1 thing God looks for – and how to develop it

Anyone who has a working knowledge of the Bible will be familiar with Caleb. The biographical detail provided about Caleb ( Numbers 13 & 14; Joshua 14) reveals a man of deep conviction and faith. A man confident in God. And it also reveals that Caleb had the strength of character to nurture and protect a promise God made to him for forty-five years before he saw it fulfilled. And it seems that his conviction somehow mysteriously conserved his strength to the point that he was ready to fight with giants at the age of eighty-five!

How was it that despite the disappointment and setback he experienced when the people rejected his report on the land of Canaan, that he his faith remained rock solid?

Caleb was commended by God and by Moses for one thing: wholeheartedness.

Everyone of us experiences setbacks. Everyone of us experiences disappointments. And too often many of us allow those things to knock our faith out of shape and ultimately knock our life out of shape.

Like Caleb, it is wholeheartedness that is an absolutely key quality to successfully navigating those “faith knocks”.

So how do we develop wholeheartedness ?

Firstly, if you want to develop wholeheartedness, learn to manage the threats to wholeheartedness.

Perhaps the biggest threat is that of disappointment.

Unfulfilled expectations, unexpected diversions and undesired circumstances can tempt us to move into the territory of halfheartedness. They also expose us to the temptation to ditch God’s promises. Or to detach from God’s people.

How do you manage those threats? By taking your thoughts captive. Numbers 13.30 says that Caleb silenced the people. Sometimes we have to silence the voices that speak negativity and halfheartedness.

Secondly, make the most of where you are.

Caleb spent most of his life in places he didn’t want to be. The first forty years of his life were spent in slavery in Egypt. The second forty years were spent wandering in the desert. Those years of desert wandering were not his fault. He was living with the consequences of decisions others had made. He had no option but to wander in the desert with the rest of the Israelites. Yet he still kept wholehearted in his walk with God.

Sometimes we find ourselves in places where we don’t want to be, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find God there. When Jesus went into Samaria, He found Himself in a place where no self respecting Jew of His day would want to be. But Samaria was the place where He transformed the life of one woman and eventually that of a whole city (John 4).

You can find God wherever you are.

Finally, be prepared to modify your image of God.

It’s amazing how faulty our image of God can be. For example, people often think that difficult circumstances are an indication that God is upset with us and is punishing us. Yet the Bible says we have peace with God (Romans 5.1) and that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8.1).

What we believe about God impacts on us. It affects the way we think and that in turn affects our faith.

Caleb was wholehearted for God because He knew God was wholehearted for him. How did he know that?

Caleb was from the tribe of Judah. Judah was a tribe to whom God had given great authority (Genesis 49.10; Psalm 60.7 & 108.8). Caleb lived in the blessing and promise that God had put upon his tribe. He knew who He was and he knew his God.

In Christ we have every blessing Caleb had – and more. If we want to live wholehearted lives, conforming our understanding of God to how He reveals Himself in His word is a priority. We will never be wholehearted for Him, if we feel He is halfhearted about us.

If we can learn from Caleb the power of wholeheartedness, we can push through every setback and disappointment. And more importantly we will attract the smile of God.

One word that sums up Christmas

I suppose if most of us were asked for a word that best sums up Christmas – apart from “Jesus” – many of us might offer the word “gift” or some derivative like “give” or “giving”. And I am sure some religious soul would come up with “turkey” or “Santa Claus”. There’s always one!

I want to offer a different word that captures something of the spirit of the first Christmas, if not Christmas in the present day in the Western world.

The word? Trust. Let me explain.

You might already be racing ahead and thinking of how God trusted Mary and Joseph with His Son. Well, that might seem to be true from a human perspective. But I am going to leave that for you to ponder, lest this suggestion be seen to detract from God’s omniscience: He knew exactly, it could be argued, how Mary and Joseph would respond therefore, it is inaccurate to say that God the Father had to exercise trust in human beings when He sent His Son into the world. I have much sympathy with that argument.

No, the trust that I am thinking of is the trust that some of the central characters needed that first Christmas. They needed it to follow where God was leading and what He was doing in entering the world in the person of His Son Jesus.

It goes without saying that Mary’s calling as the mother of Christ required huge trust. She might have had a visit from an angel, but don’t kid yourself for one moment that it meant that any uncertainty disappeared or that she didn’t feel any pain from the gossip that was sparked by the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ conception and birth.

