Washing the Fence

In 2007, we bought an acre of land at the end of a cattle farm and built our first house. A few years later, a white vinyl fence was erected along the edge of our property. It looked so nice. But after that fence had been up for several years, it began to look pretty dirty. So, I set aside a Saturday morning to wash that fence. I wanted my property to look nice and the fence to be restored to its former glory. So, I got my hose and my bucket, some brushes and some bleach, and I went to work.

I learned some interesting spiritual lessons that day while I was washing that fence. That fence became a picture of my own life and my relationship with the Lord. Before I share what I learned, let me remind you of what Jesus said to the Pharisees.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish so that the outside of it may become clean also.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.    Matthew 23:25-28

As a pastor, I fall into the category of being a “religious leader”. I understand how easy it is for hypocrisy to creep into one’s life and take the place of a genuine relationship with God. I have a public life that everyone can see. There is also a part of my life that, other than myself, only God sees. That is true about us all. Now, let me tell you what God showed me while I was washing the fence.

First, the fence had two sides, and it was far dirtier on one side than the other. Jesus spoke to the Pharisees about but the two sides of their lives. Of course, Jesus didn’t use a fence for his example. He used a cup and a tomb. Either of these can be clean on the outside and not be clean on the inside. An unwashed cup can easily happen. No one wants to drink from a dirty cup. But a whitewashed tomb is a deliberate effort to put a pretty appearance on something one knows to be filled with death and decay. My fence was a picture of my life. While the whole fence needed to be washed, one side was considerably dirtier than the other. I suppose there are times when that is true about you. However, it should be particularly concerning, when we knowingly polish the outside in an effort to hide what’s within. First, the fence had two sides, and it was far dirtier on one side than the other.

Second, when my Saturday morning fence washing project started, I had to ask myself a question. Did I want both sides of the fence to be clean, or just the part that the public could see? I could let the fence have the perception of being clean to the public, while leaving other parts, not so visible, to remain dirty. 

What about in our spiritual lives? There is the outside that people see and the inside that only you and God know. Do you want both sides to be clean or just the part the public can see? I had to make the decision about my fence. But I also had to make it about my life.

I know we shouldn’t be concerned so much about what other people think, but when you are a pastor, that is pretty important. That is your witness, your reputation, and your character in the presence of other people. First, the fence had two sides, and one side was far dirtier than the other. Second, I had to decide if I wanted both sides to be clean or only part the public could see.

Third, once I started that Saturday morning project, it took longer than I thought, because the fence was far more dirty than I knew.

I anticipated it would take me a couple of hours. But it took the whole day to wash both sides of that seventy-five-yard-long, three-rail fence. Likewise, there are depths of depravity within us that will go undiscovered unless we tackle the task of cleaning both the outside and inside of our spiritual lives. How long has it been since you washed both sides of your spiritual fence?  When you get down to the task of addressing the need for spiritual cleansing, you will discover that a simple rinsing will not wash way the filth that clings to your heart and soul. Your heart may be far more dirty than you know.  First, the fence had two sides, and one side was dirtier than the other. Second, I had to decide if I wanted both sides to be clean or only part the public could see. Third, the fence was far more dirty than I knew. 

It was so dirty, that washing that fence turned into an exhausting process. I was physically spent by the time I finished. I made the following commitment to myself at the end of that long day. The next time I wash the fence, I will ask for help.

A clean heart and life require the washing work of the Lord Jesus. You simply can’t do it on your own. You can give the appearance of being clean, if your concern is only what the public can see. But be warned, the filth on the inside has a way of making its way to the surface.  My mom has a problem at home. A fungus infected the wood on the underside of the house. It was not something we could see. Nor was it something the public could see. We first learned of it when the floor collapsed in one of the rooms. Hidden sin causes dry rot of the soul. Eventually, there will be a collapse that will show up in the outward life. 

Cleaning your heart and life will require the help of the Lord Jesus. In Psalm 51, David asked for God’s help to cleanse his heart. He said, “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” Only God could create a clean heart for David. Can your heart be restored to its former purity and glory? Not by your hand. You will need to ask for help.

First, the fence had two sides, and one side was far dirtier than the other. Second, I had to decide if I wanted both sides to be clean or only part the public could see. Third, the fence was far more dirty than I knew. Fourth, I made a commitment that the next time I cleaned the fence I would ask for help.

When we built our house on that acre of pasture, an electric fence kept the cattle out of our yard. A few years later, another owner purchased the cattle farm. One day, as he was passing by our house, he saw our grandchildren playing in the yard. Concerned that they might be hurt by the electric fence, he had the white vinyl fence built on the property line. He said, “It will be safer for your grandchildren, and it will make your property look better.” He was kind and generous to do such a thing, and I appreciated it a lot.

Now you understand one of the main reasons I wanted to wash the fence. It belonged to someone else. I wanted the owner of the fence to be pleased. That is the final lesson I learned. My fence belonged to someone else and so does my life. I have a responsibility to keep my life clean, not just because I want the public to see it. God is the owner of my life. I want my life to be clean to His eyes and pleasing to Him.

Is that true about your life? If not, what steps do you need to take to conduct a thorough spiritual examination? When you do, you will find that your spiritual fence has two sides and one will be dirtier than the other. You will have to decide if you want the whole fence to be clean or only the part that the public can see. Be prepared when you start the process, because it may take far longer than you know. Be willing to ask for help, because this is not something you can accomplish on your own. The cleansing you need will only be accomplished with the help of the Lord Jesus. And always remember, your life belongs to someone else. He has been gracious enough to give it to you, and He expects it to be clean.

Photo by Scott Webb

The Way Back to God

Perhaps the most evil couple in the Bible was a husband and wife named Ahab and Jezebel. They worshiped idols rather than the One True God. They hated God’s people as well as God’s prophets. As King and Queen, they sought to turn the nation away from God. The judgment of God came upon their lives in graphic fashion. Nevertheless, their legacy continued in the lives of their children and grandchildren. Wherever their descendants went, they were a contagious and contaminating influence. One example is their daughter, Athaliah. She married Jehroam, the king of Judah. Jehoram’s father was the godly king Jehoshaphat. However, Scripture records his departure from the ways of God due to the influence of his wife, Athaliah.

Her evil influence infected the king and the nation. It was likely due to her influence that Jehoram killed all his own brothers once the throne was secure in his hands. Jehoram and Athaliah reigned only eight years as king and queen. Then Jehoram died a horrible death due to the judgment of God that fell upon him. The Bible records that he departed with no one’s regret. 2 Chronicles 21:20

After his death, Athaliah continued to spread the contagion of evil. Her youngest son, Ahaziah became king in his father’s place, only because all her older sons were killed at the hands of an enemy. The Bible summarized Ahaziah’s life in this way, He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counselor to do wickedly.  2 Chronicles 22:3

Later, Athaliah would lose some of her grandsons as a result of the continued outpouring of God’s judgment against her evil influence. Even her youngest son, Ahaziah, fell victim to God’s wrath. Nevertheless, her heart never skipped a beat in her devotion to evil.

