Together for the Underestimated Gospel – Ligon Duncan – The Underestimated God: God’s Ruthless, Compassionate Grace in the Pursuit of His Own Glory and His Ministers’ Joy (1 Kings 19)

Many of us thought that if we were faithful, we wouldn't have to face the truly hard times, but when the bottom falls out, you'll learn what you really love, what you really believe. You'll find out what your real treasure is when the disappointments come.

In disappointments and discouragements, we're tempted to forget that God is God and that God is good. And it doesn't matter how long you've been teaching this to the people of God, you are still liable to not believing that.

In these times, we are tempted to succumb to idolatry because we are tempted to think there is a greater treasure that has been withheld or taken away from us, a greater treasure than what God has or can be given to us.

We want to live in 1 Kings 18, not 1 Kings 19. In 1 Kings 18 is where God demonstrates his power through Elijah. That's where you want to be in ministry. You don't want to be in 1 Kings 19, but you get there. It's a total textual shock. I"ve read it countless times, and I still get there.

What are your greatest losses in life? Your unsatisfied and unsatisfiable longings? Your hopes and treasures that you've never obtained or you've had taken away from you? Your greatest dreams?

We all have them. The question is, "What do we do with them?" Because how we respond there may be the most important thing we do in life.

I wonder what you've hoped for after you ask why and have no answer. Good things that you've longed for. Holy things that you've longed for. Right things that you've longed for. And you've never been given them.

I wonder if God has ever drawn close and held your greatest treasure up before your eyes and said, "You can't have it." And then done it again and said, "You still can't have it."

No one but Moses himself had this kind of ministry of power that Elijah had, and yet he knew what it was like to walk right up to the end of this life and have his hopes utterly dashed, to have his every dream lost, but he also can testify to you of the ruthless, compassionate, pursuing grace of God with which he relentlessly goes after his ministers for His everlasting glory and their joy.

Even people who believe in the soverignty of God can fail to believe that the Lord is God. Elijah has just been the facilitator of a spectacular display of the power of God on Mount Carmel. He has outrun a chariot, and a messenger arrives. And the messenger brings a message from the woman who has killed the prophets of the Lord in the Northern Kingdom, and she says, "You think I'm impressed by what you did yesterday, by the killing of my prophets, the prophets of Ba'al, the god who I worship? By this time tomorrow, you'll join them."

You're just not expecting Elijah's response. You expect him to tell the messenger, "You remember that fire from heaven thing I did yesterday? You tell her I'll be right here. Just who exactly is she bringing to me?" But that's not what happens. He is afraid and runs for his life. What's your name? "El-i-jah" My god is Yah.

This is where modern commentators psychoanalyze Elijah as manic-depressive. But that's missing the point of the text. Elijah is afraid. He has had his world fall down around him. This is not a craven fear. This is a craven fear. Because what did Elijah want? V. 10 - I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts... and I, even I, am only left. (Also in v.14.) Elijah longed for that encounter on Mount Carmel to bring about revival in Israel, and he thought God was going to do it there in spectacular fashion and in the very wake of that he gets a message saying you're going to be dead this time tomorrow, and he realizes that it's not going to happen the way he wanted.

Elijah cares more about his message than most of us. There's no way a man who did not care about his message to be disappointed like that. When it doesn't materialize, his world almost comes to an end.

You're faithfully ministering in the church, and you don't see the conversions like you want to. Or you're faithfully ministering in your church and you see the false prophets gathering their hundreds and thousands, and you have 65 people who can't get along. Or you have conversions and success, but you've been praying for 25 years for your son to know Jesus. Or you love Jesus and your wife loves Jesus, but you say to God, "I just wish you liked me."

I don't know what your discouragement is, but when it comes, you learn what you love, what you believe, where your treasure is, and what your ultimate satisfaction is. That's what happens with Elijah.

Even people who fight against idolatry can succumb to it. THe expression of Elijahs discouragment is this flight in fear. THe source of his discouragement, though is he forgot his name and he forgot his message. This is a theological crisis.