Trust was also required of Joseph. He might have been reassured by a supernatural experience about his fiancee’s supernatural pregnancy, but that was only the beginning of something much bigger. A journey to Bethlehem – at the worst possible time for Mary. A journey into the unfamiliar and undesired location that was Egypt. And then a journey back to Nazareth.

The amazing thing is that behind all of those stories and “trust points”, God was working to a plan, for, through what seemed like unforeseen circumstances, the scriptures were being fulfilled.

I could add the experience of the Magi to make my case, but it’s not necessary.

Trust is everywhere in the nativity stories.

What is my point? Simply, amongst the many things the Christmas story teaches us – many of cosmic significance – it teaches us to trust God and it teaches us that we can trust God.

You can trust God. Whatever is going on in your life or your world this Christmas, you can trust God. And in all of those unforeseen circumstances, God is somehow in His infinite wisdom fulfilling a plan that somehow has cosmic significance. Whatever you do as we approach Christmas, trust the One whom Christmas is all about. Trust Him, whatever is going on in your life at this moment. Trust Him, because you can.

Happy Christmas.

Missing out on Christmas: 3 ways your professed “faith” can cause you to miss out on what God is doing

Pointless is a television programme beloved by an average of 3.6 million viewers who tune in every day. I’m not sure if it is the less intellectual, or more intellectual, BBC answer to Countdown, or just something completely different.

I’m not going to waste any more of your time discussing the merits of television programmes. However, as I was about to preach the Sunday sermon, I had this thought that I have since refined a bit.

If a Pointless question was to name all the characters in the nativity stories, would one character or one set of characters have a zero score? Undoubtedly, Jesus, Mary and Joseph would score very highly. Shepherds would be right up there too. No-one could forget the kings from the East. Angels? Probably. The innkeeper might get a mention. And it is hard to believe that Herod could be overlooked.

One group that, sadly, might return a pointless score are the chief priests and teachers of the law.

I say sadly, because with all the knowledge they had they should have been right in the thick of things. They should have been the first to the manger in Bethlehem. They had more inside knowledge than anyone else, with the exception of Joseph and Mary. They didn’t have angelic visitations, like the shepherds, or stars in the sky like the wise men. They had the scriptures. And it is clear from Matthew 2 that they understood how to interpret the Messianic prophecies.

How come they missed out?

We are not told. Three possible reasons suggest themselves.

Firstly, it is possible that they had given in to a climate of fear.

Verse 3 of Matthew 2 says that Herod was disturbed and all of Jerusalem with him when he heard from the Magi that a king had been born. Everyone was afraid, because they knew how Herod would react to any potential threat to his throne: with unrestrained violence. Verses 16-18 of the same chapter prove that they had a right to be fearful.

When we give in to fear, there is a real possibility that we miss out on what God is doing.

Push against fear! Don’t let it pin you down and hem you in.

Secondly, there is a real possibility that not only the religious leaders of the nation but the nation as a whole had experienced a collapse of hope.

These religious leaders lived through an era that ancient historians describe as the fourth major crisis of the Jewish people. That period saw the land of Israel occupied by the Romans, with Herod reigning as a kind of puppet king.

The prophets had prophesied that Messiah would come. That God would restore His people and bring His kingdom. Instead, the nation had experienced a series of crises ever since the return from Babylon. And Roman occupation was just the latest.

It is easier to believe that hope had been seriously damaged than to believe that it stilled fuelled the religious life of the people or their religious leaders.

When we lose hope, or when hope becomes damaged, it can breed a cautious approach to God. It can dampen expectation. Don’t let your hope collapse!

Finally, it’s very possible that the religious leaders had become just too comfortable.

They had status. They had the temple. They had the synagogue. They had carved out an important and influential corner in the life of Israel. Why did they need to leave the capital to go and check out some spiritual speculation that these gentile magi were promoting?

Sometimes we miss out on what God is doing because we don’t want to leave the comfort of the safe religious world we have designed for ourselves.

The chief priests and teachers of the law did not have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God was doing; it was happening just six miles down the road. And neither do you have to travel to the ends of the earth to be part of what God is doing, because He is working all around you and wants to work through you.

It’s sad that people who knew so much missed out on so much. And it would be sadder still if we didn’t learn from their experience.

You can still define your moment with faith – even if everyone else chooses unbelief

We don’t like to believe that we could ever miss out on what God has for us. Nor are we comfortable with the thought that a whole church – or even a movement – could miss out on God’s purpose. But it does happen. It happened to most of the churches mentioned in chapters 2 and 3 of Revelation. And of course it happened to a whole generation of Israelites.

