The Spirit Illuminates

I’m so excited about our new series titled “Holy Spirit”. If we are going to experience the fullness of God’s work in us as a family of redeemed sinners, it won’t happen apart from understanding and yielding to who the Spirit is and what the Spirit wants to do in each of us personally and our church corporately. The Holy Spirit makes Jesus real to us. The Holy Spirit awakens us to God and what He is doing all around us. The Spirit’s work is vast and vital.

In our message this coming Sunday, we are going to explore three elements of the Spirit’s work in our lives. But He does far more than just three things. I wanted to take just a few minutes to share with you one aspect of His work that we won’t be able to address this coming Sunday.

When I was a kid, I used to love catching lightening bugs (fireflies). How cool is a bug with a bulb on its backside? I recently read a fascinating story about the synchronous firefly, found only in a few places in the world. You can see this rare species with a short drive to the Allegheny National Park (Tennessee) or Congaree National Forest (South Carolina). These fireflies all light up at the same time. One spectator said it was like watching the Milky Way “flash on and then off”. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the dark sky illuminated all at once by a hundred thousand fireflies showing of their glory in one spectacular mating ritual (that’s why they do it)?

To illuminate something is to “cast light on” or “make something brighter”. That’s what the Spirit does for us concerning the things of God. He enables us to see what we would not otherwise be able to see without His light.

Here’s what we often vastly underestimate about our capacity for God. We have no shot at understanding God or the gospel or what it means to follow Jesus apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. Paul speaks to this in 1 Corinthians 2:14:

“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

The world – and we are all products of a worldly way of thinking as a natural person – has rejected the Spirit (John 14:17). Consequently, we cannot understand the things of God. Worldly wisdom rejects the wisdom of God revealed by the cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18). This is a by-product of our fallen, sinful nature. In addition, the Enemy blinds us to the beauty of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Without the Spirit giving us light, trying to understand spiritual things is like asking a newborn to do calculus. It’s beyond our reach. What this means practically is that our pursuit of God – through spiritual disciplines, by faith, in community – is always a spiritual journey.

We, of course, use our mind when pursuing God. But pursuing God is not only a pursuit of the mind or heart. The Spirit must turn the light on for us. The gracious work of God is to enable us to “see” the Kingdom (John 3:3; Acts 16:14; Ephesians 1:18; Rom 2:29; 2 Cor 3:15-16). The work of the Spirit is to dispel darkness and point us to Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6).

Where we see Jesus most clearly is in God’s Word. The Spirit opens our deaf ears and blinded eyes to see the truth about God revealed to us in the Word of God. Intellect alone will not make us believe in God and follow Jesus. The Spirit must bring His beauty, truth, power, and love into the light and enable us to see it.

What does this mean for us practically as we seek to deepen our relationship with Jesus? It means (at least) two things:

  1. Embrace the reality that your relationship with Jesus requires supernatural intervention. You and I cannot – in our own strength, mental capacity, intellect – rightly understand the things of God. God certainly uses means of grace (prayer, Bible study, biblical community, suffering, etc.) to grow us in godliness, but none of those means of grace can be rightly applied or engaged in apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit. So, we need to ask the Spirit to work through whatever means of grace God provides to make us more like Jesus.
  2. Ask God to open your eyes when you seek Him in the Word. The psalmist prayed, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Every encounter with God in His Word should be preempted by a humble acknowledgement we are completely dependent upon God to rightly understand who He is in His Word. Ask the Spirit to show you God’s intended meaning for you that reaches far beyond the ink that forms the words impressed upon the pages of Scripture.

I’m praying we would all rightly discover more intimacy with God as the Spirit lights our path to show us the beauty and all-surpassing worth of Jesus.

Seeking the Spirit’s Illuminating Light Together,

Pastor Aaron

You Won’t Get All of Jesus Alone

Hebrews 11 is one of the more famous passages in all of Scripture. Some theologians have called Hebrews 11 the “hall of heroes” or the “hall of faith”. I think we identify with this chapter in the Bible because it’s about real people who walked with God by faith. In addition, Hebrews 11 doesn’t sanitize the Christian experience. Following Jesus is, at times, very difficult. And we see that in Hebrews 11. Some people were imprisoned, mocked, tortured and died for the sake of the gospel. Yet, they kept following Jesus by faith because they were certain of future reward and future grace found only in Jesus. They believed they were promised a “better possession and an abiding one”.

One of the more interesting things about Hebrews 11 is that there is an incompleteness to our experience of Christ by faith apart from the community of faith. The author says that though Abraham, Moses, David and others were “commended through their faith” (11:39), they did not receive the fullness of what they were hoping for in Christ. In fact, they could not receive the fullness of all that was promised to them in Jesus until you and I receive “something better for us” (11:40) – which is Christ himself. Notice how the author ends this chapter: “… apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

What is the author suggesting? He’s saying that we all share in Christ, but that our experience of Christ will be different in two ways. First, our experience of Jesus will not be equal. In Hebrews 11, some – by faith – conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched fire, escaped the sword, are made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, and received back their dead (11:33-35a). But some are tortured, mocked, imprisoned, beaten and murdered. Some Christians lose everything and die destitute.

There is an awful lot of comparing that happens in our world, and social media platforms only exacerbate the problem. What most of us see when we look at the lives of others is a highly idealized image of their actual reality. We don’t see people as they are, but as they want us to see them.

Yet, the gift of biblical community created by the power of the gospel is a context where people can be known as they are, not as we wish, or even they wish themselves to be. Living in community offers us the opportunity to see and experience first-hand the truth that the inequity in our life experiences is not a sign of forsakenness by God, but merely a different expression of our experience of Christ. The saints in Hebrews 11 who lost everything were no less loved that the saints who stopped the mouths of lions. Yet, unless the hungry, naked, and forsaken among us are walking with Jesus in community, they might be tempted to believe their circumstantial misfortune is evidence of God’s indifference, or worse yet, his punitive wrath.

Our experience of Jesus will also be incomplete apart from following Jesus in a community (i.e., what we call the local church). Notice how the chapter ends again. The Hebrews 11 saints were incomplete and imperfect apart from our faith. Our salvation is perfected through the community of faith. This means that you will not grow in maturity in Christ as you should apart from rooting your life deeply among the community of believers (i.e., the local church).

Individualism is not a biblical concept. In fact, individualism is an idol. It teaches us to be self-centered and self-focused without any consideration for others. Spiritual growth is not a personal and private matter. It’s a community project. That’s why the author says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (10:24-25).

None of us has an equal experience of Christ by faith, but if we choose to try to walk with him alone, we will also face the deficit of an incomplete experience with Jesus. Our faith will be jeopardized, especially in trials, because we will not have anyone around us to remind us that despite the inequity of our experience in Christ, we are more than conquerors through Jesus who loves us and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:35-39).

I want to encourage you to look for intentional ways to live in community with other Christians as you talk about your experience with Jesus. This can happen organically over a cup of coffee, breaking bread together, and practicing hospitality by opening your home. But I also want to encourage you to connect with one another through groups at Community Bible. Consider being a part of Community Groups (sermon-based discussion small groups of 10-12 people) or D-Groups (same gender discipleship groups of 3-5 people that meet for 12-18 months) this fall. Sign up for an Equip Group this January – February. Or plug into a men’s (Tuesday mornings) or women’s bible study (coming this fall). Whatever you do, take proactive steps to engage others and share in your experience with Jesus for the sake of your maturity in Christ, as well as theirs.

Grace to You,

Pastor Aaron

The Strength of Gentleness

When you hear someone described as gentle or characterized by gentleness, what thoughts come to mind? The dictionary defines gentleness as kindness, meekness, mildness, even delicate. We tend to think of gentleness as a sign of weakness. Gentle people get walked over, taken advantage of, ignored. Most of us aren’t interested in that. Charles Swindoll once said in this age of rugged individualism, “we think of gentleness as weakness – being soft and virtually spineless.”

As such, gentleness doesn’t seem like an effective strategy to deploy when we experience relational conflict, disappointment or failure. And yet, Scripture points to gentleness as one of God’s most effective remedies to the relational mess we often make of our lives.

