Dying for Success

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Success-MagazineNobody wants to die! Everyone wants success! I think this might be the biggest struggle for Christians and Christian leadership in our narcissistic, self-centered culture. We lead people to seek a Father who let his Son die to bring forth life! We follow a Savior who died to self: “Not my will…but Your will, Father.” We worship a God whose ways are so counter-intuitive that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were spiritually blinded by their own self-preserving vision of how God should work. And most all of us think we’re immune to the same disease! That’s a problem.

We all get deceived! Peter was deceived by his own vision of what He expected Messiah to do. Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me Satan!”  Years later, Peter was blind to his actions, and Paul had to correct his self-absorbed old ways (Gal 2:11-14). Yet I find that most Christian leaders rarely consider the thought, “I too may be self-deceived, spiritually blind in some area!”  The thought rarely crosses our minds.

And lest you think I’m being judgmental, let me just say—I’m absolutely convinced that I have spiritual blind spots. I would tell you what they are…but I don’t know!  Sometimes my wife tries to point out my blind spots to me, but she’s always wrong about them—so I’m still not sure! Sometimes my closest staff tries to hint at what’s wrong, but they never fully understand!

You get the point?

Identify anyone with a problem, and you’ll be identifying someone who resists the suggestion that he has a problem. That’s self-deception–our very human inability to see that one has a problem.  As Christian leaders, it’s easy to spot in marriages we counsel, in staff relationships that cause us grief, in other organizations–yet we rarely consider that we may have the same problem!

God wants to put to death our own self-justifying ways that gain identity or security in how we lead, or how things go, or how others behave, or how life should look. We all have a false self that resists dying and finds all sorts of subterranean paths of escaping death. This is because we’ve counted on this false image of self to give us life, identity, security, love…in place of God—but we don’t realize it until we feel this life threatened! Then we fight like hell to keep it alive!

But here’s what I keep learning the hard way—God loves us too much to leave us in the dark. As Jesus said, “See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness” (Luke 11:35).  We must die to certain ways of seeing ourselves that keep us in the dark. We must die to ways of doing life that blind us. We must die to old ways of leading, or expectations of where God’s path to the “promised land” will take us.  It’s why Jesus said we must die daily, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Here are some signs that something needs to die:  Your spouse or family keeps telling you they miss you or need you, and you feel defensive rather than sad.  Your body’s telling you the false self is hurting it—eye twitches, rumbling stomach, sleep problems, headaches, Monday morning adrenaline “hangovers.”  Your staff or volunteers hint that you’re “too high control” or need to trust them more. Others try to teach you and you feel resistance—“I’m supposed to be the teacher not the learner.”  You often feel unrecognized, underappreciated, or left out.  You quickly find blame to “explain” all that does not go well.

God wants us to become the kinds of people who can bring His kingdom will and ways to light the world around us—but “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  So God allows us to hit walls where nothing works as expected, where others wound and hurt us, where God even lets us down, where life as we know it feels like it’s dying. Let it die, and you will live. Let it die, and you will be free to live for God and lead like Christ.

Good News: God Removed Every Barrier Except One

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I asked Greg yesterday, “Have you ever opened your heart up to Jesus?” He said, “I don’t know.” “Would you want to?” I asked.  If he said “yes” to you like he did to me, what would you do? The last four blog posts we’ve explored these three themes of the gospel (God’s good message for humanity). After studying every mention of the word “gospel” in Scripture, I never saw a formula presented, but I did see three themes Jesus and his followers conveyed. We can creatively convey the same three themes to the Gregs around us:

1. There is good news about God and his kingdom Life! God created you for loving relationship with himself and others, and he is available to lead us into the Life we long to experience (a life of love, joy, peace, patience…that comes from the inside out).

2. There is good news about Jesus! Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection opened the way for us to know God does not condemn us, but forgives our sins, so that we can walk into Life with his Spirit who helps us become all he intended.

3. There is good news for you! God has removed every barrier between God and you except one: your free will (your pride)!  Anyone can humbly choose to turn and trust God.

What do people need to do to be set right with God and begin this Life with his Spirit? Here we convey that through Christ, God has removed every barrier between God and people except one: your pride–your free will!  Anyone can humbly choose to turn and trust God to experience his forgiveness and guidance into Life by his Spirit.  But what does that really mean?

Jesus and his followers proclaimed, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:14-15). You see these two words show up again and again, “repent and believe.” But what do they mean? If we use Christianese terms that don’t translate, people can miss the point.

In Jesus day, repent (metanoeo) literally meant, “to change your mind about something.”  Presumably, it meant to turn from thinking one way to a new way of thinking. It became a military term used to change direction, when “repent” was called out, the soldiers would turn 180 degrees and head the other way.  I find the word “repent” needs translating today in order to mean what Jesus’ hearers would have understood.