A whole generation of Israelites except two, that is. When Israel had the opportunity of entering the Promised Land, the people decided to believe the fearful report brought by ten of the twelve spies. Only two, Joshua and Caleb, advocated entering the land, believing that God would lead His people to victory.

Whilst the will of the majority prevailed, Joshua and Caleb lived to fight in another generation.

At eighty-five years of age, Caleb is commended for the attitude that he had shown forty-five years earlier. With the same faith filled outlook he goes on to gain his inheritance.

What was a negative defining moment for the whole nation was still a positive one for Caleb, and of course, Joshua.

What made the difference?

Firstly, Caleb was a man of a different spirit (Numbers 14.24). He had a different attitude, a different outlook to the ten spies who filled the people with fear. Caleb stood out from the crowd. And he was willing to stand up for what he believed – even though a million people were against him.

Secondly, Caleb was a man of defining conviction (Joshua 14.7). What do I mean by that? What he believed determined his take on what he saw. Truth be told, we all have defining convictions! Our beliefs determine how we see. Caleb and Joshua and the ten other spies all saw the same thing, but Caleb and Joshua saw those things differently. They saw through the filter of faith. The ten other spies saw through the filter of unbelief. Beliefs shape vision.

Finally, Caleb was a man of deep commitment. Moses said that Caleb followed the Lord wholeheartedly (Numbers 14.24; Joshua 14.8). Caleb was not hedging his bets. His service was not half-hearted. He approached the task of surveying Canaan with a wholehearted commitment to the Lord.

That generation of Israelites all missed out on the Promised Land, but not Joshua and Caleb. They kept the faith and received their inheritance.

However people are reacting around you, make sure you keep the faith. You can still make your defining moment one of faith. Even if a million people are against you. Caleb did.

Fear Is My Friend

Fear is something that we have been told is bad for us. It is something that gets in the way of our relationships with one another. It is something that blocks the path to great achievement. And of course, we have written books and preached countless sermons about how to overcome it.

It might seem strange therefore to cosy up to fear, to the point of calling it your friend.

Of course fear can be just as negative and destructive and inhibiting as I have described it. However, there is another way to think of fear.

We tend to think of fear as the opposite of faith. and therefore we conclude that if fear is present, faith is absent. And if faith is absent, then God is not present either. The presence, of fear, we conclude therefore, equals the absence of God.

I am not sure that this kind of logic is as flawless and as obvious as at first it might seem. In fact, I think there is a strong biblical case for saying that fear is present when God is active. Fear surfaces when God speaks.

You might well have heard the saying that there are three hundred and sixty-five “fear nots” in the Bible. Of course, if you do a search on the words “fear not” or “do not be afraid”, you will not find three hundred and sixty-five scriptures with those actual words. However, if you take into consideration all those passages that address the issue of fear but do not necessarily include the words “fear not” you will find more than three hundred and sixty-five.

Statistics apart, what you will find is the exhortation to “fear not” at significant times when God was at work. For example, Abraham (Genesis 15.1), Joshua (Joshua 1.9), Elijah (2 Kings 1.15), Joseph (Matthew 1.20) and Mary (Luke 1.30) were all exhorted to let go of their fear.

Whilst you could see the manifestation of fear as evidence of human weakness and frailty, it would miss the point entirely. The reason that fear surfaced was because God was on the move – in a big way! When God is about to do something and He invites us to be involved, our immediate reaction can be one of fear.

A new kind of logic emerges when we look at fear in this way: the presence of fear does not mean the absence of God but the activity of God. In fact, in all the cases I have referred to, God addresses fear with a reassurance of His presence and promise.

Fear only becomes a problem when we overlook the presence and power of God.

So the next time you have an opportunity to do something for God, to step out in faith, don’t let your fearful reaction put you off. And don’t let your fear convince you that God is absent. He’s not absent. He’s active!

Choosing your defining moment

I was asked to share something before communion at the recent Elim100 Leaders’ conference. Some people asked me for notes at the end of the service. Unfortunately I didn’t have any notes, so I will try to reproduce here the spirit, if not the letter,  of what I said. You might also find some explanatory comments which were not in the original talk. It is not a complete exposition, as there is a dimension of spiritual warfare that I didn’t emphasise. And there is also a difference between the “you” plural of v.31 and the “you” singular of v.32: Simon Peter was clearly at the sharp end of this Satanic attack.

Text: 31 ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’ 33 But he replied, ‘Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ 34 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, Peter, before the cock crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’ Luke 22.31-34

Communion is a defining mark of the church. As believers have celebrated the Lord’s Supper over the centuries, this defining mark has resulted in many defining moments.

