“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 5: Expectation Is a Planned Resentment

December 5, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 2:13, 22-23; Romans 8:28

glory_cover_finalAlcoholics Anonymous has a popular saying: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” One Christian thinker puts it like this:

We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[†]

Think of how this plays out in in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Potter, George Bailey’s business rival and archenemy, offers him a well-paying job with many perks, including frequent trips to Europe.

George, you’ll recall, always wanted to see the world. But “seeing the world” was one of many dreams that George sacrificed when his father died, and he inherited his father’s Savings and Loan. He also sacrificed his dream of going to college, becoming an architect, and “building things.” Instead, he watched his classmates and his brother achieve the fame and glory that, he believed, should have been his.

potterSo when Potter offers George the job, Potter’s underlying message to George is, “You deserve better than what you’ve received. It’s time to get what’s yours.”

To his credit, George decides not to make a deal with the devil. But the devil in this case wasn’t wrong: George is filled with resentment because, time and again, his life hasn’t lived up to his expectations. Remember: Expectation is a planned resentment.

Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, could have easily shared George’s resentment: He never expected his fiancée to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit. He never expected that King Herod would plot to kill this child. He never expected to flee with his family to Egypt and live as a refugee. He never expected to be unable to return to his hometown.

To say the least, Joseph’s life, like George’s, did not meet his expectations.

But was Joseph filled with resentment? No. Because he understood that the only expectation to which he was entitled was the following: that God loved him, that God had a plan for his life, and that God was working through all circumstances for his own good and the good of the world.

Can you relate to the saying, “Expectation is a planned resentment”? How has this been true for you? How would your life be different if you could be more like Joseph?

David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.


“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 4: How Will This Be?

December 4, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:34

glory_cover_finalMary, alongside other ancient people, knows the facts of life as well as any modern person: women don’t get pregnant without men—even if she lacked the more detailed scientific information that we now possess.

English Bible scholar Tom Wright puts it like this: “The ancient world didn’t know about X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, but they knew as well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercourse—and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offense.”[†]

What would people think if Mary, who was engaged but not yet married, said she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she was still a virgin, and there was no human father?

They would think that she’s lying to save herself from embarrassment or shame. This is, in fact, what Joseph thinks when Mary breaks the news to him in Matthew 1:18-19.

And this is one reason that we can be confident that the virgin birth is true: because Matthew and Luke, who each include Christmas stories in their gospels, know that it’s difficult to believe. They know that, like Joseph himself, readers might imagine that Mary’s story is a cover-up for something embarrassing.

Would Matthew and Luke risk including a potentially embarrassing and hard-to-believe story like the virgin birth if it weren’t based on solid evidence? Of course not. They include the story of the virgin birth because they also happen to believe it’s true.

Do you ever struggle to believe in God’s word? If so, you’re in good company! Pray that, as with Mary and Joseph, God will help you overcome your doubt.

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 9-10.


“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 3: A Place of Training and Correction

December 3, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:11-25

glory_cover_finalPoor Zechariah! The father of the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist gets punished because he doubts the angel’s promise that he and his wife will have a child.

But not so fast. “Punishment” might be too harsh a word. The Bible tells us that our heavenly Father disciplines his children for the same reason that human parents discipline their own children: because he loves us (Hebrews 12:6) and wants to shape us into better people. As the apostle James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

C.S. Lewis, using the old-fashioned word “punishment,” puts it like this:

I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run. I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments.” But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.[†]

“It’s not so bad,” indeed!

Even this year, I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety about my health—including a biopsy which returned a “suspicious” verdict from the pathologist before a second, larger sample ruled out cancer.

For someone who is already a borderline hypochondriac, this wasn’t easy for me. But because God is sovereign, I know that God allowed it to happen for a reason. For one thing, it forced me to my knees in prayer, which is always a good place to be.

I can see how God used this anxiety about my health as “punishment”—or discipline—to teach me to trust in the Lord more.

