Thanksgiving: Understanding Two Sides of Giving Thanks

Recently I went with a couple of friends to the Starbucks Reserve in downtown Chicago. What an experience—especially as a coffee connoisseur! I couldn’t wait to order a flight of coffees to try. After ordering, I respond to the barista who took my order, “Thank you so much!” I made my way down to watch another barista prepare my coffees in this siphon almost chemistry-like contraption. When he finished and handed me the coffees I said, “Thank you!”  

As I sat there sipping on my flight of Hawaiian, Guatemalan, and Pantheon blends of coffee, these exchanges got me thinking about this whole idea of thanks, thanksgiving, or giving thanks.

My “thanks” was a cultural mannerism that I and others use to be polite. But I got to thinking, was I really giving her thanks for my coffee? Was I really thankful for someone doing what I was entitled for them to do? The coffee was mine! I paid for it… in fact, I paid a lot of money for it. Therefore, subconsciously I felt entitled to the coffee that I thanked the barista for.

Such an exchange got me thinking about this whole idea of thanks, thanksgiving, or giving thanks on Thanksgiving. 

Here’s a question that comes to my mind:

Are you truly giving thanks if you believe you are entitled to what you “give thanks” for?

In other words, if you believe you are entitled to something, have earned something, or paid for something, can you truly be thankful for it?

It seems we live in an entitlement culture. [To be clear: the entitlement culture is not just reserved for millennials. This type of culture spans generations.] 

People think they are entitled and owed certain things. Take kids for instance. Many believe they are entitled to play the gaming system as long as they want. Many believe they are owed a smart phone like all their friends. Many believe dinner at the house should be menu-style as opposed to what momma is cooking. They want bedtimes to be optional.

When parents allow them two hours for gaming, cook them a nice homecooked meal, or send them to a bedroom with a bed, mattress, covers, and pillows they aren’t grateful nor thankful because they feel owed or entitled to these things.

This brings me to the meaning of thanksgiving or giving thanks—something that Thanksgiving is all about. 

To truly understand what thanksgiving or giving thanks means, we have to understand its two sides—particularly from the biblical viewpoint. 

If we fail to understand the two sides, then our thanksgiving will either be missing, misdirected, or misunderstood.

Two Sides of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving (or giving thanks) in the bible has at least two sides: confession and praise. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are two words that are translated into English as “thanks.” First, the word “Yadah”—not to be confused with Yoda—is expressive as it is mostly associated with praise; second, the word “Towdah” (which comes from Yadah) is confessional as it is mostly connected with offerings (sacrifices) of thanksgiving.

Here are some examples of Yadah and Towdah:

Psalm 47:17—“I will perpetuate your memory through all generations; therefore the nations will praise [yadah] you for ever and ever.” (NIV)

Psalm 75:1—“We give thanks [yadah] to you, O God, we give thanks [yadah] for your Name is near; men tell of your wonderful deeds.” (NIV)

Isaiah 12:4—“In that day you will say: Give thanks [yadah] to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted.” (NIV)

Psalm 95:1–2—”Come, let us sing or joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving [towdah] and extol him with music and song.” (NIV)

Psalm 116:17—“I will sacrifice a thank [towdah] offering to you and call on the name of the Lord.” (NIV)

Jonah 2:9—“But I, with a song of thanksgiving [towdah], will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord.”

Thanksgiving, giving thanks, or being thankful, in short, is both expressive and confessional. 

To help apply these concepts to our lives, when we think of thanksgiving as “confessional” it may be helpful think about who we are and what we deserve.

When we think of thanksgiving or giving thanks as “expressive” it may be helpful to think about what we have received and how we should respond. 

Both the “confessional” and “expressive” elements of thanksgiving are inextricably linked to mercy and grace. 

Maybe you’ve heard mercy described as God withholding what we DO deserve, and grace being described as “Gods…Riches…At…Christ’s…Expense”—or God giving us what we DO NOT deserve.

We believe the Bible teaches humans are rebels who committed treason against the King of Glory. Mankind attempted to rob God of His glory and of His throne. As a result of sin, humanity shattered God’s image on their life and damaged the created order. What God created good, man ruined. As such, mankind deserves to be judged, sentenced, and executed. In short, as depraved, rebellious, and sinful human beings, we deserve, we are entitled to, we are owed no good thing. That’s the foundation of our confession…our thanksgiving. 

If we are going to practice true thanksgiving (or giving thanks) we must realize who we are and what we deserve.

However, God did not give man what he deserved. He did not order a judgement, a sentence, or an execution—punishments and consequences yes; but not a condemning sentence or execution. Rather, He lavished them with a Father’s love! He pursued them, promised them redemption, and properly clothed them. What God gave man and continues to give man—both through general and specific revelation—is grace!

