And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

I hear this verse quoted on a regular basis.  Sometimes it is used to encourage those battling tough times.  It is often said to motivate people to pursue righteousness.  However, every time I hear it, I can’t help but to think about how selfish it sounds.

It comes across as a promise, a guarantee, a reward.  It’s like we are saying “If you want things to go your way, love God.  Then your life will be awesome.”

If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that following God is uncomfortable, difficult, and downright dangerous.  You are supposed to die to yourself, take up your cross, and sacrifice every desire of the flesh to do what is right in His eyes.

So how does that mesh with this frequently quoted scripture?  Am I saying that this is a false promise?  Absolutely not.

If you love God with all your mind, body, soul, and strength, and you respond to His call to fulfill your purpose, what would you consider to be “good?”  If you die to yourself, what kinds of things will you want to happen?  If you spend every moment trying to produce fruit, what will your results look like?

When most people quote Romans 8:28, they seem to imply that the “good” we will receive will be worldly rewards.  We use it to encourage folks looking for employment or money.  We share it bring comfort to those in pain.  But are those things really the “good” that this verse promises?  It may sound callus, but I don’t think it is.

If I am completely sold out for Christ and doing everything in my power for Him, I can’t imagine that I would be concerned with whether or not I get a promotion.  I won’t spend any time thinking about my feelings being hurt or my pride taking a hit. 

If I am living for God, my “good” will become more and more like His good.  I will want His will to be done and His love to prevail, no matter what impact it has on my life.  Selflessness means that my “good” is based on His plan and my plan no longer matters.

I hope I can someday get to that point.  What about you?  What is your “good”?

Here we are, December 31st.  This is my 261st post of the year.  Averaging more than 400 words per post, I’ve written and posted somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 words this year.  I feel like that puts a little bit of pressure on these last few.  But hey, I’m clutch.  They don't call me the Knowledge Dropper for nothing.

First, I want to offer a bit of thanks.  I made it my goal to post a spiritual message each weekday of this year, and thanks to your support I have pushed through to reach that goal.  Many of the messages were things that I was personally interested in.  Others were put on my heart by the Holy Spirit.  A few were suggested by friends. And some…were just for fun.

Since I will be moving to a weekly post format in 2013, I feel like this is the end of an era.  So I want to leave you with one final message that I hope sums up my work this year.

Friends, we are way off from the work of the early churches.  Their passion in their pursuit of spreading the gospel is unidentifiable in the vast majority of churches today.  We focus way too much on meeting our own needs, fitting in with popular culture, and trying to satisfy the “tradition” of what has come before us.  We seek to please ourselves and keep our church members content before we think about pleasing God and meeting the needs in our communities.

I really think that we all see this problem.  We notice the missed opportunities and the ministry needs that are not being met.  We identify the church practices that are self-serving and do nothing to advance the Kingdom of God.  We are convicted when we realize that we are living with Christ in our lives, and not living our lives for Christ.

The issue is that we believe that it is bigger than us.  And I agree with that.  Our culture of complacency and selfishness is far bigger than you or me.  Yet, our lack of faith keeps us from realizing that it IS NOT bigger than God.  We say all the time that all things are possible with God.  But we do nothing to show that we believe it.

If you see the mess that I see in the modern church, then the change starts with you and me.  To cause change, we must change.  If we want to see a different brand of Christianity, then we ourselves must be different. 

It is going to be awkward.  It is going to be uncomfortable.  It is going to be painful.  But it must be done.  Join me, will you?

Several months ago, I had a friend tell me about several non-Christian friends that he converses with on a regular basis.  As he shares his faith, they keep throwing up the same road block.  It is a question that I think we all struggle with from time to time.  But it is also one that many non-believers cling to as their “evidence” for not believing.

How can a loving God let so many people suffer and die?

God loves us.  We even claim that God is love.  Yet, thousands upon thousands of people are oppressed, abused, and murdered every day right under His nose.  His creation, under the reign of His infinite power, allows people to suffer in brutal, unimaginable ways.  How is that possible?

Perhaps the most loving thing God has ever done, aside from creation itself and that whole “sending His Son to die” thing, is giving us the power of choice.  Free will gives us the option to choose God or to turn away from Him.  It allows us to make decisions based in love or decisions based in selfishness.  He loves us enough to give us the power to choose.

Unfortunately, there are many ramifications for that.  Since God loves us all equally, He refuses to take free will away from anyone, no matter what they plan to do.  While it may be difficult for us to understand, God loves James Holmes (Aurora, CO), Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (Columbine), Osama Bin Laden, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler.  God loves them so much that He refused to take their free will away.  I know that sounds too simple.  I know it sounds very convenient.  But if you consider the power of choice that God’s love provides, there is no denying it.