Why was Athaliah so devoted to evil? Why was it that she had such animosity toward the Lord? Certainly, it was in part due to the influence of her wicked mother and father, Ahab and Jezebel. But perhaps it was also reflected in the name they gave her, the name Athaliah. It means, afflicted of the Lord.They raised her with a hatred for God built into her own name. Now, because of her great wickedness, her whole family was afflicted by God’s judgment.

Even then, Athaliah didn’t change. In 2 Chronicles 22:10 we read, Now when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she rose and destroyed all the royal offspring of the house of Judah. She killed the remainder of her own grandchildren so that she could be the sole ruler of the land. For six more years, her wicked influence held sway over the land of Judah and over the lives of God’s people.

However, in the providence of God, there was one little grandson spared from Athaliah’s wrath. His name was Joash. He was hidden from Athaliah, and carried to the safety of the house of God. There he grew up under the protection, nurture, and influence of a priest whose name was Jehoiada.

From this point forward, there are three characters who will be our concern. First, there is Athaliah, whose name means afflicted of the Lord. She represents the influence of evil that often infects the life of God’s people. Is there an Athaliah in your life?  Is there some evil influence that spreads like a contagion in your life? That influence will seek to remove every connection to God you have in your life, seeking to be sole ruler. 

The second character that will concern us is this priest, Jehoiada. It is important for you to be aware of the meaning of his name. His name means “The Lord Knows.” So, let me say up front, if there is an Athaliah in your life, the Lord knows.

Third, there is the little boy Joash. Joash represents the rightful king who must be placed on the throne. His name means: The Lord has bestowed.

Every day that Athaliah ruled the nation, all she had to do was to look at the temple of God and think about the priest who stood there as the leader of God’s people. Every time she did, she would remember that Jehoiada meant—the Lord Knows.  The Lord knew every evil plan in her heart.  He knew how she and her parents had devastated His people and allowed His house to fall into disrepair.  But the Lord also knew that the tables were about to turn, and this woman, Jezebel’s daughter, whose name meant, afflicted of the Lord—would soon be deposed and destroyed by the sword of the Lord.

Jehoida was a man who remained faithful to the Lord during one of the most wicked periods in the nation’s history.  The first thing that this faithful priest did to lead these people back to God was to call the people and the king to a covenant of commitment.

Then Jehoiada made a covenant between himself and all the people and the king, that they would be the LORD’s people.  2 Chronicles 23:16

Remember, these were a people whose lives had been governed by Athaliah, that contagious influence of evil. Their own lives had been infected by that influence. Some of them, like the people of Elijah’s day, became unfaithful to the Lord. Now came time to make a new covenant and a new commitment.

This was a turning point in their history.  It was a day of decision.  The challenge of Jehoiada, for both king and people, was that they commit themselves to be a people of the LORD alone.  

Only then can we truly call ourselves His people. Is it time to renew that covenant in your church? Is it time to renew it in your life? We have a tendency to try to steer our lives in the direction of our own choosing. When that happens, we usually wind up in the ruts of the past because we always choose the path of least resistance. Not so with Jehoiada. In his mind and in his heart, the LORD was the only one qualified to lead His people. He was priest, Joash was king, but the LORD would be their leader.

There was a second step that Jehoiada took that set the people of God on a course to Revival.  And all the people went to the house of Baal and tore it down, and they broke in pieces his altars and his images, and killed Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars.  2 Chronicles 23:17

Can you imagine the contradiction that must have existed in that community? On one side of town was the house of Baal.  On the other side of town was the house of the LORD.  Without a doubt, there were people who were involved in both.  Jezebel took the holy things from the house of the LORD and began using them to facilitate worship in the house of Baal. Athaliah, like her mother, was a worshipper of the false god Baal. There were those among God’s own people who followed her lead.

Jehoiada sought to lead God’s people to a new commitment.  Remember, his name means “the Lord knows.”And the Lord did know!  He knew who spent more time in the temple of an idol than they spent in the temple of the Lord.  

For them to be the Lord’s people that temple of idols had to fall. Its presence needed to be removed from that community, and its hold over their lives needed to be broken.

But what about your life?  Is it your sincere desire to belong to the Lord?  Is it your sincere desire to be a person after His heart? Do you claim Jesus as Lord of your life, while at the same time holding idols in your hearts, having made your heart a temple of worship for idolatry?

There was a time when God confronted the people of Ezekiel’s day with the two-sided nature of their commitment.  Outwardly they gave all the appearance of being committed to the Lord. But God gave Ezekiel insight into the secret lives of God’s people.  And this is what God said:“Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. Should I be consulted by them at all?…. Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Repent and turn away from your idols and turn your faces away from all your abominations.”’ Ezekiel 14:3; 6

Do you have a split-personality spiritually?  The time has come to choose which you will follow and who you will serve?  Idols have no business in the sanctuary of the Lord.  Your heart is that sanctuary. You see, the Lord knows!

Not only did Jehoiada lead them in casting down their idols:He led them in a return to true worship.

Moreover, Jehoiada placed the offices of the house of the Lord under the authority of the Levitcal priests, whom David had assigned over the house of the Lord, to offer the burnt offerings of the Lord, as it is written in the law of Moses—with rejoicing and singing according to the order of David.  2 Chronicles 23:18

When worship becomes routine, it faces the danger of becoming a ritual.  The people who are more apt to succumb to that danger than others, are those who are the most involved.  When worship becomes routine and ritual, the heart no longer has a part in what happens.  When you separate the heart from worship, that is the beginning of a great compromise.  

The first thing you compromise is the quality of your own commitment.  Whereas there might have been a time when you couldn’t teach or preach or sing or pray with the presence of sin in your life it comes to the point where it no longer stings your heart to do so.    

The second thing you compromise is the character of the worship itself.  It is trivialized by your attitude and your actions.  Those most likely to be guilty, are those who are most involved.  That is exactly what had happened in the time of Jehoiada.

Jehoiada recognized that in his own life and in the lives of others.  So he made it a point to bring the service of God’s house back to the order God intended.  Jehoiada brought heart back to worship so that it would be more than empty ritual.  Jesus said, But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. John 4:23

Do you worship in spirit and in truth? Did you know that the Lord seeks that kind of worship from His people? Does your singing and your service and your praying spring from the passion of a heart that stands on tiptoe reaching for God, or is it ritual?

The reforms led by Jehoiada sought to address more than just form and function.  Because of his leadership there was a renewed emphasis on holiness.

He stationed the gatekeepers of the house of the Lord, so that no one would enter who was in any way unclean.  2 Chronicles 23:19

Are you in any way unclean? The absence of holiness excluded the people of the Old Testament from worship.  In the Old Testament, the idea of clean and unclean was more ceremonial and outward in nature.  In the New Testament, it is not related to what you touch or what you eat but who you are.  It is related to outward acts but also to the thoughts and intents of the heart.  

Because we no longer understand holiness of the heart, we no longer value holiness of the life.  My heart is to be the sanctuary of God.  I am not to allow anything into my heart that is in any way unclean.  Are you guarding the gates of your heart and mind?  

