Saturday, November 14, 2009

Significant Servants, October 25, 2009 "Christian Insanity"

Ever heard this one? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” The quote has been attributed to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, but may have actually been coined by a Minnesota Vikings football coach in 1991. Whatever the source, the quote has proliferated wildly in corporate culture and has found its way into the church growth movement. If we want to reverse the current stagnation of Christianity and the decline of so many churches, we must embrace new ways, new methods and new strategies. We cannot keep doing the same things that we have been doing all these years and expect them to magically start working now.

And, of course, there is some truth to that. I have known pastors and church leaders who are hopelessly stuck in the 1950’s church mindset and will not leave that behind. They think that a true church has to look like the church I grew up in. We need to sing the songs we sang back then (in the same style we sang them – no drums or guitars, please). They think we need to wear ties and coats like we did then and structure Sunday School the old-school way. If “revivals” worked then, surely they will work today. Church growth? Get out and knock on doors like we did when I was young.

The Danger of Pragmatism

But there is also danger in the pragmatic mindset that has come to dominate our thinking. There are times in which we must continue doing what is right even if the lost world does not like it. What pragmatists often fail to understand is that the world hates the truth (as Jesus promised) and rejects it. We can modernize our methods and try to make our churches less imposing to visitors, but we cannot make our message more palatable without compromising the hard truth of the gospel. When we become pragmatists, when we judge our methods by the bottom line of church growth, we run the risk of compromising our gospel integrity.

It would be well for us to heed the warning of the prophecy of 2 Timothy 4:3-4, a prophecy that has certainly come true in our day. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

A time is coming, Paul said, in which the sound teachings of God’s Word will not be well-received by people, even, it is implied, people in the visible church. Instead of listening to the hard teachings of Scripture and adjusting their lives to God’s will, these people will seek out teachers and preachers who will tell them exactly what they want to hear, who will affirm their passions and desires instead of confronting them. These people will turn away from God’s hard truths and will embrace spiritual myths. It is clear to me that this is happening today.

And that is a problem for pragmatists. If people do not want to hear the truth, do we continue preaching it? If people are prone to reject the truth, will preaching the unvarnished truth make a church grow? If the church does not grow from preaching the truth should we adjust the message? Should we soft-peddle sin and shield people from the realities of God’s judgment and death and hell?

Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

I find it both interesting and amazing how often human ideas conflict with God’s will and ways. It is a given in this world that we should not continue to do the same thing over and over again if it is not working. Yet, in the Bible, it is often by continuing to do the same thing over and over again, even when it is not working, that great victories come. Is it possible that continuing in God’s ways even when they are not working is not insanity, but a key to spiritual victory?

A few years back, we decided to put a shower in our basement bathroom. I got a sledge hammer and went to work. I swung with all my might (insert your joke here) and hit the floor. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Time after time I hit the floor and nothing happened except a ringing in my hands and ears. Then, after many strokes of sledge hammer, a small crack appeared. As I continued, it grew. Finally, I broke through to the ground underneath. Not a subtle illustration, is it? Had I swung the hammer 25 times and given up, the hole would never have opened. I could have said, “It is insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Or, I could keep swinging the hammer until the hole opened.

The Tragedy of Giving Up

I am amazed at how prone God’s people are to giving up. I have watched excited, impassioned believers embark on a new ministry in the name of the Savior, convinced that they are answering the call of God. He (or she) has yielded to the eternal purposes of God and submitted his life to the plan that God has set for him. He is walking in obedience, even perhaps the costly and risky obedience that we have discussed.

Then, something goes wrong. Someone criticizes what he is doing. Some detail or the other does not work out as he had expected. There are no immediate results or the response is disappointing. Perhaps, opposition arises inside the church or from the outside. And this significant servant, determined to do the will of God, just gives up. “I must not have heard God correctly.” After all, if God was really in it, all the details would work out, right? “I don’t have to put up with that.” Like the little boy who did not get his way on the playground, he takes his marble and just goes home.

And that brings us to our next step in the process of becoming a significant servant of the Living God. We have been examining the great works of God in both the Old Testament and the New, looking at the elements that are common to each of these works. From that study, we have set forward five keys to becoming a significant servant. As we look at the fourth of these key steps, let’s review the first three. Significant service begins with yielding to the eternal purposes of God for your life. God is always working to glorify himself by redeeming sinners for Himself and transforming them to be like Christ. If we want to be significant, those purposes must become the driving force of our lives. Then, we must identify and submit to the plans of God for our lives, both the general plans that he has for all believers and the specific ones he reveals to each of us. Then, we must develop the first ERQ of significance.

