Just Smile More

I was greeted in the dining hall line that day at Bible College by a friend who was smiling big. That was notable because she wasn’t really known for her smile. That’s not a criticism. Some people, like my wife, have a beautiful, sparkling smile that they share with everybody. [That’s her in this blog.] Others are more like me—I have to think about smiling. My resting face is a scowl. This friend’s smile was between my wife’s smile and my own. Maybe the reason we were friends is because we shared similar senses of cynicism and sarcasm.

But she was smiling brightly and told me why. “A friend told me that I needed to smile more and be happier and so I am.” I probably said something like, “Oh, sounds good” and we got our food. On the inside I might have been thinking, “good luck with that.”

I’ve thought about that simple exchange over 30 years ago just recently. Some Christians—I am one of them—have the tendency to mistakenly believe we can change ourselves with just the right amount of willpower. Not smiling enough? Just work at smiling more. Spending too much time on social media? Just stop it. You can do it. Struggling with pornography? You don’t need to tell anyone. You can defeat this on your own. And wouldn’t that be better than admitting your sin to a friend and asking for help?

We do need to put effort into our growth. The New Testament is clear on that.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil 2:12–13 (ESV)

Work out your salvation means to put effort into your growth; to work hard at change. But it’s always God’s work in you that actually results in your work making you more like Christ.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Cor 15:10 (ESV)

Paul gives us a grace sandwich. It was God’s grace—but he worked harder than anyone—but it was the grace of God. The lazy Christian is not a growing Christian. We have to work.

But you have never changed yourself. It is always the Spirit through Scripture that changes you. So if you’re struggling with a besetting sin, it’s better for you to pray more than to work more. Prayer shows dependence upon God. Of course you need to do both: pray and work. But it’s God’s work that makes your work effective. We don’t even want to change (Phil 2:13) unless God changes us. He has to give us even the desire to change (“to will and to work”).

Why is this so important? Why write a blog on a smile from 30 years ago? Because this view of sanctification emphasizes me and my work, not God and his work. It’s a gospel problem because the gospel doesn’t go far enough. It gives me a future, but I don’t really need it right now. I’m able, through my own willpower, to change myself. Not very happy; decide to be happy and presto, I smile more.

You and I need the gospel for our salvation, but also our sanctification. Your salvation should work out in your sanctification. The gospel changes you (2 Cor 5:17) and keeps changing you. Are you stuck? Don’t put on a big smile. Work hard and ask God to make your work effective.

I’ve written on imitations of biblical growth that aren’t real growth here.

National Day of Prayer: for the Churches

I was asked to pray in Stevens County’s National Day of Prayer today, May 2nd. When asked, there were still a few subjects left, and I chose our community churches because it seemed one of the easiest in which to talk about the gospel. Here’s how I prayed at a community event in a way that was my attempt to be faithful to Christ.

Gracious Father,

Strong churches help us have a strong community. I’m thankful for those churches that are especially involved in serving our community’s physical needs. There are churches that provide free meals, that help the homeless, that encourage the addicted, that stand for life. Colville is better because of them and we thank you for them.

God, the church is an institution invented by you for the discipleship of your people and for the evangelization of the world. I pray that our churches will faithfully share the gospel. Our county needs Christ most of all. He changes people. He changed the Apostle Paul from a murderer into a missionary.

May those churches that love and share the gospel stay faithful to the Bible message. The good news needs to be known by all in Stevens County. May more and more realize they are sinners and that their sin separates them from a holy God. May they know that You must punish sin; you cannot wink at it or pretend it away since that would violate your nature. May they realize that Jesus was sent to live a perfect life and die in our place. A death that is substitutionary and effective for all who repent and believe. May our churches add nothing to the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is only by grace that we are saved.

Father, we need the words of life. We need the timeless truth of your Holy Word. So especially strengthen the pastors of our churches who labor long at understanding Scripture and teaching it to our congregations. May they preach the truth even if they are opposed. May they continue to be faithful to you.

I pray that our churches would get better at the one anothers of Scripture. The church should be different than the world. It should be a place where we love one another, forgive one another, bear with one another, live in harmony with one another, serve one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, admonish one another, encourage and edify one another, and so many more. Those are supposed to happen in our churches, and I pray they will.

Father, if anyone wants to be your disciple, Jesus said we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow you. May our churches produce more and better disciples of Jesus Christ.

God, you describe the church as a body in 1 Corinthians. It’s a picture that represents how each church needs every member. May our members faithfully attend, serve, and support our churches. If the entire body isn’t there, if the entire body isn’t serving, our local church bodies will limp along.

You also describe the church as a family when you call us the household of faith in Gal 6:10 and when you tell us to treat each other as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters in 1 Tim 5:1. Lord, families function best when they are not at war with each other. May we give each other grace, may we obey Scripture, and reconcile with each other. May our churches be marked by forgiveness of each other because we know we have been forgiven by God. May our church families be loving families. May we treat each other with the kindness, love, and grace that is the mark of the best of families.