God’s people drifted far away, but there was still a way back to God.  Where are you in your relationship with the Lord? I remind you of the man who led this effort—the man Jehoiada.  His name means the Lord Knows. Does the Lord know where you are? Is there a way back for you?  In the book of Jeremiah, this is what God said to His people:Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.  Jeremiah 6:16

What if we followed the path by which Jehoiada led people back to God? What if you and I made a new covenant of commitment with the Lord?  What if we removed the idols that stand in the sanctuary of the our hearts?  What if we returned to a worship that sprang from the heart rather than from routine and ritual?  And what if we once again began to walk the path of holiness?  

One other thing they did that was key to what needed to happen. They placed the Rightful King on His Royal Throne.

Over a six-year period, Jehoiada quietly, but very deliberately, raised the little boy rescued from that family.  Rescued as a little one-year old boy, he was now seven.  He was not old enough to lead a nation, but he was young enough to listen and learn from Godly counsel.  The day came when they took this little seven-year-old boy, put the crown on his head, and set him on the throne of the kingdom. The same day he was crowned, Athaliah tore out in a fitful rage to take the life of this little grandson who was her only rival to the throne. 

There will always be an Athaliah who seeks to hold sway over the people of God.  An Athaliah is anything or anyone that influences away from God—who seeks to introduce us to idols that rise up to take the place of God in our hearts and lives. Some of you have an Athaliah in your life—something that for years has determined where you stand with God.  The time has come to deal with that Athaliah once and for all—to put that influence in its place so that your life is ruled by God and God alone.  

For this brief period of their history, these people had a king on the throne—but God was once again their sovereign. As a result, all the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was quiet.  For they had put Athaliah to death with the sword.    2 Chronicles 16:21

Is the King on the throne of your life? Isn’t time you placed Him there, allowing Him to have control of your life? These are the essential steps God’s people must take if we are to make our way back to God. We must make them individually and we must make the corporately. Whatever the situation is in your life, whatever it is that reigns on the throne of your heart, I remind you… the Lord knows. 

Photo by Nathan Dumlao 

Surviving the Storm of Difficulty

“What in the world are we going to do?”

I am sure you’ve experienced one of those moments or some of those days when you sat with your face in your hands wondering, “What in the world are we going to do?” All of us have been to one of those “wits-end” moments when it felt like the walls of our personal world were falling down. When was the last time circumstances prompted you to ask that question to someone in your family? 

It always encourages me to discover that similar questions were raised by Biblical characters. They found themselves in situations that brought them to the end of their rope. An example can be found in the life of the Old Testament character Elisha. Elisha was so successful in predicting the military maneuvers of the king of Syria, that he shifted the focus of his wrath and the force of his army against Elisha personally. He sent horses and chariots and a large army, and they surrounded the city where Elisha was during the middle of the night. Elisha’s servant woke up early the next morning, only to discover they were overrun by the Syrian army. 

15 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”  2 Kings 6:15

The Problem That Confronts Us

How is it Elisha was so successful in predicting the previous locations of the Syrian army? Why did God allow this particular predicament? But the key concern of Elisha’s servant was, “What shall we do?”

That question, should you find yourself asking it, always relates to some problem that confronts us or some difficulty that besets us. In this case, it was significant, it was overwhelming, and it left Elisha’s servant at a mental and spiritual loss in the face of his circumstances.  Is there a problem like that in your life? You don’t know what to do. You find yourself overcome with anxiety and foreboding in the face of the problem that confronts you.

The Challenge It Presents Us 

The problem itself is only one part of the difficulty. The other side of that difficulty is the challenge it presents us. How will you handle it? What decisions will you make in the face of it? What steps do you need to take, and how will you know when to walk forward and when to stand still?

Whenever we face difficulty, one of our first reactions is to panic. What shall we do?  Shall we melt with fear, or shall we exercise our faith in God. Shall we seek our own solution, or shall we seek God and His wisdom? This challenge will always confront us in the face of difficulty. We will respond in fear or in faith—in self reliance or in dependence upon God?

The Promise Laid Before Us

The servant delivered the bad news to Elisha. There was a significant contrast between the reaction of the two to the same set of circumstances. One was at His wits end, the other was ready to lay claim to the promise of God.He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”   (2 Kings 6:16 ESV)

This was the promise laid out before Elisha’s servant. That promise is also ours in the face of our difficulty. Whatever resources our enemy has—God has more. However great our problem is; God is greater. This is true in every set of circumstances.

The Deficiency Within Us

Our greatest problem is not the difficulty that surrounds us but the deficiency within us. Elisha had something his servant did not have. He had spiritual vision.

I was preaching in an African-American church in 1997. The community was racially divided. No white preacher had been asked to preach there in many decades, and rightfully so. Not everyone at my church was happy I had been invited. Not everyone at the church where I was preaching was happy that I was there. I was more than a little nervous. 

One of the families in my church accompanied me to the church that Sunday along with their little six year old son.  Just before the service started, he sat down on the front pew beside me and said, “God has bookmarked my Bible for me.  It opens up to Two Kings six.”

I was amused by his voice and the way he gave the reference.  So I asked, “What did God say to you from ‘Two Kings six?’ He replied, “I don’t know. God hasn’t bookmarked the verse yet.”

His little words began to haunt me while I sat up on the platform before that sea of black faces. So for  a few moments, I blocked out all the activity around me, and the Lord and I went on a journey to Two Kings six.

My eyes immediately fell on verse 17. Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17 ESV)

God got his word across to me that morning by bookmarking a little boy’s Bible.  As a result, I had no problem preaching. I was in the center of God’s will. My life journey was under God’s protection from animosity that might arise from any direction.

There are going to be times in all of our lives when we are faced with circumstances that cause us to ask:  What Shall We Do?  Elisha’s response to the circumstances give us the five keys that will enable any of us to survive some storm of difficulty. 

First, He Prayed for Restored Spiritual Vision for His Servant.

I suggest you do the same. Simply pray that God would restore your spiritual vision as you stand in the midst of your circumstances. Ask Him to give you the perspective of heaven and guide you through the present difficulty. 

I have a problem with cloudy vision. The doctor tells me I will have it from now on. I am supposed to put ointment in my eyes every night before I go to bed. It helps my vision to be clearer. In Revelation 3:18, Jesus encouraged us to acquire eye salve from Him so that we can see. He will give clarity to our spiritual vision so that we can better understand ourselves and our circumstances.

The Second Key to Surviving the Storm of Difficulty Is to Recognize the Reality of God’s Presence.

Once God opened the servant’s eyes, his new spiritual vision enabled him to recognize the reality of God’s presence.  In my personal experience with difficulty, what I need most is just to know God is with me. I need an assurance of His presence.  If God is with me, I can cross any bridge of fear in my path. That will also be true for you. 

Elisha prayed for spiritual vision for his servant. His servant’s eyes were opened, and he came to a new awareness of God’s presence. Knowing God’s presence, enables us to exercise our faith, putting our hope, not in ourselves, but in God.

The Third Key to Surviving the Storm of Difficulty Is to Rely on God’s Mighty Power.

Consider the servant’s initial question in the face of difficulty. It was, “What shall we do.” Once God restores our spiritual vision, enabling us to recognize the nearness of God’s presence, we are able to place our confidence in God’s mighty power. The question is no longer, “what shall we do?” The question becomes, “What will God do.” We learn to rely on God’s mighty power to calm the storm of our circumstances and bring us safely through. We may not always be able to answer that question with specifics. But because we have placed our faith in God, we know what He will do something. We know that He is at work behind the scenes to help us in our difficulty.

The Fourth Key to Surviving the Storm of Difficulty Is to Remember God’s Promise.

In verse 16, Elisha offered his servant a very simple promise as the both of them faced difficulty. That promise simply stated that God’s presence and power was more than sufficient in the face of their present difficulty. Is there ever a time when that is not true? No. That will be true in the face of any difficulty, even the one you are facing today.

The Fifth Key to Surviving the Storm of Difficulty Is to Rest in God’s Peace. 

You will not always see horses and chariots surrounding you in the storm of difficulty. But you do have this promise. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:5b-7

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The word guard originally meant to protect by a military guard. The picture we are intended to see is not that our hearts are surrounded by horses and chariots of fire, but by the impenetrable wall of God’s peace. We know that He is in control of our present circumstances and any future peril that may befall our lives. 

Photo by lee junda

Recognizing Moments of Spiritual Significance

Maybe you’ve never seen a bright, blinding light shining from the heavens. I don’t know that you should expect to. Allow me to explain why. Moments of spiritual significance are not the same for every person.

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3As he was traveling, it happened… 9:1-3a

What happened was a moment of tremendous spiritual significance. This was a remarkable man, but up until this day his life bore no record of a significant encounter with God. Unfortunately, there are some of you here today who are just like Saul. 

First, I want you to think about who Saul was and what he was before he was converted.  Saul was a Pharisee.  That means he was very religious.  It means he attended worship services in the synagogue and in the temple.  It means he read from the Scriptures. It means he prayed. It also means that he was one of the most educated and articulate men of his day.  

3As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said,“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” 7The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Acts 9:3-9

 “Though his eyes were open he could see nothing.”  To me, that says as much about his previous spiritual condition as much as it did his present physical condition. All of Saul’s religion only blinded him to the truth about Jesus. 

I have to pause here and ask you a personal question. Could the same thing be true about you? Saul was very familiar with the Jewish Scriptures, but in his life, there was never a record of an encounter with the God who authored those Scriptures. Like many, who call themselves Christians today, he was familiar with the structure of the Scriptures and the standards of Scripture, making every outward effort to bend his life to fit that mold. No doubt, he believed some of the great doctrines of Scripture. He even believed in the existence of angels and spirits. Nevertheless, this man who was zealous for his religion, was lost. What does it mean to be lost? It means he was lost from God. It means he was lost in terms of his own life purpose. It also means he was on his way to being lost for all eternity, in spite of all his apparent religiosity. Why was Saul lost? He was lost because there had never been a moment of spiritual significance in his life!

What do I mean by a moment of spiritual significance? What was it that happened to him? Read a few of those verses again.

3As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said,“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” Acts 9:3-5

Here was a man known for instructing others about God, who didn’t know God himself, until he met Him that day on that road to Damascus. Have you had such a spiritually significant moment in your life? Using Saul’s story as an example, I would like to give you some characteristics of a moment of spiritual significance.

  1.  Any spiritually significant moment will have a date attached to it

It will be connected to a date on the calendar. It will also be connected to some event or activity, which may or not be memorable in itself, but becomes so because it is forever attached to that significant moment.

It will happen at a point in time. The day on the calendar may be fuzzy. The hour on the clock may be ambiguous. However, you will never forget where you were and what happened. Saul’s encounter has no date and time stamp, but he remembered the event associated with the encounter. It was as he was travelling from Jerusalem to Damascus that IT happened.

2. Any moment of true spiritual significance will be transformational. 

There will be a night and day difference in your life. Allow me to illustrate that by referring to the man born blind who encountered Jesus in John chapter nine. Blind from birth, he never had the experience of sight until the day he encountered Jesus. The  religious officials,  attempting to downplay the significance of his experience as well as the reputation of Jesus, questioned him about how it could be that Jesus, who they considered sinful, could give him sight. It was then that the man they were questioning testified to the transformational nature of his encounter with Jesus. He said,“Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”John 9:25 The difference in his life was so great, even those who knew him weren’t sure it was the same man.

Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus was also transformational. Something happened that left him physically blind. His newly acquired physical blindness was an illustration of the deep spiritual blindness the pervaded his life. That blindness was illustrated in his hatred for those who were followers of Jesus.

This moment of spiritual significance on the road to Damascus resulted in the spiritual transformation of this man called Saul of Tarsus. He became the mighty apostle Paul. It happened on a certain day, at a certain time, and it had a transformational impact on his life.  

Have you had such a moment of spiritual significance in your life? Maybe you’ve never seen a bright, blinding light shining from the heavens. I don’t know that you should expect to. Allow me to explain why. Moment’s of spiritual significance are not the same for every person.

3. Any moment of spiritual significance will be unique to you.

The only man whose life has ever been changed at a burning bush was the life of Moses. That was his moment of spiritual significance, and it was unique to him and unique in Scripture.  To my knowledge, Saul’s life is the only life changed by an encounter with a blinding light from heaven. We could consider character after character in Scripture, and you would observe that each person’s encounter with God was unique to them. While their experience was unique, they clearly knew God had spoken. 

Isaiah had such an encounter with God in the temple. He said, “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” That is just another illustrated of an encounter that could be associated with a date on the calendar. It was something each individual never forgot and something that changed their lives from that moment forward? 

Have you experienced such a moment of spiritual significance in your life? It might not have been a burning bush or a blinding light or a vision of God seated on a throne, but something happened to you that you’ve never forgotten, and that encounter continues to shape your life.

4. Any moment of true spiritual significance will be preceded by the activity of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus spoke to Saul in his physical blindness. He not only saw a blinding light, he heard a voice. Reflecting on that experience, Paul later took an opportunity to share what Jesus said to him. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Acts 26:14

Goads were sharp sticks that herdsmen used to prod specific their animals in a specific direction. Apparently, God had been at work in Saul’s life, pricking his heart with the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, any moment of spiritual significance will be preceded by a trail of  other moments God uses to alert you of your need to change and to move you to that spiritually significant moment. That trail might be the trail of your own resistance to what God wanted to do in your life, until the point in time comes for your surrender.

Moments of spiritual significance are orchestrated by God. Such moments are planned onto the calendar of our lives and often involve other people who God uses to move us on to His agenda. In the case of Saul, God used a specific disciple whose name was Ananias.

“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized. Acts 9:17b-18

As Saul was travelling, it happened! But it was not a happenstance. It was a moment of spiritual significance, carefully calendared onto his life journey. It was a divine appointment. 