In simplest terms, repent means I turn from my will and ways to follow God’s will and ways. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). I explain to people that we must turn from playing God and seeking our will and ways only, to let God be God of life, seeking his will and ways first. That’s the heart of repentance—to change our minds about where Life will be found (not my will, but your will be done, Lord).


Turn and Trust!

When people asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” In other words, tell us what God requires. Here it is: “Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’” (John 6:28-29, italics mine).  To believe is all we must do. But why? What does that do?

Belief, faith, trust are all synonyms. You can’t have a relationship without trust. What relationship with God requires is to believe, have faith in, to trust in God. We turn from self-centered trust to God-centered trust in this good news—that God does not condemn, but forgives, and enters life with us to help us as we trust him more and more. Jesus conveyed this central idea his last night on earth (go read John 13:34-14:12).

The goal is relationship—loving God by trusting him and his Messiah, so he can lead us by his Spirit to love one another in a new way that re-orients our little self-consumed worlds. At the center of the universe is a relationship of self-surrendering love between Father, Son, and Spirit who want to continue expanding their kingdom of love through those who are willing.


Leading People Into Faith

So what would you say to Greg?  I simply asked, “Do you want to pray right now and know you are in right relationship with God forever?”  When he nodded, I said “I’ll pray and you just say the same thing in your own words—it’s not the exact words but the heart that matters to God.”

“Lord, you love Greg more than he can imagine, and he wants to know that he belongs to you, now and forever. Hear Greg’s heart: (then I’ll say) Greg just tell God in your own words, “Thank you for loving me and paying for all my sins. I want what Jesus did to count for me.”  (Then I pause to let them pray) “Lord, come and lead my life, teach me how to love others as you love us.” (Pause again to let them pray, then I close).  “Thanks God for drawing Greg to yourself, and for assuring us through Christ that we will never be condemned, and you will never leave us. Now help us both become more and more of who you created us to be. Amen.

Then I suggest baptism as a way to publicly mark their new decision. If you’ve never led someone into relationship with God, there’s nothing more amazing. Ask God to give you that opportunity this month—pray for it—and then be ready because the opportunity will come! Share it with us in the comments when it does.

You Have What the Whole World Wants

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Woman-consoling-friendFor her whole life, Sarah had been running
—she ran from God, knowing she wasn’t living as he would want. She ran from guilty feelings caused by the sexual relationships she kept plunging into in hopes of finding love and security. She ran from a deep shame that told her she was dirty, scarred, damaged goods because of the sexual abuse she had endured…so Sarah ran.  But she kept running to people and places that just multiplied the pressures and pain. How is the Gospel actually good news for someone like Sarah? How can it make a difference for today?

Christians often miss-convey the “so what” of the gospel. Jesus was crucified to pay for our debts, so that we could be set right with God by faith. We don’t have to clean up our lives first, we don’t have to prove we’ll straighten up and fly right, “it is by grace [God’s unmerited good will and favor] that you have been saved [set right-related to God] through faith [a simple child-like relational trust]…” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But why?

Ephesians 2:10 goes on to say, “so that we can become his Masterpiece, restored in Christ Jesus to live out all he planned for us long ago!” That’s the point of grace! Full restoration of his Masterpiece.  The “so what” for today is that we can stop running and hiding from the only One who can lead us into Life and give us what we’re longing for!

So often, we make the gospel about fire insurance: “So you’ll escape hell and judgment” (very true—praise God), “So your sins will be forgiven” (very true—praise God), “So you can be justified, sanctified, and glorified and one day be with God in heaven” (wonderful—praise God). But we often fail to convey that the gospel helps us Live a changed life NOW!


Recall in Romans chapter seven, Paul talks about the struggle we’ve all felt as we try really hard to change on our own without God’s help.  Here’s his color commentary: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15, 19 NIV). Have you ever vowed, sworn, or committed yourself to “stop doing something” only to find yourself doing it again without flinching? We all have.

Then you get on this cycle of guilt and shame—beating yourself up over it, vowing to try harder next time.  And when you fail again, you sink even lower, feeling a greater weight of condemnation. And around and around and around we go—until finally—some just give up.  We give up on God because we mistakenly think he is heaping guilt, shame and condemnation on us while we try harder and harder only to fall harder the next time around. (This is where most people live by the way!)

But look at what else Paul says: “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7:20, italics mine) This is profound. What he’s saying is that we all have this sin nature that is not a part of who God intended us to be—we inherited it—we all developed the habit of living mostly on our own, disconnected from God in a fallen world.

We grow up, and we respond to this inherited tendency of humanity to go our way instead of God’s way. That’s what sin is—going our way instead of God’s way—and it’s natural, it’s habitual for us.  But it keeps us from doing life with God, the Source of life.

