Isn’t Christianity Just Another Self-Improvement Program?

Isn’t Christianity Just Another Self-Improvement Program?

Have you ever wondered if what Christianity “sells” is just another way to improve your self? To stop doing bad things and start doing good things?

After all the sermons and rhetoric, is it still just about me, me, me?

What if it were more than that? What if Christianity has nothing to do with that at all? What if it were more about entering a new reality, becoming a NEW person (not just a better version of yourself), and what if you could become part of a story – God’s story – that has been woven from the beginning of time. It’s a story that you’re invited into and one in which you have a role to play.

Have I piqued your interest yet?

I was sitting in a service at a local church not too long ago. Everything was normal and I was sitting there listening to the message. All of a sudden, it dawned on me. What I was hearing was almost the exact same thing that I had heard elsewhere – only, it wasn’t from a preacher, Bible study leader, or anything coming out of Christianity. The lesson and application from the sermon were almost identical to something I had either read or heard coming from a non-Christian, self-improvement guru. (I won’t share names because that’s not the important thing.)

It’s More than Principles

Something about living by principles, especially when we’re talking about the Church, has bugged me for a while. I’ve never jived with that train of thought because it all seems so trite and is still very much me-centered. You can try to use principles to get what you want out of both life and God, and you might even see some success (and that’s where the real danger comes in); however, in the end, it’s still about what you can get out of it.

Only, God didn’t create us to live by principle. He created us to live inside of a relationship. When we live by principle, we trust in the principle. We can say we’re trusting in God, have faith, whatever, but we don’t have to rely on God when we’re living by Principle X in order to get Result Y. There’s no need for trust when we live this way.

When we live by relationship, however, the full weight of the outcome rests with God alone. It’s not a principle that we’re trusting in – it’s a Person. You cannot predict the outcome when you trust in a person. That is out of your control. That is faith – following the One who is in charge of the results when all you can see is the next step.

At times, you can only hang on for dear life.

Failure IS An Option

When you’re learning to live by trust rather than principle, you will get it wrong. I know I have. There are many times when I think that there’s a certain direction I need to go in or something that God is telling me to do, only to find out that it was just my own voice I was listening to – not God’s.

So how can you tell the difference? At times, it’s not so easy – other times it is. God typically tells me to do things that are either outside my comfort zone or something I wouldn’t think do on my own. It’s usually requires me laying down at least part (if not all of) my “self.”

Christianity isn't a self-improvement program but rather a self-crucifixion program. Click To Tweet

When I was a good little Pharisee, I hated to fail. I needed to be right and point out others faults. The truth is, I failed all the time. I just hid my failures. It’s easy to overlook when you’re a Pharisee. That’s how we roll.

I’m still learning to let go of my fear of failure. I don’t like it, but I know my loving Father is with me smiling (not judging) and eager to help and encourage me. There’s no condemnation but a gentle nudging back to His presence where I can try again without fear.

Why Spiritual Principles Often Fail Us

Why Spiritual Principles Often Fail Us

Have you ever tried to live by spiritual principles? Someone tells you,

“This is the way you should be praying.” Here are the 7 steps to an effective prayer life.

“Read your Bible like this.” Here are the 4 steps to being a better husband, father, Christian, etc..

“You need to be more involved in church meetings and programs if you really want to grow.” Follow these 5 things to become a better Jesus follower.

I know I have done those things. Shoot, I’ve even said those kinds of things before. The problem is that if you want to follow Jesus, He doesn’t work through principles. He works through relationship.

Living by spiritual principle is so tempting. It’s fairly easy and straightforward. I usually know what I have to do and where I have to be at what time to follow the Lord this way.

Only it seldom works the way we think. And, I believe the Lord does that on purpose. Why? Because He wants to be our shepherd. He wants to be the one whispering in our ear, “This is the way. Walk in it.”