ERQ – that stands for Essential, Reproducible Quality. As I studied the great acts of God, I saw what I believe are two qualities of God’s servants that we need to be significant. They are essential in that they are required by God for significant service. They are reproducible in that they are qualities that God can produce in any person. Each of us can develop these qualities; they are not unique to talented or charismatic folks.

The first ERQ is obedience. God’s people must do exactly what he commands. We must do what he says no matter what the cost or risk to our lives, our dreams or our plans. God’s plans and ways are seldom easy. There is a second ERQ, just as important as the first. In fact, the first ERQ, obedience, usually produces little or no fruit unless it is accompanied by the second. What is that second ERQ? Let us wander through some of these stories and see if we can identify it.

The Second ERQ

Think for a moment of the life of Noah. God gave him a job to do; it was no small job. God revealed his purpose to Noah. He was planning to judge the world for its wickedness by bringing a flood. He revealed his plan to Noah. Noah was to build a boat that would hold him, his family and th animals that would repopulate the world. And Noah obeyed God. He started building the boat. Remember, there were no Lowe’s or Home Depot stores to order the lumber. He had to cut every tree and shape every board. And day by day that is exactly what he did. We know that Noah was 500 when his first son was born, and 600 when the Flood came. How many years did he build the ark? We do not know. But it was a long time. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year he continued to build this monstrous boat in his back yard.

Can you imagine what the neighbors said? He was surrounded by wild, wicked folks and I can only imagine that they were none too kind to boat-building Noah. Noah may have explained that he had a reason, that the boat was going to save him when the rains came. But day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year it did not rain. The only rain that fell was the insults of the sinners around him.

How long do you keep on doing what you believe God told you to do when what God said would happen has not happened yet? How long? Until the rains come! Noah kept building until the boat was done. Then the rains came. God did what he said!

Consider Abraham. When he was 75 years old, having never been able to sire a child, he was told that he would be the father of many nations; one nation of particular import. The nation that would spring from his loins would be granted possession of the Promised Land, eternal Seed, and the blessings of God.

Then, God waited. Abraham turned 80, then 85, then 90, and no baby came. In the middle of all this, someone got hold of him and convinced him that he could not continue doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. So they concocted a plan to use Sarah’s handmaiden to bear a son for him. It was a bad idea; one that has cost his descendents untold suffering for 3000 years. But still, God waited. Nothing changed. Sarah still had no children.

How long do you wait for the promises of God to come true? How long? Until the promises come true. God does not measure time as we do. In his time, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, the baby came. God fulfilled his promise.

Think of Joseph. At age 17, God gave him a dream; that he would be a ruler, even over his own family. Strangely, when he shared that vision with his brother, they did not appreciate it. And things went downhill from there. His brothers betrayed him, then sold him into slavery in Egypt. Can you imagine the pain of being betrayed by your own family? So, what did Joseph do? He became the best slave that Potiphar had. How was he rewarded? He was falsely accused of molesting Potiphar’s wife and thrown in an Egyptian dungeon. How did he respond? He became the most faithful and diligent prisoner in the dungeon. Then, forgotten by the cupbearer who promised to get him released, he kept serving God and others in the prison.

How long do you have to keep doing the right thing when everyone around you is doing the wrong thing? How long do you have to keep holding on to the plans that God has shown you? How long? As long as it takes – until the day that God reveals his faithfulness. One day, God gave Joseph what he had promised. Joseph awakened a prisoner in the dungeon one day, then went to bed that night as the second most powerful man in the world.

There is so much to remember about Moses. God sent him to Egypt to demand that the people of God be released. He did exactly what God said. “Let my people go,” he told Pharaoh. But Pharaoh did not respond positively. He punished Israel with extra work for Moses’ temerity. Moses was not a popular man. His approval ratings hovered near zero. He wanted to quit and go home. But God had a strange command. Didn’t God know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity? That is exactly what God said. Go back to Pharaoh. Again and again and again. Finally, Pharaoh let them go and Israel headed for freedom. But again he changed his mind. And there was Israel, backs to the Red Sea, cornered by mountains with the armies of Pharaoh descending on them. God’s people did the only thing they knew how to do. They complained to Moses.

