Prayer for Healing—3: God’s Our Father

Prayer for healing needs to be understood in the context of God our Father. Consider that the Lord invented the father/child relationship and He tells us that we have that relationship to Him. But, if God is our loving Father, there’s nothing to work up—we don’t need to continue to say that God is going to heal us because otherwise He might not heal us. And there’s no combination of right words to get Him to do as we wish. We just need to humbly ask for what we want from him. Jesus taught us to pray to “our Father.” He loves us. Thus we can just ask our Father who loves us for healing and…

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer
by Jean-Léon Gerome

He will give us what we ask for,

or

He won’t give us what we ask for.

That’s how a loving earthly father works right? Sometimes a loving earthly father grants our request, sometimes he doesn’t. Whether a loving earthly father grants our request is dependent on whether he thinks our request is good for us. But, you say, the Scripture says that if you ask believing that you will have what you ask for, then you will receive it (Matthew 21:22).

True.

But, when it comes to prayer for anything, for us to believe that our Father is going to give us what we ask for requires that we believe that it is His will to give us what we ask for.

That happens in one of two ways.

One way to know the Father wants to give us what we ask for is because Scripture reveals that He wants to give us certain things. There are many things in this category. So if we pray for love, joy, peace, patience, and so on—well, guess what!? We already know that our Father wants to give us these things so we can pray in faith, knowing that God wants us to have them!

But, contrary to the teachings of some Christians, if we take all the Scriptures together, we’d find that our Father doesn’t promise that we’ll always be healed. Now I know that some will argue that our Father always wants us to be healed, but the Scripture simply doesn’t teach that. After all, even the apostles didn’t heal everyone. For example, Paul wrote, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20). Paul told Timothy to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim. 5:23).

Paul told the Philippians that he sent “Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:25-27). Obviously Epaphroditus was extremely sick for some time and notice that Paul expresses no sense of, “I prayed for him and God healed him.” Also, Paul writes that God “had mercy” on him to keep him from being too sad. Paul didn’t automatically expect him to be well again. And it sounds like he got well on his own; there’s no mention of healing in the text. Now I know that those who hold to believing that God always wants to heal will have an answer for each of these–I did! But if you listen closely to their answers they will seem more like contortion than exposition. I could go on, but then this would be a book rather than a blog.

By the way, those who think God does want to heal all Christians all the time have to explain why the overwhelming majority of all the Christians who have ever lived have died because of disease. If God always wants to heal, then the reason that these millions of Christians weren’t healed would have to be because of one of two things. One reason that the God-always-wants-to-heal advocates give is that the overwhelming majority of Christians died of disease throughout the ages because they didn’t have enough faith. They would have lived if they had not wavered in “I know you’ll heal me, God, if I just never confess other than ‘I know you’ll heal me, God.” But is that the way a loving earthy father works? Of course not! If a loving earthly father considers a child’s request to be in their best interest, the loving earthly father grants the request. But if a loving earthly father doesn’t think the child’s request is in that child’s best interest, then the loving earthly father will say No even if his son or daughter keeps chanting, “I believe you’re going to give it to me!” You’d think, “Wow, I raised a weird kid.”

The other reason they give is that millions upon millions of sincere Christians who weren’t healed didn’t approach God in precisely the right way—this is the “open sesame,” combination-lock God. One online article said you could “release God’s healing power…. Through speaking the Word to your sickness. Note carefully in the following verse [he refers to the verse about casting a mountain into the sea] that the believer must say clearly his need. This word must be spoken confidently. Here is a tool for you to keep using until the sickness leaves!”1 Again, is this the way a loving Father works?

Now, as I mentioned before, I still believe that sometimes our Father does choose to miraculously heal today, but He can’t be coerced. He doesn’t require you to ask in just precisely the right way—He’s our Father. If you lovingly ask Him, then He will give you what you ask… or not. Remember that even Jesus didn’t get one of His prayers granted by the Father. When on the verge of His crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). But Jesus did have to drink from that cup—it was His Father’s will.

Now sometimes our Father might communicate to someone that they will be healed, and, if our Father does that, then they can ask with confidence and they will be healed!

In 1980, I was walking to class with a fellow seminarian who told me out of the blue, “I think you’ve backslidden.” I was shocked! What?! I immediately asked, “Why would you say that?” He replied, “Because if you got sick you no longer believe that God will heal you.” But I proclaimed, “I’ll believe in God even if He doesn’t heal me!” And frankly, that felt right. It still does. Even back then I thought, I can believe that God can heal me, but I’ll also believe that if He doesn’t heal me, then He knows best. I’ll believe in God even if I get a terminal disease and He doesn’t heal me. My faith isn’t dependent on my health or lack of it.

We can learn from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In Daniel 3 we read that Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them into a fiery furnace unless they worshipped him. They answered, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Now that’s faith! God is able to deliver us, O king, but even if God doesn’t deliver us, we will not worship your image.

In 2004, when I found out I had bone cancer, I asked our loving Father to heal me, but at the same time, I knew that our loving Father might not heal me. But, no matter what, I let the Father know, and I let everyone else know that, no matter what happened, I was going to honor God. Well, after a six and one half hour surgery, where I lost part of my spine to cancer—I’m well. That was January 2004 and I’ve been in great health ever since.

So please, if you know someone who is ill, especially someone who is terminally ill, don’t tell them that you know that God wants to heal them because, frankly, you don’t know that! And if you are very ill, it’s good to ask people to pray for you, and it’s good to ask God to heal you. I would! I have! But it’s not a lack of faith if you say, “I don’t know whether our Father will heal me or not, but I want everyone to know that I’m going to honor the Lord no matter what!” In fact, that’s faith!!

When you do that, you justify the judgment of Satan, his angels, and all of those who refuse to believe! I talk about this at length in my book in the last chapter, “Your Occupation: Reigning with Christ.” I give the link to my book below.

  1. I’m not giving the reference because I’m not trying to single anyone out. []
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Prayer for Healing—2: Confused Christians

As I said in yesterday’s post, there are a lot of confused Christians when it comes to prayer for healing, and this has resulted in some zealous and harmful mistakes.

Christians will pray for the sick (great so far), and sometimes even prophesy that the person they are praying for will be healed (maybe good, usually not), and then tell these still sick Christians that they should never, ever confess anything other than words to the effect of “I know that God is going to heal me” (that’s harmful).1 Often sick people are told that to say anything less than “God is going to heal me” is a “negative confession,” a lack of faith, and then you might not be healed because you are not asking in faith! And if you have a terminal illness, you don’t want to lose your chance at a healing because you doubted!

Examples of this Zealous Error

I’ve personally seen people told that God was going to heal them that, well, weren’t healed. I’ll give just two examples (I could give more). The first example is that people prayed for Jean E. and me and even prophesied that Jean E. would have a child.

But guess what? They were wrong!

We’re fine, by the way, you can read Jean E.’s article about not having children here.2

Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul–Pietro da Cortona, 1631

Another example is that at one church we attended a youth minister’s wife who was the mother of young children discovered that her body was riddled with cancer. Sadly, some prophesied that she would be healed. Some Christians—often they too were young mothers—assured her that there was no way on earth that God wouldn’t heal her. These Christians all but demanded that she believe that she would be healed because, if she had a lack of faith, then, indeed, she might not be healed. So no matter how bad her already metastasized cancer spread, she was told to say that she knew that God was going to heal her.

But she died from cancer and was hindered in her ability to accept the possibility that she wouldn’t be healed.

Sadly, Christians who proclaim that a terminally ill person will be healed will struggle to support and comfort the sick person in their final days, when they are most needed. Indeed, after a miscarriage a young woman informed Jean E. that others in our church believed that the reason Jean E. miscarried was because we didn’t have enough faith. Ouch! Of course, “if you have enough faith God will heal you” is unfalsifiable because those not healed can always be proclaimed to lack faith.

It will help if we understand at least part of what drives this for some poeple—the fear that if terrible suffering can strike others then terrible suffering can strike me. The way out of this is for confused Christians to in some way blame the victim because if you can find something that the victim did wrong, then you can assure yourself that their terrible suffering won’t happen to you.

This is well illustrated by a comic strip called Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. In this particular strip we find two of the strip’s main characters, Rat and Goat talking at a table holding coffee. Goat tells Rat that his friend died at only 42 years old. Rat then asks if he was super-fat? Goat says No. Rat then asks if he was a heavy smoker or had a family history? Goat says No to both. At that Rat becomes extremely agitated and asks if Fred had heart disease, or used drugs, or drove recklessly? Goat replies that Fred didn’t do anything of those things. Then Rat, eyes bulging gets in Goat’s face and spills Goat’s coffee on the table, “It can’t be nothing, because nothing could happen to me! Meaning that fate is whimsical! That I, too, could die anytime! Give me something about Fred that made him different than me!!” Goat replies, “He collected stamps?” From that Rat is calmed–eyes small again sitting quietly drinking his coffee and replies: “High-risk hobby. He was doomed.”3

You get the point. Many Christians desperately want to believe that when others suffer severely, or die suddenly, that these sufferers deserved to suffer because they did something wrong (like not have enough faith). This belief that some Christians suffer because they deserved it, comforts Christians desperate to believe that severe suffering won’t strike them. In my future book (God willing), How Does God Use Suffering?, I will point out that the Lord needs to allow some people, who do everything right, to suffer so that people can’t be secure in this world.

When terminally ill patients are told that they must constantly confess that God will heal them, it can hinder their witness because it looks to the world like their faith is based largely on God healing them. But what if God doesn’t heal them? Then how does their faith look? Christians who aren’t healed after proclaiming only, “I believe God will heal me,” hinder their witness because they’ve shown they’ve believed something false about God. Unbelievers may then wonder how many of their other beliefs about God are false. Thankfully, a well-known apologist, who recently passed away, proclaimed that he believed Christianity was true even if God didn’t heal him–that’s essential to being a good witness but runs counter to what some healing teachers demand.

Now I don’t pretend to have figured out many things regarding prayer for healing, I also realize that some sincere Christians will disagree with me (I used to disagree with me and I was a sincere Christian), but there are some things about which we need more clarity. I hope to clear up some further confusion about prayer for healing in tomorrow’s post.

 

  1. This isn’t the same as confession teaching. Here the person acknowledges that they are still sick, but they are confessing that God is going to heal them. []
  2. Although it took some years, we’re great with the Father’s plan to not let us have kids. We really are. Our loving Father had decided that it wasn’t His will for us to have children. You can read Jean E’s story about this. Not only are our lives not hindered by our not having kids—we see it as a gift to us. Not having children has enabled us to do other things. []
  3. Emphasis in original. I couldn’t find this particular Pearls Before Swine because I couldn’t read the date on the cartoon. []
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Prayer for Healing—1: Two Confusions

Many Christians are confused about prayer for healing. Like The Little Engine that Could, some contend that the sick should say “I believe God will heal me, I believe God will heal me, I believe God will heal me,” because to get God to heal them they cannot doubt that God will heal them. Others treat the Lord as if He were a cosmic combination lock that must be dialed precisely to release the treasured healing. In years past I’ve done both and both are scripturally mistaken, spiritually and emotionally unhealthy, fundamentally misunderstand who God is, and often result in our being a bad witness to the lost.

About My Healing Journey

But before I go any further, let me tell you a little about my story. At about 14 years old (I became a Christian at 12) my family started attending a non-denominational charismatic church with over 10,000 in weekly attendance.

Paul Healing the Cripple at Lystra
Karel Dujardin

This church believed in healing, to say the least, and often hosted the biggest healing ministers in the world (for example, for those old enough to remember, Kathryn Kuhlman was there several times—she was a huge deal back then). Later in high school, I was the co-leader of a charismatic high school group that met in my parents’ home (we had about 65 high school students attend every Friday night). We had an “after-glow” and constantly prayed for people’s healing.

In my late teens I even embraced and taught what is called “confession teaching,” which amounts to telling someone after prayer for healing that they should not doubt that they were healed but should “confess” their healing even if they still had the “symptoms” of the illness. In other words, if we prayed for you to get over the flu, but you still had a temperature of 102, that was just a symptom to be ignored. You had been healed, fever or no (I could talk about this at length, but that’s not the point of this post). During this time, I held that God always, and I do mean always, wanted to heal those who asked because healing was in the atonement. After a while I began to realize that this view was scripturally false. Most Christian realize this is false so I’m not going to talk further about it.1

Just as I graduated from college I was brought on the pastoral staff of the large charismatic church I mentioned and those of us in leadership would sometimes kid about being “God’s man of power in the hour with all nine spiritual gifts at our fingertips.”

Then, just as I was finishing my MDiv at American Christian Theological Seminary (yes, it was a charismatic seminary whose initials formed ACTS—thankfully, apologists John Warwick Montgomery and Walter Martin taught there), I was hired by John Wimber to be an associate pastor of a fast growing congregation called Calvary Chapel of Yorba Linda. While I was on staff at that church it became The Vineyard and the flagship of what is now the Vineyard movement. John Wimber’s perceived success at doing signs and wonders led to his teaching the popular course at Fuller Seminary, “Signs, Wonders, and Church Growth.” I left the Vineyard because of some doctrinal concerns (maybe a discussion for another time).

Although I’m no longer a charismatic, I still believe that God can heal any time He wants. Since my Vineyard days, I have always attended churches which hold that healing is something that God might do today. I do believe that on occasion God does miraculously heal those who ask, but mostly He works through providence.

I told you all this because without it there would be many who would disqualify me as one who doesn’t “get it.” I know they would do this because that’s what I thought about those outside the spiritual gifts movement—they were the Christian equivalent of muggles.

As I said, misunderstanding prayer for healing has confused a lot of Christians and I’m especially concerned about sick Christians or even terminally ill Christians being confused about this. I will continue this tomorrow.

 

  1. When I was 19-years-old my telling people they should ignore the symptoms, and just claim their healing, ceased when another Christian asked me, “Where in the Bible did Jesus ever heal like that?” At that moment I was done with the confession movement because Jesus never healed like that! The way someone knew they were healed when Jesus or the apostles healed them is that the “symptoms” were gone! []
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Preparing to Succeed in Severe Suffering

One thing is clear: unless we die young and suddenly, all of us are going to endure severe suffering. This is true because, as I’ve said many times, only one thing is going to prevent you from watching absolutely every person you know die from murder, accident, or disease, and that will be your own death from murder, accident, or disease! We live in a fallen world, but thankfully, if we trust in Jesus, then we will live forever and ever.

This doesn’t have to be you!

But here we suffer!

What I hope to do in this series is tell how you can prepare yourself to succeed when confronted with severe suffering. Not being prepared will make your suffering worse, and worse for those around you.

Many people want to push the idea of their enduring severe suffering as far out of their minds as possible. But, that’s a colossal mistake. That’s worse than finding a lump under your arm and pretending it isn’t there. So here’s the first step to prepare you to succeed in severe suffering.

Accept that Severe Suffering Will Come

First, we need accept that severe suffering will come. As I wrote in my last blog, God didn’t promise that you won’t suffer. In fact, God did promise that you will suffer. As Jesus said in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” God intends to purify us and to prove us, and He does this through suffering. Get used to the idea! When severe suffering strikes, it is easier to handle when you expect it.

