Shallow Soil, Shallow Faith #3: Trials

In the orignal blog in this series, we discussed the spiritual condition of the rocky, shallow soil. In Jesus’ parable of the soils, this soil was a metaphor for those who had shallow, undeveloped faith, a group that may be at a spiritual epidemic in the American church today. Since their faith wasn’t developed, they ended up walking away from Christ and His church.
 
But why does this happen? What led them to abandon their relationship with God and the message of grace found in God’s word? In the second post in the series, we addressed the problem of shallowness that wasn’t able to fend off temptation, and surrendered to a life of sin.

Yet, there is another “time of testing” which we need to address. Testing is not just temptation. It is also met in trials, difficult circumstances … Those times that proverbially try men’s souls.

Why are trials called “time of testing”? Trials are tests because they are an opportunity for us to authenticate our trust in God.

It is one thing to trust God when you are experiencing peace, prosperity and health. It is another thing to trust him when life is crumbling around you.

Isn’t that the story of Job? Satan approached God to say that the only reason Job trusted God was because God had set him up in a cushy life. Then Satan challenged that if Job lost it all he would denounce God.

Then when Job lost everything, his response was “Still will I praise Him. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Yet, that is not so easy, is it? When the doctor enters the room with a cancer diagnosis … when you find yourself single because your spouse has left you for someone else … when the “yes” you were expecting is met with a “no” … when you find yourself widowed long before you expected … when your job position is cut … when a child dies … when your spouse’s anger escalates to physical harm … and on and on and on, it isn’t so easy to just sing out, “Blessed be the name of the Lord”, is it?

Questions arise. The “Whys” shout out at you. You may even become angry at God for placing you in such a painful situation. Like David, you may shout out at God, “Why did you do this to me?”

Paul, in 2 Corinthians, tells of a thorn in the flesh which he prayed God would remove. He prayed this prayer three times (it’s unclear whether this was three specific prayers, or three periods of time in which this prayer was prominent). However, the answer always came back the same, “No.”

How do you respond to God’s “no”, when it seems like He has either turned a deaf ear to your pain, or worse that He chooses not to do anything about it?

We’ve seen people in the throes of chaos turn their back on God, haven’t we? They raise the age old question, “If God is good, why does he allow such evil to continue to exist in the world?” And if the soil is shallow and rocky, it is not too big of a jump to conclude that either God doesn’t exist, or if He does exist, He is either not good, or is powerless to do anything about our problems.

Conversely, the rest of the answer Paul received from God was “My grace is sufficient for you.” The emphasis isn’t on the pain. It isn’t on the crisis. The emphasis is turned to a sufficient God.

If your roots are deep, these questions, these times of crisis and chaos, rather than causing you to push away from God will cause you to lean into him a little more. You may not have all of the answers you seek, but you choose to place a little more trust in the certainty of His love, His power, and His presence in an uncertain time.
 
What can we do to remove the stones from this plot of spiritual ground that in its shallowness is unable to deal with difficulty?

Walk along with people during those pivotal circumstances, those times of trial. The company during our walks through difficult circumstances is powerful. The absences of such company can be devastating.

I recently had someone share an instance where we didn’t do this so well. We responded well initially, as the events of crisis unfolded, but we didn’t do so well in the long run. As this person struggled with their faith in the midst of crisis, they became more and more isolated from the church. Instead of continuing to walk with them through the darkness, it became easier to deal with their proxy, and occasionally ask them, “How is she doing?”

Without the support of community, this person’s faith began to dry up and wither.

We can help remove the rocks by walking with each other through these difficult times, not just the moment of tragedy, but the long unfolding trial that follows.



Shallow Soil, Shallow Faith #2: Temptation

In the previous blog, we discussed the spiritual condition of the rocky, shallow soil. In Jesus’ parable of the soils, this soil was a metaphor for those who had shallow, undeveloped faith, a group that may be at a spiritual epidemic in the American church today. Since their faith wasn’t developed, they ended up walking away from Christ and His church.
 
But why does this happen? What led them to abandon their relationship with God and the message of grace found in God’s word? What led them to walk away from so great a salvation, or as the writer of Hebrews says, “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” Hebrews 10:29

This is the place at which we need to take an honest look at ourselves and the condition of our faith, and be more aware of the spiritual condition of those around us.

Jesus’ story portrays the hot summer sun coming up and scorching the fruitful growth so that it withered and died. Understand withering is often used throughout Scripture as a term to express God’s judgment on the unfaithful.

In his explanation of the parable, Jesus says that when times of testing come their faith fails.

At this point we have to ask; what does Jesus mean by “time of testing”?