Every good thing we have in life has been generously dispensed from the gracious hand of the Father. And the ultimate good that has been lavished on us is the sacrificial, atoning, and substitutional death of His Son, Jesus Christ.

However, our praise is that in God’s mercy and grace—which is ultimately realized in Jesus Christ—we have something to praise, worship, and supremely THANK God for. We have received something that constitutes offering our bodies as living sacrifices, and thus living in a constant state of praise and thanksgiving. It isn’t something we have earned, nor are entitled to. 

TRUE THANKSGIVING flows from a heart that has experienced GREAT GRACE. 

My prayer this Thanksgiving is that those who follow Jesus will truly give thanks to the Lord for every good thing that we have for we deserve no good thing! However, in Jesus, the Father has given us the treasure of heaven! 

As the psalmist says:

Enter his gates with thanksgiving (towdah); go into his courts with praise. Give thanks (yadah) to him and praise his name. For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation (Ps 100:4–5).

Pastors, Church Leaders, and Churches: A Work in Progress…

Earlier this year, my family moved to Wheaton, IL. As we familiarized ourselves with the town it became apparent that their roads are a work in progress. Throughout the town, road construction was being done. We’ve said multiple times over the last month or so, “We’ll be glad when they get done!” As you know, sometimes road work can be an inconvenience. If it lingers long enough, it becomes downright annoying. 

When it comes to the life of a believer, we too are a work in progress. The Apostle Paul pens this idea when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 ESV). So, our whole lives are lived “Under Construction.” 

As one who is a work in progress, I can attest to how many times I feel that my “work in progress” (or lack thereof) is inconvenient, tiring, irritating, and annoying. Honestly, I just want to be complete; I just want to be whole. 

As a pastor, I’ve had to face the reality that both the congregation and me are a work in progress—under construction. As a result, ministry can be met with struggle, heartache, loss, affliction, disappointment, difficulty, opposition, and suffering. Such can lead to cynicism, fatigue, burnout, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on our mental health, personal health, marriage, relationships, and overall view of ministry. 

Anyone who has ever been in ministry knows it is tough, difficult, and weighty. Things don’t go according to plan. What you thought was…isn’t. You thought you would be further along than you are. Some of the people that were with you in the beginning, aren’t with you anymore. You’re criticized and under constant microscopic scrutiny. Money is scarce. Maybe you’re seeking a new season of ministry and you feel as though no one is looking at you and giving you a second look. And there are times when you are left wondering if it (ministry), if you (the minister), are even good.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves struggling with our state of being a work in progress? 

Remember it isn’t your work but God’s. 

I’m a fixer. If I see a problem or someone tells me their problem, I want to fix it—unless it is house related, and then I call a handyman. When it comes to problems in our personal life or in our church, pastors tend to be fixers. If we have problems, we tend to go at solving them alone. It may be a frustration we are having, a person who is causing us issues, an addictive pattern we can’t seem to break, a feeling of depression, or a struggle we are having in our marriage. And rather than truly consulting God, and inquiring to Him, about how He would have us handle it, we try and tackle it on our own. In short, we put all the pressure on ourselves to solve the issue.

If we see ourselves as the foreman of the work, we will become vulnerable to the weight of ministry. When that happens, the jar of clay (the minister) will be crushed by the weight of the ministry. Pastor, church leader, we must hand our lives and our ministries back to the ONE who put them under construction in the first place. 

According to Paul, the one who put the sign up on our lives, “A Work in Progress,” or “Under Construction,” wasn’t us, but God. Paul notes, “…he who began a good work…” (Phil 1:6). Therefore, it would only stand to reason that the ONE who began the work would continue the work. 

Remember that God has a perfect track record of bringing His work to glorious completion.

I recently started coaching my eldest son’s basketball team, which reignited my affinity for basketball. It reminded me of when I was really into basketball—during the Michael Jordan era. I remember watching the Bulls growing up and seeing Michael Jordan hit game-winning shots, like the one against the Cleveland Cavilers in 1989. But did you know that Michael Jordan was only 50% on game-winning shots? In short, the greatest basketball player to ever play the game (arguably) didn’t have a perfect track record. 

I know as pastors we want the ball; we want the control. Control is a descriptive of fixers. However, our track record—if we were honest—is like Michael Jordan’s, imperfect. Just like failing to hit a game-winning shot, many cases of frustration, fatigue, burnout, and even (some cases of) depression are brought about by failing to see the desired outcomes. 

However, God’s track record for starting and completing a work is perfect. What He starts, He finishes. What He promises, He fulfills. Just think about Genesis 1. Could you imagine being alongside God during the creation project without knowing the specificity of His plan? As you stood beside Him you may not fully understand what God is doing, what He is building, but what He is doing is methodically and intentionally working to bring and shape something very good into existence.

We may not be in control, nor fully understand what God is doing.

We can trust that God—since the beginning—has a perfect track record of working something to glorious completion.

