Jesus is Better

 

There’s a song that’s been a constant refrain in my head the past year. If I could have an anthem, this would be it.

Jesus is better.

Lately, other things have been clamoring to assure me that they’re of utmost value or importance. There have been highs and lows, joys and sorrows, times when I had enough and times when the dinosaur piggy bank my sister gave me had more in it than my bank account. Ministry success, ministry failure, relationships, rejection, uncertainty of the future, fear. How easy it is to dwell on these things and find identity in them.

But Jesus our King is constant! Jesus our King has defeated the tyrannical rule of sin in our lives! My life isn’t defined by fear or breakups or even success! My life is hidden in Christ, and He gives me His righteousness. He defines me. There is no other king, no other lord, no other we turn to.

And then we get to the bridge, which reminds me that more than the worst sorrow or the greatest victory, more than the best comfort or riches, Jesus is better. But sometimes it’s hard to believe, so like the man in Mark 9, we cry out, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief.”

In all my sorrows, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

In every victory, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

Than any comfort, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

More than all riches, Jesus is better; make my heart believe

Let your heart take satisfaction in that today. Our song eternal: Jesus is better.

For more music from the Austin Stone, or for resources, visit http://www.austinstoneworship.com/.

 

Picture courtesy of verge network.org.

The Heart of the Matter

It’s so easy to look at people being knuckleheads in the Bible and think, “those ignorant people! How could they not get it? I would never do that!”

My Bible reading plan has me read passages from different sections of the Bible, which is really helpful especially when you hit Numbers. Assuming you make it past the laws in Leviticus. And then you hit the genealogies in the Chronicles, and you’re tempted to just give up. Reading from different sections has been helpful because it reminds me that the Bible is one grand story of redemption, and that God uses different genres, literary styles, and authors to accomplish this.

This morning, among other sections, I read from Jeremiah 9 and Matthew 23. In Jeremiah, the prophet mourns over his people because “they are all adulterers” (v 2), deceitful, oppressive, and evil, and it’s because of this: they have “stubbornly followed their own hearts and have gone after the Baals.” (v 14) They’re in open, outward, outright rebellion against God by worshiping false gods! And the Lord calls them to repentance.

In Matthew 23, Jesus famously has a rebuke-fest with the scribes and Pharisees, the super religious. They do everything right. These guys even tithed of their mint and dill and cumin! When is the last time you tithed out of your spices? And yet Jesus calls them hypocrites and “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead peoples’ bones and all uncleanness.” (v 27) They appeared holy and pious, but remained wicked, greedy, and self-indulgent inside.

Israel had turned to other gods to try to find pleasure and salvation. The scribes and Pharisees had turned to law-keeping to find pleasure and salvation. So here we have God calling two groups to repentance: those who do evil, and those who do good. Those who break all the rules and those who are pretty good at keeping all the rules. And interestingly, both passages show that the reason they are both far from God is because what’s on the inside hasn’t been dealt with. They have uncircumcised hearts. (Jer 9:26)

David recognized this need when he pleads to God in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, o God!” This “man after God’s own heart” knew of the wicked bent of his own heart; he was repenting of sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband murdered.

The antidote to being bad is not just being good. The Pharisees knew that God was displeased with their ancestors for following other gods, so they thought they could win his favor by being really really good and keeping all of God’s laws. But they, like their ancestors, didn’t really want God. Idolatrous Israel and the hypocritical pharisees were not that different. They both have unchanged hearts.

The gospel confronts the notions that you can find fulfillment by following your own passions and that you can find fulfillment by trying really hard to mold your behavior and outer appearance. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that all the pleasures of the world are to be found in God and his love in Christ, so I don’t have to seek it elsewhere. By reminding myself, my heart of the gospel every day, I remember that Christ didn’t die for me because I was beautiful, but to make me beautiful, and so all the good works and behavioral modifications I could ever muster up don’t change that fact.

This frees me to be honest about who we really are, and to be honest about who Christ is. This truth changes our heart, when we’re faced with the overwhelming love and grace of God in Christ.

Loving God and Loving People

I opened my Twitter Friday morning as my plane landed at LaGuardia in New York and witnessed my newsfeed blow up with the news of the SCOTUS decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Simply put (in case you’ve lived in a hole the last few days) the Court ruled marriage as a fundamental right for all couples, regardless of orientation, gender, or state residence.

On one end, people cheered and applauded the decision as a step of progress for human liberty. On the other end, some Christians bemoaned the decay of morals and our country’s supposed religious foundations. Many just didn’t know what to say.

The ruling should really come as no surprise. The culture has been shifting for quite a while now, and we’re probably at the beginning of a post-Christian America. For better or worse, this is the cultural milieu we are in.

I don’t want to debate about whether homosexual practice is a sin or not. If you believe the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God, then there is no escaping the fact that it prohibits homosexual activity, unless you do some hermeneutical gymnastics. Scripture tells us that when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, sin began its destructive ripple, wreaking havoc through all of creation, including a fallen sexual condition. The temptation to be sexually promiscuous for the heterosexual is every bit an evidence of the fall as is the sexual attraction between people of the same sex. God didn’t “make” anyone gay, it is just one of the many ways sin presents itself. But just as the Bible instructs me that obedience to God means sex is to be enjoyed in the confines of marriage with one woman, it instructs us that obedience to God means not engaging in same sex intercourse. It promises us that Jesus offers healing for all of our sexual brokenness and that living in obedience to Him gives us our greatest joy and His ultimate glory. Our sexual ethic is defined by our King Jesus, not our desires or what culture endorses. (Important to note here is that same-sex attraction isn’t anymore sinful than it is sinful for me to be attracted to women. The act is what is sinful, whether it be in the mind (lust) or body, because it is a distortion of the image of God and the union of Christ and the Church. More resources and information will be provided at the end of this article.)

Christians are faced with two challenges in this, the first being that God, in his Word, has expressly forbidden homosexual practice in the Old and New Testaments. This is not a case of us being inconsistent with the commands of the Bible, and contrary to rising popular opinion, the teachings aren’t as ambiguous as proponents of same-sex marriage advocate.

The second is that most of us have friends and loved ones who experience same-sex attraction and struggle through it in a way most of us will never understand. They’ve experienced deep hurt and pain and betrayal and rejection because of their orientation, and it is heartbreaking. They are real people who didn’t just “choose” to be gay.

Most Christians, when faced with these realities, tend to drift toward one of two extremes, both of which are wrong. The first is expressing anger and hatred toward the LGBT community. Bible verses are spit out without love, condemnation is cast, and verbal/physical abuse may occur. There is an insensitivity toward the LGBT community because of a lack of understanding and a gag-reflex because it seems so abnormal. People on this end tend to view homosexual behavior as very high in the hierarchy on the totem pole of sin. They believe they’re being faithful to God and the Bible in calling out sin, but they usually respond without the grace, love, and compassion we’re called to, remembering our own inherent depravity and sinfulness.

The other extreme is being so pulled by compassion that you decide homosexual activity really isn’t that big of a deal. Bible passages are reinterpreted or ignored because they seem outdated. People on this end irresponsibly make the charge that the Old Testament forbids things like eating shrimp and wearing clothes of two materials, which we do, so homosexual practice also must be okay since we’re “ignoring” those other laws. They say Jesus never explicitly taught on homosexuality, so how do we know he wouldn’t approve of it? It is the original trick the serpent used in deceiving Adam and Eve: “Did God really say…?” They begin viewing conservative Christians as bigots and hypocrites, and they do all this because they believe they’re being faithful to a Jesus who does not condemn but calls us to love all people.

Sometimes it seems like you have to pick one extreme and go with that, but I think the tension is actually a good thing! Jesus tells us that all of the law is summed up into these two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. We’re called to live in the tension! We love God and what He has revealed to his through His Word, and in light of that, we love His image bearers, however broken they are. Love does not mean we approve everything someone does. It is not loving for my brother to not tell me if something I am doing is hurting me or others.

So what does this look like? It means to stay faithful to the biblical teachings on sexuality and marriage because God created both and ultimately defines them; they are not merely sociological terms. It means to love the LGBT community in a sacrificial way, listening to them, caring for them. It means that we don’t separate truth and love, but speak the truth in love and in a compassionate, gracious way. It means that our churches should be lights shining in the darkness. Russell Moore may have said it best:

We must stand with conviction and with kindness, with truth and with grace. We must hold to our views and love those who hate us for them. We must not only speak Christian truths; we must speak with a Christian accent. We must say what Jesus has revealed, and we must say those things the way Jesus does — with mercy and with an invitation to new life.

This is what I think Jesus would say to the person caught engaging in homosexual behavior: I think Jesus would look into their eyes in love and compassion and say, “Your sins are forgiven. Go and sin no more.”

Christians, let us be the church. Let us be identified as those who love God and love His people.

