More Important Than Ministry — Why I Started a Sabbath

We run but never stop. Work and rest are indistinguishable as we tumble our way through our days, busy but never focused, idle but never still. If we don’t observe the Sabbath, we might be subscribing to a view of God that isn’t in line with the God who rests.

More Important than Ministry - Sabbath

There’s a divine rhythm, and we’re missing it.

Think of an athlete. They run, and then they rest. They have a rhythm. If an athlete runs incessantly, they get exhausted and faint. We know that’s true physically—so why do we never stop emotionally and spiritually?

God demonstrated in creation a pattern of work and rest. He made us in His image. He made us to live by the same rhythm.

Sabbath literally means, “To cease.” Yet when we look at our world, we see the exact opposite. To get a feel for this in just the last few years, consider Twitter. The one billionth tweet was sent in 2009, three years after the creation of Twitter. Today? One billion tweets are generated online in less than two days. [1]

Whether you’re addicted to Twitter or not, the problem for most of us is a constant need for connection. We work and play, always one screen away from the rest of the world.

In his new book, “It’s Not What You Think,” Jefferson Bethke identifies two reasons why we find it so hard to stop: (1) we are terrified of silence, and (2) we are afraid of being unimportant.

There’s a divine rhythm, but we’re terrified of missing out of the here and now. And the result? We miss out on the here and now.

The Sabbath is all about refocusing.

Betake beautifully describes observing a Sabbath (or Shabbat) with a mentor friend and his family in Jerusalem.

To begin Sabbath there would be a reminder that this day was about ceasing, about resting, about enjoying. The parents would pray and bless the five kids, and then we would all, usually emphatically led by the kids, bang on the table and clap our hands and sing a Shabbat song before dinner. Then we’d open up a bottle of wine and have an amazing meal.

Note what the family didn’t do. They didn’t go to their rooms and spend three hours in silent prayer. They didn’t beat themselves up over their sin. And they didn’t ask every five minutes, “If I do this, will I break the Sabbath?”

Instead, they came together. They celebrated family, food, fellowship, and God.

That’s what Mary missed in Luke 10. She was preparing a meal for Jesus and His 12 hungry men when Jesus softly corrects, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.”

Martha was focused on her work for Jesus instead of being focused on Jesus. Don’t miss that sentence. I’ve fallen into this trap many times without even realizing it. I love this picture of Luke 10 from Kevin DeYoung in his small but potent book “Crazy Busy.”

I believe God wants us to see that if we heal the sick and cast out demons and preach the gospel and show mercy and do justice and don’t sit at the feet of Jesus, we’ve missed the one thing we truly need. The only thing more important than ministry is being ministered to.

We’re making a statement about eternity.

When we Sabbath, we make a statement: This world is not our home. It’s a day to declare our freedom, to tell the world we’re not bound by work, technology, or sin. We have a better home in heaven, so we don’t have to strive to build a kingdom here on earth.

As Bethke says, “When we honor the Sabbath, we are pointing to the future when that will be true forever.” The Sabbath is meant to be a foretaste of eternity—sitting at a table with Jesus, celebrating a great feast in celebration of redemption.

Ultimately, the Sabbath is a day for filling, a day to be ministered to rather than to minister. The Sabbath is an invitation. DeYoung calls it “a island of get-to in a sea of have-to.”

So what does this look like? I don’t know if I can answer that for you, but I can give you a few examples. For the Bethke family, it means (1) turning off their cell phones, (2) doing something outside in nature (not always possible in Minnesota!), and (3) celebrating a meal together.

For me, I love writing, but I know my own sinful tendency to use God as a means to good writing instead of as the ultimate end. So on Sunday I stop writing and spend time with my church, my wife, and in a good book that focuses my heart on God.

So what about you? Check out the comments below and respond to a question!

Two Great Enemies of Loving God

Last week I left you with a question: How do you cultivate a love for God in daily life? This week I want to look at two of the greatest enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation.