When God comes to Elijah at Horeb, first he comes in a whirlwind. This is an EF-6. The mountain is dissolving, but God is not in it. ANd then and earthquake and fire, but God is not in them. What is the picture? This is what Elijah wants, a spectacular ending of the worship of the Ba'als, but that is not God's plan. God did not purpose to answer the cries of Elijah's heart that He would operate spectacularly, with a yes. God is in the whisper.

God sends Elijah to Syria. This is going to happen through a Syrian, a pagan, and not through your ministry but the ministry of another, Elisha. It's almost like Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. God shows him the Promised Land but says you're not coming in.

When you hear that voice, you know it's from God. When you hear the voice that says, "You ought to have everything you want." That voice comes with a hiss.

One of my finest students I've ever taught in my 25 years, his son is born, the doctors call him in and say, "It's cystic fibrosis." When his son is six he says, "Daddy is something wrong with me? Am I sick?" And he has to sit down and tell his son, "Son, you're not going to live as long as other boys. And there's nothing I can do to help you. But your heavenly Father, God, has a purpose in this. And Jesus, your savior, only lived 33 years and accomplished more than anyone else." He wrote me a letter about this and talked about how his son loves the Scriptures and he wrote, "I'd rather have him born again than well."

God weans the affections of His people from everything except Himself, not their good desires, not their bad desires, nothing but Him.

God will not let you preach a message that you have not believed and experienced yourself. Here is God ruthlessly pursuing His servant into the wilderness because he wouldn't let His idolatry stand.

You say, "He just wanted God to be exalted." But he had a particular way he wanted that to be done.

When your Savior was sweating drops of blood in the garden and says, "Not my will but your will be done." Do you realize he's fighting idolatry there? And God loves Elijah too much not to bring that message home.

And you know what God does? He puts Elijah on the shelf. This is effectively the end of his ministry. He doesn't finish well.

And you say, "Lord, you are hard to your servants." When he comes up to Elijah in the wilderness, he says, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" That's supposed to be a rebuke. The Lord is not looking for information. He's saying, "How did you get from here to there? You forgot your name. You forgot your ministry."

Even in the wilderness when Elijah can't eat, God sends an angel to cook Elijah a hot breakfast and prod him into eating it. And when God comes to Elijah, he comes to display His glory. As far as we can tell, Elijah doesn't even come out until he hears the still, small whisper. And what does he do? He wraps his cloak around his face. God is saying, "I'm going to show you my glory," in a scene reminiscent of Moses, but Elijah doesn't want to see the glory of God. All he wants to do is die.

And then the Lord puts him on a shelf. This is it. This is the end of Elijah's ministry. He is sent on these errands, which as far as we know he never does until 2 Kings 2.

Even when it looks like God is being hard on His servants, you can be assured that his provision is staggeringly loving and good.

Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah's blessing. What's up with the whole, "If you see me when I depart..." thing.

Elijah goes up by a whirlwind into Heaven. You don't think God knew the greatest desire of Elijah's heart? You think He leaves His soldiers on the battlefield? A call goes out from Heaven, "You go down and bring him home, and you bring him home by fire and by whirlwind?"

And why does Elisha have to see that? Because he has to give testimony to the inspired author of 2 Kings.

And you think God doesn't care about his servants.

This is not the last time you see Elijah in the Bible. Turn with me to Luke 9.

Elijah would not go out and look on the Lord's glory, but one day a call goes out from God, "Elijah, I want you to go down on a mountain again."

And that's how God works. He gets at our most fundamental idolatry, and He ruthlessly crushes it and goes after our greatest treasures and leaves us with nothing but Himself so we go limping on in our lives so that we learn "My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness." Don't underestimate his committment to His glory and your good. He is working for your joy and your good, even when you cannot perceive it and have ceased to ask for anything anymore.

I want to ask Elijah what the Lord said to him after his return to glory after his return from the Mount of Transfiguration, because there we see the Lord give him more than he could ask or think. When he thought that the Lord had taken away everything he had ever wanted. And I just want to ask him, "What was that conversation like.

