Should You Earnestly Desire to Prophesy?

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) once described a remarkable experience he had while preaching:

He suddenly broke off from his [sermon] subject, and pointing in a certain direction, said, “Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been pa…

What Do Cessationists Believe About Prophecy?

In 1 Corinthians 14:1, the apostle Paul writes, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” This verse is at the heart of a significant debate among evangelical Christians. Some believe that to obey this c…

The Secret to Self-Discipline

The Secret to Self-Discipline

LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA today, and some argue he’s the best player ever. He’s earned the moniker “King James.” His dominance, however, doesn’t result from his elite, God-given athletic talent alone. He keeps his body in peak condition through an extremely disciplined and rigorous workout and diet regimen.

Nearly every day of every year, James subjects himself to grueling physical exercise and stringently-controlled nutrition and hydration routines. In fact, he spends $1.5 million a year continually subjecting himself to things the vast majority of us continually avoid. Why?

Because he prizes NBA championship trophies, a growing list of personal achievements, accolades, and records (already a mile long), and all the benefits that come with those trophies and success. King James exercises tremendous self-discipline and endures a great deal of unpleasantness for the sake of what gives him joy.

James knows the secret to self-discipline (consciously or unconsciously), a secret that applies to all of us: joy. The secret is not that each rigorous exercise of self-denial gives us joy. The secret lies in the prize — what we’re willing to endure self-denial to have.

Power in the Prize

In the Bible, this is not a secret. Paul knows exactly why Lebron James spends more than a million dollars on his body:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 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 9:24–27)

Here’s the point: elite athletes don’t live disciplined lives because they think disciplined lives are virtuous. They aren’t stoics; they’re hedonists — pleasure-seekers. They live disciplined lives and endure all kinds of self-denial because they want the pleasures of the prize. They believe the pleasures of the “wreath” (or medals, trophies, rings, and records) are superior pleasures to the pleasures of self-indulgence.

The Imperishable Prize

Notice that Paul doesn’t call their pursuit of reward wrong. Far from it. Paul shamelessly states that the pursuit of a reward also fuels his self-discipline and should fuel ours. The only difference — and it’s a big one — is that the reward he pursued was an “imperishable” wreath, which he describes here:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

Gaining Christ through the gospel — gaining all of God and all his promises to his cross-reconciled children for all eternity and losing all sin and all death and all hell and all their accompanying miseries — was the reward that gave Paul his laser-like focus and fueled his self-discipline.

The power for self-discipline does not come from admiring self-discipline. It does not come from wishing we were more self-disciplined. It does not come from making new resolves, plans and schedules for self-discipline (though these help when the fundamental motivation is right). It certainly does not come from loathing our lack of self-discipline and resolving (again) to do better — and this time we mean it. The power for self-discipline comes from the prize — whatever we really want, the reward we believe will yield us the greatest pleasure.

Why Am I Not More Disciplined?

How many times have you made some resolve, let it fall by the wayside, and wondered why you’re not more disciplined? I’ve done it more times than I care to admit. What’s our problem?

Well, first let’s acknowledge that we’re complex beings and numerous factors can play into our capacities for self-discipline. Our genetics, conditioning, past trauma, various kinds of mental health struggles, and many other issues all affect us to differing degrees. And God understands how they affect each of us. He knows we don’t all have the same capacities for self-discipline and doesn’t hold us all to the same expectations. Jesus’s principle applies here: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). So, we must be careful when assessing ourselves in comparison to others, and very careful and gracious when judging others.

But these factors don’t change the fundamental fuel that powers the capacities we do have for self-discipline and self-denial: the joy of a reward set before us (Hebrews 12:2).

When Will Power Seems to Fail

We often chalk up our discipline failures to a lack of will power. We look at a LeBron James and think if we just had some of his iron will, we could stick with it. But will power is not our problem — at least not in the way we usually think. When we abort some resolve, it’s actually our will power that’s overriding it.

Our will always obeys our wants — our real wants, not our fantasy wants. And our real wants are based on our real beliefs, not our fantasy beliefs.

So, when we can’t sustain some new self-discipline regimen, it’s very likely that our resolve was based on a fantasy reward. What typically happens is we imagine what experiencing the benefits of attaining some goal might feel like — perhaps a fit body, or reading the Bible in a year, or some kind of career advancement, or the fruit of more intercessory prayer, or a financial savings goal, or a new boldness in evangelism. What we imagine appears desirable to us. We feel a burst of inspiration, so we make a resolve. We think (or want to think) our inspiration stems from a new conviction that the reward we imagine will make us happy.

