Weak-Faithed Fears

When was your faith first challenged?

For me, it was my freshman year in college, when I first met people who openly opposed Christianity. Before that, my faith was safe and easy, but when my new peers boldly questioned my beliefs, I stumbled, fearful and shocked. For a while, I was afraid to talk about faith issues, but eventually, those early experiences served to strengthen and confirm my faith in Jesus.

Now, in my 40s, I occasionally meet a believer who fearfully grasps his small beliefs and lashes out at anyone who challenges those beliefs. No offense, but faith can’t grow when we hold it so tightly, and it seems a miserable existence next to the broad confidence available to all who believe.

Paul saw this contrast when he finally made it to Rome.

Acts 28:17-31.

Around AD59 or 60, the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to get rid of Paul as quickly as they could. Some even vowed to kill him (Acts 23:12). But when he arrived in Rome, the Jews there wanted to hear about Jesus and this new sect called “The Way.” Why the contrast? What’s the difference between these two groups of Jews?

I posit that the Jews in Rome had stronger faith than those in Jerusalem. Why? Because they had been challenged and questioned.

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.Philippians 2:12b

These Jews in Rome were confronted with other faith systems daily. They had to dig into their own beliefs and really know what was true. They had to make daily choices about following the guidelines of their faith. Some even defended Judaism in public forums.

Jews in Jerusalem, however, were surrounded by other Jews. They had gotten complacent, allowing their faith to be more of a national identity than a life-informing, daily influence. The faith of Jerusalem Jews was weak—not their knowledge but the actual working out of their faith in daily life. They knew more than anyone, but they hadn’t tested all that knowledge. As a result, they were afraid of conflict, afraid of things changing, afraid of trying something new. Isn’t that why they killed Jesus? Because he was trying to do something new.

You know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  –James 1:3-4

Spiritual maturity is the result of testing, and confrontations with those who believe differently is one form of testing.

I’m reminded of modern discussions about social media “bubbles” in which we’re only seeing and interacting with people who already think like us. A recent Washington Post op-ed suggested social media algorithms generate an “echo chamber” for the user in which we only see posts with which we agree (reference). How can our faith be tested in such an environment? (Also see my previous post, Lean In, Listen, and Learn.)

When Paul arrived in Rome, the Jews weren’t afraid to sit down and talk with him, to hear his story and draw their own conclusions (Acts 28:21-22). Paul couldn’t have asked for more.

Like everywhere he went, however, not all the Jews who listened to Paul became believers (Acts 28:24). That’s okay. Some did.

Another benefit of their strong faith was that the group could manage disagreement. If the people in a church or small group have no practice discussing/defending their faith, they won’t know how to handle internal dissent when it arises…and it will arise. A bunch of believers who have rooted their faith in the Word and tested it in the world will persevere through an internal conflict much better than their weak-faithed counterparts.

Friends, be like the Roman Jews: unafraid to hear a challenge or consider a different point of view. When your faith is strong, you can take challenges from outside and disputes from within. Nothing will destroy your faith!

Our faith is strengthened by challenges. There’s no need to be afraid of someone who thinks/believes differently. Don’t isolate yourself for fear of losing your faith! Any #confrontation is #NotAboutMe.

Have you had your faith challenged? How did you feel and how did you respond? I hope you did better than I that first time. Please let us know in the comments below. Thanks.

In Case of A Storm

There have been more tropical storms/hurricanes in 2020 than in any other year since the weather service began recording them. I don’t know about you, but the political and social upheaval in the United States right now (the week of national elections) also feels like a major storm. Businesses in large cities boarded up their windows in anticipation of rioting following the election, just like they would for a physical storm.

Hurricane Harvey stalled out over the Texas Gulf Coast for five days in 2017, producing catastrophic flooding after winds so strong they broke the recording devices (reference). Thousands of people lost their homes, and as many as eighty-eight fatalities are attributed to the storm (reference). Harvey became a named storm on August 17th in the Gulf of Mexico and died out on August 30th along the coast of Florida. That’s 13 days.

Nor’easters along the east coast of the United States often cause gale-force winds, rough seas, snowstorms, and sometimes flooding (reference). They are as serious and scary as hurricanes, they just don’t get names. A Nor’easter was responsible for the Blizzard of ’93 which shut down most of the eastern United States. The United States nor’easter season has just begun, and considering how 2020 is going, I’m more than a little concerned!

The Mediterranean Sea gets Northeasters (just add the ‘th’ back in). When Paul was on his way to Rome as a prisoner, a Northeaster came across the sea and lasted more than fourteen days! That’s longer than Hurricane Harvey. While we can’t estimate overall losses of property or life, we know from Luke’s account in Acts 27-28 that Paul’s ship was destroyed but no one on the ship lost their life.

With a record-setting hurricane season here in the US, political vitriol, and social unrest of historic proportions, what can we do? Toward the end of Paul’s ordeal with the Northeaster, he spoke to the 275 people on the boat with him, and he modeled three things they should do in case of a storm. Their storm was physical/environmental, but the same principles apply when the storm is social, political, emotional, or relational.

3 Things to Do In A Storm

Acts 27:27-38.

1. Take care of yourself.

“For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive.”  –Acts 27:33-34a

It’s easy to get distracted, to let stress dictate our health decisions, but our bodies need food and water, oxygen, and rest. Especially in the midst of a figurative storm, we must take care of ourselves. Make time to prioritize healthy foods, some exercise, and a regular sleep schedule. Go drink a glass of water right now. Go ahead; I’ll wait. When you are physically healthy, you’re better prepared to face the storm brewing around you and to hear the Holy Spirit directing you through it.

2. Give thanks.

After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all.  –Acts 27:35

Need I remind you of this verse as well?

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  –1 Thessalonians 5:18

Gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving. We can find something for which to give thanks today, regardless of our circumstances. We don’t have to thank God for the storm, but we can always thank Him for His provision (such as the bread Paul ate), His sustaining power, His previous blessings, or at least the knowledge that He already knows the outcome or already has a solution laid out for the present storm.

In Paul’s case, God sent an angel to promise everyone’s safety (Acts 17:23-24). We may not get the angel appearing in the night like that, but we have the promises of Scripture and the reassurances of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.

Thank Him for His provision, His promises, and His plan.

Why is giving thanks so important? Because it reminds us of God’s economy: that He’s in charge, that He supplies, and that He cares. Thankfulness puts us back in right thinking toward God. (You might even call it thinkfulness. Just an idea.)

3. Have confidence in God’s control.

“Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.”  –Acts 27:34b

Granted, Paul had the aforementioned angel.

Granted, we may lose more than a few hairs…or gain a few more gray ones (like I have) during the storm. God doesn’t promise us freedom from baldness, but confidence in God’s sovereignty is ours to be had. Recall all the times He saved His people, such as the Red Sea (Exodus 14) or this very story! In the next chapter, Paul gets bitten by a venomous snake and still survives (Acts 28:3-6). Or recall a time He helped you through a different storm.

We have to think big-picture. You and I have eternal life. At the risk of sounding fatalistic, we will go to Heaven when God decides we go to Heaven. We will live under the political system God has already decided to put in place. God will meet our needs—or not (like Job)—in a way that brings Him glory.

We’ve made it through eight months of pandemic and almost as many months of social unrest. Even if election indecision lasts fourteen days (like Paul’s Northeaster), even if you’re looking at four years (or four more years) of the president you don’t want, we can do this!

So friends, follow Paul’s advice:

Take care of yourself. Give thanks. Stay confident in God’s control.

We’re living through a storm of epic proportions, and it’s called 2020. How can we deal with it? The same way Paul dealt with a Northeaster that could have killed everyone on his ship. My plans #incaseofastorm are #NotAboutMe.

What spiritual practice or Bible passage has helped you weather the storm that is 2020? Give us your best advice in the comments below. Thanks!