The phrase has three applications based on the meaning and context of the word translated testing. The next three blogs will consider the implications of the three ways that “time of testing” can be interpreted.

One meaning for the phrase is “a period of temptation”. We are tested when we are tempted. When we are victorious over the temptation our faith grows. When we give into the temptation our faith flounders.

We can see numerous characters throughout Scripture who met their spiritual demise when they let temptation get the best of them.

We can start at the very beginning with Adam and Eve. Protected in paradise with a personal relationship with the creator of the garden, they blew it by shopping in the wrong produce aisle.

Cain let a little sibling rivalry expose his murderous side.

Saul couldn’t wait on God, and died in battle under God’s curse.

Ananias and Sapphira thought a little cash was reason enough to lie to God. But they never got to spend the money.

Demas, after spending years in ministry alongside Paul, abandoned him because he loved the world.

Solomon the wise made the foolish decision to marry foreign wives, and worship their gods.

Judas thought a handful of silver coins would ease turning Jesus in to the religious leaders. But those coins only bought his suicide.

We see this struggle with temptation in the people of Israel in how quickly they forgot the God who led them out of Egypt, and offered their worship to a golden calf.

But we see that disobedience intensify when God brings them to the boundaries of the promised land, the promised place of rest. But, they refuse to trust that God will deliver their enemies into their hands. So God delivers them back to the desert where they find their final rest, and the sands of time cover their remains.

We see this battle with temptation lost:

  • as the church in Ephesus forgets her first love;
  • as Sardis looks alive, but is dead;
  • as Christians in Thyatira and Pergamum attempt to walk the line between faithfulness and spiritual and moral compromise;
  • as Laodicean believers determine that they no longer need Jesus because they’ve placed their trust in their prosperity.

We all know that battle well don’t we? We know that power of temptation. We have felt its grip tighten around our spiritual necks. We have experienced the shame and guilt of defeat as temptation turned to sin.

We know full well what Paul meant when he said, “The very thing that I do not want to do I find myself doing, and the very thing that I desire to do I do not do.”

But let me make clear this is not the defeat that the shallow experience. The defeat of the rocky soil is not the occasional battle with temptation that results in a fall to sin.

The defeat of the shallow is that they choose no longer to battle. They surrender to temptation, and choose to live a life of willful and volitional disobedience, a life that is fully incompatible with a life in Christ. When the heat of spiritual battle got too hot, they raised the white flag, and surrendered to a life of sin.

If you have been a member of the body of Christ for very long, you have undoubtedly witnessed someone who looked like they had it together. They looked like they would be a tremendous asset to the kingdom, and God was using them to accomplish his purposes. But, seemingly out of the blue, they shipwrecked their faith. Through an affair, or through drug abuse, or any number of other invitations to sin they turned their back on Jesus, and they walked away.

For some that has been your mother or father, a child, a spouse, or a sibling, and you have shed streams of tears for their souls.
 
 


Shallow Soil, Shallow Faith #1

In Luke 8, Jesus tells the parable of the soils. Jesus says this in Luke 8:6: “Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.” Here is the spiritual application in verse 13: “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”
 
Normally, when we are dealing with the parable we call this the rocky soil. I prefer to identify it by the nature of the heart with which it is associated. I call it the shallow.

Why is that? What is the condition of the soil?

I always thought of the rocky soil as a person of shallow faith who had recently made a decision to receive Christ, but in a short period of time returned to their life of sin. They gave their life to Christ on a spur of the moment impulse. During their spiritual high, they would attend every church event, always be excited to the point of jittery, and seem to eat up everything. But soon they would flame out. While, the emotional response to the presentation of the gospel was enough to bring them to conviction, it was not enough to provide them an adequate foundation for a long obedience in the right direction.

These are the people who respond with weeping and wailing when the altar call is given only to be out among the same parties, pubs and prostitutes the following week.

Some people might wonder why, in contrast with some other churches, don’t we push hard for people to make a decision? Why don’t we turn the screws for a strong emotional appeal? Why don’t we do 53 verses of “Just As I AM” followed by 23 “I Surrender Alls” with multiple pleas sprinkled in to give your life to Jesus right now because you don’t know if you’ll ever get another chance because you might be hit by a car and die on your way out of the parking lot today? Why don’t we do the hard sell?

Here is why: Altar calls that seek to manipulate emotions only set people up to be rocky soil. If we coerce people into an unreasoned, emotional decision, they won’t have sufficient root to sustain their faith when the temperature rises.

We may be able to count a notch in our belt as we run another person into the baptistery, but have we really produced a viable, committed disciple or have we just gotten another sinner wet?

