Spiritual Warfare Series- Understanding Satan’s Favorite Schemes

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes- Ephesians 6:10-11 NIV

At some point in their spiritual journey Christians have to face the fact that for followers of Jesus this life will never be all sunshine, daisy chains and good vibes (John 16:33).

This is because we live in a world at war (John 10:10, Job 1:1-22, Luke 22:31, Ephesians 6:10-13, 1st Timothy 1:18-19).  

Christians have a very real enemy who wants to destroy us spiritually, morally and psychologically (1st Peter 5:8). Doing so, takes him a long way towards his ultimate goal of rendering as many Christians as possible ineffective at glorifying God and leading others to Jesus.   

 Thankfully, followers of Jesus sit squarely on the winning side of the war (Revelation 20:10). Nonetheless, ultimate victory does not exempt us from battle in the here and now (Philippians 2:25, 2nd Timothy 2:3-4, Philemon 1:2). The good news is that God has given us every weapon we need to be victorious. Our success is guaranteed if we learn how to use those weapons properly (Ephesians 6:13-18, 2nd Corinthians 10:3). 

One of the most powerful weapons we have in our arsenal is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, Ephesians 6:18). Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our guide (John 15:26). A healthy connection to the Holy Spirit will give us spiritual eyes to see through the schemes and tactics of the enemy (2nd Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 6:11). When we understand our enemy, we are far less likely to become collateral damage in the battle (Hebrews 12:1). 

We underestimate Satan’s craftiness at our own peril. That being said, he is not a particularly inventive creature. As a result, he tends to use the same strategies over and over again. If we learn to recognize those strategies the Bible calls his “schemes” that knowledge will empower us to live every area of our lives victoriously and lead others to faith in Jesus (2nd Corinthians 2:11).  

It’s a win win for team Jesus. 

Satan’s favorite schemes are as follows: 

The twisting of God’s words- 

This is was the very first scheme Satan used against humanity (Genesis 3:1-5). It was so off-the-charts-effective he stuck with it. Satan twists God’s word around in our minds in such a way that we end up doing the exact opposite of what God wants us to do. For example, I know a person who as a teenager was told (correctly) that Jesus said lusting in your heart is a sin (Matthew 5:28). This person concluded that since that temptation was a sin every temptation must be a sin. It seemed logical to them that if every temptation is a sin then they might as well just do the thing they were tempted to do because they were already guilty.  Sadly, the enemy created a lot of heartache for them before a good pastor straightened out their doctrinal errors. This scheme is dealt with most effectively through consistent church attendance and spiritual community. Messy theology is far more likely to be corrected when we habitually fellowship and study with other Christians. 

Discouragement or difficulty anytime we choose a higher level of obedience- 

It would make total sense for obedience to always equal obvious blessings and a trouble-free existence. Alas, that would be a fast track to one-hundred-percent obedience on our part all the time. Satan is categorically not a fan of spiritual growth or obedience. So, one of schemes is to go out of his way to make our lives difficult and complicated anytime we choose obey God fully or pursue Him on a higher level. 

A smooth path when we choose disobedience-

Interestingly enough, periods of rebellion can be some of the easiest, most stress-free times of our Christian life. When we are rebelling against God in any area Satan has nothing to worry about from a spiritual perspective, so he leaves us alone.  Our sinful choices have already rendered us ineffective.  Consequently, Satan will go the extra mile and find ways to make our path smooth in times of rebellion because a smooth path makes us unlikely to self-reflect and reverse course. Constant self-reflection is the key to overcoming this scheme. We should examine ourselves regularly and ask God to reveal any areas of sin  

Our thing- whatever that thing is- 

We all have an underlying or besetting sin that trips us up in life— usually without us even realizing what it is. Satan knows what our thing is even if we don’t and he uses our desire for that thing to trip us up every chance he gets. Our thing might be greed, lust, power, a fear of man or a desire to be in control or whatever. If you have a recurring theme in your life—and most of us do. Ask God to show you the sin at the root of the recurring theme.  There is one. If you figure out what IT is Satan will lose his power over you in that area.  

At least half the battle in spiritual warfare is understanding the tactics of our enemy. The other half is of the battle is trusting God with our lives and making the choice every day to walk closely enough with the Holy Spirit that we SEE those tactics at work so we can do something about them. 

Is it Really Sinful to Judge the Behavior of Others?

 The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them- 1stTimothy 5:24 NIV

If I were to venture a guess, I would say the best known and most quoted Bible verse of all time would have to be Matthew 7:1: “Judge not lest you be judged”.  Bible believing Christians as well as some folks who have never actually cracked a Bible in their lives have the verse memorized and are swift to whip it out anytime they sense the slightest disapproval from anyone concerning anything at all.  

Most have decided it means that the best way to escape God’s wrath (and perhaps even the fires of hell) is to simply never make a moral judgment concerning anything. A lot of people believe “you do you” and “live and let live” is the New Testament solution to escaping trouble with God. 

I don’t think it means what they think it means. 

If evading God’s judgment were as simple as not being judgmental there would have been no reason at all for Jesus to come and sacrifice Himself on our behalf. Instead He could have just wrote STOP BEING SO DANG JUDGY OR YOU’RE GOING TO BE SUPER SORRY in the sky and saved Himself a whole lot of trouble. He didn’t. So, the meaning of His words matters. 

A lot. 

If judging the actions of others is the fast track to our own punitive judgment then we should watch ourselves very carefully in this area. However, if judging actions is not wrong, then maybe, just maybe a tad bit more of the “right” kind of judging will make Christianity more what God intended it to be in the first place (Matthew 5:13-15, 1st Thessalonians 4:7, 1st Peter 2:9, 1st Peter 2:12-15, 2nd Peter 3:11).    