As one of the contemporary praise songs suggests, “He has never failed us, and He won’t start now.” 

Remember the process is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ.

I was recently on a panel at a conference where the question was asked, “What keeps you in ministry?” A few years back, I probably would have said, “Because I was called.” However, in my almost 20 years in ministry, I’ve experienced both mountaintops and deep dark valleys. Truthfully, the deep dark valleys have taken their toll on me, humanly speaking. 

But when I answer that question now, I quote Philippians 3:10 where Paul expresses, “that I may know him (Jesus) and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death….” 

I believe in the call as pastors. However, the call to ministry is answering the call to suffer. Again, this isn’t to take away that the call to ministry is one of joy and experiencing the power of God to move mountains.

However, if you really summarize ministry in the vein of Jesus, it is a call to suffer. Yet, in His suffering there is both life and glory.

In closing, pastor, church leader, your life and ministry are under construction. Both are a work of progress under the foreman of Jesus Christ, worked daily by the Spirit of God. There are certainly times where living in this “work in progress” can bring frustration, fatigue, burnout, depression, and mental illness. But in your struggle, remember the works not your, it’s His, He is good with a perfect track record, and that your life is rooted and anchored in the life and love of King Jesus. 

Every Believer On Mission

I’m not a handyman. In fact, I’m not even close to being handy around the house. There’s a running joke that my wife is more of a handyman (or woman) than I am. I have often expressed my gratitude for being in vocational ministry for it places me around people that can often lend a helping hand, show me what needs to be done, or be hired for the project.

Here’s an observation that I’ve made regarding our culture. We live in a culture of specialists. In the previous generation, like my dad and father-in-law (who both are in their 60s), they were generalists. On top of their day job, they could change oil, replace spark plugs, lay flooring, fix minor plumbing issues, install crown molding, etc. And I’m sure that I could learn many of those things and more—by just watching YouTube—but the problem is that I don’t want to take the time to learn. I simply know there are professionals that can do it and can do it much better than me.

The notion that we live in a culture of specialists—or professionals—has infiltrated the church to the degree that many don’t see mission as their job. Mission, as many see it, is the duty of those who have been “called” or hired.  

But specialization not only hinders everyone from seeing their call to mission, but the idea of compartmentalization does as well. The tendency of our culture to categorize everything, leads to an unintended consequence of the fragmentation of life. In other words, when we don’t have one overall arching purpose that connects each category of life, we tend to see that category stand all by itself. Therefore, mission gets placed into a category. For many churches they see mission as a “program” of the church or something that believers go and do. Mission for some, isn’t seen as something that’s part of the very fabric and DNA of each individual. 

The Bible has a very different view or vision of mission.

Mission is for everyone, everywhere, all the time and to all places (peoples).

This vision of mission can be traced back to the Old Testament. In Exodus 19, while Moses is on Mt. Sinai, God speaks to him and at one point says, “…you will be my own possession out of all the peoples…and you will be my kingdom of priests and my holy nation” (Ex 19:5–6). 

Why is mission for everyone? Because God is on mission to create a people for Himself to reflect His glory—His rule and reign—throughout the created order. We see that idea in Exodus 19 when God expresses, “you will be my own possession….” If God is on mission, and God has created a people for Himself, then those who are part of His people have been grafted into His mission. Therefore, if God is on mission then all His people are born into and on that mission as well.

How is mission everywhere? If God is on mission to create a people for Himself to reflect His glory, He is going to do that through holy formation. Holy formation would involve all of life. Christopher Wright suggests, “The strong ethical demand of holiness in Old Testament Israel meant living lives of integrity, justice and compassion in every area—including personal, family, social, economic and national life” (The Mission of God’s People, 124).

This is why discipleship for New Testament believers should not be divorced from mission. Discipleship is the collision of the imago Deiand the missio Dei—as it is the process of learning what it means to be human after the likeness and image of Jesus. Being thus formed in Jesus, we are having the character of God forged in us that we might be a [holy] light to the world. As a result, how we live in all spheres of life matters missionally. 

If everything is mission, nothing really is mission…right? I disagree. I’ve heard people argue that if everything is mission then mission is watered-down to the point that nothing is mission. Given my broad understanding of mission, I don’t buy it. Why you ask? God tells Moses that His people will be a kingdom of priests. What do priests do? Mediate between God and others. Therefore, God saved a people for Himself forming and forging them into His identity and nature that they might live in a priestly, mediatorial, state between Him and the nations.

Similar language can also be found in the New Testament describing the people of God, a.k.a, the Church. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession…” (1 Pt 2:9). 

Such would lead me to conclude that everything that I do (in all spheres of life) matters to God—as what He is doing in me, He wants to leverage through me. In other words, how I live my life, how I relate to my family, how I treat my neighbor, how I engage the oppressed and marginalized, how I approach work, how I view and use my money, even how I leverage my social media account (and more), all are missional levers that display what God has and is doing in me through the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.  