May our churches be truly healthy. Spiritual health isn’t measured by how large our auditoriums are, or how big our offerings are, or how many people attend. Spiritual health is measured by how faithful we are to the Bible. I pray our churches in Colville will be more faithful to Scripture.  

In our Risen Savior, Jesus’ name, Amen

Preaching Goliath’s Sword

Once in church while growing up we had a guest missionary speaker. He preached on 1 Samuel 21:9, especially the end of the verse. This is when David comes to Nob and asks if Ahimelech the priest has a sword or spear and Ahimelech responds that they only have Goliath’s sword. David says, “There is none like it; give it to me.”

Probably several ways to go with this narrative in Scripture, but I never expected the way the guest speaker did go. He took David’s statement in 1 Samuel about Goliath’s sword, and he challenged, imagined, and speculated about David. He had Goliath’s sword being too big for David so much so that the point dragged on the ground and left a trail wherever David went. Everyone could see where David had walked. This is not in Scripture.

The missionary stomped around the platform illustrating what this must have looked like. He put his hand on his imaginary sword as if he was David and spoke what he thought David might have said. He imagined David’s mighty men having conversations about how tired they were of seeing David’s big sword. These fictional conversations had them being annoyed because every appearance showed how great a victory David had gotten and how they just didn’t measure up. He speculated that those same mighty men must have realized they needed to go out and get their own dramatic victory. That was really the application of the sermon. Go out and do great things for God.

It was entertaining, gripping, mesmerizing, and attention grabbing. He had lots of conjecture, guesswork, and speculation. Those last three words, while accurate to this sermon, are not the marks of biblical preaching.

You know the problem with this sermon already. Scripture. doesn’t. say. that. It doesn’t. After the sermon was over, we didn’t know much more about what the Bible actually said than before he began.

It was a great sermon that was ruined by Scripture. It seemed he cared more what he could make the Bible say than what it actually said. I guess it “worked.” I remember this sermon, and there are a lot of sermons that I don’t remember at all. But it wasn’t faithful to the Bible.

A homiletics professor related the story of a chapel speaker whose sermon—like the one above—had little relation to the text. One of the professor’s students came up to him after the chapel service and excitedly said, “I couldn’t have gotten that from that passage!” The professor responded genuinely, “I couldn’t have either.” 😉

Genuine, biblical preaching must, it must explain clearly what the passage says. That’s not all preaching does, but without it you don’t have faithful preaching. If your congregation doesn’t know what the passage says by the time you’re done, you’ve messed up.

That’s the type of preaching you should expect in your church. The sermon might not have a great introduction, or a stunning conclusion. It might not have helpful illustrations or specific application. All of those really help a sermon. But if the sermon is mostly conjecture or personal stories, then it’s not biblical preaching.

T. David Gordon in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach asks this question, ”Could they [the congregation] answer what was that sermon about and was it based on the text?” It’s a question to consider each time we preach. It is a weighty responsibility to get up each Sunday and essentially say, “thus sayeth the Lord.” We better be sure that the Lord has actually said that.

Encouraging Metrics of Spiritual Growth

One of the most glorious experiences as a parent is when you see your infant has discovered they have fingers. I saw that with at least one of my children and it’s just a fun, fascinating time. It’s the type of event that I wish I had recorded because it would be something I watch over and over. I recall the story of one parent that became concerned because her child hadn’t discovered his fingers yet, so she tied yarn to his wrists to help him find his hands. She later laughed at herself for this, and I can see why. I’ve never met an 18-year-old that doesn’t know he has fingers. 😉 They all discover that even if it takes some longer than others.

We can get concerned when our children don’t hit the developmental milestones right on time, and in some cases, that’s a cause for concern. But mostly we know that physical growth takes time. It’s not all or nothing. My one-year-old didn’t mow the lawn, and I didn’t expect him to. I just expected him to grow at more or less the normal rate, and I was encouraged with every small step of growth even though he wasn’t very useful around the house for a long time. It’s okay. Growth takes time.

In my ministry I’ve seen Christians that are discouraged at the pace of growth in their lives. They want to be done with their sin once and for all, but they keep struggling. They want to never struggle with sin again, and they look at spiritual growth as all or nothing. So they think If I struggle with this besetting sin at all, I’ve not grown at all. But that’s not really what growth looks like with most sins. Obviously you don’t wean yourself off of adultery, and you can’t excuse any episode of domestic violence. Those are two sins that have to stop completely, and they can. But for most common sins—besetting sins—growth is there, but it’s not complete absence of the sin. Growth is slow and hard—that’s why it’s called progressive sanctification.

Anger or worry are what I’ve used most to illustrate this encouraging metric, but you can think of covetousness, gossip, sinful sarcasm, discontentment, pornography, and many other sins. Let’s use worry.

So you’re a Christian that gives in to the temptation to worry and you know that’s sin. What does growth look like?

  • Less Severe Episodes of Worry

So you still worry, but it doesn’t keep you up all night. Or it doesn’t make you sick. You still worry too much, but your sin isn’t as debilitating as it once was. That’s growth. That’s improvement.

  • Fewer Episodes of Worry

Worry used to be a constant in your life. There were few waking hours when you weren’t worried about something. Now you can see times of peace and trust in God. You can now count episodes of worry where it used to be an unbroken constant. That’s growth.