I’m just saying. 

It is fair to assume “judge not, lest you be judged” is not a warning against making moral judgments about behavior.  Jesus was clear: He came to fulfill the law—not abolish it (Matthew 5:17). Most of the Old Testament law (parts of Exodus, all of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) is just a long list of things God says are right and wrong. The rest is basically just a “how to” properly judge when someone breaks the law and what should be done about law breaking.  It would be more than a little odd for God to say “no” to the whole notion of making moral judgments concerning right and wrong behavior after giving His people two and a half books of commands. 

So.

Cultural context is critical when it comes to understanding what the New Testament has to say about any subject.  It’s especially important when talking about judgment in general and judging others in particular. 

Here’s the thing:

First century Jews were some of the judgiest people on earth and they did not stick to judging actions. Mostly they were all about judging whether or not a person was worthy of heaven.

 Jews believed they were special in the sense that they were the only people capable of being completely righteous and worthy of living forever in God’s presence. If someone was not a Jew—they didn’t stand a chance. Further complicating things, most assumed any Jew who did not fully obey the law was a lost cause as well. Religious leaders were all about deciding who obeyed the law “well enough” to be accepted and loved by God. Even the judging of behavior was tainted with judging the worthiness of the person.

Thankfully, for us Jesus set the standard for who gets into heaven. No one is actually “good enough” to get to get right with God on their own (Isaiah 64:6, Luke 18:19, Romans 3:12). We all suck (Romans 3:23). God in His great mercy God chose to make it all about faith in Him so we would at least stand a chance (Luke 7:50, Ephesians 2:8, Hebrews 10:39). No one (except God) can really know who has saving faith and who doesn’t. No one except God can judge another person’s worthiness of heaven. 

James 2:12-13 gives us some insight into Jesus words in Matthew 7:12. It says:

So speak, and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment-NASB

Okay, so, the English translation of this verse is awkward and tough to understand.  The Greek, comes closer to saying something like this: You will be judged with liberality, kindness and generosity by God. So, you ought to judge other people’s actions and hearts with the same liberality, kindness and generosity you hope to receive on judgment day.  If you don’t judge others with a measure of grace God will apply the standard you use with others to you. 

Yikes. 

So. Judging the rightness or wrongness of actions or behavior is not a problem. That said, a very big problem arises when we judge the motives or the hearts of people. 

We just don’t have the chops for that.  

It is sometimes critical we make judgments about the rightness and wrongness of actions. However, we must remember the goal of making a judgment about behavior is never to condemn anyone, but ultimately to help and encourage everyone to become a better, godlier version of themselves. 

The mercy we hope to be shown should ALWAYS be the standard of judgment we use on others. 

Period. 

The Seven Churches Series- Sardis the Church of Fakers

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness- Colossians 2:6-7 NIV

There really was no place in the ancient world where it was truly safe to be a Christian. The threat of persecution was a constant issue for believers in Jesus into the fourth century. Even a relatively safe situation for Christians could become categorically unsafe overnight with a sudden change of political power. That being said, there were a few places where it was safer and easier to be a Christian. 

Sardis was one of those places. 

Sardis was a sizable, affluent city located in a lovely valley that nestled up against a mountain range. Due to its remarkably safe setting and its excess of natural resources, life in Sardis was prosperous and stress-free by ancient standards. The residents of Sardis were best known for their tolerant, laissez-faire attitude towards just about everything under the sun. 

 Sardis was infamous for being a party town occupied by overindulged, underachieving, slackers.

Seriously. 

There is little evidence Christians suffered much, if any, serious persecution in Sardis.  Emperor worship was not really an issue and there are (to my knowledge) no records of Christians being martyred in Sardis. The folks in Sardis were too busy having fun to persecute anyone for anything. 

Sardis was filled with messy, lost people who needed the life-changing good news of the gospel. There was little stopping Christians from openly sharing. The Christians there were under no real threat. There was little chance they would be arrested or sent to an arena for talking about Jesus in a city as accommodating and tolerant as Sardis.  

However.

The Christians in Sardis did not use their idyllic situation to reach the lost and do good in their city.   

Sigh.

Jesus’ letters all follow a familiar pattern.  Jesus begins each of the seven letters with a greeting to the “angel” (commonly believed to be the pastor or bishop) of the church.  Jesus follows His greeting with a declarative statement about Himself. Each statement reveals something critical about His power, character and/or the authority He has over the world (Revelation 2:1, Revelation 2:8, Revelation 2:18, Revelation 3:1, Revelation 3:7, Revelation 3:14) In all but two of the letters Jesus follows with some kind and affirming words concerning the church in question. Jesus praises the church’s faith, good deeds, perseverance, and/or their love for one another, etc. Only after praising and affirming the good in their lives does He offer any criticism.

In His letter to Sardis Jesus deviates dramatically from His usual pattern. 

After the greeting and declarative statement, Jesus jumps directly to criticism and it’s objectively, quite harsh. He begins by telling them that although they have a reputation for being spiritually alive and life-giving, He knows the people in the church are dead in all the ways that matter. 

There was a lot of spiritual fakery going down at the First Church of Sardis. However, the church looked awesome from the outside. The sermons in Sardis were probably consistently on-point. The congregants as well as the leaders were very diligent with their spiritual practices. They prayed, they fasted, they had amazing discipleship programs and the people gave money to help the poor and support the church. 

However. 

Ultimately, the people in the church were more concerned with looking holy, good, wise and honest than they were with actually being any of those things. 

