What Holds Us Back From Seeing God Move in Our Lives?

I posed this question to my class during the last class. After spending the term looking at the apostles preaching the kingdom of God, the good news of Jesus and demonstrating the accompanying power through miracles, signs and wonders, I wanted us to discuss why we don’t see God move more in our context. We just finished looking at how God did extraordinary miracles through Paul in Ephesus, Acts 19:11-12 Similar to the faith a sick woman had to be healed of her issue of blood by simply touching the edge of Jesus’ robe, the people in Ephesus thought if they just touched one of the Aprons Paul used when he worked on his tents they could be healed too. The power of God aided in the spread of his word throughout the entire region of Asia Minor. As we discussed the question, I found their answers to touch on universal issues all people have with not seeing more of God’s power as well as particular differences found in the Thai context. I’ll start with the universal similarities.

1.       Fear. The first similarity found in our discussion touches on what most people in every context come across as to why God doesn’t move more. We are afraid to ask, or afraid to look foolish if we pray for a miracle and nothing happens. Sometimes we fear making God look bad. God is not as concerned with his reputation as we are. God can take care of his own identity much better than we can. The Bible is full of examples of when a person didn’t get healed not to mention all healing Jesus performed was only temporary as we all still die at some point. Healing and miracles simply point to God and give him credibility and a place to intersect our life. However, the one person who the Bible tells us God specifically did not heal him even though he asked three times was Paul, the guy who above we said saw extraordinary miracles. I like to think the thorn in his flesh that Paul talks about in II Corinthians 12:7-10 refers to his blindness. In Galatians, he says which of you would not sacrifice your eyes for me, and see with what large letters I write with. We will never know, but I take solace in the fact that Paul shared my affliction. I say this to make the point that if Paul was not shaken by the unanswered prayer, how can we let the fear of God not accomplishing what we want to hold us back from seeing God do something incredible in our life or the life of another person. Oral Roberts, who had an amazing healing ministry, said that approximately 1-out-of-10 people he prayed for found healing. If people who saw a lot of miracles say that failure rates are that high, we just need to press through in order to see more of God, but I think we all agree that we are afraid to ask.

2.       Ignoring the problem. One student said she feels like she doesn’t see God, because she ignores the problems. Maybe we all find our self growing accustomed to a problem or a broken world. We adapt and adjust in order to make do with life as it happens. I know I have grown more settled with my blindness over the years. I would love to see a miracle now as much as ever, but I know I don’t push as hard as I used to. We get comfortable and allow life to simply go by without asking God to act.

3.       The third answer that I wanted to touch on before moving into subtle particularities for each of these was a bad attitude. Another student explained that sometimes we have a bad attitude and don’t really want to see God heal someone. Perhaps we feel offended by that person or jealous. We no longer care if God does something miraculous for them. God’s power does not depend on our attitude or behavior, but we can do plenty to prevent God from moving. God allows us to be his instrument, and when we abdicate that privilege by allowing an offense to come between us and another person, God will not force us to be part of his miracle. God might still move on behalf of the person or persons he wants to bless, but we might miss out on sharing in the miraculous move of God. If we want to see more of God, we need to see people the way God sees people.

Before I move into the particulars of the Thai context for these answers, I want to briefly touch on something my wife said that rarely gets answered in a discussion like this. We are not often close enough to God to hear him when he is moving and wanting to perform wonderful miracles. Jesus said he only does what the Father says which tells me if we want to see more of God in action, we need to draw close to him and wait on him like Jesus did.

Now let me get back to clarifying some particular differences in these universal issues we all have from the Thai perspective.

1.       Fear. I see fear holding back a Thai person slightly more than the average person as Thai people are timid by nature. A Thai person rarely speaks boldly or steps out in boldness. However, Paul told the Corinthians that he came in fear and trembling. Timidity doesn’t have to prevent us from seeing God move. The Thai people just need to allow God to move in a way that is appropriate for them. The one student who told the most stories of God moving in a miraculous ways probably has the most tenacity and boldness of any Thai person I know. It takes a lot for a Thai person who grows up afraid of a spirit around each corner to simply have more boldness. They just need to see God move more often in his way among the Thai people.

