Monthly Archives: October 2013

Humility in Confidence

Last week, I had a chance to share God’s Word before an audience of over 300 students and faculty at Makerere. The topic assigned to me was Mentoring and I had a lot of fun preparing and presenting it. After speaking, I received a ton of positive feedback on all aspects of it. I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed receiving praise and grew a lot in my confidence as a speaker and teacher of God’s Word.

How does one remain humble after receiving so much positive feedback? It’s easy to be humble when the vast majority of my affirmation comes from my mom (whose encouragement I am continually grateful for); it’s slightly more difficult when feedback from a number of sources tempts me to believe I really am all that.

I don’t believe confidence and pride are synonymous. Pride is much too tricky to be that simple. I’ve known people who took pride in their lack of self confidence. I’ve struggled with pride my whole life and I know there’s more to overcoming it than self deprecation.

Here are a few practices in my life that I hope, by God’s grace, to help me remain humble even as I grow in confidence in the ministry God calls me to.

Recognize the source of all gifts: 1 Corinthians 4:7 has recently become one of my favorite verses. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians rings true to me. It’s not a lie that I have a gift for public speaking and of teaching. But on what merit did I receive these gifts but by God’s grace and His providence.

I am very blessed to have grown up in my family. I grew up watching my dad, who is a much better teacher than I am. I grew up watching him teach publicly in the church, and had the privilege of having him explain scripture to me often as a new Christian. Only by the greatest pride and self-delusion could I deny his role in my development. My mother is also gifted as a teacher and so by nature and nurture, I am who I am. I didn’t earn my heritage, but am simply a recipient of blessing.

Rejoice with other great speakers: One sure testimony of pride is jealousy. So often, my heart wants to grumble when someone else gets the spotlight. The day after I spoke, a good friend of mine was invited to speak at a lunch hour session and he did a great job. That meant that the same people who had been complimenting me now shifted their attention to him. I had to make an intentional decision to affirm his ministry and to be sincere about it.

I love how Paul responded to the ministry of another leader in the church in Corinth. Apollos served faithfully and skillfully so that people began to choose between Paul and Apollos. Instead of getting into the debate, making a case for himself, Paul responds to point attention back to God. “Who then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed as the Lord assigned to each… So neither he who plants and he who waters are anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

We as Christians frequently claim that only God deserves the glory for His work among His people. We corroborate our belief in that when we allow Him to use someone else to do what we feel we also could do just as well, if not better.

Seek to constantly grow in my gifts: The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 speaks to anyone who has been given responsibility for anything in God’s providence. We are stewards of all we own, accountable to God for how we use it. Notice that the master wasn’t satisfied with a simple return of his money by the third servant. He expected investment, development and growth. How proud and ungrateful are we when we think we have arrived and don’t invest in developing what God has given us?

Some of you know I’m a big fan of (read: obsessed with) the New England Patriots football team. The team’s quarterback- a player who could retire today and be guaranteed a spot in the hall of fame- is a great role model of this. In post game conferences, he will regularly talk about needing to improve as a player and as a team. Fourteen years into the game, he still has a tutor teaching him to improve his throwing in the offseason.

Recognize the limit of my responsibility: In the book of John, Jesus teaches the disciples about His vision for the church after His death, resurrection and ascension. He tells them, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father… He will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness because you have been with me from the beginning.” Essentially, He tells them that evangelism will be the work of two entities: The church and the Spirit. Who will actually bear the responsibility of bringing about transformation and salvation? The Holy Spirit; not us (John 16:8-11).

Ultimately, as a teacher of God’s Word, my job is to introduce people to Jesus through whatever topic and scripture I teach on. Whether I do a great or horrible job, the responsibility is on the Spirit of God to bring true vision of Christ’s glory, repentance and transformation. My pastor uses the analogy of a pencil. Nobody in the history of written communication has ever praised a pencil for any work of literature produced. It’s easy to see when a writing utensil doesn’t perform up to standard, but when it does its job well, all the glory goes to the author. May we seek simply to be worthy tools in the hands of our master.

Ultimately, the task of remaining humble is one of prayer. These principles in themselves have no ability to control the deceitful self-aggrandizing of the heart. Only God, through reminder of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13) and the piercing of His Word (Hebrews 4:12) can restrain and purify the heart.

From Christ and through Him and to Him are all things.