That's the God you preach. That's the God we proclaim. DOn't think that He will use you as His servant and leave you to writhe in your disappointments, because he has a plan for your everlasting joy in your declaration of the Gospel that gives everlasting joy to all in the nations why by faith embrace him.

The Lord does not treat his servant's lives as cheap.

To the Infinite, All Finites are Equal

This was too good to keep to myself. From Mark Batterson's The Circle Maker:

With God, there is no big or small, easy or difficult, possible or impossible. This is difficult to comprehend because all we've ever known are the four dimensions we were born into, but God is not subject to the natural laws He instituted. He has no beginning and no end. To the infinite, all finites are equal. Even our hardest prayers are easy for the Omnipotent One to answer because there is no degree of difficulty.

Talk about your deep theological truths.

Take Initiative at Work

I've had many conversations with people who complain that they're bored at work because they don't have enough to do.

When I tell them they should find something to do, they respond by saying they've asked for more work but aren't given anything.

In essence, they're telling their boss that their position isn't needed and should be downsized.

If you don't have enough to do, it's time to start taking some initiative.

  • Write a best practices document.
  • Clean your workplace.
  • Volunteer for another project in your organization.
  • Research the latest trends in your field.
  • Provide unbelievable customer service.
  • Learn more about your organization.
  • Assist a busy coworker.

If you have lots of free time at work and aren't looking for productive ways to fill it, you're not worth your paycheck.

The first professional job I got after college was as a Data Entry Specialist* for a Senator.  I have a $100k education, and I'm doing data entry.  Not exactly my dream job.

But before long I started helping my boss manage our database, and I did much of the work of a flaky coworker who was never in the office.  I began assisting staff in another department that I wanted to join, and I did my own work with excellence so that other peoples' jobs would be easier.

I once got a mild reprimand for taking too much initiative after making a slight error in a project.  I was told that maybe I should cool my jets for a little while until the dust settled.

But you know what, my supervisor got management to give me a $3000 bonus that wasn't normally given to first year employees, and when I left the job, that same boss said I had brought a new level of professionalism to the position.

If you don't have enough to do, it's time to start taking some initiative. The rest of us are busy and could really use a hand.

Photo by sunshinecity

*Yes, the title really included the words "Data Entry" followed by the word "Specialist."  I couldn't make that up.

What are you about?

It's a simple question really, although one that might be difficult to answer:  What are you about?  What defines you?  What is unique about you?  What makes you who you are?

Jamie asked this question of herself on her blog, which got me thinking about what I'm about.

I'm about Jesus, and I'm about helping others follow him.

I'm about my wife.

I'm about the Church and more specifically my church.

I'm about community.

I'm about cities. I live in DC, and my last three trips have been to Seattle, New York City, and Addis Ababa.

I'm about food. I especially love Chicago pizza, hot dogs and beef sandwiches, and if you grill meat I'll like it.

I'm about leadership, learning to lead myself and others well.

I'm about too much TV.

I'm about receiving grace and trying to get better at giving it.

I'm about reading and writing.

I'm about social media.

I'm about driving.

I'm about generosity.

I'm about being stressed and agitated but trying to change that.

I'm about my friends.

I'm about Sabbath.

I'm about poker.

I'm about competition and winning.

I'm about thinking and challenging and stretching my mind (and yours).

I'm about serving the vulnerable, because that's what Jesus is about.

I'm about integrity.

I'm trying to be about joy and intentionality.

I'm about theology.

I'm becoming about artistic expression and travel.

I used to be about politics.

I'm about exercise (sometimes).

What are you about?  Leave a comment below or better yet, write your own post and link back to mine.  I'll be sure to swing by your blog and check it out.

Photo by Flickr User gfpeck

You can Take your Advice and Shove It

"A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." -Proverbs 15:1

Or to quote a more modern proverb, "You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

In other words, you're more likely to win someone over or get what you want when you're sweet, kind, and gentle than when you're harsh, overbearing, and rude.

I got an e-mail recently from a person who seemed to be telling me how to do my job.

My immediate reaction was, "You can go jump."

After a bit more thought, I realized their idea might not be a bad one, but I was still pretty opposed to it because of the source and the tone of the email.

