On Being Thankful From The Pit
Gratitude hasn’t always been my natural, go-to response.
My parents raised me to thank God for everything I have, but oftentimes I found myself far more focused on my hardships, adversities, and irritations. As you might imagine, this was particularly true during my college years when my childhood Epilepsy returned and forever altered the dynamics of my day-to-day life. There were countless moments when the resentment of not being allowed to drive or live on my own would cause me to erupt in fits of rage or anger — even amongst my own family. To this day, I regret each and every rash word spoken so hastily out of bitterness and exasperation. I know how much my behavior was capable of wounding my parents who were only doing their best to help me in any and every way that they could.
When I had a series of seizures that triggered a months-long battle with eating and weight loss, I was plunged further into a pit of discouragement, anxiety, and confusion. Where was God? How could He allow this to happen? Seizures and driving handicaps were bad enough, but now I was fighting neuropsychological issues surrounding food consumption as well. Nothing about this seemed right. Nothing about it seemed fair. To say that it was “frustrating” would be the understatement of a lifetime. For an on-the-go college student with a “conquer the world” attitude having my independency stripped away was enough to inspire me to punch a few walls and say a some choice words.
Of course, focusing on my miseries only left me feeling all the more miserable.
Thankfulness As A Weapon
I’ve since learned that counting my blessings — and being grateful for what I do have — ushers in an entirely new perspective on the circumstances, issues, or even people I might normally view as frustrations and annoyances. When I started focusing more on the incredible things with which God had blessed me — a loving and supportive family, great friends, a good church, reliable income, grace and salvation, the promise of Eternity with Jesus Christ — everything once deemed frustrating faded to nothingness. It was like going to war with my frustrations and defeating them all in one fell swoop. They were no more. I felt far more content despite the fact that the difficulties, tensions, and hardships were still present.
The very act of being thankful points our souls to a God who commands us Himself to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) because it is “the will of God in Christ Jesus.” He expects us to exude thankfulness even when we’re frustrated; even when we’re discouraged; even when we find ourselves in the deepest and darkest depths of the pit. In fact, there’s another command in Colossians 3:16-17:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
And yet another from the Psalmist:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” — Psalm 100:4
When we exercise this level of thankfulness — focusing more on Christ and His goodness and glory than our own circumstances or petty frustrations — we can overwhelm and vanquish the Enemy and change our entire perspective. Why bother worrying about the aggravating situations and people in our lives when life and all that we have and are in Christ is so much bigger?
The Gratitude That Supersedes Everything
Thanksgiving is spectacularly healthy and overwhelmingly refreshing for our souls. “It is good [for us] to give thanks to the Lord.” (Psalm 92:1) I never would’ve chosen this path for my life, and there are many problems in and around me that I would love to solve, but God has a reason for them all. And although there are those who might say my current circumstances are dismal and depressing, I know I can be excited about what the future holds because I’m held, loved, and led by the God who is continually writing my future and faith. (Hebrews 12:2)
And that fact alone is powerful enough to conquer, destroy, overwhelm, and overpower any spiritual force of darkness Satan can conjure up, much less a difficult trial, circumstance, or petty annoyance. So be happy. Be thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.
Just over the horizon, several miles from the nearest highway, far from any highfalutin hair salons, coffee shops or Italian bistros, you’ll find the town of four traffic lights. You know the one.
It’s the close-knit community where your grandma runs the local diner and you eat three square meals a day on the house. It’s where you met your first crush, your best friend, and were never surprised to see a tractor parked at your school. You’ve been here many times, scarcely in-person as of late, but often in your mind. You know the sights, the sounds, the smells. The nostalgia overwhelms you even now.
There’s the aroma of scrambled eggs and bacon in the mornings, the deafening cacophony of the midnight freight trains, and that little kid who once raised a pig in his backyard. It’s the same town where the local farmers don’t mind sharing their peas, beans, corn, watermelon, or cantaloupe and where the homemade apple pie is always to die for.
It’s a special place. A unique place. A small place. But, it’s yours.
I love these Nowheresville towns. There’s just something refreshing and satisfying about a tiny slice of civilization where life runs at half the speed as the rest of the world. It wasn’t until my early college years that I fully appreciated them. Sadly, they often go completely unnoticed and overlooked. That’s a shame, really, because it’s in the small towns that big things tend to happen. Big things like an explosive movement of God’s invisible Kingdom upon the hearts of His people.
