What are we waiting for?

Be patient therefore brothers until the coming of the Lord. James 5:7

Have you ever noticed how the New Testament writers write with a deep sense of urgency? Their words make it sound like Jesus has ascended and will be back any minute. But for our modern ears, this can feel silly—is waiting and living like Jesus is coming back really that important? Perhaps we have been taught that Jesus will return again and restore all things, but that feels so far off, so out of touch with what reality feels like today. And yet, as surely as he came into the world once, he will return (Acts 1:11). 

Advent comes every year to reawaken us to this seemingly forgotten reality. Like spiritual smelling salts, Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, is a season of anticipation and longing intended to retune our hearts, minds, and imaginations to remember that we are indeed waiting for our King to come. 

Advent means literally to come. Leading up to Christmas, we are focused on the first coming of the Jesus, the inbreaking of God through the incarnation as he sets in motion what he promised through the prophets centuries before. To understand advent and what we are waiting for we must first remember the story of Israel where it leaves off. This time in history is called the intertestamental period, the years between the old and new testaments, which was about 400 years. Israel had been released from captivity to Babylon and begun, with many obstacles, to rebuild the temple in anticipation of the promised messiah. But mostly, this was a season of waiting. Israel was discouraged and worn down, once again finding themselves waiting and wondering what God was doing and if he would prove himself faithful.

Today, we find ourselves in a very similar place. Though we know how the story of Israel’s waiting ends, we too are waiting between advents, between the comings of Christ. Jesus has come, but he promises to come again. Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension we are united to him, adopted as children of God, and walk by his Spirit. But one day he will return to make all things new, to wipe away every tear and end sin and death once and for all. 

So today, as we begin this season of Advent, let us rightly posture ourselves, joining with the saints who waited long before us, in hopeful anticipation of Jesus coming again. He has promised he will.

Reflect: How does thinking about the return of Christ shape your day to day life?

Pray: Lord, I am waiting for many things and you know each of them. Awaken my heart to your promise to return one day and make all things new. Give me hope and imagination to live today in a way that reflects your perfect word, and grant me by your spirit the grace and courage to follow you with joy in my circumstances today. Amen.

The good gifts and the perfect gift

Advent devotional

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. – James 1:16-18

The Bible is full of things that seem unbelievable: humans rising from the dead, immaculate conception, prophecies, spiritual realms. But often, the most unbelievable things in scripture are not supernatural, they are the words that challenge our underlying assumptions about ourselves. James says that every good and perfect gift is from God. Every single one. When we see something good in our lives, it is from God. A healthy family? A gift from God. A good education? A gift from God. A delicious meal? A gift from God. 

The good gifts

When I worked with Harvard students, this topic was always an interesting one to breach. These incredibly gifted, hard-working students have largely been told “you got yourself here, you deserve this.” It was their work, determination, and brilliance that landed them a spot at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. When we would discuss James’ words, I could see the wheels turning, an uncomfortable tension rising in their minds. The tension of wondering who did what? Perhaps God did give me certain things, but at some point, it was my work that got me here. There was an invisible line between the things God did, and the things they did to arrive on campus. And this line runs through each of our hearts.

We find it hard to believe that God has opened every door, provided our family and finances, and created us with minds and abilities that are bestowed by him. We want our successes and accomplishments to be our glory, not his. But the Greek word for good in this verse means intrinsic good; gifts that are good whether we see them to be so or not. It’s like James is addressing this problem before we can even argue with him. Any intrinsic good in your life is a gift from your Heavenly Father. The things we celebrate most about ourselves should be the gifts we thank God for most. But there is something even more valuable—the perfect gift. 

The perfect gift

The word for gift is only seen in one other place—Romans 5 where it is used to refer to our salvation, the most valuable gift of God. Salvation is the gift we should desire most, be most thankful for, and delight in more than any other. And yet often, it is the overlooked gift. What a low view of salvation that we have when we accept that we have been made righteous through the work of Christ, freed from the penalty and curse of sin, and adopted as children of God, and move on looking for more. We take our eyes off of this most precious gift and put them back on the gifts that seem to serve us most today, bring us the most glory. But as James reminds us, do not be deceived, this gift of salvation is of much greater value than any comforts or provisions God has given us in his goodness. Do not lose sight of the reality that our salvation is the only gift we truly need.

Today, remember that the good gifts are good and we should thank God for them, but they are not the perfect gift. They are not union with Christ or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are not the promise of life eternal, our sin forgiven, or brokenness restored. Today fix your eyes on the gift of Christ, the only gift we truly need. 

Reflect:

What are the good gifts from God you see in your life?

Where do you see the line of what God has done and what I have accomplished in your life?

How has salvation changed your life? 

Pray: Lord, thank you that every gift comes from you. I repent of the ways that I think my own actions or work have earned the good things in my life. Help me to grow in my awareness of and thankfulness for your provision, and learn to treasure your gift of salvation more and more. Help me to rejoice with the Psalmist who says, I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me (Ps 13:5-6). Amen.

A season of discontentment

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Phil 4:11-13

What are you thankful for this year? We are entering a season in which our whole country will gather around the idea of giving thanks, but thankful hearts quickly fade as thankful Thursday turns to Black Friday. Thankfulness is recognizing the good in your life and being rightfully grateful for it. Health, a delicious meal, a day of rest, a job that pays the bills. While keeping the tradition may seem strained for many of us after a grueling year, perhaps we should take a step past thankfulness and ask ourselves, what is going to make me content in this holiday season? 

Contentment is similar to thankfulness but says I need nothing added, I need nothing more, what I have and what I am is enough. I can be thankful for many things, but still find myself discontent; I want more. More date nights, more vacation, more clothing, more cookies. And this hunger for more is insatiable. We will even feel it as we sit around the dinner table discussing thankfulness while wondering if we might have one more piece of pie and filling out a Black Friday shopping list. Our natural disposition is to want more; our natural disposition is discontentment. We are never satisfied. Thankfulness and contentment share a corner, but they are very different things. 

While thankfulness is a popular concept, our culture doesn’t celebrate contentment. Contentment can sound boring, unambitious even. Beyond the consumeristic impulse towards more, there is a whole movement around the idea that we deserve more or better in our lives. Don’t settle, always pursue more for yourself and your life. More is not only a consumeristic tool, it is a spiritual practice for the religion of self. Pursue more of everything that will make me better, whole, complete. Don’t you want more in your life? More is the foundation of our culture. And in this coming holiday season that can easily be about acquiring things, what could possibly make us content? There is so much we desire. From wanting to be with family that we cannot see due to Covid, to wishing we had nicer things or someone to share a New Years’ kiss with. How can believers pursue contentment in a season that more often produces discontentment?

Paul says he has learned in whatever situation, in every and any circumstance how to be content: I can do all things through him who strengthens me (13). While Paul doesn’t give us a nicely packaged guide to become contented people, it is Jesus who is the source. To understand what this means, we must walk with Paul and learn his heart. Now more than ever, we need to learn what Paul calls the secret to contentment. 

Finding joy in people and relationships, not things

Throughout Philippians, Paul celebrates people. They are his pride and treasure. He rejoices in the Philippian church for their partnership with him in the gospel saying that he yearns for them all with the affection of Jesus (1:7-8). He boasts in Timothy and Epaphroditus because they are just as interested in others as they are in themselves (2:19-29). Though Epaphroditus had grown ill and almost died, he was most distressed to hear that the Philippian church was worried about him. He was equally interested in their welfare as his own. Paul loves these people and rejoices in seeing them thrive in their love for the gospel. Paul prizes people, not things, and it is the first key to his secret of contentment.

Holiday application: Make this season about other people. Imitate Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus by being just as interested in the lives of your family and friends as you are in yourself. 

Placing our hope in the Gospel

When we are in a consumer mindset always pursuing more, our hope is in what we have. We begin to believe the subtle lie that if I have the right things, then I will be happy. Though this may seem insignificant, anytime we place our hope in something other than the gospel, we are crossing into idolatry— a discontented, hungry heart. But Paul shows us another way. 