Do you believe, like Lewis, that this world is meant for our “training and correction”? How have difficult experiences made you a better person? Take a few moments to thank God for the ways in which he’s disciplined you.

C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.


“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 2: When Dreams Don’t Come True

December 2, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:35-38

glory_cover_finalLast September, a marathon was held near Philadelphia. It’s an important qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, so many of the runners who ran it were attempting to do just that. A part of the race course crossed railroad tracks. Despite assurances from Norfolk Southern that no train would interfere with the race, about a hundred runners got stopped by a very slow-moving train—for ten long minutes.

One runner missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by just eight minutes—which means he would have qualified if not for the train!

Can you imagine: standing there, waiting for a slow train to pass, knowing that every passing second puts you further and further from your goal?

It’s one thing to pull a hamstring, tear an MCL, or sprain an ankle. These are runners’ injuries. Runners assume these risks when they run. But to miss out on your dream of running the Boston Marathon on account of a train, of all things? Who expects that to happen?

Now consider Mary: As great a blessing as it was for her to play so large a role in God’s plan of salvation for the world, think of the dreams she would have to sacrifice. Think of the hardships she would endure. For one thing, getting pregnant out of wedlock—even miraculously—would make her a victim of gossip and innuendo. Plus, she would have to convince her fiancé, Joseph, that, despite appearances, she hadn’t been unfaithful to him!

It was as if God were sending a proverbial freight train through the center of Mary’s dreams and plans. Yet notice her response: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Think of an experience in which one of your own dreams didn’t come true. How did you feel at the time? How do you feel about it now? What can Mary’s response teach you about dealing with disappointment?


“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 1: Things Were Different

December 1, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 15:11-24

glory_cover_finalIn the holiday classic movie A Christmas Story, the nine-year-old protagonist, Ralphie, has finally had enough: he beats up a bully who has been tormenting  him and his friends for years. His mom intervenes to stop it, but it’s too late. She arrives in time to see her son pummeling the boy mercilessly and—worse, from Ralphie’s perspective—to overhear him cursing like a sailor as he does so.

His mother, however, is filled with compassion. She takes him home, washes his face, consoles him, and puts him to bed so he can calm down.

At dinner, when his father asks about his day, Ralphie is shocked when his mother downplays the fight—and doesn’t mention the profanity.

“I slowly began to realize,” Ralphie said, in retrospect, “I was not about to be destroyed. From then on things were different between me and my mother.”

From then on, Ralphie realized that his mother was not going to destroy him. He knew that compassion, mercy, and grace were going to win out over judgment, wrath, and death. He knew that his mother was on his side. And he knew that nothing he could do would separate him from his mother’s love.

ralphieOur heavenly Father loves us like that!

Think about today’s scripture. The younger son has squandered his father’s property, threatened his family’s financial security, and told his father, in so many words, that he wished he were dead. And now, out of desperation, the younger son is going home. He can’t predict what his father will do to him. But he knows what he deserves. The best he can hope for is that his father will at least let him live like a slave.

But the unimaginable happens: when he returns home and experiences his father’s love, mercy, and compassion, what must he have thought?

“I slowly began to realize, I was not about to be destroyed. From then on things were different between me and my father.”

And so it is with us. Our God refused to let sin separate us from him for eternity. He refused to let us get what we deserved. He refused to let us suffer hell without intervening to save us. He loved us too much.

And God knew before the foundation of the world the price he would pay to save us—that God himself would come into the world in Christ and die on a cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And now things are different between us and God. There is now no condemnation! If we’ll only receive the free gift that he’s offering us!

Have you received this free gift of God? If so, do you picture God as a compassionate father, eager to forgive you—or as Someone who’s waiting to punish you when you mess up? Which picture better corresponds with the Bible?