To Him be glory forever

Problem Passages in James: Part 2

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it… So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:10-13

The problem with this passage begins in verse eight of the text. James discusses an accountability to the law which we violate in its totality when we violate it at any point. The context of this is a discussion of the sin of partiality, which was a problem in the church James was writing to. Apparently, rich guests got sits of honour while shabbily dressed visitors were dishonoured. Here, as in the last passage we looked at, James is not primarily concerned with the existed of economic disparity, but the believer’s response.

Still, James seems to be going against our theology of the law and grace in this passage. Paul spends a significant portion of his longest letter addressing our freedom from the law. In the early churches, there was an idea that people needed to follow the law in addition to faith in order to be saved. Paul challenges this at every opportunity, showing that we are not under obligation to the law, but are made free by Christ and are under the law of the Spirit of life. Yes, we continue to sin, but we count on the righteousness of Christ for our justification before God. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).

Is there a way to be true to this text without introducing a element of accountability to the law which Paul works hard to refute? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. The key, as it often is, is in the context.

This passage is part of a rebuke James gives in verse four: “Have you not become then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The message here is that in treating people differently according to their outfits, the church is attempting to give to each person exactly what it feels they deserve. They are making themselves a judge of man and not doing a good job of it.

James goes on to explain his point by giving two reasons why partiality is wrong. The first is fairly straightforward (2:5-7). If a person is a believer, it is no accident. It is by God’s invitation that even the poor receive salvation. And so, by what right does any human dishonour someone God has chosen to honour? It’s not as though the rich as a group have proven to be more virtuous than the poor. Most of the persecution that congregation had faced was at the hands of rich oppressors. Wealth is not correlated with righteousness, and there is no reason to dishonour God’s financially challenged elect.

This is where our problem passage begins. It is the second point in explanation of why attempting to treat people according to what they deserve is wrong. James, being (likely) the brother of Jesus would have been very familiar with His teachings, including the Great Commandment from Matthew 22:37-39. It’s likely that the early church used this simple formulation as a recognized code of conduct among its members. So James challenges them in showing that partiality violates this law and makes them disobedient to what Jesus described as the greatest commandment of the law. And because the law is singular, violation at any point is violation of the whole.

In essence, James reminds people that they are sinners deserving of judgment. They are transgressors. Yet the church doesn’t expect to stand guilty before God for this violation because they are not being judged by the Old Testament law, the law of sin and death.

It’s important to understand that the “Law of Liberty” is used by James much the same way Paul talks about the” Law of Spirit of Life” in Romans. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:2-4). Both Paul and Peter both speak to the Christian being free in Christ (Galatians 2:4, 5:1, 1 Peter 2:16).

James’ use of the term “Law of Liberty” is not to hold them accountable before some standard of morality for salvation, but to remind them of the freedom they have by God’s mercy. God doesn’t give us what we deserve, so why do we attempt to treat others how we feel they deserve? Mercy is to be the defining characteristic of church life, not justice. Mercy triumphs over justice.

So why then does James say, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy”? Well consider the similarity between this statement and Jesus’ in Matthew 6:15: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus illustrates this with the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.

I believe these verses speak to an inevitable natural response when we comprehend the gospel.  If we, who have been forgiven much, cannot forgive one another, then have we really understood and accepted the grace that’s been given us? How can we, who have been given reconciliation not offer it to others in response? A heart that refuses to display mercy is one that not received it from God. The caution from James to the church is that their actions reflect the heart of people who have not truly received Christ. Only those who do not truly believe they will be judged under the law of liberty would continue to behave as they have been.

What we are meant to understand from this passage is God’s mercy to us who believe. James’ instruction for us is to reflect God’s mercy in our dealings with others, especially in the church context. We are not called to simply try to give others what they deserve, but to act as people who have been reconciled with God despite what we deserve.

May God be glorified in our reflection of His mercy

Problem Passages in James: Part 1

Let the lowly brother (NASB, NIV: Brother of humble circumstance) boast in his exultation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flowers fall, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.       – James 1:9-11

This passage is challenging because of what it seems to be saying to affluence. I come from a reasonably well-off family. We weren’t always, but God has chosen to bless my parents financially. Though making right around the Ontario minimum wage, my salary puts me well in the upper middle class in Uganda. Most of my friends are university students/graduates who by virtue of their studies will have an opportunity to succeed in ways that many cannot. Is James teaching that there is something inherently wrong with wealth? I appreciate the encouragement to the “lowly brother”, but is my application of this text to take a vow of poverty?

If that were the message of these three verses, it would make for an awkward fit with the verses surrounding it; an interruption in flow of thought. A general rule I use in biblical interpretation is: if the initial reading of a passage requires a sudden change of topic from the preceeding verses- especially if the author returns to the original topic immediately afterwards- that’s a clue to read it again.

