If you are like me, sometimes the term “spiritual warfare” feels a little creepy. The idea of forces of good and forces of evil actually doing battle with one another in a realm that is beyond our human comprehension can seem bizarre and even a little absurd.
Yet, Paul says in Ephesians 6:12 that “we wrestle not 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.” And in Daniel 10:13 there is this phenomenal appearance of an angel to the prophet Daniel. In this narrative, the angel informs Daniel that God had heard his prayer and help was on the way, yet this angel had to do battle for 21 days with the “prince of the kingdom of Persia.” While there is some debate about what this all means, the obvious conclusion we cannot miss is that spiritual warfare is very real and very present in our everyday lives.
Personally, one of the many reasons I am completely convinced that both God and Satan are real is because both are very active in my life! Many times I have witnessed first hand the spiritual struggle of doing battle with the enemy. And I know that I am far from alone in this. For instance, whenever my wife or I take a few days to fast or set that time aside to deeply seek the face of God, it is amazing how unexplainable challenges begin to emerge. Just a couple of months ago our church started a 21 day period of prayer and fasting. That first week alone the furnace broke at the church, consequently the water lines burst a couple days later. Then someone hacked into our American bank account and took several thousand dollars from our account (which we were thankfully able to retrieve), and Janan’s childhood home burnt to the ground. This is all within the span of about 4-5 days and these are just some of the “highlights!”
Some of you are likely shaking your heads up and down at this point because you have witnessed situations like this happening in your life. Just this morning I was listening to Pastor Chip Ingram’s podcast on my drive over to the church and he stated almost the exact same thing. He pointed out that it almost gets to a place where life becomes laughable because you just know that what is happening around you is a direct attack from Satan.
Now, I should be quick to clarify that I am not a person who sees a devil behind every bush. Satan isn’t always the cause of us running out of toothpaste, stubbing our toe on the door jam, or barely missing the TTC bus. Sometimes tough situations that come into our lives are the results of previous poor choices we have made.
That being said, I think Christians can far too easily excuse the spiritual warfare that is happening all around us because it A) Makes us feel uncomfortable and B) Our minds have become spiritually dull (I'm speaking to myself here). As a result, we simply write off our unexplainable situations as tough luck. That relationship with another Christian we have had for years that seems to be on rocky ground today? Unfortunate but life moves on. That unexplainable series of tensions that seem to invade your mind every time you set your face to pray? That’s just reality. That war in the home that seems to emerge Sunday mornings just before you and your family are about ready to head for church? Morning or weekend grogginess.
Maybe so…or maybe not. Could it be that some of the situations you are facing in your life right now are not the result of tough luck but a tough oppressor and tough accuser who seeks to destroy your soul? If so, this should dramatically shift how you and I do combat. It’s pretty hard to combat tough luck! But when we recognize our battles are spiritual, then we are equipped to deal with them effectively. We stop using weapons of the flesh and start using weapons of spirit.
Recently, I overheard one of my wife’s Bible studies with Priscilla Shirer, a great communicator! In this series, she tells the story of a young man who was living in a war zone and made the remark, “But I do not want to go to war.” An older man responded, “Ah, but the war is already upon you. You are in the battle whether you like it or not.” (Paraphrase) So to it is in our lives. We are in a battle whether we like it or not. The question though is will we choose to fight this battle with weapons of the flesh or weapons of the spirit!
Yesterday, I had the privilege to attend the annual Toronto Prayer Breakfast where hundreds of church leaders get together each year to pray and fellowship with one another.
The speaker for the event this year was Gary Thomas, author of the NYT Bestselling book Sacred Marriage. His talk was simple and yet so practical. Essentially, the nutshell of his message was that because “familiarity breeds contempt,” we tend to lose our sense of gratefulness for the blessings we continually have all around us. And often, it is not until we have lost something that we then realize how thankful we were for that being a part of our lives.
He told the story of how a gentleman came up to him after a conference in desperate need of a liver transplant. Without it, he faced the strong possibility of death. In that moment, Thomas realized that were this man to receive a new liver, he would doubtlessly be praising God for this new upgrade for days on end. Yet, Thomas realized he had never thanked God for his liver. In fact he was not certain he knew where his was!
This got me to thinking. How grateful am I? Sadly, I believe not nearly as much as I should be. Did I thank God that I could see this morning? No. Did I thank God that I could have walk and communicate with others? No. And I certainly cannot remember the last time I ever thanked God for my liver! Just think about these incredible blessings my mind turns into complaints.
