Healing? Yes!

I went to a prayer seminar on healing today. Luther J. Oconer was the speaker; he was quite good. Dr. Oconer cleary has knowledge and history in the Pentecostal traditions. I imagine portions of his teachings were new material for some of the more traditional Methodist attendees.

During the course of the day, Paul’s thorn was brought up by a member commenting on not knowing if God would heal, because God never healed Paul, despite repeated requests. As interaction with this same gentleman continued, it became apparent he was not convinced of God’s desire to always heal – maybe there was a purpose in his physical pain. He was willing to receive prayer, but spoke of being a “hard case” who had been prayed for many times before without success.

This well-meaning gentleman’s story is not atypical. Many don’t know or believe, or know they can believe, or believe they can know God’s position on healing. The typical person from American society would not postulate that God is the healer of our illnesses… that’s what doctors and hospitals are for (I have no issues with doctors or hospitals – they are ministers of grace and necessary for many people. There is no sin in attempting to bring wellness to another.).

I spoke up and addressed Paul’s thorn to the group. Typically when Paul’s thorn is discussed, it is to discuss not knowing whether or not God will heal, because he didn’t in Paul’s case. Paul’s thorn is often said to be an illness or sickness that Paul was told he had to endure – to keep him humble. However, the Bible is clear in showing that this is not accurately the case. What does the Bible say?

2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10: So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (italics mine)

While we can not know the exact nature of the thorn, we do know the “what” of what it was – it was “a messenger of Satan.” In his writing, Paul gives the figure of speech (thorn in the flesh) and immediately defines what this means (a messenger of Satan). He does not say, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a deep aching in my right side” or “a thorn was given me in the flesh, and I have endured migraines because of it.” Paul was very clear – a messenger of Satan. When we look at Paul’s life as a whole, there was plenty he had done which would give Satan fodder with which to buffet him. Paul was complicit in the death of Christians before his salvation. It is perfectly logical that the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10) would regularly remind Paul of his past. Paul was keenly aware of who he was in the flesh and what he had done (I Timothy 1:15). We may be buffeted, accused, insulted, receive persecution and survive calamities – but none of these things is sickness. You simply can not find Biblical evidence to support that Paul’s thorn was sickness. (Please see my next post for some updated thoughts on this topic).

Additionally, it has to be noted in the case of Paul’s thorn, that while God did not remove the thorn, Paul was made aware of why he had it (to keep him from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations). So for those who say that “maybe” God is causing a sickness for some reason or to teach them something, but they don’t know the reason… well, then God is not doing a very good job at teaching them anything via their sickness – just something to consider.

But showing that Paul’s thorn is not described in the Bible as sickness also does not show that God is our healer. The argument for this is simple, though. Consider the following:

Exodus 15:26: “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer.”

The Hebrew here shows that God is our Jehovah-Rapha (The Lord that Heals). It is one of His names given in the Old Testament.

Further, Malachi 3:6 adds, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

God is the God that heals, and God does not change. He also does not discriminate or show partiality (Acts 10:34).

We all take for granted that salvation from the consequences of sin is provided for all who receive the gift given by what Jesus suffered at the cross, but the cross covers all aspects of our lives: spirit, soul (mind) and body.

Isaiah 53:5, speaking of Christ: But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

Consider it. He was pierced and crushed for our sins (spiritual healing/salvation). The chastisement of our peace was upon him (this brings mental/emotional healing – and is why we can say we have the spirit of power, love, and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7)). And with his wounds we are healed (physical healing). The word for “wounds” in the ESV is translated “stripes” in the King James. You may have heard the phrase “by his stripes we are healed.” The word for “healed” here comes from the Hebrew (Strongs H7503) râphâʼ, raw-faw’; or רָפָה râphâh; a primitive root; properly, to mend (by stitching), i.e. (figuratively) to cure:—cure, (cause to) heal, physician, repair, × thoroughly, make whole. (from Strong’s Concordance).

Christ’s sacrifice provided all healing – spirit, soul (mind) and body. Just because we don’t always see this manifest does not mean it’s not true. There are many truths of God found in scripture that are not lived out in the lives of believers. But does this mean God is not willing? No… in all these cases “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (see Romans 3:4). Also remember, we are not yet perfected. Jesus died for our sins, but we still sin. Jesus died for our peace, but we still have times of fear. Jesus died for our healing, but we still struggle with sickness as well. All of creation is eagerly awaiting the coming perfection (see Romans 8:19).

Jesus did not even distinguish between healing physically and the forgiving of sin. In Mark 2:9 he says “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” Jesus considered the two (healing and forgiving of sin) to be two sides to the same coin… if only we could do the same! (See Mark 2:1-12)

The Bible says that as a man believes in his heart, so is he (Proverbs 23:7). Our society, even if based our our real and personal experience, has taught us that salvation is limited to the “by and by.” That healing is for some, but not all. By the very traditions and teachings of men, we have put God in a small, limited box. Mark 7:13 clarifies that the traditions we hand down can nullify the Word of God in our lives, making the word of God of no effect. We must be careful… do we believe what we believe because it is our experience and what we have been taught, or do we believe what we believe because it is what the scripture says? What must adhere to what scripture says – it is the only truth, no matter what we experience that seems to contradict. We must believe the Word of God!

Does this mean that everyone will always be healed every time they are prayed for? Sadly, no. There will always be those who are convinced they are the “hard case” who won’t be healed. There are always things we don’t know or see that may be blocking the path to healing. But that doesn’t make God a liar. We should always seek God as if his word is 100% true, because it is 100% true. Whether it takes a minute or a lifetime, we will ultimately see his truth and we must not give up or lose faith on that journey. We may also be surprised at what God does in our life as we take that journey.

Have we Been Called to Maximize our Strengths?

I while ago I asked a pastor’s wife friend of mine if she knew of any Bible studies I could participate in. Ultimately, this lead to my taking a Ministry by Strengths course built on the foundation of the Tom Rath book, Strengths Finder 2.0. The basic gist of the study is that trying to improve our weak areas is futile; instead we should figure out what are strengths are and maximize them. We will work best when we work to our strengths. By earthly logic, this sounds like a can’t miss.

In the process of the study, I have taken a lengthy likert scale questionnaire assessing my leanings towards several character traits. The scoring gives me my five top strengths, which for the purpose of this study fall into four main themes.

The four main themes are:

  1. Relating
  2. Impacting
  3. Striving
  4. Thinking

My strengths and how they define me came out as such:

Relating theme:

Relator – I am pulled towards people I know and enjoy the relationships I have with my close friends.

Striving theme:

Achiever – I have a consistent need for achievement. I need to achieve things in order to feel satisfied.

Thinking theme:

Deliberative – This trait describes me as a careful, vigilant, private person. I am a fairly serious person who recognizes the risks and am cautious in which way I go and with whom I associate.