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:24-26)

“Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)

It is striking to me that God’s Word tells us to pursue gentleness in the most intense and complicated relational entanglements. In Galatians 6, Paul tells us to be gentle with those who sin against us and others. I usually retreat or retaliate. In 2 Timothy 2, he tells us to be gentle with argumentative, contrary, hostile, devil-influenced antagonists. I’m tempted to take them down with an articulate counter argument. In Ephesians 4, he tells us to demonstrate patient kindness with people we’re called to put up with for the sake of Jesus (meaning we might not have chosen this relationship of our own volition). I’m more likely to find a new friend group than put up with people who frustrate or annoy me.

Gentleness means to approach others (including our enemies) in a humble and caring spirit, not using force to get our way. Strong’s Greek Concordance defines gentleness as “exercising God’s strength under his control…demonstrating power without undo harshness.” When you consider that gentleness is the opposite of using force, coercion, manipulation, or power to get people to conform, we surprisingly discover that deploying gentleness as a strategy in conflict requires far more strength and self-control than we typically associate with gentleness.

Scripture is showing us that gentleness is one of the most beautiful other-centered expressions of love we can offer someone in a relationship. When we treat sinners with kindness, quarrelers with compassion, and annoying folk with patience, we are honoring the dignity of those made in the image of God. When we counter a heated exchange with calmness and peace, we seek to disarm the person who, in their anger or shame or disappointment or self-righteousness, might otherwise lose their mind if we matched their level of emotional turmoil and unrest.

Gentleness is not the releasing of strength in our relationships. It’s yielding to the strength of God through the power of his Spirit. I tend to make a mess when I try to navigate relational disappointments, conflicts and failures on my own. Things tend to escalate quickly. But that’s not what I should desire when I’m mired in a relational mess. I want things to de-escalate, not escalate. And the way towards nuclear disarmament in my relationships is through gentleness. Reserve and strength. Power and control. These are not words we typically associate with gentleness. Yet, the lives of the Spirit-empowered gentle ones are marked in this way.

Here’s my confession: I’m not a naturally gentle person. That probably doesn’t surprise some of you. But just in case there’s any question about it, gentleness is not one of my strong suits. I tend to use my words to gain power over people and situations (this is probably a weakness of most communicators). And my words are not always guided by the Spirit. I want them to be. They can be.

But I, like most, need to grow in this area. The Spirit’s purpose is to guide the way we access and leverage the power of God at work within us. One way he leverages it is through gentleness. So, even if the world thinks I’m weak for desiring to increase in gentleness, I’ll take being thought less of for seeking gentleness if it means being an advocate for peace and dignity in this relational mess we call life.

Looking to Jesus Together,

Pastor Aaron

Community

Paul (not his real name) is a no-nonsense, somewhat cynical loner with piercing eyes and a stoic demeanor. He’s the kind of guy whose dream vacation would be hiking the Appalachian Trail all alone. His hobbies included collecting an absurd arsenal of firearms (for the coming zombie apocalypse) and building a home brewery for his favorite IPA craft beer.

One day I asked him if he’d like to grab lunch. He reluctantly said “yes”. I think I had to ask him half a dozen times before he set a date. I like to think my persistence wore him down. 

I let him choose where we would meet because he was a picky eater, someone who would be satisfied with the predictable choices on the kid’s menu in every American restaurant. We grabbed our sandwiches at a local deli and wrestled our way through a conversation about IPA’s (he was mostly educating me because I don’t drink beer and couldn’t understand why he finds it so fascinating or tasty), raising children and Jesus. I say we “wrestled” our way through the conversation because extracting words from Paul was an exhausting exercise, kind of like Jacob must have felt when he wrestled God and said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). My internal resolve was saying, “I’m not going to let you go back to work until you bless me with a few substantial, meaningful words.”

As we walked to our cars I said, “I had a nice time, Paul. I enjoyed getting to know you better.” He said, “Yeah, it was better than I thought it would be.” I thought to myself, “Thanks… I think.” I then said, “Would you like to get together again sometime soon?” His reply made me thankful that my sense of worth didn’t depend on Paul. He replied, “Not really. I mean, this was okay, and I appreciate you taking the time to grab lunch. But I don’t really need community. I’ve got my wife and two friends (he was serious). I’m not really interested in having relationships with anyone else.”