Complaint: “There are so many potholes on the roads and city drivers can be obnoxious.”
Reality Check: “I have a car.”
Complaint: “Why is my iPhone running so slow today?”
Reality Check: “15 years ago the only option was Nokia brick phones!”
Complaint: “I wish we had more space in our apartment and housing prices are so high!”
Reality Check: “We have far more than we need. We have running water, a stove, a warm place to stay, and an excellent landlord.”
Complaint: “Why do I have to sit in another meeting?”
Reality Check: “God has blessed me with so many great people in my life.”
One of the stories Thomas shared that really caused me to think was of a group of army widows who were being interviewed on one of the major TV networks. The interviewer asked the women what was the hardest thing they often heard from other women who were married. One widow immediately spoke up and said she could not stand it when wives complained about their husbands. She then went on to say how she would give anything to walk into her bathroom again and see the toilet seat still up. Those areas of complaint that she once had suddenly vanished when she was living her life without the one she loved.
For the record, the toilet seat stays down in our home! And this illustration could easily be reversed. I cannot tell you how many times I hear men complaining about their wives. In fact, it is almost seen as a way to find common ground. Over the years I have come to realize that my complaining can be incredibly insulting to those around me who only wish they could have what I have. I cannot tell you how many times I complained about all the paper work Janan and I had to go through coming into Toronto. Yet, there are thousands of immigrants in this city who would give anything to have the simple paper of citizenship I have tucked away at home, and rarely ever think about.
So if you are struggling to be grateful this week, just think about some of the things you are complaining about and ask where your life would be without them. Instead of grumbling when the car breaks down, be thankful that you have one. Instead of allowing that flaw in your significant other to grate on your nerves, turn it into a praise and be thankful you still have them.
Gratefulness is truly about perspective. Few people understood what it meant to be grateful more than the great writer Victor Frankl, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Stripped of his possessions, his cloths, and even his loved ones, Frankl observed, “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Wow, I think this week…scratch that…this lifetime I’m going to choose gratitude.
The Person Behind the Issue: How one woman Reminded the world of Something We Have All But Forgotten
In case you missed it or had no desire to watch, last night’s US State of the Union speech had a moment that will likely live on well past the evening in which it occurred. It happened near the close of the President Trumps address. No, it was not a rousing policy statement or political one-liner. It was when the widow of a fallen US Navy Seal wept, and for several moments an entire nation grieved with her loss. In that moment, war and foreign policy were not just issues. They were embodied in a person. Even in the midst of a heavily divided room, a tiny bit of peace and unity was restored. The political back and forth banter was replaced with genuine empathy and compassion.
It seems that moments like this are few and far between these day. There is a great meme video that I saw recently of several dogs barking at one another on the opposite sides of a retractable fence. While the fence was in place, the dogs barked angrily, tossing back and forth death threats and possibly even comparing one another to the most unenviable creatures — cats. But amusingly, when the fence began rolling back and the dogs had to confront their combatants face to face, without the protection of a fence in between, they all retreated and left one another alone. (If you know about this video you can post it in the comments below because it’s a real gem!)
When I saw this it kind of reminded me of breaking up hockey fights as a referee. Truth be told, many if not most of the fighters in hockey do not really want to fight. Even in the NHL I have read several stories by former “enforcers” like John Stott who fought simply because that was the only way they could stay in the league. Most times (in lower level hockey for sure) the two players would be more than content if referees pulled them away from one another just before the first throw of punches was exchanged. Just think about that. They actually want the referee to hold them back but are too proud to skate away themselves. So they stand there barking at one another, mentally begging the ref to keep them from following through on their verbal threats to one another.
Humorously, or not so humorously, barking is not only limited to dogs and angry hockey players. Humans love to bark at one another in every day life. But we do so through the fence of “issues.” And somehow this makes everything okay (or not). Take cultural hot-button topics like abortion, euthanasia, drug use, human rights, immigration and so forth. It feels like I have heard more talk about these issues in the last twelve months than I had in my lifetime prior to that point combined!
Unfortunately, I think as people we often get stuck into what I call the boomerang effect. In other words, even if a group from an opposing viewpoint does something well, we still find it hard to compliment them. We might throw out something nice, but we always bring it back in by saying, “But of course I do not care for that person myself.” An easy example of this can be found in the way people responded to last nights remarks by President Trump. Directly following the speech, many Christians and non-Christians who had always had a leaning of being pro-republican were quick to make statements like, “It is time to bring our country together” and “This was a fantastic speech.” "Potentially even huge!"
