What a Great Idea!

One of my favorite things to do every now and then … and only every now and then … is to spend time brainstorming about a particular topic or problem with a handful of creative people—people whose minds are wired to generate idea after idea after idea. Few things are as inspiring to me as a lengthy conversation where most sentences begin with “What if we ….” I love the arena of ideas.

Of course, I can’t LIVE in the arena of ideas. At some point, I have to make a decision and choose one of those ideas to execute.

Choosing is often hard. I work and live with many sharp, creative, intelligent people. While we have our share of bad ideas, we have a lot of good ones, and it can be difficult leaving good ideas on the creative cutting floor and walking away with only one to work with. Sometimes we leave with some anxiety or angst about our decision, but more often than not, we walk away with a great deal of confidence we’ve chosen the best idea.

But confidence is no guarantee that a preferred, chosen idea was the right idea.

In a sense, this was the dynamic taking place between God and Abram.

In Genesis 17:5-8, God reiterated His promise to Abraham: “I will make you the father of many nations.”

What a great idea!

But how? How could this promise be fulfilled given their history of childlessness and now their old age?

So Abraham came up with idea: “If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!” (Genesis 17:18).

What a great idea for solving this problem! They’ve already got a son fathered by Abraham! When you consider the other possibilities (an old man and an old woman naturally conceiving, carrying and birthing a child as middle eastern nomads), the Ishmael idea sounds a like winner.

Technically speaking, it’s a good idea.

It just wasn’t God’s idea.

“No. Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will name him Isaac. I will confirm My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his future offspring. As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless him; I will make him fruitful and will multiply him greatly. He will father 12 tribal leaders, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will confirm My covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.”

“Good idea, Abraham … just not my idea. Ishmael will, indeed, be the father of many, but he is not my choice for who I want to be the next in line for the people I am making for myself.”

You see, when we have seemingly good ideas that contradict God’s ideas, God wins every time. In the same way that God’s idea determined who would be His covenant people, God’s ideas shape our lives as well. We can have lots of good ideas, but what’s best for us are His ideas. His ideas decisively shape us more than our own.


Of course, no one has ever known God’s ideas perfectly. Even Abraham faltered many times in his journey of faith in God’s ideas. Graciously, God sent One who knew His mind and plan perfectly, and also executed it perfectly, even when seemingly better ideas abounded. How grateful we are for Jesus who never had an idea that wasn’t God’s idea, and who faithfully obeyed God’s ideas when we could not. The only way we could ever believe and act on God’s ideas over others is because He did it for us and gives us the Spirit to do the same.

What a great idea.

Sovereign Grace: Reflections Triggered by a 40th Birthday

I turned 40 last week.

So there’s that.

Turning 40 was a much bigger deal in my head than it was in reality. Years ago, I looked forward to this day with visions of an elaborate party with dozens of friends, excellent food, and hours of laughter at my expense. I suppose a great deal of effort could have gone into making that a reality, but as the time grew closer, it’s not at all what I desired. It was a great day, in part because it was like so many other days I’ve had.

One of the things my wife did do was email friends and ask them to write a letter or email about me: something they remember, are thankful for, will never forget, etc. Thank you to so many who took time to reflect on the positive ways I’ve impacted you, and some of the funny things I’ve done along the way.

Reading those things … those very sweet, true, and kind things … had a strange effect on me. Not one time did I read any of those things and think, “Wow … these people really understand how blessed they are to have known me.” In reading all of the great, true, kind things people said about me or something I’d done, all I could think about was what they didn’t know about me.

The fact is, I deserve far more cards and letters and emails that berate me for my insufficiencies and indulgences than I do my excellencies and sacrifices. Since adulthood, I’ve received a few of those, some warranted, others not. But I deserve many, many  more. An infinite amount more. On that day I am held accountable for my actions, even the good things I’ve done will be shown to have had some impurities in them. I am the only human who knows about a lot of those, and there is only one God who knows about them all.

As I’ve said before in sermons and conversations, if everyone knew everything about me that God knows about me, they wouldn’t give me the time of day, much less read my book or listen to my sermons.

So how is it that, knowing I am not all that my highest admirers crack me up to be, I am still married? Still a father? Still having children?! Still employed? Still publishing? Still loved? Still enjoyed?

Still alive?

The answer clearly is not because I’ve earned it.

The answer clearly is not because others are better than I am. For what is true of my own moral dilemma is true for all.

The answer is this: sovereign grace.

In God’s sovereignty, all of my screw-ups and selfishly motivated good works still work for His good plan, and by His grace I’m not destroyed for trying to screw it up.

So, here’s to 40+ more years of me breaking God’s heart but never His plan.

Here’s to 40+ more years of sovereign grace.

I’m a total loss without it.

Chests and Bumpers: In Search of a Better Christian Apologetic

Many of you are in the same position as my family over the holidays: you drive all over the country to see family and friends you love but who live far away. We drove more than 2000 miles between December 23 and January 3 visiting five different family members. As my 8 year-old son says, “It was an epic trip, Dad.”

