John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Spiritual Formation

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn't like me or why I can't stay out as late as I want. We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and -- sometimes -- more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn't actually stick to that principle; you can't -- it's impossible -- but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn't plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you've been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I'm honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I've missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you're interested in taking this journey with me.

Hurry Up, So I Can Help People Slow Down!

You can't make stuff like this up! Today I have a lot to do. There are several projects that need my attention -- one big possible thing with the American Bible Society that I'll tell you more about later. Some stuff I've been putting off for the ScreamFree Institute. I need to call my tax guy. I have a lunch appointment. You know about days like this, don't you?

But I'm still trying to maintain my commitment to practicing slowness. Again, not slowness in everything -- but times of slowness -- times of stillness even. And I really wanted to write more about this concept here because I think it is an important one that should be discussed more by Christians.

So, I dropped my kids off at school today -- after washing down a mouthful of vitamins with a mouthful of coffee again. I go to the gym. Workout. And drive home -- on that small and narrow road I told you about yesterday. My gas light came on, so I stopped at Kroger to get gas.

And every pump was full. Most of them had large, white vans or even larger trucks -- the kind used for lawn care -- in front of them. This was clearly going to take a while.

There was one pump that had a woman in a compact car in front of it. I pulled in behind her believing I had chosen well.

It was not so.

She did not know how to open her gas cap. Then she didn't know how to work the pump. She didn't know how to insert her debit card. She didn't know which buttons to press. I began to wonder how in the world this woman manages to get to the gas station and home in the same day!

I'm sitting in my car screaming internally. My insides are churning. I was rolling my eyes as loudly as I could.

And then it hit me: I want this woman to hurry up so I can go and write something to help people slow down.

How's that for hypocrisy?

I told you: you can't make stuff like this up!

Tell me something: Do you think she was an angel? Maybe?

The New Four-Letter Word is S-L-O-W

There is a road near my house -- a small and narrow road. The speed limit is posted as 35mph, but hear this: no one -- and I mean no one -- drives 35 on that road. Ever. No one drives 40. Most people don't even drive 45. Most people I have observed drive between 45-50 on that road, even though it is clearly marked 35.

Today, for a variety of reasons, was my first day back working out in the gym in about three weeks. I took a handful of vitamins on my way out the door, washed them down with a mouthful of coffee, dropped my kids off at school and hit the weights.

And then it all hit back. Hard. I had a coughing fit, and my stomach felt like it was trying to turn inside out. I saw stars. I figured my first day back could be a short day and chose to head home a little earlier than usual. And because I wasn't feeling particularly well, I decided to actually drive the speed limit on that small and narrow road.

Actually, that's not really true. I decided to only drive 5mph above the speed limit on that small and narrow road. That's the truth.

I saw the car behind me long before he flashed his lights. I saw him coming from a distance, gaining ground on me. He was probably going 50 -- like most people usually do on this stretch of road. I was going 40. It's not a huge difference, but you would think I was doing something terribly wrong. He flashed his lights. Several times. He honked his horn. He gesticulated wildly.

Because I was driving only 5mph over the posted speed limit.

It reminded me of one of the wisest things anyone ever told me. A friend's father once told me, "Never let someone in another car drive yours. Just because they're in a hurry, that doesn't mean you have to drive any faster or any slower than you want to go."

One of the companies I write for got angry at me a while back. They had expected a certain level of output from me, and I failed to meet that expectation. It was my fault, to be fair. I had gotten busy trying to finish up my book. And then everyone in my family had gotten sick with a stomach bug that hindered productivity. They told me they were expecting about 25 short pieces per month from me. I had delivered 12.

So, I told them I would make it up to them. I would devote myself to writing these short pieces until I had made up the slack. I produced 15 one week, 15 the next week and 11 the next week. That's 41 short pieces in three weeks. Plus the 12 I had done before -- that makes 53 in two months -- slightly more than the 25 per month they had originally expected.

Then I took a week off. And they got angry again.

Now they want me to do 15 every week. Their reasoning is that I've already shown that I can do that much, so now I should do that much.

When did can become should? And when did should become must?

Last week I was on vacation. It was Spring Break for my kids, and I took them up to Tennessee. We did the aquarium and Ruby Falls and Dollywood. We had a great time. And I did no work. I didn't answer my phone, and I didn't answer my email.

And people got angry -- like the guy in the car behind me this morning. People left me voicemails and sent emails demanding answers. But they don't get to drive my car. Just because they're anxious and angry and driving themselves and the people around them mad with their unreasonable and unsafe pace, that doesn't mean I am going to drive any faster or any slower than I want to go.

Slow is the new dirty word. If you don't believe me, try telling someone how slow they are. See how they respond. It's like you called them a bad name or something.

But slow is something I'm trying to embrace now. Not slow all the time, but times of slowness -- times of slowing. Seasons of slow.

We'll see how this works.

So, tell me your story. Do you have times when you slow down? Why do you think we're so afraid of being slow?

Hold On Loosely

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go on a journey. It will be a long journey. God doesn't even tell him how long. Heck, he doesn't even tell him where he's going. He just calls him to go. He does make some rather impressive promises, of course -- offering a little incentive for Abram to consider.