Sermon 11-20-16: “Generosity, Part 6: Giving and Grace”

November 24, 2016

generosity-sermon-series-graphic

The following is the sermon I delivered on our church’s annual Stewardship Commitment Sunday. In it, I challenge the church to give a tithe, ten percent of our income. This is by far the most explicit appeal I’ve ever made for tithing. If we understand that the most important mission of our church is to save people from hell, and the money we give is used by God to support that mission, how can we not be generous? Besides, as I argue in this sermon, our money isn’t our own to do with as we please: it comes from God and belongs to God.

Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-14

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Yesterday, Joe Thomas Sr., a running back for South Carolina State University, set a new NCAA record for Division I football with his performance. He rushed—are you ready for this? He rushed for three… yards against Savannah State University, on his only carry of the day. It doesn’t seem like three yards should be such a big deal, much less a new college football record.

joe_thomas_sr

But it was. And when I read about it yesterday, his great accomplishment made me want to cry.

Why? Because Joe Thomas Sr. is 55 years old! Fifty-five! How could that not bring a tear to my eye! He gives me hope! It means I still have nine years to get ready and get in shape and get on the field!

Joe Sr. has been on the team for the past four years—at least on the practice squad. A part of that time included playing—or at least practicing—alongside his son, Joe Thomas Jr., who now plays for the Green Bay Packers. But Joe Sr. himself had never realized his dream of playing big-boy college football in an actual game—until yesterday. Which was literally his last opportunity. It was senior day, the last game of the season. And Joe Sr. is also, well, a senior, graduating soon with an engineering degree.

I read the article about him last week, which discussed how badly he wanted to play in a game—to earn his varsity letter, to make history as the oldest player. It seemed unlikely. His coaches didn’t think it would happen. This was his last chance. Time was running out. 

Time was running out… That’s a theme in today’s scripture.

Time is running out for the manager about whom Jesus tells this parable. This manager was the equivalent of a CFO who was hired by a wealthy man to keep his books, to run his businesses, to run his estate. This manager made all the financial decisions, and he apparently made some foolish or dishonest ones. His master finds out about his mismanagement and tells him he’s going to fire him—but first he asks him to bring in the books or ledgers—to give an account for how well or how poorly he’s managed his master’s estate. Read the rest of this entry »


“Expectation is a planned resentment”

November 22, 2016

I read the following from the November 22 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional. I’m including the first paragraph here, so I can remind myself of it from time to time:

Alcoholics Anonymous has a popular saying: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[†]

To these examples of unmet expectations that turn to resentment, we can add plenty more. I myself have been, at times, a raging cauldron of resentment—whose culprit, I now see, was an unmet expectation, a sense that life wasn’t going the way it ought to go; that life wasn’t fair; that I wasn’t getting what I “deserved.” Worse, I felt as if other people were getting something I wanted, which they didn’t deserve.

Last week, I wondered aloud how we can “enjoy God forever,” as the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. One way, surely, is to surrender to God our expectations: If I recognize I have no right to anything good, I can receive the good that comes my way as nothing but pure gift.

Wouldn’t that be something? Don’t you want to live that way? Wouldn’t you be happier if you could live that way?

On second thought, let’s hold on to one expectation only: that God will continue to love us and work through every circumstance for our good. Let’s replace every other expectation with that one. Let’s learn to say, “This may not be what I planned. This may not be what I wanted. But it is what God wanted for me at this moment. God will give me the grace to handle it. And God will use it for my good.”

There’s probably a Thanksgiving message in there somewhere.

David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.


Sermon 11-13-16: “Generosity, Part 5: Money and Mission”

November 18, 2016

generosity-sermon-series-graphic

Unlike James and John in Luke 9:51-56, we would never ask the Lord to bring the fire of God’s judgment onto unbelievers. Yet when we fail to share the gospel—whether out of indifference, fear, or benign neglect—aren’t we effectively doing the same thing? Among other things, this sermon explores the connection between our mission as disciples and the money we give to support it.