Fortunately, this cooler head prevailed before I responded, and I simply said I'd consider their idea but let them know I might not execute it.

Even still, I wish I had waited a bit longer to reply, as after calming down just a bit more, I would have let them know I truly did think there was value to their idea, which likely would have helped placate them if I decided not to act on their suggestion.

This experience made me realize that I have a tendency to do this same thing: point out where others have gone wrong or how to do things better.  (Actually, my wife pointed it out the night before in an unrelated conversation. Sometimes she's far more observant than I.)

I think there's a significant leadership lesson to be learned here, one that I'm not sure I really understood until I so quickly juxtaposed being on both the delivering and receiving ends of this sort of criticism.  And that is simply that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.

You'll get more done by being kind and persuasive than by being harsh.  A harsh word will really only do three things

  1. Give you short-term satisfaction that you were right and the other person was wrong.
  2. Alienate you from that person, decreasing your influence with them and making it far less likely that they will actually do whatever you were hoping.
  3. Make you bitter.

A soft word—advice delivered humbly, gracefully, and lovingly—is far more effective at both accomplishing a task and building a relationship.

Photo by flickr user Alan Stanton

Does Art Have a Place in the Church?

So yesterday I posted this thought-provoking video…

…and as I mentioned, it got me thinking about discipleship, but it also got me thinking about art.

Should we invest time and money in creating beautiful music or video masterpieces for church services?

What about paintings and sculptures and poetry and sketches and photographs and speeches that may or may not bear any explicit religious purpose, that often possess little utilitarian use but connect with something deep inside of us and reveal not only the imago Dei but perhaps even the Deum Himself?

Does our creativity reflect and glorify the Creator in whose image we are made or are we wasting our days naval gazing or daydreaming or creating simply to create when we could be spending our lives in service to God through loving and serving and relating to others, offering our bodies as a spiritual act of worship?

Is your art your idol?

Does your creativity point to the Creator?

Does art have a place in the Church?


Health and Wealth Gospel

Three NCC pastors’ cars are in the driveway this morning…

Through the Looking Glass

Occasionally we peer through the window of another’s life and glimpse a stain on his soul.

Twice today I have been confronted by the character issues of another person, and in one instance I got angry about a sinful pattern in someone’s life.

As I was considering how to address the problem, it suddenly hit me that I have a similar tendency… one to mistreat others.

My indignation was followed by conviction.

I guess this is what Jesus was talking about when he said to make sure to remove the plank in your own eye before trying to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Occasionally we peer through the window of another’s life and glimpse a stain on his soul.  The fool sees only the faults of his fellow man, but the wise man catches his own reflection in the glass.

Photos by Elvert Barnes

Twitter and Flickr, Rich and Poor, and the West

This morning I ran across this map of Twitter and Flickr activity around the world.  The blue dots represent Twitter activity, while the orange-ish ones represent Flickr photo uploads.

I think the prevalence of activity in the West says something about the world, although I haven’t nailed down exactly what that is yet.

It’s related to something I’ve been thinking about recently: what it means to be rich and what it means to be poor, how even the poor in the west are quite well off compared with the poor elsewhere.

Map by Eric Fisher

Relational Missions

Yesterday as I reflected on our trip to Ethiopia, or perhaps more accurately reflected on our futures now that we have been to Ethiopia, there is one key aspect of mission trips, especially this one, that I failed to mention.

This trip wasn’t about producing a product, and it wasn’t even primarily about building relationships with the boys, although that was a huge part.

A large part of the reason we went, and an especially large part of the reason I went, was to support and encourage Adam. He’s a thirty-something Philly boy living in a foreign culture with fifteen former street boys.  Visitors from home can help soothe the homesickness and provide a much-needed infusion of energy and enthusiasm.

I had also mentioned that we spent most of a day on the trip simply continuing to build the relationship between NCC and Beza. There’s a Kingdom connection there that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Mission trips have the potential to accomplish something that cannot be counted by simple utilitarian measurements.  There’s something powerful about the Body of Christ spread across continents but united in heart and mission.

It was Christ himself who told us that the world would know we are His disciples because of our love for one another.