Their hearts were far from God and as a result, they cared little for the souls of people in their city. They had chosen the route of looking good rather than being good and their fakeness had them on the verge of spiritual death. Sadly, they didn’t even have the spiritual awareness to recognize the danger they were in (Revelation 3:2). Their only hope was repentance and repentance is nearly impossible when a person has concluded they are just fine the way they are.

Unfortunately, anyone can lack self-awareness.

For this reason alone, Sardis is (in my opinion) the scariest of the seven letters. Jesus’ words underscore the sad reality that a Christian (or group of Christians) can be a hot spiritual mess and not even be vaguely aware of any of their own problems. It is possible for respected Christians and even esteemed Christian leaders be so self-deceived they can be half-way to hell all the while believing they are leading the way to heaven (Matthew 7:13-23, Jeremiah 17:9).

Yikes.

The letter to Sardis is a much-needed reminder that we can fool a lot of humans with our surface-y goodness but we can’t fool Jesus. He sees everything there is to see. Including the state of our hearts (Hebrews 4:13). This is why self-reflection is so critically needed for believers (Psalm 26:2, 2nd Corinthians 13:5). Without a willingness to really look at our lives and examine our hearts on a regular basis we can easily deceive ourselves into believing we are way better than we really are and when we do that we risk losing our saltiness and becoming spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13)

There were a few people in the First Church of Sardis who were the real deal (Revelation 3:4).  These people had remained true to Jesus and genuinely Christian even while being surrounded by spiritual counterfeits. Jesus makes one of His most beautiful promises in all of the letters to those people. He assures them they will be given the honor of walking with Him (experiencing intimate relationship) wearing white (eternally pure and noble) for all of eternity. 

That’s worth staying real for. 

Seven Churches Series- Thyatira the Hot Mess Church


For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions- 2nd Timothy 4:3 ESV

Peculiar fact:

Comfort and ease do not always make people better people.  

Such was the case with the Church in Thyatira.

Unlike most of the churches in Asia Minor, the church in Thyatira was not living under the constant threat of brutal persecution. Martyrdom was not an everyday occurrence in Thyatira. There is zero evidence the believers in Thyatira were suffering from the consequences of extreme poverty like the Christians in Smyrna. Emperor worship was not a huge issue in Thyatira. All-in-all Thyatira was a rather peaceful place to be a Christian, at least compared to other cities in the Roman Empire. This means all of the problems in the church came from within the church.  

Thyatira was a hot mess.

Even so, the letter begins with an encouraging tone. This little detail indicates Jesus chooses to sees the good in our lives even when we are failing to live up to His expectations. Jesus praises the Christians in Thyatira for their faith in God, their love for one another other and their faithful service to Him (John 13:34-35). He applauds their perseverance (Hebrews 10:36) and acknowledges that their good deeds have grown in number rather than diminishing over time (Ephesians 2:8-10, Hebrews 10:24). 

Then the tone changes. 

Dramatically.

 Most of the problems in Thyatira appear to have revolved around a female teacher Jesus calls “Jezebel”. It is possible (but unlikely) “Jezebel” was this woman’s actual name. It’s far more likely Jesus was equating the woman in Thyatira with Queen Jezebel in 1st and 2nd Kings. This was by no means a complimentary comparison. The Old Testament Jezebel was a foul woman who normalized Baal worship in Israel. The sexual immorality and child sacrifice that went hand-in-hand with Baal worship ultimately led to judgment and seventy years of Babylonian captivity for the Jewish people. (1st Kings 16:30-32, Jeremiah 19:5, Jeremiah 32:35). 

Yikes. 

Jesus has three primary issues with the woman He calls “Jezebel”:

First, she called herself a prophetess when she was a complete fraud (Revelation 2:20). There is no shortage of good examples of female prophets in both the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 15:1, Judges 4:4, 1st Samuel 25:28-32, Isaiah 8:3, 2nd Kings 24:14, Luke 2:36, Acts 2:17-18, Acts 21:9). That being said, a title does not automatically make someone the thing they claim to be (James 3:1, 2nd Peter 2:1-4, Jude 16-21). 

Second, this woman’s teaching was ultimately a concession to the surrounding culture. Her teaching permitted Christians to practice paganism while still claiming to “be Christian”. The pagan worship she encouraged which would have certainly involved sexual immorality (adultery, homosexuality, promiscuity) and drunkenness as part of the “worship”. Joining in pagan worship was appealing to less mature Christians because it enabled them to blend in with the surrounding culture, thus keeping persecution at bay. Jesus forbids this type of compromise because He knows Christians never reach the lost with the gospel by mimicking the civilization they live in.

And finally, Jesus had in some way confronted “Jezebel” concerning her teaching and she refused to change. He confronted her, either by speaking directly to her conscience or through people He used to challenge her. She chose to continue on in her false teaching in spite of the warnings she had been given (Revelation 2:20-22). Jesus was not amused. He promises to “cast her on a bed of suffering” for her refusal to repent. This stands as a stark warning to anyone who is tempted to ignore their conscience. 

Jesus also liberally criticizes those in leadership who looked the other way while this woman led the ignorant into a spiritually treacherous compromise with the culture (Revelation 2:20).  “Jezebel” was guilty of false teaching but the weak leadership in Thyatira gave her a place to preach. Her ministry would not have lasted without the platform they provided. It’s clear from the text: the spiritual leadership at the helm in Thyatira were not oblivious nubs led astray by an evil mastermind who was outfoxing them with her excellent (but untrue) arguments. Jesus is clear: by refusing to deal with her sin they aided her ministry. 

Sigh. 

Jesus’ tough talk to the church in Thyatira teaches us that we believe about life and God matters to Jesus. It is not okay for a believer in Jesus to passively accept or willfully go after “Christian” teachings that tickle their ears and make space for sin (2nd Timothy 4:3-4). Nor, is it acceptable for Christians to help a false teacher by buying their books, listening to their podcasts or attending their church. Those who knowingly help a false teacher to grow their ministry bear a share of the responsibility for the harm they cause.  

Jesus finishes His letter to the church in Thyatira with some encouragement to the discouraged faithful there. He encourages them to simply “hold on to what they have” (faith in the goodness of God) in spite of what they see going on in their church. That’s it. That’s all He expects is their fidelity. In return He promises them a place in His Kingdom and the future opportunity to rule and reign with Him if they choose to remain faithful and true even in a church full of compromise and sin. 

Seven Churches Series- Smyrna the Brave and Faithful Church

Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them- Hebrews 11:36-38

There was no place in the ancient world where it made sense from a practical perspective to be a Christian. Everywhere in the Roman world there was always a very real chance persecution would break out. Men, women and even children were put to death simply for professing Jesus as Lord.

That said. 

There were some places where it was easier to be a Christian than others. This is because most persecution against Christians tended to center around a practice known as Emperor or Caesar worship. 

The Roman Empire was massive. Its territory covered most of Europe, Greece, all of Asia Minor (Turkey), much of the near East, Israel, Spain, much of Africa and then some. The sheer vastness of the territory created a complex problem for Roman rulers. 

Unity. 

How exactly does one unify millions of people from literally hundreds of diverse cultures and all sorts of religious backgrounds? This was a critical question. Without something to unify all those diverse people groups mayhem, rebellion and anarchy would break out all over the Empire. Clearly, none of the emperors wanted any of those things on their watch.  

This is where Caesar worship comes in. 

All adults living in the Roman Empire were obligated by law to go to a temple in their city once a year. While there they were required to throw some incense onto an altar and declare to a Roman official that whatever Caesar happened to be in power at the moment was God. If the person declined for any reason they would be transported to the nearest arena posthaste where they would be crucified, torn limb from limb, fed to a wild animal or beheaded ASAP. 

This ritual was quite effective at unifying the territories. 

However.

It also created all kinds of problems for Christians who refused to worship anyone but Jesus (Exodus 20:3, Psalm 16:4, 1st Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 4:5). 

There were cities where Caesar worship was not always strictly enforced. Christians were safer in those places. Jews were one of a handful of groups lawfully excluded from Caesar worship. If the synagogue leaders in a city allowed the church to be recognized as a sect of Judaism the Christians in the area would be given a break as well. 

The Christians in Smyrna got no breaks. Zero. Zilch. Nada. 

 The bureaucrats in Smyrna gleefully engaged in Caesar worship and were more than happy to execute anyone who refused to give Caesar his “due”. Moreover, the Jews in Smyrna loathed Christians. Not only did they refuse to protect Christians. They were so meanspirited towards the Church they would routinely report Christians as a deviant (anti-government) cult. Jewish leaders would suck up to government officials by suggesting Christians be given the “test” of Emperor worship, thus ensuring their death. The Jews were so off-the-charts cruel to Christians in Smyrna Jesus referred to the whole lot of them as a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). 

Further complicating an already difficult and scary situation, a person’s ability to work anywhere in the Roman Empire was always tied to idol worship. Because the Christians in Smyrna refused to compromise on this issue they were the poorest people in arguably one of the richest cities anywhere in the Roman world. There are two words commonly used for poverty in the Greek language. One means worker. It describes someone who worked with their hands for a living. The other means utter destitution. Jesus used it to describe the poverty of the Church in Smyrna (Revelation 2:10). The Christians in Smyrna were—by any measurable human standard— a rather sad and pathetic group of people. 

But. 

Jesus loved them. A lot. I don’t know if Jesus has favorites, but if He does they were for sure a favorite.  Smyrna is one of two churches out of the seven Jesus does not criticize in any way.  The Christians in Smyrna held a special place in Jesus’ heart for one reason and one reason only: they were faithful. They refused to cave to the immense social pressure they were under. They could have chosen to avoid taking unpopular stands on certain social issues. They could have chosen to pay lip service to Caesar and then told their church friends they didn’t or that they didn’t really mean it (Matthew 10:32).  They could have worshiped in pagan temples to keep their jobs. They could have lightened up on teaching Jesus is the only way to God (John 14:6). Those choices would have helped them gain favor with those in power. Those choices would have allowed them to make a decent living. Those choices would have kept them alive. 

Instead.

The Christians in Smyrna loudly and proudly declared Jesus to be the only God and took the many lumps that came with doing so.  Jesus did not promise them life would get easier, in fact, He did the exact opposite. He forecasted more suffering in their future (Revelation 2:10). However. He also promised He would be with them through the trouble. He also promised He would personally and lavishly reward them for their faithfulness (Revelation 2:10-11).

 Smyrna was not the polished church (that was Ephesus). Nor was it the wealthy church (that was Laodicea). It certainly wasn’t the popular church (that was Sardis) but it was a church Jesus loved passionately because it was the brave and faithful church that was unafraid to take a stand on the things that mattered most. 

The Seven Churches Series- Ephesus

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart- Proverbs 3:3 NIV

I have this theory that all Christian churches, denominations and organizations follow the same basic development pattern.

It always begins with a dream, desire or idea God plants in the heart of a person or a group of people.  This dream ultimately produces the birth of something new and beautiful (Isaiah 43:19, Acts 2:42-47).