Sermon Text: Luke 9:51-56; 18:18-30

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Today’s scripture always makes me uncomfortable because I identify with this Rich Young Ruler. I worry that, like him, I would find it impossible to sell all of my possessions and give the money to the poor. Frankly, I like my middle-class American income and lifestyle, and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that. So I worry that the biggest difference between me and the Rich Young Ruler is that Jesus never asked me to give up everything—thank you, Jesus! Because I’m sure it would be hard!

Jesus is frequently asking us to do difficult if not impossible things.

For example, after the week that we just went through as a nation, I’m reminded that loving and forgiving and praying for our enemies might be as difficult for us to accomplish as giving away all our money! I’m reminded that resisting the temptation to “practice our righteousness in front of others to be seen by them”[1]—to say things or post things on social media that demonstrate how good and virtuous and righteous we are—that’s also about as difficult as giving away all our money.

Honestly… I read posts from Christians last week on both sides of the political spectrum that called into question the authenticity of another Christian’s faith—because they happened to vote differently from someone else. Some progressive Christians said, in so many words, “These people who voted for Trump need Jesus!” And you know what? They’re right. Trump voters do need Jesus… and so do Clinton voters. Other, more conservative Christians said, in so many words, “If you’re a Democrat, you’re going to hell!” And to their credit, a lot of Democrats are going to hell—apart from the gift of forgiveness and eternal life that God gives us through his Son Jesus! By all means! And guess what? A lot of Republicans are, too.

And that’s my point: Let’s keep our eyes on the ball! Satan loves the way he’s divided Christians in this presidential election. He’s distracted us from our mission! And he loves it!

After all, we often have such passion, such a sense of urgency—we feel such conviction—when it comes to telling people how wrong they are to support this or that presidential candidate… We just have this burning desire to tell them exactly how we feel. We can’t contain ourselves! We just feel like we’re going to explode unless we tell other people why they’re wrong!

But brothers and sisters, where’s this same passion, this same sense of urgency, this same conviction, when it comes to telling other people about Jesus Christ—and how they can have their sins forgiven, and how they can be saved… for eternity? And how they can be given power to live a new and better life now! Where’s the passion for that?

I know we can get fired up about the one thing. Why not the other? Which is more important? Read the rest of this entry »


Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 3: How do we “enjoy God”?

November 17, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smTo refresh your memory, the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which Wesley endorsed without revision, is the following:

Question 1. What is the chief end of man?

Answer. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

A couple of years ago, on William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, Dr. Craig described a sermon he had recently heard, which attacked the commonplace idea that love is more “decision” than feeling:

I attended Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. One of the pastors there is Erik Thoennes who is a Professor of Theology at Biola University. He is a very insightful theologian and a wise man. His text for his sermon was Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.” He gave a whole sermon on just those few words. The sermon was just filled with all sorts of nuggets of wisdom that I found very provocative and helpful. One of them was his criticism of the view that love doesn’t involve emotions. One will very frequently hear it said that love is not a feeling, love is a decision. This will often be said in marriage counseling situations, for example, where you may not feel love for your spouse anymore but you make a decision, “I will love her” (or “him”) and we will work through this problem.

Kevin Harris: Make a commitment.

Dr. Craig: Or with someone else that is particularly disagreeable – a boss or family member or even perhaps a persecutor. It is very often said that when we are commanded to love others – even love our enemy – that this is a decision. It is not some sort of emotional feeling. Thoennes was disagreeing with that, which has become I think sort of the conventional wisdom. He said this can lead to the attitude, “Well, I have to love you but I don’t have to like you.” So, you can regard other people in such a way that you don’t really have any affection or feeling for them, but you treat them in a loving way. He said that’s true – that with many people, we never can get past that point in our lives. There will be people for whom we never have the chance to really build an emotional bond of affection.

Kevin Harris: But we love them anyway.