Here are some further resources:

Why the Church Should Neither Cave nor Panic About the Decision on Gay Marriage – Russell Moore

Reaction to the Supreme Court Ruling – ERLC

5 Biblical Responses to Homosexuality – Sam Allberry (Sam is a minster who experiences sam-sex attraction, but because of his love for Jesus, remains celibate.)

Old Testament Law and the Charge of Inconsistency – Tim Keller

Is God Anti-Gay? – Sam Allberry (book)

Is Same Sex Attraction a Sin? – Sermon

Something Greater Than Marriage – Rosario Butterfield and Christopher Yuan

40 Questions for Christians Now Waving the Rainbow Flag – TGC

Review of “God and the Gay Christian” – Tim Keller

Stuck Trying to Find God’s Will

Restaurants with huge menus make me nervous because I always take the longest to order. There are usually several options that look pretty good, and I worry that I’ll regret my food selection. I’ll ask the waiter what they recommend, and then when they describe their favorites, I realize they have terrible taste buds and I’m no closer to making a decision. A restaurant with one delicious item on its menu? Now there’s something I can get on board with.

We all make many decisions every day, most of them without thinking too hard on them. What do I wear today? Which route should I take? White or wheat? But we sometimes face decisions that cause us to pause and think it through. What major should I choose? Do I accept this job or that one, or go to grad school? How much of my income should I give away? Do I marry this person?

We tend to agonize over these questions, and one of the things I hear the most is, “I wish God would just show me what I’m supposed to do! God, what’s your will in this?”

God, what’s your will for my life?

It sounds like a legitimate question! Who doesn’t want to walk in the will of God? But if we were truly honest, most of us ask the question because we have deep anxieties about the future. We fear we have one shot at every decision, and if we make the wrong one, we’ll live in regret the rest of our lives. That we will somehow be removed from the will and plan of God.

What most of us hear growing up is to seek the will of the Lord. Find out what he wants you to do, and then do it. We pray for God to open our eyes and hearts to His will. We pray for a sign to show us what decision to make, or that God would speak audibly and just tell us what He wants from us.

We believe the idea that if it is God’s will, everything will magically work out perfectly. Without resistance. The problem is, this isn’t necessarily what we find in the Bible. For the saints in Scripture, walking in obedience often meant resistance, trouble, sometimes even death. Often, the path that leads to sin and death is the one with the least resistance.

Not to say we should look for the path with the most obstacles! The truth is, sometimes God closes all doors except one. And sometimes, God leaves several doors open.

But why? Doesn’t He want me to live in his will? If He wants what’s best for me, why doesn’t He just clearly show me what’s best for me? We don’t want a God who asks us to have faith, we want an oracle, a fortune-teller to tell us exactly what to do. Right now.

God has given us the Bible as a way to know Him and what He desires of us, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tell us that He has given us, in Scripture, what we need to be equipped for every good work. For every good decision. There are truths in the Word of God that we can apply to our lives. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly who to marry, or what profession to choose, or what car to drive, or where to live, but there are commands from the Lord, and wisdom and guidelines in its pages.

The will of God for every believer is to ultimately glorify Him. It is to seek His face, to obey Him, and to look more and more like Jesus. It is to be transformed and renewed in our minds and hearts by the Spirit of God. It’s not to guess about what we’re supposed to do, but to make informed, guided decisions that flow from our love of God and his glory.

As small and finite beings, we won’t understand the plan and purposes of a big and infinite God. But it seems that God is less concerned with us being informed and more concerned with us being transformed.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing, you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

I’ve often found that difficult decisions tend to reveal what my affections are set on, whether it’s on the temporary things of the world or on the eternal things of God. If we knew what we were supposed to do, we wouldn’t do it out of love or a transformed heart. But our hearts are what God is after.

When we’ve been transformed with a renewed mind, we love more and more what Jesus loves. Our minds are set on things that honor God, and our affections (heart) are drawn toward Him. We’re able to make decisions for the glory of God, whether it’s the career path we choose, where we live, or who we marry. And so, as Christians, our difficult decisions are meant to show us where our hearts are set. Through these “testings,” we’re able to make decisions and know the will of God. Notice Paul says that by testing, we’re able to discern what the will of God is. What is good and acceptable and perfect.

His priority isn’t that we know the future, but that we trust Him in the now. And we trust him by being obedient to His word and asking Him to transform and renew our hearts. By actually doing something and obeying. Sometimes by taking risks.

We’re free to not know the future because we know the One who holds the future. Who is already in the future. God, who feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, commands us to not be anxious about tomorrow, but to trust his goodness today. We’re free to live confidently, take risks, and make decisions knowing that God is always on His throne.