Then comes childhood.  

Childhood is an exhilarating time in a church or ministry. Childhood is all about beginnings and growth. All the activity of this phase is born out of genuine love for Jesus, passion for the mission of Jesus and a desire to honor and glorify Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).   Leaders seek to obey Jesus above all else and as a result this phase typically results in an abundance of fruit. The childhood phase is also marked by some chaos. Leaders don’t always know what they’re doing, important things don’t get done and there can be disputes between key leaders (Galatians 2:11-14).  Because this stage is naturally volatile, if an organization stays in childhood for too long the ministry or church will die. No ministry or church can endure the disorganization and volatility of the childhood stage for long. 

It’s just too dang messy. 

If the organization or church survives the birth and childhood phase (some don’t). It slides into adulthood. Adulthood is the sweet spot for a ministry or church. There’s still a lot of enthusiasm and there is also a clear vision for where the ministry is going. The vision is firmly rooted in biblical principles and prayer. The ministry is still very Jesus centered but there’s more discipline than in the childhood phase. The policies and leadership structure developed in the early adulthood phase provide the stability necessary to keep the thing from flying off the rails. This is typically a very long phase that is even more effective and fruitful than the childhood phase. The organization or church earns a good reputation in the community and it does a lot of good. People are saved, lives are transformed and Jesus is glorified in a big way (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5). 

Then comes middle age.

If an organization makes it to the middle age stage everything is going super well from an optics perspective. Money is being raised, there are a ton of volunteers and the stated mission is still solid. 

However. 

There is a subtle shift that begins with leadership. Leaders become, usually without realizing it, much more focused on building the organization than they are on Jesus and glorifying Jesus. Jesus is still valued, but Jesus is no longer the main thing. He’s more of a figurehead at this point. Passion for Jesus and devotion to the mission gets lost in the day-to-day of “doing ministry”, “raising money” and “growing the church” (Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 10:7-9, Ephesians 4:11-16). It not unheard of for shady conduct to become a common occurrence at this point, and because leaders are focused is on how things LOOK rather than holiness, righteousness and pleasing Jesus, it is also not all unusual for shadiness to be swept under the rug, rather than being dealt with.   All or most of the ministry work of this phase is centered on programs and fund raising rather than transforming people and glorifying Jesus.  On the surface the ministry activity APPEARS to be people and Jesus centered. However, most of it is focused firmly on keeping the ministry machine going, raising money and justifying the continued existence of the organization. 

This is exactly what happened to the church in Ephesus. 

The first church Jesus addresses in Revelation chapters 2-3 arrived at middle age and their love for Jesus and concern for the spiritual and emotional needs of people became lost in their desire to maintain the status quo. Jesus called this “losing their first love” (Revelation 2:4-5).

But here’s the thing: 

No one looking at the Ephesian church from the outside would have suspected there was a problem. Even most folks who attended the Ephesian church were likely unaware of the issues. The leaders were undoubtedly clueless. Leaders at this stage almost always lack any kind of real self-awareness. As a result, they thought everything was fine. And why not? All the externals looked awesome. The pastors were skillful, polished and well-educated. The doctrine was solid.  They avoided getting involved with problematic or divisive issues. The people attending gave money and willingly suffered hardship for Jesus (Revelation 2:2-3).  

But. 

Their hearts were far from God. The people stopped caring about the things Jesus cared about. The Ephesian Church was still very busy kingdom building. It was just the wrong kingdom. It was a human kingdom instead of Jesus’ kingdom.  

Jesus’ instruction to the Ephesian Christians is straightforward: “do what you did at first”.  

Jesus knew that one of two things happens at this crossroads.

Most of the time the ministry continues a slow drift further and further from the original mission. Bit by bit it loses its ability to make a spiritual impact on the world. The church remains but the power it once had to make disciples and transform the culture evaporates. The people lose their saltiness and the church or organization becomes spiritually worthless (Matthew 5:13). If it endures it morphs into more of a social service agency than an actual ministry. 

Or.

There is a spiritual awaking.  The people who attend and lead these churches recognize the problem. They see the drift. It breaks their hearts and they repent. They fully rededicate themselves to the cause of Christ. Jesus becomes the main thing once again and the church or organization continues to be a vital part of the body and a solution to the brokenness in this world (Revelation 2:7). 

However.

Spiritual awaking’s don’t just happen.  

We need to ask God to help us see the drift in our lives and our churches and our ministries. It’s imperative we pray daily for wisdom and self-awareness and a heart that is willing to see the problems and our role in those problems. Most importantly, must be eager to do what we did at first (Jeremiah 17:9-10). We have to fight to go back to that childlike state of spiritual existence where Jesus was our everything and our obedience was a gift we joyfully gave Him.  

What Do the Election Results tell us?

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming– 1st Peter 1:13 NIV

Okay, so a couple of things:

First, just in case you happened to be on another planet for the last five months or so and missed it, there was a mid-term election last week. 

It was kind of a big deal. 

Second, I’m fairly conservative in my political views. I am not conservative because I believe baby Jesus was born with a copy of the constitution in His teeny-tiny hand.  Nor, am I conservative because I believe a person must think a certain way politically in order to become a Christian. I am a conservative because I tend to believe Jesus would be on the side of individual responsibility and personal accountability. Mostly, because responsibility and accountability lead to healthy outcomes and happy people. I also think Jesus would be on the side of life (because He created it) and I’m pretty sure He would be all-in when it comes to limiting the gender spectrum to male and female because it is the design he chose for this world (Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:23-25)  

For most conservatives the election was a full-on bummer. It was not what we wanted, or prayed for. I know it could have been way worse. That said, it was still, objectively speaking, extremely discouraging. Who would have thought soaring inflation, layoffs, war, cultural chaos and four-dollar a gallon gas would not be punished at the ballot box? But it was not. 