Paul is arrested and thrown in prison for preaching the gospel but says it is good to be there because he can preach the gospel and win more to Christ (1:12-14). He says that it does not matter if he lives or dies because to live means preaching Christ more and dying means he gets to be with Jesus (1:19-26). He says that though he was once regarded as an important thinker and teacher, he considers it to be worthless in comparison to knowing Jesus (3:4-11). Paul’s hope is not in his freedom or social status, it is exclusively in Jesus and his promises. In Colossians, another book Paul wrote, he says when Christ who is your life appears (3:14). Christ is Paul’s life. All of it. What an incredible thing.  

Holiday application: Daily ask yourself where your hope is today. What are you trusting or hoping in that is not Jesus? Imitate Paul and actively choose to put your hope in Jesus today, not in things or circumstances. 

The possessions we need

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Paul’s contentment is found in Jesus who strengthens him. Here are three possessions that every Christian needs. 

  1. Knowing Jesus. I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him (3:8). Christians should pursue knowledge and intimacy with Christ before all else. Knowing Jesus is the source of all contentment and we must know his words, his character, and his voice. 
  2. Humility. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (2:3-4). When we are humble and consider others more significant than ourselves, we start to look like our servant King Jesus. Humility breeds contentment because we are no longer the most important person in the room. Chase after it.
  3. Peace. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:4-7). As we lay aside anxiety, seek the Lord in prayer and practice thankfulness, the peace of God fills our hearts and minds. A peaceful heart that has stopped hungering after other things is a heart that is content.

Holiday application: Address your contentment equation. Fill in the blanks _____+______+______= contentment. Then reframe it to Paul’s equation. Joy in people + Hope in the gospel + Pursuing the things of Christ = contentment.

5 Reasons we skip time in the Word (and 5 ways forward)

The Christian life is full of tension. But no concept must be held in tension more tightly than grace and works. The conversation I have more often than any other with other believers is, “YOU NEED TO SPEND TIME IN GOD’S WORD! But remember that you are saved by grace and having quiet time does not earn your salvation. But because God loves you so much, spend time in your Bible and get to know him!” There is nothing we can do to earn God’s love, but there is much we can do to get to know him better, to walk in His ways, and be transformed into his likeness. One of these ways is reading the Bible.

I’ve heard many reasons for not reading scripture—I don’t get much from reading the Bible, I don’t have time to read scripture, it’s boring. While these sentiments are common, we cannot let them go unchecked. The Bible is the primary way we get to know God, so if we are going to follow him well, knowing God’s word is critical for our spiritual growth and health. Though everyone has different reasons and difficulties with reading scripture, here are five reasons that I have personally found spending time in God’s word can be challenging, and how to work through them. 

The Bible about God, not you. I always trend towards self-centeredness, so it is no surprise that when I open my Bible, I often want it to be about me. But the Bible is primarily about God, not a tool for my own self-discovery. Something that campus ministry taught me was the importance of other-centeredness. Though I could happily talk about myself in one-on-one meetings with students, I was there for them and to get to know their story. The same goes for our relationship with God. We are his creation and he has made us to know him

The way forward: humility. When you open God’s word, focus on learning more about him, his character, what delights and angers him, and the way he has made us. Ask the Spirit to teach you about who you are in the context of your relationship with the one who made you and knows you. 

Misplaced expectations. What do you expect when you open your Bible? An emotional experience? To hear an audible voice from heaven? That scripture will always speak perfectly to your circumstances? The most important thing I learned from pre-marital counseling was that expectations dictate relationships. We must identify our expectations of reading scripture and then determine if they are biblical expectations. It is not wrong to expect God to show up when you read the Bible, in fact, God promises that he will—that his spirit will give us understanding and insight into his word as we read it. But in order to remove disappointment or frustration from time in the word, we must identify what exactly we expect.

The way forward: expecting the Spirit to do what he promises. The Holy Spirit’s job is to bear witness to who Jesus is by teaching us his words, reminding us of what he did (Jn 14:26), and expanding our hearts to love him more (1 Jn 3:20). He also helps us see our sin, leads us to repentance (Jn 16:7-8), and sanctifies us to make us look more like Jesus (2 Cor 3:8). But what this looks like day to day is really simple things: a verse that comforts us, a story that challenges us, seeing something beautiful in the person of Jesus, a heart that repents of sin. These are the everyday works of God; we need to sharpen our vision to see them.