Discipleship is costly and we need to count the cost. Jesus was clear about this in Luke 14:26-30, 33:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish….” So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

What price are we willing to pay to be His disciples? One evening, I was praying while I walked down a seldom trafficked street near our apartment, and I decided to count the cost of being Jesus’ disciple and to commit to Him that I was willing to endure whatever He called me to endure. So I went through the kinds of suffering that I might have to endure. I thought of prison. That would be awful but I told the Lord I was willing (many Christians right now are imprisoned for the cause of Christ). Then I thought about being a paraplegic. Frankly, I thought that would be worse than going to prison for Jesus, but I told the Lord I would be willing to be a paraplegic. Then I thought about cancer. For me that was the worst. That scared me because when I was 16, a 17-year-old friend, after a long battle, died of cancer. Would I be willing to endure cancer? The worst! At least in my mind. “Okay, Lord, even if I get cancer I will honor You.”

Honestly, the decision that I was willing to sacrifice everything for Jesus made me strong. As the saying goes, “the fear of God is the fear that removes all others.”

Then, when something really hard would come—like when I thought I had leukemia (I posted about this), or when we were foster parenting and we had the police at our house seven times in two-and-one-half-years, or when we suffered one miscarriage after another and never had children (Jean E. wrote about this), or when I’d have debilitating migraines—I would consider my commitment, my earlier counting the cost, and I would raise my hand towards heaven and tell the Lord, sometimes with tears in my eyes, “I don’t take it back!” I’ve said those words to the Lord many times over the last forty-five years and it always strengthens me: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10).

Then I got cancer

I started to have lower back pain in 2002. But who doesn’t have back pain, right? As the months went by the pain increased so I went to a doctor who took x-rays and told me I needed to do stretching exercises. Well, the pain increased and I saw more doctors—an orthopedic surgeon took x-rays and referred me to a physical therapist. That didn’t help at all! As the pain increased I had little choice but to accept the doctor’s diagnosis but, deep down, I suspected that I was being misdiagnosed, that I really had cancer, and if I did have cancer, the longer we waited was only making things worse. But during this time I would look up towards heaven, consider my counting the cost, and I would say, “I don’t take it back!” Then, when the pain became severe—so severe I couldn’t sleep—I decided to pay out-of-pocket for a CT (we had a $5,000 deductible).

I got the CT on Friday and the following Monday morning my orthopedic surgeon called. Not his assistant—the surgeon himself—I knew that was bad. He told us (Jean E. was on the other line) that I had a tumor on my spine.

I had bone cancer

After we got off the phone, I met Jean E. in her office, and with tears streaming down our faces, I led us in a prayer of thanksgiving to God (yes, I also asked for my healing), and I knew at that minute that I’d humiliated Satan in the Heavenly realm (I write about this principle in my book—the link is below). The next day in the shower I told the Lord with tears in my eyes, “I don’t take it back! I want to love you with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength and with all my mind, and I want to love my neighbor as myself” (Luke 10:27—this has been my life prayer since I was a teenager). Praying this strengthened me.

Then when my cancer biopsy revealed that my cancer was severe and my orthopedic oncologist told me that, if that diagnosis was correct, he wouldn’t operate but would instead start me on chemo to see if it shrank the tumor. He also told me the not-at-all-comforting news that if the tumor responded to chemo, then he might opt to take it out (that was very dark news). Jean E. and I again held hands and I led us in a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Later, with tears in my eyes, I told the Lord, “I don’t take it back.”

Thankfully, my orthopedic oncologist looked at the slides himself and thought the biopsy might be mistaken and decided to operate. Surgery removed the cancer—I lost my tailbone, the bone above that, and half the bone above that (thankfully you don’t need those bones very much). A couple of weeks later we learned that the biopsy was mistaken, I had a lesser form of cancer. That was 14 years ago and I’m thankful to report that I’m well.

Now you can accept this or not: but I never doubted God’s love for me or God’s existence during that time. Not even once. Never. In fact, during that time I felt loved by the Lord. I really did.

You may wonder, if I never doubted the Lord’s love or existence, then why did tears stream down our faces? It wasn’t because I feared dying. I didn’t fear dying. What scared me was the prospect of leaving Jean E. alone because I knew the Scripture didn’t promise that I would survive that cancer. The thought of leaving Jean E. alone was very hard on us. But I knew, in spite of the tears, that God loved me and was taking care of us. God didn’t give us more than we could handle. Neither will God give you more than you can handle—I’ve written on this.

Before I got cancer, I took a hermeneutics and homiletics class from D. A. Carson. He told the class that when his wife got cancer, he didn’t doubt God for a minute because he had already decided that these kinds of things happen to people.1 Similarly, we must all count the cost and recognize that severe suffering will come and decide how we’re going to handle it before it happens. I realize these are not comfortable thoughts but, if you count the cost, and if you really are willing to pay it, it will be a stronghold in your life, regardless of what severe suffering you might endure, and you have overcome, you have conquered! Those who overcome will be ushered into God’s Kingdom where He will tell you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).

Revelation 21:5-7: “And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And He said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true.’ Then He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.’”2

Honor the Lord through suffering and you will inherit the Kingdom.

There’s more to succeeding in severe suffering. I’ll continue this in my next post. Coincidentally, the first reviewer of my book on Amazon.com, Daniel Wynne, titled his review of my book: “I urge you to read it BEFORE you encounter a crisis.” I think you’ll find he’s right and we weren’t in cahoots!

  1. I was reminded of a story told by the founder of Voice of the Martyrs, Richard Wurmbrand, “A Christian has been released from prison. He is a farmer. He goes into the fields and prays, ‘God make me perfect.’ An inner voice answers, ‘Would you be ready to return to prison in order to become perfect?’ He shrinks back. He has suffered so much. He replies, ‘Anything else, God, only not this.’ The inner voice says, ‘Then do not ask to be perfect.’ A long inner struggle follows. In the end the Christian yields. ‘Make me perfect at whatever cost,’ he prays. Soon he is rearrested….” Richard Wurmbrand, If that were Christ would you give him your blanket? (Waco, TX: Word, 1971), 10. []
  2. NASB []
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The Major Reason Christians Doubt

Although there are other reasons, the major reason Christians doubt God’s love or even the truth of Christianity is that they expect God to act in ways other than He promised to act. I write this now because recently I have conversed with Christians who are struggling with this. Obviously, if a Christian thinks the Lord should do this or that, but then the Lord doesn’t do this or that, then that Christian is going to lack confidence in God’s love or existence.

In my younger Christian life, I certainly struggled when God’s actions in my life, and in the lives of others, didn’t meet my expectations of how He should act. But, I’m thankful to say, this hasn’t happened to me for a long time (I’ve been a Christian now for almost fifty years).

Doubting John the Baptist

In Matthew 11:2-3, we find a clear example of a godly man who had this kind of doubt. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

Christians doubt

Artist’s rendition of Vibia Perpetua’s martyrdom

Shocking! Consider the significance of John’s question! Remember that John had previously pronounced about Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Remember when Jesus approached John to be baptized, John tried to prevent Jesus saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Then when John did baptize Jesus “the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:14, 16-17).

But now John is sending his disciples to ask Jesus, Was I wrong about you?

Wait…

What?

What changed?

Simple, John the Baptist was now in prison and he didn’t see that coming! He didn’t see prison in his future! Surely John was intimately familiar the proclamation in Isaiah 9:6-7 about the Messiah that:

the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

The Baptist surely remembered that when David was king that he won all his battles! Thus, John the Baptist must have thought that Messiah Jesus, the “Mighty God,” who would sit “on the throne of David” and of whose “government… there will be no end,” wouldn’t allow the Baptist to be sitting in a dark, stifling dungeon! Also, as D. A. Carson is right to point out, “the Baptist had preached in terms of imminent blessing and judgment. By contrast Jesus was preaching in veiled fulfillment terms and bringing much blessing but no real judgment… and as a result the Baptist was having second thoughts.”1 Indeed, the Holy Spirit speaking through Isaiah wasn’t promising that Jesus, at His first coming, would establish an earthly kingdom, but John probably didn’t know that, and John was in prison! In fact, he was soon beheaded.

Jesus’ Answer to John the Baptist

This is one of the things I love about Christian apologetics. Listen to Jesus answer Matthew 11:4-6, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t just say, “tell John to stop doubting!” Rather Jesus says, you go and tell John what you yourselves have seen: the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, the dead are raised!

Go tell John what you have personally witnessed—amazing miracles! Jesus provided evidence for who He claimed to be—the Messiah!

But that’s not all Jesus said. Jesus said something significant that we must observe: “blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (v. 6). Carson explains that blessed is the one “who does not find in him and his ministry an obstacle to belief and therefore reject him.”2 In other words, there will be some people who reject the evidence about Jesus because they don’t like things about Jesus. I’m sure John the Baptist was more than satisfied with Jesus’ answer, but many people, even many Christians, don’t like what Jesus does. They think a loving God should act differently.

Doubting Christians

This dislike of who Jesus is and what He does is the number one reason non-Christians reject the evidence about Jesus—they don’t like Him or what He stands for (what most non-Christians like least about Him is that they have to obey Him). But I’m not focusing on non-Christians here.

The Lord not acting as Christians think the Lord should act cripples their confidence in Christianity. This happens all the time and, as I said, as a younger Christian this happened to me. What offends a lot of younger or less diligent studiers of God’s word is that they think the Lord shouldn’t let them suffer in this way or that. They think if God loved them then their spouse would be nicer, or their kids wouldn’t suffer, or their health would be better. When Christians go through, or maybe see others go through, extreme hardship, they ask, Where is God?

That many Christians expect God to not let them suffer so much is largely the Christian church’s fault. What I mean is that many pastors and many Christians teach a false gospel of “come to Jesus and Jesus will heal your marriage” or “improve your finances,” or even “heal you.” In short, many churches have taught that Jesus came to give you an improved lifestyle here!

So now, let me offend some of you. Jesus didn’t die to improve your lifestyle here. The reason I say some will be offended is that almost every time I say that, some Christians get really angry. But, because many Christians equate Christianity with an improved lifestyle here, when that doesn’t happen it causes them to doubt the truth of Christianity.

Let me be clear: often a person’s lifestyle does improve when they become Christians, but that’s not always the case. For example, if one becomes a Christian in Somalia, or Iraq, or Pakistan and your family tries to kill you or your daughter is abducted, raped, and forced to sign a confession to Islam—that’s not an improved lifestyle! In 203 AD the 22-year-old mother, Vibia Perpetua, having just finished breast feeding her child, walked naked into the arena, milk dripping from her breasts, to be killed by wild beasts. That’s not an improved lifestyle.