Here’s the thing:

 Christians are commanded to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). One aspect of that command is a call to transform whatever culture we happen to be living in into a better, healthier, more Christ-like version of itself. Because that’s the call, we probably ought to spend some time thinking about this election and what it says about the current state of affairs in this country. We also need to figure out God wants us do about that state of affairs.

So here goes:

It is becoming increasingly more clear that we are living in a post-Christian society. The values Christians have traditionally held dear are no longer a part of the greater cultural narrative.   One illustration of this reality is abortion. Fox News conducted a massive exit poll post-election. Their goal was to discover what issues motivated voters this election cycle. The number one answer was the economy. However, abortion was a very close second. It was pro-abortion supporters who swung the election.   

 This means a large portion of our society cares more about keeping abortion legal than they do about their own economic well-being and future prosperity (Leviticus 18:21, Jeremiah 32:35). Most lefty politicians voted in campaigned entirely on keeping abortion as available and unrestricted as possible. Love of abortion is not the only sign our civilization is in trouble. Violent crime against complete strangers is way up. Euthanasia is rapidly becoming a new normal and the possible benefits of infanticide are very much up for discussion. It will undoubtedly be offered as an option for new parents at local hospitals in the very near future.  

Yikes. 

 Our society is literally hurtling backwards in time towards pre-Christian, heathenish ethics. Most folks are motivated by their individual impulses rather than a desire to build a better future for their children and grandchildren. Our obsession with freedom could actually lead to our own extinction. Literally. A large portion of our population is doing everything possible to keep from reproducing and it could be our downfall.  Human beings are becoming more and more savage as our society has begun to value personal freedom over personal responsibility. Our infatuation with freedom will inevitably lead to less actual autonomy. Governments will step in to control people if they cannot or will not control themselves (Romans 13:4). 

Sigh. 

All that being said. The current chaos could turn out to be a good thing. The culture will likely get worseSometimes bad is better. Hard times cause people to think. Whereas prosperity tends to lead to greater acceptance of whatever the cultural norms are and God knows we don’t need any more acceptance of the current cultural norms.  

So, what is a Christian to do? 

First. 

As strangers living in a strange land (and that’s what Christians are) we must do our level best to live within God’s design for the human race (Genesis 1:27, Hebrews 11:13-16, 1st Peter 1:1-2). Christians should get married, have a bunch of kids, work out their problems and stay married. They should also buy houses, build healthy community and strive to be the kindest, most generous people in their cities and towns (Jeremiah 29:4-8). Living joyfully, well and within the boundaries of God’s design is the first step in “making disciples” in our messy, godless, death obsessed culture.

Then. 

We must be prepared to explain to our friends and neighbors the reasons why we do what we do (1st Peter 3:15). We need to pray like crazy for wisdom and power and boldness. Then we need to open our mouths and tell anyone who will listen about Jesus and the hope He brings to even the most messy and shattered lives. We need to give the world the hope we have received and trust our merciful and good God to bring about the change we need.

What are Warning Signs of a bad Spiritual Leader?

My anger burns against your shepherds, and I will punish these leaders. For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has arrived to look after Judah, his flock- Zechariah 10:3 NLT

Bad leadership is a booming problem in our world. 

However.

I believe there is a huge difference between an ineffective leader and bad leader. Ineffective leaders are seldom terrible people.  They simply lack the knowledge, skills and/or personal appeal necessary to lead well.  They have the best of intentions and try their hardest but they just can’t get the job done. 

Conversely.

 Bad leaders are typically quite capable. They tend to have a great deal of personal appeal and they understand how to get things done. However, because they are also oblivious, prideful, manipulative and self-absorbed they do a great deal of damage to those unfortunate enough to be led by them. 

Regrettably, bad leadership is not limited to the secular sphere.

 After nearly thirty years in all sorts of different ministry situations I feel I can say with some authority that American Christianity is infested with bad spiritual leaders. Bad spiritual leaders do far more damage than bad secular leaders. This is because spiritual leaders are the mouthpieces of God in the body of Christ (2nd Peter 1:21, 1st Corinthians 12:7-11). Moreover, many mistakenly see spiritual leaders as God’s mini-me or stand-in.  As a result, many people (saved and unsaved) are incapable of separating the actions and attitudes of a spiritual leader from the will of God. It is not uncommon for individuals who were treated badly by spiritual leaders to erroneously believe it was God’s will for the leader to mistreat them. Consequently, they blame God for the hurt they experienced at the hands of a bad spiritual leader. 

Sigh.

 God will not bless sin, therefore bad leaders are a principal reason why even many “successful” churches are powerless to convert sinners and make disciples. It’s one reason American Christianity losing people like rats fleeing a sinking ship. 

Satan is real (1st Peter 5:8, 1st Timothy 5:15, James 4:7) and not everyone who says they are a Christian really is (Matthew 7:15, Matthew 7:21).  Moreover, Christians are not robots who do exactly what God wants them to do all the time. Due to these and other factors, problematic leadership has been an issue in the Church since the dawn of Christianity (Acts 15:1-2, Acts 20:28-31, Jude 1-25). Additionally, the Bible warns us, as we approach the end bad leaders will become common in the Church (2nd Timothy 3:1-9). It is our responsibility as believers to be on the lookout for spiritual leaders who give indications of being bad leaders (2nd Timothy 3:5, 2nd Peter 2:1-22). Judgment is God’s responsibility (Ecclesiastes 3:17). However, it is our job to exercise discernment and protect ourselves and our families from the damage these leaders do.

