Category Archives: church

Self-Denial is not Self-Destruction

Many times, in our work journey, my wife and I have faced difficult environments and sought the Lord’s wisdom on whether to persevere or to find a better place for our gifts and skills. Years ago, a close friend and prayer partner remarked: “You cannot leave something just because it’s hard.”

How do we know when the current toxicity at work is a sign for fidelity under trial — or when it’s a providential indication to move on? Here’s an insight that has helped us make several transitions under trying circumstances: Biblical self-denial is not a call to personal self-destruction.

When our Lord Jesus Christ summons us to “leave all and follow” and “deny yourself and take up your cross,” it is an urgent summons for kingdom obedience — and no excuses will do in light of the master’s call. No institutions, relationships, or internal fears should hinder our obedience to the gospel call (Luke 9:57–63).

But it’s important that we understand the boundaries and focus of this summons to suffering. Our leaving, self-denying, and refusing to excuse delays means relinquishing our sovereignty in favor of God’s, choosing his will over ours. Self-denial focuses on taking off the old nature, putting on the new nature empowered by the Spirit, and submitting to the ways and will of God (Eph 4:22–24). As theologian Dale Moody once observed, “Human sovereignty leads to frustration. Divine sovereignty brings all responsive persons to fulfillment.”

Biblical self-denial, then, does not eradicate God’s callings and gifts, nor does it repudiate the good works preordained for the believer (Eph 2:10). We are accountable to our heavenly master for how we use all the resources he’s entrusted to us (Matt 25). We are also accountable to keep all his commands; therefore, any call to cross-bearing will not violate other divine commands. For example, God may take your family through deep waters, but he will not call you to stop caring for your marriage and family in the interests of work.

Consider the distinctions between biblical self-denial and unbiblical self-destruction:

  • Self-denial calls us to unselfish service; self-destruction demands we cease being the person whom God designed.
  • Self-denial calls us to bless those around us and not resent others’ success; self-destruction happens when we’re subjected to unnecessary harm.
  • Self-denial commands us to seek the good of others; self-destruction occurs when we let fear displace faith and fail to step forward.
  • Self-denial helps us discipline our responses; self-destruction leads to toxic and unjust environments that harm others.
  • Self-denial cooperates with God in our battle against sin; self-destruction is when we try to be someone else.
  • Self-denial enables us to learn new skills and adjust to rapid change; self-destruction looms when we either refuse to change or presumptively assume roles we’re unqualified to fill.
  • Self-denial means we learn emotional intelligence; self-destruction comes when we’re constantly crushed in spirit.

In challenging work environments, we need the help of the Holy Spirit to apply the above insights. Prayer with trusted family, spiritual leaders, and peers will help us “understand the hour.”

In one difficult church we served, we persevered, helped shape a new staff, and prepared a fiscal pathway for flourishing. All of this was in the midst of unfair attacks and dysfunctional relationships among some leaders. We stayed the course and things improved. Then all the pathologies reappeared in a moment, and we realized we could no longer function as faithful stewards of God’s calling.

In another settings, we persevered through multiple transitions — including times of unfair accusation — and saw the community weather the storms and come out healthy. We left that church due to a new call, not a need for healing.

There is no formula for guidance in difficulty at work, but there are biblical promises of wisdom as we seek God with all our hearts and cry out for grace (Prov 2; James 1:5). God delights in giving wisdom, and its fruits are peace and justice for ourselves and others. Before we leave a trying situation, have we done all we can to bring change that benefits the whole and not just our position?

Self-denial is not self-destruction. God allows tribulation so the character of Christ is formed in us (Rom 5:1–11). Our personalities, natural and spiritual gifts, sense of purpose, and opportunities all exist for the glory of God and the good of others. Seeking happiness is not wrong, but we must remember that it derives from pleasing God and serving others.

Pastors and Politics, Part 2: Hidden Issues of Love and Justice

Our divided American political world offers peacemaking opportunities for local churches. As leaders and congregations committed to Biblical authority and the timeless moral and spiritual convictions of historic Christianity, we will never please everyone or always win over our opponents. This is why compassionate, intercession-infused courage and wisdom are vital for leading God’s people in to maturity and kingdom influence.

The obvious “hot-button” economic, moral and social issues must be confronted: divisions of class, gender and race, abortion and infanticide, marriage and sexual ethics, peace and war and many more. These require deep study, discernment and humility.

There are, however, hidden issues of love and justice that the local church is uniquely equipped to address. Convening partners and confronting particular barriers to flourishing will enhance peace among diverse groups and offer a shining witness of Christ in a world darkened by moral inversion and spiritual confusion.

One day in Nashville, TN, a group of pastors met to learn more about connecting Sunday faith and Monday work and infusing integration into their worship service, discipleship plans and outreach efforts. In the midst of a lively conversation of church and community flourishing, an African American pastor stood up and spoke, his voice trembling and full of pathos: “I am not an angry man. I have been a pastor in my church and neighborhood for over thirty years. Your church [here he pointed to a young church-planting leader] just set up your franchise two blocks away. No one called me. No one thought to talk to the people of the neighborhood. What you call gentrification and opportunity we call exile. Aren’t we supposed to work together? Where will my people go when they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood?”

