Light to Live By

"The unfolding of your words gives light ..." (Psalm 119:130a)

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Preaching in Pain

In 1 Kings 18 we have the marvelous account of Elijah’s mighty encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. What a victory! What a vindication of the Lord’s name!

In 1 Kings 19 we have Elijah’s breakdown. He is threatened by Jezebel and flees for his life.

On day #1 of his depressed flight, he prays, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” (19:4)

On day #41 of the same distraught struggle (v.8) Elijah has reached Mt. Horeb and prays, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (v.10)

At least the prophet is no longer asking God to kill him! But he isn’t much better off—full of self-pity, myopia, and wounded pride.

So here’s my question: If Elijah had been a local church pastor, what would have done on those intervening five Sundays?

What would he have preached on those Sundays? Could he have preached on those Sundays? With what spirit would he have done so?

The average senior pastor has to preach at least every seven days, if not multiple times a week. He doesn’t have the time or the freedom to process freely some of life’s harder issues without needing to stand before God’s people as “the man of God.”

How is the pastor to keep pastoring when in the way of Elijah?

Here are a few questions to continue our exploration of this difficult topic:

  • How authentic is a pastor to be in the pulpit?
    • To what degree and at what depth is a pastor to publicly acknowledge or share his own struggles—be they personal, spiritual, emotional, mental, relational or otherwise?
  • What is the precise calling of the preacher/prophet?
    • When does one’s personal struggle disqualify one from fulfilling a responsibility to faithfully preach the word of God?
    • Is a pastor in the midst of a personal crisis being faithful when he chooses to forge ahead in expounding the word to his people without dragging those struggles into the pulpit? Or is he being hypocritical in failing to acknowledge his own struggles and appearing to be something that he, in that moment, is not?
  • What role do the preacher’s emotions play in his faithfulness as a preacher? What about his doubts? His depression?
    • Are they irrelevant and to be ignored so he can be faithful to God and His Word?
    • Are they signally relevant and to be at least acknowledge publicly lest he be hypocritical and phony?

Paul could say to Timothy, “Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me!” (2 Timothy 3:10)

How could Timothy have “followed” Paul’s “faith” and “patience” and “perseverance” and “persecutions and sufferings” without being witness to his struggle as well? And how could he have been witness to how “out of them all the Lord rescued” Paul?

How does the local church pastor “preach the word” and “be ready in season and out of season” to do so when those seasons include things like Elijah faced? (2 Timothy 4:2)

There are few easy answers here, but it would seem that wisdom is found somewhere in the tension of holding these two points together:

  • If I am struggling significantly, someone needs to know. That is not the same as everyone needing to know. In my struggles I need the fellowship of solid, mature believers. But the exhibitionism of “telling all, all the time, to everyone” is helpful neither to me nor my people.
  • My people need to see me struggling in faith. What I show them needs to be a model of how they too can handle honestly and authentically their challenges as those living yielded to God and under the authority of His Word.

I’m sure there is a great deal more to be said on this topic. Please feel free to weigh in and share your thoughts.

Stand Up and Be Counted!

Here’s my 2017 Christmas story:

Haunted by Grammar


A Prayer for the New Year

Almost every day this past year I’ve been praying a borrowed prayer. It is a prayer first prayed by a suffering man, a desperate man, a man utterly at the end of himself. It is a prayer first prayed by Jeremiah.

Most days this past year I’ve concluded my morning time of prayer with Jeremiah’s cry to God, because it has become my cry as well. Might this become your prayer as well?

 “I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Correct me, O LORD, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.” (Jeremiah 10:23-24)

Jeremiah prays of something he knows and he asks for something he needs.

There is something each of us must know. I, you, we, must know that “the way of man is not in himself.” By “man” Jeremiah intends not only males, but “man” as in humanity, mankind. What Jeremiah prays applies to every one of us.

When Jeremiah speaks of “the way” he uses a word that shows up often in the Proverbs. Proverbs speaks variously of “the way” of the violent man (3:31), the wicked (4:14), the adulteress (7:25), the fool (12:15), the treacherous (13:15), the lazy (15:19), and so forth. But it also speaks of “the way” of good men (2:20), of wisdom, of uprightness (4:11), of life (6:23), and of understanding (9:6). All of these latter ways are simply individual lanes that make up “the way of the Lord” (10:29). It is “the way” we ought to go, “the way” we are morally obligated to proceed in, “the way” that makes for life, rather than death.

Jeremiah similarly speaks of “the way of the wicked” (12:1) and “the way of the nations” (10:2), in contrast to “the way of the Lord” (5:4, 5). He announces: “Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” (21:8).

So “the way” that is not in me, is the way I should go. I can’t live before God as I ought.

Jeremiah prays on … “it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.”

Whereas the first line confesses the way I ought to go, this line emphasizes way I want to go. Every day, all day long, you and I are taking steps … the moments pass, things happen, words are spoken, encounters with others take place. Life just keeps moving! You and I can’t help but “walk” through this passage of time. But it is not in us to “direct” our “steps” aright while doing so. If I “direct [my] steps” … I’ll do it according to my desires, whims, wisdom. And if I do that, I will inevitably go astray! Again, Proverbs agrees: “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (16:25).

When it comes to the battle between what I ought to be and what I want to do, each of us must know and admit this: I can’t do this!

But there is more here than simply a reminder of what we must know. What I know ushers me to the necessity of what I must ask. There is something every one of us must request. We need this, desperately: “Correct me, O Lord”! This is the admission, “Lord, I’m going to mess this up if you don’t guide me!”

The word translated “correct” describes correction that is aimed at educating a person toward a better course. It is always motivated by love and is always an evidence of sonship (Prov. 3:11-12; cf. Heb. 12:5-6). A variety of methods may be involved, but it is never merely punitive, but always instructional. The goal is not merely to shape ethical behavior, but to capture the heart for the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

“Correct me, O Lord” is a dangerous prayer. Are you willing to pray it, regularly?

“Yes,” but I quickly add: “But be gentle with me, Lord!” Correct me … “but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing” (24b). I have to admit, this part of the prayer bothered me for a while. Even as I prayed this prayer over and over, this part just didn’t sit right with me. I wondered, “Why justice rather than grace or mercy or patience?” I would much prefer grace and mercy to “justice”!

But then I studied the word that is translated “justice.” It woodenly means “judgment,” but covers the entire gamut of governance. It is not merely a judicial word, but a relational word. So that the prayer actually means something like, “Rule me, Lord!” “Correct me as the one to whom I bow as my Sovereign, my King, my Lord … not simply as a Judge!”

I came to realize that this prayer enables me to humble myself and pray, as I so desperately need to, “Correct me, Lord, but gently, graciously, lovingly, strongly!” It is perhaps the most basic prayer of a disciple, a learner after Christ. It is my lifeline to Him who alone has all I need and who is all I really want.

Entertaining Thoughts

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30, emphasis added)

“The finest art has always offered transcendence – inviting us to stand outside ourselves and gain perspective. Artistic images, music, and stories engage our rational faculties, which mediate and critique our emotional and visceral responses. Entertainment makes an end run around the intellect, stimulating the nervous system in much the same way as drugs do.” (Lael Arrignton, A Faith and Culture Devotional, 54).

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