Still, Abram has no track record with this YHWH. There's no written account of all the times in the past when he has kept his promises, no witnesses who have experienced his faithfulness before. Just a promise and a call to go.

This is one reason why Abraham is considered such a paragon of faith. It's not that he obeys perfectly; he does not. But the fact that he agrees to go at all reveals the fact that he trusted God to make good on his word.

Faith is not perfect obedience. Sometimes faith is simply trusting that God will keep his promise and doing what he asks you to do -- haltingly and imperfectly but relentlessly.

God has likewise called me to go on a journey. And you, too. It will likewise be a long journey; we will not reach our destination in this lifetime. God is not always specific about the details. He does promise the destination will be worth it, and you and I must trust him on that one.

We do have the luxury of a written record and a cloud of witnesses, but it will still take a great deal of faith if we are to persevere on this journey and not give up when it gets difficult. It will take faith and a few other things I'd like to unpack over the next few days.

Today I want to consider this: if I am going to take this journey of faith, I must cling tightly to God. And if I am going to cling tightly to God, I must hold on loosely to everything else.

Abram had wealth. He had status in his community. He was familiar with his surroundings. He had family there. But he held all of that loosely. He left behind his status and his comfort, his family and his familiar surroundings. He held on loosely to the things of this world, so he could cling tightly to God.

The question I'm wrestling with today is this: Is there something I'm clutching that keeps me from being able to cling tightly to God? Is there anything I've got such a grip on (or that has such a grip on me) that it keeps me from taking this journey of faith?

This Is God's Will For Your Life

Does God want you to marry this person or that one? Work here or there? Buy the house or rent? Stay where you are or hit the missionary field? We all struggle to know God's will for our lives. And there is much left as a mystery. There are many aspects of God's will that will be unknown until after they happen.

But I can tell you this for sure:

God's will for your life is that you become as much like Jesus as possible.

You might want to read that over again a few times. It's important. Write it down if you must. Post it somewhere so you can see it often.

The Apostle Paul said it this way:

And we know that in all things God words for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30)

This is God's will for you. This is what he's up to. This is what he's after. This is what he wants, and, as we saw yesterday, God gets what God wants.

There's an old story about a sculptor who was asked how he could carve an angel out of a block of marble. He said it was easy. He'd just chipped away everything that didn't look like an angel.

God is actively chipping away at everything that doesn't look like Jesus. Nothing you can do can keep him from that work. He is relentless, and he'll stop at nothing.

This is why one guy serves God by going to seminary and pastoring a church while another serves God by running a small business. One woman is called to get married and have children; another is called to remain single. One is not more spiritual than the other. One is not in closer alignment to the will of God than the other. Missionaries aren't necessarily holier than truck drivers.

You only get out of the will of God by not going where he is leading.

God's will for your life is that you will today take everything that happens to you and allow it to knock off some of the things in you that don't look like Jesus yet. That neighbor. That co-worker. That traffic. That doctor's appointment. That spouse. Those kids.

God will use everything in your world to make you more like Jesus tomorrow than you do today. This is God's will for your life.

"Where and What" or "Who"?

It is just a natural human tendency to want to know where God wants us to go and what he wants us to do. And there's nothing wrong with that really. In fact, I pray every night with my girls, "God, you show us where you want us to go and what you want us to do. Then make us brave enough to do it so we don't miss out on the big adventure you have planned for our lives." But when you think about the folks in the Bible, a lot of them knew all of that but ended up on some crazy, convoluted paths. Carrying out their tasks or arriving at their places of service often involved a grueling process. Sometimes they didn't get "there" at all -- at least not where they intended to go.

Abraham had a clear promise from God: "You will be the father of a great nation." Abraham waits for 24 years to have his first child, and then God tells him to sacrifice the boy. That was his clear mission. No speculation. God was extremely articulate: sacrifice Isaac. But Abraham never actually does what God commands him to do because God stops him at the last second.

Joseph knew he was destined to be a leader, but he ends up in a pit and then sold into slavery and then falsely imprisoned first.

David was supposed to become the King of Israel. God said so. Samuel said so. One problem: the current king was not on board with all of this and spent more than a decade trying to kill him. How was that supposed to be part of the plan?

Hosea was commanded by God to marry a hooker and take her back no matter how many times she cheated on him. I don't know anyone today who would embrace that as part of God's will for their life.

John the Baptist was Jesus' cousin. He had the special mission of being sent to prepare people for Jesus' ministry. But, while he was rotting in prison, Jesus seemed unconcerned. Eventually, he was killed because of Herod's flirty and capricious step-daughter. Anyone want to step up and volunteer for that mission?

Paul knew he was called by none other than Jesus himself to be the Apostle to the Gentiles. And then he spends the balance of his life jumping from the frying pan into the fire and back again.

We have this romantic notion that, if we could only become clear on what God's will for our lives is, then everything else will work itself out. But these people knew clearly what God wanted, and their lives were a mess!

If God's just interested in getting us in a particular place or having us do a particular thing, why all the twists and turns? Why so much drama along the way?

