I have read a lot of self-help / pop-psychology books and audio programs over the years. Books by people like Brian Tracy, Ziq Ziglar, Denis Waitley , and Jack Canfield. Reading this kind of literature is like eating fish–it is good as long as you realize you have to throw out the bones. There are a few bones to throw out, but I have found a lot of good stuff in there as well.
I have long thought that preachers would do well to include some of that good stuff–some of that message of hope and optimism and you can to it!
Well, in recent years, we have an example of a preacher who has done just that — Joel Osteen. And, it has worked marvelously. This message of hope and optimism and you can do it has grown to be the largest church in America–almost twice as big as whoever is second. Most pastors, and most teachers could learn a thing or two from Joel Osteen.
Having said that, I am not a big fan of Joel. The problem of Joel is that, well, he has too much of Joel. Is there a medium ground?
I heard the sermon Joel preached the week after September 11. The gist was, “We saw a lot of terrible things happen this week. But you don’t need to worry about those things happening to you because you are a child of God.” Bzzz. Bad theology.
Still, I think we could learn something from someone we might disagree with at times. Most teachers and preachers could lean into being a little more positive, faith-filled, optimistic and hopeful.
The problem with much of the preaching and teaching I hear is that it is too much gloom and doom and you are dirty rotten sinners and need to straighten out and the world is getting worse and worse and we can long for the Leave It To Beaver Days, but they are never going to come back and the world is going to hell in a hand basket and there is nothing we can do about it and we were told in the last days terrible things would happen and we just need to hunker down and wait for Jesus to rescue us from this mess. (Is that a run-on sentence?)
That data bears this out. Classes that are marked by spiritually vibrant people at more than twice as likely (125% more likely) to create spiritually vibrant people compared with those who don’t describe the atmosphere as positive and uplifting.
Groups with an atmosphere that is positive and uplifting are also more likely to experience growth.
Question: how do we create a biblical, balanced, hopeful, faith-filled atmosphere that is positive, uplifting, and true to the Bible? I can think of four statements that ought to permeate our preaching and teaching.
We are loved even though we are sinners
Question: does the Bible teach a high view of man, or a low view of man? Is our problem thinking too highly of ourselves, or two lowly of ourselves? My answer: “other, please explain.”
From one perspective the Bible teaches a very low view of man. We are all sinners. The best we can do–our righteousness–is like filthy rags. We do well to humble ourselves before an exalted God.
From another perspective, as the old hymn had it, “Red, brown, yellow, black and white, we are precious in His sight.” We are worthy that the Father would give us the life of His son so He could be close to us. If I gave up the life of my son so I could be close to you, I’d be pretty frustrated if you didn’t feel loved. One of my favorite passages on this is this passage from Zephaniah:
The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.”
Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV)
God takes great delight in you. He sings over you like a mother singing lullabies over her beloved child.
I did a sermon once on one word. Sometimes we preach an idea. Sometimes we preach a chapter. Sometimes a passage. Sometimes a verse. Sometimes a word: beloved.
It was a messy, meandering message. It didn’t have a lot of structure; no three points and a poem. Just one point: you are God’s beloved. He adores you. He loves you. He likes you. He wants to hang out. I read several passages where the word beloved is used in scripture, tried to explain the context–no brilliant insights from the Greek–just paraphrasing what is obvious from any English translation. The message wandered back and forth from the stories in the Bible to application to today’s life. At one point I said something like, “Maybe there is someone where who doesn’t feel loved. You don’t feel special. You don’t feel treasured. I want to stand before you as God’s spokesmen and ask you to repent. Repent of not feeling loved. Embrace your status before God as loved by God. Embrace your status as his treasure, the apply of His eye. Embrace the view of yourself that God has of you.” The message wandered on like this for half an hour. I think my preaching professor would have flunked me.
It was the most complemented sermon I have ever preached. As I reflected on that I came to realize that I have probably spent too much time in my preaching and teaching telling people what they ought to do and should have done and not enough time telling them they are God’s beloved.
You wouldn’t have to hear me preach very many times before you heard me pronounce one of my favorite words: balance. If the beloved message is all you ever preached, you would not be preaching the whole counsel of God.