Dr. Craig: Yes, we treat them in loving ways. We make a decision to act in a loving way toward them whether we have those feelings or not. And he recognized that. But he said if you think that that is all that love is – that that is the end goal of love – then he says you have fallen short. He says a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person. This is a reflection of the way that God loves us. He said that he’s afraid that many people may think of God’s love for them as a love that is without affection. They think, “Well, God loves me but he doesn’t really like me.” When you think of what that would do in your relationship to God, I think you can imagine how debilitating that would be if you think that God really doesn’t like you as a person. But he sort of tolerates you and loves you because he has to. It is almost as though if love were not an essential property of God, if he were freed from the necessity of loving you, then he really wouldn’t love you if he didn’t have to. Read the rest of this entry »


Wesley’s Revision of The Shorter Catechism, Part 2: Holiness as a means to an end

November 15, 2016

jwc_the_shorter_catechism_front_cvr_smLast Sunday’s sermon text was the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Luke 18:18-30. There, Jesus tells a wealthy young man to give away 100 percent of his money and wealth in order to be saved. Why does Jesus tell him to do this? Because Jesus understood that this man’s money was an idolatrous obstacle that prevented him from giving his heart to Jesus and following him as Lord.

We can speculate why this was true: The man’s wealth gave his life meaning and purpose. It gave him his sense of self-worth. It probably made him feel loved, because as long as he had money, he was attractive to other people. So the Rich Young Ruler served money as a master—and as Jesus warns elsewhere, we can’t serve two masters, God and Mammon.

We need to have a single-minded focus, instead, on loving and serving God alone.

Obviously, everyone isn’t like this young man. Other people have other idolatrous obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship with Christ. Take, for example, the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4: In effect, she asks Jesus what she must do to be saved. Yet Jesus doesn’t say, “Sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor.” Why? Because her idol wasn’t wealth; it was relationships—romance, her love life. So unless or until she repented, she also wouldn’t be saved.

Jesus’ command to give away everything, therefore, was specific to this particular man and may not apply to most of us. In the New Testament we have rich people whom Jesus doesn’t ask to give away everything—Joseph of Arimathea, for instance, who gives his tomb to the disciples to be used for Jesus’ burial. Luke’s gospel tells us that women of means were financially supporting Jesus and the disciples. The Book of Acts tells us about a faithful disciple named Lydia, a dealer in purple goods, who was rich.

The problem isn’t wealth per se, and it may not be an idol for everyone—or at least it’s less of an idol than other things.

In my own life, while I don’t deny that I sometimes have an idolatrous attachment to money and possessions, I also know that a bigger idol for me is my attachment to the praise of others. I want glory.

Twenty years ago, my first job out of college was in sales. I was mentored by an older, well-seasoned, and successful salesperson named Alec. He told me more than once that money wasn’t a big motivator for his success: “I want recognition,” he said. Given my own modest commission checks at the time, I thought that was crazy. Now, however, I totally know what he means. Unfortunately.

If the chief end of us human beings is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, I can do neither so long as I’m greedy for my own glory. This is why sanctification—our Methodist emphasis on holiness—can’t be optional. Sin stands in the way of the most important thing we do, the very reason we exist.

In his century-old notes on Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism, James MacDonald draws this connection between the first article of the Shorter Catechism and holiness:

That which obscures the glory of God in the world is sin; hence the chief end of man is to obtain deliverance from this malignant darkness of sin, which is infected by the poisonous breath of the adversary. The man who is cleansed by the blood of Christ from all inbred and actual sin is called in Scripture language… perfect or mature… This is the aim and consummation of all the purpose, counsel, covenants, decrees, election, and predestination of God. If the Shorter Catechism is freed from the encumbrance of the metaphysical theories of predestination that have clung to it, it will go straighter to its mark in directing man to his chief end: that holiness which glories God on earth, and enjoys him to all eternity.[1]

1. John Wesley, Wesley’s Revision of the Shorter Catechism (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2016), 34-5.