1 of the 9 things (supposedly) successful people do differently

It’s hard not to be intrigued by a book with the title 9 things successful people do differently. What could it be that they do that is so powerful and productive?

Of course, my reaction to the title is quite revealing in itself. Perhaps it indicates that I don’t feel that successful. It might indicate that I am subconsciously in search of the golden ticket, the magic key or the silver bullet. Perhaps at some level we all are. Or perhaps we are just curious.

And then of course there is the whole issue of “success”. Are Christians supposed to desire to be successful? But surely we can’t desire to be unsuccessful, can we? Really? However, let’s substitute faithful or fruitful for successful.

So what is it those “successful” people do?

Well, I might share the other things they do in future posts, but today I am going to talk about just one. The primary one: they get specific. They are focused.

Let me make a couple observations.

Focus doesn’t sound that impressive. In fact it sounds encouragingly unimpressive. It is that simple. But don’t think for one moment that simple equates with easy. The ten commandments are simple; the course of human history and the cross of Jesus demonstrate that they are not easy.

I have found that many of the most powerful, most productive things in life are simple not complicated. But they are not always easy.

Let me give you an example. The Bible says encourage one another. Simple. Powerful. If everyone in every church in the UK took five minutes every day to send three encouraging texts or Facebook messages to someone in their church, can you imagine the impact? Pastors would be out of business! But it doesn’t happen. We forget. Or our hang ups hinder us. Or we are too concerned about finding some encouragement for ourselves. In short, it’s difficult.

Does focus have the same importance for fruitful or faithful Christians in the way we are told it does for “successful” people?

I would suggest that focus is certainly evident in the life of Jesus.

Jesus knew why He had come into the world. He had come to serve (Mark 10.45)

He knew who He had come to serve. He had come primarily if not exclusively to reach the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15.24)

And He knew how He had come to serve. He would preach, heal, cast out demons and then die and rise again.(Luke 13.31-32; 24.46)

In fact He himself summed up His focus in John 5.19:

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.

I would suggest that Jesus was extremely focused.

What if you haven’t got focus, or think you might have the wrong focus? The following few questions might help you move in the right direction.

Firstly, know your why. Why are you here? Of course, that is a huge philosophical and theological question! At a more practical level, it is usually revealed by what you are passionate about and where God has currently placed you.

Secondly, know who He has called you to serve. Who are the people God has connected you to? People in your family, work and church circles. People in circles outside of those. How can you serve those people?

Finally, think about how God has called you to serve. This is to do with your particular gifts and abilities.

If all of the above sounds too complex, just follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 11.10:

 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.

Or as The Message puts it:

 Whatever turns up, grab it and do it.

That’s focus. That’s getting specific for faithful people.

9 temptations to avoid living in a mediocre age (Part 3)

It’s not often I begin a blog post with “seventhly”!

So here goes!

Seventhly, it can become tempting in a mediocre age to attribute to God actions which dishonour His Name.

To recap, we’re in the book of Malachi, in the latter half of the fifth century B.C.. Malachi was prophesying a couple of generations after the people had returned from exile. Malachi was prophesying at a time when the excitement and enthusiasm of their homecoming had worn off.

A rebuilt temple and rebuilt walls no longer inspired any sense of wonder. They had become a familiar part of everyday life.

The promises of return had been fulfilled. But the prophesied glory associated with them seemed absent.

Doubts were creeping in about God’s goodness. God, it seemed, had forgotten the righteous. Malachi 2.17 records:

You have wearied the Lord with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

How easy it is when we’re living between promise and fulfilment for enquiry to slide into accusation! What was once a theological question about the “problem of evil” can reinvent itself as an ethical indictment of the Almighty. Disappointed hearts produce bad doctrine.

In a mediocre age it can be tempting to attribute to God actions that dishonour His Name.

When that heart shift occurs, it usually manifests itself in altered behaviour.

In Malachi’s day, one of those behaviour shifts was seen in the abandonment of the practice of tithing. People stopped giving in the way prescribed by God:

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 3.8-12

The people no longer connected their giving practices to their spirituality. They had severed the connection between giving and the flow of God’s grace into their lives.

In a mediocre age we can be tempted to think of other things that what we give to God could be used to purchase: reduce the mortgage; have a better holiday; drive a better car.

Of course, if giving or tithing is understood simply in accounting terms, or as a financial transaction, weighing up alternatives makes sense.

However, withholding our tithe means that we (i) reduce the flow of God’s grace into our lives; and (ii) we begin to divert our resources from the bank of heaven to earthly pleasures.

Putting a brake on our giving, therefore, is an eighth temptation in a mediocre age.