When we follow the nudges of the Lord, it opens a vast array of possibilities. Sometimes frustratingly so. When the Lord asked me to step down from a ministry position at a megachurch, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I trusted that God knew the way – even though I did not.

That has led my family and I down a number of unforeseen roads – not all of which would have been ones I would have chosen and in the middle of them I’ve asked the Lord, “Really? This?” “Why not that over there?” Usually when I ask those questions he’s pretty quiet. I know the answer will be, “Trust me.”

And I do. I have to. It’s what I’ve hinged my life on. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s always simple. I seem to have spiritual ADD at times – flitting about and chasing things like a hyped up kitten freaking out on catnip.

I miss things, and I have totally gone in the wrong direction at times. What I love about this journey is that there is no condemnation for getting it wrong – just a loving Father smiling and guiding me back to where He wants me.

The Lord is also teaching me to ask “What now, Lord? What do you have me for today?” Instead of me asking, “What’s next?”

I believe God wants me to focus on the here and now and not necessarily what’s down the road. He’s patiently steering me in the direction I need to be (which isn’t always that easy – I tend to have a stubborn side.)

I will say, I’m getting used to it. I used to pride myself on seeing the “big picture” and the “end result”, only I don’t know that those things need to be my concern. God’s territory is the big picture. He may give me a glimpse of it if He chooses, or He may not.

His true desire is that I lean on Him and into Him to really hear what he’s saying. If we are His sheep, we will know His voice. It rarely is an audible voice, but usually it’s a gentle whisper or a loving little nudge in a certain direction. “Here is where I’m working.”

“Go, help those people for a bit.”

“Call this friend.”

“Serve here for a little while.”

“Love this person right where they are.”

God gives us desires and hints at what He is doing if we are willing to listen. I’ve prided myself in hearing God for a long time for big decisions. Now, He and I are focused on listening to Him in the day-to-day. And it’s exciting and frustrating at the same time.

Right now, I’m loving it. There’s no pressure, and He’s so patient and merciful. It’s a bit scary sometimes, and I get nervous I’m not doing it right. But that’s not the point, as I am reminded by some fellow journeyers moving in a similar direction.

It’s also frustrating when He seems so quiet, and I don’t get it. There are moments I think I do, and many moments lately when I’m sure I don’t. But, it’s okay. I’m learning to enjoy the process and this new part of my journey. Every day is different, and I’m embracing the unknown bit by bit as I hear from God and He says, “Here I am. This is the way. Let’s walk over here for a moment.”

What is God teaching you about following Him? Where have you heard or felt a nudge from God and where did it lead you?

Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash

Letting Go of Expectations

Letting Go of Expectations

This morning I received an email from a friend of mine who is a missionary in Mexico. I usually hear from him about once a week and we briefly tell each other how we can be praying.

He shared about his interns being too comfortable and needing to come to the end of themselves. He knew he couldn’t be the one to bring them to that point, but wondered at least how he could lead them down that road.

It got me thinking about our expectations for others, and the long journey it’s taken me to come to the end of myself. Every time I think I’m at the end, it seems Jesus is there tugging me forward saying, “That was just a resting place. It’s not the end.” Have you been there?

What Do You Expect?

Unmet expectations are the source of all kinds of conflict, whether in marriages or friendships or the workplace. This is especially true when the expectations are unrealistic. Much of the time, I believe they are.

  • We expect others to meet our needs completely, when there is only One that can fulfill us (and it’s not your spouse or significant other).
  • We have too high expectations of ourselves and get frustrated when we don’t meet those. (Come on, I’m not the only one am I?)
  • We have expectations that others need to be where we are spiritually and if not try to get them there. (Is that really our job? Check out 1 Corinthians 3:5-9).
  • We expect other people to behave like us, respond like us, and communicate like us. We forget that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. We fulfill different roles in the body, and our uniqueness is from the Lord (Sometimes it feels like it’s from the devil, though, right?)