Two Great Enemies
Photo credit: Connor Tarter

Living with Handcuffs

My generation tends to overuse (and often misuse) the word “legalism.” We might look at someone who grew up praying the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday in church and say, “That’s kind of legalistic.” Or we may get turned off by “quiet time” with Jesus when it involves always doing the same pattern over and over again.

The truth is—legalism is a real struggle for a lot of Christians in ways so subtle we don’t even notice.

Here’s the definition pastor and writer C.J. Mahaney gives legalism in his book, “The Cross Centered Life”:

Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through obedience to God.

I fall into the trap of legalism when I try to perform to receive approval from God. It’s a facade, and it’s exhausting. I can’t live up to God’s standard—no one can. Trying to justify myself is like trying to wrangle my way out of handcuffs.

When I live like that, I show myself and others that there’s nothing “free” about me.

The Constant Fear of Handcuffs

If legalism says, “I can work hard to earn God’s favor,” then the other side of the coin is condemnation.

The lie of condemnation is that God saved me from my handcuffs, but I had better watch out! If I do something wrong, God’s going to slap those shackles back on my wrists before I can say, “Jiminy Cricket.”

[callout]Do you struggle with condemnation? I do. Here are several questions Mahaney poses.

  • Do you relate to God as if you were on a kind of permanent probation, suspecting that any moment He may haul you back into the jail cell of His disfavor?
  • When you come to worship do you maintain a “respectful distance” from God, as if He were a fascinating but ill-tempered celebrity known for lashing out at His fans?
  • When you read Scripture does it reveal the boundless love of the Savior or merely intensify your condemnation?[/callout]

Each of these questions bring back a time (or many times) when I’ve felt distant from God. Asking for His forgiveness can feel like begging for Him to take off the shackles again, to give me one more chance.

No one wants a God like that. I don’t—do you? No one wants a “Helicopter God” who constantly hovers over our shoulder, waiting for us to mess up so He can smite us. “See?” He would say, “I gave you another chance, and you blew it again.”

Truly, I don’t think God says that about me; I think I say that about myself. But if I’m judging myself more harshly than God, there’s a problem.

A Life with No Handcuffs

Recently, I was leading a discussion group with a bunch of high schoolers, trying to explain the difference between the Law in the Old Testament and “the law that gives liberty” from James 2. As I spoke, I remembered the beginning of Les Misérables.

In it, the ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks shelter with a bishop. The next day, he is caught by police for stealing the bishop’s silver. Shockingly, the bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean, and he tells Valjean that he should have taken the candlesticks, too! In parting, the bishop leans in to Valjean and speaks these words:

Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

If you’re familiar with the story, that moment remains with Valjean for the rest of his life.

In a very real way, I believe Jesus speaks those words to us when we believe Him for salvation. He neither waits for us to justify our way out of handcuffs nor stands over us to slap them on. Instead, He removes our handcuffs and says, “You no longer belong to evil, but to good.” He isn’t giving us something to aim for; He’s telling us what already is.

Legalism is pointless because I can’t win. Condemnation is pointless because Christ already won. We hope for a clean slate, but Jesus breaks our slate and gives us His, forever sealed in His perfect blood.

The two great enemies of loving God—legalism and condemnation—last only until we realize the true scope of the cross. “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.”

The Most Impactful Sermon I’ve Ever Heard

Seven years ago, I heard a sermon that rattled my bones and made me realized I loved being a Christian more than I loved Christ.

Most Impactful Sermon
Photo Credit: Domiriel via Compfight cc

A letter is intensely personal. I remember writing a letter to a friend while in college, sharing my concern over a relationship he had started. It was hard to write, but later, he thanked me and told me it had deeply impacted him.

What if you got a letter from God? We’re good at reading the Bible as a historic document, even as ‘God’s Word’ in a general sense. But there’s a big difference between seeing the Bible as God’s words to the world and seeing the Bible as God’s words to me.

Jesus cared enough for these churches in Revelation to send them a letter through the apostle John. He challenges the churches to see themselves as He sees them, and to return to Him. The first letter, to the church at Ephesus, changed my life.

Before we go any further I encourage you to take one minute to read the letter here.