But once we experience the unpleasantness of self-denial, the inspiration evaporates and the goal no longer seems worth it, so we give it up. What happened? We liked the imagination of the reward, but the reward itself wasn’t real enough to fuel our discipline — we didn’t really believe in it. It was a fantasy. And when the fantasy was dispelled, we realized we wanted another reward more and our will followed.

It wasn’t a lack of will power; it was a lack of reward power.

Eyes on the Prize

That’s why Paul said, “I do not run aimlessly” (1 Corinthians 9:26). Like LeBron James or the ancient Olympians, Paul “ran” with his eyes on the prize he really wanted — the prize he believed would yield him the most happiness.

That is the key to self-discipline: our real belief that the pleasures of a reward will be worth the denial of lesser pleasures. And that’s what nourishes the spiritual fruit of self-control in our lives (Galatians 5:23): wanting the rewards the Spirit offers us more than the rewards sin or the world offer us.

This is really good news to self-discipline stumblers like us! If we’re not pursuing the kingdom of God first (Matthew 6:33), if the surpassing worth of knowing Christ isn’t causing us to count all else as rubbish (Philippians 3:8), the Spirit’s remedy to our problem is not more white-knuckled, duty-motivated efforts to be more disciplined. Rather, the Spirit is inviting us into greater delight. He wants us to explore and examine the imperishable reward God longs to give us with all his heart and soul — to plead that the eyes of our heart will be enlightened to see it (Ephesians 1:17) — knowing that the more we seek to see, the more he’ll reveal and help us believe. And the more that happens, the more we’ll view self-discipline, not as a drudgery to be avoided, but as a means to the joy we really want.

When athletes lose motivation, their coaches and trainers exhort them to get their eyes on the prize. That’s Paul’s exhortation to us when he says, “So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). For sustained self-discipline for the glory of God is always fueled by intense desire for more joy in God.

Lord, Make Me a City on a Hill

How many pastors would be ordained if Jesus examined them?

Let me be more personal. Would Jesus have ordained me had he sat on my council of examiners? When I look back on my ordination exams, I wonder if I got off too easy.

It’s not that th…

Yawning at Majesty: How to Fight Boredom with the Bible

Yawning at Majesty

Let’s say you were given this assignment: construct a book that will remain relevant for millennia and radically influence the greatest civilizations in the history of the world. How would you do it?

Would you think that compiling the book’s contents over 1,500 years, employing at least 40 different authors, incorporating numerous and very different genres, and originally composing it in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) is a good strategy? I doubt it.

It’s good God doesn’t consult us on things like this.

The Bible is the most amazing book in the world. And when we’re tempted to feel bored with it, we may need to step back and remember how marvelous and unique and powerful this piece of literature is. The Bible is simply unequaled in its influence, audacious in its claims, and unrivaled in its power to transform hardened sinners into humble saints.

Unequaled

Just think about what God was aiming to accomplish in the Bible. He purposed to convey the truth of redemption (the gospel) in ways that would be understood and believed by people in thousands of diverse cultures, speaking thousands of different languages, over thousands of years. Have you ever thought how incredible it is that the message of the Bible can be believed, and the gospel can be lived out, in the most primitive and most sophisticated cultures on earth — in every age?

Not only that, but God determined to make the most important parts of the Bible comprehensible to small children and uneducated adults, and yet be able to withstand the most rigorous pounding of academic literary criticism. The Bible has taken, and continues to take, more critical cannon fire than any other book in history, and the ship just won’t sink.

The Bible would not likely be chosen by the literati who give out the Nobel Prize for literature, though it certainly contains remarkable works of art. Nevertheless, it has and continues to shape the course of world history like no other book ever has. As a historical phenomenon, it is simply unequaled.

Audacious

And the Bible is unashamedly audacious in its claims. That’s why it either inspires devotion or hatred in its readers. Because as J.C. Ryle says,

If the Bible is not the word of God and inspired, the whole of Christendom for 1,800 [now 2,000] years has been under an immense delusion; half the human race has been cheated and deceived, and churches are monuments of folly. If the Bible is the word of God and inspired, all who refuse to believe it are in fearful danger; they are living on the brink of eternal misery. (Old Paths, 11)

The Bible claims it is “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), “perfect” (Psalm 19:7), and “living and active,” able to discern “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

And at the climax of the written word is the recorded life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, who the written word calls the Word incarnate (John 1:1). And the incarnate Word claimed audaciously that he was the same word that issued from Moses’s burning bush (Exodus 3:14; John 8:58), and declared unequivocally that he was “the way, and the truth, and the life” and that no one comes to God except through him (John 14:6).