Sadly, that your life might actually become harder after becoming a Christian is either ignored by many pastors or is treated as gospel fine print.

So let me be clear: God doesn’t promise that you won’t die slowly of heart disease or cancer. In fact, you will probably die from heart disease or cancer (that is the way most people die). Further, God doesn’t promise that you won’t be stripped naked, raped, and murdered. That has happened to many male and female Christians precisely because they were Christians. In fact, it happens almost every day! Now, in Romans 8:35-37 God does promise to be with you through those things.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Notice “famine,” “nakedness,” “sword.” Paul says we are conquerors in all these things, not by going around them. This lack of concern for how others might mistreat our bodies is also seen in Matthew 10:28: “And 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.” In other words, your physical death isn’t that important. Now some of you are probably thinking, “well, my physical death is important to me!” Yeah, I get it, but, again, frankly, your physical death isn’t important compared to the death of your soul!

Now, back to why Christians doubt. Christians doubt when they are confused about what the Lord has actually promised and then they lose their confidence in Christianity. Obviously, if you think Christianity is about your physical wellbeing here. If you think Christianity is about your living the American Dream. If you think Christianity is about your having an improved lifestyle here, then you are going to question the truth of Christianity when hardship comes because the Lord doesn’t promise you those things.

Confident Christians

Therefore, it is paramount that we have a correct understanding of what Jesus promised and didn’t promise if we are to have confidence in what Jesus is doing to and through us on planet Earth. Jesus promised to be with you through suffering; He didn’t promise that you would avoid it. I tell my classes, “God’s Plan A for your life is to take you through regular periods of suffering and there is no Plan B.” Suffering purifies us and, if we bear it while continuing to honor God, it proves to humans and angels that we really are His disciples.

Because I had already decided that this was true, when I got bone cancer, I didn’t doubt God’s love or the truth of Christianity for a moment because I had already decided that these things happen to Christians. Think about it, baring the Lord’s return, the only thing that is going to prevent you from watching every person you know die from murder, accident, or disease, will be your own death from murder, accident, or disease. It’s true the Lord sometimes miraculously heals, but He doesn’t promise it. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but sometime after that Lazarus died from murder, accident, or disease. But, thankfully, in Christ we have eternal life and “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

There is so much more to say about this and, frankly, it will probably be in my next book. Of course, my recent book also explain much of what God is doing in the universe about evil and here’s a link.

Here’s a link to Perpetua’s diary.

  1. D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible CommentaryMatthew, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency, 1984), 262. []
  2. Ibid. []
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Self-Worth, Ministry, and Misery—6

Who Will Be Greatest in God’s Kingdom?

Yesterday I gave the second reason as to why we can’t know who will be greatest in God’s kingdom. Today, I finish this series. We can’t know who will be greatest in God’s Kingdom because Jesus’ criterion for greatness in God’s Kingdom isn’t obvious.

In Matthew 20:21 we read that Jesus was asked if two of his disciples could sit at Jesus’ right hand and left hand in his Kingdom. Jesus could have replied a lot of things. One thing he could have replied was “It doesn’t work like that! Everyone is going to be equal in the Kingdom. You’ll all get to take turns sitting at my right and left hand.”

But Jesus didn’t say that.

Instead Jesus said in v. 23, “to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” In other words, some will have honors that others don’t. Does this make you want to get more Twitter followers? That’s not the criterion. Then in vv. 26-28 Jesus tells us the criterion for who will be great in His Kingdom: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So there it is! Who will be greatest in God’s kingdom isn’t dependent on academic accolades, audience size, book sales, blog numbers, Twitter followers, Facebook friends, etc. Rather, if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, then be a loving servant!

Again, I am by no means perfect at this. Not even close! But I’ve learned that getting myself off the fool’s gold standard of ministry success has diminished my lusts generated from feeling the need to compare myself to others. It’s freeing!

I encourage you to memorize 1 Corinthians 4:1-5:

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

Jean E. and I quote these verses to each other regularly. Sometimes to drive the point home we even reverse the intent: “I care very much if I’m judged by you or any human court. In fact, I even judge myself by your opinion of me.” These verses help us remember that we must be faithful over what God has entrusted us, and that, at The End of All Things, only His opinion matters.

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Self-Worth, Ministry, and Misery—5

We All Have Different Gifting

In yesterday’s post I gave the first reason we can’t know who will be greatest in God’s Kingdom. The second reason we can’t know who will be greatest in God’s Kingdom is because we all have different gifting. Here’s one of the biggest ministry follies: we think that the one that speaks to the most people or sells the most books must be the greatest. That’s not God’s system! That’s the fool’s gold standard of what’s spiritually valuable.

Boasting about the number of books published or accolades received is inherently worldly (the joke at pastor’s conferences is that the first question asked is “how many people attend your church?”). Basing our self-worth on numbers is no more spiritual than thinking someone is great because they are the CEO of a Fortune 500. Of course, by that logic, the CEO of the biggest Fortune 500 is greater than the CEO of the second largest, and so on. Similarly, the guy who teaches 30 people in his Sunday school class is by that standard more valuable than the guy who teaches 25.