In closing, our vision of mission should be more comprehensive—everyone, every sphere of life, and all the time—and not specialized for professionals or compartmentalized as just a branch or department of the church.

But there’s one more thing that fully completes this vision of mission and that is the posture or direction that it takes. While such a vision of mission should first and foremost have a vertical direction—the glory of our King—it most definitely should have a horizontal direction as we direct our lives towards all ta ethne as we declare God’s glory among the nations (Ps 96:3) and proclaim the praises of the one who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pt 2:9b). It is to this vision of mission everyone is called!

Maranatha and Mission: Hearing the Gentle Whisper to Stay on Mission

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can find it here.

Over the course of the last year, I have been training for triathlons. When I have a long training session or I’m in a race, there are two moments where I feel like giving up. First, I think about quitting when I experience a shortness of breath due to the physical activity. Second, there are times I want to throw in the towel when I feel the physical pain in my legs, calves, and shins.

In those moments, when my mind and body are telling me to stop, I hear this faint whisper: “Keep going; just put one foot in front of the other; you got this.” In other words, this faint whisper—in the sea of physical pain and emotional stress—exhorts me to stay on mission.

Maranatha moments, for me, are filled with the physical pain and emotional stress of life. All I want to do is cry out to Jesus…please come! And while he is more than likely not going to come back physically at that moment to make all things new and to right every wrong, I do believe he answers that cry and prayer in another way. He sends the Spirit to fill us as he lovingly whispers, “I’m here with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you; stay focused and stay on mission.”

It is the Spirit of God that brings comfort and peace in Maranatha moments. Not only does he bring peace and comfort, but he reminds, refocuses, and refreshes us to stay on mission.

What I’ve found in my own life, and what I suggest to you, is that Maranatha moments can serve as a catalyst for mission.

Here’s how.

First, Maranatha moments remind us that this world is not our home; we are sojourners between this broken and dark world and a world fully mended by the blood of Jesus and effusively lit by the glory of our King.

As John writes towards the very end of Revelation,

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more, grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, Look, I am making everything new. (John 21:4–5)

While Maranatha moments might give us pause in this world, they do not paralyze us from courageously and boldly moving forward towards the next in the power of the Spirit.

Second, Maranatha moments refocus us, as believers, on the primary mission to share and show the good news of Jesus.

It seems that much of Christianity today—particularly in the West, and specifically in North America—revolves around squabbles of secondary and tertiary importance. My observation in contemporary evangelicalism is that we occupy our time by vehemently debating matters such as the role of the church in American politics and the role of the church in culture.

While these issues are important—and there is a time and place to have such discussions—the time, energy, and sometimes visceral, prideful, and declarative tone eclipse the primary issue of making Jesus known. It comes across as if we are trying to make our stance known.

Some believers reason that the role of the church in American politics is more critical and crucial than ever. Believing such, Christians will exert their energy calling out the other side in militaristic language. They’ll go after brothers and sisters who are on different sides of political policies. [Note that I said policies, not doctrine. For while one may hold a particular doctrine, that doesn’t mean he or she will necessarily hold to the same policy.] Some will even opine that a fight for conservatism is a fight for Christianity in America.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t engage in the political realm; what I am saying is that Maranatha moments should refocus us to engage in our primary calling of making Jesus known through both word and deed. As we beg and cry out for Jesus to come, we are reminded that it isn’t about an elephant or a donkey, but the Lion of the tribe of Judah.

Another issue that tends to eclipse the primary call of mission is engagement with and in culture. This is close to the previous point, but still unique by itself.

Here’s the million-dollar question: How are we called as Christians to engage a pluralistic, pagan land—even one that was founded in part by Judeo-Christian principles?

In reality, it’s only been in recent times where the church in America has had to wrestle with answering it. And because many Christians—both in leadership and followership—have not seriously wrestled with the theological and missiological understanding and application with such a question, we find ourselves reacting to the cultural typhoon we call secularism, pluralism, and rugged individualism.

As a result, we may find ourselves sounding like a clanging gong, expressing our position and point without doing so in love or humility.

Maranatha moments re-attune our hearts on the primary mission of making Jesus known instead of on transforming the world into our preference. We are reminded when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” that he is bringing a new city adorned as a bride prepared for her husband.

Therefore, we don’t have the primary call and pressure of transforming this world. We can work, serve, and love the culture faithfully as we faithfully share and show Jesus’ love.

We can partner, in a spirit of common grace, with the culture working towards its flourishing. We can commit ourselves to a local faith community that seeks to embody and enact the coming Kingdom of God in our midst—thereby serving as a preview of the new city to come.

Third, Maranatha moments refresh our lives to give us the breath to breathe into others.

