God-Promotion or Self-Promotion

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We live in a culture that tells us that we must sell and promote ourselves in order to achieve success. We must find the right social identity, message, product, or service, and then fight for “airtime” in the vast and very noisy public arena. Social media reinforces this greatly. When we see someone who seems to be doing well, it may provoke us to jealousy, or evoke feelings of insecurity if we don’t feel we are doing as well. In many of us, it arouses innate competitive impulses, and we resolve to outdo the rest of the pack.

I admit that I wrestle with the temptation to promote myself. I’m not referring to the desire to pursue life goals or to expand my sphere influence.  I’m talking about the tendency to forget that God has not called me to promote myself, but to promote the greatness of Jesus Christ. Not to be famous myself, but to make him famous. Not to have a sales pitch, but to have his beautiful name ever on my lips. I am called to make myself small, and make him great, in my own eyes and the eyes of others. This takes conscious effort, nearly every day. Even in the publishing of this blog, I must guard my heart from wrong motives.

Recently, as I was reading through Genesis, I noticed the contrast between God’s promotion of man and man’s self-promotion.

From the beginning, God gave his human creatures dignity, honor, and dominion. They were made in the very image of God. They were his finest creation!

Then, sin and self-obsession crashed in, spoiling the tranquility of the garden and its residents. And then follows a trilogy of stories.

First is the story of Noah. Amidst the increasing population of the earth, and the wickedness that began to prevail, Noah was identified as “a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God” (Gen 6:9). This was quite an endorsement, one I’d love to be able to claim for myself. There is no mention of Noah doing anything in particular to get God’s attention.  God protected and promoted Noah simply because he had a right heart toward God, and this was reflected in his upright moral conduct.

Next is the story of Babel, which presents the essence of self-promotion. The people all spoke the same language, and they said to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4). Well…God wasn’t crazy about that idea. He scattered them and confused their languages, so they couldn’t work together to make a great name for themselves. God used language and geographic barriers to impede the iniquitous folly of self-promotion.

Finally, there is the call of Abraham. In his first encounter with God, Abraham receives instruction and commissioning, and the first of many promises: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Gen 12:2). In other words, you don’t have to promote yourself, Abram. Just do as I instruct you, and let me promote you and multiply your influence in the earth.

So, there you have it. Noah, declared righteous by the mouth of God, and used to save the remnant of humanity from the flood. Then the people of Babel, scattered and confused because of their foolish desire for self-promotion. And then Abraham, blessed and promoted to greatness purely through his faith and obedience to the perfect will of God.

In the short term, self-promotion seems to make sense. But it is so often secretly rooted in either pride or insecurity (two sides of the same demonic coin). When I detect that spirit rising in me, I work to beat it back down. It’s like a wack-a-mole, unfortunately, popping back up when I think I’ve subdued it. I keep wacking away at it, because I’m learning that self-promotion in the long term is a wearying, discouraging dead end if I let it get the better of me.  God’s promotion brings life, honor, joy, and success–on his terms, the only ones that really matter.

Psalm 75:6- For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he puts down one, and sets up another.

Luke 14:11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

1 Peter 5:6-7 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

Shalom, my friends.

The Beautiful Law of Gleaning

Many Christian believers find aspects of the Law of Moses found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) unjust, archaic, or just plain baffling. This is because it is nearly impossible to contextualize some of the laws found there to our modern lives and beliefs. For instance, the laws regarding ritual purification, or the harsh penalties prescribed for infractions that today barely get a slap on the wrist.

Amidst some of these difficulties, I find beautiful the laws of gleaning, statutes that are set like gemstones in the midst of commandments that are rather oddly arranged at times. For example, between a commandment to eat the entire remainder of a fellowship offering, and the simple dictate “Do not steal,” is this gem:

“‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Lev 19:9-10).”

This on first glance might seem imprudent or wasteful. Shouldn’t we always seek to maximize our profits and make full use of all our resources? No, apparently. Though God commends saving, thrift and resourcefulness, it matters more to Him that his people look beyond their own needs or profits. They must be willing to provide for the needs of others they can reasonably predict, of course, especially within their own families. But going another step, God’s people are to intentionally leave a portion of the proceeds of their labor available to a needy individual who might happen along the way. The poor or foreigner must find something left behind that will sustain him.