2.       Ignoring problems. I saw one particular difference in ignoring problems in the Thai context. Because of the belief in Karma, Thai people believe bad things happen to people as a result of something bad they did to someone else. If someone is sick, they deserved to be sick. If someone is crippled, they must have done something bad in this life or a previous life. Thai people get used to allowing people to struggle and struggle since they get what they get. For Thai Christians, they need to see that God wants to change the course of a person’s life. I said to the class, God wants to interrupt our life with his blessings. God doesn’t want us to continue on a path of destruction, but he wants us to find him.

3.       Bad attitudes. Finally, Thai culture is based on grain jai or a balancing of action. If you do something nice for me, I should do something nice for you. There becomes an expected understanding of how each person should treat another person depending on status, age and class. If someone doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain, the other person will get noi jai or literally small hearted. Our best translation for this is offended. Thai people are easily given to offense. I can see why a bad attitude is something they want to be careful of.

We all learned a lot about God’s action in our life through this class. I hope I encouraged you along the way to seek more of the power of God in your life. Help me conclude this discussion on God’s power by answering why we don’t see God move in our life more?

Reputation in Society

I find an oft overlooked verse in Acts 19 descriptive of how we should conduct our life in view of watchful eyes. “You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess,” Acts 19:37.

I have been told since I was a youth that when people know I am a Christian, they will watch me like a hawk. They want to know that my life matches up with my belief system. Gandhi said, I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. Somehow people judge our God through the window of our life. That is the present reality.

Some find an easy path to denigrating other religions in order to make Christianity look better. If they can show a weakness in the other religion, whether Buddhist, Islam, atheism or other religion, then Christianity will look stronger. If we stoop to anything approaching this idea, we will turn off the people we are aiming to reach before we can get our story out.

In Thailand, if we denigrate Buddha, we lose our chance to tell the story of Jesus. When we talk up the person of Jesus as the wonderful savior and the one who can take our karma on his back to give us freedom for an ongoing bondage to karma and reincarnation, we have a chance to speak about the one we love. When we speak with love and with a positive tone, people listen. Not everyone responds favorably, and some in positions of influence may work to make our mission more difficult. But we have stood on solid ground when we do so.

What Paul did in Ephesus and all we need to do is demonstrate the kingdom of God to people. We have the almighty God on our side. If we just allow him to be seen in and through our lives, who wouldn’t want that. When we have something fantastic, we just need to let people see the goods. We don’t even need to get into comparisons.  God will dwarf anything else with his amazing wisdom, goodness, love and power. If we merely show off our God and live a life worthy of our calling as Paul writes in Ephesians 4:1, we’ll make great inroads to society. The church turned the world they found themselves in upside down. People wanted what God offered so strongly than those trying to hold onto the status quo were passed by in the blink of an eye. Gamaliel said early in the life of the church that we can’t fight what is from God, Acts 5:38-39

38Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

The divine nature of the church and the kingdom of God can speak for itself. Luke allowed Gamaliel’s statement to sit as a prophetic and foundational statement to the beginnings of the church. Within 3 decades the church had impacted an entire empire, establishing local congregations throughout the Roman world. One reason the church went so far so fast comes back to the fact they didn’t set out to destroy other religions, but to let God and the message of Jesus take off with a bang. They lifted Jesus up, exalting him above other gods. They didn’t try to take down the other gods to put them under Jesus. We see Paul coming back to this in Ephesians as he reignites the love for Jesus that brought the Ephesians to follow God. The first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians reads like Paul putting the name of Jesus in a rocket ship to blast into the sky and hold the person of Jesus as high as possible over any other gods or religions as possible.