 Bad Christian leaders are as diverse in personality as any other type of leader. However, there are certain hallmarks of a bad spiritual leader we can all look out for. Those hallmarks are:

They universally misunderstand their role- 

Contrary, to popular belief a pastor’s primary responsibility is not to deliver a well-prepared message on Sunday mornings. The primary role of a Christian leader is to equip and prepare Christians to do ministry and serve others (Ephesians 4:11-12). Good spiritual leaders empower the people around them to become the best version of themselves. They value every person for who they are not just what they can do. Conversely, bad spiritual leaders view people as a means to an end. The end is always making themselves popular and influential.  

They tend to isolate themselves from those they lead- 

Bad spiritual leaders are frequently AWOL at church events and rarely interact socially with people in their congregations even though the Bible clearly commands them to do so. (1st Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:7-8). Some isolate themselves out of pride. Others just don’t care enough about people to get past their own awkwardness in social situations. Yes, there are introverts and extraverts and there is nothing wrong with being an introvert. Furthermore, it is the height of emotional and spiritual immaturity to think a leader can or should be besties with everyone in a congregation.  That said, every Christian should care enough about others to go out of their way to make them feel comfortable in social situations. This is especially true of spiritual leaders. 

They demand blind obedience- 

Christians are called to a life of obedience (Deuteronomy 6:25, 1st Samuel 15:22, 2nd John 1:6).  Christians ought to obey leaders who are doing their level best to fully obey God. However, no one is commanded to obey a self-serving or evil leader living in contradiction to scripture. 

They are faultfinders- 

Bad leaders will read a great book like The Emotionally Healthy Leader or Emotionally Healthy Discipleship and immediately weaponize it to assess unhealthy or unspiritual attitudes in others. Bad spiritual leaders don’t self-reflect. This creates a situation where they can only see the sins of others, never their own (Jude 16).  

They don’t apologize- 

Even when it’s evident they should. An inability or unwillingness to admit wrong and apologize is an obvious indicator of a bad leader. 

They don’t have their own junk under control-

All humans struggle with sin; however, bad spiritual leaders are fleshly and carnal at heart.  Consequently, bad leaders struggle to keep their worst impulses in check. This leads to problems with sins like boastfulness, control, anger, greediness, lust, pride and dishonesty.  (Jude, 2nd Peter 2, 2nd Timothy 3:1-9, Matthew 23:23-33). 

Christianity is in crisis. 

Much of the crisis is directly due to the excess of bad spiritual leaders in the fold. Christians must protect themselves and their churches from these men and women. In order to do this Christians must lead themselves well and understand what the Bible says about life and leadership. Bad leaders flourish in the midst of immature followers who lack the wisdom and spiritual sensitivity to see a bad leader or the moral bravery to walk away from one.  

For more on this subject…

What to do when the Spiritual Battle Lands on your Doorstep-

Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm– Ephesians 6:13 NASB

Ephesians 6:10-18 is, in my humble opinion, one of the most interesting and useful passages in all of New Testament. It focuses on the spiritual realities of being in Christ. Paul wants Christians in every age to understand we are living in a world at war. There is a battle raging all around us for the hearts, minds and souls of people. 

This battle the apostle Paul describes is real. 

It’s not metaphorical or allegorical or symbolic.

There is an actual war taking place all around us in a spiritual realm we cannot see or touch but is every bit as real as the world we can see and touch (Daniel 9:12-14, James 2:19, Mark 1:34). Paul wants Christians to understand that at some point in our Christian walk this war will land on our doorstep in a very personal and painful kind of a way.  

In verse thirteen Christians are instructed to put their armor on and pray diligently because at some point in our lives we are all guaranteed to experience a personal “day of evil”.  The words Paul uses in the phrase “day of evil” poneros (evil) and hemere (day) when used together mean a time (season, period, term) full of trouble, sorrow, evil, affliction and calamity. 

A “day of evil” is a personal attack from the enemy of our souls that will hit us out of nowhere in places and in ways that will cause us extreme difficulty, anxiety, pain, confusion and possibly even create a crisis of faith. If we go into our “day of evil” unprepared due to a lack of prayer or lack of information we will almost surely become casualties of the war. 

It’s that serious. 

Every Christians own personal “day of evil” is uniquely theirs. The book of Job tells the story of one man’s “day of evil”. Like Job, our “day of evil” may involve any number of ugly and uncomfortable events that could include but are not limited to:  personal loss, financial loss, betrayal by a friend, spouse or fellow Christian, abandonment, a personal illness or the death or illness of a loved one (Job 1:1-22). A “day of evil” typically involves a whole lot of really awful things striking in quick succession. Every day feels like a new hit. 

It is possible to survive a “day of evil” with our faith intact. In fact, if we handle it right there is a really good chance we will come out of the whole ugly muddle stronger, wiser and with an even deeper understanding of our faith (1st Peter 1:3-9).

However. 

In order to make that happen there are a couple of things we have to keep in mind. First, you cannot allow yourself to fall into the trap of trying to figure out what exactly you did to “deserve” whatever weird and horrible situation you’re dealing with.

 You won’t figure it out.

 Job never did and you won’t either (Job 42:1-5). The harder you try to make sense of why this (whatever this is) is happening to you the more confused and bitter you will become. Besides, the answer is probably “nothing”. The enemy will remind you of every awful thing you have ever done in your life.  Remember, Jesus paid for all that so you wouldn’t have to.  It’s also absolutely critical you understand GOD IS NOT TRYING TO PUNISH YOU. That’s not His gig. He doesn’t punish His children for things they don’t understand. 