When Jesus Threatens to Walk Out

The church in Ephesus had a lot of things right. They worked hard, they endured through hard times, they called out lying preachers, and they weren’t giving up. By most standards, this was a solid church. But then comes the indictment.

Revelation 2:4
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

So serious is this charge Jesus brings against the church that He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” In other words, “Change your ways, or I will abandon your church.”

Does it shock you like it shocks me that Jesus is threatening to abandon a church? Maybe it seems strange because I’m used to regarding the presence of God as a right, not a privilege. If I go to a decent church full of upright people who work hard, then God will be with us. But according to Jesus, that’s not entirely true.

The cornerstone of our devotion to Christ is our love for Him. Better stated, God is present in our churches when our actions are grounded in love for Jesus.

If I love the experience of worshipping God more than I love God, that’s wrong. If I love working hard for God more than I love God, that’s wrong.

Before I go further, I want to clarify: Jesus isn’t waiting for an excuse to dump you. All seven letters in Revelation are marked by two key words: “I know.” Jesus knows us through and through, and He is unflinchingly committed to us.

The words of Jesus sting, but they were never meant to leave us hurting.

How to Return to Our First Love

God’s love for us is unchanging. He warns us because He loves us. After warning the Ephesian church, Jesus tells them how to come back.

Revelation 2:5
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

[callout]Jesus outlines three simple points in this verse:

1. Remember the height from which you’ve fallen.
2. Repent from anything that keeps you from God.
3. Do the things you did at first.[/callout]

First, remember what it was like when you were closest to God. Think about it, and ask, “What happened?” Examine your life for roadblocks between you and God. Finally, think about what actions caused and resulted from closeness to God, and do them.

Love is not a three-step process. I’ve only been married six months, but I can tell you: real, deep love is work.

Love is a lot like a garden. It’s a lot of work, but there are definitely steps you can take toward success. It takes cultivation, discipline, and patience. I love what Oswald Chambers wrote about love:

[share-quote author=”Oswald Chambers” via=””]Neither natural love nor God’s divine love will remain and grow in me unless it is nurtured. Love is spontaneous, but it has to be maintained through discipline.[/share-quote]

Fifteen-year-old me wept. God had gripped my heart with His fierce love. So often since then, I’ve come back to God to confess my love facade and to refocus my gaze on Him. There will always be weeds to pull up, but there is incredible fruit, too.

Revelation 2:7
To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

How do you cultivate a love for God in your daily life? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!

The Secret to Unshakable Hope (Oregon, Part 2)

Last week, I was honored to be published on Desiring God. The article I wrote was based on my reflections on the tragic Oregon shooting. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to read it here.

Candle Burning
Photo Credit: ni_mykon via Compfight cc

In many ways, this post picks up where the article left off. What strikes me most about Job is his incredible perspective. How was he able to bless God in the midst of tragedy? What enabled his perspective?

I’ve come to this conclusion: Job’s hope came from an open-handed life of surrender.

Living with Open Hands

When God took everything away from Job—his property, his wealth, his family—what kept Job from cursing God?

Job 1:21
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

[callout]Here’s what I see in this passage:

1. Job understood where he had come from and where he was going.
2. Job understood everything had been given to him.
3. As a result Job blessed God in his hardship. [/callout]

Job had many possessions, but he abandoned any claim to them. His hope was not in possessions but in God, who is imperishable. Setting his hope in God, Job was able to rejoice in the face of incredible tragedy.

When we face crisis—like the Oregon shooting or Job or even the daily pressures of life—the answer to experiencing hope daily is living with open hands.

Like Job, we need to come to the point of surrendering to God everything we are apt to hold above Him.

That doesn’t mean selling everything we own; however, it does mean intentionally putting God above things. I love what author and spoken word artist Jefferson Bethke writes about keeping God the main priority.

When you concentrate on God, you can actually enjoy His gifts in a meaningful way. But when you pursue just the gifts themselves, they become the product of despair rather than joy.

Job wasn’t rattled when his possessions were taken away because Job had already surrendered them to God.