So, how long to you keep on serving God when everyone hates you? How long do you continue with little support and lots of criticism? How long do you keep obeying God when the armies of the enemy are bearing down on you and the Red Sea blocks your path? How long? Until the Red Sea parts and you go through in the power of God.

Its perseverance, folks! That is the second ERQ of significant servants. They not only obey God, but they keep doing it when it gets hard. David was anointed king, then spent years fleeing from crazy King Saul. But he kept going until God fulfilled his promise. Joshua kept leading the people around the city until the walls fell. Thirteen time, even though nothing had happened on the twelfth time. Time and time again you see this pattern. God gives someone a job to do. They do it. Then it gets hard. Then the opposition comes. Then time goes by. But they just keep doing what God told them to do. They do it over and over again until the battle is won, until the victory comes.

Every great victory in the kingdom comes when a man or woman of God is obedient to God’s purposes and plans, and keeps on doing it when it gets hard.

Perspectives on Perseverance

There are some false preachers and teachers among us who proclaim a prosperity gospel – guaranteeing that faith will bring us health, wealth and anything that will make us happy here on earth. But even among orthodox, biblical Christians there is an attitude of false expectation. We seem to think that if we do what God wants us to do, everything will work out for us.

One of my greatest times of discouragement in my ministry came after a time of great revival in my life and in my church in Cedar Rapids. I had a subtle expectation that because of my own walk with Christ and the things that were going on at the church, I had a right to expect that people would support me, that things would go well at the church and that I would be spared from opposition and hardship. Then, the hammer fell. One crisis after another hit me and the church. And I got mad at life; mad at God. I felt as if God had let me down and failed in his promises.

Then, I began this study. As I looked at what made the great men and women of the Bible significant, I began to realize that my problem was not God’s unfaithfulness, but my own false expectations. I misunderstood the clear teachings of scriptures about living godly lives in this world. John 16:33 is a promise from our Lord. “In this world you will have tribulation.” This is not a world of ease or comfort. It is a hostile world which hated Christ and will hate those who stand for him. He guaranteed that life would always be a battle. But he also told us to be of good cheer. He had “overcome the world.”

Simply put, life in this world will be a battle against our own fleshly impulses, against the mindset of this world which is dominated by the lies of Satan, and against the forces of darkness at work in this world. It is a battle we will have to fight every day. But it is a battle that can be won. As we persevere in obedience, we can overcome the world as Christ did.

We have to understand that obedience to God and to his purposes and plans for our lives is no guarantee that everything will work out for us. As a matter of fact, the Bible is clear that you can walk in complete obedience to Christ and things can still go horribly wrong for you. Things did not work out for Moses when he obeyed God and went into Egypt – not at first. David served God and still had Saul seeking his life. Read Paul’s account of his ministry in 2 Corinthians 11. Serving Christ was no picnic for him.

If things are falling apart in your life, it is wise to do a spiritual inventory to see if you have done something to invoke the discipline of God. God corrects his children, and often uses the hardships of life to do so. But please hear this – you can be walking in complete obedience to Jesus Christ and still watch your life fall apart. It happened in the days of the Bible and it can happen to you. That does not mean that God has abandoned you or forgotten you. It just means you need to persevere and continue in the faith.

Who is the biggest liar you know? Permit me to tell you of the biggest liars in your life, ones you may or may not even know about. Two big, fat liars constantly try to convince you that God’s promises will fail and he will let you down. First, circumstances in this world will tell you that God’s Word just cannot be true. Abraham’s circumstances screamed that he must forget the pipe dream of being the father of many nations. It was impossible. How could marching around Jericho lead to victory? Should Gideon have trusted his little army of 300 against the powerful Midianites?

In Cedar Rapids, we approached the process of building a much-needed new building carefully and prayerfully. Finally, after a long time and much prayer, we were confident that God was leading us to build. We voted to do so and proceeded in the process. Between the time we voted to build and the time the building was done, God chose to remove six or seven of our pillar families from the church. It seemed like every week another key family was coming to me and telling me that God had led them to Alabama or North Carolina or somewhere else very far away. Had we known that they would be moving, we probably would not have built the building. Circumstances told us that we should not have done what we did. Circumstances were lying to us.

