What Should a Christian’s Priorities Be?

Christians have a problem with priorities today like in no other time.  There are so many things that are demanding our attention and many of them are good things.  But none of us have unlimited time.  We are all given the same 24 hours in a day.  The difference comes down to how we choose to spend our time.  Because we can’t do everything we have to make choices and make sacrifices according to what is the most important.

Our priorities should be God, family, and then church in that order.  There’s obviously some need for clarification with these priorities though.  The fact that God should be our biggest priority in our life shouldn’t be a surprise.  In Matthew 22:36-38 Jesus explains our biggest priority.

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.

Our first priority is to love God.  There are many things that are entailed in this which includes worshipping God, praying and building a relationship with Him, and following His commands.  There are a lot of Christians who can’t even get this first priority right. 

When you love somebody, it’s pretty easy for others to see it.  You want to spend all of your time with that person and do everything you can to please that person.  If Christians’ love of God were judged based on these criteria, how many of us could be convicted by a jury today?  I’m not talking about do people know you go to church.  I’m talking about do people know that you love God.  Do people see that you want to spend time with God and want to do everything you can to please God?  How many can honestly say that God is first in their life if that is the criteria?

Jesus also establishes the next criteria in our life.  Other people come after our love for God.  In Matthew 19:29 Jesus tells His disciples about the sacrifices they would have to make to follow Him.  “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”

Also in Luke 9:61-62 it is written: “Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.’  Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.'”

Family is important but it is not to take precedence over God.  This means that family functions should not pull us away from our worship of God.  God instituted the family as the most important relationship we have on earth but He never intended it to have precedent over Him. 

This is a fine line to walk and it is not easy.  But we must carefully decide what is a need for our family and what is simply a comfort.  We honor God by honoring our family.  When there is a need within the family, it is right to attend to those needs, even if it means missing out on church.  Our worship of God is not limited to the confines of the church and can be done at any place and time.

On the other hand, family should not be an excuse for not following God.  Jesus dealt with people who wanted to follow Him but wanted to wait until it was more convenient for them and their family.  Christianity is often not convenient for the family, particularly as it relates to those who are not Christians.  I know of too many people who don’t come to church on Easter because they have to cook dinner for their family.  My opinion is that if the family can’t come to church with you, let them wait another hour for their meal.  God comes before the conveniences of the family.

Before I go much further on this, let me tie in our third priority.  Our third priority is church.  And this is even more difficult than the tightrope we walk with regard to God and family.  God is obviously a big part of the church.  Attending church honors God.  Being an active participant honors God.  But the church and God are not the same.

The church is an institution.  This is not the way it began but it is what the church is now.  The church is full of programs that are good but are not found in the New Testament.  This doesn’t mean that they are bad, just that they are not a foundational part of the church and our worship of God.  The church is built upon the worship of God, the study of God’s Word, and the fellowship of believers – Acts 2 makes this pretty clear. 

We are always called to worship God.  That is why church attendance is important because corporate worship can’t be replaced with anything else in life.  But worship does not have to take place in a church and as a matter of fact shouldn’t always because worship is not an hour a week thing. 

The individual church should not be held at the same level as God.  The church is a living organism, it grows, changes, and sometimes dies.  People fight for the church – or most often against change in the church – harder than they are willing to fight for their beliefs in God.  People are more likely to become mad at the church because the worship style is becoming contemporary or the service times have changed than they become mad because the church has taken a liberal stance on a theological or social issue. 

Christians should absolutely be devoted to their church or they should find a church that they can be devoted to.  But this devotion should not come at the expense of the needs of their family.  And Christians should not confuse showing up at church with serving God which is a constant thing rather than a once or twice a week occurance.

What does it mean to be born again?

Jesus talks about being born again in John 3, right before the best know verse of the Bible, John 3:16.  Being born again is actually the context of that verse.

John 3:1-8 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Even though the concept of being born again is a biblical one, it is a phrase that I don’t use often because of the confusion surrounding it.  When Jesus first used it, it was actually to cause a bit of confusion and to get people to think about the meaning.  Today the term is used so often that it has lost meaning.  Many people outside of the church are familiar with the term but do not stop to question the meaning because they’ve heard it often and know that it’s a Christian thing.