Why is it that just when you've finally figured out where God wants you to go and/or what he wants you to do that's when your spouse decides to leave or your kid gets really, really sick? And why don't we talk about this more?

My best guess is because who you're becoming is more important to God than where you are or what you're doing. So, he sends you to certain places and gives you specific tasks to do knowing full well that on your way to "where and what" you'll become a different "who".

Bottom line: God's will for your life is going to be mysterious, vague and disturbing. I can't explain it all, and it won't often correspond to human logic. But this is what I want to talk about for a little while. Anyone else interested?

Embracing Mystery

Recently, a theological kerfuffle has erupted with Dr. Peter Enns calling John Piper out over his comments from a few years ago. In those comments, Piper says that God is responsible for the death of millions of people and owes us no explanation because he is, after all, God. Actually, I’m softening what Piper said. Here are his own words:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”

He goes on:

“God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.... If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92. God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.”

You may agree or disagree. It’s your right. You’re entitled to an opinion. I would hope you make it an educated opinion. I would hope even more you would educate yourself theologically as you form your opinion. I happen to disagree strongly, but that is not my point right now.

My point right now is this: When we try to take something as mysterious as why seemingly innocent people die, why there is evil in our world or who is to blame for the suffering in our world and reduce these things to some airtight sound byte of an answer, we’re doing something terribly violent to Scripture. We’re attempting to dispel mystery.

And mystery is at the very heart of our attempts to understand the nature of God and especially God’s will for our lives.

I understand this desire, but it is futile to try and reduce God’s will to a math equation. Doing so makes God’s will a destination, and the longer I live the more convinced I am that God’s will is just as much about the process as it is about the destination.

We want to know our “calling” -- that is, where we should go and what we should do. God seems far more concerned with how we are going and what we’ll be like when we get there. He is taking us each through a process, shaping up, maturing us, making us more like Jesus.

God may not be calling you to a what or a where; he may simply be calling you to a who. And the means he’ll use...well, they’re mysterious.

The Timeline of Repentance

Yesterday we talked about salvation; today we turn our attention towards repentance. Repentance is a different thing altogether. Repentance is the changing of one’s mind about who Christ is and your general attitude toward sin, namely, that sin is bad and you don’t like it anymore because of what it does to you and to your relationships. This change of mind will necessarily bring about a change in behavior, but you can’t know what parts of your behavior must change until you’re a Christian. Moreover, you can’t say for sure when the Holy Spirit will bring about these changes. Your job is just to submit to his leading.

It is this understanding that allows me to say that people who disagree with me over issues of faith and morality may have a legitimate relationship with God. They may be saved. They may be Christians – even if they continue to sin. Because God refuses to give up on us when we miss the mark, the Holy Spirit refuses to leave us when we fail.

God knows I fail and continue to sin! Every Christian I know (especially the pastors) fails and continues to sin. We’re all growing in our understanding of what it means to be like Jesus. The Holy Spirit works on his own timeline, revealing which portions of my lifestyle must be changed or abandoned in order to continue the process of maturity. The abandoning of all sins requires a life-long and sometimes difficult process called sanctification (which we'll talk about next).

The real problem as I see it in churches today is that we don't understand the paragraphs above. Consequently, we all try to fake it. We try to look better than we are. We try to appear sinless.

That kind of hypocrisy is dangerous. Trust me. I know.

How Do I Get Out of Here?

No one I know wanted to grow up and work 65 hours a week because they were up to their eyeballs in debt and made a reckless impulse-buy on a car that costs way more than they thought it would. No one wanted to live an hour away from where they work because it's the only way they could afford a house with a yard but now they spend more time in traffic than they do in that yard. No one wanted to grow up and be like everyone else.

But it happens.

You wake up one day and realize that you are not that unique. You have a lot of the same desires and problems as everyone else. You live in a house that looks like every fifth house on your street and you drive a car that looks just like every third car on the road.

You know how that happens? Society has a way of pushing you into a mold, funneling you into a particular demographic. And I'm coming to the conclusion that they do this, primarily, so that they can sell you stuff.

But none of that explains how you became the person you are. No, for that explanation, there is no enemy out there at whom we can point and whom we can collectively shun.

The fact of the matter is: There is no one to blame for the person you have become but you. You are who you are because of the choices and decisions you have made.

So, when you wake up and realize that this is not the marriage you intended to have and this is not the house you wanted to live in and these are not the kids you thought you'd have and your job is not even close to what you wanted to be when you grew up -- when you come to the conclusion that today looks a lot like yesterday and tomorrow will look a lot like today -- well, how do you get out of here?

The most likely conclusion is to just undo some of the choices you've made and make different choices. That makes sense, right?

Don't like your marriage? Undo that and redo marriage with someone else.

Don't like your job? Quit and go find a different job.

Don't like where you live? Move.

Don't like your kids? Make new ones.

But you and I both know lots of people who have done just this. And how did that turn out?

Two or three years later they're in the same marriage just with a different spouse. They're in the same job just with a different letterhead. We end up repeating the pattern and experiencing the same bad outcomes.


Because different decisions based on the same belief-system usually lead to similar outcomes.