However, here is what I discovered as I dug further into this text – the shallow, rocky soil isn’t just speaking about the 30 day believer who returns to his sin. This is not just those who have made a hasty decision to accept Christ that they later regret.

The shallow soil may be the 30 year believer that hasn’t grown 30-years old spiritually. They have grown one-year old spiritually 30 times.

Look again at what the text says: They received the message when it was presented. The verb translated “received” carries the idea of taking hold of something, to accept it into one possession.

The text also says that the rocky soil believed. This is the same word used elsewhere for having faith. It is clear that Jesus is presenting this shallow soil group as people who have been part of the faith community with God’s people.

But notice the state of their faith. While it is present, it is shallow. There is not enough earth to provide depth for the roots. So when the scorching heat of the summer arrives, the word planted in this soil dies due to exposure.

But look further at what happens to the shallow soil. It says when testing came they fell away. The falling away means to abandon or forsake something. Here particularly it means they abandoned the word of God and forsook the relationship that was offered them through his word.

It is the same idea present in Revelation 2 of Ephesus who had forsaken or abandoned their first love of Christ and his people.

I have often been asked if I believe that a person can lose their salvation. My response has always been the same. “No, no one loses their salvation. They know exactly where it is. However, many people have surrendered it.”

This is what this text is saying. Things got too hot for this believing shallow soil, so they willfully surrendered their salvation and walked away.
 
Why is it that the shallow lose faith and walk away? In asking that question, we also answered it. The text is very clear and straight forward — because their faith is shallow, It had no depth to its roots.
 

This is what I referred to before as the 30 year believer who wasn’t thirty-years old spiritually, but one-year old 30 times. In 30 plus years of ministry, I have seen far too often far too many people who thought they had completed the Christian race if not when they came out of the baptistery then shortly thereafter.

Each generation has had its own way of lessening the demands of discipleship … of removing the challenge of Christlikeness … of living with an automaton religion instead of an authentic relationship with God and each other.

For the traditional generation, shallow faith might be reduced to regularly attend church, and make yourself available as a volunteer. Church was what you did. It was unquestioned. You just did it, even if you didn’t feel it.

For the boomer generation, shallow faith morphed into attending church and being a nice, fairly moral person. Involvement in ministry was passe. We wanted entertained, and served. The churches that offered the most things on our wishlist won out.

For the younger generations, shallow faith made church attendance optional, and Biblical morality optional too, as long as you loved and served others.

That is the shallow soil. The soil that has no depth. Christianity is put on cruise control with no real effort to be all that we are called to be in Christ.

 

It is so easy to become comfortable with a thin veneer of Christianity, just enough to look the part. Instead of drilling down into knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection we are satisfied with knowing about him. We get just enough Christianity to ensure that we are inoculated against the real thing.

But, let me be honest with you. I think that sometimes all of the blame doesn’t rest solely on shallow people. Sometimes the church is partially to blame. Sometimes the church has invited people to a shallow faith by not inviting them, and instructing them, and urging them to a deep walk with Christ.

Churches can make it easy for the shallow to remain shallow, but teaching comfortable affirming messages that don’t deal with the hard side of discipleship … by focusing on feeding our base instincts for entertainment, rather than pushing us on to love and good deeds … by spoon feeding us predigested spiritual milk when we ought to be chewing our own food.



Hot & Cold Are Good

Stop saying that God prefers for us to be either on fire for him or spiritually cold toward him rather than spiritually struggling somewhere in the middle. Do you really believe a hostile atheist like Richard Dawkins pleases God more than an inconsistent, struggling believer?
 
When we take the hot as have in a vibrant, enthusiast faith, and the cold as being either spiritually apathetic or antagonistic toward God we miss out on the important message that Jesus really was trying to teach the church in Laodicea.

Actually, the hot and cold of Revelation 3 is not a contrast between good and bad options. Both hot and cold are positives expressions set in contrast with the lukewarmness of the Laodicean’s self-sufficiency.

Here is the historic context of the statement, 
“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
 
Laodicea didn’t have a supply of good water. The local water had a high lime content.
 
In contrast to Laodicea are the water supplies of both Hieropolis and Colosae. Hieropolis had healing hot springs used by people to treat a number of maladys like arthitis. Colosae was fed by refreshing, cool mountain streams (remember the Nestea plunge?).
 
Since, Laodicea didn’t have their own source of water they piped the cool water in from Colosae 20 miles away. However, by the time it reached Laodicea it was rancid and tepid.
 
