Forged in Fire

A pastor friend posted a picture of a group of people sitting at a table.  They were eating in a nice restaurant and apparently had been talking about ministry.  The caption they had placed with the picture was Proverbs 27:17 “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

I know the pastor meant no misrepresentation of scripture, but I am afraid that the quote lacks something.  What they meant was clear. They enjoyed being around these people, and at the end of the day, they felt better about themselves.  Encouragement is a beautiful thing that we all need on our journey of faith.   Unfortunately, that is not iron sharpening iron. 

My view of this verse changed when I watched a TV show called “Forged in Fire.” It is another semi-reality based show where people compete at making the best blade as directed by the judges.  Each round, one of the four competitors are eliminated until one of them wins $10,000.  Watching this was the first time I had ever seen someone make knives and blades inside a forge.  The process was more intense than I had imagined. 

If you have done this work or seen it done, then you know the steps involved.  There is the choice of a metal.  Cutting and shaping come next.  They then heat it until the metal is red hot and take a large hammer and pound the piece into shape.  They heat it repeatedly before returning to the anvil to thrash that metal into a sharp blade.  Finally, they quench the blade and harden the steel so that it can be used without failure. 

I am sure the writer of this Proverb knew the process.  He had watched a blacksmith mold and shape metal and knew the amount of heat, hammering, and work that went into making a single blade.  With that in mind, he says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” In his words, I really do not think he envisioned a group of people sitting around a table stuffing themselves on chips and salsa, and neither should you. 

Molding the iron in people takes intensity, confrontation, and repeated work.  That means we need someone willing to ask us the hard questions.  We need someone willing to see past our lies and excuses and push us toward change.  We need conversations that can be intense but force us to think through our stubborn behavior.  If we want to be genuinely sharpened by others, we better not settle for happy encounters where no one is ever offended.  The truth can be harsh and painful, but that is what most of us desperately need.  All of us need someone who can be the iron that shapes our lives but know it will not often come with an enjoyable meal in a nice restaurant.  

Learn to Count Your Days

The whole of scripture leads us to one conclusion: Our lives are short, and they will be over sooner than we think.  Here are just a few verses for you to consider.

Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Job 7:7 “Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath.”

James 4:14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Psalm 39:4 “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”

This life is over quickly, and we have no idea how many days we will get.  The Bible bears an undeniable witness to this truth, and so does our experience.  We have all known people in great shape and the prime of their life when God called them home. Also, some people did not take care of themselves and yet lived a long life with relatively good health.

These facts are undeniable, and yet we still spend an immeasurable amount of time fighting this truth.  We diet, exercise, take our vitamins, floss, and visit our doctor regularly.  We avoid destructive habits and do everything to keep ourselves safe.  Our quest to expand the length of our lives sends us dozens of directions as we try anything that might a few days to our journey on earth or of those we love. 

I am as guilty as anyone.  My parting words for my children are always the same, “Please, be careful.” It is like I believed that them taking extra precautions in life will give them control.  In reality, we have absolutely no control.  James says, “Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:15) Jesus says that you cannot add a single hour to your life by worrying.  Then he adds, “Since you cannot do this very little thing…” (Luke 12:25-26).  We cannot add hours to our life beyond what God has decided to give us. 

The Biblical writers’ encouragement is not to attempt to add days to your life but to add life to your days.  We are to do things in this life that truly matter for eternity. This means taking time regularly to realize how little we have left so that we will give ourselves to meaningful endeavors.  The Psalmist encourages us to count or number our days.  Spend time asking yourself, “Am I more obsessed with trying to live longer than living the life God desires?” Learn to count your days so that you can make each day count. 

You Are Essential

This year has taught me to use the label “Essential Worker.” With the COVID-19 shutdowns and quarantines, some jobs have been called essential, and others are considered non-essential. 

I am glad we do not try to categorize people this way.  No matter what anyone has told you or how you feel about yourself:  you are essential.  Your life was created as a unique masterpiece from God’s hand, and you are his special gift to the world.  No one thinks, acts, works, speaks, or cares precisely as you do.  As a result, your life is essential to this world, particularly to a few people.  Your presence in their life blesses someone.  It might be a family member, neighbor, coworker, friend, or even someone you have never considered.  They look at your life and are encouraged, inspired, helped, and blessed.