And we can rest in the knowledge that our sovereign God who directs our steps is always in control.

Worship Leader, You Are a Theology Teacher

I visited a church recently, one that is fairly prominent in the city it’s in. There were people from all different walks of life, of many different ethnic backgrounds, and the musicians were good. People were raising hands and singing at the top of their lungs and everyone seemed into it.

And then toward the end of the third song, something dawned on me. Not once during the three songs was Jesus mentioned. The cross wasn’t brought up. Sin and redemption and the love of Christ were nowhere to be found. We sang two more songs before the message, and the theme of every song was, “I’m going to get through this. God is going to lift me up.” God was a coach, someone to help walk you through the difficult times in life. And you know what? You can do it! 

Jesus was nowhere to be found.

Worship through music is a big part of most church services, whether it be through a pipe organ or a rock band. Music moves us in certain ways; scientists have done many studies and tests to try to figure out why music affects our emotions so, without any definitive answers. Every known human culture uses music and song to communicate, and it can’t be by accident! We’re wired to enjoy music, and it’s one of the many ways we offer worship to God.

I’m no stranger to worship music: I led the worship team at my home church all through high school, was heavily involved in leading with our college ministry, and was the worship director at a church for a year and a half after college. I come from a church tradition that highly values and emphasizes worship through song and music, and so that scene is a very familiar world.

Early on in my worship leading, I would pick any song that someone could describe as a “worship song.” Songs I liked, songs someone else liked, the latest songs by the best worship bands, songs that really got the church hyped. Songs that tickled peoples’ ears. Songs that tickled peoples’ hearts. I was teaching my people a weak theology with minimal Biblical support. There was a lot of, “This is what I’m going to do, God!” and not much, “God, this is what YOU’VE done!”

I’m picky now when it comes to worship music. Someone once complained that I didn’t do enough new or different songs, that my song database was too small. When it comes to leading congregations, I think worship leaders must use discretion when choosing songs.

Think about your church service last Sunday. Can you remember the preacher’s main points? What Bible passage was he expounding on? It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it? Now think about what songs you sang. Can you remember one or two of those?

The reality is, at the end of the week, people will be more likely to hum a song they sang at church than to ponder sermon points. I found myself just this morning singing the worship songs my church sang the last two weeks. When you put anything to music, you’re bound to commit it to memory. My 6th grade math teacher taught us about fractions and percentages through several songs he wrote, and I still remember them to this day. I’m sure when you’re going through your ABC’s, you sing the tune in your head.

Melodies and lyrics stick with people, and so it is important that when we pick songs to lead our congregations with, we pick songs that clearly point to the gospel and are supported by Scripture. They need to be songs that are doctrinally sound. What we think and believe and sing about God is of utmost importance, and so which songs we sing in our services is of utmost importance.

So how do we do this?

First, worship leaders should be in the Bible daily. Saturating yourself with the Word of God enables you to lead people to God and the full richness of the gospel. It also helps you see when songs aren’t biblically sound and enables you to teach people where the truths in your song come from.

Worship leaders should be excellent theologians. Leading people into worship is more than being able to play the guitar and sing! You have an immense responsibility and calling to shepherd the people God has entrusted to you. It’s not a call for every aspiring musician.  Go buy a book on Christian doctrine or systematic theology and study it. Things like the Trinity, the doctrine of man, and eschatology are rich biblical truths that will inform you when choosing a worship song. Knowing theology helps you see why the line, “you took the fall and thought of me above all” in the song “Above All” is inaccurate and faulty. It puts man at the center of God’s purpose, as opposed to the glory of God being at the center of God’s purpose.

Worship leaders should pick songs carefully. (If you haven’t gotten it yet, this is kind of the point of my post.) People are often quick to include a song in their set list because Hillsong or Bethel or Passion does it. But God has called you to be faithful to Him and your people. Go through the lyrics. All of them. Do they have biblical support? Are they doctrinally sound? Is it a song your pastor would approve of? What truths do your want your people to cherish? Would people know that you’re singing to, about, and for God? Remember “In the Secret?” It sounds like you’re asking someone (probably Jesus) to sneak around the corner and make out with you. Awkward. Same with “Draw me Close to You.”

It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of prayer. And this is before you even get to the practicing part! It decreases the amount of songs in your song bank. It may sound like too much, but as worship leaders, you’ve been entrusted with much! Be diligent and faithful, friends. It is not an entitlement to anyone with with a decent voice. It is a calling by God.

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