This isn’t to say that renewal, restoration, and redeeming grace are absent from the chaotic cities and metropolis madhouses, but — thanks to social media — it’s easy to assume that the only thriving and successful churches left in America are the sold out Thunder Dome Sanctuaries. After all, that’s what we see every day in our newsfeeds. They’re impossible to miss. Our faces are constantly rubbed in it. Of course, the irony is that we do the rubbing ourselves. We choose what pages to “like” and what accounts to follow, but that’s an entirely separate issue for an entirely separate blog post.
Nevertheless, it’s no secret that our world is indeed urbanizing at breakneck speed. The United Nations in 2009, as well as the International Organization for Migration in 2015, estimated that roughly three million people move to cities every week. And in the midst of this mass exodus of biblical proportions, we might speculate whether anything worthwhile is being left behind in the rural communities of our land. We might callously assume there would be little for which anyone would wish to remain.
But I implore you to pause for a moment. Allow yourself to linger in the corn fields and sit on the back porches. And look closely to see the sweet, grace-filled story of smallness that God is writing in the town of four traffic lights, where the only church is less than 30 people on a good Sunday. You won’t find any stadium seating or a contemporary worship band. Their pastor hasn’t written any bestselling books. He’s too busy raising a family and running a full-time tractor parts & repair business to make ends meet.
But don’t dismiss this church so quickly. Jesus wouldn’t. After all, his Father in Heaven, the one whose hands hold the immeasurably massive universe and all uncontainable creation together (Colossians 1:17), is the same God who has a deep affection for using small, ordinary, and seemingly insignificant things to accomplish his eternal will. Jonathan found him to be a God who relishes using small numbers. In 1 Samuel 14, we see him say to his armor-bearer:
“Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the Lord will work for us, for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by a few.”
Whether the saving would be done by many or a few would ultimately be of little consequence to God and Jonathan knew it. This is such a wondrous reminder as we all know the small churches, the dwindling congregations, and the discouraged pastors who feel they cannot accomplish anything because their attendance numbers are low. And yet the God of Small Numbers breaks through the dreary rainclouds of our pessimism and hopelessness and shouts a resounding, “No! This is not so! I am the Lord and I will work for you! Who can hinder me? Who is my equal? For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them! Take heart and walk with me one step at a time. You are more than conquerors!” (1 Samuel 14:6, Matthew 18:20, Romans 8:37; additions mine.)
Speaking of small numbers, perhaps nothing better illustrates the contagious joy our Savior has for small things and their eternal value than the boy who freely offered his lunch to Jesus (John 6:9) and fed over 5,000 people, or the poor widow who literally gave all she had by dropping her two coins into the offering box (Mark 12:42). Of the latter, Jesus would say that she gave infinitely more than anyone else because she gave out of her poverty. Her gift may have been small in the eyes of man, but it was colossal in the Kingdom of Heaven. A nameless child and a penniless widow found him to be a God who relishes in using small gifts.
Time and time again we see him taking sheer pleasure and delight in moving through small places and using small groups of his people in dynamic ways; in big ways; in ways that leave us speechless. He used a tiny shepherd boy to slay a giant and bring a Philistine army to its knees. He compared his own Kingdom to a mustard seed. And he came to earth himself as a tiny baby born in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The beautiful and encouraging truth about such a God is that he has given us all the hope we could ever need to endure in faith with our small churches, in our small towns, and to follow him on this incredible journey, uncertain though it may be.
And at the heartbeat of following the God of Small Things is a desire not to simply arrive at some grand destination or to gain something prestigious along the way, but rather to embrace the wondrous realization that our leader is worth the following and the journey is worth the taking.
I’m not sure that I can technically still be classified as a “young person” as I approach the age of 34, but I can at least attest to the fact that I am indeed a former young person. Perhaps that makes me a current “young adult?” That’s basically the same thing as “an older young person,” right? I don’t really know. That sounds like a contradiction-in-terms. Like “a towering midget.” Or “a snowy summer’s day.” Wait. What was I talking about? Oh right, young people. I’ve recently observed that many folks in my generation, and the generation in front of me, tend to exhibit two diametrically opposed series of character traits, both of which seem to be in a constant state of struggle with one another.
At times, young people can be absurdly ignorant, terrifyingly oblivious, superbly superficial, embarrassingly spoiled, and nauseatingly apathetic. I’m sure many parents reading this post are nodding in agreement. But then there are times when young people can be incredibly passionate, imaginatively creative, keenly aware, inspirationally hardworking, uniquely quixotic, and heroically courageous.
Tragically, many pastors in today’s modern American church culture — and I use the term “pastors” loosely here — try to cater to the former series of traits rather than the latter. For some mysterious and altogether psychotic reason, they assume that the best way to reach a certain demographic of people is to be like them. So, in order to reach Generation Z, for instance, these rock star “preachers” don skinny jeans, hoodies, and snapback hats, hoping that once the fog machines have been switched off and the blinding light shows have subsided, no one will notice that they aren’t even holding a Bible. Instead, they’ve brought their iPads to the stage, loaded with their notes and handy Bible apps. After all, the sight of a real Bible might send throngs of youth running to the exits screaming in utter horror, and we just can’t have that happening (even though they’d be fine because there’s another megachurch satellite campus a couple of blocks away.)
This bizarre church culture phenomenon of the hipster, trendy celebrity pastor causes me to wonder: Do pastors need to exert energy trying to be “cool” and “woke” in regards to contemporary fads? Do they need to work at making themselves outwardly appealing and attractive to young people in the desperate hopes that somehow they’ll see past the phoniness and embrace Jesus and His Gospel? The answer at which I’ve arrived is an emphatic and resounding, “No.” Don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with utilizing social media, or addressing societal and political issues, or dropping a movie clip into a sermon as an illustration. These are good ways to stay relevant and to engage an audience. And I have no problem with a pastor who wears name brand clothing.
But sadly, there are scores of young adults who have become convinced that a pastor isn’t even worth listening to or connecting with unless he exhibits an hyper-inflated aura of “cool.” There are dozens of millennials who genuinely think they should be able to discuss Fortnite, World of Warcraft, or League of Legends with their spiritual leaders. We’ve raised an entire generation to believe that Sunday morning pastors only wear graphic t-shirts, hoodies, and Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers. These mindsets couldn’t be further from the truth. Here are a few reasons why:
1. Coolness doesn't save people, Jesus does.
I hate to break it to these image-conscious pastors, but nothing about their looks, success, or achievements will redeem young people and save them from an eternity in the fires of Hell. The last time I checked, there wasn’t a verse that started with the phrase “For Steve Madden and Nike so loved the world…” Leave the soul-saving work to Christ and His Gospel of immeasurable grace. (John 3:16)
2. Real, authentic ministry is usually "uncool" by its very definition and nature.
Church is messy. Take it from a pastor’s son. Ministry is messy. Yes, it’s glorious, rewarding, and incredible. There’s nothing my father would rather be doing than serving the local church and shepherding the Bride of Christ. There’s nothing I would rather be doing than aiding him on that journey. But, it’s often a dirty job. It can be painful, frustrating, exhausting, unpredictable, and uncertain. It’s not remotely stylish, chic, or trendy. I think the Apostle Paul would agree when he wrote these words in 2 Timothy 4, giving us one of the best definitions of pastoral ministry in all of Scripture:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
I'll have to go back and check the original Greek, but I just can’t seem to find anything in there about skinny jeans, designer sneakers, video games, pop culture references, or a magnetically alluring personality. I see nothing about having to reflect and resemble the culture so much that you practically become indistinguishable from it. Somehow I doubt that generating an ambience of “cool” was very high on Paul’s priority list for ministers or requirements for disciples.
3. You can still be spiritually fed by an uncool pastor.
I know this might come as a shock, but — contrary to popular belief — your spiritual growth and development don’t hinge on your pastor’s choice in clothing, his hairstyle, his familiarity with the latest gaming systems, or his knowledge of comic book characters. You can indeed — and often will — glean an abundance of spiritual insights and biblical applications from pastors who more closely resemble your grandfather than from those who look like your older brother or the celebrity rappers on VH1. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, of course, as long as they’re biblically-sound.)
Here’s the reality: Pastors are indeed cool because they preach the Truth. And that Truth is that we’re in the midst of an epic spiritual battle between the forces of good and light and the forces of evil and darkness. Even as I type this sentence, there are angels and demons waging a war for our very souls. Fortunately, we are loved by a God of Angel Armies who so passionately desired to rescue us from the pit of Hell that He left his throne room in Heaven and endured a horrific, brutal, and torturous death on a cross. Three days later, He came back to life, forever defeating the grave and Satan himself. Now He reigns forevermore as our conquering king and friend and invites us to be His disciples, His fellow soldiers, and to one day spend eternity with Him at the culmination of this incredible cosmic saga.
What could be cooler than that? Your pastor wearing Air Jordans while stepping up to the Starbuck’s counter to order a grande, iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk? I seriously doubt it.