Personally, I won’t dispute their reasons for making these statement. I thought the over all tone and message was good (and many from both political viewpoints would say the same - e.g. CNN’s Van Jones). However, I suppose what disappoints me is that it was just over a year ago when the same people who supported Trump’s words last night were quick to dismiss the words of then President Obama. After all, “He was just a liberal pretender” a “novice leader” bent on “destroying the country.” Very few Republican leaning people could simply say, “Great speech and let’s pray for our President!” and just leave it at that. And when President Obama brought up the victims of gun violence to stand behind him in a speech, he was viewed a phoney playing on the emotions of his audience. Likewise, few Democrats could listen to the President’s speech last night and simply say, “Well done” without attaching a huge asterisk to Trump's words. “He didn’t really mean what he said,” “His actions speak louder than his words,” and so forth.
However, here is what I feel Christians and Pre-Christians alike often miss. We fail to see that when we attack an issue through our social media post or everyday conversation, we also attack the person who represents that issue. For instance, if I open my mouth in the locker room of my rec league hockey team and spout off about how I cannot stand an action taken by our Prime Minister, Premier, or Mayor, I can immediately alienate myself from those around me who supported those same individuals. Think about the last time someone attacked an issue you stood for either online or in person. How did that make you feel? Even if their critique was accurate, if it was not done with grace it doubtless left you with a tiny feeling of resentment and built up a tiny wall that it is likely the person posting had no idea they were building.
Now, is my point in all of this to say that we should never post or talk about issues that we know some of our friends would disagree with? Of course not. But, I do believe a good principle to follow for any conversation we have is what I call the Know Principle. (Okay, I just made that title up :) ) But seriously, ask yourself, do I know and understand the opinions of someone who represents the issue I am sneering at or attacking?
And when you are around others who have a tendency to build up walls, maybe start involving Andy Stanley’s “Really” question. Even if you agree in principle with their statement, maybe start using a few of these responses:
Statement: “Donald Trump and a lot of his supporters are small-minded, anti-Muslim, and fly-over land racists!”
Response: Really? Do you know someone who voted for him and the reasons they supported him?
Statement: “This whole gay rights and transgender debate is just stupid!”
Response: Really? Do you have several friends in the LGBTQ community?
Statement: Christianity is a religion for the weak of mind and just causes wars. Besides, all religions are basically the same thing anyways.
Response: Really? Have you talked with someone who truly understands and lives out the deep aspects of the Christian faith and compared this with someone from another point of religious belief?
Statement: “I’ll never give any money to a beggar on the street because they’ll probably just walk around the block and jump in their Mercedes that they purchased with all the money they make each day.”
Response: Really? Have you worked closely with homeless people and understood the deep struggles they face?
Personally, I have found that the more that I get to know people, the real part that begins to change in me is my compassion. Just the other day I sat with a fantastic family from our church in the immigration office. The wife is pregnant and it is important for numerous reasons beyond this that they remain in Canada. I can tell you that this changes my tone when it comes to immigration and boarder security. When I first saw Baby Zoe’s ultrasound pictures a couple of weeks ago and heard her heartbeat, the “abortion issue” and my respect for human life is suddenly that much stronger as I saw a human life on the screen before my eyes. And when as a Pastor I engage with people who have chosen alternative lifestyles than those taught in the Bible, it helps me see them not as opposing viewpoints to be attacked but souls to be offered grace and redemption.
In all three of these cases, it is not that my moral views on these issues suddenly changed on a whim. After all, if we allowed our morals to be dictated by our experiences and personal encounters with others, we would simply fall into a relativistic trap that leads towards having no basis for the morals we conscientiously feel the need to uphold. We would all become populists with truth being defined as that which is “culturally acceptable.” But I can tell you that what did change in my mind was both my compassion and my heart.
So here is a challenge: Before posting your opinion about a hot-button topic in culture, first ask, “Do I know a person who represents the opinion I am talking about and would I feel comfortable saying what I am about to post directly to their face?”
If Christians do this, I believe we will be genuinely amazed at some of the doors that will begin to open and conversations we can have. That person who maybe wrote us off as being narrow minded might just begin to hear what we have to say and see the love of Jesus shining through us. And while they may continue to reject our beliefs and want little to do with the Jesus we love, we can rest comfortably at night, knowing that changing others is up to God while sharing his truth in love is up to us.
