Praying, Burdens, and Fear

Over the last four months I have learned a lot about prayer, burdens, and fears. The current contractions of our one new church have me feeling more desperate than I’ve ever felt. I have a thousand questions and not nearly as many answers as I’d like. I have concerns, fears, and doubts. I hate “the unknown.” People who don’t know me (and haven’t taken the time to try) have said things about me that are untrue and cruel, calling into question my character, my leadership, my theological credibility, and my motives. At times, the weight of this burden has made me want to give up and give in. After all, I didn’t go looking for this merger and I didn’t need it. Before God brought this around, I was enjoying the thrill of pastoring a thriving 5 1/2 year old church that I had the privilege of planting. It was strong. It was healthy. I was happy. Therefore, in my weaker moments I have been tempted to relieve myself of this burden and go back to the way things were. But God won’t let me. There is no going back–only onward and upward!

God is clearly up to something big. A friend wrote to me the other day telling me that God must be doing something huge if the enemy is attaking so voraciously. I agree. He’s moving in a profoundly tangible and unexplainable way. He is doing things. He is working. We know it. We feel the pruning process. We feel God stripping us of everything but Him–it hurts, but it’s good.

Yes, the contractions are painful. But each painful contraction carries with it a promise that new life is on the way. The reason I am able to bear the discomfort of these contractions is because the promise of something new and beautiful deeply grips me in transcendent ways. God is giving birth to a “new church.” 

So, as we continue to “follow the cloud” with fear and trembling, I have had to learn in new ways what it means to pray. I’ve had to learn afresh “not to be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I’ve learned the hard way that the primary thing which separates the spiritually mature from the spiritually immature is what one does with his/her burdens and fears and frustrations and doubts and unanswered questions. The late, great Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said in a sermon from Genesis 26:17-18:

The man who is really feeling the burden is a man pressed to his knees and pressed into the presence of God. His supreme activity is prayer. For he realizes that this is a province that God alone can deal with. He knows the burden. And a man who is burdened is a man who prays.

Throughout this process, I’ve learned the difference between responding to my burden in a self-centered way and responding to my burden in a God-centered way. A self-centered response reveals itself through gossip, vain speculation, taking matters into your own hands, Bible-ignoring impatience, and an unruly demand for answers. A God-centered response reveals itself in prayer. All too often my fears and lack of answers have made me want to demand from God and others an explanation for what is going on. “After all, I’m a paying customer”, I conclude. “I have a right to an explanation for what you’re doing, God.” And in the process, God has revealed my own spiritual immaturity. What about you? Alan Redpath once said that the flavor of a teabag comes out when put in hot water. What flavor comes out of you when in the midst of trials? 

The words of the great hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” have been a source of great comfort and correction for me. May they be a source of great comfort and correction for you as well:

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

Blessed Savior, Thou hast promised Thou wilt all our burdens bear, May we ever, Lord, be bringing all to Thee in earnest prayer.
Soon in glory bright unclouded there will be no need for prayer
Rapture, praise and endless worship will be our sweet portion there.

A shift has taken place in the Evangelical church with regard to the way we think about the gospel and it’s far from simply an ivory tower conversation. This shift effects us on the ground of everyday life.

In his book Paul: An Outline of His Theology, famed Dutch Theologian Herman Ridderbos (1909 – 2007) summarizes this shift which took place following Calvin and Luther. It was a sizable but subtle shift which turned the focus of “the gospel” from Christ’s external accomplishment to our internal appropriation:

While in Calvin and Luther all the emphasis fell on the redemptive event that took place with Christ’s death and resurrection, later under the influence of pietism, mysticism and moralism, the emphasis shifted to the individual appropriation of the salvation given in Christ and to it’s mystical and moral effect in the life of the believer. Accordingly, in the history of the interpretation of the epistles of Paul the center of gravity shifted more and more from the forensic to the pneumatic and ethical aspects of his preaching, and there arose an entirely different conception of the structures that lay at the foundation of Paul’s preaching.

Donald Bloesch made a similar observation when he wrote, “Among the Evangelicals, it is not the justification of the ungodly (which formed the basic motif in the Reformation) but the sanctification of the righteous that is given the most attention.”

With this shift came a renewed focus on the internal life of the individual. The subjective question, “How am I doing?” became a more dominant feature than the objective question, “What did Jesus do?” As a result, generations of Christians were taught that Christianity was primarily a life-style; that the essence of our faith centered on “how to live”; that real Christianity was demonstrated foremost in the moral change that took place inside those who had a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Our ongoing performance for Jesus, therefore, not Jesus’ finished performance for us, became the focus of sermons, books, and conferences. What I need to do and who I need to become, became the end game. Christianity became defined by its fruit, rather than its root.

