I work with college students, and I am often intrigued by their phobias.  Many of them have social anxieties and refuse to go into certain settings.  Some of them have issues that make living in a dorm with a community bathroom almost unbearable.  And others are very peculiar about the environment in which they study. 

A very common concern that plagues many students is test anxiety.  Whether their minds go blank, they hyperventilate, or they make themselves physically ill, their reactions to taking tests are usually pretty extreme.  They often tell me that they can’t wait to get out of school so they will not have to take any more tests.  Apparently, they have not read the Bible.

Over and over again, the Bible talks about God testing people.  There are many instances in the Old Testament where it is used as a warning to remind people to remain faithful.  In the New Testament, the writers used it to talk about trials they were going through, or even in discussing tests that others in their narratives were facing.

God testing us is something that has always troubled me.  I have always had so many questions about it, and the Bible seems to be all over the place as far as how, when, and why God tests His people.  As I have continued to read and pray about this, I have come up with some conclusions that I would like to share.

First of all, I have found that scripture often interchanges the words “test” and “tempt.”  So much so that many people interpret them to mean the same thing.  In fact, I have heard Christians refer to a temptation to sin as a test from God.  That has never felt right to me. 

If God is tempting someone to sin, then that means He is pushing you toward sin.  That seems impossible.  That is against His nature and does not mesh with His character revealed to us through the Bible.  God hates sin and loves us so much that He would never tempt us to sin.  So if you are struggling with a sin, you are safe to assume that God is not putting you in that situation for any reason.

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.  (James 1:13 NIV)

So if God does test us, and it is not to see how well we fight temptation, why would He do it?  Maybe He is testing our faith to see how much we trust Him.  Perhaps He is testing our dedication to see how obedient we will be.  Or He could be checking our spiritual maturity to see how much responsibility we are ready for.

Yet, there is one major problem with all of those things.  God already knows how faithful we will be, how dedicated we are, and how ready we are to take on more responsibility.  (Note:  How ready we are for anything never really matters, since most of the good fruit we produce comes through us and not from us.)  So does it make any sense for Him to test us so He can learn something about us?  No way.  Not even a little bit.

So here is my ultimate conclusion:  God tests us so that we can accurately assess our relationship with Him.

Sure, it is easy for me to say that God and I are on good terms when my fridge is flowing with milk and honey and I’m kickin’ it with my homies on my bass boat.  I am usually feeling good about my relationship with Him when He is blessing me and I am really doing my best to serve as I am called.

But when I am tested, when God puts a decision in front of me that requires me to take a blind step of faith, I find out how faithful I really am.  When I am called to obedience in a way that makes me really uncomfortable, my level of dedication will become very clear.  When I experience a spiritual battle I don’t think I am ready for, my actions will show who I really trust and rely on.

God tests us to make us aware of where we stand spiritually.  If we see a weakness, we know that we need to spend more time on that area.  If we completely fail, we learn many lessons about being prepared and we usually find out that we have been soaking in the wrong stuff.  His tests show us who we really are when we take off our swagger masks.

But what if we pass the test?  If we are tested by God and we are faithful and obedient enough to follow Him no matter what, that probably means that we were so focused on Him that we did not even know there was a test.  To me, that is the goal.  While I should be ready for any trial or test that may come my way, I pray that I will be too focused on God to even notice.

How has God tested you lately?

 
Recently, my personal quiet time has included reading through the book of Judges.  It was a bit of a letdown in the beginning.  There is no Judge Wopner, no Judge Judy, and no Judge Dredd.  However, once you get into it, there are some pretty fascinating stories.  There are many aspects of God’s character that are on display in that book.

Even though the stories are fantastic, the book of Judges is pretty repetitive thematically.  Let me give you a breakdown of the storyline:

God puts a judge (or leader) in charge of Israel.  They thrive and are very obedient to God.  When that judge dies, everyone in Israel immediately starts worshiping idols and turning away from God.  He calls another judge, and the people come back to Him.  That judge dies, and they turn away again.  That goes on and on for twenty-one chapters.  It’s not exactly M. Night Shyamalan material.

However, even with the consistent cycles of obedience and disobedience, there is a great over-arching lesson about leadership.  It seemed that the Israelites thrived under any person that was appointed by God to be in charge.  They were obedient, just, and full of faith.