Thank you to a brave widow last night who reminded us all to remember the face behind the issue!
One of the most impactful messages I have ever heard came from a pastor several years ago who spoke on the idea of “making decisions against yourself.” The main thrust of his message was that great Christians sometimes have to cut off mediocre choices to get to where God really wants them to be. While they might still be able to make comfortable choices and get by, the true payoff occurs when they are bold and make a greater decision against themselves.
For me, one of these decisions against myself has come in the sport of hockey. In my first year of undergrad, I started reffing and did so for ten years. While I certainly was not going to ever make it to the big leagues, I enjoyed the sport and the challenge. But one slight problem. Sundays. Anyone who is involved in sports knows that most of the competitive tournaments involve a good deal of Sunday competition.
In fact, when I first signed up to work games in the Great Toronto Area (GTA), the supervisor bluntly stated that unless I was going to work on Sundays they would not have a placed for me in doing higher level games. Over the past ten years, this decision has caused me to miss out on thousands of dollars of extra cash, simply because the best paying games and tournament finals are often on the first day of the week.
My point here is not to debate the merits of making Sunday the Lord’s Day (although I think there is a good case to be made in this regard). Certainly some health and service jobs necessitate work 7 days a week. I am simply making a statement about priorities and decisions. For me, to go where God wanted me to go and be the pastor he what he wanted me to be involved sacrificing the few extra bucks I might make on a Sunday afternoon so that it could be a day of rest that was focused on God.
Over the years, I have noticed that in our Christian journey, before God takes us to that next level of dependance on him, he often watches to see if we are willing to take an extra step in his direction and make a decision against ourselves. This might involve cutting out a hobby we enjoy so that it can be replaced by a more wholesome activity. It might include cutting back on entertainment or other pleasures that would be the enemy of God’s grand picture for our lives.
Making decisions against ourselves are not always exciting in the short run. Often, they can be a little painful. But they have a way of exercising our spiritual muscles in new ways. They stretch us and prepare our souls for the next steps that God has for us.
The first couple days of an extended fast are always difficult. If you are doing some type of food fast, no doubt the craving and desire for that thing you are abstaining from eating is starting to drive you a little crazy! Maybe until this moment, you did not realize how much you really enjoyed your mocha cappuccinos in the morning, your donut in the afternoon, or that plate of sushi for supper (Personally, I could pass on the sushi!). In short, the reason week one of a fast is so difficult is because you are saying no to the urges you have developed a habit of saying yes to for quite some time.
But week one is also extremely liberating. As you are going through the pains of withdraw, gradually the screams of your physical desires will decrease while the spiritual voice of God increases. You are doing what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27.
25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
The means to which great athletes go to discipline their bodies is incredible. PGA Tour golfer John Daly spoke of almost starving himself to death on one occasion because his coach wanted him to lose weight. Former NFL linebacker Ray Lewis talks about maintaining a diet that was so strict that he would only eat sweets on Thanksgiving and Christmas. And various boxers and MMA fighters have gone for weeks or even months at a time, eating little more than an orange a day, in their effort to make a certain weight class before a fight.
As Christians, the discipline of bringing our bodies under control is incredibly important. In some ways, it can be more difficult than the one who is in the boxing ring. Reason: For the boxer, there is an obvious goal and reward in mind. There are trainers to provide accountability. There is the constant fear of what will happen to their careers if they do not reach the weight limit they are seeking to hit.
However, for the believer who decides to turn off the desires of this world to seek after God, the motivation to continue this discipline for days on end can be overwhelming. And after a few days of fasting, the urge to give up can grow stronger and stronger. That little voice in your head starts saying, “Take it easy! This whole fasting thing is insane, and besides, who cares if you break the fasting commitment you have made?!”
If this is where you are at, I sympathize! But let me just tell you why I would urge you to continue. The greatest spiritual blessings in this life often are experienced after pushing through a continued season of self-denial. While it may not feel very spiritual to drink a smoothie rather than eat a steak, I can assure you that it is worth it to continue. This first week is not about experiencing an emotional high or spiritual buzz. It is about positioning and quieting yourself to hear the voice of God.
My encouragement to you in this week of the fast would be to put on hold the possible litany of prayer requests that you might have for God. Instead, just be still before him. Read much of his Word. Feast on the Psalms. Allow the physical brokenness that you might feel in your body to translate into spiritual brokenness before God. Journal your prayers to him. Spend extensive parts of your day focused on his character and goodness.