When you spend that much time on the road, you read a lot of bumper stickers and vanity license plates. If the rear-end of all the cars I took note of on that trip are to be believed:

  • Lots of people run marathons and half marathons
  • Every breed of dog is superior to all other breeds of dogs
  • All forms of schooling are superior to all other forms of schooling
  • Every state is awesome to live in (we saw 41 different license plates on our drive)
  • Obama is Satan, so we better get ready for Hillary
  • Fish evolved and grew legs, but there are bigger fish called “truth” that eat fish with legs

All of these messages got me thinking:

  • How did we come to see the backs of our automobiles as an effective and proper place to tell the world about something or someone we love?
  • Why is our eye immediately drawn to messages on the backs of cars that we are clearly driving too close to?
  • Are these messages effective in any way? How can you know?

And how does this apply to Christians?

What are the effective ways of explaining and/or sharing our faith?

Are our chests (t-shirts) and bumpers more hurtful than helpful?

What is an effective apologetic for my faith?

I think I’ve found some clarity in John 14:1-7.

Picture the scene. Jesus has just told Peter, the de facto leader of the disciples, that his faith would fail. And Jesus said this in front of the other disciples. Jesus has also pulled back the curtain a little bit on what’s coming His way: death on the cross.

Talk about a blow to the disciples confidence. Their “rock” will be a failure and their future is uncertain with Jesus’ presumed demise.

And it’s to that mindset that Jesus said, “Your heart must not be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me.”

This is a great word for Christians that look out into the world and are confused, scared or uncertain about how to advance the kingdom in what appears to be an increasingly lost, secular, or extremist world hostile specifically to Christianity. No matter we see or face, Jesus is still winning. Indeed, he has already won.

But what do we specifically do to not be troubled? Believe in Him. 

Not merely facts.

Not merely an ideology.

Not merely a worldview.

Though all of these things are important.

What we must do to not be troubled is believe in HIM … the PERSON of Jesus.

The most affective apologetic is a relationship with Jesus.

Jesus would affirm this a few verses later: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

So before you tack on that icthus or pull that cheesy t-shirt out, ask yourself this question: Do I know Jesus?

If so, that relationship is the most affective apologetic you’ve got going for you.

Lessons on Waiting Well

I love the Christmas season. I love the music. I love the lights. I love the climax of college football. And I especially love presents (both giving and receiving).

And while I know that Christmas has its share of legitimate, substantive challenges for people, one of the hard parts for me is waiting for Christmas Day. It was true for me as a child, and it’s true for me even now. I’m on my 39th Christmas, and I’d say the odds are 3-to-1 that everyone I’ve given gifts to opens them early because I pester them about it.

I don’t feel the same about Groundhog’s Day. I have to look on my calendar every year to figure out when Groundhog’s Day will be. I don’t eagerly anticipate its arrival by playing season-related music for 30 days—I have to be reminded that Groundhog Day exists, and that reminder usually takes place that very day if not a few days after.

Christmas? I wait with eager expectation.

Groundhog Day? I barely even know it exists.

The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 is a lesson on waiting well. The application of the parable is simply this: do we look to Jesus’ second coming the way one might look forward to Christmas, or do we look to it in the way we might Groundhog’s Day?

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 

The rather frightening irony of this parable is that the ten virgins are virtually the same.

  1. All had been invited to the banquet, which is to say, all had heard the gospel.
  2. All were excited about the wedding banquet, which is to say, they viewed Jesus’ second coming positively.
  3. All confessed Jesus as Lord.
  4. All fell asleep in the delay of Jesus’ return, not unlike Jesus’ disciples in the garden of Gethsemane.

These similarities are unsettling because if I described to you a person who had heard the gospel, responded positively to the gospel, looked forward to Jesus’ return, but didn’t obey Jesus perfectly, you’d say that person was a Christian.

But you could very well be wrong.

There’s a crucial difference between half of these virgins and the other half: PREPARATION.

Which raises a very important question: How can we know that we are prepared before it’s too late?

I think the answer in part is how we respond to crises, as Jesus’ second and final return will indeed be a crises.

William Taylor agrees.

Nothing will more correctly reveal what is in a man than the coming upon him of some crushing and unlooked-for crisis. Let it be temporal ruin by the failure of his calculations or the disappointment of all his hopes; let it be the entrance of the death-angel into his home and the removal from it of his nearest and dearest earthly friend; let it be his own prostration by some serious illness which puts him face to face with his dissolution, and forthwith the extent of his resources is unfolded, and it is at once discovered both by others and by himself whether he is animated by unfailing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit, or whether he has been deceiving himself, all the while relying on some other support. A man has only as much religion as he can command in trial.

Let us therefore look back upon the past and analyze our experiences at such testing times as those to which I have referred. We have all had them. We have all heard already, in some form or other, this midnight cry, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh”; for in every such surprise as those which I have described, Jesus was coming to us. How did we meet him then? Did our lamps go out? Or were we able to trim them and keep them burning brightly all through? Oh, if by any such event we discovered our utter resourcelessness, let us betake ourselves now to Christ that he may thoroughly renew us by his Holy Spirit and so prepare us for that last and solemnest crisis when over the graves of the slumbering dead the archangel shall cry out, “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh,” and all shall arise to stand before his great white throne.

May God lead you and I to view Jesus’ coming like we do Christmas. May we prepare and enjoy the wait until that day comes.

Otherwise, we may not really be looking forward to it at all.