James begins with a command to count it all joy when we go through trials because trials produce perfection (alternate reading: maturity) if we persevere and allow perseverance to have is full effect. If we don’t have the wisdom to think this way, we ought to ask God in faith and He will give liberally. The cumulative picture is that we are to grow up so we can appreciate the blessing of trials.

The connection between our passage and the preceeding verses can be thought of as “for example”. James is giving a picture of how this way of thinking operates. The contrast is between the brother whose trial is his lowly circumstance and the rich man who is managing to escape tough times. Contrary to our natural way of thinking, the man going through the trial is actually better off that his comfortable counterpart. The rich man is not humiliated because he is wealthy, but because he isn’t being built up and refined like his brother is. He is compared to a flower, a plant which for all its beauty is actually quite frail. Like a flower, the rich man fades away in the midst of his pursuits without leaving much fruit or impact.

This passage is an example of how to see trials as valuable, and not a teaching against wealth. James continues on to explain the benefit of going through and persevering in trials. “For when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.” (1:12)

This is consistent with the rest of scripture. Peter tells us that our faith is validated as it stands throguh trials and this process is more valuable than gold (1 Peter 1:7). The letters to the seven churches in Revelation each give a promise to the one who overcomes (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26;3:5,12,21).Paul warns Timothy that all who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted but instructs him to persevere because of the Word (2 Timothy 3:12-16). He also instructs him to view himself as a soldier of Christ, bearing hardship and not getting caught up civilian pursuits to please his master (2 Timothy 2:3-4).

But, the obstinate ascetic would object, doesn’t James say later, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heir of the kingdom , which He has promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)

Yes, but context matters once again. The message of the section is that the poor are every bit as worthy of honour as the rich. After all, if God invites anyone to adoption and citizenship in His kingdom, who are we to dishonour God’s elect?

Yes, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned and give it away. Yes, Peter tells Simon the magician, “May your silver perish with you,” (Acts 8:20). The problem isn’t financial, however, but a matter of the heart.

Looking through scripture, you’ll observe the number of wealthy people God used for His purposes. God commended King David as a man after His own heart, blessed Solomon with prosperity, provided for Christ’s ministry with donations from wealthy women (Luke 8:3), and His grave through Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60). The Holy Spirit made Cornelius the first recorded gentile to receive the gospel (Acts 10:9-48) and Paul acknowledged Philemon as a beloved fellow worker.

Everything we have comes from God (John 3:27, 1 Corinthians 4:7) and we are to receive every blessing with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4). Some people, in God’s sovereignty have been blessed with wealth and are called to be good stewards of God’s resources. All believers, however,  are to follow in Paul’s example of contentment in all circumstances (Philippians 4:11-13) and to rejoice always (4:4). Our message from James is simply to see trials, in whatever form they appear, as a blessing from God.

May God be glorified in how we respond in all circumstances.

Problem Passages in James: Series Intro

I’ve recently been going through the book of James in my personal devotions. It just seemed the next logical step after finishing Hebrews last month. No decisions have been made yet, but there’s a good chance I will continue on to 1 Peter next month. If you haven’t noticed a pattern, I recommend you check the table of contents in your bible.

James was supposed to be an easy read. Hebrews was loaded with weighty theology and its implications; James is more practical in style, almost like a book of Proverbs in the New Testament. This book is turning out to be a significant theological workout though. While most of its teaching is very common sense, there are occasional verses that seem to go against my understanding of theology.

I find I am being challenged to live out the easy to apply instructions in James, and I am certain that God will use this book to further my sanctification and growth in Him. For the problem passages, I thought I would do a series on how to interpret and understand these. The perks of being a blogger is that I can bring you along on this journey and hopefully we learn together.

My goal in each of these passages is to harmonize the teachings of James with the full body of scripture without losing out on James’ unique teaching style and content. As always, I encourage feedback and comments here on this blog and on the theologytranslated facebook page.

The plan for this series is as followed:

Part 1: James 1:9-11
Part 2: James 2:12-13
Part 3: James 2:24
Part 4: James 3:2
Part 5: James 5:15

Looking forward to sharing with you all. Be blessed

Giving Thanks

Happy Thanksgiving from a Canuck away from home. This holiday is a great reminder to look at our lives and remember God’s faithfulness. In the busyness of life, giving thanks is one of the spiritual disciplines we tend to neglect. It’s much easier to focus on what we are still yet to receive.