As for the disease and famine in the world, I am afraid the answer is a bit more painful.  It is still rooted in free will, but the blame does not lie on a few sinful individuals.  Unfortunately, the blame lies on me.  And you.  And every other person that has more than they need.  I have enough money to share and feed a hungry person or two, and chances are you do too. 

God created us to take care of one another.  Jesus commanded us to take care of the least of these.  Yet, we continue to buy nicer cars and bigger televisions.  We spend our time on hobbies and leisure activities when we should be volunteering and donating.  You and I are responsible for all of the people in need in this world…don’t blame God.

I agree that earth is a pretty messed up place right now.  However, the problems that we see are not evidence that God does not exist.  On the contrary, it is proof of the free will that we have all been blessed with, and the sinful choices that we make every day.  And if we want to see it change, we need to pray to God that He will help us change.  We are the problem.  Not Him.

I often tell my students that finals week provides one of the greatest feelings in the world.  When you finish your last exam, you feel like a giant weight has been lifted from your shoulders.  You have zero academic obligations: no papers, no tests, no readings, no assignments whatsoever.  What an amazing feeling!

What I fail to tell them is that, less than a week later, a great deal of stress may creep back in as they await the posting of final grades.  For some students, they are stressed about possibly not getting straight A’s.  Others are shooting for the Dean’s List.  And some are just praying they did well enough to avoid suspension.  Stress is relative, I suppose.

Getting graded, or being judged in any way, is rarely an enjoyable experience.  You work hard for 16 weeks only to have all of your effort summed up with a single letter.  Even for my job, I am regularly evaluated by my boss.  We have a few meetings every year where we set goals for my work, and then we check back in to see how I’ve done.  I work hard to make sure those “judgment meetings” go well, just as college students work hard for their grades.

Why is it, then, that while the use of our time often reflects the importance of the outcomes of these things, our priorities do not necessarily reflect the importance of the only judgment that really matters? 

I am not a big fan of “hell fire and brimstone” evangelism, so I am not going to go into that debate.  I’m talking about doing what is asked of us.  Seeking to meet the goals set for us by the Bible.  Meeting the expectations of the Holy Spirit.  Living as though our relationship with God really matters.

I think one problem with our “spiritual performance” comes from the lack of accountability.  We do not have a scheduled assessment.  We don’t know when grades will come out or when our eternal evaluation will be.  There seems to be an out of sight, out of mind type of mentality when it comes to us believing that our actions really matter.

Obviously, having accountability meetings with other believers can play an important role in helping us overcome this challenge.  I am a huge advocate of participating in accountability groups with fellow Christians.

However, until we get it in our heads that God is always with us, and that pleasing Him is the most important thing we can ever do, I fear that we will continue to fail.  And it can’t just be a thought in the back of our heads, it has to be on the forefront of our minds at all times.  But how do we do that?  You tell me. 

Seriously… tell me what helps you focus on God in the comments section below.  Please and thanks.

And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.  Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.  Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT)

It’s odd to feel speechless with so many thoughts running through your head.  Please keep in mind that this was written on Friday, the day of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I admit that I have become unfortunately numb to these kinds of things.  They are always painful, always tragic.  But the frequency of these events have somehow taken a bit of the sting away.

It may be the fact that my son will be in an elementary school next year, but this one stings a lot.  I cannot even look at the pictures of the families of the victims.  I feel sorrow.  I feel grief.  But most of all, I feel angry.

I feel anger on behalf of the victims.  I feel anger for their families.  Yet, as I look for a place to direct my anger, I keep coming back to…me.

No, I am not blaming myself for this event.  I am not saying that I have helped shift our culture to a place where these things happen.  But what have I done to change it?  What have I done to influence the culture in another direction?

I spend about 1/4 of my time at work.  I spend about 1/3 on sleep.  That’s about 7/12 of my week.  That leaves almost half of my time that I should be using to change the world by introducing people to my God.  It is my job to show people who Jesus is. 

But if I really spent half of my time doing that, don’t you think I might even make a small impact on the world?  Perhaps I could love somebody enough to influence them to raise their children in church, and twenty years down the road a situation like this may be adverted.  That 30 hours of adoption training standing between me and taking in an orphan may not look so bad when I think about how it may impact his/her future actions.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27 NLT)

Maybe I am just rambling or maybe there is a point here, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that I should be doing more.  More to love strangers.  More to take care of God’s people.  More to spread the gospel.  More to be like Christ.

In the meantime, though, I am going to go and hug my children.  I am going to pray for everyone involved and affected by the situation in Connecticut.  And I am going to invite God to yell at me for not doing more.  Feel free to join me in all of these efforts.