Occasionally people have tried to tell me that their life does not matter to anyone.  In a difficult season, they felt alone and worthless.  To those few, I try to flip their thinking to the word “potential.” Just because you do not feel significant to someone now doesn’t mean you won’t one day be a blessing.  Perhaps God is moving you into the correct position so that you can make your move like a piece on a chessboard.  You could touch the life of someone you have never even met and change their life for the better. 

Sure, certain types of jobs are less important than others, but there are no non-essential people.  Each of us is given a part to play in this world, and your participation is critical to the overall plot.  Remember this when life gets hard, and you question your existence.  God made you for a purpose, and no one can take your place. 

The Church Experience

Since I was a child, I was repeatedly told that the Church is not a building.  Now I have to explain to people that the Church is not a virtual reality.  It does not exist online with the absence of a building.  The Church is a group of people committed to following Jesus and working together to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  The physical structure and the internet are merely tools the followers of Jesus use to help them be the Church. 

Sitting in a building for an hour does not mean you are a part of a Church, and neither does sitting online for an hour.  Hearing someone else worship and explain the Bible to you are beautiful things, but they are not all of what it means to be a community of believers.  Christians speak to one another in love.  They know the needs of others and are praying for God to work in each other’s lives.  They serve together in the name of Jesus in a way that benefits others.  They worship with song, prayers, giving, and communion.  The Church is so much than consuming a sermon presented online or in person. 

This weekend Churches will be presenting programs both in physical buildings and online.  Neither of those is the true Church, but programs meant to help the followers of Jesus become the Church.  The people together are what make up the actual Church. It has been this way from the beginning and will continue despite the times.  To understand how all this works, you will need to find a place to connect with other believers somehow.  Start with a program this weekend but be willing to move beyond it if you genuinely want to experience Church.   

The Christian Atheist

It was a book I bought merely for the title.  Preacher Craig Groeschel published in 2010 a book with the intriguing title of “The Christian Atheist” and the tag line of “Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist.” Some of the chapters are direct and convicting.  Things like, “When you believe in God but not it prayer, when you believe in God but pursue happiness at any cost,” and “when you believe in God but trust more in money.” In my years of ministry, I have experienced each one of these in the lives of people who called themselves believers. 

Today’s post is not a book review.  It is a statement about something that has bothered me for years and still exists today.  I have listened to people say that they are believers in God and then have nothing in their life that demonstrates that belief.  Sure, they might be a nice person to others and try to be kind when they would rather be mean, but there is little evidence that Jesus is transforming their life.  They are, for lack of better terms, a Christian atheist. 

Let me ask you this simple question as a test.  If you removed Jesus from your life, would it make any difference? What would really be different about your life if you stopped telling people you believed in Jesus?  What actions would change?  What part of your speaking would change?  How would it impact you as a spouse and a parent?  What is truly different about your life because you believe in Jesus?  For many so-called Christians, following Jesus is about getting into heaven, and even then, it is not about meeting Jesus. It is because we want to see our parents, siblings, and children.

A Christ-follower’s challenge is to mold and shape every aspect of their life to fit Jesus teaching and example.  Showing up to Church on the Sundays we are not previously engaged is not all he desires of us.  Jesus said, “If anyone comes after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) To be a Christian is to place our faith in God completely and allowing it to transform us into the image of his son.  Anything less is a false faith and is correctly described as being a Christian atheist.

Where is Your Hope?

As a child, our Church sang a hymn that is important for all of us to remember.  It applies specifically to election seasons and political candidates.  Edward Mote wrote it in 1834 as he pastored in England.  The story goes that he was writing the song, and he spent an afternoon visiting an extremely ill woman.  She invited him to sing to her and he began singing his own song while continuing his writing at the same time.  By the time the day was done, the woman had received comfort, and he had written six verses to his new hymn. 

Soon after, he contacted some publishers and told them to distribute his new song so that others might receive the same blessing as this sweet lady.  He wrote at least 100 other pieces in his life, but this one remains his best known and still touches lives over 165 years later.  The song is titled “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” It is also called “On Christ the Solid Rock” because of the chorus. 

The verse states, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” All our hope is placed in the one who gave his life for us.  He is the one who knows the will of God above all others.  No matter how bad or how good life has become, I will not trust those moments but place ALL my hope in the work of Jesus. 

Then comes the chorus, “On Christ, the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand.” ALL other ground is sinking sand.  It may look firm and give the appearance of hope, but real hope is only found in Christ. 

When the election is finally over and your candidate has won or lost, it doesn’t matter.  Jesus will still be on his throne, and he is the only one worthy of our trust.  Nothing and no one less than him will ever supply our deepest needs.  Days and seasons like this remind us to ask one central question about our lives:  Where is our hope built?

An Election Day Prayer

by Ozark Chistian College President Matt Proctor

Father God,
As we approach a national election, we pray first for peace.
 We lift up prayers and intercessions, as Paul told us, for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives. We seek, as Jeremiah did, the peace and prosperity of the city and the nation in which we live, for if it prospers, we too will prosper. In a time of division, protect us from national upheaval, and give us peace so that we may live in all godliness and holiness. We pray for peace. 

Lord, we pray second for discernment. The issues of our day are many and weighty: racism, abortion, immigration, war and peace, health care, economic justice, the role of government, and the freedom to practice our faith. Help us to understand the truth of your Word, and what we lack in wisdom, we pray you would give generously. With the gospel, form our conscience that we may vote wisely. We pray for discernment.

Lord, we pray third for grace. Open our eyes to see those with different opinions, not as enemies, but as precious souls, made in your image, for whom Christ died. Fill us with a spirit of charity toward those who may see us as enemies, and when we are opposed and even attacked, give us the patience of Christ himself, who asked forgiveness for those who drove the nails. We pray for grace.

Lord, we pray fourth for faith. When fear and anxiety seek to overwhelm us, fill our eyes with a vision of you, our King, on your throne in sovereign power, and may the puny politics of this world, which seem to loom so large, resume their proper size. Remind us of the temporary nature of nations and the eternal nature of your kingdom, and keep our trust in you. We pray for faith.

Lord, we pray finally for repentance. For all the blessings we enjoy, we are a people far from you. Convict us of our personal sins, forgive us of our national sins, and spark revival in the land. May every heart turn toward you and every knee bow before you. May we return to you like the prodigal son, and when we do, crown us with your compassion, cover us with your mercy, and embrace us with your love. We pray for repentance.

And above it all, through it all, we pray that the name of Jesus Christ would be the name on every lip, that his name would be magnified in this nation and in all nations, for your glory and for the world’s good. We pray all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

What You Need to Hear

Sunday sermons are a unique experience.  As a preacher, I have delivered thousands of sermons over the years, and each week is still an amazing event. 

Take yesterday, for instance.  During the sermon, I looked out on my congregation and saw people sleeping.  Through the years, I have become used to being the soothing sound that ushers people into a restful nap.  I don’t like it, but I have gotten used to it.  Well, yesterday, for whatever reason, lots of people were napping during the entire sermon. 

After the program was over, I was walking through the lobby, and one of my leader’s wives grabbed me and said, “I heard it was a good sermon today, but I didn’t get to hear it yet, and I am excited to go home and listen to it online.”  She went on to tell me that two ladies came out of the first program raving about what I had said and how meaningful it was to them.  There was laughter about the enormous differences in response to the words I preached in the back of my mind. 

The fantastic part of the story to me is that events like this happen all the time.  Some people sleep, and others are awakened to spiritual growth.  A preacher thinks his sermon bombed, and someone heard something that altered their views for a lifetime.    

The wonderful thing about serving a living God is that he has the ability to speak his truth to people at unexpected times.  I firmly believe that if you are looking for the will of God in your life, his voice will tell you what you need to hear even while other people sleep through it. 

I praise God that the ultimate success of a sermon does not depend on me or any other preacher.  God is in control, and he patiently uses us to communicate his message at just the right time to some faithful heart.  If you keep listening and opening your life up to God, you will hear the words you need to hear one day.