Maybe we have erred in making the religion too much about the doctrines. Don’t get me wrong, the early church fought to maintain doctrinal integrity, and what we believe holds importance. What I am saying is that in the west if we set up the premise around what we believe, then people can find fault with what we believe when our life falls short. We are inevitably going to fall short, and our aim is not a perfect life, but a life moving toward Christ. People saw in Paul and the early church a life changing affect of God coming into their lives. God should impact our world.

In the end, all we need to do is let people see God through our life. We don’t need to stoop to bad mouthing the way nonChristians believe. In this area, our reputation should be exemplary in the community. Our goal is not to be liked or popular. Jesus was not the most well liked person at the end of his life. He was contrarian and went against the grain. He said we would receive the same persecution in the world that they gave him. It’s just that our persecution should come from our faith in Jesus and not our behavior towards other’s faith.

Multiplied Effectiveness

Influence always goes farther when we put into others what God has placed in us. As I wrap up my class on Acts and seeing God move in our life with power and miracles, I spent some time looking at Paul in Ephesus. Acts 19 brings a pivotal change to Paul’s ministry as Luke nears the end of his narrative with Paul. After Ephesus, Paul returns to Jerusalem for the final time before going before Caesar in Rome. Church tradition says that Paul later went to Spain before being arrested a second time and executed.

However, Luke spends a large portion of his story on what Paul did in Ephesus. If we focus on what Luke shares in the first 12 verses, we can get a glimpse as to why Luke wants us to see what Paul did in this influential city. I see so many parallels with Ephesus and Bangkok. Both are major trade cities, capital cities for their region. Both have a strong religious culture with famous temples. Maybe the temple of Artemis being one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world distinguishes itself from other magnificent temples in Bangkok, like the Grand Palace with the Emerald Buddha.

I found four principles to ministry in this section that should be a part of what we do today. Again before any of the smaller principles, we see again and gain the passion after God that marked Paul and the other apostles. They all sought God and all that He had for them. They included those with them in a passionate pursuit of what God would do in their community. When God moved, they built a structure around that particular move of God. Today, we do too much of the opposite. We either come up with a grand plan or seek God to fulfill our plan, or we see God move in another place and hope to replicate that in our context by duplicating the same structure and organization that other people used. What Paul and his followers did much like those waiting in the upper room were wait for God to move and allow God to show them how to build the structure.

In Ephesus, Paul found about 12 people who believed in God, and from that small beginning impacted the entire region on the edge of the Roman Empire, Asia Minor. Here are four principles I see in Paul’s ministry in Ephesus.

1.       The baptism of the Holy Spirit. Paul sees the filling of the Holy Spirit as essential for the Christian, not for salvation but for life in this world. He found this small group of believers who had yet to hear of the Holy Spirit, so before anything else, he taught them about the Holy Spirit and laid his hands on them for the infilling power of the Holy Spirit. Paul knew that if impact were to happen, they would need every tool in the belt.

2.       Power Evangelism: Maybe in the west, we don’t necessarily need this, but in other cultures where people recognize the powers of the spiritual world, we need to confront those powers with the power of God. We see Paul used by God for extraordinary miracles, so much so that even the aprons he wore in his tent-making were taken to the sick to heal them and cast out demons. In cultures familiar with the spiritual realm, they need to see God encounter their world with power and reality. When they saw that this was not just another magical formula, but a true relationship and interaction with the almighty God of heaven and earth, people turned to God in droves.

3.       Intense training: When the synagogue became inhospitable to Paul he moved to the Hall of Tyrannus, a lecture hall in the city to hold daily meetings. Paul used this hall to disciple many over the 2 ½ years he ministered in Ephesus. Basically, Paul started the first Bible College. I wonder if he knew his time was drawing to a close and looked for a way to multiply himself through the training of many young leaders. He rented out this facility during the midday, about 11 am-4 pm while most people would have taken their daily siesta. Paul and his companions worked in the early morning and forgoing their siesta in the hottest times of the day, they taught and taught. The people hungered for what Paul gave them so much that they came and listened to him when most would be napping. I am reminded of Aimee Semple-McPherson, who never wanted to start a church. She traveled the United States and Canada as an evangelist and saw God heal people with extraordinary miracles. The newspapers always showed the miraculous and amazing reports of her ministry in the 1920’s as she campaigned for God from town-to-town. So many people wanted to come and learn from her that she decided to begin a church and a Bible School, a school to train ministers and release them to start more churches, Life Pacific College.