God sent Jesus here to die for us, and then sent the Holy Spirit when Jesus ascended back into heaven.  Individually, we each have the Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us in righteous directions.  We have a direct connection to God through Jesus Christ as He lives in us and us in Him.  We have constant leadership that points us in God’s direction.

However, God has also appointed human leaders in our lives.  Sometimes pastors, mentors, parents, or even friends have been put in our lives to help us be more obedient, just, and faithful.

It is sometimes a challenge for me to look at those people and believe they were appointed by God to be in my life.  That is mostly because I am skeptical, untrusting, and fairly self-centered.  Yet, after reading through the book of Judges, I have realized that without those people holding me accountable and challenging my behaviors, I can very easily get off track without even noticing.

So if you have people in your life that are obviously full of the Holy Spirit and they show interest in serving as a spiritual mentor for you, take full advantage of it.  Seek their advice in your big decisions.  Ask them to assess your habits and behaviors.  Invite them to be an intimate part of your walk with Christ so that you can have even more stability and focus in your relationship with Him.

God appoints people to come into our lives and bring us closer to Him.  It is vital that we remain open to the leadership of other believers and embrace the blessings they can bring to our relationships with God.  God put those people in our lives for a reason.  Trust Him by trusting them.

Now, I am off to try and get the theme from “The People’s Court” out of my head.  You’re welcome.

 
Do you have ushers at your church?  I think most churches do in some form.  They are the people that greet visitors, hand out bulletins, answer questions about where things are, and they usually help folks find a seat.  They are pretty much the “go-to” guys leading up to the service each Sunday.

The ushers at my church do a fantastic job.  I feel adequately ushed each and every Sunday.  But I always feel like they are overlooked for their service.  In a setting where thankless jobs unfortunately grow on trees, ushers are rarely, if ever, recognized for what they do.

As a person that thrives on encouragement, it is difficult for me to see ushers everywhere go unnoticed for their ministry.  Thus, I have come up with the following list of things we could do to get ushers more attention.  I am not sure they would agree to the things on this list, but it is worth a shot.

1.  Unique Uniformity – I know that makes it sound like they would blend in, but hear me out.  I’m talking about giving each of them the same article of clothing or a common accessory that stands out for all to see.  Right now, the ushers at my church have a sticker on their shirt that has the name of our church and says “usher.”  Boring!

But how about giving them all reflective “hunter orange” crossing guard vests?  Or maybe providing them with top hats?  Seriously, if you walked into a church and all of the ushers had on plum colored sport coats that said “You Got Ushed” on the back, you would never forget that.

2.  Accents – This would take a little more work.  I say we have an usher retreat where we teach everyone to talk with an Irish accent.  Or a British accent.  Or a Russian accent.  Actually, let’s go with a Boston accent.  Unless you live in Boston. 

I think it would be awesome to walk into a church in Central Kentucky and hear all of the ushers speaking with a Boston accent.  I would sign up for membership on the spot, regardless of denomination or worship style.

3.  Give them their own event – I’m not talking about an ice cream social on a Sunday afternoon or a brief recognition before a service.  I am talking about inflatables, live music, and all you can eat chicken.  I am talking about engraved plaques thanking them for their service.  I am talking about renaming potlucks.  (Note: I think I was just fired from being Baptist.)

4.  Usher moments – At least once per month, there should be an Usher moment where all of the ushers interrupt the weekly announcements with a flash mob.  Are there any clean Usher songs we could use?  Maybe “U Got it Bad” or “Let it Burn.”  Seriously, that would be awesome.

There are so many groups that serve in our churches and communities that always go unnoticed.  They do thankless work, and they never expect to be recognized for it.  While that is 100% the right attitude to have, we need to make sure they feel appreciated and loved.  So I hereby dub this coming Sunday “Thank An Usher Day.”  Let’s make it happen.

 
Harnessing fire, developing stone and wooden tools, building shelter, utilizing electricity, telephones, motor cars, computers, the internet, social networking, smart phones.  Technology is amazing.  Just when we think we have achieved or created something great, a new development is made and we wonder how we ever lived without it. 

Since I am putting this on a blog, that I promote primarily through social networking, it s fairly obvious that I am pretty fond of technology.  However, I have mixed feelings about how it impacts ministry.