  • Longer Distance Between Episodes of Worry

As you grow you, begin to see some daylight between the dark clouds of worry that seemed to dominate your life. Now you can have hours and even days between episodes of worry. You’re still worrying, but this is growth.

  • Shorter Episodes of Worry

Not only is your sinful worry less severe but each episode is shorter. You are applying truth more quickly and righting your soul faster. This is growth.

  • Quicker Confession and Repentance of Worry

Previously maybe you didn’t even confess because you didn’t think it was sin. You thought worry was just something that came over you because of your circumstances. Or you imagined that your personality made you worry. Now, you see it as sin, and while you might be more susceptible to that temptation because of outside influences (e.g., past experiences, family, personality), you don’t excuse it. You realize the truth of Mark 7:20-23 that when you are squeezed, what comes out of you comes from you—your heart. You more quickly get to confession and repentance. This is growth.

  • Increasing Occasions When You Don’t Worry at All

You faced five situations this past week where you would normally worry, but you only worried on four of them. That’s victory! That’s growth! You actually had an occasion when you would have normally worried, but you didn’t have any worry in your heart. This is good. And those occasions increase. You have more and more times when you don’t worry now like you would have before.

This is what God’s grace to change looks like.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. 2 Cor 3:18 (ESV)

“From one degree of glory to another” means from one degree of growth to another. It’s progressive. It takes time. It does happen slowly and even that slow growth as described above should be encouraging to you.

You can apply this to other besetting sins like anger, covetousness, and with a few adaptations, even viewing pornography.  

Any consumption of porn is sin just like any worry is sin (Phil 4:6). But is the only way to measure growth the complete absence of worry? Or the complete absence of porn? We should never be satisfied until porn is completely eradicated in a counselee’s life, but growth is measured before that. If you have an all-or-nothing perspective on growth, you will be more discouraged than encouraged. Maybe you’re not as defeated as you think you are. Maybe spiritual fruit is actually growing in your life even if it’s not what it should be yet. Notice the fruit and be encouraged. Press on.

We can be dissatisfied with our present growth AND encouraged at the same time. We are always reaching for more, but we simultaneously look back and see evidence of the Spirit’s work too. Any step in the right direction is enabled by the Spirit—and we praise him for it.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:13 (ESV)

Growth takes time, but there are evidences of growth long before your growth is complete. Rejoice in God’s gracious, slow, but inevitable work in you. Maybe this is exactly what you need today… or what a friend needs.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Phil 1:6 (ESV)

Burn Your Resume

A few years ago I did several workshops and a general session at an educator’s convention, and about a month later I got my evaluation back. This convention does its speakers a service by having all attenders fill out evaluations of each workshop they attended. The first number I saw was the group average evaluation for the entire convention and then I saw that mine was lower than the average. I had a response that might surprise you. I laughed. Not because I thought the evaluation was wrong. These are teachers after all, and I think they know good teaching. But I laughed because after I saw the group average for speakers I just assumed my number would be above average. With all the other speakers there, I knew I would be a cut above. I wasn’t. Oh, and they’ve not asked me back either. 😉

Ed Welch in his book, A Small Book About Why We Hide, has a short chapter titled “Resumes Set Afire”. He’s not talking about our actual resumes, the list of education and employers you’ve accrued over the years. No, it’s the resume that we think defines us, where we think we shine. Those things that we think we do better than others that set us apart.

He asks several provocative questions in encouraging us to dismantle them. If we toss them out, “Do some hurt more than others?” If that item weren’t true of you, would that hurt? Yes, yes it would. At least that’s my testimony. And then he asks, “What is left when achievements are gone?”

All four of our adult children are pursuing Christ, and Laura and I are very thankful. I know many dads that were more faithful than me where one or more children are an outlier. They are pursuing lifestyles or habitual sins that grieve their parents. I don’t deserve the children I have, and I would struggle if one of them walked away from God. I think godly children are part of my resume that I would find it difficult to part with.

I have a sense of humor that has been a blessing and a curse. I too often want others to think of me as a funny person. I think I outshine others that way. So if that were stripped away, could I be content? Would Christ be enough?

My opening points out that effective preaching and teaching are important to me. If I received no accolades, would Jesus be enough?

My father-in-law died with Alzheimer’s in 2023. He was a hard worker his entire life. He loved physical labor. Towards the end when he didn’t even recognize family, he would almost cry because he didn’t know what to do if he didn’t have a job–if he couldn’t work. Sometimes our resume is stripped from us. You can think you are a good husband and lose your wife to disease. You can believe you are an effective Christian servant and get fired from your ministry. I know some that have. Those things we think help us shine more than others can be taken away by God, and it’s for our good when he does.

It’s better to burn your resume than have it burned. Where are the areas where you think you shine? Is Christ enough if you’re not a good athlete, a master gamer, a serving spouse, an engaging host, an accomplished investor, a good student, a loving baby Mom, a skilled mechanic, a successful fisherman, or a popular teen? Is it enough that you have Christ?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21 (ESV)