So, how do you really get unstuck? You have to go all the way back to the beliefs that led to the decisions that led to the negative outcomes. You have to make sure those beliefs line up with reality, and then you have to make sure the decisions you made reflect what you say you believe.

And that's how you get out of here. I think.

How Did I Get Here?

I have a confession to make: When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I wanted to grow up to be a garbage man. I thought they only worked on Tuesdays.

I got a little older and decided I wanted to play professional baseball, but that didn't pan out. I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and that actually did pay the bills for a while. I wanted to be an actor, an author and, finally, a preacher. I made good on each of those -- the last two being what I've done for the past decade.

What about you? What did you want to be when you grew up?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that few (if any) of you wanted to be middle-management, working 65 hours a week to pay for a house you shouldn't have bought that looks like every fifth house in your neighborhood. You probably didn't want to be stuck in an office working for people you've never met who send you missives from some mysterious office "out there" known as "corporate headquarters".

No one walks down the aisle in front of all their friends and relatives thinking they'll end up barely able to be in the same room with this other person. No one holds that baby thinking it's only a matter of time before this relationship gets screwed up, too.

You may not have dreamed of the marriage you're in.

You probably thought your parenting would be different than it is.

And you probably believed you'd have more to show for your life than you do now.

So, how does that happen? How do you begin life with such big dreams, high hopes, aspirations for a better life only to end up where you are?

How did I get here?

Well, we make choices, and those choices lead us to where we are. As simple as it sounds, you have the life you've chosen to have. I know there are special circumstances sometimes -- some things happened that were beyond your control. But you married that person. And you took that job. And you had those kids. Or you didn't.

And then there were those voices telling you to do this or to avoid doing that or somehow giving you the impression that something must be wrong with you if you don't have one of these yet.

When you put it like this, it's easy to start feeling stuck -- trapped -- like you've been pushed into a mold by some external force -- pressured into conformity against your will.

The truth is that you built the life you have brick by brick by all those choices you made large and small. That's how I got here.

"How did I get here?" is an important question. But often we're really primarily concerned with answering a different question: How do I get out of here?

That's what I'm talking about in my upcoming series "Reboot". During that time I'll be bouncing some ideas around here if you care to join the conversation.

Oh, and since this is my 1,000th blog post, I'll send a free sample chapter of my next book to anyone who leaves a comment!

Long, Long Ago in a Garden Far, Far Away

Anyone remember what happened that caused humans to fall out of favor with God in the first place? There was, after all, a time when people had exactly the kind of relationship with God we've been talking about -- one characterized by mutual trust and a lack of fear. But something happened. You know the story, right? A long, long time ago in a garden far, far away...a serpent came to Eve and said, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Genesis 3:1)

Think about that question for a second. "Did God really say..." What was the serpent's point? What was he driving at? Well, the conversation that followed makes it all too clear:

"The woman said to the serpent, 'We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, "You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die."'

"'You will not surely die,' the serpent said to the woman. 'For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'" (Genesis 3:2-5)

The serpent's agenda was pretty clear. He wanted Eve to doubt God. His purpose was to chip away at her faith to the point that she would act on her distrust. And that is precisely what she did. Even before she tasted the forbidden fruit, the battle was lost. She doubted. She lost confidence. The relationship was damaged. Broken.

In many ways, belief and unbelief are two sides of the same door. We exited a relationship with God through a lack of trust, and we come back in through an act of trust. Once we're in, our heavenly Father sets about growing and maturing our faith so that we never want to leave again.

Amazing Jesus

Jesus was nothing short of amazing. The way he taught. The things he did. The life he lived. The fact that he came back to life after being put to death. Amazing.

Thousands of people came from far and wide to see him. Sometimes he sent them away disappointed (Jesus does not take requests very often), but mostly they were amazed at some story he told or some way in which he confounded the religious and/or political leaders of his time.

There is amazing grace, but it's important to remember that this amazing grace came from amazing Jesus.

And yet....

The Bible tells us a story about a man who amazed Jesus once. Just once. Well...actually twice Jesus was amazed, but we'll get talk about that next time. This guy -- a Roman soldier -- actually amazed Jesus. He came to see Jesus because he had a servant who was suffering, and he knew that Jesus could heal him. In fact, this guy knew that Jesus could heal the servant without even seeing him. This servant whom Jesus had never met, laid up in a house Jesus had never visited, suffering from some disorder Jesus did not know about could be healed if Jesus just gave the word.

Hearing the guy explain his confidence in Jesus' ability and authority amazed Jesus. The idea that a Roman soldier could have figured out enough to know that Jesus really was who he said he was and could really do what he said he could do -- Jesus found that amazing.

Imagine being the guy walking around heaven who actually amazed Jesus! That's a pretty exclusive club!

Before we move on to the one other time Jesus was amazed (look for that on Monday), I want you to notice again what it was that amazed Jesus. It wasn't the guy's knowledge. It wasn't even the guy's obedience. It was just his level of confidence in Jesus' ability to do what he said he could do. This guy did not know anything about a virgin birth. He did not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. He did not know a thing about the gifts of the Spirit or the role of women. He probably didn't attend church -- certainly not in the way we think about attending church. As far as we know he'd never been baptized or prayed any kind of sinner's prayer.