On the night Jesus was betrayed there were a number of events that could be classed as defining moments.

Simon Peter is one of the disciples whom we might think had the most obvious defining moments during that evening of betrayal. In Luke’s gospel chapter 22.31-34, Jesus warns Simon Peter that Satan is seeking to sift him as wheat, but assures him that He, Jesus, has prayed for him that his faith will not fail. Simon Peter protests that he is ready to pay the ultimate price for his faith. In reply, Jesus declares that Peter will not die for Him, he will rather deny that he knows Him at all.

On the surface, it would seem that Peter had three very obvious defining moments: the three occasions on which He denied the Lord.

There is no doubt that Peter failed. Yet Jesus had said that He was praying for him that his faith would not fail.

Peter’s flesh failed, but in the overall scheme of God’s purpose for Peter, his faith did not fail. Why? Because Jesus was praying for him.

Peter’s defining moment was not the first, second, or third time that he denied the Lord. His defining moment was when Jesus said to him “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”.

A failure of flesh is not necessarily a failure of faith. If Peter’s denial constituted a failure of faith, then Jesus’ prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail was not answered positively.

The “failures of flesh” could have become Peter’s defining moments. But in the eyes of Jesus they never were nor would be his defining moments. Our “failures of flesh” do not need to become our defining moments, if we default to the grace of Christ.

The words Jesus spoke to Peter in Luke 22 are words for the whole of the church. in those few words of encouragement, Jesus reveals Himself as our Great High Priestly intercessor the one who “ever liveth to make intercession for [us]” (Hebrews 7.25 KJV).

Jesus is praying for us as much as He was praying for Peter. Whatever the circumstances we face. However difficult and daunting our challenges. I made a note in my kindle on these verses: “The hidden prayer life of the greatest intercessor releases unseen power that shapes our lives”. Jesus is praying for us.

Failures of flesh happen. But they are not meant to define us. Such is clear from what Jesus says to Peter: ‘And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.’

We can choose our defining moments. And if we make our encounter with the grace of Christ our ultimate defining moment, we will retain His perspective over our lives. Not only that, but out of the grace we have received, we will have something precious and redemptive with which to strengthen our brothers. Let’s choose to be defined by the grace that we have found in Jesus.

You have to believe Him. You just have to believe Him.

Towards the end of Ephesians 1, Paul reveals to the church in Ephesus that he is praying for them. One of the things he is praying is that they will have a greater appreciation and expectation of the power that God releases towards those who believe.

That power, Paul says, is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 1.19-20).

So what kind of power are we we talking about here? The same kind as was unleashed when Christ was raised from the dead.

If you think for a moment about what happened when Christ was raised from the dead and what exactly the strength that God released had to be able to accomplish, you begin to build a picture of the kind of power that God makes available to people who believe Him.

First of all, it is power that reverses the effect of of natural processes. When Jesus died on the cross, He really did die. He was as dead on the evening of Good Friday as the two thieves crucified beside Him. All the natural processes associated with death therefore kicked in and went to work in His body. For Jesus to come back to life, those natural processes had to be halted and reversed.

That is what happened. In his Pentecost sermon, Peter explained that death could not hold Him. At some point between Good Friday evening and Easter Sunday morning the strength of God halted the natural course of death, reversed those processes and brought Christ back to life.

God’s power, working on behalf of those who believe, has the ability to reverse situations – even natural processes.

Secondly, it is power that removes obstacles. When Christ was raised from the dead, the stone that covered the tomb was rolled back. It wasn’t rolled back to let Jesus out! It was rolled back so that the disciples could see that the tomb was empty. However, this was more than just the removal of a physical obstacle. The tomb had a Roman seal on it and a detachment of Roman guards to guard it (Matthew 27.66). When the stone was rolled back, the political and spiritual authority connected to it was also pushed out of the way.

God’s power is able to remove the obstacles that obstruct His purpose in our lives. No obstacle, whatever the source of its authority is too difficult for the power of God to remove. And that power works in and for those who dare to believe God.

Finally, the sort of power that works on our behalf raises us into the places God prepares for us.

When Christ ascended forty days after His resurrection, He was enthroned at the right hand of God. All God’s authority was now His. He had taken His rightful place at the Father’s right hand.

Some of us know that we haven’t yet attained some of the things God has planned for us. The power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of God is able to make a way for us.

How do we see this power released into our lives? You have to believe Him. You just have to believe Him.