Finally, in a mediocre age we can be tempted to develop the attitude that it is pointless to serve God.

Malachi states the problem in the bluntest of terms:

13 “You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the Lord.

“Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’

14 “You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

Malachi 3.13-15

“It’s futile to serve God. What’s the point?” That was the kind of thinking that was developing in Malachi’s day. This kind of thinking indicates a shift to a secular mindset – or more worryingly a secular heart.

“These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15.5,quoting Isaiah 29.13) is one of the most frightening pronouncements Jesus made about the people of His time.

Disappointment and disillusionment can tempt us to think that it is pointless to serve God. We do well, therefore, to remember that God remembers all that we have done for Him, and He will reward us:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. (Hebrews 6.10)

We live in a mediocre age. But we can live above the mediocrity of our age. We can do that by listening, not to the voices of our age – or of our own hearts. We begin to live above the mediocrity of our times when we hear and heed the prophetic word of God calling us to faith and faithfulness.

The temptations that threatened the people of Haggai’s day and Malachi’s day still stalk the contemporary church. Thankfully, if we will draw near, we will hear the unmistakable call of God that the people of those post-exilic times heard. A call that beckons us to live for his glory in a day of mediocrity.

9 temptations to avoid in a mediocre age (Part 2)

“The customer is king” is one of the great statements of faith of our age. It means that I am the boss and I must have what I want.

We live in a consumer society. If that’s not the most obvious statement I have made in a blog post, it must be right up there in the top one.

In a consumer society, everything is about getting the best deal. This might be common sense when it comes to purchasing a fridge or a night in the Hilton. Unfortunately consumerism does not begin and end at what might traditionally have been regarded as business transactions. Consumerism carries over a ‘best deal’ mentality into every area of life. And whether we like it or not it can affect our faith.

It did just that in Malachi’s day. Worship had become “second rate” in the eyes of the people, and they were neglecting worship because it wasn’t up to their standard:

“But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ 13 And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 1.12-13

The irony is that they were the very people who had defiled the Lord’s table!

Often we pick and choose churches that cater, not just to our needs, but also to our personal preferences. I’ve even known Christians who get their worship ‘fix’ at one church and slink back to another in the expectation that they will receive top quality pastoral care on demand. Best of big church, best of small church. And no felt responsibility to give to either. Spiritual consumerism. Perhaps such people have found a Trip Adviser for churches and are making their choices on that basis!!

That’s an extreme. But perhaps not as uncommon as you might think.

Sometimes it’s more subtle. We sign up for a course or to help at an event. The time approaches and we don’t feel like going. So we don’t show up. Just like a cooling off period when you take out an insurance contract!

If this was peculiar to one church or denomination or stream, it would be serious enough, but consumerism rears its ugly head in every corner of the kingdom. A consumer mentality, then, is a fourth temptation in a mediocre age.

Before I leave the subject of consumerism behind, I should say that I have never found spiritual consumers happy people. The grass is always greener somewhere else, or should I say the end of rainbow is forever just behind the next hedge.

A fifth temptation in a mediocre age is to replace ethical standards with shallow religious emotions.

If you ‘do’ social media, you could be forgiven for thinking that an incredible number of people who engage in the dark arts of Twitter or Facebook are offended about something or other. Passion, outrage, anger and offence are vented all around us. We live in an emotionally charged age.

People in Malachi’s day knew all about emotion. They could weep passionately in the worship service, but it made no impact whatsoever in the way they lived their lives, especially in their marriage relationships:

Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favour on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Malachi 2.13-14

There is a challenge here for those of us in the pentecostal / charismatic world. Our style – rightly – acknowledges the importance of emotion. But one of the temptations of our era is to settle for an emotional experience without any change of lifestyle.

Emotion does not always lead to action. If it did the pentecostal / charismatic church in the U.K. would be unstoppable!

A sixth temptation in a mediocre age follows directly from number five. It is to do with emphasising the pleasure of marriage at the cost of the purpose of marriage.

You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. 15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. Malachi 2.14-16

Genesis clearly indicates that pleasure is an aspect of marriage (Genesis 2.23-25). But marriage is about much more than an individual having his or her felt needs met. It has a much wider purpose.

Marriage is about friendship. The word translated partner (14) is elsewhere translated companion. Friendship is a great basis for any marriage!

It’s also about children (Genesis 1.28), although for some that might not be medically possible.

In her commentary on Malachi, Joyce Baldwin says: “The family was intended to be the school in which God’s way of life was practised and learned”. What a vision of the family!

Marriage is also about thriving in life. The first couple were called to subdue the earth. They were to do that as a team, not just as individuals (Genesis 1.26, 28).