He just believed that Jesus could do what he said he could do because Jesus had some kind of authority that came from some higher power. He had complete confidence in Jesus, and -- according to Jesus -- that was enough.

Maybe that's what faith really is. Maybe faith has less to do with all the finer points of doctrine (though God himself knows how much I love to study and teach good, sound doctrine). Maybe faith is simply being confident that Jesus is who he says he is and can do what he says he can do.

That's the kind of faith I want.

Miracle Grow

I'm sort of a traditionalist in many respects. I don't like the Designated Hitter. I prefer acoustic instruments. We open our presents on Christmas morning. And summer is three months long -- not the 10 weeks schools are out. So, I'm reluctant to say summer is over. But I will admit that the whole "back to school" thing means the end of summer vacation. And that means families everywhere are struggling to adapt to the routine required for early morning drop offs and mid-afternoon pick ups.

As a church leader, I'm grateful for summertime and the chance to relax a little (obviously, I'm not in student ministry!). As a church leader, though, I'm also glad to see the approach of fall and the excitement a new school year brings. September and October mean a little more stability in our attendance and giving -- meaning we can budget wisely and appropriately. It also means a time when we can dig in a little deeper than we could over the past couple of months, pausing a little to examine where we are spiritually and how we can get to that next level.

That's why I'm so excited about the sermon series we're kicking off this Sunday. It's called "Miracle Grow", and it discusses how our faith grows.

Right from the start, I want to make something clear: This isn't about how our knowledge grows or how our obedience grows. As important as knowledge and obedience are, it's a really big faith that we're after. It's a really big faith that pleases God. It's a really big faith that impresses Jesus. It's a really big faith that gets us through tough times. It's a really big faith that keeps us from pushing the panic button. When the Apostle Paul wanted to brag about one of his favorite churches, it was their faith that he bragged about (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4).

But how does our faith grow like that?

Most churches assume that faith increases with knowledge, so they schedule Bible classes as their primary way of growing a person's faith. But knowledge doesn't always lead to faith. In fact, the Bible says knowledge can make you arrogant sometimes. That's the opposite of what we're after.

Other churches seem to think that faith comes through obedience. Just do what God asks, and your faith will grow. But obedience like that can sometimes make a person judgmental -- which, again, is not the direction we want to go.

So, how does your faith grow? How can a church help transform your faith from something the size of a mustard seed into a tree where birds can come and perch in its branches?

Maybe we could begin by asking what faith is exactly? Maybe once we understand what faith is we can better understand how it grows?

4 Stages of Faith Development

One of the worst things we can do to our children is bring them up in complete isolation, with padded everything, rescuing them from any and all consequences and shielding their eyes from the very real presence of danger and evil in our fallen world. I’m not suggesting you pin a 20 dollar bill to their vest and drop them off on the strip in Las Vegas to fend for themselves, but — at some point in time — they need to be exposed to life as it really exists. Small doses in safe environments at first perhaps — malevolent forces in fairy tales, for example. But we’re in danger of raising a generation of cry babies who are completely ill-equipped to deal with reality…and Christian parents are often the worst offenders. If we give in to this urge, our children may never develop into the kind of strong adults they are made to be. And, again, Christian children are especially prone to underdevelopment and stunted growth.

John Westerhof (Will Our Children Have Faith) has written a great deal about stages of faith development in children. Using very broad strokes, he has discerned four distinct stages. The first, he calls experiential faith. That is faith gained from experience; interaction with other people of faith. Paul writes about his young companion Timothy, that his faith was nurtured by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois. Infants being raised in Christian homes, have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because it’s all they’ve ever known. A lifestyle of faith is all they have ever experienced, and the only people they have ever known as people of faith. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because it’s all they’ve ever believed.

The second stage is affiliative faith — growing through involvement in a faith community. It is sharing in the worship, ministry, decision-making, caring life of the faith community. Paul first encountered Timothy when he visited Lystra, where Timothy was highly regarded as a member of the community. Children whose parents include them in church-related activities have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because all the people around them, all the people to whom they are connected have a relationship with God. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because they belong to a group of people who believe the same things.

The third stage of faith is inquisitive — a questioning phase usually occurs sometime early in adolescence for children raised in Christian homes. Paul took Timothy on one of his missionary journeys. Participating in Paul’s mission, asking questions and testing his gifts, Timothy’s faith was challenged and strengthened. This is the stage most Christian parents fear. In fact, some churches and families discourage this stage altogether. However, if this stage is not fully experienced by a young person, his or her faith will become stunted, or worse, aborted.

The fourth stage is owned faith — a developed faith that has been tested. At this stage a person’s faith is marked by a commitment to certain beliefs, attitudes and practices. In the Bible we see Timothy sent out to resolve problems in Corinth and then to Ephesus where he is a leader in the church. Until a faith is allowed to proceed through the inquisitive stage, until a faith is questioned, it will not be mature enough to be truly owned by an individual. At this stage, a person believes what they believe because their faith has withstood the crucible moments of life.