As you are doing this in week 1, begin to seek God’s face about how he would have you to pray in the remaining two weeks. Allow him to shift your priorities (Often this might not happen until days 5-7 of the fast). Then trust that as you draw near and pour out your heart before him, he will draw near and pour out his heart to you.
How is this fast changing your life or challenging you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
Each January, both Discovery Pointe Church in Scarborough, Ontario and our “Mother Church,” Eastlake Community Church in Moneta, Virginia have gone through a corporate 21 days of prayer and fasting to start off the new year. This year we are doing a joint fast that starts this Sunday on January 8th.
If you are unfamiliar with this Biblical discipline, fasting is essentially abstaining from pleasures (usually food) for a spiritual purpose. While the discipline of fasting is not always enjoyable, the rewards of it are truly extraordinary. Just consider a few of these stories.
One of my friends from school was in the process of considering attending a Bible College. However, he was short of the financial resources necessary. While working at a local restaurant, he decided to participate in Eastlake’s 21 days of prayer and fasting. During that time, a random lady, whom he did not know before, pulled up to the drive-through where he was working. Moved on by God, she asked to meet with him, having no idea of his financial need. After learning of his financial situation, she made the decision to cover his entire first year of school — incredible.
During my time at Eastlake, I would see numbers of answers to prayer. I would see the transformation of a colonel in the Air Force who would give his life to Christ and go on to lead our Men’s Ministry after his wife fasted for him for 21 days. In 2014 I watched on the last Thursday of our 21 day fast as my senior pastor (Troy Keaton) walked into our worship leaders office (Ben Peak) and said that he believed God was going to allow us to purchase a 150 acre piece of land up the road from our church. I then sat back in amazement as a few months later this same piece of property would astonishingly be made available at a fraction of the price it was originally valued.
This past January (2016) at Discovery Pointe Church, a great man of God in our church, Alban Nedelko, had recently joined our congregation after moving from Albania. During this time, he decided to join us on our fast. However, he had come down with a fairly serious tooth infection. It is likely that the last thing he felt like doing was going on a fast to make him even more miserable! Besides, he was taking medication for his tooth that called for food to go along with it. Despite the challenges involved, Alban took the time to fast, trusting that God would take care of his tooth (a fairly serious problem given that they had just immigrated to Canada). Amazingly, it was not three days later till his entire infection went away and he has not had a problem with his tooth till this day. Similarly, God touched an amazing lady in our church, Dorothy, who has testified on multiple occasions about what God has done in her life through touching her failing eyesight and giving her full restoration. This led her doctor to state to her, “What are you doing that others are not?” Her response, “I’m praying!”
Personally, I have seen God do some incredible things through times of fasting. During an extended fast, I watched as God opened up the doors for us to lease the facility that we own at an incredible price that we can afford (not a sentence you hear too often in Toronto!). I have watched on numerous occasions as I have felt prompted of God to bring us different team members, only to see those prayers answered during or shortly after the fast was complete. For several years Janan and I had wanted to have children. In our 2016 prayer fast, Janan's 2016 prayer was for a child. Now, during this fast we are excited to find out the gender of our new gift scheduled to arrive in June. :)
Now, if you are someone who is skeptical to God, I can understand what you might be saying. “Ezra, lucky breaks or coincidences like this happen all the time.” I get it. Admittedly, sometimes Christians have been known to dramatize ordinary events and make them seem super spiritual. As a naturally skeptical individual, I might be saying the same thing if I were reading someone else’s accounts that I have just written (although I will say that the more I see God move the more my natural skepticism is replaced by expectant optimism).
But I think all of us, as Mark Zuckerberg's (CEO of Facebook) move towards religion has indicated, have this inner desire to experience a God who is real. Skepticism of the supernatural might be “cool” for a period of time. But when life’s deepest problems hit with the loss of a spouse, the pain of a broken relationship, or the failure in one’s career, it is then that we realize the deep longing in our lives can only be filled with a God that not only exists, but is active and present in our everyday lives.
So this New Year’s Season, I would just challenge you to take up this 21 days of prayer and fast challenge. Personally, I have found that I often enter into times of fasting with many misguided prayers. I have my list of things that I would like to see God change. But through times of fasting I have discovered that God is more interested in changing my character than he is about changing my situation. Ultimately, the purpose of fasting is not so that you or I can manipulate God’s hand to get what we want. Fasting is instead about seeking the face of God. It is not about us trying to get God’s attention (as pagan religions urge us to do). It is about us quieting our souls so that we can more clearly listen to the still small voice of God.
