And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!” 1 Samuel 17:37
I have known the story of David and Goliath most of my life. It is possibly one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture. We use it every time we need to illustrate an unlikely hero overcoming impossible odds to defeat a seemingly unstoppable foe. So, as I am studying 1 Samuel 17 this week, thinking about the “foes” whom Christ followers face in our current culture, I am asking myself, “Today, who/what is the church’s Goliath?” The list of possibilities is long. I think I have the winner, but first, here are some things that are NOT our Goliath:
Different worldviews from ours are NOT our Goliath. Whether it is the Muslim world, or atheists, or people who vote differently from you in national elections, our Biblical worldview does not mean our struggle is with these groups. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…Eph. 6:12;
A culture that is increasingly hostile to Christianity is NOT our Goliath. It is a fact: from a global perspective, persecution of Christians is at an all-time high. And, though we in the U.S. would be hard-pressed to call our difficulties “persecution” at this point, we have certainly seen the needle moving in that direction as anti-Christian sentiment seems to grow stronger with each news cycle. Nevertheless, we really must stop acting so shocked and surprised by this. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out
And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?… Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 1 Samuel 15:13-14, 24
Am I the only leader who struggles from time to time with disappointing people? No. I didn’t think so. My guess is, it is a relatively universal struggle. We tell ourselves that, in order to be a Godly influence in people’s lives, in order to be able to say the hard things to people, we need their approval. And we tell ourselves that, as shepherds, that is what love looks like. There are some seeds of truth in that thinking. But the rest of that truth is, for leaders of God’s people, approval ratings (i.e., how much everyone likes you) are insidiously addictive and massively overrated. That was the lesson for Saul (Israel’s first king) and it is likewise the lesson for all of us as Christian leaders today.
As I read 1 Samuel, God clearly did not want a human king for His people, Israel. But when they insisted on one, God relented and gave them one. And Saul was His choice…and was the people’s choice as well. He had the look. He had the demographics. He had the attitude. In short, he was (to use today’s parlance)…presidential. But he was also unbelievably insecure, on so many levels.
So, when he and his rag-tag group of soldiers walked up to the school-yard bullies (the Philistines) and punched them …
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Luke 15:11-12
There are three main characters in Jesus’ story of the prodigal in Luke 15: the father, the younger son and the older son. Each of them represent a different perspective on common human behavior, and I suspect each of us can relate best to each of them at different times of our lives. Sometimes we are the one betrayed (like the father), sometimes we are the rebellious one (the younger son) and sometimes we are the one crying out for justice (the older son). But in every case, Jesus told the story to demonstrate one simple truth: the way back to a right relationship. And that, it seems to me, can be the most confusing path of all. I am so glad for what Jesus’ story shows us about how to return to a right relationship, once we have determined to do so.
Seasons of Rebellion. We all have some connection to the prodigal himself, because we have all made decisions which we knew (even at the time we made them) were disobedient to God. We knew His desire for us and we simply went in a different direction. It was (and is) rebellion, plain and simple. Sometimes it is a short season followed by an immediate “what was I thinking?” head-slap. But sometimes it is a prolonged season when we withhold from His Lordship some particular slice of our life which we just are not willing to submit to Him. Either way, it is rebellion. And the way back from any rebellion is, quite simply, confession. You will not find a more perfect confession in …
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Acts 2:1-4
To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:27
Of all the miracles referenced in the Bible, the Pentecost miracle in Acts 2 may be at the top of my list of moments I would love to have seen. The tongues of fire ushering down God’s Spirit to indwell God’s people…wow!
In terms of their impact on this world and the ushering in of a completely new chapter in God’s story, I tend to think of the crucifixion, the resurrection and Pentecost as three aspects of a single, “this changes everything” moment in history. All are significant in themselves, but all are necessary to bring about the age of the church. It is a little like a three-legged stool in that regard. Take any one of the legs away and you have an entirely different situation.
These three events (which all happened within just a few weeks of each other), taken together, changed forever the way God would relate to his creation…AND the way we, His children, would relate to each other.
Follow the history with me through the Bible…
In the garden, God related to Adam and Eve through an interpersonal relationship (yes, I am quite the literalist in my interpretation of scripture). …
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7
At the very front end of Cain’s anger and frustration, before it had lead to anything permanently damaging, God warned him. “Cain, you better get control of this anger, or it will get control of you.” Well, that’s my paraphrase. God was warning Cain about a part of the human condition to which we often turn a blind eye: anger is not something to leave unattended. Unresolved anger, you see, turns into bitterness. And bitterness, over time, is a disease that spreads into our heart, our eyes, our brain, and a host of other places.