Ananias was used of God to help Saul understand God’s new purpose for his life. Across the pages of Scripture, we meet men and women whose lives were transformed in some moment of spiritual significance. From that moment forward, God called them for some specific mission or purpose. That brings me to the next characteristic of these moments of spiritual significance.

5. A moment of true spiritual significance will require radical adjustments to your life purpose.

Abraham was required to leave to leave his father’s house. Moses was required to leave the wilderness and return to Egypt. Peter and Andrew left their nets. Saul abandoned his hatred for Christians and became one because of God’s activity in His life. No encounter with God scheduled onto the calendar of our life will come like a lightning bolt out of the blue. God will be at work in ways you don’t see or understand to prepare you for that moment. That single moment of spiritual significance was peppered with many previous pricks from the Holy Spirit. 

Yesterday, I sat in the sanctuary of the church where I served for nine years. I adjusted my life to go there at God’s leading. I spent nine years there. Those years seemed so lonely to me. But yesterday, as I sat there, I recognized that is where God befriended me. He shaped my heart. He taught me many things about myself and Himself. A moment of spiritual significance will not require a single adjustment to your life purpose. It will prepare you for a string of adjustments, all of which God will use to bring you closer to Him.

That leads me to my final observation about moments of spiritual significance. 

6. A moment of true spiritual significance will be a spiritual marker you share with others in an effort to explain who you are and why it is you do what you do. 

If you read the book of Acts, you will hear Paul repeat this story of that day on the road to Damascus when he had that encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a spiritual marker. Every time he shared it, it refocused his life on the purpose to which God had called him.

Many of you who read these posts are spiritual people. You are religious people. You may read your Scriptures or mine. But let me ask you, for all your connection with religion and religiosity, have you had such a moment of spiritual significance in your life? Has this God of the Bible, who reveals Himself in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, scheduled such an encounter onto the calendar of your life? If not, would you be willing to ask Him to reveal Himself to you. I remind you, it is not your life mission to find God. God’s passion is to find you and reveal Himself to you. Jesus said, “I am come to seek and to save that which is lost.” Please consider praying this simple prayer: 

“Jesus, I have read about You. I have heard about You. But I have never encountered You. Would you reveal Yourself to me in a way of Your own choosing? Allow me to know that it is You. Please prepare my heart for that moment of spiritual significance. Amen”

Photo by JOHN TOWNER

How God Guides

What is it like to hear the voice of God’s Spirit? Is it audible?

How does a person go about discerning guidance from God? God doesn’t send out emails or text messages or newsletters offering His guidance. (I don’t get them. I don’t know about you.) So, how am I to recognize His guidance for my life.

I want to share an example from the life of Peter. In Acts chapter 11, Peter reported to the church in Jerusalem concerning his mission into Gentile territory. Christianity was in its infancy. The first believers were still wrestling with personal prejudices.  Initially, Peter’s mission created quite a controversy in the church in Jerusalem. They wanted to know who authorized such a trip. That is when Peter went into great detail concerning how God guided his journey. When we put together his explanation with the details of the story, we get a very clear picture of how God guides. 

Peter shares how it all began.  5“I was in the city of Joppa praying…Acts 11:5a

While there is no indication that Peter was specifically praying for guidance from God, that is when His guidance came. In prayer, we share our hearts with God, and He shares His heart with us. All the great men of the Bible, including Jesus, took time every day to pray.  If you will take time to pray, as you share the concerns of your heart with God, He will share the concerns of His heart with you.

In the previous chapter, where more details of the account are given, we discover Peter went up on the roof. He did this so he could be out of the hustle and bustle below where meal preparation was taking place.

Peter was just like us. He had no idea of what God was doing somewhere else in the world. Yet, what God was doing in Peter’s life had a direct connection to what God was already doing in another person’s heart. That man, Cornelius, was prompted by God to send to Joppa for a man he had never met. The man’s name was Simon Peter. Peter didn’t know that the men were already on their way. God set events in motion in two men’s hearts so that His purpose could be accomplished. That lets us know that God knew where Peter would be in advance. I have no doubt, the prompting to pray came from God. Peter went on to describe what happened while he was praying.

4But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision… Acts 11:4-5

I don’t know about you, but I wanted to know what that meant? Some translations describe it as a visionary state. However the Greek word used to describe Peter’s experience is a word that refers to a mind so fixed and focused on the things of God that all else fades away.In that moment alone with God, his spiritual perception became exceptionally clear, and God communicated through signs or symbols that appeared very real.God used that opportunity as a teaching moment to prepare Peter for what was ahead. This happened in the context of prayer, and I think we can safely say that without prayer, Peter would have missed this guidance from God.

First, Peter’s guidance was received in the context of prayer.

Second, in the context of prayer, Peter received a witness in his spirit.

While Peter was praying, something happened, but it happened inside Peter. He describes that moment, and it must have been just a moment. You understand the process of dreams. Peter’s experience involved a question and answer session about this sheet that he saw that was filled with animals.  Why did God have to use such a symbol to get Peter’s attention?  It was because Peter had a major hindrance to receiving God’s guidance. Do you have any idea what that might have been? It was his own prejudice. Likewise, one of our greatest hindrances to receiving guidance from God is our own personal prejudice.  We already have our own mind made up before we go to God to ask.  Therefore, one of our biggest challenges is being willing to allow God to mold our mindset to his.  If I come to prayer with my mind made up about the guidance I want from God, that is the guidance I will probably get.  I will not allow God to move my mind from my will to His.  Watch this struggle take place in the life of Peter.

I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, 6and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. 7“I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8“But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9“But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ 10“This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky.  Acts 11:5-10

The first part of God’s dealing with Peter was to prompt him to give up his own personal prejudices in favor of the will of God for his life.  As God guides you away from your own will toward His will for your life, He may use lessons from life just like He used with Peter.  

God may have something for you to do that is different from what you have in mind.  You may want to serve Him but not as a missionary.  You may want to be a missionary but not with a specific people group whose race or customs you find repulsive.  So God may lead you through a process of discovery to teach you to give up your will in favor of His own. That also has to happen in the life of a church. Each person must give up his or her own will for the church in favor of the will of Christ, who is the Head. When He reveals it, we must follow without question just as Peter did.

Obviously, this didn’t happen immediately for Peter. Peter’s initial response was to tell the Lord, “No.” But the process continued, until after the third time, God had Peter’s attention.  

When you pray, stay alert to see what happens next. You will notice that what happened next in Peter’s life was essential to him discerning the guidance of God.

Third, the witness in Peter’s spirit was confirmed by the witness of circumstances.  

11And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Acts 12:11

Can you put two and two together?  If you pray, and ask God for guidance, what is it when the phone rings and someone who had no idea you were seeking God calls to give you information that fits right into how you had prayed.  That is guidance, and it is likely guidance from God.  