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV)

I consider myself to be an introverted person.  While I enjoy good company, I get easily thrown off if it is company that I am unfamiliar with.  I like to be around people that I know.  I like to be involved with projects that I feel competent to complete.  I like to feel safe, free from injury as well as embarrassment. 

However, my need to feel safe often causes me to make mistakes.  Sometimes my fear handicaps my ambition.  Other times my timidity keeps me from taking advantage of great opportunities.  But, worst of all, my need to feel safe has also caused me to sin.

Ever heard of sin by omission?  Basically, the theory is that it is possible to sin against God without doing anything.  There are actions that we are commanded to take, and when we fail to take them we are rebelling against God, which is the definition of sin.  This is against what we usually think about as sin, which is an action directly defying a command from God.  Yet, some of the most powerful sins can come from not acting at all.

There are many examples of sin by omission: choosing not to speak up for your faith, neglecting to lend a hand to a neighbor in need, choosing to ignore a situation when you have an opportunity to love someone, choosing apathy over justice, and the one that I most often fall into, the lack of holding one another accountable.

So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall. (Romans 14:13 NLT)

We usually look at this verse in the context of being a good example and not leading others into temptation.  However, are you not responsible for someone else’s sin if you see it happening and do nothing to stop it?  Are we not commanded to help remove the specks from one anothers’ eyes?  So, then, is it not a sin to refrain from confronting the sinful behavior of a Christian brother or sister?  Does not that perfectly fit the definition of sin by omission?

Personal accountability should be paramount as we look to advance the kingdom of God.  If we are not helping each other stay on the narrow path, then we are not only being bad friends, but we are being blatantly sinful.  No matter how introverted or shy you claim to be, there is no excuse not to love people enough to confront them.

As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. (Proverbs 27:17 NLT)

If you have paid close attention to this blog throughout the year, you may have noticed that the tone of my writing has probably fluctuated with the ups and downs of my favorite sports teams.  When the University of Kentucky won a national title in basketball earlier this year, I’m sure my posts were all about singing praise, potluck dinners, and break dancing.  Then I got a little bored during the Olympics.

As the college football season has progressed, however, I seem to have gotten grouchy.  Kentucky has had a horrible season, there has never been any hope of improvement, and we finally saw the coach lose his job before the season ended.  It has been the most depressing season I can remember.

However, as Kentucky named a new coach this week that I am excited about, I find myself ready to write about happy things again.  And as I tried to find a way to relate my sports-related joy to my spiritual joy, I was hit right in the face by a Jesus Juke.  However, this one did not come from a fellow Christian, but from the Holy Spirit.

I actually heard the phrase in my head, “Why aren’t you as excited about your faith as you are about Mark Stoops?”  Ouch.  Apparently God didn’t watch the Western Kentucky game.

I completely understand that it is impossible to stay on fire for God 100% of the time.  There are distractions.  Times get tough.  We get tired.  Fortunately, I don’t think God expects us to be perky and jumping for joy all of the time.  In fact, I am pretty sure he encourages us to take some time to rest.  Didn’t He even do that Himself at some point?

However, the point from the Holy Spirit was well-received on my end.  I know that I need to make a better effort at being thankful, showing gratitude (yes, that’s different from being thankful), recognizing blessings, prioritizing my attention, and spending time thinking about who God is and what that means for my life.  If I am able to do more of those things, I am more likely to be filled with the joy of Christ the majority of the time.

Having said that, I think my lesson had everything to do with my focus on my faith and very little to do with my excitement about football.  In fact, I am convinced that God cares about sports.  He just wanted to make sure I had my priorities straight.  And with His grace, I’m getting there.

Do you ever have trouble prioritizing the excitement of your faith?  How are you able to consistently experience the joy of Christ? 

My friend and I co-teach the middle school Sunday school class at our church.  Recently, we led our students through a study of the movie Facing the Giants.  Since many of our students hadn’t seen the movie, it was a good experience as there are so many lessons to draw from the film.  It seemed like we were pausing the movie every few minutes to talk about some insightful spiritual wisdom covered in the plot.

However, there was one story that we overlooked that I would like to revisit here.  When Coach Taylor is preparing his defense, he talks about the story of rebuilding the city wall from the book of Nehemiah.  He tells his players that, like Nehemiah, they should all build a stone wall in front of their own areas and ultimately that will create a great wall that will hold up against enemies…or the west coach offense.

It was more of a passing comment in the movie that that scene seemed to be more about football than their spiritual lives.  But it worked that way.  Each player took care of his own responsibility.  He did what he was supposed to do individually, and it made them successful as a team.