There is another liar, perhaps more blatant than your circumstances – your emotions. Your feelings will tell you that God has forgotten you or abandoned you, even though he promised he would not. You will panic, lose heart, or grow fearful. Unless we are walking in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, our emotions tend to be fed by the flesh. But significant servants do not listen to the whisperings of despair, fear, anger or hurt. They listen to the Word of God – with single-minded intent. They purposely refuse to let their emotions convince them that God has failed. That was my problem in the time of discouragement I mentioned above. I listened to my emotions instead of the truth of God’s Word.

But when you obey God, when you continue to obey him after things get hard, when your life falls apart but you continue to hold on to the hope of his promise, when you ignore the quiet deception of your own emotions to listen to God’s Word and continue in faith and obedience, God will work his mighty works through you.

Every great work of God in the Bible was the product of obedience accompanied by perseverance. When hardships discouraged people, they continued in obedience. When the passage of time disheartened them, they held on to the promise of God in faith. And when opposition arose and withered their courage, they kept plodding along day by day until God released his power.

So, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”? Really? If what you are doing over and over again is the command of God, if you are obeying God and persevering in his promise, then it is not insanity, it is the path to significant service.

Jonathan Edwards was in the pastor of a church in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early 1700’s. He labored faithfully and preached God’s Word for 17 years with no visible effect, no response from the people. Can you imagine what would happen to a pastor who had not a single convert after 17 years of ministry, whose church had not grown or seen the power of God revealed? We would tell him that it was insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We would tell him to get some new methods or go to a new place.

But Jonathan Edwards kept preaching until revival fell. One day, a young man was killed in a farming accident. A young lady, one described by Edwards in less than flattering terms, suddenly came under the conviction of sin and was gloriously converted. Others, seeing the change in her life, also began to come under conviction. This revival was so sweeping that after a couple of years, Edwards said that everyone in Northampton had been converted. The revival spread throughout the colonies and is known in history as the First Great Awakening.

God is responsible for revivals, but he uses human beings in the process. And the First Great Awakening came, on human terms, because of one insane man who kept doing the same thing over and over again until God brought a different result.

If you have died to self and are walking in the eternal purposes of God, if you have discerned the plans of God for your life and are obeying him, then continue doing the same thing God told you to do, over and over again, until the power of God falls on you!


Again, I am not arguing for the kind of knee-jerk traditionalism that stifles so many churches. Healthy Christians grow in Christ. Healthy churches grow. The nature of growth is change. The very nature of Christianity is leaving behind the life we had to embrace a new life lived under Christ’s Lordship for God’s eternal purposes. But when God has spoken, his people must continue doing what he has said. We must continue to preach an accurate gospel even if the world wants their ears tickled. We must continue to proclaim God’s holiness even if people want a different God, one who has no standards. We must continue to obey God no matter how difficult it is, no matter how many enemies come against us, regardless of the challenges or discouragements that come our way. We obey God and we keep on obeying God until the harvest comes, until God opens the door for our significant service to him.


Joe Meyer said...

Well said Dave, Joe M.

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Gene Scarborough said...


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I have one writing in some oriental script on mine!!

I like your take on this. It makes good sense.

It would appear to me that insanity pretty well prevades much of society today. We go to work / are miserable / go to work again. We are scared our job will suddenly evaporate, but keep on doing it anyway without diversifying.

I have had 3: Pastor / Insurance Representative / Small Business Owner of Affordable / Professional Tree Surgeons. What I have found is that, if you are seeing no progress doing something you love and it is becoming something you endure, it's time for a change!

What amazes me most is that I have more ministry opportunities and more honesty coming my way now that I carry a chainsaw / work physically for a living / have responsibility for both clients and employees, my calling is in no way diminished.

It lets me know also why Jesus did not go to a religious school to find followers, but to the streets and warfs looking for men with reputations for honesty--no matter what they did for a living.

I have a hunch he had a purpose in this and it turned out to be authentic. The only real problems was that men who run businesses want to run God's Business over being a Servant for God.

We will always have to ask & answers questions about "Why am I really doing this?"

As long as there are questions and insight, we have not stepped away from that which God ordained for us. I don't think he put it into a crystal ball, but He certainly has a plan which involves honesty / serving / giving of it all to Him.

Blessing on your journey as well!

By the way, although I hail from Atlanta, my favorite team is still the NY Yankees!!! Go Yanks = the best team money can buy!

It's all about the money, man, the money!