Suppose you are seeking God’s guidance about surrendering to be a missionary.  When you pray, you inform God that if He wants you to go to the mission field, you first need to sell your home.  You struggle with that issue because you love your home and you don’t want to give it up. So, you continue to pray and ask God for guidance.  Then one day someone calls you and tells you they were looking for a house in your neighborhood and were wondering if you ever thought about selling your home. What is that?  That is guidance.  It is the witness of circumstances confirming the witness in your spirit—and it all grew out of the context of prayer.

Fourth, the witness of circumstances was confirmed by the witness of the Spirit.

The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings.  Acts 11:12

These three events came for Peter in rapid succession.  First was the vision—this witness in his spirit. Then came the obvious providential circumstances.  And then like a bolt out of the blue came the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The time will come when God will make it very clear to you what He wants you to do.  He will show you the direction you should take.  The answer will come in the context of prayer.  It will come when you are willing to surrender your personal prejudices in favor of the will of God.  There will be a witness in your spirit.  There will be circumstances that take place that seem to confirm that witness.  But the ultimate authority is the witness of God’s Spirit who will say to you, “This is the way!  Walk in it!”

What is it like to hear the voice of God’s Spirit?  Is it audible?  For me it has never been.  But I can tell you this, although that voice has always come in a different way, I always knew it when it when it came. When God speaks to verify His leading, you will know that it is God.  

How can you be sure? There is only one way to verify God’s guidance. When God shows you the way—walk in it.

Finally, Peter’s guidance was verified in the context of obedience.  

12“The Spirit told me to go with them without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. 13“And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; 14and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ 15“And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.  Acts 11:4-15

When Peter began to take steps of obedience, each one was verified by God.  He saw God’s activity.  He saw how God had been working to prepare the way for his visit to that home.  He saw God’s work in the lives of those to whom he preached.  But how would the guidance of God have ever been validated if Peter had not been obedient. There are some things that you will never know until you make the journey of obedience.  

Pray for God’s guidance.  As you listen for a witness in your spirit be sure that you are willing to give up your own personal prejudices in favor of the will of God. Watch for providential circumstances that God will use like signposts pointing the way.  Make sure that you have that vital witness of the Holy Spirit before you go.  Then when God shows you the way, walk in it and watch God work.

In the fall of 1988, I found myself in the small community of Camden, Alabama, being considered as the pastor of the church there. I didn’t know a soul. In many ways, it was like a foreign country to me. I was so apprehensive for myself and for my family. I needed some word from God about what to do.

I was alone in the back hallway waiting to enter the sanctuary. The instrumentalists inside began playing the prelude music. I recognized the tune. It was the familiar hymn, Trust and Obey. As they played, one of the verses of that hymn came clearly to my mind. “But you never can prove the delights of His love, until all on the altar you lay. For the favor He shows and the joy He bestows are for those who will trust and obey.” In that moment, I knew clearly what God wanted me to do. He wanted me to surrender my family and my future into His hands. The only way to confirm God’s guidance up to that moment was to obey. I did, and never once have I regretted the years I spent there. 

God’s guidance in one decision will not be a blueprint for another. However, these basic principles have helped me get a sense of God’s will for my life.  

Photo by Robin Noguier

Seeking God’s Guidance

Are you in the process of seeking God’s guidance about some set of circumstances that trouble you? Are you sincerely seeking the mind of God? Or, could it be that you are in the process of seeking Him to bless a direction that you have already taken or are about to take?

The capital city was in shambles. People were hungry and homeless. I can think of cities around the world today who are experiencing the practical implications of such a calamity. However, these people were living in Jerusalem in the time of Jeremiah. Foreign invaders, under the directive of the king of Babylon, captured the king. They murdered his sons before his eyes. Then they put out his eyes so that it would be his last visual memory. They burned the temple and every other house of size in the city, taking the best and brightest of the people captive. They did leave behind the poor, fearing no threat or reprisal from them. It is these, the poor and homeless, who stood in the rubble of what was once home, who came to an awareness of a need to seek God’s guidance. By the grace of God, Jeremiah was not taken captive and was allowed to remain in the land with these people.

Imagine the helplessness of these people. It was made worse by a power struggle going on behind the scenes in the chaos. A new leader was appointed by the invading king to govern these homeless poor. The new leader was murdered, along with many who gathered themselves around him, throwing these hungry, homeless poor into further chaos. Johanon, a leader who helped bring some order to the chaos, and personally rescued some of the people, felt things were about to get much worse. Fearing reprisal from the king of Babylon, these desperate people made up their minds to flee to Egypt.

In the calamity that swirled, confusion reigned in the hearts of God’s people. Perhaps your circumstances are not as dire, but you can certainly feel the desperation of these confused people as they grappled with decisions they needed to make in the midst of calamity. One of the dangers of decision making in the midst of calamity is: 

  1.  Confused People Tend to Follow Their Instincts and Feelings Rather than Following God. 

Their decision to return to Egypt was based on fear and on their perceived personal need. When God delivered His people from Egypt through Moses, He intended for them to never return.  Any return to Egypt was tantamount to abandoning their faith in the God who had planted them in the land.

Have you ever been flushed from your position of trust in the Lord by fear?  When you evaluate your circumstances from the eyes of fear instead of the eyes of faith, you will follow your instincts, your feelings, your fears, rather than following God? This is what these people were about to do. However, to their credit, they realized their need for God’s guidance. Therefore, these desperate people sought out the prophet Jeremiah. They asked him to pray for them, asking God for direction. The directions God gave them, as well as their response, can be found in Jeremiah 42.

Remember, one of the dangers of decision making in the midst of calamity, is that confused people tend to follow their instincts and feelings rather than following God. Consider the following request they made to the prophet Jeremiah.

Then all the commanders of the forces, Johanan the son of Kareah, Jezaniah the son of Hoshaiah, and all the people both small and great approached and said to Jeremiah the prophet, “Please let our petition come before you, and pray for us to the Lord your God, that is for all this remnant; because we are left but a few out of many, as your own eyes now see us, that the Lord your God may tell us the way in which we should walk and the thing that we should do.” Jeremiah 42:1-3

That request seemed, on the surface, straightforward and very sincere. Most of us are willing to quiz God concerning His guidance for our lives.  We believe, just as they did, that God’s guidance is good medicine and should be considered in our decision-making process. What we believe and what we practice are often quite different.

Jeremiah gladly agreed to their request to seek God’s guidance in their behalf.

Then Jeremiah the prophet said to them, “I have heard you. Behold, I am going to pray to the Lord your God in accordance with your words; and I will tell you the whole message which the Lord will answer you. I will not keep back a word from you.” Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with the whole message with which the Lord your God will send you to us.Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will listen to the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, so that it may go well with us when we listen to the voice of the Lord our God.”Jeremiah 42:4-6

However, these people suffered from the same basic problem we struggle with today when we seek a word from God.

2.  Too Often, God’s People Seek a Word from God that Will Affirm the Way They Feel.

There is a great deal of commitment on the surface of their promise in verse six.  There is also a great deal of truth in their understanding of the ways of God.  It will go well with us when we listen to the voice of our God.   Are you in the process of seeking God’s guidance about some set of circumstances that trouble you?   Are you sincerely seeking the mind of God?  Or, could it be that you are in the process of seeking Him to bless a direction you have already taken or are about to take? Always make your decisions based on God’s guidance and His knowledge of your circumstances, and not your own.  

