Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why I Stopped Trying to Become a Better Person





For many years, I spent lots of time and energy trying to become a better person. It’s not that anyone would've ever considered me a terrible person, but I’ve never been satisfied with being good enough. I’ve always wanted to continue trying to get better day in and day out.

In our culture, trying to become a better person is an admirable trait. Leadership gurus spend a lot of time talking about all the benefits of continuing to improve ourselves. I don't disagree. Becoming a better person is great and something I hope we all are able to experience.

A few years ago, in the midst of me trying to become a better person, I encountered a problem that, to my surprise, I couldn't overcome. For all the years I spent improving myself, I found an area of my life that I couldn't change, no matter how hard I tried. I finally gave up and stopped trying to become a better person. And it was here that I finally experienced a breakthrough. Here's what happened.
 

My Journey to the Bottom


Throughout my life, I have been pretty successful at appearing like I am becoming a better person. Overall, I’ve had pretty good morals and have tried my best to obey all the rules. In the church world, I used to be viewed as a superstar Christian. I attended a church service every Sunday, was friendly to the people around me, didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t have sex outside of marriage, served needy families, gave ten percent of my income to my local church, read my Bible every day, was a part of the leadership team at our church, sang in the praise band, was the church Treasurer, and I eventually quit my engineering job to work full-time at our church. I started well and continued to build upon my early success to become a better person day after day.

But in the midst of all this success, there was a nagging struggle I was facing. I was making great progress in modifying my outward behaviors, but inwardly, I was seeing little to no progress.

I remember a day in high school when I realized I didn’t care about people the way I thought I should care about them. When I would engage in conversation with people, I spent most of the time talking about myself. Sometimes out of politeness, I would ask how the other person was doing, but would immediately forget what was said. I made a commitment to myself that day to ask others how they were doing and try to remember what was said. For the next week, I fulfilled my objective. But as time went on, I went back to talking about myself all the time.

For years, I experienced the same failure over and over and over. I tried to do everything I could to change the way I interacted with other people, but I kept failing time and time again. Even when I experienced little bits of success at asking questions rather than doing all the talking, I recognized that I really didn’t care about the people; I was only asking the questions in order to make it seem like I cared about them.

I was plagued with an overwhelming since of uneasiness about my situation, but I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to care about other people, but I couldn’t seem to do anything to change that part of me.

About three years ago, I hit rock bottom. A series of uncontrollable circumstances in my life brought me to this painful, yet life changing place. It was here that I was challenged like I've never been challenged before. Everything I believed about being a Christian was put on a scale and weighed against what the Bible actually says. It was during this painful experience that my nagging struggle came to an end.

My Journey to Heart Transformation


In late summer of 2014, I spent a week with a close friend who lived close to the Finger Lakes region of New York. Amidst our time hiking and canoeing, I spent some time reading a book which was highly recommended by a friend. As I was reading one evening, a very bright lightbulb magically turned on. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I realized my problem. For all these years, I had been trying to transform my heart (inward change), but the truth was that I was incapable of changing it. I could continue trying to transform it for the rest of my life, but no amount of “fake it till I make it” behavior modification was going to cause me to care about people. The only way I could care about them was for God to transform my heart; he had to give me the ability to care about them.[1]

Six months later, I began to experience God’s transformation first-hand. I began feeling so much love and compassion for people that I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to run up to everyone I knew to give them huge hugs and tell them how much I cared about them. I wanted to know everything about them. And I wanted to pray for them. Since all that stuff could seem a bit creepy, I tried to contain myself as best I could, but it was really hard.

Do you see what was happening? As I was experiencing heart transformation, my behaviors began to naturally change. Building quality, caring relationships became something I wanted to do rather than something I felt like I had to do. When you love people that much, you can’t help but show them how much you care about them.

Two and a half years later, I continue to experience God’s work in my heart as he continues his transformation to make me love people more and more every single day. I don’t need to try to become a better person anymore because God is already hard at work. The best thing I can do is get out of the way and let him do his thing.

In the past two and a half years, I've learned a lot about God's heart transformation. Here are four of the most important parts to it:

  1. There’s nothing we can do to move God to transform our hearts. He does it in his time at his speed.[2] That doesn’t mean I don’t pray for heart transformation every single day for me and for my friends. I definitely do. But it’s not because I pray that he does his work; it’s because he does his work that I pray.
  2. The goal of heart transformation is to make our hearts like God’s heart.[3] God’s love is so much greater than any love we can fathom. After all, he loves himself (because he is worthy of love) and us so much that he endured his own wrath in order to pay for our sins. His goal is to transform our hearts to love the same way he loves.
  3. Heart transformation is a life-long process. It doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient. At times, you may appear to experience a lot of progress at a single point in time, but realize that God has been working in the background for many years to bring everything together perfectly at that moment. Furthermore, no one ever reaches full perfection in this life.[4] It’s only when we’re with Jesus that we will experience perfect transformation.
  4. As our hearts continue to be transformed, we will naturally live more and more in obedience to God. When James, one of the biblical writers, talked about needing to have both faith and works,[5] he wasn’t talking about our works doing anything to earn salvation; he was talking about God’s saving and transforming work in our hearts leading us to do good works. So if someone says they have faith but don’t have good works, then there’s a good chance that person doesn’t actually have faith.