That’s a great lesson for life.  Each of us has our own responsibilities, our own tasks that are set before us.  And if everyone held up their end, the world would be a much better place.  It would be a great place where crime would be minimal and fluff pieces would dominate the news.  Unicorns would still exist and I could get unlimited, free steak from the guy in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

That world does not exist.  Because sin is a real thing, we cannot count on ourselves, let alone other people, to live out Godly lives.  Handling your own “to-do” list is not what this story is about.  Nehemiah leading the people to rebuild the wall is about doing what is necessary to be obedient.

Doing what is necessary goes above and beyond handling your own business.  I, myself, have often been guilty of saying, “That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “That’s none of my business.”  That is a lie.

I am not talking about arrogantly inserting yourself into other peoples’ lives.  I am not talking about interfering in situations where you are not welcome.  However, any time you see a need or witness injustice, that situation instantly becomes “your problem/issue/job/business.”  It is your job to seek righteousness in all things for the glory of God, and passively observing others peoples’ unfortunate circumstances is anything but righteous.

Yes, take care of building the wall in front of your own home.  But if you see your neighbor struggling with his wall, it is 100% your responsibility to lend a hand.  So we all need to stop using excuses and trying to mind our own business.  That is definitely not what Nehemiah was all about.

Unless you are playing football.  In that case, listen to the coach.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a NIV)

This scripture is probably most often read at weddings.  We use it to help interject peace into tense situations.  We reflect on it anytime we try to define what love means in our own lives.

However, we tend to use this passage to make love sound fluffy.  There are times when I’ve heard somebody read it aloud and I could have sworn that rainbows and butterflies somehow worked their way in there.  We want love to be this touchy-feely emotion that makes everybody happy.  We want it to be easy to understand and easy to execute.  Real love is anything but those things.

Looking back at this famous passage about love, I think it is interesting what it does not say.  It does not say that love is always encouraging or uplifting.  It does not even say that love is comforting.  It also does not say that love is always accepting.  I think that may be the point that we miss the most.

Especially in our culture that seems to seek out being lukewarm on most things, it can be too easy for us to ignore each others’ faults and problems.  In fact, we are encouraged to be open-minded and accepting of everyone’s opinions and preferences.  We are chastised for challenging someone or even disagreeing with them.  Our culture does not consider to that to be very loving.  I completely disagree.  And according to this passage, so does Paul.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:6 NIV)

While we have no business judging the behavior of non-believers, we are not doing our Christian brothers and sisters any favors by accepting or even ignoring their sinful behavior.  If we truly love them as we are called, we will not allow them to continue their self-destructive ways.  We will get in their faces and challenge them.  We will call them out and hold them accountable.

Love is such a tricky concept.  What the world teaches us about love is starkly different from what the Bible teaches, but there are just enough similarities to keep us confused.  Just know this:  if something does not bring somebody closer to God, then it is not based in love. 

Sometimes love can take the form of a hug, a gift, or an encouraging word.  It can just as easily be an awkward conversation, an uncomfortable confrontation, or a painful revelation.  As you love people today, be willing to do so justly and with conviction.  Love can be tough, which means you have to be tough as well.
There are names throughout history that are synonymous with leadership.  As you look deeper into their stories, you quickly see that every great leader in history had a fantastic supporting cast.  Jesus had His disciples.  Every great monarch had loyal counsel and every great American president has had a strong cabinet.  Sherlock Holmes had Dr. Watson.  And Gladys Knight had the Pips.

Even in the Bible, we see that the leaders God put in charge had great people behind them.  Let’s take a look at David.  He had Joab, a valiant warrior, as the commander of his army.  He also had what the Bible refers to as David’s Mighty Men.  Some passages refer to three specific individuals in this group, while others reference a group of 30+ individuals.  Regardless, this group is given a great deal of credit for David’s military success.

What made these Mighty Men so special?  What role did they play in God’s plan for David to rule over His people?

Scripture is clear that these men were fierce warriors.  They were willing to take the battle into places where others would not have the courage to go.  They were prepared to fight those that their comrades wouldn’t dare go near.  They were fearless in their efforts to spread David’s kingdom.

There is no doubt that they got the job done.  David’s kingdom was very blessed by God, and the efforts of these Mighty Men were great contributors to that.  So how can we be Mighty Men today?  How can we fulfill our roles in the body of Christ and be the perfect supporting cast to continue Jesus’ ministry?  As it turns out, our task is that not much different than theirs.

To be Mighty Men today, we must be prayer warriors.  We must be willing to take the gospel into places where others would not have the courage to go.  We must be prepared to love those that our comrades wouldn’t dare go near.  We must be fearless in our efforts to spread God’s Kingdom.

What this world needs is a few Mighty Men (and Women) that are prepared to follow Christ fearlessly and selflessly.  Are you up to the challenge?