3. When You Seek God’s Guidance, Make Sure You Abandon Your Personal Priorities in Favor of the Will of God. 

While that appears to be what they had done, as the story unfolds, it is clear they failed to abandon their own plans.  They were still leaning on their own understanding.  Do you trust God’s will over your own?  Do you believe God’s will is always best—that his directions are always right?  Until you do, you will not abandon your ways in favor of His ways. 

4. When You Seek God’s Guidance, You Must Be Willing to Wait for a Word from God.  

Now at the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 42:7

How long did it take an Old Testament prophet to hear from God? The time varied—but it always required waiting.  Jeremiah waited before the Lord for ten days. Seeking God’s guidance does not mean making a decision—asking for God’s blessing—and then taking steps in the direction of the decision that you have made.  Seeking God’s guidance means praying, and making no decisions and taking no steps, until you have a clear word from God.

The greatest evidence of a person’s faith is not how quickly they make decisions but how long they are willing to stand still waiting for a word from God.  Circumstances often scream hurry.  Faith whispers wait.  These people were forced into seeking God’s guidance by the desperation of their circumstances.  What is the crisis that is prompting you to seek the Lord?

Then he called for Johanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces that were with him, and for all the people both small and great, and said to them, “Thus says the Lord the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition before Him: 10 ‘If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down, and I will plant you and not uproot you; for I will relent concerning the calamity that I have inflicted on you. 11 Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you are now fearing; do not be afraid of him,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am with you to save you and deliver you from his hand. 12 I will also show you compassion, so that he will have compassion on you and restore you to your own soil.Jeremiah 4:8-12

This was a crisis controlled by God.  As they received God’s guidance, they learned their calamity was God imposed. It was sent because of their sins, and it was sent to prompt them to seek God.  It was a calamity from which they could bedelivered, if they responded in obedience to their word from God.  

If there is a storm of calamity swirling around your life, you need a word from God.  You need to hear what God is saying to you in the midst of your circumstances.  As the stormy mists swirl around you, you might be tempted to look at your circumstances through the eyes of fear. If you do, you will be guided by your feelings.  Instead, ask God to show you your circumstances through the eyes of faith. In Experiencing God,Henry Blackaby wisely observed, “You never know the truth about your circumstances until you have heard from the truth.” What is God’s promise? What is God’s guidance? What is God’s perspective of your present calamity? Ask Him. Wait for an answer, and as you prayerfully wait, pledge to do whatever He tells you. Above all else, keep that promise and obey God!

5. God Waits for Our Obedience to Bring an End to the Crisis that Has Come into Our Lives!  

God’s word was “Stay in the land…”The situation that swirled around them was desperate. All their precious things had become a ruin. There was terror on every side.  But if they would hold their ground and trust God, He would work all things together for their good.

What is the word that God has spoken to your heart in the midst of your circumstances.? Has He whispered,“Wait, Stay, Trust?”  Or could the fear in your heart be because He has whispered, “Go to a land that I will show you?”Whatever God’s word is to your life, your obedience is critical.

When you are seeking God’s guidance, you must come to the firm conviction that you will do whatever God asks you to do. Unfortunately, their commitment to obedience was a commitment of the lips and not a commitment of the heart.  Is your commitment to obedience a heart deep commitment?  Are you ready to do whatever it is that God is calling you to do?

6. When You Receive God’s Guidance, It Will Require You to Act in Faith in the Face of Your Fear.  

13 But if you are going to say, “We will not stay in this land,” so as not to listen to the voice of the Lordyour God, 14 saying, “No, but we will go to the land of Egypt, where we will not see war or hear the sound of a trumpet or hunger for bread, and we will stay there”; 15 then in that case listen to the word of the Lord, O remnant of Judah. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “If you really set your mind to enter Egypt and go in to reside there, 16 then the sword, which you are afraid of, will overtake you there in the land of Egypt; and the famine, about which you are anxious, will follow closely after you there in Egypt, and you will die there. 17 So all the men who set their mind to go to Egypt to reside there will die by the sword, by famine and by pestilence; and they will have no survivors or refugees from the calamity that I am going to bring on them.”’”Jeremiah 42:13-17

Remember, these people had already set their mind to go to Egypt before they consulted God.  Does God know the true motives of our heart when we pray?  Does He know when we are seeking Him to bless our plans and when we are seeking to know the blessing of His plan for us?  He does!  We would do well to hear the warning He gave to the people in Jeremiah’s day and to hear it loud and clear.  

Please understand that the fears of God’s people were well founded. They had reason to believe the King of Babylon would retaliate because of the assassination of the governor he placed over them. But the King of Heaven was Sovereign over the affairs of His people. HE STILL IS! God is well aware of the dangers we face as we follow Him.  If you continue to allow your life to be ruled by your feelings and your fears, you will miss the activity of God.   The very things that we fear will hound our every step if we head in any direction other than the one assigned to us by God.  

Remember their commitment:Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will listen to the voice of the Lord our God to whom we are sending you, so that it may go well with us when we listen to the voice of the Lord our God.”Jeremiah 42:6

Jeremiah warned them about doing otherwise.

19 The Lord has spoken to you, O remnant of Judah, “Do not go into Egypt!” You should clearly understand that today I have testified against you.20 For you have only deceived yourselves; for it is you who sent me to the Lord your God, saying, “Pray for us to the Lord our God; and whatever the Lord our God says, tell us so, and we will do it.” 21 So I have told you today, but you have not obeyed the Lord your God, even in whatever He has sent me to tell you. 22 Therefore you should now clearly understand that you will die by the sword, by famine and by pestilence, in the place where you wish to go to reside.Jeremiah 42:19-22

Their response to God’s word and warnings through Jeremiah is recorded in Jeremiah 43.

But as soon as Jeremiah, whom the Lord their God had sent, had finished telling all the people all the words of the Lord their God—that is, all these words— Azariah the son of Hoshaiah, and Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the arrogant men said to Jeremiah, “You are telling a lie! The Lord our God has not sent you to say, ‘You are not to enter Egypt to reside there’; but Baruch the son of Neriah is inciting you against us to give us over into the hand of the Chaldeans, so they will put us to death or exile us to Babylon.” So Johanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces, and all the people, did not obey the voice of the Lordto stay in the land of Judah…. and they entered the land of Egypt (for they did not obey the voice of the Lord) and went in as far as Tahpanhes. Jeremiah 43:1-4; 7 

7. Never Take a Step that Will Violate Clear Guidance from God!

What a sad commentary on the faith of God’s people. They were walking by their feelings and not by faith. They were viewing their circumstances through the eyes of fear and not the eyes of faith.  They made their decision, leaning on their own understanding rather than the guidance of their God. If you are on the verge of violating clear guidance from God, don’t! Stop! Wait! Reconsider! It will go well with you if you will do what God wants you to do! If you disobey God, the very disaster you fear will overtake you. 