Maranatha moments arise when we are spent, exhausted, hurt, or in pain. Maranatha moments come when we are depleted and feel hopeless and helpless. The weight of life has become too much. However, while we are vociferously crying out “Maranatha!” because the struggle of life is too real, the Spirit is gently reminding us about mission because the need of the world is too great.

Here’s what we all know: Everyone has Maranatha moments. That doesn’t mean everyone is crying out for Jesus to come. Those who don’t know Jesus may be crying out for relief. They may be crying out, “Enough! Make it stop.”

They may be yelling curses to God. Maybe they are dealing with loss.

Maybe they are battling depression. Maybe they are struggling with an illness. Maybe they are in a crisis of identity.

Whatever it may be, our Maranatha moments can be leveraged to refresh our lives so that we can be aware of the needs around us that we might breath gospel life into their weary souls.

In closing, this is the tension we believers live with on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis. We are pelted constantly with the darkness and horrors of life in a fallen world. Such onslaughts leave us wailing, demanding, and even beating our chests, calling on Jesus to come quickly.

But on the other hand—amidst the train horn of brokenness, rawness, and vulnerability, Jesus sends his Spirit who speaks with a a still small voice, whispering, “Stay on mission.” Don’t lose sight of your planted purpose on planet earth—to demonstrate good news living and to declare the good news life.

As Peter quipped, “The Lord…is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, while we wait, we work. While we somberly mourn, we stay on mission.

Maranatha Moments in a World Filled with Tragedy

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can find that original article here.

Years ago, I remember a Chris Rice song that resonated with my soul. It was called “Hallelujahs.” It described scenarios of life, like experiencing a purple sky to close the day, wading in the surf to see dolphins play, and tasting the salt while watching the dancing waves. At the end of the refrain, these words would echo throughout the song, “And my soul wells up with hallelujahs.”

Yes, there are certainly times throughout life where my soul wells up with hallelujahs—with “Praise the Lord!” However, I have also experienced my fair share of instances where my soul wells up with Maranathas!

Have you ever found yourself crying out, “Maranatha?” Maranatha is an Aramaic word used in 1 Corinthians 16:22 that can mean, “Our Lord, Come!” or “Come, Lord Jesus!” Interestingly, as Trevin Wax notes, this second interpretation wasn’t widely used until the last couple of centuries. In fact, as he notes, throughout the ages, Maranatha has been mainly used as a declaration, “Our Lord has come.”

Both are appropriate, but one version finds itself on the minds and lips of people when faced with life’s pains and sufferings. This week has been one of those weeks where “Maranatha” has been uttered from the lips of many, including myself.

I found myself crying out “Maranatha!” as I scrolled through the feeds that marked the 18th anniversary of 9/11—the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The devastation caused by those acts of terrorism almost 20 years ago will be forever stitched in our minds: planes flying into towers, people jumping from buildings, dust filling the city air, lifeless bodies under piled rubble, and grieving families and friends who in a twinkling of an eye lost husband, wife, parent, or child.

In addition to the anniversary of 9/11, the evangelical world experienced the loss of a prominent young church leader and mental health advocate who died by suicide—Jarrid Wilson, a man who loved Jesus and people, and who had dedicated his life to helping those in need. Jarrid preached messages, wrote books, and faithfully ministered to a broken world, only to find himself losing the battle (but not losing the war).

Having heard the news while driving, I had to wait until I stopped to see it for myself. As I sat and scrolled through the feeds, my heart was broken and grieving over what I read. There were so many comments that expressed heartbreak, grief, sadness, and lament.

The most jarring comment was a twitter post from Jarrid himself the day of his passing. As somewhat of a last, parting words of this life, he posted,

Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that.

My response is a resounding, AMEN!

But it is the irony of his words and parting action that wells up in my soul a Maranatha! I get how the weight of this world and the struggle with illness and disease can crush the drive to live. And therefore, I couldn’t help but cry out “Maranatha!” over and over. Lord Jesus, come! Lord Jesus, come!

Have you been there? Are you there? If so, it is perfectly acceptable for there to be dry moments and seasons where no Hallelujahs flow from our tongues. It is alright if we somberly sit and utter groanings of Maranatha. This makes me think of Romans 8:22–23, where Paul writes,

For we know that the whole of creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

We live in a world filled with compounding brokenness, hurt, pain, and suffering. It’s not like we face one experience of hurt and pain; Oh no, we face a life filled with such. Sexual brokenness, divorce, betrayal, abuse, violence, discrimination, racism, poverty, abandonment, addiction, illness, disease, and more—not to mention death. We are victims of multiple counts of pain and suffering.

In short, the fallen world, the opportunistic enemy, and the fleshly nature of sin lay claim to many a victim—everyone included; yes, even pastors.