But the same is true within the church.  We know that a Christian is born again but we don’t stop to ponder the reality of this.  Although the concept was completely new to Nicodemus, I don’t believe that it should be difficult for Christians to grasp.

We are born sinful people.  David writes in Psalm 51:5 “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  As sinful people we are deserving of the punishment for sin.  But Jesus died to take away our sins and bore the punishment for our sins. 

But it doesn’t just stop there.  Picture that you’ve been working outside all day.  You’re sweaty and smelly and covered in dirt.  Odds are that when you come in for the day, you don’t just throw on some new clothes in exchange for your dirty ones.  Instead you jump in the shower and get yourself good and cleaned off.  When you get out, you don’t put your dirty clothes back on and you don’t go back out to your dirty labors.  You’re clean and you intend to stay that way.

This is where the concept of being born again comes into play.  If we were just forgiven, it would be like putting on a new set of clothes without showering.  But instead a transformation takes place.  After that shower you don’t want to do anything dirty because you just got clean.

Being born again means that a transformation has taken place.  We are all born physical beings.  Being born again means to be reborn as a spiritual being.  It means that we should no longer have the desire to do wrong but to do right.  Unfortunately we are still human beings as well and for the time being our fleshly side and our spiritual side are going to be in conflict and are going to battle it out.  But being born again means that we have a new spiritual side that did not exist at one time.

Does God see us daily and know everything we do?

Three of the characteristics that make God who He is are that He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.  That means God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere.  We have to understand that even within those terms, there are boundaries, such as God cannot sin.  God is limited but only by His very nature, not by any inability or weakness.  It is a matter of the philosophical question of whether God can make a rock so big that He cannot move it.  Although all three qualities are very important, God’s omniscience answers the question at hand.

Psalm 139 paints the best picture of who God is in relation to how He sees us.  All 24 verses paint a vast picture of God’s power and knowledge.  The first four verses give us a taste of the entire chapter. 

1 O LORD, you have searched me
       and you know me.

 2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
       you perceive my thoughts from afar.

 3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
       you are familiar with all my ways.

 4 Before a word is on my tongue
       you know it completely, O LORD.

God knows us because He is our maker.  My wife and I have only been married a year but usually I know when she is upset about something or mad at me by the way she acts.  Sometimes I can guess what she is thinking but not always.  If you’ve been married a long time, you probably know what to expect from your spouse in most situations.  But God made us.  He knows exactly what to expect from us because He is our maker and He knows us better than we know ourselves.

But God also sees us and what we do.  In the story of Adam and Eve, after they sinned, they tried to hide from God.  But of course that didn’t work.  Many people think that they can sin and get away with it because no one will ever find out about it.  This is why people cheat on their taxes and on their spouses.  Often times we discern that we aren’t hurting anyone and no one will find out so it’s ok.  But of course it is not.  God sees and even if there are no repercussions in this lifetime, there will be a time where people will be held accountable.

The flip side of this is good however.  God also sees us when we are in trouble and is always just a cry away when we need help.  We’re told to call upon the Lord in all circumstances.  Romans 8 even tells us that the Spirit interprets for us when we don’t know what to say.  God is not some cosmic spy who is watching and waiting for us to slip up so that He can crush us.  Instead He is a friend who is always near us whom we can call upon when we need help.

Moving on

After a lot of thought and prayer I made the decision to resign my position at church.  After a very difficult summer this decision was a very personal one for my wife and I as we decided it was best to search for a church closer to our families back home.  With the church beginning to make plans for 2011 I decided that it was in the church’s best interest if they knew to start making plans without me rather than throw those plans into disarray in a few months or whenever I find another job.

I have a couple of prospects but nothing definite at this point so it is really a leap of faith because right now I’m jobless and homeless at the end of the year.  I know that our families will take us in if need be but obviously that is the last resort that no one prefers.  So I would ask for everyone’s prayers in this regard and I’ll be certain to post an update when I know more about my future.