One on hand, technology has made ministry so much easier.  You can make videos, post sermons online, share your thoughts on blogs and social media, discuss scripture and have online Bible study, and find almost any and all research on whatever spiritual topic you choose.  You can learn from and reach out to people all over the world without ever leaving your desk.   

It is amazing to be able to have that level of accessibility.  The potential of technology-based ministry is virtually endless and we are really just beginning to tap into it.  I am so excited to see how we can all use technology to advance the kingdom of God.

Yet, think about the negative implications of increased technology. When was the last time you went over to your neighbor’s house just to see how they were doing?  How often do you call your friends just to see how their day was? 

Because of technology, you don’t have to.  You can check Facebook or Twitter and find out all you need to know about the people around you.  Relationships and they way are they built are going through a very significant transition period right now, and this transition does not lend itself very well to ministry.

I don’t remember the numbers, but I heard a statistic recently supporting the fact that most non-believers that come to know Christ do so in large part because of a strong relationship they have with a Christian.  And with many relationships now developing online, it is becoming increasingly more challenging to build a relationship that yields that kind of trust and commitment.

When people get to really know you, and they see Christ living in you and working in your life, they start to recognize what their souls have been longing for.  If you want to truly bring people to Jesus, you need to give them your time and attention in a face-to-face setting.  As we all seek to tell more and more people about Jesus through the use of technology, never forget that the foundation of ministry is building genuine, intimate relationships. 

 
(This is the first installment of the Fruitful Friday series discussing the fruit of the Spirit outlined in Galatians 5.  We will be working backward through the list, beginning with self-control.  Sorry if you were expecting me to cover love first...but I have been known to be a bit edgy and unpredictable.  I'm a rebel.)

I recently gave a testimony to our youth group about one of my biggest struggles growing up.  To the surprise of many, I used to have a pretty intense anger problem.  I was kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except instead of getting big and green I would get a red face and a fat lip.

Self-control is really one of the first gifts that the Holy Spirit gave me.  Sure, it wasn’t easy.  I spent lots of time in prayer and practicing ways to keep my cool.  But with the conviction and power of the Holy Spirit, I eventually became as mellow and “slow to anger” as anyone I know. 

Self-control is a pretty obvious term.  It means being able to control yourself.  Keeping yourself from getting angry.  Stopping yourself before giving in to temptation.  Being in a state of mind that allows you to do all things in moderation.  Self-control is the ability to prevent yourself from doing something you probably shouldn’t do.

While that is pretty much the extent of what we think of as self-control, I have a hard time seeing how that is fruitful.  Sure, it prevents you from producing bad fruit or planting bad seeds.  It can keep you away from sin.  It can even help you set a good example that may bring other people closer to God.  Yet, for it to be on this short list of Holy fruit, there has to be more.

Yes, there is more to self-control than just avoiding temptation or over-indulgence.  Self-control, when it comes to producing quality fruit, is about being intentional.  Self-control is about doing all things on purpose.   Even the small things.

How often do you interact with someone or complete a menial task without even thinking?  Do you ever make seemingly insignificant decisions without knowing all of the facts? 

If you are truly controlling yourself, every action you take will happen because you think it is the right thing to do.  Not because you are distracted or not paying attention.  Not because the result of your action seems insignificant.  And certainly not because it is what you feel like doing.

If we are not in complete control of what we say and do, we are prone to making mistakes because we are lazy, careless, and inconsiderate.  Self-control produces fruit because that is what it takes to make righteous decisions.  Doing everything intentionally paves the way for justice and purity in every aspect of our lives.  In everything you do, do it on purpose with righteous intentions, and you will produce Holy fruit.

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.  But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:25-27 ESV)

 
If you wear glasses or contacts, do you remember the car ride home from the eye doctor with your new glasses on? Do you remember looking around and seeing things you had never noticed before? The thing I remember most is being able to see the leaves on the trees.

Of course you notice trees as you drive by them. But when you put on new glasses or you put in new contact lenses, you can see the individual leaves on the trees. They are no longer green blobs, but rather beautiful creations with very intricate details down to the dozens of leaves on each branch.

As we go through life, we all too often see the “green blob” version of the world around us. We see our jobs as merely something we have to do, so we just go through the motions. We see issues in our community as something somebody else should take care of, so we go on about handling our own business. We look at our relationships as if they exist only to make us happy, so we don't take the time to look for ways to serve those we claim to love.