4.        Finally, Paul released and empowered his disciples. Paul knew God wanted to break into every community. He trained and equipped the best people and sent them out. From this training ground, Paul started churches throughout the area by sending out the best of his people to places like Colossae and Laodicea, among others.

Paul turned an entire region onto God through simple but powerful efforts to release God’s power in the lives of the people and unleash these people once they received adequate training. How can we revolutionize a city?

Teamwork: We All Need Help

No matter who you are, you need help to accomplish the task God lays in front of you. As I continue talking about thoughts from Acts, I was impressed by the crucial help that Paul received. We know that the 12 apostles needed help to serve the needs of the community, so they could devote their time to preaching the word and prayer. Then we come to the movement of the church into the Gentile world.

The Holy Spirit set aside Barnabas and Paul for the mission to reach the ends of the earth. The subsequent stories show Paul and Barnabas accomplishing their assignment through many signs and wonders as well as a bold proclamation of the gospel. However, I think we often overlook the help or the necessary team required to accomplish the work. As with rock bands, sports teams and the movies, one person often grabs the headlines, but we know the glory of starring in a movie could not happen without a great supporting cast of directors, producers and writers. The Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Paul, but they grabbed John Mark to help them. We might overlook the importance of Mark to the mission, but Paul didn’t. He disputed Barnabas so strongly on their second journey that they went separate ways. Paul selected another helper in Silas. A little while later, he recruited another young leader, Timothy, to join in the work.

We could spend an entire post talking on how to select a team, but we’ll leave that for a later time as I don’t see too many clues in Acts aside from faithful, teachable people with solid character. Any young man willing to be circumcised when he doesn’t have to shows a dedication to ministry that will be helpful.

I wish Luke wrote more, or at least someone wrote more on who these crucial characters in the book of Acts who supported the ongoing work of the gospel were. I would like to know more about Mark, Silas, Timothy and the others mentioned in Acts 20:4.

In sports, the stars won’t take the championship without a good group of teammates. In ministry, we need the right people around us, and we must develop them to be the leaders God designed them to be. We catch a little bit of what Paul did in the life of Timothy in his call to replicate what Paul did for him in other trustworthy men, I Timothy 2:2.

The relationship turns out to be symbiotic, feeding both the team with a growing maturity as well as allowing each person to have greater effectiveness. We love to think of Paul as normal guy like many today, bi-vocational, working long hours to reach many. But check out this verse that easily gets overlooked in the beginning of Acts chapter 18, “When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.”

The value of a team shows up when each person can focus on ministering in their gifting. No one person does everything as a one-man show. In football, the quarterback doesn’t have to block and catch the ball. A team forms around people with different abilities, who all come together to accomplish one goal. How can we invest in the people around us to develop a great team? How can we stay focused on the area in which we are gifted to serve without doing the jobs of others?

Pivotal Unsung Heroes in Acts

We remember Paul as one of the heroes of the church, but often overlook a key person in the process to Paul’s incredible ministry.  I am referring to Ananias…not the infamous one (cut to the Three Amigos defining infamous as more than famous), but I mean the one with an ear open to heaven.

The church does a great job of promoting leadership and bookstores are not short on resources for leadership and ministry strategy. Those departments of the church have their place even if that place might be out of balance as we are looking for more leaders to take the church where it needs to go, but in overhyping leadership, we miss out on other necessary principles to effective ministry.