Input – This trait describes someone who is inquisitive, a collector of knowledge (or things), always wanting to learn (or have) something new.

Learner – Similar to input, this theme describes my love of learning, especially the process of learning (researching). I am energized by the deliberate journey from ignorance to knowledge.

Overall, I feel my top five strengths do describe me well. At this age in life, I know who I am, and I know the areas God is constantly working on with me. Finding I had these “strengths” was nothing unexpected. Within the four themes, there are 34 possible strengths for each person. I’m sure many people would easily describe themselves with a large handful of the many available traits.

The Ministry by Strengths study has worksheets for each of 7 weeks. Much journaling is expected as one discovers his strengths and the importance of learning to work with them. The first three weeks build up to our taking the online questionnaire which, when scored, points out our top five strengths. Very little Bible is referenced for these three weeks. Weeks four through six involve discussion of each of the strengths, and how we see them impacting our lives. Only a little scripture is discussed in class, but the handout for week four includes biblical examples of each of the 34 strengths in action.

The biblical examples for my top five strengths were listed as the following:

Relator: Elijah and Elisha had this strength, as they had a closeness to each other to the point of Elijah’s translation. In the book of Acts, the church has this strength in that the believers were together and had everything in common.

Achiever: Martha was an “over” achiever – in that she was too focused on getting things done instead of doing what her sister Mary did – listen to Jesus, sitting at his feet. Proverbs 13:4 says “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” Ephesians 2:10 says “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” See also 1 Thessalonians 1:3.

Deliberative: Judges 6:36-40 tells the story of Gideon asking God to place dew on a fleece but not the ground, and then the next night, just to be sure, he asks God to do the opposite. In Luke 14: 31-32, Jesus tells a parable of the importance of assessing whether or not one can go to war against another, and if not, send a delegation (Jesus is discussing the seriousness of the decision to follow him).

Input: Ezra had this strength in his study, observance, and teaching of the Law of the Lord (Ezra 7:10). In Luke 12: 15-21 Jesus warns of too much of the input trait in the story of the rich man who had so much from his crops that he tore down his barns to build bigger ones, only to have his soul required of him – the lesson being not to store things up for yourself when you are not rich towards God.

Learner: Solomon was a dedicated learner (Ecclesiastes 1:12-17). Jesus states we should learn from him; his yoke is easy (Matthew 11:29-30). In Colossians 1:9-10 Paul prays that God will fill us with all knowledge of Him.

My initial thought is that this is not a Bible study. This is simply a self-improvement course which follows the same earthly logic of most self-improvement courses. It offers a method to learn about and improve oneself. As the Tom Rath book is by no means Christian, and offers no biblical basis for its structure, any biblical connections made are an afterthought by the Ministry of Strengths team. This study didn’t start with the Bible, but did make some small attempts to work backwards into a biblical connection.

Going into this study, having known myself for forty-some years, I could have told people what my stronger personality traits and preferences are, whether for good or for bad. Reviewing these often was a conversation in the obvious. I found it interesting that personally I see some of my “strengths” as negatives. Due to my achiever strength I often become obsessed on things that I should be relaxed about. I work too hard and don’t rest when involved in a project. My need for Me to start a project for Myself can actually be a distraction to time with God.

While there are certainly benefits to the deliberative strength, this “strength” also causes me to be unnecessarily untrusting, and unwilling to take risks that may work out to be great benefits in my life. It also hinders my trust in God when He asks me to “step out in faith” in something that may not make sense in the natural. His wisdom is foolishness to man, and a man with a deliberative strength doesn’t really trust in what is perceived as foolishness.

When it comes to gaining knowledge, I see very little difference between the input and learner strengths. For me, these can be positives, as I research things well, including the word of God. It is the reason for this essay you are reading. For tangible things, though, the input strength can be a negative for me, as I can easily become obsessed with collecting things I don’t really need, spending quite a bit of money in the process.

In reviewing my strengths, I honestly don’t think I need to maximize some of them; I need to reign them in!

As we were going through the strengths one by one in class, we started with the relating themed strengths. My natural self is not strong in these areas. I became excited a couple of times in the study when we were discussing an area of possible strength and I recalled examples of how God has worked with me in these areas. When discussing empathy and includer I even spoke up with how God has pushed me in these areas which are not in my fleshly nature. My comments, though, were not met with great reception, as it was perceived by some in the study that I was incorrectly focusing on my areas of weaknesses – something we shouldn’t do due to the futility of doing so. We are supposed to maximize our strengths.

This really got me thinking. The more we went over the relating theme strengths all I could see was that for nearly every strength, we are ALL supposed to improve in the “strength” or trait as we grow in Christ. The “strengths” are Bible mandates! For the impacting and striving themed strengths, it was clear that in some aspect, we should all demonstrate the traits in our lives, though some could clearly have a strength in a trait compared to others. As we moved through the striving themes and into the thinking themes, I often thought how such “strengths” or traits could be negatives (sometimes) causing people to easily develop dependence on themselves, and themselves alone. If there were no God in the picture of humanity, then things would be different, but as it is, as Christians, we need to be careful of self-dependence when our lives are supposed to be fully rooted in Christ.

Towards the end of the study, we compared how our positions in life (jobs/career/etc.) lined up with our strengths. We were also to consider: Are we doing what we are called to do? For me, my strengths line up very well with my unique career. But that’s no surprise. God took a total stranger and had him give me an all expense paid education involving two graduate degrees in my career field – a field I didn’t even know existed before it was placed in my lap. However, my calling is much more than my career – even if my career is God given. My calling involves how I allow God to use me in my career, and for God to use me in my position, he has had to work on many areas that are not strengths to me, areas that the Ministry by Strengths authors would suggest I not focus on. God’s focus is not man’s focus, and that is the fundamental truth that is missing in this study.

The paragraphs above show the gist of this study as it played out for me. The paragraphs below will be an exegesis of the 34 strengths in an effort to see what the Bible says about each. The 34 strengths are laid out under their main theme, with a brief summary of Rath’s book’s definition. Under each description the Ministry by Strengths course’s scripture references, and other references/commentary are provided:

The Relating Theme

The strengths listed under the relating theme are: communication, empathy, harmony, includer, individualization, and responsibility. At first glance, it is clear that these are traits all Christians should be known for. In reading through the scriptural examples, it is confirmed that many of these are simply to be the traits of a Christian. If by the nature of following a strengths course we find we don’t have these traits, we should know that we should seek God to better develop these aspects of His Spirit within us. If we find we do have these strengths, then we will need to be sure we are using them for His Kingdom and glory. Either way, scripture would suggest that these should all be strengths to be maximized. Unfortunately, as the Ministry by Strengths study frowns upon wasting time focusing on improving areas of weaknesses, those who don’t have natural strengths in the relating theme areas are not encouraged to seek God regarding the weakness.

Communication. This strength is defined just as you would expect. People with this strength communicate well, bringing life to the events they speak or write about. People hear and take in what a communicator has to say:

  • Colossians 4:5-6: Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

From the Colossians verse, I see that we all should be able to communicate our faith to others. I find the second example of a communicator given in the study materials interesting. Exodus 4: 10-16 shows how Aaron was a man with a strength in communication. It is true that Aaron was a good communicator, and God let Moses use Aaron to speak for him, but… this was not God’s intent. God had told Moses himself to go, and God had said he would teach Moses what to say. Moses had complained that he was “slow of speech and tongue” and God responded by pointing out that He had made man’s tongue and that He would be with Moses’ mouth… but Moses continued to complain. “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well.” It was in anger that God sent Aaron with Moses. Clearly, God’s initial intent was to use Moses, and to show His strength despite Moses’ weakness in communication.

As we have worked through this study on maximizing our strengths, the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: 9 have continually come to my mind – But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Empathy.  These people can sense the emotions of those around them and can see the world through another’s eyes. The empathizer may not agree with another, but he does understand. Someone with empathy can hear the unspoken question:

  • Matthew 7:12: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
  • 1 Peter 3:8: Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:26: If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
  • Galatians 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Harmony. Someone with the harmony strength does not see the value in conflict or confrontation, but seeks agreement. Finding the common ground is a gift, and focusing on that ground moves people forward:

  • Romans 12: 16-18 – Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  • Romans 14: 19 – So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Includer. This person wants everyone to feel involved and accepted. The includer wants to draw others in, and casts few judgments  so that others can benefit from the larger group:

  • Romans 14:1: As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
  • Romans 15: 7: Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Individualization. An observer of others, the person with a strength in individualization is intrigued by the unique qualities of others and sees the differences between people. You can sense the strengths in others, and draw those out in your interactions with them:

  • Exodus 35: 30-36 tells of Moses pointing out the strengths and teaching abilities of those chosen by God for various tasks in building the Tabernacle.
  • 1 Corinthians 12 speaks of the many parts and purposes of the body in the body of Christ.

I agree that some people may have a true strength above the average person in being able to see purpose in others and organize a team accordingly, however, scripture makes it clear we should all be cognizant of the value and purpose of everyone in the body of Christ.

Relator. The relator is pulled towards people he already knows and derives pleasure from being around close friends. The relator is comfortable with intimacy and enjoys an increasing understanding of how the other person works. Relationships are valuable if they are genuine:

  • Acts 2: 42-47 tells of how the early church had all things in common and shared all things.
  • The second reference in the study speaks of Elisha wanting a double portion of Elijah’s anointing, and the close relationship he held with Elijah until the point of his translation.

While provided in the Ministry By Strengths study materials, neither illustration above gives a great example of a relator as defined in Rath’s book. It should go without saying that as a Christian we should be able to hold close relationships where we are accountable to another and support one another. Some verses along this line would be:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:11: Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
  • James 5:16: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
  • Proverbs 27:17: Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.
  • Romans 12:15: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Responsibility. This person feels emotionally bound to follow through with commitments. When someone with responsibility fails at a commitment, apologies are not enough, and peace is not found until restoration is made. At times, this person may take on more than can be handled:

  • Genesis 39: 6-10 tells of a man who has a clear strength in responsibility – Joseph. Even when tempted, he held to his responsibility to the pharaoh. But responsibility is still for all Christians.
  • Matthew 5:37 says to let your yes be a yes, and your no be a no – even to your own hurt.
  • James 1:22-24 speaks to our responsibility to DO the word of God, and not just hear it.

Looking back over the strengths listed under the relating theme, it is clear that these are all strengths that should be possessed to some degree by all Christians, and more so as the believer matures in Christ. They describe the character of a Christian as outlined in scripture. If we don’t see these in our lives, then we need to look inwardly and figure out why. This does not mean that non-Christians can’t have these strengths, too. They can, and in sad cases, the non-believer may be self-satisfied in having the strengths. The non-believer may think, “I treat others so well, so clearly I am a “good person”.” Because of this, these people often feel they don’t need salvation. But the fact remains, for Christians, the strengths in the relating theme are expected and they are expected for the purpose of bringing glory to God in how we relate to others. The verses in the relating theme are verses to all, describing the character we should all have. The examples are typically not unique examples of individuals operating in a unique strength.

Impacting

The second theme is the impacting theme. The strengths within this theme are command, competition, developer, maximizer, positivity, and woo. These traits should be seen to some extent in all Christians. It is what makes us good witnesses, which we are all called to be in how we live our daily lives. These strengths can also be abused by the ungodly. As you read below, think about how well various cult leaders have fared in the impacting theme strengths.

Command. This strength leads someone to “take charge.” A commander has no issues with imposing his views on others; his opinion needs to be shared. Confrontation is not something to be avoided as it is the first step towards resolution. The facts are what matters, whether good or bad.

  • John 2: 13-16: The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”

In some ways, command appears to contradict harmony. The Christian must find balance between the two, being sure not to back down when the truth of God is at stake, but also being sure not to force opinions that don’t really matter in the long run. Someone with command may make a good manager.

Competition. A “strength” rooted in comparison, someone with competition needs to outperform others. Competitors invigorate, but the desire is to win, not just to play the game.

  • 1 Samuel 17:32-50: The story of David and Goliath. David had a competition strength, and he played to win (and did win).
  • 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: 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.

This trait could clearly be a positive or negative, depending on the spirit of the one with the “strength.” In our Christian life, though, we should all be running the race as to win, but in this sense, our “competition” is against the darkness that holds humanity away from God and the “race” is in bringing the truth of salvation to the world.  We are all to be competing to win in this.

Developer. A developer sees the potential in others and strives to see others succeed. A developer challenges others, and signs of growth in others is fuel for the developer. Others see the developer’s helpfulness as genuine.

  • Acts 11: 25-26: Barnabas was a developer to Saul shortly after his conversion.
  • 1 Timothy 4:15-16: Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (Here, Paul is developing Timothy with encouraging instruction). 

In a sense, we should all help to develop those around us though some will clearly have a strength in this area compared to others. Teachers could make good use of a developer strength.

Maximizer. A maximizer enjoys further developing the strengths in others, and himself. He doesn’t focus on weaknesses, but instead wants to make what is already good into something excellent.

  • Genesis 1: The study materials suggest that God’s creating the universe was an example of the maximizer strength.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:31: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.

The maximizer is a developer who doesn’t start with weaknesses but  instead takes already perceived strengths to the next level. Like the other Impacting themes, this is an area where some will clearly have an innate strength above others. The warning is to be sure we are maximizing to the glory of God.

Positivity. People with this strength celebrate every achievement, bring a lighthearted joy to situations, and draw people in with their great attitude. These people always see the best in situations.

  • Psalm 100 says that all the earth is to be thankful, with joy towards the Lord. We enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.
  • John 1:40-42:  One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

The study materials suggest Andrew had contagious positivity. While this may be true, I don’t know that this is the point of the scripture. Andrew found the Christ! Of course he told his brother. As for the verse in Psalm 100, and many like it, we are all called to be continually thankful towards the Lord.

Woo. Woo stands for Winning Others Over. Someone with Woo enjoys meeting new people and starting conversations; strangers are rarely intimidating – in fact, they are friends not yet met. Once an initial connection is made, someone with Woo will often move on to the next person.

  • In Acts 8:29-40 Philip is instructed by God to go to a chariot where a man was reading Isaiah. Philip was able to explain Christ in the scriptures, leading to the man’s salvation. At this point, Philip was removed by the Spirit to the town of Azotus and the man in the chariot went away rejoicing.

While I would not necessarily say this reference demonstrates woo more than obediently communicating the gospel when told to by the Spirit of God, it is clear in society that people can have a strength in this area. Like the other examples in the impacting theme, what matters is how one uses the traits they have, and in some sense, we are all called to be prepared to act in these traits when the opportunity for witnessing arrives. If we feel weak in these areas, we should be open to allowing God to strengthen us as he promised he would, so that we can be his witnesses (See Luke 24:49, John 14:16, Acts 1:4, Romans 8:15, 2 Timothy 1:7).

Striving

The striving themed strengths are achiever, activator, adaptability, belief, discipline, focus, restorative, self-assurance, and significance. Previous to this point, most of the strengths seemed to be personality traits that we should all have to some degree as a Christian. As the Spirit of God moves in our lives, taking us from glory to glory in changing us into the image of Christ, the strengths above, especially the relating themed strengths, should be expected to develop as they represent the character of Christ.  With the striving theme I began seeing some “strengths” as personality traits that may not necessarily work towards our benefit. Many of the strengths in the next two sections can easily lead someone who has them into self-dependence, with success being found in having the strengths themselves, and not in dependence on Christ. At this point in the study, I came to see that the “strengths” would be better defined as personality traits that we may or may not naturally have. Rath’s book has a comparative “mismanagement risk” associated with each strength. With this, the innate trait can be a benefit or a negative, depending on how it is used or developed. Many are traits that we should develop as Christians, simply as they describe how a Christian should be. Others can become weaknesses as they pull us away from God and into the security of our own successes and abilities. We must always be aware of our heart.

Achiever. An achiever has a strong drive, and a constant need for achievement. Doing something tangible makes the achiever feel good about himself, and days of rest are not typically allowed. Every day needs some level of achievement. This need for achievement gives the achiever energy and a jolt to get things started, but always exists as a nagging dis-quietness saying that something needs to be accomplished.

This was the first “strength” where a biblical example given in the study materials is of the strength in a negative light. It is also one of my strengths where I personally feel that the trait is as much of a curse as a blessing. In Luke 10:38-40, Mary’s sister Martha is “achieving” while Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Martha complains that she is doing all this work by herself and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus points out that Mary has in fact, chosen the better thing by sitting, listening at his feet.

  • Proverbs 13:4: The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:3: (We are) remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Ephesians 2:10: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The above verses do state that we should be workers and not lazy. However, the achiever is more than a worker, and would consider required rest or not focusing on a task that may not necessarily need to be done immediately as laziness. The new testament verses given as examples show work done for the glory of Christ, but even for Christian achievers, it is easy to get caught up in work that has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. Since the achiever’s feeling of satisfaction comes from achieving, this person can easily be self-satisfied in his own workings. Matthew 11:28-30 says that we are to take Christ’s yoke upon us, and he will give us rest. Work for God, if done with and in his strength, will include a rest component. Someone overly charged by an achiever spirit will struggle with the restfulness of working for Christ. Mark 2:27 states that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Rest is important. Rest can be the achiever’s enemy, and greatest need.

Activator. Action is what counts. Analysis and debate may have its place, but action is what matters, because it is action that makes things happen. The activator feels that acting is the best source of learning. You make a decision, take an action, and look at the result. The activator is happy to be judged by what he does, not what he says or thinks.

  • Nehemiah’s encouraging his team to get started on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem shows his strength as an activator (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
  • James 4:17: So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

I like James’ verse here. We all know some right things we should do, and we all should activate doing those things, and if we don’t, it is sin. While some will have a true strength in this area, we all are required to be activating what we know God has put before us to do.

Adaptability: For someone with strong adaptability, the future is not fixed, but something to be created by the choices made right now. This person doesn’t become bothered by the unexpected or detours, but expects them to interrupt the path.

  • Matthew 6: 33-34: But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
  •  James 4:13-16: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”- Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

The verse in James above may make some feel that adaptability and achiever are incompatible strengths, but that is only true if you are focused on achieving for yourself and not on achieving for God. From the verses above, it is clear that all Christians will need to be flexible at times, and focus on the now rather than worrying about the future. As we work to achieve the desires he has put in our hearts, God can handle whatever comes our way.

Belief:  Someone with belief has certain core values that are enduring. These values will impact behavior in the day-to-day and give value to life. Typically someone with belief will value ethics and responsibility in himself and others. Success is more than just financial stability. Work must be valuable and mesh with one’s core beliefs.

  • The verse given in the materials is Matthew 28:18-20: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold,I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I find it interesting that belief shows up strong for people who have a “good moral foundation” or “positive work ethic.” We all believe in something, even if it is that there isn’t anything of value in life or that it doesn’t matter what we do, and what we believe naturally influences how we live. I guess belief can be considered a strength if A: one believes in something society considers positive and B: we act on that belief in how we behave before the world.

Discipline: Rath’s book states that if you are a person with a strength in discipline, then your world needs to be predictable, ordered, and planned. This person sets up routines and timelines, imposing structure on his world. This person wants to feel in control despite the inherent messiness of life. It is wise for the disciplined person to realize that not everyone senses his innate need for predictability and order, and that other people have their own ways of getting things done.

  • The study materials use Exodus 20 to show the discipline strength in the giving of the ten commandments.
  • In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 14:33, 40 is used:  For God is not a God of confusion but of peace… But all things should be done decently and in order. (found in a section of scripture discussing orderly worship).
  • 2 Timothy 1:7: for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

I believe it is clear all Christians should have a measure of self-control, and the verse in Second Timothy suggests that this is not necessarily something we can singularly develop ourselves, for the spirit of self-control comes from God (it is a fruit of the spirit: Galatians 5:23). Those who do have a natural strength in self-control may grow to feel that they are keeping themselves and may be less likely to see the need to have God’s Spirit working in their lives.

Focus: The person with focus is guided by his goals. Goals help determine if an activity is worth the time and effort (does it help me reach my goal or not). A focused person is forced to filter out those tasks that ultimately do not matter. In business, the person with focus will keep the group on task. One with focus must be careful not to become too impatient with others, delays, and the unexpected obstacle.

  • The Ministry by Strengths materials uses Acts 9:17-22 to describe focus: So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
  • James 4:17 also shows the need for a Christian to have focus: So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
Restorative: The restorative person loves to solve problems and can even be energized by breakdowns. The challenge of analyzing symptoms, identifying issues and implementing solutions is enjoyable, especially if the problems are practical. The focused person likes problems similar to ones he has encountered before as he is sure he can offer a solution but that doesn’t mean he shies away from the more challenging conundrums. The restorative person feels that without his guidance and intervention, the company/thing/person/etc. would stop functioning.
  • John 3:16: Jesus is the great restorer.
  • 1 Peter 5:10 (shown with 6-10 for context): Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

I like how both verses show God/Jesus as the restorer, and not man. This is so true in life. While we may be used by God to bring his restoration to others, and while we may be able to bring restoration to earthly things, he is the only true restorer. On a side note, I also like these verses because it undercuts the idea that if we become a Christian we won’t have to suffer anything in this world. Our restoration by Christ does not involve the promise of a perfect life here on earth.

Self-Assurance: The strength of self-assurance is the knowledge that one is “able.” Able to take risks, meet new challenges, stake claims, and deliver. It is a deep faith in our strengths and judgments. It is the knowledge that no one else can make decisions for you, and that you alone have the authority to form conclusions, make decisions, and act.

My initial impression is that self-assurance could lead to enmity with God.

  • The study materials speak of John the Baptist having self-assurance (Matthew 3:1-5). While it may appear that John had self assurance, and it may be that he did, ultimately his assurance was in his God and the Spirit of God that had been with him from the womb.
  • The second example given is of Paul’s independence and confidence in running his own race (Philippians 3:12-14). Similar to John, I would say that Paul’s appearance of self-assurance was really his focus on the task God had given him in Christ. Paul makes it very clear that his assurance is in Jesus. Verse 14 says “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” His pressing towards the goal was due to the call of God in Christ Jesus.
  • Abraham is a good example of someone who, to some, may have seemed self-assured, but his assurance too was in Christ (See Romans 4:3, as well as Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5-7)

The material’s example from Philippians must be considered in light of the whole chapter, especially Philippians 3: 8-9: 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 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ

Significance: The final strength under the Striving themes is significance. I was glad the class participants struggled with seeing this trait as a a “strength.” This trait is defined by Rath’s book as wanting to be significant in the eyes of others, wanting to be recognized and heard. People with significance want to stand out and be known and appreciated for what they bring to (the group, friends, etc.). This person needs to be admired as credible, professional and successful, and wants to associate with others who are the same. Someone with significance has an independent spirit that wants work to be a way of life rather than just a job. This person wants “free reign” to do things the way he wants.

All I can think of here is “Me me me me me me me me me.” This is not a strength, especially in the Christian life.

The scriptural examples were of Jesus claiming his own significance. Only he could have this strength and get away with it, for Jesus truly is the Christ of God (see John 2:18-22 and 14:6)

Thinking

The thinking theme includes the following strengths: analytical, arranger, connectedness, consistency, context, deliberative, futuristic, ideation, input, intellection, learner, and strategic.

Analytical: The analytical trait wants others to “prove it.” The analytical person wants theories and ideas to be sound; he likes data and evidence. He likes that data has no values and no agendas. This person likes seeing the patterns in life, and learning how patterns influence one another. Peeling back the layers, the analytical person looks for the root of the matter. Others see this person as logical and rigorous.

  • A negative view of the analytical spirit is shown in Thomas, who wanted “proof” that Jesus had in fact risen from the grave (see John 20: 25-28).
  • Luke 14:28: For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?

Here, Jesus points out the importance of the analytical strength in planning. Proverbs 20:18 shows a similar thought: Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war.

An analytical strength can work for you are against you. God is gracious, though, and like with Timothy, if you are really seeking to know the truth, God will reveal himself to you in a way that will be convincing to your analytical style. As a member of the study group pointed out, it was St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings which ultimately convinced him of the truth of God in Christ. However, not all of God’s ways will make sense to the foolish natural mind (see Isaiah 55:9 and 1 Corinthians 1:18), and for these, their analytical style may keep them from receiving the truth of God. Most atheists I have met have been quiet analytical.

Arranger: The arranger enjoys managing the many facets and variables of a complex situation. It doesn’t seem special to the arranger – she is just doing what needs to be done in the best way possible. To others, though, the arranger’s talent is impressive – the ability to keep so many things in her head at once while being flexible with all the various needs and circumstances.

  • Exodus 18:13-24 demonstrates how Jethro used the arranger strength to assist Moses.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12, 14-20: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

With the above, it is clear we should all realize we have a part in Christ, and we should recognize that everyone else does as well.

I do see arranger as a strength that some people have more than others. They can use it for their own good, for their company’s good, and even in service to God.

Connectedness:

The connectedness strength was formerly known as spirituality, but Rath’s book didn’t want to be associated with the “spiritual” construct that raised. For a person with connectedness, everything happens for a reason. This person feels all are connected, and despite our free will, we are all a part of something larger. Because of this, we all have certain responsibilities as members of humanity. Many new age thinkers have a connectedness component to their belief system.

  • The study materials use Genesis 45:11-8 to show the connectedness strength in Joseph, as he talks about how God brought everything together and had a purpose for what was allowed to happen (Josephs’ brothers sold him as a slave and God used that to bring salvation in the midst of famine). Really, though, in this example, Joseph is demonstrating hindsight.
  • Another example given by the study materials is Matthew 17:20b: For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.

Better examples show connectedness as trust we should have as followers of Christ.

  • Hebrews 11: 1-3: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
  • Romans 8: 28: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. and 38-39: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

I like the above verses. As Christians, we can have faith in the assurance of God’s control in this life, no matter what we are faced with.

Consistency: For the person with consistency, balance is important. People need to be treated the same, regardless of their situation in life; the scales should not be tipped too far in anyone’s favor, which can lead to selfishness and individualism. The person with consistency is a guardian against the injustice of using connections to “grease the wheels.” Special favors are a distaste.

  • Joshua 14:6-13 shows Caleb’s consistency over 4 and a half decades. It was because of this that Caleb was one of only two people from the original tribe of Israel that was able to cross over into the promised land.
  • I Corinthians 1:10: I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (this is a good verse showing that God does not show favoritism – he favors everyone!).
  • Ephesians 4:1-6: I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith,one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The above verse covers harmony, maximizer, developer, and includer well as well.

Context: Someone with context looks back to the past to find answers for the present. Understanding the present via the past gives calm and confidence, giving a sense of the underlying structure. The seeds for the future were sown in the past.

  • 1 Samuel 12:6-13: Much like Joseph above, Samuel uses hindsight to show how the past has impacted the present. Samuel uses context to show how the decisions of the Israelites have brought them to the place they are at (in having a king appointed over them).
  • Ecclesiastes 3:15: That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
  • Hebrews 1:1-2:  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

We need people with context in our society to remind us that our choices have consequences, as we can see from all of history.

Deliberative: The deliberative person is careful and vigilant. He sees the world as unpredictable and is aware of the underlying risks. He draws those risks out so they can be dealt with. The deliberative person is a serious person who approaches life with reserve, proceeding cautiously.

I can relate to Gideon’s seeking double assurance from God with the fleece (see Judges 6:36-40). I’m happy to see God was gracious in providing for Gideon’s need for surety. I too am deliberative, and at times, this makes it hard to trust in things outside of our natural realm. There is a such thing as “too cautious.” Used appropriately, though, a deliberative strength can keep people safe.

Futuristic: The person with a futuristic strength loves to look ahead towards the horizon. The hopes and desires for tomorrow keep the futuristic person moving forward, always reaching towards that next prize. This person paints an exciting picture of tomorrow, and can encourage others in their doing so.

  • Matthew 26:64: Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
  • Jeremiah 29:11:  For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
  • Proverbs 23:18: Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off

Here I see that God is futuristic, and that we should all have a sense of hope in our own futures because of what God has done.

Ideation: This person is fascinated by ideas. This person likes to explain why things are they way they are, showing the underlying order for things. This person is always looking for connections and likes to finds new perspectives on familiar challenges. A person of ideation can explain things in a new way from a different angle, bringing clarity that may not have been apparent before.

  • Joshua 2:1-24 tells the story of Rahab, “a woman with ideation in a crisis.” Rahab hid the men of God and helped them escape their pursuers.
  • Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

If looking at the Romans verse, then it is clear that we are all supposed to be allowing God to work with us in the renewing of our minds, which if practiced, will lead to many changes in who we are, as we are conformed to his image.

Input: A person with a strength in input is inquisitive and collects things (both knowledge and tangible objects). He finds knowledge exciting and so many things to be interesting. The infinite variety and complexity of the world is enchanting. This person may want a bit of everything, whether he knows exactly why or not (in excess, this can lead to hording).

  • Ezra 7:10: For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

The above verse, given in the materials, reminds me of 2 Timothy 2:15: Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (the KJV says “study to show thyself…”)

  • Luke 12: 15-21 gives warning not to let this trait overrule you. Life is not in what we collect or in our stuff. It is also not in the collection of worldly knowledge. We are to be rich towards God.

Intellection: A person with intellection likes mental activity – exercising the muscles of the brain. Mental activity can be either focused or without focus; it is the activity of thinking that is enjoyed. Time alone is enjoyed; these thinkers like to be introspective. Mental hum is a constant.

The study materials use Job 2:11-14 to show Job’s strengths in intellection. While Job never did curse God, his thinking did not bring him the answers he sought. Those came only from God. Job’s friends, as well, practiced intellection with their reasoning with Job, but their wisdom, too, was worldly, and not accurate.

  • Luke 2:17-19: And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.

It is interesting here that like in Job, the true intellection comes from God – the shepherds were simply stating what they had been told by the angel of the Lord.

  • Philippians 4:8: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

We are all called to practice intellection, in that we should mediate on the Word of God and whatever is worthy in his sight.

Learner: The learner loves to learn and the process of learning. The process is what is exciting. The learner enjoys taking on new tasks in order to learn new skills.

  • Ecclesiastes 1:12-17 shows how Solomon realized in his older age that all his chasing after wisdom, including “all that is done under heaven” was folly. As he sated in vs. 18: For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

This world’s wisdom will never satisfy. Only the wisdom of God has answers for our earthly questions.

  • Matthew 11:29-30: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

This verse supports the findings from the words of Solomon. The verse below supports that we should encourage this for all believers.

  • Colossians 1:9-10: And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

Whether we call it intellection or learner, we should focus on the praiseworthy things of God.

Strategic: A person with a strategic strength enjoys sorting through the clutter with his distinctive way of thinking in order to find the best route or solution. This person may see patterns that are missed by others and likes asking the question, “What IF we tried this?” or “What IF this happened?” This way of questioning lets the strategic person see around the next corner and  evaluate potential obstacles so that they can be avoided.

  • Mark 6:37-44 tells of one of the examples where Jesus feeds several thousands with a minuscule amount of food. Jesus was strategic in how he decided to feed the masses. Not a great example of the strength as seen in an individual, but it’s the only biblical connection made by the Ministry by Strengths materials. Clearly God is strategic. From before the foundations of this world until after this world melts away, it is clear God has been deliberately strategic in his plans.

Overall thoughts

While I would not recommend the Ministry by Strengths materials as a Bible study, that does not mean the program’s concepts are not without merit. Rath’s book sets a solid foundation that could be used by multiple organizations. The military, our schools, and nearly every business could benefit from better placement of their enlistees/students/employees. For Christians, it too can be beneficial to be aware of one’s innate personality traits. However, within the confines of the Christian life, it is clear that our innate “strengths” aren’t necessarily the facets of our personalities that God will always choose to use as he works through us. First Corinthians 12:6 says “there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” While he can certainly choose to use us in our areas of strength, God is very much known for working through our weaknesses as well. We’ve all heard the story of a successful minister who spent his entire life “working” for God within the confines of his strengths only to realize as he matured that the things he did “for God” – God didn’t ask him to do any of them.

God will let us know what we need to do, and if we lack in area of ability required, God will work with us to bring about the necessary traits within us. For some strengths, it is clear that for Christians, the strengths should be developed as God changes us from glory to glory into his image; many of the strengths speak directly to his personality which should be seen in all his children. Many times, though, he may ask us to crucify those areas were are naturally strong, as those “strengths” cause us to depend on ourselves and not on God as our true provider. For others, we may be asked to “stop trusting in” our strengths, and give the talent to him, to see what he can do that we never even imagined. The study, for me at least, and this website is titled “my metanoia,” was too restrictive – a formula we should assume God will use. There are thousands of formulas out there, and like many of the others, while well intended, the formula ends up putting God into our human sized box. God is so much bigger than any box our meager social sciences could construct.

 

If you do not forgive others their trespasses and the message of Grace.

I was at church recently for a sermon on forgiveness and Matthew 6:15 was used as a warning for the consequences of not forgiving others of their sins against us. In essence, it was stated we could go to hell if we had unforgiveness in our hearts. This started an after-church discussion between myself and someone who was troubled by the statement.