Do you have some big challenges in your life? Perhaps your home, job, or relationships are not what you would like. Or, maybe you just feel you have grown too comfortable and apathetic about life. I would just suggest that the key to getting through challenges is to stop trying to resolve them on your own (as I am inclinded to do) and instead spend the next 21 days focused on one goal: To turn down the noise of this world so that you can better hear the voice of God. I can promise you that the closer you draw to God the more your viewpoint will change. You will see your challenges in their proper perspective and more importantly you will gain a much better picture of God!
This last Wednesday (Dec. 7th) I was walking around our East Scarborough community and handing out invites for our Discovery Pointe Church “The Greatest Gift Christmas Celebration.” As it turned out, that day I was passing out door hangers in an area called the Dansig community. If you live in or around the Greater Toronto Area, you are likely aware that this was the scene of one of the worst shootings in recent Canadian history. That day the shooter, Folorunso Owusu (who was 17 years of age at the time of the shooting), was sentenced as an adult to life in prison.
While I was in this neighbourhood, I met a local reporter from 680 News who asked if she could get my reaction to this news. One question she asked stuck with me. She said (paraphrasing), “Do you feel that your community has gotten an unfair rap with the rest of the city and what would you say to people who have a negative view of this area?”
I could sympathize with her question because I have heard the comments from others before who had only seen news headlines that had talked about the drug, sex, and gang activity in our neighbourhood. But my response was simply this, “For those that might have a negative view of this part of the city that I call home, I invited them to come and meet the people for themselves.”
As last Sunday at Discovery Pointe Church indicated, we have a community of loving people who genuinely care for others! These last two years I have been a part of this East Scarborough area, I have met so many individuals who are incredibly generous with their time, energy, and resources. In and outside our church I witness moms walking their kids to school in the snow and cold every single day. I see people who might not have a lot share with those that do. I see others who have been blessed with greater resources share with those who have less. And truly, Janan and I are blessed to be a part of this neighbourhood.
Over these next several years, I am excited to see how the power of the gospel continues to impact the lives of people in this community!
As many of our friends and family know, there is a painting in our living room that is very special to Janan and I. It comes from our friends Bob and Nancy Stouffer and has these words from Zechariah 4:10, “Do not despise the day of small beginnings.” The reason this is so precious to us is the significance behind these words. Shortly before moving to Toronto, Bob and Nancy took us to the Brooklyn Tabernacle in Brooklyn, New York. The theme for that evening? You guessed it…Not despising the day of small beginnings!
These past two years, Janan and I have remembered that message numerous times. We have remembered them when attendance at church has not been what we would have liked, when people have disappointed, and when challenges arise. But in those times, Janan and I often look or think of that painting on the wall and say to ourselves, “Lord, help us to rejoice in these days.”
For Christmas this year, Janan happened to place our manger scene directly underneath this painting. One day she happened to remark to me, “Ezra, what could have been a smaller beginning than the one Jesus had when he came to earth?” I had to agree. Here Christ was, God in the flesh, and yet he was born into the most humble of places to the most humble of people. A beginning could not get any smaller.
When you look back in history on the great times when God moved among his people, they always started with humble beginnings. For Joseph, they started while spending years in prison for a crime he did not commit. For Moses, they started with 40 years of exile in the wilderness. For David, his small beginnings included spending years being chased like a dog in the wildernesses by an evil King Saul. And for Zerubbabel (the intended recipient of God’s words to Zechariah in this verse), it meant waiting for over twenty years, in the midst of tremendous opposition, as he helped God’s chosen people rebuild the walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire.
Small beginnings are not always exciting. They do not capture the news headlines. But they are tools God uses to grow us up into the men and women he wants us to be. Perhaps this Christmas season you are going through a “Small Beginnings Period” in your life. You are humbled because your children you raised to serve God want little to do with him. Perhaps the business you felt God wanted you to start is struggling and you wonder what the future holds. You pray for a breakthrough…and yet all you hear is silence. Like that humble manger scene, it might seem that the position you are in is rather humbling.