Often we feel that we have a right to lead people down the road to meet our expectations, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. I know from experience. I’ve felt that way before, and I shake my head when I remember some of those moments. (That was before my Phari-sectomy).

God Has a Process

Does God want us to come to the end of ourselves? Absolutely. Can He use my friend as a part of that process? I’m sure He will.

The danger, I believe, is when we try to take on that process ourselves. Very rarely does any good come from trying to short-circuit God’s timing. (Just take a look at Abraham, Joseph, and any number of Bible characters who tried).

When we try to usurp the activity of God in someone’s life, we reveal a lack of trust in God and His work and growth in that person. Yes, he can absolutely use us to be a part of that process. So what role do we play in that?

What is My Part?

According to 1 Corinthians 3, we plant and we water. We are not in charge of growth. That is God’s domain. What does planting and watering look like? There’s not a specific formula for each person, and I’m not trying to set forth principles to live by but ideas to embrace.

FORGIVE

When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, forgive them. When you don’t meet your own, forgive yourself. Extend forgiveness frequently and generously.

ANOINT WITH GRACE AND MERCY

Be willing to shower people with God’s grace and mercy. Let go of unrealistic expectations and ask God to show you those when they occur.

LISTEN

Above all else, listen. Listen to Father for the gentle nudges that can help you walk alongside your brothers and sisters. Listen to your fellow believers as they share their struggles and what God is showing them. Help them navigate and nurture their relationships with Father and fellow believers.

May we be rich in mercy and slow in our criticism of those who love Jesus and may not be as far along as we are or as far as we think they ought to be. May we learn to see the beauty in our uniqueness and value our differences.

Do you struggle with imposing expectations on others? How do you respond when others place those on you?

The Dangerous Nature of Shadows

The Dangerous Nature of Shadows

Throughout Scripture, there are a number of earthly “shadows” that point to realities that are heavenly in nature. Many of these substitutes were fulfilled in Christ when He was upon this earth. Others will be fulfilled upon His return and beyond. These are things such as the temple in the Old Testament, the order of high priests, the Mosaic Law, and the Tree of Life in the garden. The nice thing about these shadows was that they were tangible. You could touch and feel some – the fabric in the tabernacle, the animals for sacrifice. Some you could even smell: the incense burning, oil flowing over the temples and beards of the priests, the burning of the sacrifices.

For all the good that these shadows represented, there are also a number of pitfalls that can ensnare the believer. These dangers are outlined in Colossians 2:16-23, and we can also see how others relate to them (like the Pharisees).

  1. They can be seen. 
    The hard notion about the things of Christ is that we can rarely see them. We can often sense them or intuit them, but there is little to “grab hold of”. A shadow can be seen. You might even be able to touch and feel it. The danger is putting a higher priority on things that are seen, as opposed to what is unseen. Why is that a danger? Let’s look at some scripture that will help us:

    18 while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4, NASB)

    Why would we want to put more emphasis on things that are temporal? The shadows will pass away leaving the reality behind. As followers of Christ, we must focus on the reality and not the shadow.

  2. They can be held onto.
    Since these things can be seen, they can be held. Remember, I’m not talking about a shadow which you cannot grasp. These shadows are representations (think models) of eternal realities that are not able to be held or touched. These representations (like the temple, high priests, etc.) are physical substitutes that point to a heavenly truth.Again, the danger of holding onto something is not being able to let go to see the greater truth and not being able to let go of what we think is the real thing. Look at what Jesus told the Pharisees,

    8 “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! (Mark 7, NIV)

    This isn’t the only time the Pharisees were chastised by Jesus for focusing on the wrong thing. They were more concerned about rules and regulations (i.e., religion) than they were about people and the things that God desires including justice, compassion, care for the widow and the poor, and loving one another.