The reaction to my resignation was expected.  There was a lot of shock and sadness.  Unfortunately there is no good way or time to make such an announcement.  What I didn’t expect was some of the encouraging things that people said after the announcement.  Because my reasons for leaving are mainly personal I wasn’t leaving because of discouragement.  But some of that encouragement would have helped a lot over the past few months.

For those who didn’t know, October is Pastor Appreciation Month.  Every pastor gets discouraged about their job because there are always going to be weeks where attendance is down or they wonder if their sermon reached anyone.  Don’t wait until your pastor is beaten down and discouraged to offer support.  You may think that your pastor knows that he is appreciated but he really needs to hear it and from as many people as possible.  He needs to know that he is making an impact and not just wasting his time.

Missing out on Church

This past Sunday I preached on the purpose of the church.  You can read what I said here, I won’t repeat it all in this post.  This week I was talking to a close friend and she revealed that her and her husband have stopped attending the church they’ve gone to for twenty years.  When I asked if they found a new church, she responded that they aren’t going to church right now.  It’s not that they don’t want to go to church but they haven’t found a church that they feel comfortable in.

As a pastor I am of two minds on this.  Part of me is saddened that my friend is not attending church even though I know they are still good Christians.  (And this isn’t my only friend who is going through the same thing.)  But another part of me completely understands.  Many Christians are frustrated that the church is not what it is supposed to be.  There are petty squabbles over stupid issues and somebody offended someone else when they said something completely innocuous and unintentional.  Many Christians I know just want to attend church to worship, hear a good sermon, and go home.  The last thing they want is to return home feeling worse than when they left because of frustrating things going on at church that have nothing to do with the worship of our Lord.

I get frustrated by the things that go on in the church as much as anybody else.  Really, it’s probably more because I know about more of the petty problems going on than the average church member.  As a pastor it is part of my job to try to get the church to rise above all of the nonsense and make the church what it needs to be.  I don’t have the option of simply not attending church.  (Actually I suppose I do but that involves not getting paid and I’m rather against that.)

So I believe that the average Christian has one of two options when dealing with a church that isn’t to their liking.  They can work to change the culture of the church and make it into what God wants it to be.  Or they can look for another church that is already doing that.  I’m not a big fan of changing churches just because of not liking how things are going but there are times when it is appropriate.  When a church becomes more liberal than you believe the Bible says it should be, that is a big one.  Odds are that you won’t be able to change the direction of the church, especially if it’s a denomination wide policy that has been implemented.

What I don’t consider an option is to stop attending church.  People leave churches all of the time because they are mad at pastor or aren’t happy with something that is going on.  It doesn’t make me happy when it happens in my church but it is a fact of life that there are going to be people who leave because we can’t please everyone all of the time.  What I don’t accept is when people leave for these reasons but then don’t make an attempt to find a church where these things won’t be an issue.  What it comes across as is an excuse.  “I’m unhappy about problem x so I won’t be attending any longer.”  But when a person doesn’t look for a church where problem x isn’t happening, it really says that the problem is an internal one.

Finally, there is no perfect church.  As a pastor I will never find one and never be able to create one, even if I start my own church without the baggage and years of history that an established church has.  Someone once said, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it because you’ll ruin it.”  No church is without its problems.  Sometimes those problems become so great that a Christian should part ways and find a church that will encourage their growth in Christ.  Most of the time though it is better to stick it out and work to make the church a better place for you and for others.

What is the Purpose of the Church?

This question is asked in several different ways such as why should I go to church?  Or, can’t I worship at home in my own way?  There is a growing dissatisfaction among people that the church is not what it should be.  Particularly among young people there is a movement away from the church.  There are people who still have a strong interest in Christianity but are fed up with church politics and many things that occur in the church that weren’t a part of the early church.

For starters, the church exists for the fellowship of believers.  Hebrews 10:25 tells us “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  It is important for the encouragement of one another that believers continue to gather together.

The church is also a body.  1 Corinthians 12 tells us that the church body is made up of many parts and that each one of those parts is to function according to how they are gifted.  Essentially the church is greater than the sum of its parts.  In any church there are people who are gifted teachers, gifted evangelists, those with gifts of service, mercy, and numerous other gifts.  Individually each person can only do so much but the church as a whole has a much greater reach because we help each other out with our gifts.