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As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, there’s a growing chorus of believers concerned about the so-called “dumbing down” of Christianity and the “falling away” of some prominent evangelical icons. It should be noted — particularly for the sake of blunt honesty — that by “some icons” we’re really only talking about two specific people: Joshua Harris, author of the renowned “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and Hillsong singer-songwriter, worship leader and musician Marty Sampson. Both men released public statements to their followers essentially stating that they had become disenchanted with Christianity and were leaving the faith. The secular news media and Internet trolls have done their usual bang-up job at making the whole thing sound far more broad sweeping than it actually is. Contrary to popular belief, there is no epidemic of hoards of Christian leaders committing apostasy throughout America within the last week. And, to be fair, Sampson did subsequently walk back his statement and position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.”
That being said, I do think it’s important to address what is happening with these popular Christian figures and to touch on a disturbingly common trend among the church culture of elevating young leaders simply because they look cool, sing well, or speak eloquently. Let’s tackle the latter first.
You might be surprised to know — or you might not — that the Apostle Paul warned against this in chapter five of his first letter to Timothy: “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader. Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22, NLT) Some translations use the expression “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NAS) and indeed the original Greek refers to “the laying on of hands.” While this phraseology might be citing the early custom of laying hands on a penitent sinner, it’s also possible — and more likely — that it is referring to laying hands on a man in order to ordain him to a position or install him in an office of the Church.
It should go without saying, but apparently it must be said, that there is an inherent danger in promoting or advancing a leader before he’s qualified. You wouldn’t put a 21-year-old White House intern in charge of the nuclear launch codes. That’s a really good way to accidentally blow Greenland to smithereens. You wouldn’t replace the CEO of McDonald’s with the lady who just got hired yesterday as a cashier. That’s a really good way to destroy an entire fast-food corporation. By the same token, you shouldn’t expect a young or inexperienced man to be able to tend to the souls of the bride of Christ or to be a shining example of the faith. That’s a really good way to lead an entire church flock right over a cliff to meet their death on the rocks below. Paul’s admonition to Timothy is to avoid making the mistake of promoting or designating a leader unless that man has proven himself to be mature, proficient, and equipped. I don’t know for certain that this is what happened in the case of Harris or Sampson, but it’s certainly possible and therefore worth mentioning.
Before I start getting hate-mail, allow me to clarify that this is in no way a jab at “young” pastors or worship leaders. Some of my best friends became pastors in their late 20’s and early 30’s. My own father was licensed to preach at 20, but spent many years accumulating experience and gleaning insight, advice, and wisdom from godly men before serving in a full-time pastoral capacity.
As for this notion of “falling away from” or “out of” the faith, this is all terribly worded and often misconstrued. If Harris and Sampson are truly saved, then they are not “unsaved” simply because they suddenly find themselves struggling with doubts or questions. The very nature of God’s grace and forgiveness supports this. Of course, in the case of someone like Harris, who publicly renounced Christianity, openly declared that he is no longer a believer, separated from his wife, and apologized to the LGBTQ community, you could certainly make a theological argument that he’s intentionally rejected the Holy Spirit. Sampson, on the other hand, still seems to be hanging in there, albeit on “shaky ground” by his own admission.
But, rather than get bogged down in the theology of it all, I’ll close by mentioning what I think happened with these two guys, and has indeed happened with many in my generation in particular: Their faith was or became more about emotion than truth. One of the biggest problems we face in the modern church culture — and American society in general — is an environment where feelings reign supreme. In the church, this has sadly taken the form of Christians who love to worship and listen to sermons, but fail to realize that the essence of genuine worship and the pulse of sound teaching is reflected by a humble obedience to an almighty and infinite God and an unwavering belief in solid doctrine. Faith isn’t just a momentary emotional or spiritual high. It’s a daily lifestyle that values the truth of the Word over our emotional, and often childish, whims, wants, and desires. The truth of what we believe doesn’t change just because our feelings about it change. Unfortunately, Harris and Sampson seem to have indulged in their emotions and chosen their feelings over their faith. This is truly a travesty.
To any Joshes or Martys who may be reading this: I empathize with your struggles, the disillusionment, the disenchantment, the exhaustion that stems from trying to reconcile the Christian faith with the current modern American culture. I write about it all the time. I know it can be discouraging and disheartening. Even as a pastor’s son, I’ve wrestled with comprehending the nature of God in the wake of the moral decay happening around us. I’ve questioned, I’ve doubted, I’ve studied. And while I certainly can’t identify with the pressures faced by so-called “evangelical celebrities,” I can offer this encouragement to fellow believers: Hang in there. Tough it out. Endure. Don’t give up. Yes, there are some things about our faith, and about this life, that we will never understand until we enter Eternity, but the promise of Jesus is worth so much more. And I don’t know about you, but…
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold. I’d rather be His, than have riches untold.