We have the mistaken belief that we need to have a little condemnation to make people behave. Romans 8.1 teachers condemnation has no place in the Christian life. No place. It is not condemnation that makes us behave. “It is your kindness, Oh Lord, that leads us to repentance.”
We can do better even though we have failed
A positive, uplifting atmosphere means that we are loved. It also means we can do better. We can beat worry. We can get out of debt. We can develop discipline to spend time in the Word and prayer. We can loose weight. We can restore relationships. We can double our classes and grow our churches. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Too much group talk is just the opposite. It is not positive and uplifting. It is not hope filled and faith filled. It is poor me, we are just a bunch of dirty rotten sinners and we are just like the world and it will never be any better we just have to learn to live with it. Who wants to come to that? How does that create spiritually vibrant people? It doesn’t Spiritually vibrant people are created in an atmosphere that is positive an uplifting.
Not to say that we can be perfect; only that we can do better. We can make substantial improvement. We can be significantly more loving, noticeably joyful, visibly at peace. Jesus really can make a difference in our lives. It is real. It is significant. It is visible.
I knew a man in the Philippines who was, by his own admission, a very bad man. His name was Mr. Gepte. (pronounced as an “H”). He had two wives and 24 children and was mean as a snake. He used to cut people with razor blades just for kicks. You didn’t want to be his enemy. But, Mr. Gepte got saved. My dad says, “I can’t defend this biblically, but it seems to me that some people get saved and some people get really saved.” Mr. Gepte got really saved. He visited his son shortly after he was saved and his son could see the difference. The son said, “My Poppa has a new man inside.” He had never heard of 2 Corinthians 5.17 (“If any man is in Christ he is a new creation. . “) but he observed that his daddy had a new man inside. And, it wasn’t a flash in the pan. My dad later trained his son and grandson in Bible School. The prayer of his life was that all of his 24 children would come to Christ. My parents visited Mr. Gepte on his death bed and rejoiced with him that God had answered his prayer and all of his children had come to know the Lord.
Romans 8.28 is still true
Life is hard. Sooner or later, we all realize it. Life is hard.
I heard this growing up and I got the idea there were speed bumps in life. I am not talking about speed bumps. I am talking about train wrecks. Sooner or later most of us have them. A divorce, the death of a child, the untimely loss of a husband. Sooner or later, it happens to most of us. Life can be really, really hard.
But, Romans 8.28 is still true. God can make all things work together for good. He can take a quadriplegic like Joni and giver her a world-wide platform. He can take Chuck Colson’s jail sentence and turn it into an international prison ministry. He can take the pain of your life and bring good from it.
God is God. That is it. That is enough.
I did a fascinating study of Hebrews eleven a few years back. You know the passage–the famous faith chapter. It is an encouraging chapter. One sound bite after another of people who conquered and overcame through faith. Then, the writer turns a corner. See if you can spot the sharp turn in this passage:
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. 32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned ; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Heb 11:29-38 (NIV)
Here is my take-away from this passage. When we pray we cannot be certain that God will answer any particular prayer the way we have asked it, except for the prayer for the forgiveness of sins. Sometimes God says, “yes.” Sometimes He says, “no.” Sometimes He says, “later.” Sometimes we pray that He takes this thorn in the flesh from us and He says His grace is sufficient. Jesus prayed, “take this cup (the cross) from me.” The Father said “no.” Faith is not being certain that God will positively answer any particular prayer–except the prayer for forgiveness.
What is faith, then? Here is what it means to me: God is God. That is it. That is enough.
God is God. That is it. That is enough. We can’t be sure He will do this. We can’t be sure he will fix that. We can’t be sure that He will do any particular thing. We can be sure that He is God. He is good. He is wise. He knows all things. He loves us. His ways are not our ways; they are above our ways. We may not like the way He runs the universe at times. We may not like the way He runs the circumstances of our lives at times.
Pastor Kenton Beshore is fond of talking about “double-fisted faith.” He takes the phrase from this passage:
(16) Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. (17) If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. (18) But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18 (NIV)
I draw your attention to these words: “Even if He does not.” I believe that God will deliver us, but even if He does not, we believe that God is God and that is enough. We believe God can heal, but even if He does not, we still believe that God is God and that is enough for us. We believe that God can, but even if He does not. . .
God is God. That is it. That is enough.