PS–I love it when the Holy Spirit ties all sorts of threads together. Check out one or all of these:

Also, if you haven’t really listened to the lyrics in this song recently, take three minutes to watch the lyrics video for Casting Crowns’ Praise You In This Storm

4 Pleas for Church Leaders

It’s good to be back, friends! I’m still working on the project I started during my blogging break. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.

When we left Paul, back in Do the Work Well, he was sitting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, urgently encouraging them because he knew he would never see them again (Acts 20). This chapter seems like Paul’s version of Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17).

Paul’s boat was about to leave, so he had to talk quickly and directly. The beginning and end of his conversation could have been for any believers in Ephesus and beyond. But tucked into the middle of this passage, Paul gives some very personal, prophetic advice to those specific leaders who sat before him. The principles, however, apply to leaders in local churches across time and around the world, from preschool Sunday School teachers to lead pastors of megachurches. These principles are more fundamental than leadership styles or personal preferences. They get down to essentials. Let’s take a look.

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Do the Work Well

Paul was near the end of his third journey, and he wanted to arrive in Jerusalem before Pentecost. He knew a stopover in Ephesus would delay him for days, but he also knew, without a doubt, this trip was his last time to pass that way. So Paul asked the Ephesian church leaders to meet him in Miletus, about 35 miles south of Ephesus (Acts 20:16-17 and note), where he could encourage them once more.

Acts 20:17-22.

When the Ephesian elders arrived in Miletus, Paul sat them down for a talk. I wouldn’t really call it a conversation, more of a speech or lecture, but in a few sentences, he summarized his approach to ministry. It’s a pattern that still applies today.

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The Kids: John Mark and Timothy

Two boys, really, chosen to accompany the most famous man (next to Jesus) in Christian history. Did their mothers see who Paul was going to be? Did these young men sense the significance of their service…or did they view it as a big adventure?

It makes sense for a group of men to invite an assistant/intern/gopher on a long trip. He could have carried things, stepped out for coffee or sandwiches, even gone ahead for lodgings if necessary. Paul had plenty of people to meet, sermons to prepare, and letters to write. An assistant for the mundane tasks was a perfect addition to their small band.

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Prioritizing the Person of Peace

Paul took off on his second gospel-sharing journey probably more than a year after the first journey ended. This time Silas went with him. Apparently, the two grew close while Paul was at the Jerusalem Council. In addition, Silas had returned to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to encourage the church there (Acts 15:22, 32), giving these new partners more time to get acquainted. (For more on the Jerusalem Council, see Antioch, part 2.)

Paul and Silas headed north out of Antioch. They probably stopped in Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. Then, they travelled through Derbe and the three cities where Paul had been persecuted on the first trip: Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. In Lystra, they picked up Timothy.

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We Know So Little About Lydia

I wish Luke gave us more information about this gracious hostess and resident of Philippi, so for some fifth Friday fun, I imagined a back story for her. Catch the real story in Acts 16 and a study on the same chapter (from Paul’s point-of-view) coming soon to Not About Me.

It was a business move. Nothing more. And yet Lydia relished the freedom of her new hometown. In Philippi, women were treated better—not exactly like men, but at least her neighbors weren’t surprised when they learned she kept her own books and made her own purchasing decisions.  At first, she rented a small store front with an even smaller apartment in the back. It was enough for her and her two apprentices.

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A Barnabas Background Check

I’m no stranger to background checks, although that “last 5 addresses” part stumps me. We’ve lived a lot of places! More personally, it’s hard to know someone until you know their backstory. Barnabas has come up a few times in our walk through Acts, so this week, I offer you four descriptors for Barnabas as his own man, separately from Saul/Paul. I hope you see him in a fresh light when we’re finished. Continue reading

Paul’s Preaching Pattern

I’ve never thrilled to the sermons printed in the Bible: Peter’s in Acts 2 and Acts 4, Paul’s in Acts 17, and others. They feel redundant because we’ve just been reading about everything they say. But as I stepped through Acts recently (search the tag ‘Acts’ for multiple resulting posts), I noticed a pattern in Paul’s sermon of Acts 13—a pattern that remains relevant for speakers and preachers even today. Continue reading