Conclusion


So why did I stop trying to become a better person? I stopped trying to become a better person because I can’t truly make myself into a better person. I can modify my outward behaviors, but I can’t change my heart. Therefore, I’ve stopped wasting my time and energy hitting my head against a brick wall and instead have chosen to watch and praise God for the work he has done and continues to do in my heart and the hearts of the people around me each and every day. And I hope you are and/or will have an opportunity to experience the same thing.


[1] “And we all…are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Corinthians 3:18; “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” – Ezekiel 36:26
[2] “’I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” – Romans 9:15-16.
[3] “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” – 1 Thessalonians 4:3. To be sanctified means to be holy. And the Bible tells us that we need to be holy as God is holy. But it also tells us that God is the one who makes us holy.
[4] “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” – Philippians 3:12
[5] “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” – James 2:17

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I Am Thankful For...




I am thankful for my Father, God, who loves both himself and me so much that he made the ultimate sacrifice to send his son, Jesus, to earth as a human being who experienced all the same trials and tribulations I experience every day, yet remained sinless. He then endured the divine wrath of God the Father, a punishment which I deserved, through his death on the cross. But then he rose again three days later and continues to lead me every single day. Thank you God for your love! Thank you for never giving up on me! Thank you for continuing to mold me each and every day into the person you desire for me to be! Thank you for the privilege of working alongside you in your mission each and every day! Thank you for everything you have given me for which I am thankful!

I am thankful for my wife, Amy. Thank you for choosing to take this adventure with me! Thank you for always being my cheerleader! Thank you for staying by my side through the good times and the challenging times! Thank you for your daily love, support, and encouragement!

I am thankful for my earthly parents. Thank you for teaching me what it looks like to love and be loved! Thank you for encouraging me to continue pursuing my dreams! Thank you for the sacrifices you made to give me so many great opportunities!

I am thankful for my friends. Thank you for the times we’ve been able to hang out and chat about life, especially the hard stuff! Thank you for continuing to challenge me to think deeper! Thank you for the love you have for me!

I am thankful for all the people along the way who have influenced me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all of you.

I am thankful for my great health that gives me an opportunity to spend time with family and friends, play hockey, work, and volunteer in my community.

I am thankful for the chance to live in America where I have the opportunity to worship God openly and chase after my dreams.

I am thankful for the education I received and all the people along the way who made sacrifices in order to give me that education.

I am thankful for my cats who have taught me many lessons in patience.

I am thankful for the house we live in.

I am thankful for the ability to put food on our table every day.

I am thankful for the employment opportunities I’ve been given.


In this season of thanksgiving, who and what are you thankful for? Feel free to respond by writing in the comments section of this post or in the comments on social media. I’d love to hear for you!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Can We Be Too Busy Doing Things for God?



I received the following great question from a friend this week: Can we be too busy doing things for God? This article was written as a response to this question.

My Story of Being Too Busy Doing Things for God


As I’ve shared in one of my other articles, when Amy and I first got married, we joined a new church plant in Marion, Ohio. A few weeks later, I received an unbelievable invitation to join the church’s worship band as a singer. I couldn’t believe it! I had always wanted to sing in a church band, but hadn’t had the opportunity. So of course, what do you think I did? I accepted the invitation. And before I knew it, I was regularly leading the singing on Sunday mornings.

After seeing the way I stepped into this leadership role, the elder team of the church asked me if I’d consider becoming an elder. I turned them down the first time, but after they continued begging me to join, I finally decided to accept the invitation to become the elder responsible for developing leaders in the church. Just for the record, I had absolutely no idea how to do that.

Later that year, the treasurer of the church stepped down. Knowing my love for finances, the elders asked me if I’d step into the role of co-Finance Chair and fill the treasurer role temporarily while they searched for a new treasurer. I jumped right in to these new roles and straightened out the finances which had become nothing short of a huge mess. They apparently like my work so much that they kept me on as the full-time treasurer.

Shortly thereafter, the elder team made the decision to plant another campus of our church in Findlay where Amy and I had recently moved. Since we were already in Findlay, I became a big part of the church-planting team, spending lots of time looking at buildings, fixing up the building we selected, and developing ministry team manuals to create consistency across both campuses.

While all of this was going on, our church was in the process of working with a small congregation in the Wapakoneta area to transition them into another campus and I was also a part of that process.

In the midst of doing all this work, I decided that I was probably trying to bite off more than I could chew. So I made the decision to quit my full-time engineering job at Marathon Petroleum in order to dedicate all of my time to our church as the Executive Pastor. I only took a small salary from the church because I didn’t want to be a drain on the already strapped church finances.

Shortly after beginning to work full-time at our church, our Senior Pastor resigned and I stepped up to become the interim pastor while we searched for a new Senior Pastor. I did what I knew to do: I pulled up my boot straps and just kept trying to get ‘er done. I worked non-stop for the next few months trying to do everything I could to hold the congregation together.

But slowly over time, discouragement set in for everyone. Our congregation continued to dwindle. Our volunteers got worn out and burnt out causing them to not only quit, but leave the church altogether. And mentally, I was a wreck. The new Senior Pastor couldn’t come fast enough.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. When we do lots of work for God, we’re not supposed to feel exhausted. Or at least that’s what people tell us. We’re supposed to feel refreshed and energized by doing work for God. We’re supposed to be blessed if we do lots of work for God. But I wasn’t feeling it. I left my engineering job to devote every hour of every day to doing work “for God,” yet I was more burnt out than I’ve ever been in my life.

As I was nearing the end of my time in my interim pastor role, I picked up a book called Fail by J. R. Briggs.[1] I was shocked to find that I wasn’t the only church leader feeling this way. I discovered that church leaders all over the country felt the way I did. Many church leaders have dedicated their entire lives to “doing things for God,” yet they are burnt out and worn out.

What Does It Look Like to Serve God?


We aren’t called to get busy doing things for God. Certainly we are called to serve God, but there’s a difference between the biblical mindset and the American church mindset of serving God.

On the whole, in the church, we define serving God as doing things for the church. For example, many churched people believe that when they greet people on Sunday mornings, teach Sunday school, count the offering, clean up the church building, or lead a small group, they are serving God. Those actions, by themselves, are not enough to determine whether someone is serving God. People could be serving God and their service may be manifested in those actions, but people could also be serving themselves and their service may be manifested in those actions.

The biblical mindset is significantly different. First, the biblical mindset shows us that our actions by themselves don’t determine whether we are serving God; the condition of our hearts determines whether we are serving God. The focus of biblical servitude is on whether we are submitted to God. Is God on the throne of our hearts? Do we love him more than we love anyone or anything else? Do we trust him to satisfy our longing hearts?

If we are submitted to God, then we won’t be able to do anything except serve him. If I was living in submission to money (trusting money to satisfy me), then I would naturally live out this submission. I’d take a job which paid me a lot of money. Once I got some money, I’d be stingy with it. I’d learn how to be a good investor so that I could make more money with the money I’d stockpiled in the bank. That’s what submission naturally does. I wouldn’t feel any obligation or duty to do all those things; I would do them because of being submitted to money.

Living in submission to God works the same way. If we are truly living in submission to God, we won’t feel a sense of duty or obligation to serve God. Instead, we’ll do it out of great joy. We serve God because we want to serve him.

What Does It Look Like To Serve God?


When we think of serving God, most often a picture comes to mind like the ones I mentioned above such as greeting people on Sunday mornings, counting the offering, teaching children in Sunday school, leading a small group, or becoming a pastor. Other times, we think of serving God as giving food and clothes to homeless people, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, or caring for sick and/or disabled people.

In the Bible, we’re told that serving God is synonymous with worshiping God. Forget the organs, hymnals, guitars, drums, and projector screens for a minute. Worshiping God is something we can do every single minute of every single day. Worship takes place when we joyfully obey God.[2]

How do we obey God? By joyfully following his commands such as love him with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, love our neighbors as ourselves, pray for one another, encourage one another, teach one another, make disciples, remain faithful to our spouse, and the list could go on and on. There are hundreds of commands throughout the Bible. And if we are truly living in submission to God, then we will want to joyfully obey those commands.

With this in mind, do we have to “go to church” to serve God? Not at all. We don’t even have to step foot in a church building in order to live in submission to God. We can live in submission to God 24-7-365 no matter where we are because he’s omnipresent. That’s not to say that God can’t be served by going to a church building to attend a church service; all I’m saying is that we can serve him in so many more ways than that.

Conclusion


So, can we be too busy doing things for God? Yes, we can. That’s the spot where I found myself and it’s the spot a lot of dedicated Christians are finding themselves. If this is you, don’t buy into the lie that you have to do a bunch of things for God in order to please him. God is not pleased with your overly-committed schedule, even though your schedule is full of things you’re doing for him.

As David wrote in Psalms, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”[3] God doesn’t want your busyness in doing ten million activities for him; he wants your heart to be fully submitted to him.


[1] J. R. Briggs, Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014). Another great resource is Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffmann, Preventing Ministry Failure: A ShepherdCare Guide for Pastors, Ministers and Other Caregivers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007). Both of these resources provide shocking statistics on church leader burnout and offer help for healing from burn out.
[2] The joyfully part is very important here. In Deuteronomy 28:45-47, Moses tells the people that they will be cursed not only if they don’t serve/obey God, but if they don’t serve/obey him with joyfulness and gladness of heart.
[3] Psalm 51:16-17.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid




Whether you regularly attend a church service or not, this tragic event brings to light a very real reality: something like this can happen to anyone at any time. There are so few safety measures in many places where people congregate that it would be relatively easy to kill lots of people.

Consider the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine high school shooting, 9-11, the Paris attacks a few years ago, and the more recent Las Vegas shooting. In all of these situations, the killers targeted places where large groups of people congregated.

Now, I recognize that these events have led to an increased level of security in certain places around the world. Some schools now have metal detectors and additional levels of building monitoring which didn’t exist previously. The TSA was formed shortly after the 9-11 attacks. Many sports arenas now require you to pass through metal detectors upon entry. And some of the larger churches have hired security guards to monitor who walks through the doors during the church services.

But the majority of places where people congregate still remain unprotected. What’s going to stop a gunman from shooting up most church services? What’s going to stop a gunman from shooting up a Wal-Mart? What’s going to stop a gunman from shooting up a lot of our schools? Not much, if anything.

This begs the question: How safe are we really? Are we actually safe or do we just feel safe?

How Safe Are We?


When we step back and evaluate our situations, we’re really not as safe as we think we are. All it takes is a split second–one shot…one wrong turn…one bomb–and we’re dead. It can happen to any of us at any time.

Lest we think all the measures of security we’ve put in place at airports, schools, and sports arenas are going to stop mass attacks, we need to think again. These measures are helpful, but they are far from being completely bullet-proof. If someone really wants to hijack an airplane, he’ll find a way to do it. If someone really wants to blow up a sports arena, he’ll find a way to do it. If someone really wants to get a gun into a school, he’ll find a way to do it.

How Do We Respond to This Realization?


Personally, it’s tempting for me to recoil in fear in response to this realization. Unless someone is trying to target me specifically, then my best bet for self-preservation is to avoid being in public places. Living in a fairly safe neighborhood, staying home all day would be the safest bet for me. If I never step foot in a Wal-Mart, school, sports arena, or church building again, I will have a better chance of preserving my life.

To live this way is to live out of fear; not just any fear, but fear of someone killing me. Is this the way I want to live? Do I want to live in constant fear of another person killing me? Or do I want to live in constant fear of someone or something else?

As those of you who regularly read my blog posts know by this point, I view the Bible as the authoritative source for truth. In the Bible, Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[1] How does this statement impact the way I live?

When Jesus referred to people who can kill the body but not the soul, he was talking about the Oklahoma City bombers, the Columbine shooters, the 9-11 plane hijackers, the Paris bombers, and the First Baptist Church shooter. These people destroyed a lot of peoples’ bodies, but they couldn’t do anything to destroy their victims’ souls.

When Jesus referred to someone who could destroy both the body and soul in hell, he was referring to God. God has the power to destroy both our body and soul.

When we fear someone or something, we live in submission to it. If I fear gunmen, for example, I’m going to live in such a way that I avoid being in places where someone may shoot me.

What if God calls me to move into the heart of a large, dangerous city to minister to the people there? Would my fear of gunmen be greater than my fear of God? In other words, would I refuse to go because I’m afraid of being killed by a gunman or would I go because I live in submission to God?

If I fear gunmen more than I fear God, then I’m a full-time disciple of gunmen and only a nominal disciple of Jesus. This is not at all acceptable to God. He hasn’t called me to be partially submitted to him; he’s called me to be 100 percent submitted to him.

What’s In It for Me?


If I were to end my article here, I would fail to adequately communicate why fearing God is so much better for me (and you) than fearing gunmen.

As I briefly mentioned previously, God can destroy my soul but gunmen can’t. My soul is something which, according to the Bible, is going to survive for the rest of eternity. In the grand scheme of things, this life we’re living now is only a tiny little part of eternity. I’d much rather have my body destroyed by a gunman in this life than have my soul destroyed by God in the life to come.

Furthermore, if you’re a Christian, consider this question: If right now you were given the option to continue living in this world or to be with God, which one would you choose? If God gave me this choice right now, I wouldn’t even have to think about my answer; I’d choose to be with him!

If you aren’t killed today, then you have at least one more day to participate with Jesus in his mission to make disciples. But if you are killed today by a gunman, bomber, or any other person who has decided to kill people, then you get to be with him today. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.[2]

Why are we afraid? What do we really have to fear? Do not be afraid.


[1] Matthew 10:28.
[2] “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.” – Philippians 1:21-26