As parents, the one thing we want more than anything is for our children to possess an “owned” faith. We want our kids to love God, serve God, enjoy God, trust God, partner with God — not because of who their mom and dad are or because they’re in a church where that’s expected. We want them to do these things because they’ve made the choice to do so from the core of their own soul.

One point must be made here: parents cannot make this happen. We like to live as if there is some kind of law of linearity at work here — some kind of hard-and-fast cause-and-effect. You do certain things, and your children will own their faith. Like Francis Schaeffer’s image of God as a cosmic vending machine, we expect there to be a magical formula by which to raise children that will ensure their eternal destiny. Regardless of what anyone has told you, this is not the case. I’ve all read the verses in Proverbs; but we must remember that those are proverbs. They are descriptions of the way life usually works; but they are by no means to be taken as covenantal promises from God. Every human being is born with a will of his own. With that free will comes the ability and responsibility to choose which path she will walk. The more we attempt to manipulate the choices of our children — regardless of how well-intentioned we may be — the more we will do damage to the development of their faith.

Having said all that, there are things we can do to alter the trajectory of a person’s life — to nudge them in the direction of God or push them away from him. If it is important to us that our children have a fully developing faith, we should understand the four stages of faith development and that they must pass through each of the first three in order to get to the fourth. These stages are not always neatly divided, and the boundaries are often fuzzy. But it will be helpful for those of us with children to be aware of which stage our child may be in so that we can keep an eye out for what may lie ahead.

What Elijah Didn't Know

Elijah had a problem. He was a wanted man, so he panicked and ran as far away from his home as he could go. And then he ran a little more. Six weeks later, he was hiding in a cave in Egypt when God came to him. "What are you doing here?" God asked -- not really looking for information as much as giving Elijah the chance to just be honest and maybe to learn something while he's talking it through out loud.

Though this conversation (which you can read for yourself in 1 Kings 19), it becomes clear to us that Elijah has forgotten all about God's past faithfulness. He's forgotten all about the amazing ways in which God has provided for him over the past several years. He's even forgotten how God has come through on his promises for the people who had lived before him -- Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David. God had made outlandish promises, and he'd gone to amazing lengths to see those promises fulfilled.

But Elijah forgot, and, because he forgot, he panicked.

But wait...there's more! Elijah's problem wasn't just that there was some stuff he'd forgotten about. Elijah's other problem was that there was some stuff he didn't know about.

God tells him there's going to be another king. God tells him there's going to be another prophet. God tells him there are 7,000 others who haven't sold out to a foreign god and are willing to fight to get the kingdom back on track. God had been at work preparing history for the next chapter.

Elijah didn't know any of this.

Q: Why do you suppose Elijah assumed God had been inactive?

A: Because Elijah didn't see any of God's work going on.

See, we can sometimes assume that, if we don't see it happening, it's not happening. If God hasn't given us the update, there's no news to report. If God were up to something, we'd know about it.

That's an arrogant and dangerous assumption. It's the assumption that Abram & Sarah made. It's the assumption the Hebrew people made while they were enslaved in Egypt. It's the assumption they made again while they were wandering around for 40 years -- trying to get all the Egypt out of them. It's the assumption the Pharisees made. It's the assumption Mary & Martha made while Jesus stayed put and they buried their brother, Lazarus. It's the assumption the disciples made while Jesus himself was in the tomb.

And it's the assumption I all too often make when I don't see God at work in the way or in the timing I want.

What Elijah didn't know -- and what we must remember if we're to resist the urge to run and hide from our stressful circumstances -- is this: God does some of his best work in hidden, unseen ways. In the womb of a teenager. In the heart of a foreign king. In a dark cave carved out of the side of a hill.

Just you wait. His track record is pretty good. The seed is in the ground. It's just a matter of time now.

Elijah's Problems (And Ours)

Elijah responded to a heightened level of stress over a prolonged period of time the same way some of us do: He ran and hid. Some folks blow up. Others look for an escape. We pull the curtains closed, turn the cell phone off, stop answering our email, hole up inside under a blanket and sulk -- all the while letting God know that we've had enough and it might be better if God would just mercifully end this whole thing right now!

What caused Elijah to panic like that?

As best I can figure it, Elijah had two problems: (1) There was some stuff he forgot about; (2) There was some stuff he didn't know about.

Let's talk about the first problem today, and we'll talk about the second problem tomorrow.

Elijah seems to have forgotten all about the three years when God miraculously provided for him during the drought. Birds brought him food. A poor widow and her son allowed him to stay with them. While the rest of the nation was starving, Elijah had enough to eat.

Beyond his immediate life, Elijah also seems to have forgotten all the great things God had done through the years to provide for his people -- all the outlandish promises he had made and then kept. Abraham and Sarah having a baby in their old age. Joseph being elevated to second in command in Egypt. The 10 Plagues. The Red Sea. The Walls of Jericho. The sun standing still over Gibeon. Hailstones killing the opposing army on the road from Beth Horon to Azekah. David and Goliath.

God had a track record of doing crazy stuff like that -- just to keep his promises.

But Elijah forgot, and, because he forgot, he thought his present was disconnected from his past.