Last week, I was treated to an unpleasant morning. I got in to start the car and found that our car battery had died. The setback- coupled with a stomach bug the night before and the prospect of a long staff meeting planned that day- hit me harder than it should have. In that moment, I was not a witness of Christ’s glory at work in me.

The solution was thankfulness. One of my teammates got us thinking about some of the ways God had blessed us, even in light of our setback.  We could at least be thankful that we had a car.

Philippians 4 teaches us to rejoice always and to pray with thanksgiving. So I want to take some time to reflect of God’s goodness and give thanks. I won’t have a day off to celebrate with a turkey dinner (at least not until American Thanksgiving) but I have much to be grateful for

Christ: I’m most grateful for my salvation. Almost six years ago, I had my eyes opened to see the glory of God in the face of Christ. Since then, I’ve come to see in clearer detail the depth of my sin and depravity. I’ve seen how often my heart responds to God’s grace with unyielding selfishness. Each day, I see my need for salvation.

In salvation, I also see God’s hand in my sanctification. I’m not the same person I was six years ago. I’ve grown up a lot. I’ve also become a better person. I’ve become less lazy, more loving, more patient and more giving. I rejoice in God’s promise that, just as He begun the work of salvation in me, He will be faithful to complete my sanctification until the day of Christ’s coming.

Purpose: In salvation, I received purpose from God. He is showing me the good works He prepared for me before the beginning of time. Looking back I can see how He’s been very deliberate in bringing me where I am today.

Looking forward, I can be confident that He is continuing to take me on a divinely sanctioned adventure through life. In a few months, I will be making some decisions about where to go from Uganda. I have no idea what doors will open and where those doors will lead. I have me hopes and certain things I would like to be true of my future. I trust God will meet or beat these ideals.

Mentors: I takes a village to raise a child and it takes a host to faithful disciplers to build a mature believer. I am indebted to many men and women whose influence in my life challenged, encouraged, inspired and forced me to grow. I spent some time this April thanking a few by name on this blog and there are more who have and will continue to be thanked in person.

This week I shared with a student who asked how I know so much about scripture. Answering his question, I gave much credit to every pastor and mentor who chose to bring me to God’s Word whenever they taught me. It’s my prayer that I never teach or give an answer without consulting scripture because this value has been modeled for me by the men I most look up to.

Platform: In less than two weeks, I will have an opportunity to exposit scripture before my largest audience to date. Over the last year, I’ve had quite a few invitations to teach students in different contexts. This is my biggest passion and I am excited to continue grow in the craft of presenting God’s Word to God’s people.

How many people really have a platform to do what they love? How many get to make a career of what they love to do? I thank God even for you, the readers of my blog, who continue to allow me the sacred privilege of sharing with you on a (mostly) regular basis. Handling God’s Word is an honor and a huge responsibility and I thank God that He has counted me worthy to serve in this way.

Church: I love the Church. I love my church, Westside Baptist Church, who in the past year was an avenue of experiencing God’s love as well as my primary discipler through scripture. I love my parents’ church, Calvary Worship Chapel, who welcomed me to their fellowship and supported me this summer. I love my church here in Uganda, Berea Baptist Church, whose unapologetic, unyielding and undeniable commitment to scripture-based teaching has been a breath of fresh air and a taste of the familiar in a new land.

I love the global community of Christians united in adoption into the family of God and reception of the love of Christ. I love when God’s people use their differences to build each other up in godliness, stirring each other up to love and good works. I love that the gospel transcends cultural differences and language barriers. I love that Christ did not leave us orphans, but sent us the Holy Spirit to be our comfort and counselor. I love that the Holy Spirit often chooses to work through the people in whom He dwells, fills and directs.

Friends: I have amazing friends. Being separated from most of them, I’ve come to appreciate their influence in my life even more. I appreciate the jokes, the good times, the late night foolishness. I love that I get to be myself with them and experience authenticity with them. It’s a process making new friends here in Kampala but I see God’s provision even in that.

I would one day love to work of a post about what the bible has to say about friendship. I spent some time with a couple of new believers who are finding it hard to break from their past sins because of friends who constantly draw them back in. It’s my prayer that, in introducing them to communities of believers, they too can enjoy the blessing of sanctifying friendships which God has lavished bountifully on me.

Family: I have the most amazing family, and occasionally I will use this space to brag on them. I spent 611 words on this space bragging on my father in April. He continues to be a role model and a picture of godly living in a professional, church and family context. My mother is one of my closest friends, a trusted source of wisdom and encouragement. She is a gifted writer and children’s church curriculum creator on her site. I have one sister who gets my humour, constantly exposes me to aspects of pop culture I would otherwise miss, and generally makes for great company.