As believers, we believe Jesus is in the process of making all things new. But there are times where our hopeful knowing gives way to our groanings of “Hurry up!” In those times, the struggle with life is just too real. We are simply too overwhelmed with the ugliness and darkness of life, and therefore we cry out—maybe with more of a tonal demand—”Maranatha!”

While we groan, we wait. Will Jesus answer our prayer? Will he, at that moment, physically come and make all things new? In all likelihood, possibly not. But one day he will.

In the meantime, what do we do?

When nothing but Maranatha comes from our lips, where should our minds and hearts go?

Let me share a couple of thoughts.

First, we can attune our minds to the empathetic yet finished work of Jesus. 

The eternal God made flesh entered into the fray of humanity, bore the cross for our sins as he absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf. In clothing himself in humanity, Jesus experienced life, and thus pain, in a fallen world. He experienced betrayal, disease, poverty, abuse, violence, hatred, and even deaths of loved ones.

By taking upon himself the sin of humanity, he entered and endured the greatest of all pains—the wrath of God—and thus, separation from the Father. So, when it comes to our Maranatha moments, we can rest assured that Jesus knows and understands where we are. His empathetic and yet finished work becomes the fuel for the courage to face another day.

Second, we can attune our hearts to focus on the hope of glory. 

One of my favorite passages on this is 2 Corinthians 4:17–18, where Paul writes, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”

Regarding this passage, John Piper says,

Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all of it is totally meaningful. . . . Every millisecond of your pain—from fallen nature or fallen man—every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that suffering.

In short, Jesus is in the process of making all things new, and somehow, in some way, even though we cannot see it, God is in the Maranatha moments preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

God is in the Maranatha moments preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

In closing, depravity casts a long and dark shadow. When that shadow hits our lives, Maranatha may be the only word welling up in our soul. And that is perfectly ok.

But as you sit in your Maranatha moments, let the Spirit speak hope and peace that Jesus is indeed in the process of making all things new. As a result, you can also whisper to your soul, as the old hymn writer Horatio Spafford quipped, “It is well with my soul.”

Chasing Donkeys: How Ministry Can Feel

This article originally appears on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. Click here to access it.

Disclaimer: I’ve never chased donkeys. I have been in a situation where I’ve feared donkeys running me over—that was in Santorini, Greece, which is another story for another article. So, what’s the correlation between rural ministry and chasing donkeys?

The concept of chasing donkeys comes from 1 Samuel 9. From the account in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, I believe there are some lessons we can learn and apply to church leaders and pastors in any contexts—especially rural ones.

Do What I’m Called to Do

The backstory to 1 Samuel 9 is that Israel had demanded a king. Having expressed his disapproval and disappointment for what Israel did, Samuel nevertheless sent everyone home while he allowed the Lord to sort through the resumes.

The narrative then shifts to a wealthy man, Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin. Kish had a son, Saul, who was extremely impressive. No one measured up to Saul. One day, some of Kish’s donkeys had enough and broke loose. Guess who Kish wanted to send to track them down and bring them back? Saul!

Remember Saul’s description? He was extremely impressive. No one was like Saul. I could imagine if I was Saul, I would whine and complain about me having to go. If Kish were my dad, I would have responded, “Send the servant. Send my younger brother. Don’t send me! Chasing donkeys is beneath me.” But Saul didn’t respond that way. He simply heard the call of his father and went.

It’s a fact that well over the majority of churches in America run less than 100 members. Yet, we live in a culture (and Christian subculture) that celebrates big.

While there is nothing wrong with having a large and growing ministry, I do believe—to a degree—our Christian subculture over-celebritizes the larger churches and their leaders.

In doing so, this can serve as an unintentional shaming mechanism for pastors and church leaders faithfully serving in smaller churches—or praying about serving in such contexts.

Maybe you’re a pastor or church leader and you have these feelings that what you are doing is beneath you. Maybe you feel like you were made for so much more and have way more capacity than what you are doing. Perhaps there are days you feel your call is too miniscule, or maybe it feels meaningless.

I know that I have certainly been there. But let’s take a cue from Saul and do what we are called to do.

Nothing to Show for It

The story of chasing donkeys continues. Interestingly, Saul and his servant searched tirelessly for these runaway donkeys. They went through four different regions…still no donkeys.

Having been in ministry for almost 20 years, there are seasons where I have felt like I’m spinning my wheels with no forward traction. I know that I have felt this way when I’ve looked at numbers and seen no real growth. I’ve felt this way when I have given deep study to the Word and have preached with all the gumption and passion in the world, only to be told, “That was too long, pastor!”

I’ve felt this way when the back door of the church seemed to be as big as the front door—maybe even bigger. I’ve felt this way when there has been no excitement around our mission and vision, but everyone seems to be talking about the church down the street.

And I’ve felt this way when serving in a rural context with corn fields surrounding the church.