If Elijah could have remembered God's past faithfulness, he would have been more inclined to trust God's promised future. But he didn't. Instead, Elijah forgot.

It's really easy to chide Elijah for forgetting, but we're guilty of the same thing, aren't we? We could all tell stories about times when it seemed as if the well had run dry, but something mysterious and inexplicable happened -- a check arrived just in time -- a phone call out of the blue -- a chance meeting with someone who opened a door or made an introduction. We've all had those moments when we are forced to admit, "Only God could have done this."

But we forget, and, when we forget, it's easy to panic.

So, how could we lengthen our memory? What are some things we could do to remind us that our present circumstances are connected to God's past faithfulness?

Stress Management In the Days of Elijah

Last week (before the blog went down) we talked about stress reduction and stress management. It's pretty obvious that a lot of unnecessary stress is caused by our lack of doing the things we know we ought to do. We overeat. We engage in risky behavior. We make poor financial decisions. We work too much and sleep too little, and all of this causes stress -- over and above what we're able to handle. But some stress is unavoidable. You have to live indoors. You have to eat. That means you have to work, and you'll probably end up having to work with some difficult people. Family is tough -- even when you're doing it the right way. Do I even need to bring up finances? It's hard to stay afloat in today's economy even if you've been fiscally responsible.

So, how do you experience the rest Jesus promises if there's stress present in your life?

Maybe it comes down to a matter of perspective.

Take Elijah, for example. He lived during the reign of the most wicked king the nation of Israel had ever known (and that's saying something!). And it was Elijah's job to confront this king.

And you thought your job was rough!

Elijah told the king that because of his wickedness it wouldn't rain for three years. During that time, God miraculously provided for Elijah's needs -- first with birds bringing him sandwiches and then through the faith of a widow and her son. Eventually, God sent Elijah back for a winner-take-all confrontation on Mt. Carmel.

Elijah took on 850 pagan prophets and the false gods they worshiped. After some prophetic trash-talking, Elijah calmly stepped forward and called down fire from the sky. After that, he had all 850 of the false prophets killed, and then he outran a horse 12 miles back down the mountain to the palace.

Elijah saw some powerful signs of God's protection and deliverance.

And yet....

Jezebel threatened to kill him, and Elijah gets scared and runs away! He runs as far as he can go, and then he goes a little farther -- out into the middle of nowhere. Then he collapses and says, "I've had enough, Lord, kill me now!"

God deals with Elijah like you'd deal with a cranky toddler. He gives him a drink and a snack and puts him down for a nap.

Elijah wakes up and runs another 40 days down to Mt. Sinai -- in the Sinai Peninsula -- near Egypt.

God asks, "Hey, Elijah, Prophet of Israel, what are you doing here -- in Egypt?"

Still in the midst of his own personal pity party, Elijah responds, "I'm the only one left. I served you as best as I could, but now I'm as good as dead. Why don't you do the honors?"

God says, "Watch this."

Elijah stays put in the cave while all sorts of commotion starts up outside. An earthquake. A fire. A tornado. Then God whispers -- which gets Elijah's attention. I think God's saying, "See what I can do when I get ready? Anytime I want, I can do all this. So, what are you doing here?"

Elijah thinks God is still looking for information -- like maybe God didn't hear him the first time. So, he repeats himself -- word-for-word -- probably a little louder this time to make sure God gets it.

God says, "Get up and go home. There's a new king I want you to meet."

You mean Ahab won't be king forever?

"No, and there's a new prophet I want you to meet, too."

You mean I won't be the prophet forever?"

"No, I was here before you, and I'll be here after you're gone. I've been at work getting things ready for the next chapter. Just because you don't see it happening, doesn't mean nothing's happening. Oh, and by the way, there are still 7,000 folks who love me. You're not alone."

Strange: Elijah and God look at the exact same situation. God says, "I've got these people right where I want them." Elijah says, "I'm all alone and as good as dead." God wasn't panicked; Elijah was.

Elijah freaks out and runs away because he doesn't see things from God's perspective.

Maybe these are the days of Elijah after all.

The Cost of Casting

Stress can make us do crazy things. And doing crazy things can cause us even more stress, which, in turn, causes us to do more crazy things. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

If we would only live our lives within the parameters drawn by the Bible, the amount of stress we experience on a daily basis would not be eliminated, but it would be significantly reduced. Dramatically. Immediately. Reduced.

But what do we do with the stress that remains? There will always be some stress, right? You've got to live indoors, and your house may or may not maintain its value. You've got to work and live and deal with people -- and some of those people are going to be difficult people. You can't just wish them away to the cornfield. Your spouse won't always meet your expectations, and your kids won't always do what you want them to do. That all will cause you some stress, and that stress won't just go away when you decide to bring your life in line with what God wants.

So, what do you do?

Well, the Bible does give us hope. In 1 Peter 5:7, we read this: "Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you."

Three things:

(1) The word for "you" is singular. It's not saying that God cares for all of you; God cares for you individually. He cares for you and for me and for the guy next door -- he cares about each of us.

