The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
Handout / Small Group Questions:
Sin Ruins Everything
Culture presents to us a whole lot of options for things to do, but as Christians who want to do all things to the glory of God we often struggle to know what to do or not do, join or not join, buy or not buy, go or not go, befriend or avoid. In fact, it can become an all-encompassing problem for some believers as they try to enjoy the world that God has given them while avoiding the parts that are corrupted with sin.
And that’s the problem, right? This world is full of all sorts of awesome things, but it has also been corrupted by sin.
- God gave us healthy foods full of fat, sugar, and salt, and we stripped it of anything healthy and invented high fructose corn syrup, big macs, and potato chips.
- God gave us the gift of marriage and sexual intimacy, and we created rape culture, Tinder hook ups, divorce, high definition pornography and human trafficking.
- God gave us meaningful work and we invented slavery, workaholics, and corporate greed. God gave us a beautiful world to enjoy, and we invented industrial pollution, deforestation, fracking, landfills – and we’ve even sent so much stuff to space that space that it’s actually becoming a problem now.
Sin ruins everything.
- We want our kids to join a sports team, but then there’s price gouging, corruption, insanely competitive parents, and a life encompassing schedule.
- We want our kids to be educated, but public school boards have lost their minds, private schools are insanely expensive, and homeschooling is under attack.
- We want to get the internet for connecting with family, research, cat videos, and sports scores, but it’s an insane mess of gossip, misinformation, targeted advertising, and sexual sin.
And that’s not even addressing our inward struggle with sin and the demonic temptation that seems to be with us everywhere we go. Even if we were to sit by ourselves in a dark, empty room, we are capable of adulterous lust, unrighteous anger, pride, laziness, and more.
So, in this world full of sin, with flesh that wants to go wrong, how can we decide what a follower of Christ is supposed to do and not do?
A Million Options
This question is something we are presented with all the time.
- Do we celebrate birthdays or not?
- Do we have Santa Clause or not?
- Do we participate in Remembrance Day, or Earth Day, or Halloween?
- What school should I send my children to?
- Are there certain jobs that Christians can do, and others they shouldn’t?
- Can a Christian be a bartender, stock market broker, Hollywood actor or swimsuit model?
- What movies can we watch?
- Should we own a TV?
… it goes on, and on and on into every area of your life.
These questions can take over our lives and push us to despair. If we decide to err on the side of caution, we risk turning a passionate, growing, dynamic relationship with Jesus that flows into loving relationships with others, into a religious list of dos and don’ts.
You’ve probably met those Christians, right? They talk more about what they are against than about Jesus. Instead of focusing our lives on the wonderful gifts of worship, fellowship, discipleship and sharing the gospel with others, they end up paranoid that they are somehow messing up their lives, their faith, and everyone else’s lives every moment of every day. Or, if they think they’re doing a great job, they become prideful, self-righteous, religious Pharisees who think we are better than others.
“I don’t have a TV and I only listen to the Christian radio station, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
“I’ve never had a beer, and I don’t go out dancing, so that makes me a better Christian than you.”
But there’s also the Christians who say, “I watch TV, drink beer, listen to rock music and still love Jesus, so that makes me better than you.”
It’s a big problem in the church because with all this mess the gospel of Jesus Christ rescuing poor souls from sin and hell by His amazing grace is almost totally lost.
And because of that, there are some who want to throw out the conversation altogether. You live how you want to live, I’ll live my own way, and we’ll just never speak to each other, ok? Let’s just split the church into people who do stuff and don’t do stuff, and then we can get on with the work of the church. After all, if having being saved by Jesus is really as simple as admitting we are sinners and believing Jesus died for our sins, then do we really need to worry so much about all of these other things? Actually, the answer is “yes, yes we do”. A lot of scripture is dedicated to teaching us to examine our lives, attitudes, and actions.
For example, Ephesians 5:15-17 says,
“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
So how do we do that?
Problem, Illustration & Principle
As with most important questions, this one is addressed in scripture in a bunch of places. The most comprehensive places that I know of is in our book of 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. Let’s fast forward there and read how it shows the problem, gives an illustration, and then wraps it up with a general principle. This example is going to be about food, but don’t get hung up on that because the principle applies to all kinds of things we are faced with.
“’All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’ If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Let’s look at the first part together, and we’ll use the food example because it’s the one that scripture uses. This whole section here is talking about the problem that the early church faced with eating meat that was part of a pagan, religious service before it was sold. Was it ok to eat? And with who can we eat it? If a Christian is invited to community supper at a pagan temple, can they go? What if you go to a Christian’s house and they serve meat bought at a market where it was sacrificed to idols?
But this isn’t just about eating, the principle found within can be used for a lot of decisions. For the past couple chapters, Paul has been talking about how important it is that Christians live differently from the world and how we shouldn’t be putting ourselves into places where we can be tempted or fall into old habits. Right before the passage we’ve just read, he says in verse 21,
“You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
In other words, you can’t play both sides. You can’t call yourself a Christian but live as though you don’t know Him. You can’t worship Him on one day and then worship something else the next. You can’t drink the communion that represents your acceptance of Jesus death for your sins and then go out and get drunk and stupid with non-believers.
God is absolutely clear that the issue isn’t just about the wine or food –but the intentions of the heart of the one sitting at the table. He says, eat whatever you want because it’s not about the food, it’s about what’s going on in your heart and in the hearts of those around you.
What Are My Intentions?
Therein lies the first question we must ask ourselves when deciding whether to do something or not: What is the intention of my heart? Our motives and intentions are incredibly important to God, whether we’re doing something good or bad.
- Proverbs 21:2 says, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
- Jesus says this in Matthew 6:1 about people who do good things just so they can be seen by others: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
- When Paul’s motives are questioned by the Galatians he says, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
- To those who do things out of spite Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit…”
- “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:1-4)
You see, the issue isn’t really the food or drink, or holiday, or school, or sport, or TV… The whole issue is intentions and motives: why we do what we do, say what we say, go where we go…
I like to use a phrase I came up with a few years ago here: “Own your why’”. I came up to remind myself to make sure my motives are pure. What I mean is that when I do something I need to make sure that I own up to my reasons for doing it. Eventually, I will have to answer to God for why I did it, so I had better have a good reason now. I need to be able to defend for why it was ok with God. I need to think through the consequences. I need to “own” why I did what I did, because it’s mine forever.
So, let’s use the example of Halloween, which is the most current example of a decision we all had to make. How do you answer this first question? What was the “Why?” behind what you did or didn’t do? Did you do it as an act of worship towards another god? Perhaps the god of your stomach who desires the sacrifice of candy? Maybe it is the god of personal attention, which is why you put so much emphasis on being seen that day? Perhaps you struggle with sexual sin and the reason you went out was to see the indecent costumes.
Or, if you stayed home, why did you do it? Did you avoid everyone simply so that you could get a rush of pride and self-glorification when you looked down on others and said, “We don’t do anything for Halloween because we don’t believe in that sort of thing!” Did you know you can be more sinful sitting at home as a religious Pharisee than as one who goes out?
Or, maybe you don’t have a problem either way. For you it’s no big deal. It doesn’t strike your conscience one-way or the other. In fact, for you, going out is a good way to get to know and have fun with your neighbors and friends, and perhaps even build new relationships. Paul says, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” and that includes candy and fun costumes, so there’s no big deal!
The real, big deal is to ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing.
How Does it Affect the Conscience?
Turning back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, we next see Paul painting a picture of a common situation that would happen which has some parallels for us today. “If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” (vs 27) Lots of “ifs” there. If someone invites you, and if you decide to go, and if they serve you food that might have been sacrificed to idols… then just keep your mouth shut, eat it and enjoy it. This is what we like to call Christian Liberty. We are not like the Jews who were bound to hundreds of laws about what to eat, how to wash, when to pray, what to say, how far to walk, etc, etc. We are Christians, saved by grace, living in a world that is a gift from God and is full of wonderful things. The person who you are with is far more important than what is served. Knowing that says that there are lots of things we can do with no problem at all.
If someone invites you to a party, you don’t have to go, but you are certainly allowed. If you’ve checked your intentions and know you’re plan isn’t to go sin while you’re there, then go and enjoy your time. Now, if you know the whole focus of the party is to sin, then you likely shouldn’t be there because nothing good can happen. You can’t be a good witness to people there, and you’ll spend the whole time being tempted and frustrated. Can a Christian party? Sure! Jesus was widely known for going to parties with all kinds of people, and yet never sinned, so go ahead.
Now some of you older believers might think, “But what if someone sees me there! Won’t I be ruining my witness?! Won’t people think I’m a bad Christian if I’m at a party?” To that I remind you of what Jesus said in Luke 7:33-35,
“For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”
In other words, with some people you can’t win. If you abstain people will think you’re nuts, and if you go, others will think you’re a sinner. Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by all her children.” In other words, wise actions are only really seen after the results.
So, if someone invites you, and if you want to go (you don’t have to), and your intentions are clean, then go ahead and thank God for the time. But… let’s read verse 28.
For the Sake of Another
“But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it…” Ok, what’s going on here? Three things could be occurring:
- An unbeliever thinks that the Christian isn’t allowed to do something, and has put it in front of the Christian as a test of their faith to see if they will fall for it and sin along with them. This is the non-believer trying to publically embarrass or even corrupt the Christian by getting them to try something that could hurt their conscience.
- An unbeliever isn’t being devious, but their conscience is telling them that whatever it is might be morally questionable, but they’re not sure what your rules are. You go over there and they say, “I’m not sure if you’re allowed or not, but would you like… to play this game, watch this movie, drink this thing, go to this place, check out this website…” They are giving you a content warning, and it’s best avoid it rather than risk sinning or being a bad example.
- The person speaking is another Christian who isn’t as mature in the faith as you are, and still has a problem with such things. You know that it’s fine for you to do it, but your fellow Christian is freaking out a bit about it and doesn’t want to do it. Out of love for them, you need to back off and avoid it.
Paul qualifies why: “if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—” In other words, as Christians, we try not to go against someone else’s conscience. Conscience is a gift from God that gives us an internal gauge for what’s right and wrong. If someone’s conscience is twitching because of something, then don’t do it. We need to be careful to listen to our consciences, and we don’t want to teach anyone to stop listening to theirs.
If the unbeliever is feeling a conviction from God that whatever they are doing is a sin, then why on earth would we reinforce that it’s ok for them to do it? And if an immature brother or sister is just learning how to listen to God, then why would we ever teach them to ignore what their conscience is telling them?
Last week was the 499th anniversary of the kickoff of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther posting his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg door. He caused so much trouble that in 1521 he was brought before the Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church to recant his beliefs. He said this: “…my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
So there is our second question: How does it affect the consciences of those around me? As Christians we are allowed to do a lot of things because we are not bound by a bunch of religious rules and regulations. We don’t have to impress God by showing him how pious we are. But we must ask ourselves how our actions are affecting the spiritual journeys of those around us.
But… let me give you a word of encouragement. I know there are some believers who live a life of paranoia because of this question. They are always worried about everything they do – even when they’re not doing anything wrong. They invent all kinds of crazy scenarios about imaginary people they are harming.
- They can’t go bowling at 3pm on a Thursday when they have the day off because they’re worried that if someone sees them they’ll think they have skipped work… and then that person will think it’s ok to skip work… so they better stay home.
- They go out and have dinner and think about ordering wine or a dessert… but somewhere in the room there might someone who struggles with alcohol or overeating and their glass of wine or cheesecake might push them over the edge… so they only have a salad and drink water.
- An invitation comes to go somewhere, but they feel a burden for some person they’ve never even met who might possibly stumble if they go. They don’t actually know… but they always wonder if someone is watching them.
That, by definition, is paranoia.
Where does this come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the Bible. To get clarity, let’s read Romans 14:14-17,
“…decide never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat [or drink, or watch, or buy, or drive, or own, or attend…], do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”. *[Added by me]
This isn’t telling you not to do anything, it’s saying that there’s nothing wrong with a whole lot of things. There are a lot of options in this world that are neither sinful nor wrong in and of themselves. But we need to know that some people do have a problem with some things. Therefore, because we consider the person more important than the thing we want to do, we love them by abstaining while around them. The key word in this passage is the word “put”.
We should never do something knowing it will cause another Christian to stumble. It is sin for us to flaunt our Christian liberties before those who are struggling. In doing so we become a tempter, like Satan. So out of love, we don’t do it because we know that someone’s walk with Jesus will be harmed.
But we shouldn’t invent imaginary people who might have a problem. We shouldn’t be bound by guilt, shame, and fear, right? And by the way — don’t let gossips and religious nit-picks ruin your Christian Liberty either. Just because brother or sister so-in-so is going to tattle on you, or is going to have a fit… that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Chances are that they aren’t going to cause you grief because you are causing them to stumble, but because they are petty people who want to hurt you, embarrass you, control you, and make you as miserable as they are by using a bunch of unnecessary guilt.
We can use the examples of Halloween, drinking a beer, taking a vacation, going to a movie, or posting on the internet. We must ask ourselves, “How does the way I’m going to do this affect the consciences of others? What do I know will happen — because I’ve already talked to them and have a relationship with them — not inventing a bunch of scenarios in my head involving people that may or may not exist – with the more spiritually immature brothers and sisters and unbelievers who are around me when I do this? Do I know if any of them will stumble in their walk with Jesus because of how I’m conducting myself? Remember, that could mean participating, or not participating. Maybe the issue is that you’re not going and it will cause people around you to stumble.
This is why we need to get to know people and do a lot of praying for wisdom about these kinds of things. We will be held accountable.
Is What I’m Doing Showing People Jesus and Giving Glory to God?
And our final question comes from the last part of our passage in 1 Corinthians 10,
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
There’s the bottom line.
Jesus said it like this in Matthew 5:13-16,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Last question: Is what I’m doing showing people Jesus and giving glory to God? Can you say that of your action or inaction? I can’t answer that for you. What makes you as salty and as bright as possible?
God doesn’t want you to lose your saltiness because of a bunch of ungodly religious rules. And he also don’t want your lamp to be hidden under a basket of sin. Your faith should add flavour to the places you work, live, worship and play. People who see you should see the light of Jesus reflecting through you, wherever you are. Your decisions should be not be based on your own preferences, not what brings you the most pleasure, but what brings God glory.
God has given us this world and allows us to do many wonderful things. It and the people in it are a gift. We need to treat them that way while at the same time recognizing that there will be temptations. We must be sensitive and wise in our actions because that pleases God.
So, when you are faced with your next decision? What will you do? What does God desire of you in your context, at this time, among the people that you are with? Seek God, ask Him, listen to Him, and have peace in the knowledge that if you believe in Jesus today, then you are loved as a son or daughter, forgiven by the blood of our Saviour, and blessed to be a blessing to others.
I took a little break from the Gospel of Mark series and preached a very difficult (yet hopefully timely) sermon this past Sunday. The background of the sermon was that our church needs to make some big decisions about its future together. I didn’t give my own opinions of the situation, but shared 5 reminders that I believe God gave me from my reading of scripture.
It is my prayer that these reminders will help you make big decisions in your life and ministry. These certainly aren’t the only factors in your decision making, but I think they are very important. I hope these give you something to talk about, pray about and study your scriptures about.
Reminder 1: Christian Ministry is Hard but Rewarding
The first reminder comes from 2 Corinthians 6:3-10:
“We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor 6:3-10)
The first reminder is this: Ministry is HARD but REWARDING. In my NIV Bible this section is entitled “Paul’s Hardships”. Paul faced a lot during his life – “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings…”, all because of his love for Jesus and his passion to obey the mission Jesus had given to him to preach the good news to the gentiles.
What I was impressed by in this section was Paul’s response to those hardships – how balanced his thinking was about them. Certainly he suffered, but through his suffering God built in him supernatural endurance. He was stronger because of the suffering he went through. He was on trial, distrusted and attacked – and though all of those trials he was able to see the Holy Spirit build his character, knowledge, patience, kindness and love. He didn’t get jaded, he became more like Jesus. He worked hard to be truthful and simple in his message, not trying to be clever or outthink God, and because of that he saw the power of God at work. There were times he was publically slandered and dishonoured, but it was during those times that he learned to praise and honour God – he learned the source of true joy and peace.
Being a Christian and doing Christian ministry is hard – the hardest thing in the world. Committing your life to Jesus, selling out with your faith, being active in the church, being a Christian who lives out their purpose, puts you into at risk! Demons will swirl around you and try to wreck your marriage, your family, your finances, your attitude, your health… because they want to shut you down. Jesus is always there, always available, and will always defend you… but that means dropping your own agenda and making Him and His your greatest priority.
Being part of a church is HARD, often painful, but is also wildly REWARDING. Paul endured much for the sake of Jesus, the church and the Gospel, and so have many ministers who have gone before us. He also knew Jesus more than any of us. My question is this: If we want the rewards of following Jesus, are we prepared for the hardship?