See, Jesus helps us off this sin-cycle of failure…shame…trying harder…failing again. Because as Paul explains, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, italics mine) So what God did through Christ’s substitutionary payment for our wrongs is deliver us from condemnation. If you’ve told God, “I want what Jesus did to count for me,” it will count, and you can know you are not condemned.

But as awesome as that is, avoiding condemnation is not the end game. God wants to bring restoration to our lives. He wants to help us become all that he created us to be. But apart from God having access to our hearts and minds–that will never happen. We can’t become who God intended without God in our lives. God does what he does in Christ, “so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).

If we’re willing to receive what Jesus did for us, we can know that even as we fail, he doesn’t leave us or condemn us. That allows us to open our minds to God’s Spirit, even as we are failing or falling—as we are getting squeezed in life—because that’s where we need help the most. God causes the growth! But if we are afraid God condemns us, we will hide from the only One who can change us from the inside out. See it?

That’s why Paul goes on to say, “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:5-6, italics mine) The good news about Jesus is that his death and resurrection paid the price, once and for all, to reconnect us to the Source of Life, so that we can stay connected in our minds to his Spirit who helps us become all God intended. And the fruit of His Spirit as we stay connected: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). That’s what every single person is wanting.  You have Good News for every person—God wants to give you what you’re deep down longing for!

Has this been the Good News you convey to people?

The Good News About God and Life

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I was talking to a contractor responsible for installing all the granite countertops and sinks in one of the largest high-rise hotels in Austin. He was telling me what a nightmare the job had been.

He had ordered and cut all the countertops to the specs on the plan, but when they began to install them, nothing fit right.  The countertops all had to be re-cut, the plumbing wasn’t coming out of the walls to line up with the holes in the marble. It was a mess!  It was costing money and causing tension between workers because fingers were pointing about who was right or wrong, and no one could work together.

Finally, they discovered the problem—the centerline in the building was marked one inch off true center. He explained that they build the shell, then mark the centerline on every floor, then the contractors build out the interiors according to plan off that center line. Until they got the centerline right, they couldn’t really work together to build what the architect intended.

Jesus gave us his Centerline from which everything else must be measured. Remember when the religious leader asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer: “Love God…and love people” (Luke 10:25-28, my paraphrase). This is the Centerline of the gospel (or good message) of Jesus. God invites us into Life—“to live” an eternal kind of life that centers on learning to truly love God so he can lead us to truly love others. If we fail to convey this clearly, we are clearly missing the point! The gospel is all about restored relationship that restores relationships.  And that starts with God.


The Good News About God and Life

If you study Jesus’ encounters telling the “good news of God,” he offered an open invitation to Life with God. His message was less about salvation from sin, death, judgment, hell–though these are real and he talked about them (but when he talked about them is critical—only after protracted resistance to the good news). But his main focus was salvation into Life in God’s Kingdom, now and forever. We can live within the good reality of God. The invitation is to everyone who will come. We cannot make the good news sound good enough.

Listen as I paraphrase where Jesus talked about the goodness of God and his invitation to Life.  And notice how Jesus spoke to the head (giving understanding about God’s ways) but even more to the heart (with word pictures, stories, and analogies that connect people to the heart of God). If you reach people’s minds but not their hearts, they will have understanding without motivation. If you reach their hearts but not their minds, they will have passion without direction in how to grow. Jesus spoke to both.

To Nicodemus, a Pharisee, Jesus invoked curiosity by talking about a Life that comes from God’s Spirit like a new birth, truly coming alive. “You can’t see this life of the Spirit physically just like you can’t see the wind, but you can see the effects of it.”  Then Jesus told him, “God loves the world so much, that he gave his only Son so that people would not perish without God, but live now and forever with him in his kingdom (the realm in which God’s will and ways are done). God does not stand ready to condemn, but sent the Son to save (to restore all willing people in right-relatedness to their Creator). All who trust in God’s Son will not be condemned but will live eternally.” (John 3:1-21, my paraphrase)

In his second encounter, Jesus told the woman at Jacob’s well, “If you only knew the gift God wants to give you, and who I am, you would ask me and I’d give you living water–a water so good, you will never thirst again! If you ask me, I’ll give you something that will become like a natural spring in your soul, welling up and bubbling over with Life—not just any life, but life of an eternal quality.” Jesus indicated that this life of love that comes from true worship of God in spirit and truth will satisfy her soul’s deep craving that her serial broken relationships will never satiate. “The love you’ve craved is the gift God wants to give you!” (John 4 paraphrase)

Even when speaking to those “wanting to kill him,” Jesus offers Life! “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed from death to life.” (John 5:24) He offers this Life to his enemies saying, “yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:40)  No one seems out of reach of God’s good invitation, even those who hate Jesus and want to kill him, still Jesus implores, “I say these things so that you may be saved.” (John 5:34 NASB, italics mine)

In his final year, Jesus invites people to feast on a spiritual Life that’s so good; it satisfies our deepest spiritual hungers and quenches our parched souls like living water (John 6:27, 35). This offer of Life comes from living by his Spirit (a critical point often missed—it’s the point of the gospel!).  At the last Passover before his crucifixion, “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:36-39)

Paul explained later that this Life welling up from God’s Spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) The whole world runs after these things. But they think external plans, or possessions, or people will quench this thirst and satiate this gnawing hunger for a Life that only comes from within by God’s Spirit.  Do you see? That’s what we must help people understand.