There’s no guarantee this will happen. In the case of agricultural fruits, there’s a chance that the remainders will go unclaimed and just rot on the ground or dry up on the vine.  In modern, monetary terms, there’s a chance that leaving money on the table could limit our bottom line. But that is not to be our concern. When we hold back from greedily grabbing up all of the fruit, we are acting in obedience to the Law of God, and this carries its own reward.

John the Baptist hinted at this principle and its centrality to the advancing kingdom of God he was announcing. Preaching a baptism of repentance, he instructed them to demonstrate their repentance through true acts of generosity, giving away extra food or clothing (Lk 3:11). To contextualize this to the Church age in which we live, the Apostle Paul admonishes the believer not to steal, but to “labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph 4:28). Yes, we are supposed to take care of ourselves, so we do not become a burden to others. But that is not enough. We are to work hard enough at whatever work God has given us to do, so that there is extra on hand to share with those who are in worse circumstances.

I think this also has application to non-material fruits. If we learn great truth through our study or reflection on the Scriptures, or through our life experiences, we ought to be looking diligently for the opportunity to make it available to those who might show up in our lives. Who knows when you or I might be the person with a word for the weary, someone we had no idea was coming? Can we have such abundance of the fruit of the Spirit that we always have plenty for ourselves, plenty to share with those we know and love, and even plenty to give to the one who shows up at the door uninvited.

This is the beautiful law of gleaning.  It releases a spirit of freedom and generosity in those who practice it, and sustenance to those go out to glean in the harvest fields.

It’s a Lonely Road Sometimes

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Recently I was talking and praying with a young woman who comes from a ministry and missionary family, and is a missionary herself. We spoke of the experience of being misunderstood and rejected because of our faith. This can cause a feeling of loneliness, and may tempt us to keep quiet and inconspicuous to avoid the risk of rejection or harassment. Suddenly I began thinking about John the Baptist, and what it might have been like to see life through his eyes.

John was a very unusual character. He wore a camel-hair tunic, not the fashion of the day, and ate bugs with honey, not the typical diet for a Jew in Israel. He lived alone out in the wilderness. Can you picture him next to a campfire, sleeping on the ground? His message of the coming kingdom drew many, but repelled many others. He boldly confronted sin, selfishness, and complacency, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees vipers and hypocrites; this must not have made a lot of points with the religious elites. He cautioned the people about their need for repentance and about the coming fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit. John got in the face of Herod and called out his adultery, an act that ultimately cost him his life.

John knew his God-ordained role—to prepare the way for the Messiah, his own cousin Jesus. He knew that when Jesus came fully into his ministry, his own ministry would decrease, and he accepted this fact. Like the prophets before him, he faithfully delivered the words God gave him, suffering persecution, rejection, banishment, imprisonment, and death.

Jesus also understood and accepted the unique greatness and purpose of John, but saw the bigger picture, saying that “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11).  John was just a man. He was God’s man, filled with the Spirit, and given the honor of baptizing and then introducing the Lamb of God to the waiting world. He was destined to exit the story soon after.

I wonder if he got lonely. I wonder if he had any friends he could talk with after a long day of ministry. John probably could have used a really good dog by his side.

I’ll often think about John the Baptist now when people tell me stories about their struggles in ministry. He is worthy of our admiration and emulation for his strength of character and his resolve to complete his unique assignment with dignity.  It must have been a very lonely road sometimes. And when we experience our own moments of loneliness as Jesus-followers, we know we are in the greatest company.

People of the Book: Culture Shock

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Years ago, I fell in love with the words of Scripture before becoming acquainted with their author. I was raised to value education, literature, and learning.

So as soon as someone pointed me to the Bible, I found it incredibly deep, rich, exciting and compelling, and studying it thoroughly became my passionate pursuit.

Before long, I was convinced that the book contained much more than literature. It was a source of life-giving, sanity-restoring truth, leading me to the ultimate source of grace and truth, Jesus Christ. My devotion to the Word of God continues to this day, and will endure, I’m sure, until I cross over the great divide.

It is easy to overlook or take for granted the many ways that engagement with the Bible transforms the mind, the worldview, and even the way the brain works over years under its influence. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. The stories, characters, and teachings of the Bible become such a part of the psyche that they influence every part of life. The protagonists feel like intimate friends, as we so often read of their exploits and imagine ourselves there, observing or even participating in the story.

