Monday, November 30, 2009

Personal experience must be interpreted by the Bible

...and not the Bible interpreted through personal experience.

This is one of the most valuable life lessons I have learned so far as a believer, and I learned it twelve years ago when I moved to Maryland. Until that time I had been interpreting the Bible through the lens of a vivid experience.

On a beautiful spring day, when I was twenty-one years old, I was walking to a friend's house. As I was walking I suddenly "heard" a man's voice speak to me. I even turned to look for the source of the voice. But I couldn't see anyone. I realized that the "voice" had to have been internal, which made sense considering what this voice said to me:

"You have twenty-four hours to make a decision. I have given you as much time as you can have, and now you must decide whether you belong to Me, or to the world. If you decide against Me you will be cut off, and there will be no more chances."

The experience was so vivid, so shocking, that I turned around, in the middle of the side walk, and headed back to my apartment. Once inside I threw myself onto the floor, prostrate, and begged God to take me, to do whatever He had to do to keep me and never let me go. That evening I called my friend and told him about my decision, and that the relationship we were in would have to change or end. Once he heard what "change" meant, he picked "end."

What I interpreted from that event is that our salvation is not sure. I considered myself saved, I had had a "salvation experience" when I was fourteen, warmly receiving the gospel, and had continued, sort of, in a relationship with Jesus that included prayer, Bible study and worship. But my lifestyle, as so many people relate, was not pointed towards Christ. So I thought God was telling me that if I didn't shape up, He would kick me out.

Twelve years ago a person who became (and remains) my closest friend and a wise spiritual mentor, explained to me that my thinking was in error. The Bible reveals the truth, and my personal experiences must be understood in light of that truth.

The Bible, as she showed me, is clear that no one can snatch the Lord's own from His hand; even I cannot snatch myself out of the Lord's hand. So my experience, seen by this light, showed that I had almost but not quite received Christ. I was, as it were, continuing to "taste of the Spirit," without fully receiving Him, though I surely did believe the gospel.

But what about the voice? What was I to make of that? So I went back to the Bible and saw that yes, sometimes God intervenes in vivid ways in people's lives. How could it have been an evil spirit? I was convicted to the core and clung to Christ -- and have done ever since that day, twenty-seven years ago.

I love God's word, and I believe every word of it is living and powerful. Scripture has the same attributes as God Himself, in a very real way, as they are His God-breathed, published communication to us. There is no guesswork with scripture, at least in the fact that it is published and will not change. Knowing that God speaks to me Spirit to spirit in no way diminishes His published word. In fact, I have dedicated my life to teaching the Bible and training others to study the Bible, to lead Bible study discussion groups and to shepherd others by giving them scripture and urging them to pray and ask God for insight (rather than posing themselves as the final authority or answer) and so on.

When I am writing a lecture, I ask God to give me insight, clarity of teaching, to guide me to the right commentaries, to direct my thinking along the paths that He intends for my audience to travel. I ask Him for meaningful principles and applications of His word, for illustrations that will capture the audience's imagination and help them enter into the meaning of the passage. I ask Him to inhabit the words of each lecture when I speak it so that His word and meaning is what is translated into every heart and mind represented in the room. I am completely confident that God answers those prayers with the very things I have asked Him for.

When I am praying for someone I ask God for discernment for what I should ask in prayer, and often I ask Him to give me a scripture to pray for that person. It is uncanny how those scriptures end up being incredibly apt, pointed and personal when I later speak with that person.

I often pray God will show me what I need to know about someone when I am considering inviting them into our leadership circle. Don't you know, every time, if something needs to come out it does, in incredible ways. How often have I heard someone say to me, "I don't know why I just told you that. I've never told anyone that before today." I am the keeper of thousands of secrets by now.

God has never, ever told me anything wrong or steered me in a wrong direction. If I ask Him, for instance, should I invite this person now and I sense "no" I take that as no, and every time I have later discoverd why "no" was the sense I got. Same with "yes."