God invites people into the very Life they grope and grab to possess from external things that only leave them empty handed. Life only comes by his Spirit from the inside out—this is the “so what” of the gospel in relation to us all. God freely gives us the very Life we long for, and it comes in relationship with His Spirit. Is this the “good news” you convey to people you encounter?


*For more on this, read Mud and the Masterpiece, chapter 8.

What is the Gospel Message?

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asUR_logoErwin McManus and I did a one-day event for church planters talking about creating Come As U R churches that help people far from God actually grow into future leaders for God (check out stories on www.AsUR.org). It struck me listening to Erwin that we are very different kinds of leaders, yet how we talk about the message of Jesus (the Gospel) is very similar in texture. I want to explore this very important nuance in the next several posts.  How we think about the Gospel message—what we are telling the world about God’s heart—is critical!


Jesus told his followers,  “This gospel of the kingdom will be [proclaimed] in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matthew 24:14) All followers of Jesus must be prepared to help people understand this “gospel of the kingdom.” But what is the gospel, and what is this kingdom? How do we translate this into relatable language today?


The original Greek term translated “gospel,” euangellion, comes from eu, “good,” and angellion, “message” (our term “angel” means messenger). It literally means “good message,” “good proclamation,” or “good news.” Ironically, our word “evangelism” comes from this word. In most post-Christian countries, I find the word “evangelism” does not sound like good news at all to most people. Somehow, we have we miss-communicated the heart of the gospel.


We don’t use the term “kingdom” regularly, but it implies a ruler and a realm where the will and ways of the king are done. God’s kingdom is where God’s will and ways are done. That happens fully in heaven, and one day it will come fully to earth; but for now we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth like in heaven.” In other words, a taste of eternal Life can come to earth through all who allow God’s Kingdom will and ways to channel through our lives. And this Life (life in God’s Kingdom) lasts forever. So the gospel of the kingdom is good news about Life with God.


About a year into his ministry, Jesus had healed and delivered so many people from all kinds of suffering, people in need flocked to him, “The people were looking for him and…tried to keep him from leaving them….” Clearly, there was something incredibly “good” they experienced from Jesus. “…But he said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’” (Luke 4:42-43, italics mine)


Jesus had a priority that we cannot neglect because we are “sent ones” on mission with him. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you!” (John 20:21) Like Jesus, we must care for the physical needs and the spiritual needs of people equally! We must tell them the good news about God in both word and deed–for that is why we are sent.


As I re-looked at every instance where Jesus or his followers (throughout the New Testament) shared the “gospel,” or “good news,” I found no formula. There is no formal definition for the gospel. However, I did see creative expressions of three distinct “themes” that can serve as an outline for us. I’ve seen thousands of people far from God respond and follow Christ when they understand these three themes, conveying good news not just to the head, but to the heart as well.


Here’s a summary of these themes that we will look at in more depth in the next blog posts:

There is good news about God and Life!

God created you for loving relationship with himself and others, and he is available to lead us into the Life we long to experience (an eternal quality of life that comes from the inside out). One of the biggest barriers to faith (other than sin) is that people don’t believe God is good or that they will like the Life he wants to give them.  We must do all we can to help them see otherwise. That’s why Jesus used parable and story and analogy—to help people “see” how great the love of the Father is for us.


There is good news about Jesus!

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection opened the way for us to know God does not condemn us, but forgives our sins, so that we can walk into Life with his Spirit who helps us become all he intended.  The part we often miss is that we don’t have to change ourselves.  The good news is that God enters into life with us by His Spirit, and He produces the fruit—all we need is willingness.


There is good news about your part!

God has removed every barrier between God and you except one: your pride (your free will)!  You can humbly choose to turn and trust God (repent and believe) to experience his forgiveness purchased by Christ and find guidance into Life by his Spirit.  “Repent” and “believe” are the two commands associated with our part—which simply means to turn back to God instead of going our way without him, and trust in God (walk by faith).

Some people will say, “but we have to tell them the bad news first (about sin and judgment) or they won’t accept the good news.”  We will look in the next few posts at how that is simply not what Jesus did—it’s what the Pharisees did. But there is a time for bad news—when is important.

*For more on this, read Mud and the Masterpiece, chapter 8.