The (valid) point of my friend was that the statement was casting a heavy burden on those in the congregation who might be struggling with unforgiveness. All of a sudden, in addition to their struggles, their very salvation was being called into question. I have to agree with my friend here – the wording of the pastor could have unnecessarily burdened some people, especially as he did stress the point on a few occasions during the preaching. My friend commented that he saw the heaviness of the crowd after the statements by the pastor.

My friend’s points were these:

  • In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t speaking to Christians. This was pre-salvation as Jesus’ sacrifice hadn’t occurred yet, and therefor what he was saying didn’t apply to the new covenant. My friend even commented that he “felt like he had one foot in one covenant and one foot in another.”
  • No where in the new covenant (all New Testament books aside from the gospels) do we find such a statement. The need for forgiveness is regularly spoken, but it is never followed up by the opposing if suggesting that hell is the consequence of unforgiveness in our own heart. For this case, I checked carefully, and I believe he is correct. You can not find such a statement regarding personal unforgiveness in the rest of the New Testament.
  • The reason the opposing if isn’t found elsewhere in the New Testament is because if you are truly saved, then all your sins are forgiven – even the sin of holding onto unforgiveness against someone who has wronged you (or continuing to struggle with unforgiveness even if you desire to let it go). We all will have sins when we die, and Jesus’ sacrifice will have covered them all. Another good point!

My friend and I hark from slightly different pedagogical views regarding the grace of the New Covenant. He is very much a “Grace” man. While I am fully satisfied by the teachings of absolute grace, I also believe there are some areas of scripture that are somewhat glossed over because, well, “grace covers all, and if we realize the grace we have, we will no longer be the type of person we were before we realized such grace.” (the quotes is my feeble attempt to put the ideology of many Grace preachers into one sentence). It’s not that I’m saying their beliefs are wrong. It’s that I am not convinced they are wholly right. While the gospel is very simple, we can fall into the trap of treating it simplistically.

As example, the idea that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are not part of the new covenant comes from common grace teaching. Whether the intention is there or not, the idea is common with modern day grace followers. The old seems too easily “done away with” and since Jesus hadn’t been sacrificed, the gospels are part of the “old.” Whether it was intended or not, this concept came out in my friend’s points. Since Jesus wasn’t speaking to saved people, it was as if we didn’t need to consider his words as true for the New Covenant. I pointed out that if they are not true in the new, then they either have to be true in the old or a lie, and since heaven wasn’t simply granted by having a forgiving heart, then Jesus’ words of Matthew 6 can’t just apply to the old testament.

So then if they are not the one (New Covenant), and they are not the other (Old Covenant), what are they? I believe Jesus was the living body of the perfection of the old (He followed the law perfectly), lived out so that he could then unjustly take on our imperfections pointed out by the old (when he drank the cup) so that we could then receive the grace of the new. Jesus was the fulfillment of the one and the bringer of the other. And in light of that, his words work.

As my friend pointed out, if one is saved, forgiveness will simply “happen.” Just as a tree doesn’t struggle to grow fruit (the fruit just appears), so too will we not struggle to forgive others. It will be our nature, because it is the nature of Jesus in us. That does sound good, but even as Christians, we are still human, and many well meaning sincere hearted people will have and have had a different experience. Some people will struggle, and in this case of grace teaching, they will be downcast because they know in their heart they hold animosity towards someone who wronged them, despite their prayers and the teaching that says their fruit, like that of a tree, should just “appear” without struggle. These people are in danger of becoming disheartened, and walking away from a gospel that doesn’t deliver on its promises.

Just because we never see a tree with clenched fists straining to push out that pear doesn’t mean that the growing of fruit isn’t a laborious process. It is actually a lot of work to convert sunlight and water/soil into fruit. It also takes a long time (sometimes years before the first fruit is seen), and is much more productive with the assistance of a vinedresser. (See my post here).  Yet, with this truth, Jesus’ words work. If we are in him, forgiveness will be a fruit, and if it is not, then we are not in the vine, and that fruit will not appear. The difference is the process. No fruit tree, planted as a seed, bears fruit that instant. There are many Christians in the growing process who are still working towards maturity, with the Vinedresser – and given time, they will see their fruit. Let us be careful not to condemn them on the way. God knows where people are at in the process. My prayer for the sermon would be that people who think they are a Christian, yet have never truly accepted Christ, will realize they are not right, that they are fine with their unforgiveness, will repent, and will begin their journey from seedling to fruit bearing giant.

Just as the pastor didn’t seem conscious of those in the process (this is my perception, not a statement), I also fear regarding those who simply want to dismiss large sections of the scripture because it is “old.” The reality is, everything fits together, and everything has a purpose in our current lives. Jesus wasn’t simply speaking words that would become irrelevant once the New Covenant was put into place. His words were often the bridge, and his words were often a demonstration of the expectation we should have regarding our lives. We should expect to be forgiving, and if we are not in the process of being such a person, we should not expect that we are right with God (even if we know we have unforgiveness, we should know it is not right and we should know if we are in the process of dealing with that). Jesus was given to say “You have heard…” in reference to an old testament law or Jewish belief. But he followed those with the expectations he wanted people to have – and then with his sacrifice, made possible for them to have. But even in these cases, both the traditionalist and those who follow the teachings of grace need to be aware of the process. No one new to Christianity suddenly can follow the law, nor can they immediately correctly follow the ways of the New Covenant, but if truly saved, they will be aware of their progression in the transition from the one to the other.

Paul was aware of this transition. As he aged, his revelation of his self went from being a “sinner” to “chief of all sinners.” His revelation of God’s grace through Christ covered every inch of his failures… but he was still aware of the failures. Modern day grace teaching sometimes seems to forget this, and people can become condemned as they don’t see what they are taught being played out in their lives, or they become nonchalant about sin, because it’s “covered.” These two foibles have always been with us.

For the first, Romans 7:15-20 shows Paul’s struggles with the process of Grace and the annoyance of being forced to remain in our flesh after salvation.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

Grace teaching often preaches that we simply will not sin because we are in Christ and are no longer sinners. We will not sin because we will not want to sin, because we are aware of the grace bestowed upon is. This is not true, as Paul frustratingly points out in the verses quoted above. Well meaning people who hear the grace message may find that Paul’s words are playing out in their lives rather than the words of the grace preacher, and not understanding how that could be, they become disheartened.

For the second, Paul addressed it in Romans 6. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” It is clear that sin did occur in the new testament church as recorded in scripture. Paul had to address the quarrels among God’s followers. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul speaks of those who sin because they take their freedom for granted (in eating food sacrificed to idols) without considering their weaker brothers – and thus wound their conscious, and sin against Christ (see Romans 8:12). These passages do not go well with the ideology that we won’t sin because of grace, or that our fruit will simply be there because of Jesus in us.

For the preaching of Grace, I wholeheartedly agree – no matter what we do or how often we seem to really, really mess up, we are covered by his grace. It is grace that makes us free – not our works.