Jesus takes this issue related to the local water supply to teach the Laodiceans a spiritual lesson. Laodicea had developed a spiritual malaise because of their self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency. Jesus described their self-assessment as “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” With that spiritually lethargic attitude Laodicea had ceased to make a influence on its community as either a place of spiritual healing, where broken lives were being put back together, or of spiritual refreshment, where weary souls were being revitalized.
 
Here is the point Jesus is making: God desires that we be a healing or a refreshing community, rather than a community which is useless and worthless due to our spiritual lethargy.

 



How To Grow Church Attendance

Over the last month you have heard the Elders share a vision for 2017 of seeing our average Sunday attendance rise by 20% over 2016. I’d like to come behind what they have shared with a little more information and context.
 
The attendance average for FCC hit a significant snag in the spring and summer of 2015 when the average Sunday attendance dropped to 75. It then became a goal of seeing the attendance rebound by at least 20% over the next year (September 2015-August 2016) or 90 people. We actually saw a recovery and our average Sunday attendance increased to 92 people.
 
This year again, the Elders sought to see us reach a 20% attendance increase once more. However, we felt that we needed to make the congregation aware of this goal.
 
The reason informing the congregation was deemed important, was because we wanted the congregation to own the vision for growth as well. Congregational buy-in is necessary because it is the congregation that will ultimately determine whether we will reach our goal or not.
 
There are two determinants helping us achieve the growth that we dream of for each member:
 
1) If we attend ourselves … nationally, the average church attender now attends church only 27 times per year — that is only one Sunday over half. At FCC, we have noticed the national trend in our own attendance as choices of sports, sleeping in, and other things have squeezed out church attendance. 
 
Attending half of the time will do to you spiritually the same thing as eating half of the time will do to you physically. We can do better for ourselves spiritually.
 
2) If we invite others to attend … studies show that at best, 25% of church members ever invite someone to church. Yet, over 50% of unchurched Americans say they would attend church if a friend invited them.
 
Part of our mission is to help others know Jesus. Inviting them to church may be the best way of helping them know Him. Who have you invited? Keep inviting. Find new people and invite them too.
 

20% and Beyond

 



Practice Hospitality With Whom

Paul bids the Romans to “practice hospitality.” There is a nuance to that statement that I had never been aware of before today. The term specifically references the warm welcome that is extended to a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong to the family. And with that nuance, I believe it presents something more than a cup of coffee or punch in an after worship social environment.         Hospitality is what we do to make guests welcomed.
 
Many churches don’t do hospitality – for what they would call hospitality only serves to make those who   belong welcome.  Surprisingly, some churches are infamous for choosing to ignore their guests.
 
Yet, week after week, we hear from guests that FCC Chicago is a welcoming and friendly place. Our guests  express to us that our church family does a tremendous job of making them feel like they belong by greeting them and engaging them in conversation, and inviting them to Connection Groups.  All of that is hospitality! And we are doing a good job at it.
 
Now, let me ask that you go the next step. We do a tremendous job of demonstrating hospitality to guests within the church building. What if we extended hospitality beyond the church walls to those guests?
 
  • What if we exchanged phone numbers with those guests, and made a call to them during the week to share that we were glad to meet them?
  • What if we invited them out to eat with us on Sunday following Connection Groups, and take the chance to get to know their story?
  • What if we planned to meet them during the week for a cup of coffee?
  • What if we invited them to our homes for dinner, and a chance to play some games with the family?
 

Can we choose to do that? What difference do you think such actions would make in helping people to connect with the church, see the church as a community of grace, and feel further loved by the church? Let’s not just practice hospitality. Let’s perfect it.

 



Do You Make The Holy Spirit Cry?

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“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you are sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 4:30).
 
The Holy Spirit begs each of us, “don’t make me cry.”
 
What is it that makes the Holy Spirit cry? What breaks His heart?
 
Interpreters of this verse often present a wide array of thoughts on what it means to “grieve the Holy Spirit.” Ideas range anywhere from crediting Satan for the actions of God, living in unrepentant sin, or falling away from faith.
 
However, each of these interpretations break one of the cardinal rules for Biblical interpretation … study the context. Let the context define what an unclear statement might mean.
 
Paul does just that with this verse in Ephesians 4.
 
Take a look at verse 29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
 
Now look at verse 31 and 32: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
 
We don’t need to go any further than these verses to guess what Paul means in verse 30! Paul provides matching bookends to verse 30. Sandwiched right between is the plea to not bring the Holy Spirit to tears.
 
The verses, immediately before and after, mentions actions that are destruction to relationships within the body of Christ. In each couplet, a negative action is rejected for a positive option. In both verses, Paul is telling the believers to guard against these negative actions: destructive words; and bitterness and malice. The Ephesians are told to exchange these negative actions for positive relating: words that encourage and strengthen; and tender forgiveness like God.
 