At some point in the 1900’s many churches stopped using their gifts to their fullest potential.  Many sat back and said that it was the pastor’s job to do those things because that’s what he’s paid for.  The pastor became expected to not only be the authority on God’s Word and to preach but he was also expected to handle the administration of the church.  The pastor is expected to visit the sick and shut in and follow up with every person who hasn’t been at church for two weeks in a row.  If the church isn’t growing, then it is often blamed on the pastor because he hasn’t made enough contacts in the community and has invited people to church or hasn’t planned enough outreach events.  Today the pastor is expected to excel in preaching, teaching, evangelism, mercy, and administration.

Compare this to how the church operated in the book of Acts.  The apostles were not utility men, they were specialists.  In Acts 6 they encounter a problem that is causing them to be pulled away from the ministry of God’s Word.  Rather than try to pick up the slack, they find other people to do the work while they continue to work in the area that God has gifted them.  Acts 6:2-4 says, “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

The primary function of the apostles was to administer the Word of God.  They didn’t declare that other things were not important.  Instead they made sure that they were taken care of but that they were not the ones to do it.  The purpose of the church is to use their gifts for the glory of God.  When the church starts doing this once again we can expect to see it be blessed like in the New Testament.

What Does it Mean to Pray Continually?

At the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul offers some final words of instruction for the church.  5:17 say that they are to pray continually.  This is bookended by “be joyful always” and “give thanks in all circumstances.”

So does always mean always?  Yes, it does, but we must understand that it doesn’t mean that every second of the day is devoted to these things.  To pray continually mean that we should be in an attitude of prayer at all times.  We have a narrow and incorrect view of what prayer means.  When we have prayer time at church 95% of it is devoted to asking for things.  This isn’t saying that we ask for selfish things as most of the time it is not even on our behalf but still the concept of prayer for many people is about asking God to answer a request.

This isn’t all that prayer is about however.  Prayer is communication with God.  Consider how you communicate with your friends and family members.  You talk about your day.  You say what makes you happy or sad or angry.  The same goes for having an attitude of prayer and praying continually.  Obviously we don’t need to tell God about what we had for lunch or how some equipment broke down at work.  But we can express our frustration with the way someone speaks to us.  We can ask for love and understanding toward that person.  Or we can ask that God would help them change their attitude.

Praying continually doesn’t mean that we focus on praying that it distracts us from something else.  We need to keep our focus on the road while we drive but we can still think about God along the way.  We can thank God for a beautiful view, pray for safety when the sun is glaring, or even sing a song of praise as we drive.  This is praying continually.

What is Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is also called the unpardonable or unforgivable sin.  See Unforgivable Sin for more discussion on the forgiveness aspect of this.  Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is found in Matthew 12:31-32 and parallel passages in the gospels.

“And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

The context of this passage is that Jesus was performin miracles and casting out demons.  The Pharisees stated that Jesus was using the power of Satan to do such acts.  Attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to that of Satan is what Jesus calls blasphemy against the Spirit.

This sin is not an accident or even an intentional sin.  Instead it is reflective of the attitudes of the Pharisees.  They were so set against the work of Jesus that they were willing to accept that Satan was working through Him rather than the Holy Spirit.  While there are many sinful people in the world today, few are so far from God as to attribute the power of God as Satanic.

Consider that many people accept that the universe was created in a Big Bang and that man is a product of millions of years of evolution.  God has been taken out of the picture because for humanity to have a Creator means that humanity is subject to that Creator.  Sinful people have done a lot to discredit God from having anything to do with our existence.  This doesn’t go nearly as far as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit would have to say that not only were we not created by God but because there is so much suffering in evil in the world that the universe was created by Satan.  This is how far removed from reality blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is.

While there are many people with hard hearts today, very few would go so far as to attribute what God is doing as the work of Satan.  Those who do so do not want to acknowledge God in any way and are completely lost.

What is the Unpardonable or Unforgivable Sin?

There is a lot of confusion over the term unpardonable sin.  The phrase does not actually appear in the Bible but it is implied in Matthew 12:31-32.