In order for us to see the world as God intended, we need to put all of these things from His perspective. While it is impossible for us to see with God’s eyes, He has provided a lens that will help us to view the world in such a way that He can use us to change it. That lens is the Word, the good ole B-i-b-l-e. 

We are in the world to do His work, and in order to effectively do that we must understand what we are looking at and be able to see it clearly.

Spend time in the Bible. Read it, pray about it, and read it again. It is the only way to truly appreciate the beautiful leaves on the trees of God’s creation.
 
In case you have yet to pick up on it, the Bible is pretty much a metaphor machine.  Between Jesus’ parables and Paul’s sometimes obscure references, it often feels like you are trying to solve a riddle to find the underlying meaning of a particular scripture.  There are other times when there is an obvious message, but the implications run much deeper than it appears at first glance.

One of those pieces of scripture is found in the book of Galatians.  “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against these things!” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT)

The fruit metaphor in scripture is usually pretty clear.  Fruit usually represents a good work or deed.  It refers to offspring and increasing numbers.  In this scripture, we are given a specific list of fruit that come directly from being led by the Holy Spirit.

As we have seen before, Paul uses the fruit illustration to talk about good things that come from being obedient.  There is no debate that love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all great things.  In fact, it would be hard to find anything negative that could come from this list as long as a person’s heart is genuine and focused on the Lord.

However, there are deeper messages and implications in this list that Paul does not fully explain.  Over the next nine Fridays (Fruitful Fridays), I am going to discuss, in-depth, how each fruit can be lived out and what it would look like if truly guided by the Holy Spirit.

For now, however, let’s take a deeper look at the fruit metaphor itself.  What could fruit represent that we have not already discussed here? 

First of all, where does fruit come from?  It comes from trees, right?  Sort of, but that is not what I am looking for.  Fruit…plants?  No, that’s just ridiculous.  Fruit, my friends, comes from…wait for it…fruit.

Fruit contains seeds.  Those seeds are planted and new plants grow.  From those plants, new fruit is produced. 

Like edible fruit, the fruit that we produce should not just serve a purpose and cease to exist.  The fruit of the Spirit should plant seeds that produce more fruit…that produce more fruit…that produce more fruit...and so on.

We should also keep in mind that fruit produces nourishment.  While an apple a day keeps the doctor away, love can have an eternal impact on the lives of everyone around you.  The fruit of the Spirit provides nourishment to the souls of those we serve, and it recharges our own spiritual batteries. 

And of course, let’s not forget Jesus’ reaction to a tree that failed to produce fruit.  “Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.  Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.”  (Matthew 21:18-19 NIV)

As we dive into the specific fruit of the Spirit over the next couple of months, please feel free to share any other “fruit metaphors” you come up with in the comments section as they apply to this piece of scripture.  I always find it amazing how many different lessons people can learn from a particular passage of the Bible.

 
You have heard it a thousand times. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tricked Eve into it, she gave a piece of the fruit to Adam, and they realized they were naked…blah blah blah. Because we hear many of these stories so often, I think we tend to take them for granted and not take the time to really dig into them.

For starters, Eve did not even have a name at the time that she ate from the tree. Up until the end of that particular chapter, she was simply called woman. Ever heard the story of Adam and woman?

It is commonly joked about and often assumed that all of this was woman’s fault. She was the one tricked by the serpent. She ate the fruit first, and then she was the one that gave it to Adam. “The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’” (Genesis 3:12 NIV)

It is only fair that we blame woman for our fall from God’s grace, right? After all, Adam blamed it on her,didn't he? I actually don’t think he did. Go back and read Genesis 3:12 again.  Go ahead, I'll wait...

Notice anything different that time? The first thing Adam says is, “The woman you put here with me.” To me, it sounds like Adam is blaming God for this. If God had not put woman there, this would have never happened. 

Does that sound like anybody you know? Does that sound like…you? That’s an easy trap to fall into. God created everything, and He is all powerful, so if something happens He caused it. Well, not necessarily. 

God gave us this little gift called free will, and it is not all of the fun it is made out to be. If your boss in an unusually bad mood and yells at you for no reason, that is their decision, not God’s. If somebody you know is killed in a car accident with a drunk driver, it was caused by the driver that decided to drink and get behind the wheel, not God. If somebody you know is diagnosed with cancer, that is caused by thousands of years of mutated diseases continually bred by humans, not God.