My family was my biggest source of support during the decision to come and preparation for ministry in Uganda. My parents affirmed my decision to serve here for a year when I told them of my decision. They celebrated with me when I got accepted and helped me think through support raising. They gave incredibly generously and mobilized others to give as well. I very likely would not be here without them and I am eternally grateful for them. I miss them.

Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.

Show Me Your Glory

From time to time, I doubt God’s presence with me. Not necessarily that I question His existence, but it seems that, with all that we talk about God’s power, there should be more dazzling displays of His hand at work. Most of the time, however, life seems to follow a fairly normal, predictable pattern. Unpleasant surprises outnumber those events one might consider miraculous. I can’t help but occasionally ask, “What if I’m in this by myself?”

It’s not as though my faith has been unfruitful. I’ve grown in character and discipline since I became a Christian, and finding my identity in Christ has freed me to enjoy being myself. I love being a Christian even with the sacrifices and the ongoing self denial. I evangelize because I have experienced love and grace in knowing Jesus. The community of believers, known globally as the church, continues to be a regular witness of Christ to me.

Still, I have moments of doubt. So lately, I’ve taken to asking myself a question I frequently asked atheists in conversations at McMaster: what would it take to believe without reservation? What evidence would remove all doubt in my mind that God is with me? This question is effective in evangelism because it reveals our incredible capacity to explain things away. No external evidence is enough to make one believe something the heart rejects. It is therefore necessary to engage the heart, not simply the senses to overcome doubt.

I recently came upon a character in scripture who also wrestled with thoughts about God’s departure from his ministry. Moses was a person who got to see God at work in epic measure. He met God at a talking bush, crippled a world super-power with ten plagues, and brought about the freedom of a nation from slavery. He followed a sky high pillar of cloud and fire, walked across a sea without getting wet, ate bread from heaven, drank water from a rock and generally had the most exciting ministry in the history of mankind.

Then the people screwed up in a big way and pissed off the Most High God. God backed down from destroying them, but Moses still faced the reality of going without God and it scared him. He had an assurance that God would not leave him, but he wanted more. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks, “Please show me Your glory.”

What an unbelievably bold request. And what an amazing prayer to imitate. It’s possible that many of us are too willing to go ahead with God’s work without assurance of God’s presence. I know I often am. I break down ministry into a set of skill and practices that I can perform to get decent results. I think I ask too little of God in ministry. What if I asked God, like Moses did, to show me His glory? What would happen? What would I see?

I don’t believe that routine and normalcy in ministry are signs of unfruitful ministry. Doubt isn’t a an indicator of God’s absence. It can be, however, a reminder to ask God to do what only He can do. Tough times can be a challenge to pray big.

Think about it: God doesn’t scold Moses for his request, but grants it. And in God’s reply, we can see how God desires to reveal His glory to His people.

And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” – Exodus 33:19

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.  -Exodus 34:5-8

It’s remarkable that God displays His glory by talking about Himself. It would have made a lot of sense for God’s glory to show itself in thunder and earthquakes and other awe inspiring phenomena. Intuition tells us that we’re supposed to be awed by the display of God’s glory. More than awe, however, God’s glory as seen in this passage is a revelation of God’s character.

For Moses, God’s glory was seen in the undeniable experience of who God is. His goodness passed before Moses and His name was proclaimed. This view of God’s glory is echoed in the New Testament. Jesus prays, “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave me to do… I have manifested Your name to the people whom You gave me out of the world.” (John 17:4,6). In Christ, we are said to have seen the glory of God (John 1:14), an idea expounded in these words from Hebrews: He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3).

God’s glory is ultimately relational. Experiences of His glory lead us to know Him more. On the mountain with God, Moses was given knowledge of God, which resulted in worship. It wasn’t power detached from revelation; not simply a miracle. Peter saw Jesus’ transfiguration but denied Him three times at the crucifixion. It wasn’t until he was filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts that he received power to be a witness.

God’s glory is both an external and internal witness of God’s presence. To simply request an internal manifestation of God’s glory- peace, joy, and a real sense of intimacy with God- is to ask too little of Him. Similarly, we cannot be content simply with external signs- salvation, miracles, providence and provision. God wants to engage our heart and our senses.

Moses saw God’s glory on the mountain and was empowered to continue in the ministry God gave to him. I want to see more of His glory and be energized to fulfill my assignment. I don’t want to move until I know He is with me. But when He engages my heart and my senses with the reality of His presence, I know I can move mountains.

All things from Christ, through Him and to Him. To Him be glory forever.