The Lord doesn’t judge our performance as if we were all on a single ladder with Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, or ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_____________ on the highest rungs, then other leaders on rungs lower than them but higher than us, based on their audience size (or whatever we value), then there’s us, then there are all the people that, in our minds, have accomplished less than us down the ladder. If we base our self-worth on that then we will never feel good about ourselves because there’s always someone who is doing better, or at least perceived to be doing better. If we think  our self-worth is based on how we compare to ­­­­­­­­­____________ then we’ll get very lustful and go a little crazy. Thankfully, we don’t have to do that.

Also, even if you do make it to the very top, that won’t last long and others will certainly try to knock you off. Although some ministry criticism is warranted, sadly, a lot of criticism of this or that ministry springs from jealously—“Yeah, he’s got a big following but I’m not compromising the Gospel like he is!”

In fact, basing your self-worth on your audience size is no more spiritual than basing your self-worth on the size of your bank account or, for that matter, the size of your bicepts or breasts. Now, I’m not suggesting that Christians can’t publish their bios. There’s nothing wrong with knowing what others have spent their lives working on or specializing in. The folly is thinking that we can judge the Lord’s impression of His servants by those accomplishments. We can’t. As Paul said in Galatians 6:3-5,

If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.

I’ve been given advantages that some others might not have been given, and others have been given more advantages than I’ve been given. Our Lord doesn’t compare us with each other. The Lord doesn’t grade on a curve. The Lord knows what load He gave each of us, knows what advantages He gave each of us, and He is going to judge us based on how far we go with what we He gave us. Thus the Lord might be more pleased with the convalescent home worker who is faithful over what she has been given than the most famous minister.

Frankly, this thought humbles me (and that’s always good). It’s humbling because I know God has given me certain opportunities that others might not enjoy and that means I will be judged more strictly.

Consider Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Get it? If someone has been given more talents then that person will be more severely judged. Similarly, James 3:1 warns us that “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Some Christians have been given advantages that I haven’t (for example, some have towering IQs) but I’m not going to be judged by their gifts! Also, I’ve been given some advantages that others haven’t—if I don’t use these gifts humbly and wisely then I will be judged for not doing so. We’re going to be judged by how far we got with what He has given us.

After all, who is the bigger business success? The guy who came from rich parents, went to the best schools, and then succeeded in growing a 100 million dollar business into a billion dollar business or the guy who started from poverty, attended the JC, and started his own company which grew a 100 million dollar business? There’s no simple answer to that.

When it comes to ministry, we have each been given advantages and disadvantages. Some of us are smarter, more creative, more connected, more __________ than others. But we are all going to stand before the Judgment and give an account of ourselves based on what God had given us and no worldly calculation will tell us what the Lord will conclude. Thankfully, if we truly are Christians, we can do a cruddy job with what God has given us and still be saved (1 Cor. 3:15), but who wants that?

I’ll finish this series tomorrow.

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Self-Worth, Ministry, and Misery—4

God Judges the Heart

In my last post I said there were three reasons we can’t know who will be greatest in God’s Kingdom. The first is because God judges the heart and we’re no good at that. 1 Corinthians 4:1-5:

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.

Notice our motives for what we did will be exposed. Also, notice we are not to judge other people’s motives (many Christians commit this sin). Paul even says that he doesn’t even judge himself. You see, God judges the heart and in the Lord’s considered opinion your motive for doing what you do can be more important than what you do. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Doesn’t this passage tell us that we can deliver the best sermons, teach the best apologetics lectures, or write the most respected books but if we don’t do it from love, then from God’s perspective, we “gain nothing”? That is what it says, right?

There are, after all, a lot of outward rewards for doing well in public ministry. There can be fame, respect, travel, and honorariums. That’s a lot of worldly stuff and we are naturally attracted to that stuff. This can motivate Christians to seek public ministry and then to work very hard to make their ministries ever bigger. It can also lead to a lot of worldly pride: “I have more respected degrees from better schools, teach bigger crowds, write more books, have more Twitter followers than he/she does.”

When we build our self-worth on our ministry success slights are hard. When I was at Simon Greenleaf University a 30 something prof came into my office and ranted on about how Talbot should have hired him for a theology post. He said he was eminently more qualified than the person they hired. When he left my office I thought he just might be academically more qualified but the Lord tends to resist those who vaunt themselves.

Sadly, “I’m more qualified than they are” tempts all of us. Benjamin Franklin’s saying “if you want to know a person’s faults, praise him to his peers” is all too true. We are tempted to bring others down a notch (or ten) to make ourselves look better. I’ve done this. Haven’t you? Thankfully, I’m not perfect at this but I’ve learned that when I feel slighted, when I’ve been passed over for an opportunity, my mental refrain has become, “I work for you, Father. I work for you.” After all, if He is pleased with us, the value of what others think isn’t very important. On the other hand, if He is displeased, then standing ovations are dangerous. God judges our hearts and if we’re not great in God’s eyes, then it doesn’t matter what our mother thinks or even what a million other Christians might think. So, as Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Above all else, guard your heart.”

I find this thought comforting and humbling. It is comforting because our praise from God won’t be based on my one-upping other ministers or their one-upping me. It is humbling because I know that too often my motives aren’t what they should be. By the way, sometimes I’ve heard Christians say that they aren’t going to minister in this way or that because their motives aren’t pure. That’s mistaken: We need to be of service and employ the gifts God has given us even when we don’t run on pure fuel.