I was simultaneously shocked by and in complete admiration of Paul’s candor. Most people would have simply lied to me. They would have told me they were willing to meet again, and then they would have manipulated their calendar in such a way that I would eventually stop trying to connect with them because they would be perpetually too busy to connect.

I’ve thought a lot about my friend’s words of over the years. Is it really true that he doesn’t “need community”? I know why he feels this way. He’s an introvert. People exhaust Paul. People are like energy sucking vampires who suck him dry. Turning inward is as much about survival as it is comfort.

Theologically-speaking, we all need community. It was God who said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). But Paul would say, “I’m not alone. I have my wife, my two friends, and Jesus.” Is that enough?

I find it interesting that when Jesus came into the world, he came to accomplish his mission and purpose in the context of community. He was God, and he had experienced the intimacy of community with the Godhead (Father, Son, Spirit) for all eternity. He knew true community in a way most of us have never experienced. Yet, even Jesus welcomed other people into his life. He journeyed to the cross in Jerusalem with twelve friends. That’s four times, the community my friend felt he needed.

There are at least two reasons I believe community is important. The first is that becoming a Christian means that you and I are a part of a new people – where I am theirs and they are mind. Ephesians 2 reminds us that God’s goal in the Gospel is that “he might create in himself [Jesus] one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (2:16). When we are born again in Christ, we aren’t just experiencing an individual transformation (i.e., becoming a new creation). We are also embracing a new corporate identity. We are welcomed into a new family. We are bound together by love, sharing life together under the authority and wise leadership of Jesus Christ, our “head” (Colossians 1:18).

The second reason community is important is because “community has a fundamental role in living according to the way of Jesus” (Kyle Strobel).  The truth of the Gospel is this: we cannot create true identity apart from Jesus. We don’t have sufficient power to create our truest self. In truth, we aren’t even fully human apart from faith in Jesus Christ. We have been made in the image of God to display God. But we cannot rightly display God apart from having our lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

We need community (other Christians) to reveal to us how desperately we need Jesus. We always underestimate our need. We can only find ourselves in Jesus through weakness and vulnerability, and we need others to help us see how weak and vulnerable we really are, and how much we need Jesus. I think that’s why we fear community. We fear being exposed as weaklings. We fear vulnerability. And this is why we always seek out idolatrous ways to create self. We try to create identity in our work, our families, our accomplishments and accolades, our sexuality, our religious expressions, etc. We are blind to our own strategies for creating our own identity. We need others to help us see what we can’t see for ourselves.

Gospel community exposes our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and idols. When we let other Christians into our lives, and when others let us into their lives, we are often confronted with the truth about ourselves. This can be painful and embarrassing, but it is also necessary if we are to grow more into the image of Jesus. As James Houston once wrote, “Genuine humanity is never in isolation, but is always with others.”

Because God has existed in community for eternity within the Godhead (i.e., Trinity), “then to be with God, who is always with us, is to be in community” (Jamim Goggin). If I am to walk with Christ, I must walk with Christ with his people. That means something more than reading the Bible, listening to sermon podcasts, and showing up to Sunday worship gatherings on occasion. Walking with Christ with his people means opening up your life to others. It means being comfortable with how uncomfortable it is for people to lovingly pursue you when something doesn’t seem quite right. It means humbly receiving correction. It means having hard conversations to help each of us guard our hearts against sin and temptation.

Who are the Jesus-followers walking with you through life? The more Christians there are that “know” us, the more weak and vulnerable we will feel. But that weakness is where we experience the grace of God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect In weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). We experience the power of God as we live in authentic community, a world where we are our truest selves because we are known and loved, not despite our weakness and vulnerability, but because of our weakness and vulnerability. I never gave up on Paul, even when he thought he didn’t need me. Let’s resolve not to give up on one another, even when what we see in one another is confusing and disheartening. We are not wired to embrace weakness and vulnerability, but if we want to experience Christ in unprecedented ways, that’s precisely what we must do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that we “find the Creator by means of [one another].” What he meant was that we experience more of God as we share life together – even when it’s hard to do so. You will never experience God as intimately as he wants you to alone – or even with your three friends. We’re a family, and families are messy, frustrating, and exhausting. But that’s where God’s grace is found, and I want as much of his grace as he is willing to give. How about you?