What do we do when we get to an intersection of ministry where we seemingly have nothing to show for all the energy we’ve spent? What do we do when we get to a point in our ministry where we feel like we have failed? What do we do when we reflect on a seemingly fruitless season and we feel like throwing in the towel?

Answer: Just keep going!

God at Work behind the Scenes

When Saul and the servant arrived at the intersection of nothing-to-show-for-all-their-energy-spent-searching-for-the-donkeys and Saul was thinking about turning around and going back home empty-handed, the servant suggested they try one more thing.

For me, it’s quite humorous to read his idea. He suggested they go and enlist the preacher’s (Samuel’s) help.

Off they went to find Samuel with the hopes that he could point them in the right direction of where to find the donkeys.

But little did Saul know that God had met with Samuel and told him that God was “sending” (see 1 Sam. 9:16) a man from Benjamin that he would anoint to become the first king of Israel. Saul believed he was going up to inquire about donkeys, but God was sending him to inherit a kingdom. For many of us, that’s the story of ministry!

Because many of us feel empty-handed and frustrated in ministry, we search for the expert to share insight to help us do ministry better. We want to inquire about where we should go, what books we should read, and what we should do to see greater fruit in our call.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that enlisting the help of experts and leaders to learn and grow in ministry is bad. On the contrary, it’s good and necessary!

The lesson I’m pointing out from the story of Saul and applying to us today is that while our micro call is chasing donkeys (doing ministry), the macro call of God for us is inheriting his kingdom.

In other words, the narrative of our ministry is embedded in a greater narrative of God’s kingdom. In short, God works behind the scenes of ministry to prep us for the inheritance of his kingdom.

Dear pastor and church leader, ministry isn’t the telos; it is a responsibility handed to us as we journey towards our ultimate destiny, our ultimate aim—to be heirs with Jesus in the kingdom of God. And from the biblical perspective—having received a glimpse of how God thinks and works—regardless of how insignificant or small we think our ministry is, it is the kingdom telos that keeps us chasing donkeys.

Does God Care about the Donkeys?

With all this talk about the seemingly menial task of chasing donkeys, of having nothing to show for our chasing donkeys, and the ultimate telos being the inheritance of God’s kingdom and not chasing donkeys, the question will naturally arise, “Does God care about the donkeys?”

In the narrative, we see the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes!” Before Saul could utter a word about the donkeys, Samuel says, “As for the donkeys that wandered away from you three days ago, don’t worry about them because they’ve been found” (1 Sam. 9:20).

While Saul was busy chasing donkeys, God was watching over and leading them.

There will certainly be seasons where ministry is dry and we feel as though we are spinning our wheels, going nowhere. However, that doesn’t mean that God is not doing something with our ministry.

The Apostle Paul was the one who said that he planted, Apollos watered, but that God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). In planting, Paul wouldn’t have witnessed much movement. In watering, Apollos would have seen little movement. But God saw the greatest movement as he was sovereign over the growth.

Our role in our call from God is faithfulness. God’s role in his call to us is fruitfulness.

Knowing that God cares about our ministries (our donkeys), regardless of the size or scope, we can faithfully set out to chase them, knowing ultimately that our chasing them is leading us in the direction of his kingdom.

In closing, to all my brothers and sisters in ministry—especially in rural contexts—keep chasing donkeys!

Leaving the Faith by Losing the Focus

This post originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original article.

Another high-profile Christian voiced his decision to “fall away” from faith. To be fair, Marty Sampson did walk back the position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.” Nevertheless, both Sampson and Josh Harris chose to invite the public in their season of struggle and straying.

As one would imagine, such public displays of de-affection has led to a range of reactions from the social media sphere—support, shock, and outrage, to name just a few. As we all wrestle with such public vulnerability and rawness, we must always begin with prayer for those who are struggling, and those who have laid the proverbial line in the sand regarding their denial of the Christian faith.

As we pray, there are two particular things I believe those secure in the faith can do. First, we can seek to understand why such people fall away. Second, we can discern and devise ways we can strengthen our discipleship environments to allow the full spectrum of seekers and strugglers have safe environments to belong, become, and believe (and keep on believing).

To help our understanding of why people wander or are tempted to wander from the faith, we can look at the Book of Hebrews, which addresses the need for endurance to not fall away and the environment that tempts one to fall away.

The Endurance to Not Fall Away

The writer of Hebrews addresses believers who were undergoing severe persecution to the point that they were tempted to waver in the faith. So the author writes a letter aimed at encouraging them to endure. In Chapter 11, we find the “Hall of Faith”—and these words:

Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For by it our ancestors won God’s approval. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. (v. 1–3) 

In an environment where people experienced pain and suffering, which ignited feelings that buffeted their faith, the author described the essence of faith. Faith isn’t about the reality of the moment, but on that which is hoped for. Faith is something you believe, even though you cannot tangibly see it nor fully explain it.