We need more people like Ananias who listen to God and follow through on what he assigns us. God met Ananias while he was at home minding his own business. I will take some license and postulate he was laying low as the prolific enemy of the church was coming to town to drag any of those heretics following Jesus’ teachings into jail. This madman looking to destroy the church, Saul, was looking for some people he could teach a lesson to. While keeping his head down, God came to him to go find this Saul and pray for him. Ananias balked, saying, are you sure you are talking about the right person? I love when we want to check the facts God comes to us with. God took Ananias’ questioning in stride and said, yes, I mean that Saul. He is going to be a powerful instrument for us reaching the Gentiles.

God knew where Saul would go and how he was preparing him for a long and tough ministry to bring the church from the Judea/Samaria region to the utmost regions of the Roman Empire. However, without Ananias, would we have Paul? Without Ananias, would Paul still be moping, blind and in despair for his missteps in persecuting Jesus?

I think of those unsung heroes that played a pivotal role in the life of the stars of ministry. One of my favorite stories include a faithful Sunday school teacher in the mid 19th century, or what would be a youth leader in today’s church. He showed up faithfully, but one day a boy came in unable to find his place in the Bible or read at the level of the other teenagers in that class. This young man felt out of place and stayed on the fringe not making new friends or connecting well. His mom pushed him to go to the church even though he would prefer to be doing other things.

The youth leader kept pushing to make a relationship with this boy. He connected with him at a deeper level and one day while dropping in on him as he worked at the local shoe store; he led Dwight Moody to a relationship with Jesus. Moody went on to be the greatest evangelist of the 19th century, preaching to more than a million people in large cities in America, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Most people won’t be the Paul or Dwight Moody, but they can play a pivotal role in the life of those that have more up front ministries. They can be equally as valuable in the process of God’s kingdom advancing around the world. Who are you impacting for Christ?

The Reluctant Missionary

Sometimes we think of missionaries as an elite group, and those that preach as a specialized few. Our thinking could not be further from God’s intentions. Some of the great heroes of mission who have blazed a trail for all of us who follow in their footsteps kept a humble approach about the calling God placed on their life.

As I looked at the story of Phillip in Acts 8 while I prepared last week’s class for the Bible College, I saw God’s hand on preaching and mission. We set up the class into three phases of God’s working. I called it the three movements of the church following the prophetic statement left the apostles with in Acts 1:8. The first movement, chapters 1-7 covered the church in Jerusalem. The second movement in chapters 8-12 looked at the church moving beyond their borders into Judea and Samaria while the third movement, Acts 13-21 spanned the movement of the church into all the known world with Paul’s three missionary journeys. This week, we looked at phase II. Most of us hold Paul in high esteem as the great missionary and church planter and forget that he wasn’t the first missionary or even the first to lead a gentile to faith. That distinction belongs to Phillip.

In Acts 8, Phillip brings the good news of the Kingdom of God into Samaria and later leads the first Gentile to know God, the Ethiopian Eunuch, but that is a story for another day. I want to focus on a few verses at the beginning of the chapter, Acts 8:4-8 to get a grasp on how all Christians are called to preach no matter the setting God has placed them in.

Keep in mind that not too much earlier Phillip became one of the 7 deacons chosen from among the Greek believers to care for the poor in their community of faith. We know him only as a man full of the spirit and wisdom. The church commissioned him along with the others to literally wait on tables. Most of us who have graduated from Bible College, trained for the ministry, would scoff at such a lowly position. Phillip did not. He ministered (which means served) with grace and power.

However, when the persecution from the Jewish leaders came to the Christians following Stephen’s death, many of the believers scattered from Jerusalem. They didn’t leave commissioned by the church as missionaries on a mission. They ran for safety, but they took the good news with them everywhere they went. Phillip turned out to be a perfect agent to bring the gospel to the Samaritans. He, like the Samaritans could not worship at the temple in Jerusalem. As a Greek, he could connect with them at a level the Jewish believers would have difficulty relating.