God is not a jerk. 

You are experiencing whatever it is you are experiencing because you live in a fallen world and terrible things happen even to Christian people in a world as fallen as ours. Compounding that reality, you have an enemy who hates you. He wants to destroy you emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Satan wants to hurt you so badly you are rendered useless for the Kingdom of God. He knows if he can bring enough discouragement, pain and unfairness into your life in a short enough period of time, there’s a pretty good chance your faith in the goodness of God will collapse like a house of cards in a hurricane (Luke 8:11-14). So, stop trying to figure it out. Asking “why” is a pointless waste of time. 

Instead, of asking God why questions spend time with Him every day and ask Him some what and how questions:

What do you want me to learn from this, God?

How can I be molded into the image of Jesus through this? 

What do I need to understand so I can grow right now?

How can I become more compassionate as I go through this?

 God does not cause horrible things to happen. However, He will use EVERYTHING we experience in this life (good or evil) for our growth and His glory as long as we are willing to cooperate with Him through the pain and confusion (Romans 8:28). 

Remember:

God does not call us to do great things in our “day of evil”. All He really asks us to do is “stand” (Ephesians 6:13). We do that by running to God with our pain and confusion instead of running from Him.

Is There a Difference Between Conviction and Condemnation?

 I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us– 2nd Corinthians 7:9 NIV

We live in a very judgy world.

Cancel culture is just one example. Canceling is an increasingly common practice that can be done in either a global or private kind of a way. 

 It works like this: 

Canceling happens globally when someone gets caught doing something or saying something a person or group of people do not like. The disapproving person or group goes after the “sinner” and punishes them for their language and/or behavior. The poor schmuck is then publicly disgraced and shamed. They lose their job, reputation and social status. They essentially become an outcast or a social pariah. 

A person is privately canceled when a friend or family member cuts them out of their life and gives them the silent treatment without explaining why they are giving them the silent treatment. 

Sigh. 

Supposedly, the whole point of cancelling someone is to get them to a place of conviction in their lives, where they acknowledge their misdeeds so they can grow.  Anyone who has actually been cancelled (either in a global or a personal way) will tell you being canceled feels more like hardcore condemnation without any mercy whatsoever. 

For the record.

I am not an advocate of cancelling. It is, in my opinion, perhaps the least healthy, least virtuous thing we do in this raging-dumpster-fire of a culture. However, the nature and stated purpose of cancelling raises an important question for believers:

Is there a difference between condemnation and conviction?

This is a question that needs answering.  

Both are biblical concepts (Romans 5:16, 1st Thessalonians 1:5, 2nd Corinthians 7:10-11). However, the Bible teaches there is a difference between the two. It matters because our view of these issues has a massive impact on how we see God, work out our salvation and treat other people when they sin against us (Philippians 2:12, Luke 7:47, Luke 6:37, 2nd Corinthians 2:9-11).   

So. 

Condemnation can be defined as a decree or sentence of guilt.  It is always accompanied by a sense we have failed and are unworthy of forgiveness. 

Condemnation always leads to hopelessness.

Conviction, on the other hand, is something the New Testament calls “godly sorrow” (2nd Corinthians 7:10-11). Conviction is a little different. It’s more like a deep and heartfelt sense we have gone off the rails and missed the mark. It is always accompanied by a sense we need to correct our course in some way. 

Conviction can be every bit as painful as condemnation. However, conviction is good because without guilt it is impossible to experience repentance and the spiritual restoration repentance brings. 

Here’s the struggle:

Condemnation and conviction sound a lot alike and condemnation can look a lot like conviction and conviction can feel an awful lot like condemnation. This is especially true if we’ve been up to no good in some area of our lives. 

Because condemnation and conviction feel so similar, some Christians are inclined to write off any guilty feelings they experience as condemnation and therefore irrelevant (Romans 8:1). Ignoring feelings of guilt is a profoundly bad idea because the Bible teaches ignoring our conscience is a spiritually risky thing to do (1st Corinthians 8:7-12) because it can lead to a hardening of the heart (Ephesians 4:18). Therefore, it is always best to pay attention to feelings of guilt. Guilty feelings should drive us to seek the Holy Spirit so we can figure out if there’s something we need to deal with in our lives before sin takes root and produces chaos and pain. 

Condemnation is a tool the enemy uses to discourage us. Therefore, it is not uncommon to experience condemnation AFTER we have already confessed our sin to God and corrected course. Condemnation will sometimes come from an unexpected source like an off-handed comment from a friend. It can come from our own hypersensitive conscience. Condemnation never gives hope. Instead it leaves us with an overwhelming sense of despondency and hopelessness. Condemnation screams into our souls that God will never be happy with us again. Condemnation almost always leads to more sin rather than less.

The whole point of spiritual conviction or godly sorrow is to facilitate change. Therefore, it is often accompanied by a feeling that we are guilty and have offended God. However, conviction also always comes with an understanding of what we need to do to get things right. God never leaves us in the dark or wondering where stand with Him. Godly conviction never leaves us feeling hopeless, despondent or like we will never be good enough. The path to repentance and healing is sometimes difficult. Repentance always means making some sort of a change. It might mean breaking off a relationship, changing a behavior, apologizing, making restitution but the path to a pure conscience is always clear. Conviction (godly sorrow) always leads to repentance.  

It is critical Christians understand God only condemns those who refuse to embrace Jesus as their Lord and Savior (Romans 8:1, Jude 1:4). It is equally important to understand guilt is good as long as we know what to do with it (Acts 3:19).