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land. I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.
Than to be the king of a vast domain and beheld in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
Thousands of followers and zero friends.
That’s the Millennial Generation in a nutshell these days, at least according to a new survey by YouGov, which found that about 30 percent of the 22 to 37-year-old demographic “always or often” feels lonely. This means that, in comparison to the Boomers and Gen Xers, Millennials are now the loneliest and, ironically, most social media savvy generation in the country. In other words, we’re pros at making “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, but when it comes to real life, well, not so much. The poll also evaluated responses from 1,254 adults ages 18 and older and found that 27 percent of Millennials have no close friends, 25 percent have no “acquaintances,” and 22 percent have no friends at all. Only about nine percent of the Boomers and 15 percent of Gen Xers reported having zero pals. As you can see from the numbers, we’re not exactly doing a bang-up job at the whole companionship thing.
Much can and has been said of Millennials over the last several years. I’ve personally written an array of columns about my generation’s tendency toward laziness, our affinity for choosing poor political candidates, and for making even poorer life decisions. (Skinny jeans and avocado toast not withstanding.) But rarely does anyone ever stop to ask what factors might be contributing to our problems. Rarely does anyone take the time to analyze why we do what we do. Our culture simply acts as if the modern day Millennial is some kind of mysterious extraterrestrial who crash landed in central California and emerged from a dented rocket ship sporting a man bun and clutching a participation trophy for his first successful spaceflight. Or maybe he’s more like the Rodents of Unusual Size in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” lethargic, smelly, unkempt, yet always poised to viciously attack anyone who might dare enter his domain with a worldview that contradicts his own. Our society studies these bizarre creatures and airs documentaries on them, but only observes from a safe distance.
Of course, the truth is that Millennials are neither space aliens or giant swamp rats. They are human beings possessing the same spectrum of complex emotions as everyone else and are therefore subject to a whole variety of feelings and psychological tendencies. Among those is the capacity for loneliness.
But why do we feel this way? Who or what is to blame for our loneliness? While the culprits may differ in a few select and specific situations, I don’t think we can continue to blame technology and an addiction to social media platforms. That’s a massive oversimplification of an inherently complex problem. We honestly can’t even blame employment, environment, transportation, or finances. I’m an epileptic Millennial with a driving handicap, living at home, dependent upon my parents and friends for transportation, working part-time for my dad’s nonprofit organization and a local lifestyle magazine, while occasionally cutting grass on the side, and I still manage to find time for social interaction, dating, and the like. Enough with the excuses.
The real reason most Millennials “feel” lonely, and report a lack of friendship, is because they actively and intentionally choose to isolate themselves and avoid meaningful connections with other people. Something within their emotional and psychological makeup decides that they would rather get by in life without developing deeper relationships. Sure, they might spend eight to ten hours a day with their coworkers at Burger King or at the office, but when they clock out and go home to an empty apartment or to mom and dad’s house, they still feel overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness. Some of them might even go to church once or twice a week, but never take the time to form a substantial bond with another human being or have coffee with a few peers. They live lives of utter seclusion, totally cut off from the rest of the world, all while wondering why they feel so alone. This is not healthy.
Whether they’re glued to Facebook or textbooks is irrelevant, so let’s stop having the social media debate. We all know young people are typically active online and, more often than not, are glued to their smartphones or laptops. But even married Millennials often report feelings of loneliness due in large part to spending their days consumed by their jobs and only ever seeing their coworkers and spouses. These couples spend little time with family, friends, other couples, or a local church which, again, are all intentional choices. And at the end of the day, isolation is isolation.
I’m making sweeping statements here, but they’re accurate statements nonetheless. Many Millennials have fallen victim to a dangerous mindset that independency and the coveted solo-life are so desirable that, in doing so, they’ve completely ignored the truth that mankind was not meant to try to survive life alone. The numbers simply don’t lie. And I think it’s important to address this detrimental behavior and to issue a couple of reminders to my generation:
1) Don’t get ahead of yourself in life or become discouraged because you haven’t obtained certain social accomplishments like a career, an apartment, a house, a marriage, or whatever. Your peers and your Facebook friends might have those things, but it doesn’t mean that you need them yet.
2) If we’re ever going to break the cycle of Millennial loneliness, and negate all of these new statistics, it will mean getting out of your isolation bubble and making some friends beyond coworkers, classmates, or even your spouse.
These are basic fundamentals, guys. And I really don’t think it’s asking too much. Good luck and Godspeed.