And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

While grace and forgiveness are found throughout the Bible, we can’t simply ignore this passage in light of what the Bible says about forgiveness elsewhere.  We know that there are no contradictions in the Bible so we must work hard to discern what this statement by Jesus means.

To start, we should note the context of Jesus’ statement.  He was performing miracles and casting out demons.  The Pharisees accused Jesus of performing miracles with the power of Satan.  Attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan is what Jesus calls blasphemy against the Spirit.

Jesus makes it clear that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven” which is in line with everything else that the Bible teaches.  Jesus includes a “but” along with His statement though.  He says that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

Some say that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is simply hypothetical because there is no sin that a person can commit that is unforgiveable.  But let’s assume that Jesus is not speaking hypothetically and that this is a real sin that people commit.  This is not an accidental sin or even one that is intentionally committed.  Instead what Jesus is addressing is a matter of someone’s heart being so hard that they refuse to even acknowledge the work of God and instead attribute it to Satan.

Some Christians believe that salvation can be lost and others believe that there is eternal security.  This passage does not address either belief however.  This is not a sin that a Christian will commit.  While Christians are still capable of lots of terrible sins, their hearts will never become so hard as to call the work of the Holy Spirit Satanic.

It is worth noting that Jesus says “will not be forgiven” rather than “cannot be forgiven.”  It is perhaps key to our understanding of this passage and to our understanding of God’s forgiveness.  It seems arbitrary that God would choose to hold one sin as unforgiveable in light of all of the other terrible things that a person can do.  But when we look at this as a matter of the heart it makes sense.  A person who is so far gone as to blaspheme the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven because they will never seek forgiveness.  It is not that God’s grace is incapable of forgiving the person.  Instead it is a sign that the person has no interest in forgiveness.  The next verse gives us an indication of this.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”  The fruit of the Spirit will be evident in the life of a Christian.  Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the fruit of a life that is so far from God that the person will never seek forgiveness.

So the unforgiveable sin comes down to a matter of human will and not the ability of God.  God is still capable of forgiving any and all sins.  The Pharisees that Jesus is addressing have hearts that are so hard that they will never seek God in repentance however.  This is not a sin that a Christian can or would commit.  In fact only the most non-Christians will never be so far removed from God to commit this sin.

Embracing Facebook

I personally hate social networking.  I think that it is one of the biggest time wasters imaginable.  People who I want to stay in contact with I either see on a regular basis or email.  Beyond that I couldn’t care less that someone I know ate at Applebees and had a great time there.  I know that this is the kind of meaningless stuff that gets posted all of the time because my wife recently joined Facebook and she gets posts like this.  I honestly think that things like this weaken legitimate social interaction and because of it people are going to lose the ability to have intelligent conversations about important topics.  Actually, scratch that.  If you’ve ever read comments on any political or otherwise controversial topic, our society has already reached that point.  There’s one intelligent comment for every 20 personal attacks and pointless posts by someone who didn’t fully read the article before feeling the need to tell everyone their opinion.

This isn’t to sound like a bitter old man, just stating my dislike for the direction that things are heading.  Nevertheless I can see the way things are going and social media in its current form are going to be around for a while.  I have resisted joining before because I was certain that it was a fad that would go away sooner or later.  Kind of like Myspace or whatever was big before that.  I also had hopes of Google releasing something bigger and better than Facebook.  But none of this appears to be the case at least in the near future.

And so I have signed up for Facebook and created a page for Spreading Light Ministries.  While I have relied heavily on search engines and links from other sites to drive traffic to my own, I realize that Facebook has become a huge word of mouth traffic driver.  I still don’t particularly like it but I’m considering it a necessary evil in order to continue to expand the reach of my web ministry.  I’m really probably behind the times on this one but I’ve resisted long enough.

So, if you’d like to follow what is going on with Spreading Light Ministries and share it with all of your friends, then you can find our Facebook page at Spreading Light Ministries.  There is also a Twitter feed which will mainly just have updates about the Facebook page.  But you can follow us on Twitter @spreadinglightm or on the page spreadinglightm.