God loves us, and He truly wants us to do great things and find great happiness in Him. However, He will not force it on us. If that was the case, He would not have created those “forbidden” trees in the first place. He would have only given Adam and woman holy dining options, and He might have banished that serpent from Eden all together.

So the next time you start to blame God for a situation, step back and take a second look. Does that sound like something God would do? Is that in line with the character of God you understand from scripture and your experience with Him? 

Far too often, we assume God is causing all of these bad things to happen all around us.  We look for answers as to why He would be doing these things.  But most of the time, He is sitting there right beside you, with His arms wrapped around you, wishing this had never happened.
 
I had a big trip planned for the family recently.  However, we found out a few days before we were supposed to leave that a large chunk of the local interstate had fallen into a sink hole.  So we searched for what seemed like hours for an alternate route that would not take us completely out of the way.

We were hoping to save time, eliminating any unnecessary time spent trapped in a car with screaming children.  We mapped out plans that took us right around the affected area.  We planned routes that that did not involve the interstate at all.  We even debated leaving a day early to give ourselves more flexibility.

After hours of mapping, planning, and stressing, it finally hit me that we had wasted an entire day doing nothing but planning.  Ultimately, we would get to our destination.  There were no dead ends on our path.  So what did it matter if we saved an hour or even two?

How much time does your church spend planning ministry events?  Don’t get me wrong, they should be organized for effectiveness.  But how much time do we waste mapping out every detail of our service to God and other people?  How many more people could we be helping if we would just get to work?

The next time you catch yourself stressing about the details of a project, especially if the project involves directly serving people, just take a second and consider whether or not those details will make or break the project.  If they are not that big of a deal, let them work themselves out.  Time spent doing is almost always more productive than time spent planning.

Just get in the car and drive.

 
I am a mumbler.  I mumble.  My wife tells me this.  My boss tells me this.  And my coworkers tell me this.  So finally, I admit it.  I mumble a lot. 

Most of the time, people only pick out a short phrase or a single word of what I say, and they make assumptions based on what they hear.  I suppose that’s fair, since it is my fault that I mumble.  However, when you carefully choose your words and try hard not to sound like a dork, it is incredibly frustrating when you are misunderstood.

I wonder if God ever feels that way about the Bible.  I know He realizes that our minds are limited and that the Bible can be very deep at times, but when things get twisted I can’t help but think He is sighing and shaking His head.  I encountered a piece of scripture this past Sunday that I personally made me cringe, because I could not help but to think at how it would be misinterpreted.

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  (John 15:7 NIV)

I have mentioned my frustration with the prosperity gospel before, and I believe this is a piece of scripture (I realize there are several) that followers of that gospel would cling to.  Think about it.  This verse says that if you are a faithful Christian, anything you wish will be granted.  People interpret this to mean that money, fame, “stuff,” and success can be gained by faithfully following Jesus.

First of all, let’s take a look at the next verse:  This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:8 NIV)  To me, it is very clear that our wishes will be granted to glorify God, so that we can produce fruit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) to show that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.  Our wishes will not be granted for personal gain or for self promotion, but for the glory of God.  So if the things we wish for are not meant to glorify God, will they still be granted?

Even if we ignore verse 8, think about the general themes of scripture: selflessness, loving others, willingness to sacrifice, and complete submission to the will of God.  How does God serving you like a genie play into that?  Based on the Bible I read, it can’t.

Last but not least, let’s look back at the original verse.  If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  Think about the entirety of this passage.  Yes, it says that whatever you wish will be done if you remain in Christ and His words remain in you. 

However, think of the implications of that first phrase: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you...”  If you remain in Christ, what will be your focus?  If His teachings make up your core values, what will you desire? 

It seems clear from Jesus’ life that, if we remain in Him and live by His words, that we will not seek fame, fortune, and success. 

We will be too busy meeting the needs of the widows and orphans. 

We will be spending our time hanging out with outcasts and praying in gardens. 

We will sacrifice our own personal dreams and desires, and even our lives, to make sure that others know the Truth.

If we are faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, our wishes will revolve around doing His work and serving His kingdom.  If we are wishing for anything else, we are not living our lives for Him…and that is exactly what this scripture is calling us to do.