And it is faith that receives the approval of God.

After briefly describing the essence of faith, the author moves to provide examples of Old Testament saints who exercised faith. Abraham, for example, was told by a God he just met to leave his hometown and go to “a place” that this God would show him. And he went!

Although Abraham is a fallen and flawed individual with a roller-coaster life of obedience and disobedience, he had a fixated faith. He believed God. Not only did he believe God—which was accounted as righteousness—but he believed he was moving towards a city built and established by God.

God wired all of us in a very complex pattern of mind, heart, spirit. All of us have emotions we feel.

But faith is not about fixating your mind on the feelings of the moment, but on directing your heart towards the promised future.

Many of those who have followed God had to discover this reality:

  • Take Abraham, who lied to Pharaoh when he felt afraid.
  • Sarah felt desperate and told Abraham to sleep with Hagar.
  • Moses killed an Egyptian when he felt indignation.

But each of them overcame their doubts, fears, and anger and continued on living faithful and faith-filled lives towards the future promise. And what was the future promise? Jesus. The Son of God who is higher than the angels, greater than Moses, instituter of a superior covenant, the perfect sacrifice for sin, the King of the unshakeable kingdom, and the steadfast anchor of the soul.

For the Old Testament saints, fixating their eyes on the future promise balanced their lives when buffeted by feelings of doubt, anxiety, and fear. And just to think that the author of Hebrews describes the New Testament saints having been provided something better (Heb. 11:40)!

The bottom line is that when our lives are centered around feelings, they become shaky; but when our lives are centered around faith in Christ, they become secure.

The Environment that Tempts One to Fall Away 

But what’s the environment today that is making people like Josh Harris and Marty Sampson question and even walk away from the faith? For starters, it’s not like the environment the audience of Hebrews experienced. Today, there may be philosophical, relational, and verbal hostility towards those of the Christian faith, but not life-threatening hostility as many of our brothers and sisters face in other parts of the world.

The cultural environment in which the Church of the West now find herself is one that is pluralistic, skeptical, hyper-individualized, personalized, and syncretized.

Our culture operates as a marketplace of competing ideas. Therefore, is truth real? Is there really one way to God? To heaven? This pluralism, coupled with a dismal track record of institutional and authoritative integrity, has caused systemic skepticism.

People question everything. But not only that, our culture is one of hyper-individualization and personalization where the individual’s needs and desires are prioritized over others. Given this cultural landscape, there’s a syncretistic tendency for individuals to craft their own morals, views, and standards to create a worldview and micro-narrative that works for them.

The church is bombarded with these cultural mortars daily. And at the heart, the Christian faith runs counter-culture to many of these environmental mortar shells. And what I think happens is that over time these shells have a tendency to test the faith of Christians by tempting them to take their eyes off Jesus.

For example, my takeaways from Marty Sampson’s post were:

  • Pastors fall
  • Christians can be the most judgmental people
  • No one talks about the hard issues of Christianity
  • The Bible is full of contradictions
  • How God can be love but then send people to hell
  • The Christian faith is not for me
  • Christianity seems to me like any other religion

Question….where’s Jesus?

There’s something similar with Josh Harris’ post. If you read his post in its entirety, there’s nothing about Jesus.

On a deeper dive, it seems that the Christian faith—that they once so boldly declared—ceased working for these men.

All the reasons why they are leaving the faith or struggling with the faith have little to do with the actual essence of the Christian faith—Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.

Without knowing these men, it seems that what transpired—and we will continue to see it in the lives of others as we move further into this century—is that they grew weary trying to understand, interpret, communicate, and explain the infinite through the lens and to the lives of the finite.

And as a result, focusing on the secondary and tertiary issues of the Christian faith allowed their eyes to wander from the author and perfecter of the faith.

Anytime we take our eyes of Jesus during turbulent storms—be that physical, philosophical, practical or emotional storms—we drift away from Jesus. [Peter is the poster-child for this.]

Exhortation and Conclusion

To the Joshs and Martys of the world, I get the difficulty of navigating the intersection of the Christian faith (and all the voices present there) and contemporary culture. I understand the emotions, the doubts, and the skepticism that such a congested chaotic environment can cause. And I truly believe there’s no shame in doubting, questioning, wrestling, and even struggling with the unknowns of how our faith intersects with a broken and finite world.

On the other hand, like the author of Hebrews did to believers living in a hostile land in the first century, let me remind us all that lying at the core of our faith is the King of Glory who died, was buried, rose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God. And he is in the process of making all things new.

Therefore, don’t give up. Don’t walk away. Endure! “Do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Heb. 10:35–36).

Indeed, there’s a mystery to the faith, but there’s also a great master and perfecter of our faith who conquered death and sin. Resist the temptations to take your eyes of Jesus. Rather, as the old hymn suggest,

Turn your eyes to Jesus and look full into his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.