  3. They can be idolized.
    The biggest danger of these shadows is that they can be idolized. We can put them in the very place of God, holding them up and clinging to them as “the things” of God, all the while missing God Himself and God’s true commandments, much like the Pharisees did.They idolized their rules and regulations thinking they were doing God’s work, yet neglected the true compassion and mercy that God intended. Jesus demonstrated this by healing on the Sabbath (something forbidden by the religious leaders of his day); not following the rules of washing; eating with tax collectors and “sinners”; the list goes on and on.

Jesus’ non-traditional approach to people and faith made almost everyone turn their head and take notice. It should be the same with His followers. People should take notice of His disciples not because of what we’re doing, but because of what He’s doing in and through us. This is a subtle shift but a very important one.

We are to be people that cling to the substance that the shadow points to, especially when we can’t see it or touch it. Life is not found in the shadow but in the reality. Funny isn’t it? That the very thing that we can touch and feel won’t provide life, yet what is true and real is the very thing that, for now, we cannot see. Yet we must press in to life, to Him, to restore us, to give us hope, healing, and to renew all the things that He wants to redeem.

We are to be the messengers of the great reality that is found in Kingdom life and living – the reality that says that Jesus is not only our Savior, but our brother and our friend. He calls us to live a life that we cannot live on our own.

A life that reaches beyond the shadows.

A life called out of the shadows and into the Light.

giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

What shadows have you been clinging to that God is calling you to let go of? How can you help move someone you know out of the shadows and into a greater reality with His Life and Light? 

Is There a Better Way to Disciple?

Is There a Better Way to Disciple?

When I was in college, I went through a very well-known discipleship program. I met with my discipler once a week and we went through these huge notebooks of information. We would check off lists and tasks. A friend of mine was my leader. There were a couple of issues I had with the program. One, I began to dread going every week. I hung out with my friend weekly, if not daily. I enjoyed spending time with him, except the discipleship time we spent together was BOR – ING! There was no life in it – just going through a notebook and to-do items. (Snoozer!)

  • Did I read the passages and answer the fill-in-the-blank questions?
  • Did I memorize the scripture for the week?
  • Did I witness to at least one person? (The answer was usually NO – since I was at a Christian university, who wasn’t a Christian? 🙂 ).

There were 3 of these notebooks you had to get through in order to complete the program. These were not your ordinary 2-inch binders either. They were ginormous, 5- or 6-inch beasts that would put a large-print KJV Study Bible to shame.

My second issue was that it really didn’t seem to make a difference in my life or the life of my friend. We hung out together all the time, yet, his faith didn’t really seem to grow much during our time together. It just felt like something we did, checked off, and moved on. More life and relationship growth happened outside of that time – not during it.

I never finished the program. I didn’t even get through the second mega-manual. In some ways, I felt like a failure. Honestly, though, there was more life in a prayer time that another friend and I shared twice a week. I found his faith and trust in the Lord inspiring, and our time together wasn’t dry at all. I even experienced a major healing during this time. That was the kind of faith I wanted (and still want) to pursue. Not a checklist-based faith, but a living faith that learns to listen to and hear the Lord’s voice. 

That’s why many so-called discipleship programs are flawed. They are based too much on what we do, and not enough on hearing from the Lord and following His lead. I’ve tried a number of programs and read about a few more. They may have had life at one point, but many seem ineffective in creating life-long followers of Jesus. The issue comes when we try and box up what the Lord wants to do through His Spirit and His people and put it into a system of checklists and principles. He’s a living God that wants a living relationship with His children.

 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

It is not the system or structure we use (or even the person leading us) that causes us to grow in the Lord, but it is the Lord Himself. So why do we settle for a system created by a person to help us grow in the Lord? How about we connect with the source of growth first? And then share what Father is doing in our lives to help each other mature in the Lord?

What kind of discipleship would that look like? One that seeks to encounter a living God and to live where every day is a new challenge of faith and listening and learning both from Father and from each other?

What is your experience with discipleship? What have been the most encouraging times helping you grow in your faith? What funny stories do you have about attempts at discipleship?