Take the written word at its word, and take Jesus at his word, and a reader must either bow to Jesus as Creator of all and Savior of those who repent, or reject him as the most dangerous megalomaniac of all time. Either Bible-believers are deluded fools, or Bible-unbelievers are in terrible peril. There is no real middle ground. The only people who are lukewarm about the Bible are those who don’t take its claims seriously.

Unrivaled

But in the lives of those who do take it seriously, who embrace its claims and its Savior, we see the greatest evidence of the power of this book. As John Piper writes,

The peculiar glory of God in Scripture is reflected in his people: they are transformed from self-centered, self-exalting people to God-centered, Christ-exalting servants, who live for the good of others. In this, they are like Christ, the perfect embodiment of the peculiar glory of love through lowliness. This change extends the self-authenticating evidence of the glory of God through the word into the character and the good works of God’s people. Thus the people who are most transformed by the word become evidences of the reality of the God of the word. (A Peculiar Glory, 260).

The Bible is often accused of inciting all manner of violent historical horrors. It is an ignorant, foolish, and at times willfully misleading interpretation of the violence recorded in Scripture and the violence recorded in extrabiblical history. Since the dawn of time, human beings have been manipulating every form and level of power and every religion to slake their evil, self-glorifying desires for money, sex, and more power. The real story is not that the Bible has been abused in such ways — in fact, the Bible teaches us not to be at all surprised when this happens.

The real story of the Bible is its unrivaled power to transform murderous, covetous, sexually immoral, pathologically selfish people into humble, self-sacrificing, servant-hearted lovers of God and other people. There is a reason Christians, more than any other group of people throughout history, have been on the forefront of aiding the poor, tending the sick, educating the masses, and standing against injustice: the Bible’s teaching.

You really want to change the world? History would teach you to take the Bible seriously and obey what Jesus says in Matthew 22:37–39.

Yes, there are glaring, tragic, shameful historical failures. But examine closely the larger (usually greed-driven) cultural failures (like the African slave trade and the repeated betrayals of the Native American peoples), and who are most likely to be the few, courageous people advocating for the rights and needs of the oppressed at the times when it’s most costly and dangerous to do so? The fashionably and liberally religious? The atheists? No, serious Bible-believing, Bible-obeying Christians — because of the Bible’s unparalleled power to move believers toward others’ real, desperate need, even at the risk of their own lives.

Anything but Boring

The Bible is the world’s most amazing book. You can love it and believe it, or you can hate it and despise it. But you cannot deny its unequaled global influence, its audacious claims, and its unrivaled power to beautifully transform lives. The Bible has achieved what no other book has been able to do.

And you can hold one in your own hands!

Are we bored with it? Oh, boredom! That plague of our finite, fallen, self-oriented flesh that so easily loses appreciation for the most precious treasures simply when they become familiar! Forgive us, Father, and hasten the day when we lose our amazing capacity for boredom and gain an amazing capacity for sustained amazement!

If the Bible has grown boring to you, fight it! Remember what makes it marvelous and marvel again. Look at it again, and take time to look. If it bores you, that’s when you really need to keep looking. Look until the peculiar glory begins to shine again, until you don’t want to stop looking. For those who see this glory just never get to the bottom of it.

The Greatest Thing You Can Do with Your Life

One of the most wonderful and hopeful things you can know about yourself and your life is captured in a rather unassuming, simple sentence:

Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him….

Your Life Is Not Boring

Sometimes we need a good dose of reality therapy — a reminder that reality is far wilder and more wonderful than we often realize.

We have this strange tendency to take our own existence, others’ existence, and the world we live in for granted, a…

Jesus Understands Your Loneliness

Do you ever think of Jesus as lonely? Certainly his moments in Gethsemane and on Calvary were uniquely and terribly lonely, but what about the rest of his life?

In some sense, he may have been the loneliest human in history.

Loneliness is w…

Bored to Life: How to Fight Spiritual Apathy

Midsummer. American parents of school-aged kids know this as the season of boredom. The summer holiday’s novelty has worn off. Many fun things so anticipated during the final weeks of school have been enjoyed. Free time has become routine. Parents are …

Don’t Underestimate the Enemies of Your Soul

Spiritual warfare is not a metaphor. It would be more accurate to say that human warfare is a metaphor — and an expression — of the even more real and pervasive spiritual war being waged all around us. And unless we engage it seriously, we will not be …