I haven’t addressed my psychology. If I’m honest, I often operate as if God is a little bit annoyed with me. He wishes I was less sinful, holier, more prayerful—he wants me to get my act together. I know that this is not what God thinks about me, but this lie seeps into how I approach God in my quiet time and changes my posture. I find myself edgy, trying to do more or be better, and quickly walking away from the gospel of grace that the Bible sings over me. If we allow our emotions to tell us what God thinks about us, we will hate spending time with him.

The way forward: believing the truth. Answer this question: what does God think about you? Does he like you? Our emotions are important and powerful, but we cannot give them the privilege of telling us who God is. We must rely on God’s own words for that, and he says that he delights in us (Ps 70:4), adopted us as his children (Gal 4:5), forgiven us (1 Jn 1:19), promises to show us grace every single day (Lam 3:22-23), and does not hold a grudge against us (Ps 103:12). We must choose to measure our emotions against the truth, and believe what God says about us.

I don’t feel like reading scripture. The question of authenticity is primary for our generation. If I don’t feel like doing something, I shouldn’t because it wouldn’t be authentic. But this is a short-sighted way of living life. If I only ever did what I felt like doing, I wouldn’t get up in the middle of the night to comfort a screaming child, I would probably lose my job because I don’t feel like working very often, and my wallet would be hurting because I don’t always feel like cooking dinner and would rather eat out. The reality is that much of life is comprised of doing things that we don’t always feel like doing, but we do them anyway because they are valuable, good for us, or make us better. If you are a Christian, your life belongs to God and we must do what he asks of us, whether we feel like it or not. 

The way forward: showing up. Showing up before the Lord, reading his word, spending time in prayer even when we don’t feel like it sows the seeds of a big harvest. The biggest lesson I have learned about spending time with God is consistency. I won’t always have an amazing quiet time, but I have come to love my 30 minutes of time before Jesus. Showing up when it’s hard paves the way for enjoyment and delight in God’s word. 

I’m in a hurry. The easiest reason to neglect time in scripture is because I am busy. But the reality is, I will always be busy, and if I wait to prioritize time in scripture for the day I am not busy, I will never start. In spite of busyness, everyone makes time for the things that they love. I love hiking and running and being outdoors and I will get up early, postpone lunch, and do anything I can to get that time outside. We prioritize and pursue the things we value. So the real question is, why don’t you value time in scripture? This is the much bigger question hiding underneath our claims of busyness and it is the question with which we must wrestle. If you find yourself not making space for God, his word, or prayer in your day, you need to ask yourself why.

The way forward: an honest look at your relationship with Jesus. Being honest with yourself and the Lord is essential and there are reasons for why you don’t make time for God in your day. We each need to identify what those reasons are. Maybe you find scripture confusing, or you are afraid that if you read the Bible you will hear things you don’t like. Whatever your reason might be, you need to identify it, bring it before the Lord, and ask him to help you work through it. We must learn to prioritize Christ in our lives because he is much better and more valuable than anything else we might put first.

Eat the book

A few years ago a friend of mine who is not a Christian criticized Christians for not embodying their faith. Their faith was mostly about knowing a set of rules, but they didn’t seem very joyful or alive. While this critique was harsh, it also felt true. It is all to easy for Christians to know things about God without ever digesting that knowledge, getting the teaching of Christ into our bellies where it might course through our bodies and make us different. When we settle for training our minds and neglect bringing our whole bodies into alignment with the knowledge we profess, we find ourselves living an undernourished faith. But this is not the way it is supposed to be.

In Revelation 10, John listens to an angel in heaven read about the mysteries of God from a scroll. His voice is like a lion’s roar, thundering across the land. Intuitively, John moves to write down what he hears, but the angel forbids him from writing down the words and rather invites him to eat the scroll. Though Revelation may seem to be full of bizarre snippets such as this, Revelation is all about worship. Here, John is being instructed about what true worship is—it is not simply knowledge, writing down information so our minds might absorb it, worship is about our bodies. 

In response to this passage, Eugene Peterson says, Why, that [writing the words down] would be like taking the wind or breath out of the words and flattening them soundless on paper…It’s as if the heavenly voice said, “No, I want those words out there, creating sound waves, entering ears, entering lives. I want those words preached, sung, taught, prayed—lived. Get this book into your gut; get the words of this book moving through your bloodstream; chew on these words and swallow them so they can be turned into muscle and gristle and bone.” And John did it; he ate the book.