I have seen it way too many times in my ministry to churches in conflict. When passions get high and anger is left to fester over time, finding the truth about what really happened can become nearly impossible. That is because anger makes for a horrible historian. It twists the truth and blinds us to what really happened. The longer we stay angry, the less credibility we have for reporting what happened. However poor our retention rate is for facts and figures we have seen or heard, our retention rate for what we felt is almost perfect. So, in situations which anger us, if that anger is left alone to do its dirty work, we later remember how we felt and then back into the rest of the facts in a way which supports how we felt. In other words, our brain fills in the gaps and recalls events in a way …
To the woman He said… “…your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” Genesis 3:16 (NASB)
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7 (NASB)
I’m meditating this week on Genesis 3 and the “fall of man”. In my study, I tripped over Genesis 3:16, where God pronounces the “curse” on the woman, saying that, as a result of her sin, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” It seemed odd to me…the first part, that is. How, exactly, is “your desire shall be for your husband” a bad thing? Because I am not a Hebrew scholar, my first attempt to understand what exactly it means was to simply check a variety of English translations. Unfortunately, except for a couple, most of them translate it the same way: your desire shall be for your husband. Again, what could be wrong with that?
But here is where some light gets shed…and where we learn (again) about the limits of language to capture some concepts: Genesis 4:7 has very similar language, but the intent is much clearer. When God warns Cain about the bitterness raging in his heart, he says, “…if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” And so, we see what are apparently similar Hebrew words and phrases being translated the same way. In Cain’s case, “sin’s desire is for you” and in Eve’s case,”your desire shall …
And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:3-5
Who, in your life, are you certain would do this for you? What relationships have you nurtured and developed to the point you can now count on them to be there for you when you most need someone to carry you? And you will, at some point, need someone to carry you…we all do.
In his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg refers to it as “the fellowship of the mat”: that hard reality that, at some point, every one of us will need to be carried…will need to be loved by a few people who will go above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty and will carry us extraordinary lengths in order to get us through whatever dark season awaits us. We will all be called upon to do it for someone else at times and we will all need someone to do it for us.
But having those kinds of relationships in our lives does not happen accidentally. Whether it is family or just close friends, the truth is, those relationships are hard work, and not all of us are necessarily up to the task. This reality does not sit well with our current culture. Much of the cultural pressure today is toward a kind of love or acceptance or affirmation that is devoid of any hard conversations or difficult truths (or any truth at …
And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” Judges 16:17
I in them and you in me,that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. John 17:23
I remember Samson (of the Bible) holding “superhero” status in my mind as a child. Studying his tragic story now as an adult, I realize his character flaws throw a very different light on his super-human power. Isn’t that what intrigues us about God’s story? It is told through the lives of so many horribly flawed–even dysfunctional–people.
That is one of the ways of God: to use markedly flawed people to accomplish His will. It is intriguing about Samson and it is intriguing about the church. We are all flawed, and yet (like Samson) we, the church, are filled with God’s Spirit and collectively empowered to represent His spiritual authority in this world. Samson was a tragically flawed hero of God’s story, and Christ’s eklesia is likewise embarrassingly flawed. I’ve written about that here.
But also like Samson, the church has a peculiar source of its strength…a “lynch pin”, if you will, to all that empowerment God promises us. For Samson, it was his hair. But for the church, it is our relationships with one another.
We can talk about the power of prayer (if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven); we can talk about …
And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel…And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2:7, 10
If I were to even begin a list of the men and women who poured into me spiritually as a child and as a teenager and as a college student and as a young adult, I would probably inadvertently leave out more names than the hundred or so that I can remember! It is one of the many blessings of having grown up in the church. I was given many, many stories and opportunities to learn about the work of God in the generation(s) before mine. Those stories have no doubt colored my understanding of and thirst for unity among God’s people.
Unity is all about relationships. And relationships are all about communication. And few obstacles to meaningful communication can be more perplexing than the very different cultural frameworks developed within generations. But doesn’t a Biblical worldview impose upon us a responsibility to communicate well across generational lines, so that God’s story is told seamlessly across time and His people continue to grow in their faith?
So, as I study and contemplate the plight of the nation of Israel in Judges 2, and then begin to draw applications to my own life, I am prompted to pray this way…
Lord, show me your ways and your hand in my life today, and then help me tell those stories to the next generation. Bolster my testimony of when I have seen you……
Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation. I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.
For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.
But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …