in heaven.”

Through that small change, we now are face-to-face with the reality that we must view and live in our community through the perspective of God’s kingdom and God’s will for it.  That means looking at our community and seeing how it matches that quality and how it falls short in the quality of the kingdom.

For example, I’m thinking that in God’s kingdom no one goes hungry.  I’m thinking that everyone has what is needed for life.  I’m thinking that in God’s kingdom there is peace and not stress.

The idea is to take the qualities and characteristics of the kingdom of God and His will and apply it to our community in creative ways so the community can truly experience them.

I made this change in order to begin to get the church to start seeing what is right in front of us on a constant basis and do so in view of how God sees Fort Dodge and what He desires for our community.

That change has now led us to the formation of a new outreach team which will help direct, give guidance, and give funding to new and creative ways to impact our community so that the people of our community can experience the awesome characteristics and qualities of God’s kingdom.

I am excited as we begin this new venture.  A significant amount of money was generously given to the church and it will be used for this purpose.  I am looking forward to seeing the creativity of God’s people as we seek to bring the awesome characteristics and qualities of God’s kingdom and will to bear on the community of Fort Dodge.

A Malady Common to Christians?

Tomorrow, I am doing a funeral for a man who would have turned 85 today.  Due to health reasons, Donnie hasn’t been able to worship with his church family for a little over a year now.  His spot in the sanctuary is usually unoccupied Sunday mornings.  As I have meditated over the past few days as to what the Spirit would have me share, He continued to draw my mind to a statement that the Apostle Paul made in his letter to the Philippian believers.  This statement is part of the passage from which I preached this past Sunday, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  And I have discovered that when I cannot get a particular passage out of my mind, the Spirit is behind it.  So, I’ve learned to stop trying to move beyond it and sit and ruminate.

Paul’s statement is found in 1:21.  This is how I have translated it: “For to me, the act of living is Christ and the act of dying is positive gain.”  If the act of living meant wealth, power, self-gratification, and the like, for Paul, then the act of dying would loom in front of him with terror.  But for Paul, the act of living means and is Christ.  He is one with his Lord.  And Paul knows that death itself cannot break this union; it can only make it more complete because death means actually being with Christ.

How often do Christians live to protect, or maintain, their lives and how it is currently constituted?  Many Christians are shackled to life in such a way that they are not free to live with abandon, to live for Christ.  They hear the call of Christ to go here or do that, yet they are afflicted with the same disease as was Moses – “But” disease.

God: “Moses, I want you to bring my people out of Egypt.”

Moses: “But I’m a nobody.”

God: “Tell them it is Me who has sent you.”

Moses: “But what if they don’t believe me?”

God: “You will be my mouthpiece.”

Moses: “But I don’t speak well at all.”

“But” disease is all about finding “reasons” why one shouldn’t do what God has called him/her to do or go where God says go.  It’s purpose is protecting and maintaining the status quo, one’s current reality.

Instead of protecting and maintaining his life, Paul actually looked forward to death with joy and anticipation.  He didn’t fear it because he knew what death meant – having his union with Christ made complete.  Because of this, he was released to live as Christ directed.  Even if Christ intended for Paul to live this present life a bit longer, Paul was good with that because, remember, the act of living for Paul is Christ.  He was prepared to experience complete union with Christ upon death, but he was also prepared to continue on in this life if that’s what Christ decided.

What is presently shackling you to your current life and the maintaining of it?  Is it financial?  Is it quality of life?  Is it something else?  If Christ called and directed you to go to a place or do something that meant turning your life upside-down, would you do it?  Or would you be demonstrating symptoms of “But” disease?

The Problem with Prayer

Some may take issue with what I am about to say, I realize that, but as the saying, “The proof is in the pudding,” goes, the results bear it out.  Many say, “Prayer works,” but, sadly, many who say that have low “results” from their prayers.  Many make that statement, but the percentage of the time that what they pray actually comes to pass is very, very low.  I have often wondered if those who make that statement do so in an attempt to convince themselves.  There is a problem with prayer and that problem sits squarely in the common approach and view of prayer.

And, honestly, it is because of this big problem that when people on Facebook request immediate prayers for something or someone, I do not participate.  I will not use prayer to find out what God wants to do nor will I use it in a way that reveals the truly common attitude and approach to prayer, which is treating God like the genie in the lamp.  When prayer is done in the common attitude and approach, it is filled with the person’s desires and wants, not God’s will.  And it may sound harsh, but when, on Facebook, people ask for others to start praying for this person and/or situation, that’s typically exactly what that person wants – prayers filled with his/her desired outcome.

(The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Graham Cooke’s “booklet” on prayer, titled “Crafted Prayer.”  You can find the e-book here.  It costs $5.)

“And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive,” Jesus preached in Matthew 21:22.  Why, then, do we seemingly receive so few answers to prayer today?  Was Jesus lying to us?  Of course not!  The issue, then, must be our own – we must not believe what we are praying.  Prayer, as it is taught today in most churches, doesn’t work.  Most of us have been brought up in a tradition that when something bad happens, prayer must begin immediately.  This seems reasonable and even righteous, but on a deeper level, it actually hinders the power of God to work on our behalf.  In my experience in churches and friendships, I have seen that when we pray too soon, we usually pray in unbelief.  We find ourselves praying out of the shock or trauma of the situation itself, and we pray out of our panic, our worry, our anxiety, and our concern.

For example, a church member is diagnosed with a serious illness.  Immediately, our compassion rises up and we burst into prayer.  We use a shotgun approach, spraying heaven with every imaginable request.  “Well, Father, I pray this,” we start.  Then another thought enters into our mind, so we switch tracks: “Oh, Father, I pray that.”  Doubt attacks us and our prayer shifts again.  “Well, Lord, if it by Your will, I pray this,” and “Father, I pray that you might want to think about doing this.”  Our love for the person prompts us to remind God of how valuable he or she is to Him: “Well, Lord, you know he is a faithful servant.”  God now has to sift through a blizzard of prayer thrown up within a few minutes, a storm further thickened if there is more than one intercessor.  You can forgive God for sitting there and thinking, “What is this?  Multiple choice?”

Sadly, our prayers have stopped being about the person in need, and have become our effort to try and find God.  We have forgotten to pray what God actually wants to do, and have begun our own search for Him.  We shouldn’t be using prayer to find God; that’s what thanksgiving is for.  The Bible is clear: it’s not with prayer that we enter His gates, it’s with thanksgiving.

Importance of Worship Integration

Last week, I posted on Facebook about the necessity of not waiting until the worship gathering during which the Lord’s Supper was observed to examine one’s attitude and actions regarding the Body of Jesus Christ, the church.

I would like to piggy-back off of that thought regarding the corporate worship gathering and experience.

I have found it to be common that the corporate worship gathering and experience is segregated/compartmentalized from the rest of the week.  It seems that in the minds of many there is a disconnect between the worship gathering and worship/praise throughout the week on an individual level.  And I believe this lack of integration has had a direct impact on the corporate worship experience.

The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers, “What the, brothers?  Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.”  These are things given to and experienced by each believer in the days leading up to the worship gathering in order that they might bring these things with them to the worship gathering so that the depth and quality of the worship would be directly impacted and deepened.  The worship gathering should not and must not be seen as disconnected from what has happened in the days leading up to it.

The individual’s experiences of God throughout the week should cause him/her to worship and praise on a daily basis as an individual.  During those experiences, not only does s/he experience God, but s/he also receives from God that which He, through His Spirit, desires for him/her to take to the rest of the body of Christ at the corporate worship gathering.  And by bringing those experiences and what has been received to the worship gathering, the rest of the body is taken into deeper and more intimate worship of God.

But sadly, it is much more common for there to be a “compartmentalization” attitude regarding life.  And that has directly impacted the depth and intimacy of corporate worship.

The reason why the worship gathering is of high importance and priority of a church goes far beyond it just being the “event” where the highest % of the church gathers.  It is of great importance and high priority because it should and must be the time where the church collects the individual experiences from the previous week and uses them to create and cause deeper and a more intimate worship experience.  That worship gathering then is the culmination of the previous week.

But how many people truly see it as such, and how many people are actually seeing God’s presence and activity and giving throughout the days leading up to the gathering?  This must be an intentional practice.

The worship gathering is also the inauguration, motivation, and impetus for individual worship during the week following the corporate gathering.  By experiencing what others have experienced in the days leading up to that gathering, that then prepares us to further experience receive from God during the days after the gathering.

This is how it should be.  Sadly, it seems to me that this is more truly the exception than the norm.

This MUST change.