For Christian families today the promise is that through Christ we can reign in life (Romans 5.17). We are priests and kings (Revelation 1.6 NKJV). As Andrew Murray (Bible teacher, not the tennis player) explained, priests have influence with God, kings have influence with people.

In a mediocre age, God calls us to be different. In a mediocre age the Bible sets out for us a vision of excellence, godly excellence. We won’t be different if we don’t see different. Let’s fix our focus on God’s ways and face down the temptations of the era in which we live.

9 Temptations to avoid in a mediocre age Part (1)

One of the most disappointing scenarios in life is when you finally get something you have wanted for a long time only to find it’s not as good as you thought it would be. The dream holiday. The dream car. The dream house. Even the dream marriage.

Dreams don’t have to turn into nightmares to be disappointing. It’s just that they become ordinary or even mediocre.

The return of the people of Jerusalem to their city and land was much anticipated. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah had spoken of a glorious return. And the return did happen. And it happened after the seventy years of exile that had been predicted as the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem.

But the excitement and enthusiasm of home coming soon evaporated.

Jerusalem was in ruins. The walls were in ruins. The temple was a ruin. If the prophetic  words had produced images of the glorious reign of a David or Solomon being replicated, the reality was sadly disappointing. And the people became disappointed and lost heart. That is the reality we touch in Haggai’s short book. A couple of generations later, in the days of Malachi, the people are still wrestling with an unfulfilled dream.

Or not wrestling. They have stopped wrestling and seem resigned to living mediocre lives in a mediocre age.

There are many good things happening in churches throughout the country and throughout the world. However, as I talk to Christians of my generation and the generation before me, it’s hard not to detect a note of sadness underlying all the encouragement and commitment. A sadness that so much has been lost in our society. That things that unbelievers would not have countenanced a generation or two ago are now celebrated and even blessed by some sectors of the church.

The same I think is true of some younger Christians. Not that they are quietly grieving what has been lost. More a feeling of “How on earth do we relate to a society whose values are so different to ours?” So different that they sometimes create an outright hostility to anything that would or could be considered “Christian”.

Like the returning exiles, the temptation in a mediocre age is to live a mediocre life.

Haggai and Malachi reveal the behaviours and attitudes that indicate that we have resigned ourselves to mediocrity. I’ll give you three in this blog post and publish the next six in separate posts.

Firstly, we have settled for mediocre living when we build our own houses at the expense of God’s house.

The people in Haggai’s day had made sure their own houses were rebuilt, whilst the temple lay in ruins. Their reason for not rebuilding God’s house? It just wasn’t the right time.

   This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘These people say, “The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.”’ 3 Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: 4 ‘Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses, while this house remains a ruin?’

It is not wrong to build your own house. You should build your own house! And I don’t mean that in the strict sense of bricks and mortar. I’m talking about our own lives – families, careers, education, etc. But it is wrong to build your own house at the expense of God’s house.

If you and I don’t build the church – and here I am thinking about the people and the life of the church , not specifically bricks and mortar – who will? And please don’t tell me that it’s Jesus who builds the church! That truth has often been twisted into the most incredible rationale for lazy Christianity.

Secondly, we find ourselves continually asking the questions “ Why are things so____ ? (fill in the blank) or  “Why am I so_____ ? (fill in the blank).

‘You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. (Haggai 1.9)

When we give in to the temptation to live a mediocre life in mediocre times, we find that life becomes or appears to become quite futile. We’re never really happy.

It is ironic that when we put ourselves at the centre of our world, unhappiness is not far away. It’s not just the Bible that teaches that. Even psychological research shows that happiness is more connected to selflessness than to selfishness.

Thirdly, we know we have succumbed to mediocrity when we give God second best.

In Malachi’s day, the priests still brought their sacrifices. But those sacrifices were second rate.

‘But you ask, “How have we shown contempt for your name?” 7 ‘By offering defiled food on my altar. ‘But you ask, “How have we defiled you? ‘By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. 8 When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 1.6-8)

They gave the Lord what they would never think of giving to their boss!

We give our cast offs to the church. We think we can do “our ministry” in any old way we like – and call it the Holy Spirit. We bring attitudes and behaviours to church which we know are totally unacceptable in any other context. That’s when we know we are succumbing to the temptation to live a mediocre life in a mediocre age.

How do you resist that temptation? In Haggai’s day the people responded to the prophetic words of Haggai and started to rebuild the temple.

If we are to resist, we need to hear and respond to God’s call to build His kingdom in our day. Mediocre times need people of a different spirit. People like you and me.