In telling the story, Luke shows us God did not intend for the preaching to be limited to a select few. Phillip never received a commission to preach, yet he felt compelled by the spirit to preach everywhere he went. His position in the church entitled him to take care of the needs of the poor in the church. His heart for people not yet connected with God pushed him to preach everywhere and to everyone God led him to. Notice the end of the chapter as he preaches from town to town on his way home.

I see Acts 8 as pivotal to the story of the church. The number of times that gospel and good news appears throughout the narrative gives a view of how the church spread cross culturally. We often overlook this chapter on our way to Saul’s conversion and Cornelius’ powerful story with Peter. I see Acts 8 driving the mission of the church, and God using whatever means necessary to push the church beyond its own community.

The first missionary recorded in Acts went reluctantly, but God moved powerfully. He didn’t quite complete the task as the Apostles Peter and John came and laid their hands on the new believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit, yet his impact could not be greater on the movement of the church beyond its home in Jerusalem. If we all rely on God and follow his prompting, we can impact our community as well. How can we allow God to move through us more?

How can we see the miraculous signs accompany our preaching as we go about our routines, serving in whatever capacity God has placed us in?

Missional vs. Attractional Churches

I love to think about the discussion on church philosophy between attraction and missional folks. I am convinced more and more that the church must be both. We need to train and equip those in the church to be the church as they go into the world on Monday morning and throughout the week. Jesus often healed people in the market place. Peter and Paul went seeking people outside the church building. Jesus sent the disciples out.

At the same time, we need to live a life that makes Jesus attractive to others. The church, when filled with the joy and freedom that comes with Christ and the kingdom of God, full of life and power might just become naturally attractive. Maybe what many are missing is the how we are attractive. The goal of attraction should not be to organize everything around one meeting, do everything we can to grab as many people as we can to gather a crowd and hopefully give them something that rivals the movies, theater and a nightclub. Jesus turned the world upside down. The church, led by contrarians such as Paul, was accused of turning the world upside down, Acts 17:6. We often get caught up in doing something so much better than the show down the road that we forget what people are really seeking. Jesus wasn’t just a better Rabbi than everyone else; he flew in the face of conventional wisdom. The church stood out as different.

As I study Acts for my class, I am more convinced than ever that the ministry Jesus began and the disciples continued shared a centripetal and centrifugal force in tension. God used everything at his disposal to get them out, to get them out of Jerusalem and around the world with his story. The early disciples, when filled with the fullness of God could do little but boldly proclaim his message wherever they went, Acts 4:31. A few verses later (Acts 5:16), Luke describes droves of people from the surrounding towns coming to Jerusalem to encounter the living God.

Meanwhile, something drew men to the church with such force that the ruling powers did anything they could to prevent the disciples to speak of Jesus. Yet the divine nature of the new movement could not be stopped, Acts 5:35-39.

For me, I see the church and those who are part of the people of God are always on a mission. We need to seize every opportunity to draw people to know God. As St. Francis famously said, “Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words.”

However, as the church, we are called together to worship God and encourage one another. We need to hold in tension with the ongoing mission the unstoppable attraction of God. We are not using gimmicks to attract people to a great lineup of TV Shows on NBC each Thursday night. We have something far more attractive. We have the source of life. We have one who offers eternal life. We have Jesus, who said I have come to give life and life more abundantly.

Let me explain this further with a quick example with Jesus in Samaria to show a both/and view of how the church impacts the world they find themselves in. When Jesus brought his ministry to the Samaritans we often see the narrative used to enforce the missional side of the argument. Certainly, Jesus illustrated a missional approach to evangelism. Jesus connected with one person around the water cooler and made life changing impact on that woman of ill-repute, but he remained at that well as the rest of the town came to him. What Jesus offers will attract people. Jesus offers living water.

What I see in the life and ministry of Jesus as lived out by the church in Acts are people both filled with the spirit and characterized by the fruit of the Spirit that a nation and empire were forever changed.

How can we hold the two essential values of the church in tension practically today? How can we live holistically as the church and not be pulled to one end of the spectrum or the other?