Reminder 2: Listen to God’s Voice First and Most
The second passage I read came from Mark 7:1-12 which is a story of Jesus confronting the Pharisees about how they care too much about their human traditions, even to the point of disregarding the commands of God. Check out verses 6-8:
“And he said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.’’”
Our second reminder is that we must be careful to listen to God’s voice FIRST and MOST… not our own voice or worldly wisdom. We must be very careful not to do things simply because they are traditional or comfortable. The ministry decisions we make, the church decisions we make must come from Scripture first, be supported by the Holy Spirit, and then obeyed wholeheartedly. When we make decisions in human wisdom, because of traditions, or because it is most comfortable, we are being hypocrites and Pharisees. When we default to making our decisions “That’s how we’ve always done it.” Or “We’ve never done it that way before.” we are not obeying God – we are worshipping traditions and comfort!
Obeying Jesus will not always be comfortable. He will be constantly pushing us to grow, change, adapt and renew our hearts, minds and strengths.
The last thing we want to be is people who worship God as our Lord, our Saviour, our Boss, the Motivator of our Hearts, on Sunday morning… and then go back to our homes or come to meetings and turn ourselves, human wisdom and our traditions into our lord and ministry motivators. That’s called idolatry.
Reminder 3: It is God Who Raises Up and Lowers Down
Psalm 75 was another passage God lead me to. Inside this chapter I found an important reminder for us in verse 7. It says:
“…it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another.”
All over scripture we are reminded that God, for His own reasons, in His own time, for His own glory, raises some people up and brings other people down. It is God who RAISES UP and LOWERS DOWN.
“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings.” (Daniel 2:21)
“The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.” (1 Samuel 2:7)
Listen carefully: It is not for us to hold up by our own power things that God has brought down… and it is not for us to give up on things that God is raising up. Both are acts of disobedience. We do not have the power to stop God from doing what He wants to do, but He seems willing to let us miss out on blessing because of our own stubborn hearts and lack of faith.
Wouldn’t it have been nice to buy stock in Microsoft or Google when they first hit the market? Wouldn’t it have been nice to have gotten out of Nortel before it crashed and burned?
I believe with all my heart that God, through His Word and His Spirit, gives us insight beyond our abilities, to allow us to know what to do and when to do it. He gives us warning when to walk away, and gives us strength to hang in there. He gives us wisdom to know when to let go, and tenacity to know when to stick to it because breakthrough is just around the bend.
We need to be spiritually sensitive to what God is doing, come alongside Him, and then, with joy, fulfill His will with all our hearts, souls, minds and strengths – united under one banner of faith.
It is wrong, and idolatrous to set up anything in place of God. We cannot make our jobs, church building, our leadership style, our constitution, our ministries, the Sunday School, the musical style, or anything else more important than listening to God. We must not create idol in place of God by keeping something going (giving it our energy, money, and attention) when God is opposing us and wants it shut down. And we cannot stop doing something (take away our money, energy, and attention) when God wants us to keep going. We do not want to oppose God’s will. We don’t want to be like Paul, “kicking against the goads” or like Balaam beating his donkey to go straight when he should have turned. We must, in faith and trust, follow God’s will wherever He points us.
Reminder 4: Wrong Fear Makes Us Lose God’s Blessing
My fourth scripture 2 Samuel 6, which is the story of David celebrating while bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. You’ve probably heard this story and you’ll remember that Uzzah put his hand on the Ark to catch it when it was going to fall. It was commanded that no was to touch the Ark and it says the “anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down…”
What struck me was David’s response to what happened. In the beginning, David was so happy to have the Ark coming to Jerusalem that he had organized a huge party. But when Uzzah was killed by divine judgement, he went from happy to terrified in a split second. Verse 10 says that
“David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.”
Consider that because of David’s fear, he lost out on God’s blessing. WRONG FEAR makes us LOSE God’s blessing. The blessings was giving to someone else, the house of Obed-Edom, instead… because of fear. My Life Application commentary says that David’s fear wasn’t a “wholesome fear and respect for the Lord but an anxiety arising” inside himself. His anxiety over what happened to Uzzah led him to a wrong fear, which led him to make a foolish decision (something he did a lot during his life), which made him lose out on blessing.
When we are deciding things for our church, our lives or our families, we must not be motivated by fear, unless it is fear of God alone. We cannot do the wrong things (or avoid doing the right things) because we are afraid (that we might fail, that someone might misunderstand our motives, etc.). We also shouldn’t make decisions (or avoid decisions) and perform actions (or neglect to act) because we are afraid (that the church might close, that we might lose friends, that things might change too much, or whatever it is that is preventing us from obeying the voice of God). Wrong fear must not be the motivating factor in our decision making.