So who is greatest by this standard? Only God knows and soon we will all receive our praise from Him.

I find this freeing.

Tomorrow–another reason why we can’t say who’s greatest.

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Self-Worth, Ministry, and Misery—3

In my prior post I talked about how the Lord humbled me and I quit my ministry position. Well, when I was just finishing up my M.Div. (this was 1980), I was hired as an associate pastor by a church which soon had an average attendance of about 5,000. But I didn’t say “Check!” this time. I had learned that I must not climb the ministerial fame latter, that I needed to please the Lord.

I began to dread communion services at that church because it seemed like every time we had communion some guy would come up and confess the sin of hating me for my getting the position he wanted! I’m not kidding. A senior pastor later half-kidded that when he brought me on staff “half the guys in the church just about lost their salvation.”

Thankfully, during my time there, the Lord began to reveal to me the glory that awaits us in heaven for ever. What we all need is to learn to lust after God and His Kingdom. After all, I know something about you (and by that I mean everyone in the world including those reading these words): we are all going to lust after something and we’re either going to lust after God and His Kingdom or we’re going to lust after people, possessions, positions, or pleasures. But no matter what, we are going to lust. I’ve posted on this.

My position in the church of 5,000 only lasted about three-and-one-half years (we were going in different theological directions), and I was again out of ministry and a job.

I decided I was going to start a church but that didn’t materialize and I spent years working in the insurance industry and teaching a Bible study to only about ten people (the Lord loves His servants enduring long periods of obscurity but that’s a topic for another time). Now I wish I could tell you that from then on I built my identity only on who I was in Christ. I was doing much, much better but it’s still a struggle. Thankfully, I’ve learned some major truths that have helped immensely (the Lord also beat the crud out of me through many trials like bone cancer but that’s also a topic for another time).

Who Is Going to Be Greatest in God’s Kingdom?

Here’s a realization that helps me build my identity on who I am in Jesus. I ask students all the time, who is going to be greater in the Kingdom of God: Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, _____________, or the Christian woman who was abused as a child, who wasn’t able to go to college, who isn’t brilliant, who isn’t particularly good looking, and who works in a convalescent home? But in this convalescent home she loves the people she cares for. She cares for them like she was caring for Christ Himself. She cares for them because she sincerely loves them, and she shares Christ with them as she has the opportunity.

Then I ask

Who’s going be greater in the Kingdom of God?

There is always silence.

Then I say: “there is only one possible answer.”

Students always laugh but I’m not kidding.

There is only one possible answer.

The only possible answer is, “I don’t know!”

But I know for sure that the answer isn’t necessarily Tim Keller, William Lane Craig, or _____________. It might be one of them but that’s not a given.

There are three major reasons that we can’t say who will be greatest in the Kingdom of God.

I’ll continue this Monday.

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Self-Worth, Ministry, and Misery—2

I ended yesterday’s post telling about my ministerial jealousy and how I became very tired.

In fact, I got so tired that I would wake up, have breakfast, and take a nap. Then I’d wake up, have lunch, and take a nap. Then I’d wake up, have dinner, and take a nap. And so on. I decided to self-diagnose “extreme tiredness” and the first thing I stumbled upon was leukemia and now I had another thing to worry about.

Finally I went to the doctor and he ran some tests and told me that I was hypoglycemic. He told me to eat only protein and to start exercising hard on a daily basis. This did help but only so much. Even so, I really did want to please the Lord and I was reading my Bible daily. I even apologized to a youth guy for being jealous of him!

But I was still a bitter, tired, frustrated mess, and I did so poorly in school that semester that I got put on academic probation even though I dropped everything but one class!

Then one evening I was in a pool playing Marco Polo with some high school students and, while underwater, I suddenly felt a sharp twang in my left shoulder. Two thoughts occurred almost simultaneously: “I’ve just dislocated my shoulder” and “Do not be a mule without understanding!” (Psalm 32:9). That later thought struck me harder than the former.

When I surfaced I announced, “I’ve just dislocated my shoulder!” One of the high school students said he knew how to reset my shoulder, so standing on the deck while I was still in the water, he started yanking my arm upward. We soon realized that he actually had no idea how to reset a shoulder. It got reset in the emergency room and I was given a shoulder immobilizer which meant that I couldn’t run or do any other kind of meaningful exercise. So now I had hypoglycemia and was constantly tired, was getting Big Macs but throwing away the buns, couldn’t exercise, couldn’t sleep comfortably because of my shoulder, was jealous, bitter, and felt like a ministry failure.

I was broken.

I knew I had been building my self-worth on my ministry success and I now realized that this not only displeased the Lord—He wasn’t going to put up with it! I appreciated that! Really. I felt loved. A day or two later I resigned from being a youth minister—effective immediately (sorry CE director—I could have handled that better!). I took stock of my life and I repented for loving this world and for looking for glory from other humans.

I don’t think I recited my “youth pastor of a mega-church, associate pastor of a mega-church, pastor of a mega-church…” mantra thingy ever again.

I was changed. Not even remotely perfect, but different. And I started getting better but there was still more to learn. You see, you can’t just stop lusting after the wrong things: you need to start lusting after the right things and that was still to come.

But now I was out of ministry and out of a job.

More tomorrow.

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