Most of us are in danger of living a life flattened on soundless paper. Christians can fall into a way of life that exists primarily in the mind, the place of knowing and thinking, but fail to fully digest our knowledge. This has always been a religious person’s problem; Jesus criticized the relgious people of his day for this very thing because knowing and believing something that does not produce congruent actions is called hypocrisy. Those pharisees knew the law and the traditions, but their religion was like a fine table set at a party at which no one feasted; they were missing the point of all that knowledge. Their concepts never nourished their heart; they hadn’t eaten the book. And unfortunately, this is the modern churches’ problem too. We are an undernourished people, hungry for intimacy with Christ and settling for knowledge of him. We need to be people who eat the book. 

An undernourished people

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. Then he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth. He then said to me: “Son of man, go now to the people of Israel and speak my words to them. -Ezekiel 3:1-5

The prophet Ezekiel receives his call from God to be a prophet to Israel, but rather than filling Ezekiel’s mind with perfect theology or knowledge of God’s law, God goes for his gut. He wants to fill Ezekiel, get his word inside his body, coursing through his bloodstream and sustaining his muscles for the task ahead of him. 

His task to is prophesy to Israel, God’s own people. These people knew God. They had the law to instruct them and their story of God freeing them from Egypt so that they might dwell in his presence and worship him. And yet, Israel had not gotten the law into their hearts, they had not come to hunger for the ways of God. Later God and Ezekiel would have a conversation about Israel in which God calls them dry bones, dead and wasted away. The question of the conversation is can they come alive again? Is God able to raise them back to life, to put muscle on their bones, give them breath and empower them to walk in the ways of God?  

The same question goes for us. When our faith is predominately an intellectual faith or a faith situated in our minds, we are on the path to becoming dry bones, bodies that are unnourished and wasting away. It is not because our minds are unimportant—- on the contrary, they are critical to our faith and we are commanded to used them (Mt 22:37)— but a faith that is only about knowledge will always trend towards hypocrisy. We must put what we know into action, we must be people who don’t just read the book but eat it. We need to hunger for more than knowledge about Jesus, we must hunger for him—his presence, love, and peace in our lives. And fortunately, this is exactly what God wants for us. 

The nourishment we need

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. – John 6:53, 55 

Though Ezekiel and John were invited to eat the written word of God, we are invited to something much stranger—to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ. It is no coincidence that Jesus chooses food to be the way his people remember him and participate in his covenant. He knows that humans trend towards anemic lives that lack the fullness we were made for. So he chooses food. 

My sister is a naturopathic doctor who says that food is the fastest way to teach people to connect with their bodies. When we eat wholesome, nourishing foods, our bodies are fueled and empowered to do what they are made to do. Food changes us from the inside out, repairing our cells, giving us energy, and teaching us to hunger after the right things. Just as the word of God nourished Ezekiel to fulfill his calling as a prophet to Israel, to speak against their ways and call them to repentance, Jesus, the incarnated word of God, offers himself as our spiritual nourishment so that we might live sacrificial lives and fulfill our calling as Christians to follow him. God is not interested in only teaching our minds, he is first and foremost interested in getting into our hearts and guts. As we feast on Jesus, the true word of God, he softens our hearts, strengthens our limbs for his work, and empowers our bodies to move through the world like he did. 

How to eat the book

Prioritize intimacy with Christ over knowledge about him. It is much easier to learn things about God than to get to know him. We need to know him, and knowing God comes from spending time in his presence, listening to him, and loving him for who he is rather than what he can do for us. He is more than worthy of our time, let’s give it to him.

Don’t be a hypocrite. Be hearers and doers of the word (Jas 1:22-25). Ask yourself where and why you aren’t taking God’s word seriously. Repent and ask the Spirit to make you hungry. Jesus says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Mt 6). Make this your prayer: that you would hunger after the ways of God, not your ways, not the ways that are comfortable, but the ways of God. 

Remember that our God wants to nourish us. In Christ, the incarnated word, God has revealed himself to us and given us the same spirit that gave breath and put sinew and muscle back on those dry bones. He is able and he wants to nourish us. Let’s ask him to do so.