Reminder 5: The Greatest Answer is “That Which Shows The Most Love”
The Christian Church is an organization whose fuel is love, just as an individual Christian’s fuel is love. When we are loving God and one another, we have lots of gas in the tank, we will see the blessing of God, we will know His will, we will flee temptation, we will know peace, we will hear His voice, we will worship more and better, we will have more friends, we will grow spiritually and numerically, we will be more like Jesus.
When we are not loving one another well, we will have no gas in the tank. Ministry will be hard and lonely. We will not see God’s blessing. Decisions and meetings will be drudgery and decisions will be difficult. We will avoid each other and fall into greater temptation and sin. We will argue more, concentrate on trite things, and put ourselves first. We will not hear God’s voice. Our worship will be stale, repetitive and uninspiring. Our spirits will shrink and so will our numbers. Worst of all, we will be more like Satan than Christ because Jesus is the King of Love and Satan hates it (and Him).
The final scripture is from 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.”
It is so easy to start asking ourselves, “What do we need to do?” and get caught up in all sorts of fruitless busyness. Everyone in every church has a dozen brilliant ideas for what needs to happen for their church to grow.
- We need to get more people into the church.
- We need to advertise better.
- We need a new pastor.
- We need a new board.
- We need a new constitution.
- We need a better band.
- We need to get rid of the pews and get chairs.
- We need to have more dinners.
- We need to have less meetings.
- We need to get into the community.
- We need to have more prayer meetings.
- We need to join another church.
- We need to go knocking on doors.
Every individual is chock full of ideas for how to make their life better too:
- I need a new job.
- I need better friends.
- I need a new resume.
- I need a new church.
- I need to spend more time with my family.
- I need to spend more time building my brand.
- I need to learn an instrument.
- I need to give to charity.
- I need to save more money.
- I need to start a hobby.
- I need to read more books.
Dozens and dozens of ideas, but which is the right one?
The Greatest Answer is “That Which Shows The Most LOVE”.
Not that which brings the most people, opens the most doors, costs the least amount of money, takes the least effort, requires everyone to do it, has food, or is my favourite.
We have no business calling ourselves a Christian or a Church of Jesus Christ, if we are not all about love! God first, our family second, the Christians who are part of our church third, and the community fourth.
Nothing we do in church matters if it is not primarily motivated by love. The music, the sermon, the coffee, the outreach, the meetings — none of it matters if we are not experiencing the love of God and sharing that love with others. It literally means… nothing. If we do not have a Christlike love within us – a love that dies to self – then we are a dead church! We are dead Christians. We are hypocrites who are merely play acting the faith.
A church is only alive when it is full of love for God and love for one another. Let us never get caught up in believing that there is any magic ministry, perfect decision, or miraculous plan that will pay our bills, make everyone happy and keep us going. It doesn’t exist. The only answer is the daily work of love.
What every one of us desperately wants and needs is for the people around us to show us real and practical acts of love. If we have a love for others that only exists for 3 hours on Sunday, then we are not a church of Jesus Christ. If we are not investing in each other’s lives, sacrificing our time, energy, talents, finances and all the rest for one another, then we are not being Christians.
In Acts 2:42-47 we read that after hearing the word of God preached by the Apostle Paul, thousands of people came to Jesus and the Holy Spirit was poured out in power. This new church’s response to the movement of God was:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
That is a church full of the love of God, a love for Jesus, the love of the Holy Spirit, and a sacrificial love for one another. That’s the church in its purest and best form. And I believe each one of us wants to be part of a group of believers like that.
It starts with us. We must make the choice to make the church a priority – to make a sacrificial act of loving devotion to the Christians around us. To talk to them during the week, even when we don’t have the time. To get to know the people we don’t know. To ask what their needs are and to seek to fill them. To chase them down when they are sinning, and encourage them when they are doing well. To spur them on to love and good deeds. To honour one another and greet one another often. To forgive and make peace with one another. To never let a bitter root grow between us. To not pass judgment on one another or be a stumbling block to one another. To be gentle with one another, bearing with one another in love. (Here’s some more.)
That is practical love, and it is the Greatest Answer to our deepest questions.