Some argue that if everyone believes that they can personally hear from God, that would create anarchy -- everyone would be going their own way...right?

This question is posed by the kind of person who does not believe that God can communicate to people individually, nor that God knows how to help people recognize His guidance.

If you believe that the Lord speaks to you, and you believe that He is the God of order and that He desires that His people be unified, then you have to interpret each life example in the light of the truth of scripture.

Will it cause anarchy in the marital relationship for instance? The husband is sure that God is leading him and his wife to do "A" and the wife is sure that God is leading them both to do "B." What's going on?

Either the husband or the wife has not discerned God's leading. They need to continue to pray together, seek wise counsel, ask God to reveal Himself in the scripture passages they are currently studying, and be mindful of what their circumstances are as well. God is trustworthy, and if both the husband and the wife truly want to follow God's will, and are not resisting His guidance, and are not vacillating (James 1) about the insight God has already given them...then they will come to the same decision together.

Bottom line, God's priorities are not the same as ours, so often. His priority for that couple might be to grow them spiritually as they work through their dilemna. They may realize that moving was never God's intention, but that their marriage needed working on, or maybe one of them has become calloused towards God, or maybe they have both gotten into the habit of making decisions independant of prayer and the study of God's word...or whatever.

When I am down I ask God for comfort and He gives it -- through His word, through a song that might come on, through a friend who might call, and sometimes simply by an inward warmth and joy and comfort.

When I have lost something, I pray and put it all into God's hands, asking Him to help me find it or show me how to deal with not having it. God gets all the glory when I find it. He gets all the glory if He otherwise shows me how to move on without it.

I simply cannot imagine what life would be like without this inner communication with God. It is more than precious to me.

If this post got you to thinking, please leave a comment and join the conversation

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Conflict Resolution By Confessing Sin

We’ve been talking about how to encourage each other and build each other up through the humble and loving use of correction. We’ve talked about conflict resolution, about confronting someone with a sin, and now we’re going to talk about confessing our own sin.

It’s hard to admit to sin sometimes, even to myself, let alone to God and especially let alone to other people. I know God loves me, and I know He’s promised to forgive me and take me back. In fact, I know God is committed to transforming me into a beautiful and holy person. Confessing to other people feels a whole lot riskier!

Here are ten pointers that can help you and me through this painful process.
1) It’s better to confess to someone before they come to you with your sin. As soon as you think you might have offended someone, or sinned against them, you need to go to that person and confess with the hope of reconciliation

2) Don’t just wait for this meeting to happen, arrange for a time to get together with this person

3) Confess your sin honestly, specifically and completely

4) Avoid glossing over what happened, offering excuses or generalizing. Saying “Sometimes I tend to be harsh” is not nearly as honest and humble as saying “I was harsh to you when I said that thing that I said”

5) The goal is not to clear your conscience but to gain reconciliation with the other person. When you have godly sorrow over your sin, in your heart, you will find this is a lot easier to do

6) Express your sorrow over what you did, and for what’s happened because of it, the consequences

7) Express your willingness to accept whatever consequences there are

8) Identify what you’ve learned from the whole experience

9) Tell the specific ways in which you are going to change as a result

10) Ask for forgiveness, even by saying “Will you forgive me?”

How can you help someone who has come to you with their own confession?

1) Tell that person you forgive them. Be sensitive to when saying “I forgive you” is better than saying “It’s okay” or “Don’t worry about it” because if an offense is truly involved, it’s not okay and it’s worth being concerned about

2) Thank them for coming to confess and seek your forgiveness. Affirm your love and respect for that person. It takes courage and humility to confess sins – to do so is to serve another and to help build godly relationship

3) Ask if that person has any offense towards you as a result of the incident, and confess any sin you may have contributed to the situation

4) Agree with that person that the whole episode is over, it’s been thrown into the farthest reaches of the sea, never to be seen again. You’re moving forward together, fully reconciled.

If this post got you to thinking, please leave a comment and join the conversation