But we are still told to work. If we don’t, we are still forgiven, but, we will be less than we could be in Christ.

For example, Romans 6:12-13 warns us about what we allow to become our habits. We are warned to “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” God’s grace covers us either way, but we still must make a choice, and from Paul’s words in Romans 7, we know that the choice isn’t simply a matter of “we won’t sin because of grace.”

Colossians 3 states that we are to “put to death” whatever belongs to our earthly nature. This is something we must choose to do. The scripture does not happily state, “Christ will put to death for you so that you don’t have to worry about your earthly nature.” Grace does indeed cover all, but each one of us must still “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (see Philippians 2:12-13). It is a joint effort between God’s complete grace that fully redeems us in and of itself, regardless of our works, and our diligent efforts to give ourselves to the Grace of God and grow into the Christian we are supposed to be. We are indeed given free will, but it is still we who must choose, and we are given specific choices we are supposed to make.

So, in all, no, we will not go to hell simply because we have unforgiveness in our hearts. Jesus’ words in Matthew are valid, because if we are truly saved, we will be on that path towards forgiveness, even if we don’t realize it (but God does know the path He has us on, and He knows the order in which He will have us deal with our various sin habits). What we often forget, and often can’t even see until it is over, is the process, and not being mindful of that process leads us to claim “truths” that others may not see in their lives, which can be discouraging to them – whether that be saying “they will go to hell for having unforgiveness” or saying “grace covers all and knowing Jesus’ grace, you won’t even sin anymore.”

The Danger of Emptiness/Doing Nothing

I recently wrote on The Biology of Our Own Works. In it, I talked about the necessity of everything we do being joined with Christ, for on our own, no matter how righteous our works may appear to be, they will fail to bring the life of Christ. This essay will build on that topic.

There is a particular belief in Christianity that Christians are called to not do a number of things. We are called to celibacy in regard to a number of activities.  “Don’t do this, and don’t do that” is the motto of many Christians.  And while it is true that Christians are not  to do a number of obvious things, is this the end of a means? I would say no.

The unspoken deception behind all these nots is the idea of inactivity. People believe that as long as the child of God is not doing this and not doing that, then he is okay. This is a dangerous deception, and this is exactly where the devil would like God’s flock to be – in the fields of inactivity. The sheep may not be eating on the enemy’s lawn, but they aren’t raising a standard against it either, and they aren’t protecting themselves from a subtle invasion of the enemy’s grasses.

The fire in our life is outwardly witnessed by our activities. We can make verbal claim to whatever faith we want, but without works, that faith is dead (see James 2:14-18). “But wait!” I hear people say, “I have faith in God. I don’t participate in the devil’s junk. Isn’t that enough?”

The very next verse in James 2 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). The chapter continues with examples showing that faith on its own does not bring forth true righteousness. True righteousness is brought about by the working of our faith, in actions visible to this world. The two (faith and works) work hand in hand.

Matthew 12:43-45 and Luke 11: 24-16 speak to the danger of emptiness, even when one has been delivered by God. These verses say, “‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”

If we are delivered by God, and the enemy and his influences have been driven away, it is not good enough to simply clean up and apply some decoration, expecting our deliverance to hold. We can stop doing all the things that seem attached to the sins of our former bondage, but that simply leaves us swept, with our house put in order. As the scripture above says, the ending will not be good. Unless we replace what has been removed by faith filled works of the Kingdom, the devil’s ploys will find easy re-entrance into our lives. We must continuously be furnishing and filling ourselves with the words and ways of Christ. To not do so exposes the neutralism in our heart – we way not be eating in the enemy’s field, but we aren’t working in God’s field either.

The verses previous to this story in Luke 11 say “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters  (Luke 11:19-22).

In the parable of the man who simply swept and put in order his house, the enemy came back with seven additional demons, more evil than himself. If we are not actively seeking the strength and protection of God, then the enemy will be able to bind us and overcome us, but if we are actively seeking God’s work and presence in our lives, we will be the stronger, and the enemy will be the one bound and overcome. As Luke 11:22 makes clear, there is no middle ground. We are either gathering for his Kingdom, or we are scattering.

American Christians are easily held complacent. With all that surrounds us and offers comfort outside of continuously seeking God, it is easy to become neutral, or as the enemy might say, neutered. It is too easy to become “cold to Christ” while standing  proud that we are not “hot for the enemy.” The American church (and maybe many others) would do well to heed the words of Jesus to the Laodiceans in Revelation 3.

“‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. (Revelation 3:15-17)

How many Christians do we all know who would be well described by these verses? How many of us, if we looked in the mirror would have to acknowledge our own lukewarmness? Too many Christians do not realize their own need, and because of that, they do not seek to have that need filled by their Creator. If we don’t realize our vulnerableness, it is only a matter of time before the enemy will, as he constantly prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (see 1 Peter 5:8).

In applying the lesson of this essay, we must be careful not to mistake what it means to be filling ourselves with the works of Christ. I’ve heard people make fairly pragmatic statements that all Christians must serve in foreign missions, or that only those who work in a certain mission field are realizing the call of God on their lives. For each of us, our Christianity and how we serve is unique, and it is the combination of the callings of all of these unique Christians that make up the fullness of the body of Christ here on earth (see 1 Corinthians 12). The true litmus test of whether we are filling our lives with the substance of faith is simple:  are we living our lives in such a way that they bring glory to Jesus? This is a two part question. If we are living in sin, that is not bringing glory to our Lord. However, if we are not acting out our faith, that too is not bringing glory to Christ. We must refrain from the first, and actively seek the second.

What brings glory to our Creator will vary as we work through our salvation. There will be different seasons of study, prayer, preaching, witness, working, helping, building, fasting, etc. But no matter the season, we can always go back to the litmus test: am I living my life in such a way that it brings glory to Jesus?

The church may want to set up a lot of rules, both of things to do and things not to do, but Jesus did the opposite. He combined all the rules of the old into a simple two.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

If we simply make sure we are fully following these two rules, our lives will bring glory to God. We will not allow ourselves to be caught up in sin, for sin pains God (see Hebrews 4:15, Ephesians 4:29-30) and we do not wish to hurt the One we love.  God pleasures in our seeking Him (see Psalms 147:11, Hebrews 10:38-39), so if we are following this commandment, then we will continuously seek God, desiring to bring Him pleasure. Lastly, if we love our neighbors, we will work to make sure our lives are an example of Christ’s redemption, as we work with the Father to see salvation come to others. This can not be passive, for people will not come to salvation because we do nothing. We must work out our faith, demonstrating both God’s righteousness and grace to those around us.

If we do these things, we will be following the two great commandments on which all others hang, and our lives will bring glory to God. We will not be empty, but we will be full of Christ, and the enemy will have no claim on our lives.

Forty Years Ago Today

This seems like an appropriate video on this 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.