I don’t know your circumstances. I don’t know your calamity or how deep the chaos is that swirls around your life. However, I do know the God who spoke order out of the chaos of pre-creation, who spoke light out of darkness and life out of deadness. I know Him whose way is in the whirlwind and the storm and the clouds are the dust of His feet. He has the power to say to the storm in your life, “Peace, be still!” 

Don’t make decisions without God’s guidance. Seek Godly counsel to help you understand the will and ways of God. Don’t act on fear or instinct. Always act in faith based on God’s promises. Seek a word from God in the midst of your personal circumstances. Be willing to wait for it. Whatever God says to you, be sure to obey His counsel and follow His direction. 

What are the circumstances that stand in your face and scream for you to take matters into your own hands?  The situation screams hurry! But in your heart, a still small voice whispers “Wait!”  Which of those voices will you allow to govern your life?

Photo by Joshua Watson 

Is Your Hand to the Plow?

Once you put your hand to the plow of following Jesus, if you look back, you will live a crooked, tentative life. Plowing requires a single-minded focus, and so does following Jesus.

Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:61-62

When I was growing up, my grandpa and my dad did a bit of farming. I have fond memories of riding my grandpa’s mule between the fields. My family spent long hours with hand on the plow, preparing fields, and laying out rows. Great value was placed on the rows being straight, for as the crop came up, it had to be plowed again and again to keep it free of grass or weeds. As a young boy growing up in South Mississippi, I was blessed to have a few opportunities to hold the plow and do my best to keep in step with the mule. There is an art to guiding a mule. He will go where you want him to go, as long as you know where you are going. You can’t plow looking back over where you’ve been. You will plow a crooked row and perhaps damage existing plants. Once you put your hand to the plow of following Jesus, if you look back, you will live a crooked, tentative life. Plowing requires a single-minded focus, and so does following Jesus.

Since I was a young person, verse 62 has troubled me. It has been a plumb-line, hanging down beside my life, as a measure of my own personal commitment to Christ. I identify with this man’s own conflicts and commitments toward home. My life is not the only life measured by this verse. It measures all who hear the call of Christ to come and follow, or who have expressed some semblance of commitment to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

I didn’t understand until recently that this verse is set in contrast to an earlier verse in the same chapter where it is said that Jesus’ face was steadfastly set to go to Jerusalem. He made that decisive decision to follow the will of God for his life, having counted the cost. He knew all it would mean, and he was making the journey. He refused to look back, even when facing the cross.

It was in the face of the divided commitment of a would-be disciple, that He contrasts it with His own absolute abandon to the will of God. But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:62

Jesus was not suggesting it was a sin to have an affection for home or an obligation toward those at home. These people were not asking for a moment to take care of what was necessary—they were putting forward an excuse that would not allow them to follow. That excuse could have been anything. It could have been family, it could have been treasure, it could have been pleasure. If you will notice, the way this would-be disciple worded it said it all, “But first…”

Is there anything wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with having a priority higher than following Christ? YES! Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

This man had no intention of following Jesus. Saying “goodbye” meant finishing that phase of his life. In other words, he was saying, “Let me raise my children, then I will follow you.  Let me reach retirement, then I will follow you.” 

Is it not true that some of you made such a commitment? But now, time has come and gone since you made that promise. Since then, the children have been raised, and now there are grandchildren, and you still can’t follow. Retirement has come, and with it, other concerns, and you still can’t follow. Something always comes first. Something always will, until you determine that Christ will be first above all.

Jesus didn’t excuse this gentleman for his commitment to his family. He will not excuse me. He will not excuse you. “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

Follow Me!  This is the first step of the Christian life. To say you believe, but never begin to follow, is to prove your unbelief. Once you do begin following Jesus, living for Jesus and putting His will ahead of your own, must remain the focus of your life. 

There is a story in our Bible that is  a perfect illustration of the kind of commitment our Lord requires. It is the story of a young man named Elisha, who was led of God to follow Elijah the prophet, so that he too might become a prophet of God.  He was plowing a team of oxen. He had his hand on one plow, but God was calling him to lay hold of another. 

The Bible says, “He (Elisha) left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he (Elijah) said to him, “Go back again, for what have ai done to you?” So he returned from following him, and took the pair of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to the people and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah and ministered to him.  1 Kings 19:20-21

Didn’t he do exactly what Jesus found unacceptable? Didn’t he say goodbye to those at home?  Yes! But it was a real goodbye. He made sure he put his hand to the plow of serving God and that he would never look back to plowing the field again. He cooked his animals and burned his plows and followed the plan of God for his life. He took care of the excuse so there would be no turning back. 

As a 17 year old boy, I sat in the office of Dr. William Clawson, a Bible Professor at William Carey College, who took time to guide me about ordering my life to pursue God’s calling. He urged me to so order my life that I would never be able to look back or go back. That is what I did, and I don’t regret it. I cherish his counsel to this very day!

So it was with Elisha. He could be one or the other. He could be a farmer, or he could be a prophet. He could not be both. The Lord required him to follow with absolute abandon. He requires the same from you and me. “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9: 62

There are no exceptions to this rule. That is why Jesus always laid out the true cost of discipleship. “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.” Luke 14:33None of you means you. It means me. 

This is true at the very beginning of the Christian life. There can be no excuse for me not following Jesus… no “but first.” The priority of my life, the focus of my existence from that day forward, must be to follow Him. But don’t fail to understand the Lord’s emphasis here. This is not only the requirement as I begin to follow. This is the journey of the Christian life. There should never be an excuse for a delay in my obedience. My priority is absolute abandon to the Lordship of Christ. 

I should never be found saying: “Lord, I will follow, but first…” ” Lord, I will serve, but first…” “Lord, I will go be a  missionary, but first…” “Lord, I will forgive, but first…” The “FIRST” in your life is always to be following Christ. To excuse your way out of the obligations of following Him, at any point along the way, is to lose fellowship with Jesus from that moment forward.  

He is to be Lord of my heart and Lord of my home. He is to be Lord of my actions and Lord of my attitudes. Should I offer Him an excuse as to why my will, at some crossroad, cannot bow to His Own, then I will hear him say to me what he said to this gentleman in the book of Luke.“No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  Luke 9:62

The standard, the plumb-line of my commitment, is my Lord’s commitment to go to the cross for me without looking back. He steadfastly set his face to follow God’s will for His life. I am to steadfastly set my face to follow His will for mine.

I understand this means something different for everyone who might read this. The cost of full surrender to Christ for you may be far different than it is for me. You may risk being excluded from your family. You may face physical suffering or imprisonment. You may lose your job or even your life! Nevertheless, the plumb-line remains: “No one, after putting HIs hand to the the plow and looking back, is for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62

I conclude with a final challenge from the author of the book of Hebrews, who, after he finished a list of those whose lives exemplified such absolute abandon, wrote the following:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1, 2 NASB)

Put your hand to the plow, keep your eyes on Jesus, and never look back!