This brings us to the question: How did Jesus handle his small beginnings? Because even after his unflattering birth, Jesus would live a life that was filled with seeming insignificance. Ultimately, he would lay down his life in the most shameful manner possible. Yet in Hebrews 12:2 it says that for the joy that was set before Jesus, he endured the cross and despised the shame. In Christ’s case, shame would rob him of everything that he had: his reputation, his friends, and his dignity. Yet even in that moment of greatest pain, he was able to look into that shame and in the words of John Piper it was if he said, “Listen to me, Shame, do you see that joy in front of me? Compared to that, you are less than nothing. You are not worth comparing to that! I despise you. You think you have power. Compared to the joy before me, you have none. Joy. Joy. Joy. That is my power! Not you, Shame. You are worthless. You are powerless.”
This Christmas season, do not allow the humility of where you might be to rob you of the joy that God wants you to have. Despise the shame that the enemy wants to bring upon your life but do not despise the day God of small things. It might just be that in your day of humble beginnings God might be doing and preparing to do his greatest work!
Honest reality: Each of us know people who grew up with us who want very little to do with God today. They attended the same churches, went to the same camps we did, and maybe grew up in our same families. Yet, for one reason or another, they want nothing to do with him. This saddens me. Not because I particularly care whether or not others adopt my personal framework of belief. It just saddens me because they are missing out on a relationship with a God who loves them so much and cares about them so deeply.
Recently, I listened to a sermon series titled “Who Needs God?” by author and pastor of one of America’s largest churches, Andy Stanley. While I did have some significant problems with several of the implications of a few of his messages (John Piper graciously outlines some of these), overall I found his series very helpful and thought provoking (which is probably more than I can say for more than one sermon I have preached!).
In particular, I found his message “Who Needs God: Gods of the No Testament” very interesting. In a nutshell, Stanley’s premise is that some people have walked away from a picture of god that in no way represents the God of Christianity. In this point, I entirely agree.
Adapting and tweaking some of Stanley’s thoughts, here are 6 “gods of the Bible” that perhaps you grew up believing in that I would suggest do not even exist.
When I think about it, there have been various points in my life when I have struggled with each of these misconceptions of God. Perhaps you might have as well. The question then becomes, what will we do to overcome these false misconceptions? Are we willing to allow them to be excuses that would prevent us from fully enjoying God at a higher level or are we willing to address them intelligently?
In my most recent book What’s the Point?, I write about my experience with God as a kid. One of the greatest challenges I had was that I tended to view him through the lens of other people. I looked at God through pastors, parents, and role models in my life. But while all of these are good, there were times when each of them would disappoint. However, when I was about 14 years of age, I remember making the decision to personally discover God for myself. I wanted to view God for who he was, not through what someone else portrayed him to be. That decision completely changed my life. When we rid ourselves of the wrong perceptions we have had about God, then we can begin to embrace him for who he truly is. This is exciting!
How do you view God today? Have you struggled in one or more of these areas? Feel free to leave a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
At various times in my life, I have contemplated going off social media all together. Probably like you, I grow tired of the negativity, divisiveness, and cat pictures (my apologies to all you cat lovers :)). And at different points I have stepped back from social media and gone off it for several days. Despite it’s flaws, personally I have found social media so helpful and the reason I choose to stay engaged is threefold.
First, social media offers me a platform to be salt and light. The only way you and I can escape all negativity is to completely remove ourselves from all people (even then I would argue we would still have issues!). Everywhere we go there is the battle of contrasting worldviews that people may have. However, I believe Jesus has not called his followers to be removed from this world but rather to be salt and light. One of the greatest ways Christians can do this is through social media. With one message, we can literally impact hundreds or thousands of people. Amazing!
Second, social media is a powerful connector. Many of the connections I have made in life have come through LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (My wife included but that’s a different story). Living in a city, it can be tough to get to know people. Everyone is constantly running and doing many different things. But through social media I can quickly find people in my area who have similar likes and dislikes. It’s awesome!
Third, social media lets me know what others are thinking. This can be both good and bad :). Through looking at a person’s feed, you can quickly see their unfiltered interests and passions. In 2 minutes, I can often know what type of entertainment they like, their associations in life, and general outlook towards God. There is no way you could discover this much info about someone else in the same short amount of time in person…unless you had a really fast high-speed awkward conversation (having funny mental images in my mind).
While I love social media, this past election cycle has indicated that perhaps Christians in general could posibly do a better job in spreading salt and light online. So, here are Ten Ways Christians Can Make Social Media a More Positive Experience!