(2) The word for "anxiety" is always used in the New Testament to refer to the unavoidable cares of life. So, we're on the right track with this verse. This is going to help us deal with the stress in our lives -- not by reducing stress but by managing it!

(3) The word for "cast" is actually a participle (should probably be translated "casting") that is linked to the verb translated "humble yourself" in the previous verse. Now, there are a couple of ways this could work. One popular way of translating this is to say that "casting" is how you "humble yourself". But -- this is a little complicated but it's worth it to stick with me -- the word "humble yourself" is always in the New Testament linked to the concept of obedience (see Philippians 2:8).

So, if "humble yourself" means "obey God", how is "casting" related? Well, it appears that once you've done the first one, you're allowed to do the second one. In other words, you can only "cast" after you "humble/obey".

Now, I'll be the first to admit: I do not like this. I want to cast first. I don't want there to be any sort of prerequisite for casting. I want God to just take it all, so I don't have to do anything.

But that's not how God set it up. If I start by casting, God gently comes alongside and asks me, "Have you brought your life within the parameters I've drawn for you? If not, go do that first, then come back and we can talk about this other stuff."

Humility and obedience -- that's the cost of casting.

Contents Under Pressure

Sunday morning at Shannon Oaks I began a new series looking at what the Bible has to say about stress -- something so ubiquitous I don't even need to define it or give you examples of what it looks like. It's strange if you think about it: we have so many time-saving and labor-saving devices -- things which were supposed to make life so much easier and less stressful -- and yet we are perhaps the most stressed out generation ever. Don't get me wrong: some stress is okay. Some stress is even beneficial. In a few minutes, I'm going to go to the gym and put the muscles of my upper body under a little pressure. This will enable them to be torn down and rebuilt stronger and (hopefully) a little bit larger than they were before. There are some good chemicals that don't drip in your brain unless you experience a little bit of stress. Healthy things happen in your circulatory system, in your nervous system, in your kidneys and liver when you experience stress that don't happen otherwise.

But your body has its limits. Too much stress over a prolonged period of time can cause your body to redline -- like a car that revs its engine too high for too long. And that's when things go bad.

Obviously, we all know by now the physically negative impact of carrying too much stress for too long. Hypertension. Heart disease. Stroke. High blood pressure. Lower back pain. Some doctors say that most of the things they treat people for are either caused by stress or are certainly made worse by stress. Your physical body is simply not designed to take on too much pressure for a prolonged period of time.

But long before your heart gives out or your nervous system shuts down, long before stress takes its toll physically, it has already taken its toll in other ways: emotionally, spiritually, relationally. The simple truth is this: It is extremely difficult to experience intimacy with someone who is stressed out all the time.

Sunday morning we looked at one of the simplest forms of stress reduction I could think of. It's deceptively simple because it's one of those things that's so easy to understand but so hard to actually do. It is this: If you would just live your life within the parameters God has set for you, you would immediately reduce the amount of stress in your life. Immediately. Dramatically.

Think, for example, of what the Bible says about families. It tells parents not to frustrate their children. It tells children to honor their parents. It tells husbands to love their wives, and it tells wives to respect their husbands (this doesn't mean being a doormat, but we can talk more about that later). If we'd just do those things, do you realize how much stress we'd immediately peel away from our lives?

What are some other simple instructions found in the Bible that would immediately and dramatically reduce the amount of stress in our lives?

What If You're Wrong?

It's hard to think of a scarier question than this: What if you're wrong? What if you're wrong about that investment? What if you're wrong about that innocent-looking mole on your forearm? What if you're wrong about which wire to clip first -- the red one, the green one or the black one?

I had lunch recently with a good friend, and he's going through an interesting time of transition. He's in a pretty serious relationship, and, as that relationship continues to deepen, he's starting to wonder about things like transitions. He's very concerned to do God's will, but he's a little unsure about what God's will is in this season of his life. Should he marry her? Should he stay in his current job? Should he buy a house? Should he buy a dog?

He has some ideas, but what if he's wrong?

Knowing that I've recently agreed to be the Lead Pastor at a church in Texas, he asked me how I knew this was God's will for me. The real question he wanted answered was, of course, "What if you're wrong?"

See, lots of folks seem to think there's just one viable option if you want to live in God's will. There's just one person for you. There's only one job for you. There's a right place to live, and any other place is the wrong place. You better pick well, because, well, what if you're wrong? You'll be outside of God's will, and you don't want that.

But what if we're wrong about this whole idea that God's will is narrow like that?

More importantly, what if we're wrong about what God is like?

A.W. Tozer said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.... For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like."

Could it be that our misconceptions about God -- about his character and nature and desire for our lives -- is what really keeps us from following him?

What if God isn't narrow and restrictive? What if God is a God of freedom and liberation? What if God is a God of empowerment and generosity? What if God isn't cranky and isn't walking around looking for an excuse to make life miserable for us?

If that were true, this question we're talking about might not be scary after all; it might be hopeful. What if you're wrong about God? What if he isn't perpetually angry? What if we don't have to walk on eggshells around him? What if we can rest and relax in his presence?

What if you're wrong about the way this whole thing is supposed to work?

What do you think are some of the common misconceptions about God that might be keeping us from following him?