Surrender to the Mystery

Many of us grew up regularly saying the Lord’s Prayer:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be Your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”

The most familiar prayer is also the most countercultural. In praying, “Your will be done,” we’re agreeing with Jesus when He knelt in Gethsemane, saying, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”

Not only was Job willing to surrender his possessions, but he was willing to surrender his own life. When we pray for God’s will, we must be willing to surrender ours.

Take Elisabeth Elliot, for example. Her husband was one of five missionaries to be massacred by the Auca tribe. In reflecting on the tragedy 40 years later, she wrote,

If [God] is God, He is worthy of my worship and my service. I will find rest nowhere but in His will, and that will is infinitely, immeasurably, unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what He is up to….. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice.

We all have a choice, to hold our own lives or surrender them to God. I must make my decision before tragedy strikes. 

As C. S. Lewis rightly said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”

Untouchable Hope

Job was able to bless God because his treasure was imperishable—his treasure was God Himself. When Paul says our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), that’s what he’s talking about.

The question is not, “Will I face tragedy?” The question is, “When I face tragedy, what will be revealed as my treasure?”

Will you be destroyed when your possessions are destroyed? Or will you be immovable because God is immovable? Then, Paul says, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).

That’s it. That’s the anchor for hope.

Does it make life easier? Not always. But it does give us hope, as Elisabeth Elliot expressed, for a joy far greater than we can yet understand.

I believe with all my heart that God’s Story has a happy ending…. But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can we can conceive.

 

What are you holding with a closed fist that God is asking you to let go? How have you found hope in painful circumstances? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

5 Verses Taught Me What’s Most Important

This is one of the most impactful spiritual lessons I ever learned. During my senior year of college, I searched the Bible for the phrase “one thing” because I wanted to know what the Bible counted most important. The five Bible verse results that came back have shaped my faith and this blog.

Photo Credit: Ryk Neethling
Photo Credit: Ryk Neethling

One Thing I Ask

Psalm 27:4
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” Although David could have wanted many things (victory over his enemies, the crown on his head), we see him relentlessly return his focus to God. David sought God more than any earthly treasure.

One Thing You Lack

Mark 10:21
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

The rich young ruler claimed to be righteous, but he is unwilling to give Jesus the one thing He asked for: himself. The rich young ruler was willing to impress Jesus with his track record, but he was unwilling to surrender his status.

One Thing is Necessary

Luke 10:41-42
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

One day Martha had an unexpected houseguest—the Son of God. While she toils over a meal for Jesus and twelve other men, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Jesus responds to her complaint by saying, “You are anxious and troubled with much serving.” Martha was so focused on doing a good thing that she missed out on the best thing.

One Thing I Know

John 9:25
He answered, “Whether He is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

A man born blind is healed by Jesus. When interrogated by the religious leaders, he doesn’t present a well-prepared speech or get intimidated. He simply tells his story: He was blind, but now he sees. In response, Jesus declares the blind man seeing and the religious leaders blind.

One Thing I Do

Philippians 3:13-14
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The apostle Paul didn’t let the baggage of his past dictate his goal. He was focused. He knew his goal, and he wasn’t going to waver. This Pharisee of Pharisees, who had everything going for him, laid down his life to follow Jesus.

Five Verses, 1 Lesson

These five verses highlight five different people from five different walks of life, yet each point to the same lesson:

  • David: Knowing God is at the heart of prayer.
  • Rich young ruler: Knowing God is at the heart of surrender.
  • Martha: Knowing God is at the heart of service.
  • Blind man: Knowing God is at the heart of witness.
  • Paul: Knowing God is at the heart of ambition.

In summary, the lesson is this: Our lives are to be singularly focused on Jesus. 

Each story is about not being distracted—by aims or money or serving or fear or our past—but being completely centered on Jesus. When we strain to follow Him, our hearts are filled with joy and purpose and love. When we fix our eyes on Him, we receive the one thing our souls truly long for: Himself.

 

Which of these five characters do you relate to most? In what ways is God leading you to focus singularly on Him? Share a quick comment below.