To be sure, the Bible has plenty to say about our becoming like Jesus. But our transformation is not the foundation of the Christian faith. The foundation and the focus of the Christian faith (the root) is Christ’s substitution–the fact that Jesus became like us. The modern church has sadly reversed the order. The focus of the Christian faith has become the life of the Christian.

Believe it or not, this shift in focus from “the forensic to the pneumatic”, from the external to the internal, has enslaving practical consequences.

When you’re on the brink of despair–looking into the abyss of darkness, experiencing a dark-night of the soul–turning to the internal quality of your faith will bring you no hope, no rescue, no relief. Too often our preaching (and our counseling) is the equivalent of giving a drowning man swimming lessons: “Paddle harder, kick faster.” We assume that people possess the internal power to get things right so we turn them in to themselves. But, as too many people already know, every internal answer will collapse underneath you. Turning to the external object of your faith, namely Christ and his finished work on your behalf, is the only place to find peace, re-orientation, and help. The gospel always directs you to something, Someone, outside you instead of to something inside you for the assurance you crave and need in seasons of desperation and doubt. The surety you long for when everything seems to be falling apart won’t come from discovering the dedicated “hero within” but only from the realization that no matter how you feel or what you’re going through, you’ve already been discovered by the “Hero without.” For certainty of faith, the believer must look outside himself to that word of the gospel: “the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ.”

As Sinclair Ferguson writes in his book The Christian Life:

True faith takes its character and quality from its object and not from itself. Faith gets a man out of himself and into Christ. Its strength therefore depends on the character of Christ. Even those of us who have weak faith have the same strong Christ as others!

By his Spirit, Christ’s continuing subjective work in me consists of his constant, daily driving me back to his completed objective work for me. Sanctification feeds on justification, not the other way around. The gospel is the good news announcing Christ’s infallible devotion to us in spite of our lack of devotion to him. The gospel is not a command to hang onto Jesus. Rather, it’s a promise that no matter how weak your faith may be in seasons of spiritual depression, God is always holding on to you.

Martin Luther had a term for the debilitating danger that comes from locating our hope in anything inside us: monstrum incertitudinis (the monster of uncertainty). It’s a danger that has always plagued Christians since the fall but especially Christians in our highly subjectivistic age. And it’s a monster that can only be destroyed by the external promises of God in Jesus.

Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a bonafide peace that’s built on a real change in status before God—from standing guilty before God the judge to standing righteous before God our Father. This is the objective custody of even the weakest believer. It’s a peace that rests squarely on the fact that we’ve already been “reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (v. 10), justified before God once and for all through faith in Christ’s finished work. It will surely produce real feelings and robust action, but this peace with God that Paul describes rests securely on the work of Christ for us, outside us. The truth is, that the more I look into my own heart for peace, the less I find. On the other hand, the more I look to Christ and his promises for peace, the more I find.

So, when pressed in on every side, look up. In God’s economy, the only way out is always up, not in.

Brokenness Precedes Usefulness

Two weeks ago I concluded a sermon series on the Ten Commandments entitled “How To Be Perfect.” You can find the whole series here.

I thoroughly enjoyed preaching the whole series, but the first 9 minutes of the sermon on honoring your father and mother was simultaneously the hardest and the most enjoyable moment. My mom was there that day. And so I took the opportunity to say some things to her publicly. In the twenty years I’ve been preaching, this was the most emotional I’ve ever been.

Look Upward, Not Inward

I’ve been preaching for twenty years and, to be honest, I’m so embarrassed by many of the sermons I preached early on. I wish I could go back and apologize to all the people who heard them. My primary concern at that time was to get people to do more, try harder, live radically for God, and change. The end result was stunted spiritual growth for our people because I was causing them to fix their eyes on themselves rather than on Christ.

Eugene Peterson has wisely said that “discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes.

Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ’s performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. As J. C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”

In those early early days, I was treating the Bible like it was a heaven-sent self-help manual. The fact is, that unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even our devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, the place we go for the help we need to “conquer today’s challenges and take control of our lives.”

What I’ve learned since those days is that the Bible is not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue; our sin with his salvation; our failure with his favor; our guilt with his grace; our badness with his goodness.

So, if we read (or preach) the Bible asking first, “What would Jesus do?” instead of asking “What has Jesus done” we’ll miss the good news that alone can set us free. Evangelicals desperately need to recover the truth that the overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. This means that the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our unchristian living.

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