We are listening in on Eve’s conversation with a beguiling serpent, or trudging up Mt. Moriah with Abraham and Isaac, carrying kindling for the sacrifice. We are mourning with Job, as he scratches himself with shards of pottery, or trembling next to Esther before the scepter of the king.

We are with Ruth, gleaning in the harvest fields of Boaz, or with David, writing poetry by the springs of En Gedi.  We are with Jesus, fighting sleep as he cries out to his Father under the ancient olive trees.

The history of God’s people becomes our story, and we lay claim to their covenant promises. As sons and daughters of Abraham, we seek to take hold, like Paul, of “that for which Christ took hold” of us (Phil 3:12). We marvel at the excruciating beauty of Jesus’ life and the horror of a death that accomplished the redemption of the world. We receive the doctrines and admonitions delivered to the Church as our manual for Christian living amidst a crooked and depraved world.

With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even the fine points of Jewish law in Leviticus or the genealogies of Matthew can come alive and find relevance in our daily affairs.

I have come to realize that this makes people like me rather odd in a culture that heaps contempt on our ancient faith. We are strangers, aliens who seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16).

In my own experience, even family members who have known me my entire life and are very dear to me do not relate to the vast landscape of biblical experience in my imagination, and that this is the lens through which I view all else. Like those returning from an exotic travel adventure, I can tell stories and show pictures, but there are some things each person must experience for himself or herself.

In the meantime, having been so impacted by my travels in the pages of the Book, I find myself with culture shock as I navigate American culture in the early 21st century.

I want desperately to share my experience of the word of God with those who have never ventured into its magnificence. We all are commanded to be witnesses of its reality. But we must share this awareness of another world gently and kindly, never letting it become a bludgeon, a battering ram or a barrier.

We share our stories, pictures, and experiences with our Lord and King in hopes that it will inspire and motivate others to embark on their own journey of discovery.

The Real Deal

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The Bible really does say, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). In fact, Jesus himself said it. It’s in red letters.  What in the world does this mean? I might better frame the question: what does it mean in this world? What does it look like down here on the ground?  What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God first? If we could adequately understand and consistently do this “seeking first”, what “things” would be added to us?

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like we just pull Scriptures like this out of what Tim Keller calls our “blessing boxes” and quote them, without truly understanding Jesus’ meaning, intent, or context. Doesn’t the apparent bigness of Jesus’ declaration warrant some deeper digging, contemplation and application?  The problem is that if we take it seriously and begin living as though it is true, it just might cost us something.

At this moment in my walk with the Lord, I am hedged in by this saying of Jesus on one side and by another passage by the Apostle Paul (that I’ll share in a minute) on the other. I won’t claim to have full revelation, but I have a few clues.  I believe seeking his kingdom first means that Jesus is not only Savior but Lord. He’s the King of the kingdom, deserving both our wholehearted devotion and our deepest respect. It means we seek to carry out his agendas in our lives, and not our own. It means we don’t have the privilege of picking and choosing the sayings of Jesus that make us feel good and rejecting the ones that make us uncomfortable. It means that as disciples we willingly lay aside all purposes or causes that are contrary to his righteousness.  It means that the distorted ethics of this “present evil age” (Gal  1:4) do not guide or interest us, because only the transformative gospel (as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere) is adequate to motivate our hearts and our actions.

This becomes costly when we realize are not to wait for the lost, lonely, and needy to come to us. We are to go out and find them, loving “the least of these” as though we are doing it for him (Matt 25). This is the priority of the kingdom of God.

If we give these things priority, what does he add?  All that our bodies and souls need. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs—food, clothing, shelter, safety, belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization. Theoretically, we’ve been taught to satisfy our most basic physical and safety needs first. But in God’s kingdom, we pursue first the point at the top of the pyramid, his perfect will, and the rest of the pyramid stacks up and fills out just fine. There is no lack in the realm of body and soul when we give up pursuit of self for something better and higher. Yes, this is counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, but that is why I’m convinced it is right. The hierarchy gets turned on its point. Resting upon the kingdom of God and his righteousness, everything else trickles down from there.

The second Scripture I mentioned that hedges me in is Paul’s declaration in Philippians 3 that his credentials, heritage and spiritual pedigree is no more than a pile of poop compared to the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Really, Paul? Didn’t you work hard to become a Pharisee, with all the status and influence that brings? Are you saying that it doesn’t matter where we come from, how we’re educated, or who sees us as important? Aren’t we supposed to work hard, gain knowledge and experience, to become ‘successful’ people?

I think he might answer that it’s not by definition wrong to be successful in the world. But we can’t ever lose sight of the vast gap between what is possible to achieve in our own abilities, and the perfect righteousness of the Savior and King of the universe.

What I’ve realized is that I might say that I consider all of my accomplishments rubbish in comparison with his kingdom and his righteousness, because it sounds very pious. But if I’m honest about it, I’m not there yet. I confess that I still need to be delivered from my addiction to the approval and affirmation of people. It doesn’t have the same pull on me that it used to, but the traces of it are still there.

My intention and desire is to seek him first in all things and to keep a clear spiritual perspective on how my performance stacks up against his standard of righteousness. Are you with me? I hope so, because I’ll take all the fellow travelers I can get. We can be  greatly comforted by his constant presence as we undertake what Eugene Peterson calls this “long obedience in the same direction.” First things first…..

Work and Courage

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In his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck proposed a definition of love from a psychiatrist’s perspective. He wrote,

When we extend ourselves, when we take an extra step or walk an extra mile, we do so in opposition to the inertia of laziness or the resistance of fear. Extension of ourselves or moving out against the inertia of laziness we call work. Moving out in the face of fear we call courage. Love, then, is a form of work or a form of courage. Specifically, it is work or courage directed toward the nurture of our own or another’s spiritual growth. We may work or exert courage in directions other than toward spiritual growth, and for this reason all work and all courage is not love. But since it requires the extension of ourselves, love is always either work or courage. If an act is not one of work or courage, then it is not an act of love. There are no exceptions.”*

Although Peck’s definition was not originally written from a Christian worldview (he did come to faith in Christ some time later), it corresponds in many ways to the agape love required of followers of Jesus Christ. Obedient lovers of God described in the Old Testament exhibited their love through work or through courage, and sometimes both. Think of Noah, building an enormous vessel by God’s instruction, measuring, cutting lumber, hammering nails, sealing with pitch. Or David, standing boldly before a giant enemy with only a slingshot and a handful of rocks. Picture Moses, lifting his staff over the wide waters, trusting that God would part them for the people to walk through. This kind of faith compels work and courage to carry out God’s plan, whatever the risks or rewards. Only love, directed toward a higher cause, can energize this in human beings.

What about Jesus? Of course, the ultimate example of work and courage in the name of love. His work as the Son of Man was to announce the coming kingdom, to heal, deliver, teach, save and forgive as he fulfilled his earthly ministry. He never backed down when under pressure, yet didn’t utter a word to defend himself against the false accusations of the Jews and Romans. His courage allowed him to go the distance, knowing the disgrace of the cross, because of the joy set before him. Praise God for this completed work, done so perfectly and courageously!

As his disciples, we are called to follow this extraordinary example of love. To extend ourselves “in opposition to the inertia of laziness” or “moving out in the face of fear.” This means that if we are able to help a neighbor or brother in need, we must extend ourselves to do so. If God calls us to leave what is safe and comfortable–for a day or a year or a lifetime–we must move past fear and selfishness to embrace this higher call.

*Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978, 120.

Time to Believe

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I came across a song in the 1990’s by Clay Crosse that I have enjoyed singing from time to time, called “Time to Believe.” One verse of the song is

“Sounds tear through the morning, you pull yourself from your bed…Try so hard to quiet your mind, dodging thoughts of what lies dead ahead: A chance to be dashed on the rocks, fooled by friendly lights, shining solely to deceive. Such hard living in this cold, cold world People it’s time to believe.”

I like the song’s invitation to consider finding safety and solace in the goodness of God amidst some harsh realities we face as human beings in this world. As much as we might like to believe that we are strong and in control of our lives, we are actually quite fragile and vulnerable, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. We can be easily distracted by lights that seem friendly enough, but if we chase after them, we find ourselves “dashed on the rocks.” Temptations, wrong turns, deceptions, false hopes.

Jesus promised that there would be troubles, so we shouldn’t be surprised when life turns out to be difficult. But he also promised that we would not be left without resources. In fact, he sent his own Spirit to enable us not only to overcome all difficulties, but to do great works in his name as we wait for his return.

I am starting this blog to encourage faith to rise in my own heart and in yours. The journey is safer and also more joyous when we walk together. I pray for great love and great courage in all of our hearts in the days ahead, as we become fully rooted in our faith and in the love of the Father.