There was a holy silence. The church planter humbly apologized and with tears, both leaders agreed to work together. The hidden issue? Gentrification. What some see as a positive transformation of blight is often displacement of generations of residents. What can the local church do?

Pastors and church have unique convening ability. Creating space for shared vision, dialogue and forging alliances among business, cultural, educational, social service, religious, and political leaders for the common good is a prophetic opportunity. Asking the question, “What does a flourishing neighborhood look like…and how can everyone be a part of the future?” and hosting people with the influence, skills and wisdom to forge a just answer is part of our calling as a church. One of the great critics of the early church in the 2nd and 3rd century was a man named Celsus. He was particularly indignant that the communion table welcomed all classes, cultures, races and both genders. Pastors can bring wise believers and people of conscience in all domains so that a community can improve without scattering generations of residents.

The second hidden issue is deeply connected to the first: How can we help foster true equity and create opportunities for sustainable work so that all classes and cultures flourish in a rapidly-changing world? Put another way, how do we empower folks that are left behind in the name of “progress” or the “gig economy”?

The local church, in cooperation with other churches and agencies, can shine brightly as she empowers congregants and the community with the spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational and occupational support and wisdom people need. Immediate emergency aid is good, but long-term, relational investment in people will yield much better results. The 21st century global economy demand workers with clarity and stability in their vocations and great flexibility and nimbleness in their daily occupations. Pastors can help create disciples able to understand and respond to the local and global changes. Local churches can convene forums for community growth that is inclusive and just.

One growing local church recently sold some property. Instead of either building a bigger church building or sitting on the funds, the congregation fostered ten new initiatives that help the community flourish, including new business incubation, life skills training and compassionate outreach programs offering hope for many.

Jeff Greer, senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Mason, OH (in the Cincinnati metro area) has articulated a vision he calls, “Biznistry.”  The local church can be an incubator of economic, social, and spiritual transformation as she empowers and equips men and women in creating sustainable enterprises that in turn contribute resources for future entrepreneurs.

The third hidden arena of love and justice concerns the unseen populations often overlooked in our conversations on flourishing. These include ex-prisoners and their families, and people with disabilities. Our neighborhoods and our nation are missing out on these divine image bearers that have much to offer as opportunities for meaningful work and service are made available.

People coming out of incarceration need the social capital of the local church so that they can grow in self-worth, learn needed skills and find open doors for sustainable work. Women and men with disabilities can be productive workers, not just objects of charity. These hidden groups can be participants in the more that 600 churches with some form of “job club.” Helping people find sustainable work in a rapidly changing economy is integral to the local church’s mission.

Whether it is the Career Actions Ministry of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (now helping older people find and keep work in a “gig economy” that favors the young), Jeff Greer’s Biznistry for entrepreneurs or the efforts of restauranteur Tom Landis in Texas who employs men and women with autism and Down Syndrome, local churches can foster a creative and innovative vision offering hope and wisdom.

Navigating political issues will never be easy. Pastors need love, courage and wisdom as they equip God’s people for engagement – not just in voting – but in being part of the solution. Pastors can also help church and community look past the obvious issues and create fresh pathways forward so all can thrive, without capitulating to ideological extremes and the paralysis of partisan politics.

Lights in the Darkness and Prospects for Peace: Special commentary on the Middle East: Part 2

Here are some thoughts connecting political, religious conviction and prospects for peace:

We must remember that our Christian faith arises from the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish history. Underneath our beautiful Nativity are the trials and triumphs of Chanukah, that moment of Jewish liberation from pagan powers and consecration of the Temple in 164 B.C.

Just over 2500 years ago, a remnant of Judah rebuilt a modest Temple and here the Lord promises to send the Desire of Nations (Haggai). This moment in 516 fully ended the 70 years of exile for a people that had built Jerusalem as their capital in 1000 B.C.

In 1917, one century ago, the Balfour Declaration supported a Jewish homeland in their ancient geography…and in 2017, the USA declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Peace will only ultimately come when our Lord returns. But as peacemakers, we are called to welcome the future reign of God into the present. Here are the keys to Middle East stability:

  • If they want a sovereign state, Palestinian leaders must affirm Israel as the home of the Jewish people and recognize her national integrity within defensible borders. This will require courage and good personal security!
  • Israel must protect all religious rights and be open to an East Jerusalem capital of a new Palestinian state.
  • A new Palestine must renounce terror and agree to diplomatic and economic exchange.
  • A handful of Arab nations must agree that a secure Israel and a new Palestine at peace will help resist the hegemony of Iran and her terrorist agencies.
  • The best brokers of this are Christians from both the Middle East and the West.

The Bible enjoins us to pray for the shalom of Jerusalem. May our leaders find courage and wisdom and may we never give in to hatred.