Why does he tuck this verse about grieving the Holy Spirit between these verses? Because Paul’s sandwich is meant to make clear to the reader that it is these very harmful activities that threaten the harmony and unity of the body of Christ that make the Holy Spirit cry?
 
Have you made the Holy Spirit cry? How are your relationships within the body of Christ? Have you conducted yourself in a manner that leaves tears streaming down the face of God? Or have you exchanged the actions that bring the Holy Spirit to tear with the actions that place a smile on His face because they grow and bless the body?


Telling The Lost To Go To Hell

Have you been guilty of telling others to go to Hell?

The very phrase for many Christians sends a bolt of indignation through our gut. We don’t like hearing people tell one another to “Go to Hell”, because it is a defaming and derogatory statement of derision.

go_to_hell__4k__by_thegoldenbox-d9vkhbv
Most believers wouldn’t even consider using that phrase. Yet, I fear that we have so focused on the phrase as “bad language’” that we have forgotten that we may be saying the same thing to people with much more serious consequences.
 
When we treat those outside of a relationship with Christ with ridicule and derision, we in essence are telling them to “go to Hell.” When we fail to demonstrate Christ’s love toward those who are struggling in sin, we are telling them to “go to Hell.” When we fail to exhibit God’s grace to those who are seeking salvation, we repeat the refrain “go to Hell.”
 
Our actions toward the lost, whether they be family, friend or enemy, have very real consequences. These consequences are much more significant than someone having hurt feelings because someone told them to go to H-E- double hockey sticks. The consequences of rejecting lost people, failing to show grace, and judging rather than showing grace to lost people is a sure way to being accomplices with sending them on their way to Hell. Sometimes in our own spiritual arrogance, we are actually pushing them to Hell because we are pushing them away from Jesus.
 
This is not to deny that those who are outside of Christ are going to hell. What the problem is is that many Christians, who are called to be God’s ambassadors of grace to a lost and dying world, are perfectly content with lost people being consigned to Hell. While we may not be throwing them in, we may be fanning the flame.
 
How do you get these lost souls off the highway to Hell? You treat them with the same level of respect that Jesus did. You build friendship with lost people. You pray for their salvation. You engage them in conversations through which you can tell them about Jesus. In short you treat lost people, not as if they deserve Hell, but as people who deserve the grace of Christ, the same grace shown to you.
 
Let’s not be content letting them go to Hell. Let’s do everything that we can in order to change their condition and destiny.

 



Soft Hearts

soft-hearts“Be kind to one another tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
 
Right relationships are not just about the don’ts — don’t hold grudges, don’t speak badly of others, don’t seek harm toward others.
 
Right relations are also built by positive actions. Paul tells us to have soft hearts toward one another. That means be sensitive toward one another, allow your heart to be moved by others. Bitter hearts become calloused. Paul encourages that to be replaced with softness and compassion.
 
He, also, tells us to forgive each other. That is the positive reflection of softening of a heart of resentment and anger. It isn’t enough to discard your bitterness. Bitterness needs replaced by forgiveness. We need to relate to one another as God relates to us because of the sacrifice of Christ.
 
Paul’s very clear implication is that since all of us needed forgiveness at the expense of Christ, we ought to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. How is it possible to hold someone hostage in unforgiveness for the very things Christ has forgiven?
 
Does your heart need some softening?


I Resolve To Release Myself From Bitterness

i-resolve-to-release-myself-from-bitterness

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Ephesians 4:31 ESV
  
We do well to put away the bitterness, resentment, anger, and dreams of payback that haunt us. These are the dark places of the soul that keep us captive to old wounds, old scars, and bind us from experiencing the joy of life in Christ.
 
Yet, I wonder if our putting away is less than Paul was hoping. Rather than relegating bitterness to the trash heap of things that don’t move us toward Christlikeness, do we stow it away in a location where it is easily retrieved for display? Do we get our resentments out ever-so-often so that they can be polished to a bright sheen to make sure they don’t begin to look like something which should be discarded? Do we nurse our anger when we should be starving it? Do we end up cherishing our bitterness more than the joy that would be experienced when we let it go?
 
Paul’s instructions do more than let the other person off the hook. They grant you the room to experience healing yourself. It is up to you to shake off the chains. No one else can set you free. 
 
I resolve to release myself from bitterness, to discontinue blaming others for my resentments, and hold over their head the injustices which I have convinced myself I have suffered at their hands. In setting them free, I choose to set myself free.
 
On the otherhand, picking at my wounds may only lead to infection.