Speaking Your Heart

The cautiousness was present in his eyes the first time that I met him, though I did not quite yet know the depth of pensive hesitation that lie behind his glancing eyes and shifting posture. In some ways, aside from the blissful naivety of his youngest child, it seemed to me that the whole family was in retreat, determined to keep people at a safe distance, even as they were moving towards our church leadership expressing a desire to become a part of our faith family. Though I saw the defensive posture of a wounded and wounding family, I didn’t know quite what I was seeing. It would be years before the pixelated representation of their lives would come into focus. Yet, it almost never did. It was almost a decade before my friend courageously took a step of faith and slowly brought his real struggles and fears into focus, before he invited others to be a part of his messy journey of faith.

This past weekend during the depression and anxiety conference led by Dr. Edward Welch from the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF), he said, “One of the hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven is that we speak about what is on our hearts.” This statement grabbed my attention, not because I disagree with it, but because if this statement is true, why is it so rarely put into practice among God’s people? One reason is obvious: we’re afraid. What will people think of us if they know the truth about our struggles? Will they reject us? Will they indict us as a fraud? Will they break the bruised reed?

Another reason people do not speak what is on their hearts is because we are not contributing to a culture where people are invited to speak more of what is on their heart. Do I share my own struggles with anxiety, pride, fear of man, depression, etc.? Do people really know me? Of course, this creates a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle. If I’m afraid of people rejecting me for not really possessing the strength of faith I project I have (and I project strong faith not because my faith is not real or genuine or to mask hypocrisy, but rather, because I’m not sure it’s safe to speak that honestly about following Jesus), then I’m not likely to talk about my struggles.

In many ways, this past weekend’s weekender on anxiety and depression gave us a foretaste of what Jesus desires the kingdom of heaven here on the earth to be like. For a few hours, our busy, well-manicured lives were interrupted with real words of comfort and honest confessions of specific fears, soul-eclipsing despair, and relationally isolating anxieties.

The culture of the kingdom of heaven is a world where, not only are we helping others, but we are willing to ask others for help. The kingdom of heaven is not for the strong; the kingdom of heaven is for the weak. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is for the meek. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

Meekness isn’t a word we use very much. I’m not even sure it’s a spiritual quality many of us understand. We often think of meekness as weakness. We think of meek people as those who are simply submissive because they lack the resources to do anything else. We can certainly feel this way when we are overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, feelings of despair, and a sense of helplessness about the fear that is in front of us.

But true meekness isn’t measured by strength or weakness. It is measured by humility and trust. A strong person can possess meekness because they could assert themselves but choose not to. The spiritually meek trust God, commit their ways to God, and wait for God to act.

Meekness is required to become a people who speak what is on our hearts in the kingdom of heaven. Meekness is required because we have to trust God to use vulnerability and weakness as the means for us to experience God’s power. We speak what is on our hearts because this is how God uses the body of Christ – where each of us serve the purpose of building one another up (1 Corinthian 12:7) – to be helped and help others as we follow Jesus.

In closing, Dr. Welch said that a godly goal for the church should be that we really know one person well enough to know how to really pray for them. And by “really pray”, we do not mean the shallow prayers of general provision (though these prayers are not bad. In fact, they are real and necessary prayers. However, you don’t have to “know” someone to ask God to provide them a job. The point is, “Do I have a depth of relationship where my prayers can reach deeper than just below the surface?”). We “really pray” when our prayers are for God to do more in the hearts of his people, that we would know the love of God, we would grow in the knowledge of Christ, we would stand firm in the crucible of faith, and we would persevere in our faith until the end.

I wonder, “Does anyone (outside of your family) at Community Bible know you well enough to really pray for you?” It will take courage and humility for you to let a person know the truest version of who you are in Jesus. But as my friend has found out, as I am finding out, it is a risk worth taking.

Learning to Speak What’s on Our Hearts Together,

Pastor Aaron