Picture yourself alongside the apostle Paul. There you are in a dark, miserable prison. Rats are plentiful. The smell of human waste is everywhere. You have no idea when you’re going to be released. You’ve been faithful to Jesus to share the good news of the gospel with many in the city of Philippi and because of that, you’ve had handcuffs slapped on your wrists and you were thrown into this prison.
Then, Paul leans over to you. You don’t necessarily expect Paul to gripe and complain, but you weren’t prepared for what he said next: “Brother, I know it’s late. I know we’ve just been beaten and the rats are starting to nip at us, but we should start praising the Lord.”
In that moment, what would your reaction be?
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I would just jump right in singing and praising God like Silas did. Your reaction to that statement tells a lot about what you believe God deserves praise for. Paul had learned something that others before Him learned: We don’t just praise God because circumstances are going well. We praise Him because of who He is.
In this way, praise is a discipline. We don’t just wake up one morning desiring to praise God in the darkest and most bitter circumstances. What’s more likely is that we begin every day to delight in God for who He is and what He’s done for us in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. *This allows us to praise Him no matter the circumstances.*
Listen to David:
“I will rejoice and be glad in Your lovingkindness,
Because You have seen my affliction;
You have known the troubles of my soul,” (Psalm 31:7)
“Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright,” (Psalm 33:1)
“I will bless the Lord at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth,” (Psalm 34:1).
All of these point to David calling us to make a decision, based on who God is, to offer praise. None of these commands are based on the circumstances going on around him or us. In fact, some of them call us to praise in spite of the circumstances.
Beloved, we must get better at praising God for *WHO* He is, despite our circumstances. It’s the only practice that will get us to the place where we praise God in the prison. We want to be the people whose spirits are so alive with God that despite the gruesomeness around us we still love God.
We don’t get there in a minute. We get there day by day, praising God where we are at right now.
Part of coming to Christ is the conviction that there is no righteousness in ourselves at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are people out there who do good things. They help others and sacrifice of themselves. But compared to a blameless, Holy God, there is no one who is truly righteous. Jesus himself said there was only one who was truly good–God (Matthew 19:7).
But a funny thing happens when we give our lives to Christ and join the church. Often, we begin to feel the burden to become the kind of people the New Testament describes. And many take this burden and turn it inward. They try to become the people the New Testament describes through sheer will power. Some call it holiness. Some call it Christ-likeness. Others call it maturity.
And all of these things are virtues that the New Testament encourages. But, what happens is believers learn to live from their human willpower. They become good through their own striving. And they learn to accomplish living out the Christian life in the flesh–through the means that our human soul can make happen.
This works only until we get tired and then everything comes crashing down.
But there is another way.
The same Holy Spirit that softened your heart so you would accept Christ in the first place is the same Holy Spirit that wants to transform you from the inside. He actually is more willing to transform you from the inside than you want to be transformed. He wants to make you willingly–dare I say–happily holy.
Sometimes this is hard to believe because our growth seems to be moving so slowly. But it’s in these times that we must trust that God is doing more than we can understand. Sometimes He moves powerfully and visibly. Other times He is working in the background, setting up events to transform you that you couldn’t possibly imagine.
And it’s in these places that we have to content ourselves with the fact that He is God and we are not. He is the potter and we are the clay. We partner with Him in prayer and abiding. We remind God that there is work to be done in us. But we don’t approach God like we’re orphans. We have the trust of sons and daughters in a Father who has been faithful.
He will transform us. We don’t have to strive. We just have to give our attention to Him and He will change who we are.
So stop striving, loved son or daughter. Trust that the Father is good and has good plans for you. Remember:
If we die with him,
we will also live with him.
If we endure hardship,
we will reign with him.
If we deny him,
he will deny us.
If we are unfaithful,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot deny who he is.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
I just finished reading a really good article by Alan Hirsch that describes seven practices (or disciplines, as they are traditionally known) that cause a church to thrive in the midst of chaos. Alan loves “living systems theory” and believes the church will thrive best when she is constantly operating in a crisis mode. This crisis mode causes her to trust Jesus and not be encumbered by distractions that easily shift our gaze from Him. But obviously, to survive in the midst of crisis continually is difficult and so he suggests the following practices for a church trying to live near the edge of chaos:
1. Infuse an intricate understanding of what drives organizational success.
2. Insist on uncompromising straight talk.
3. Manage from the future.
4. Reward inventive accountability.
5. Harness adversity by learning from prior mistakes.
6. Foster relentless discomfort.
7. Cultivate reciprocity between the individual and the organization.
Alan is also very clear that these disciplines must integrated. To have one without the other six or even six without the other one leads to problems. But here’s my question: What does this look like practically in the life of the church? How have you seen these sort of practices fleshed out between human beings in the church to which you belong? I think the answer would be helpful for us all.
I was going to ask Alan on his blog, but you can’t leave comments there. So now, I’m asking you, my faithful readers, what you’ve experienced. And if Alan should happen to stop by, he could leave a comment as well. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge)