SatisfiedSatisfied (Zondervan, 2013)

Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption is the second book by Jeff Manion, senior teaching pastor at Ada Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  His first book, The Land Between, used the Israelite’s journey through the Sinai Desert as a metaphor for being in an undesired, yet potentially transformational, time of transition.  During unexpected and undesired transition times like our ministry downsizing or vocation loss, contentment is a difficult, yet greatly desired, state of being.  Pastor Manion offers his definition:

“Contentment is the cultivation of a satisfied heart.  It is the discipline of being fully alive to God and to others whatever our material circumstances.”

Contentment, the author emphasizes, combats the downward drift of the heart.  However, there are two major challenges to contentment.  The first challenge is waiting for our situation to change.  Gritting our teeth and attempting to endure is counterproductive.  Contentment only comes as we embrace our situation with joy and thankfulness.

Comparison is the second major challenge to contentment.  Pastor Manion states that comparison shifts our hearts from deep gratitude to subtle resentment not because we’ve received less than we deserve, but that others have received more than we think they deserve.  We won’t follow a God we can’t trust- at least not for long.  The key is understanding that God is with us when we are emptied and that He is enough.

Our hearts are satisfied when we remember that our identity if not anchored in what belongs to us, but in who we belong to.  Since our identity is anchored in Christ, we don’t get our identity from our careers.  Rather, we bring our identity to our careers.  Knowing that we belong to Christ enables trust, not fear, to be the dominant force in our decision-making.  As we find our hope in God, we will hear His voice inviting us to enter into joy.  Jesus is knocking at our heart’s door.  All we need to do is open it.

In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day

In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day (Multnomah Books, 2006)

The author of In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day, Mark Batterson, is the founding pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D. C.  Pastor Batterson bases the book on 2 Samuel 23:20-21, where Benaiah seizes opportunity by the mane and emerges victorious in the titled encounter.  Right from the onset, the author shares one of his core convictions: God is in the business of strategically placing us in the right place at the right time.  However, often we see things from a conflicting  viewpoint- that we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.  That’s because God-o0rdained opportunities often come disguised as man-eating lions.

When we react in fear, we interpret our problems as circumstantial rather that perceptual.  We subsequently reduce God to the size of our biggest problem.  Unlike human endeavors that are ranked by degrees of difficulty, nothing is too big or too small for God.  The greatest breakthroughs in life, Pastor Batterson emphasizes, come when we push through fear.  It is counterproductive to ask God to get us out of difficult circumstances, but highly profitable to ask Him what he wants us to get out of those circumstances.   In spite of our external circumstances, worship is praising God even when we don’t feel like it due to our anxiety.  Faith, then, doesn’t reduce uncertainty- faith embraces uncertainty!

God is in the business of having us cross paths with the right people at the right time.  These God-ordained opportunities, or providences, typically start out as mustard seed opportunities and may also come disguised as insurmountable problems.  If we cave into conformity with worldly expectations and standards, we inevitably settle for something less than God intended for us.  One indication or dimension of spiritual growth is coming to terms with who we are and who we aren’t.  For we have been created by a limitless God to have limitless dreams and imaginations.


Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

WalkingWalking with God through Pain and Suffering (Dutton, 2013)

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering is the latest book from Timothy Keller, founding and current pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  The central theme of the book, which has three parts, is the image of suffering as a fiery furnace.  In the Introduction, Pastor Keller suggests that if the reader is in the midst of adversity, it might be better to read the second and third parts first.  Part One takes a cultural, historical, and philosophical look at suffering- thus it is more theoretical and abstract.

The author states that three powerful Christian teachings enrich our understanding of suffering and help us face adversity.  First, the doctrine of creation and the Fall brings the relief of humility- we’re all sinful and in need of a Savior.  The doctrine of the final judgment enables us to be gracious and forgiving, as evil ultimately will accomplish the opposite of what it intended.  Finally, through Jesus’ incarnation and atonement, He came down to this world and experienced ultimate darkness- God has wounds.

Furthermore, the Bible’s picture of suffering has two foundational balances: (1) suffering is both just and unjust and (2) God is both a sovereign and a suffering God.  This balance affords sufferers a wide range of resources and approaches for facing suffering, an individualized rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.  Suffering is at the heart of the Christian faith.  Through suffering we become like Jesus and experience His redemption.  Our walk with God is progressive, intentional, slow, and steady.  As we glorify God, we will find rest, satisfaction, and joy in Him.

The joy of the God happens inside our sorrow.  In that way our grief won’t sink us.  Pastor Keller emphasizes that God give us what we would have asked for if we had known everything He know.  Through the Holy Spirit, we can think, thank, and love ourselves into the peace of God- even while experiencing adverse circumstances.


Healing Your Church Hurt

Healing Your Church Hurt (Tyndale/Barna, 2013)

Author and former pastor Stephen Mansfield bases this book on the loss of his ten-year pastorate “amidst conflict and uproar”, chronicling and modeling his journey from woundedness to subsequent healing with refreshing candor.  Mr. Mansfield compares church hurt to a splinter in our souls working its way to the surface.  In order for that splinter to be removed, during that wounded season of darkness we must loosen our death grip on what we should have left alone in the first place- bitterness, pride, self-pity, and the need for revenge.  Furthermore, attempting to justify our church hurt by getting our version of the facts validated never will set us free.  Carrying inner hope that we will be justified is instead a sign that we haven’t forgiven.

The author emphasizes that our calling is not lost despite being chewed up and spit out by the church: “We are not called despite our wounding and betrayal; we are wounded and betrayed because we are called.”  This knowledge enables us to live safely and effectively in a fallen world.  When we know people as they are, we can love them as Jesus does.  As we examine our woundedness to determine what we need to know in order to heal and restore, we can redeem our pain through ministry to other hurting people.

There is life to be found in our desert seasons, but we have to dig for it in ways we haven’t yet tried.  To accomplish this we must patiently and persistently seek permanent answers, not short-term solutions.  For nothing that happened in our wounding experience is worth taking the bait of bitterness and offense.  Forgiveness is a crucial ingredient in this healing process.  Mr. Mansfield believes the essential key to forgiveness is what he terms “the hook of compassion”- finding the compassionate narrative behind the harmful actions against us.  Through the process of forgiving, Jesus is cleansing the surface of our lives, positioning us to welcome a much deeper work of God and enabling us to come home again.


Emotions (Howard Books, 2013)

Emotions: Confront the Lies. Conquer with Truth is the latest book by Charles Stanley, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta since 1971.  Dr. Stanley establishes the basis for this book by observing that because emotions exert as powerful influence in our lives, we must manage them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well as the principles of God’s Word.  For it is not our circumstances that devastate us, but the emotions our circumstances stir up.  Yet it is these very difficult emotions that enable us to realize our need for God- and through that process become His instrument of healing to others.

Prayer absolutely is essential to our healing.  As Dr. Stanley often says, “We stand tallest and strongest on our knees.”  It is exceedingly important that we spend time in God’s Word and powerful presence, because Satan’s most effective tool is fear- the root of all painful emotions.  No one is immune from fear.  To deepen our relationship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit, Dr. Stanley emphasizes that we must be completely open, honest, and personal with God.  Courage, then, is not a lack of fear, but rather confidence that God is greater than anything that could come against us.

Bitterness is destructive to our souls, a refusal to give others what God freely gives us.  The antidote is gratefulness.  Gratefulness refocuses our attention on God’s ability to help us.  As we express our thankfulness, we begin to embrace how God sees us and become attentive to His perfect plan for our lives.  Adversity can then be viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ love, character, and faithfulness.

Dr. Stanley concludes: “Disappointments are inevitable, but discouragement is a choice.”  We must look beyond our painful circumstances to the presence of the living God.  As we keep our eyes on Jesus, hope will characterize our lives and Satan will flee.

You’ll Get Through This

You’ll Get Through This (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

Max Lucado’s latest book, You’ll Get Through This: Hope and Help for Turbulent Times, applies the Old Testament story of Joseph to the “pit” experiences of our lives.  Offering hope in the midst of tragedy, Pastor Lucado notes that our “pits” catch us off-guard.  We all fear that we won’t get through our adversity.  Yet God pledges to reweave our pain for a higher purpose, although He may take His time.  History is redeemed in lifetimes, not minutes.

Our survival in Egypt begins with a yes to God’s call on our lives.  When our world bottoms out we, like Joseph, need to “look higher” to God rather than “dig deeper” into ourselves.  While we may be puzzled by our adversity, that adversity doesn’t bewilder God.  He sees our struggle and is fully engaged.  Max encourages us to make God’s presence our passion- we never will go where He is not.  Our mess can become our message.

We are in God’s waiting room.  As we wait, God works.  As a counterbalance to life’s punches, Pastor Lucado emphasizes that we need an anchor: “a deep-seated stabilizing belief in God’s sovereignty.”  We must live with the awareness that God is active in our situation, able, and up to something significant.  Whether our days are good or bad, God is in all days.  An attitude of gratitude leaves us looking at God, as we turn our attention to what Jesus did for us rather than focusing inward on what was done to us.  How we get through life depends on the degree that we believe and accept God’s vision for our lives.  God preceded our ministry downsizing or vocation loss.  He will outlive our ministry downsizing or vocation loss.  God is all over our ministry downsizing or vocation loss.


The Prodigal God

The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008)

Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, City, begins The Prodigal God with his assertion that the story most commonly named the Parable of the Prodigal Son might be better called the Parable of the Two Lost Sons.  The latter name is more inclusive, since the father in the parable had two sons, each representing different ways to be alienated from God and seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.  While the younger brother’s spiritual status is obvious, Pastor Keller emphasizes that the spiritual condition of the elder brother is much more complicated and poisonous.  Thus Jesus’s purpose in the parable is not to warm our hearts but to  shatter our categories.

In this parable Jesus is redefining sin- what it means to be lost and what it means to be saved.  Although at first glance the younger brother’s transgressions are readily recognizable and the elder brother’s more subtle, the truth is that the brothers are more alike than different.  Both are spiritually lost.  Jesus is calling our attention to a deeper understanding of sin.  Sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting oneself in the place of God.

Similarly, God’s initiating love and a repentance that goes deeper than regret for individual sins enables us to have an inner heart dynamic of joy, love, and gratitude.  We come to understand that the satisfaction we seek in worldly things is only found in Jesus.  We “taste and see” that the Lord is good, awaken to the needs of others, deliberately and repeatedly set our hearts on gospel-mode, and live the Christian life in a community of Christian friends.




Who is This Man?

Who is This Man? (Z0ndervan, 2012)

Pastor John Ortberg begins Who is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus by stating that Jesus’s life and teaching simply drew people to follow Him.  Jesus entered the world with no dignity and died with even less dignity, yet something about Jesus keeps prodding people to do what they would rather not.  Jesus’s ministry was deeply concerned with the worth of a human being.  Jesus felt pain when anyone was undervalued.  We find ourselves when we affirm that our highest calling is “coming to know and do the will of God in whose image we are created.”

Jesus taught to change lives.  As Pastor Ortberg notes, we need to become cruciform- reshaped by the Cross.  For Jesus the categories are holy and sinful, which puts all of us on the same side.  We all are sinful and in need of Christ’s love.  In the first few centuries following Jesus’s death and resurrection, the early church flourished in the midst of persecution.  Early Christians understood that there is a kingdom not of this world, that there is a love stronger than hate.  The condition of our hearts is what matters.  Our hearts must be bathed and pervaded by divine love.

Through Jesus’s death and resurrection the Cross changed form being symbolic of an empire’s power to being symbolic of the suffering love of God, from expressing the ultimate threat to expressing ultimate hope.  On a Saturday, however, the disciples’ dream died and God seemed silent, just as our dream died following our ministry downsizing or vocation loss.  The author lists 3 ways we can choose to respond: despair, denial, or waiting- trusting in God even when He seems very far away.  Jesus will endure any suffering we go through in order to save us.  Pastor Ortberg concludes the book with an invitation:

“You have to go through tomorrow anyway.  Try it with Jesus.  Come and see.”

The Attentive LIfe

The Attentive Life (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

The Attentive Life is Leighton Ford’s interpretation of the “divine hours”, traditionally practiced by religious orders but originally designed by St. Benedict (The Benedictine Rule) as a guide for laypeople.  Kairos, the word the Bible uses most often to speak of those opportunities that become turning points, is the most vital way to measure our lives- in contrast with chronological time.  Mr. Ford emphasizes that paying attention to kairos encounters is to be fully alive.  Attentiveness, however, is a difficult concept to grasp and a hard discipline to learn.  Yet attentiveness is critical to finding clarity of heart, because clarity is the path to seeing God.  It’s often during our darkest hours that God gets and teaches us to pay attention, so that we’re not “lost in the cosmos” but “lost in wonder”.

Vigils (also known as Matins) reminds us to pay attention to what God was doing in us long before we were born.  The hour of Lauds follows, taking us from darkness and calling us to awaken to God.  Prime, the next hour, is the opportunity to deliberately begin our day thoughtfully and with whole-hearted attention- to stop, look, and then go.  In order to give sustained attention to the deep things of God, the hour of Terce provides time to take a midmorning break during which we focus on the Holy Spirit.

High noon in the course of hours is called SextSext reminds us to pay active attention to God’s “divine interruptions” and learn from them.   In None we pay attention to things the endure as we encounter the reality that things don’t last forever.  Vespers is a time of renewal, not retreat, as we make fresh room for God in our hearts.  The last hour, Compline, is a time to look back with gratitude and forward with trust as we week what is deepest within ourselves.


Gods at War

Gods at War (Zondervan, 2013)

Author Kyle Idleman is Teaching Pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.  Gods at War is his second book, preceded by the best-selling Not a Fan.  Pastor Idleman begins Gods at War by noting that there are a thousand or so references to idolatry in the Bible.  In contrast to primitive “graven images”, today’s gods may seem so ordinary that we don’t recognize them.  Yet, the author asserts, such recognition is critical because these gods are at war for control of our hearts.  Modern gods such as success, money, and achievement only become idols when we serve, live, and sacrifice for them.  As Martin Luther once observed, idolatry is the one great sin from which all others flow.  Pastor Idleman adds that “the heart of the issue is an issue of the heart.”

All of us will choose to worship something.  We’re hard-wired to worship.  Philosopher Peter Kreeft asserts: “The opposite of theism isn’t atheism, it’s idolatry.”  More than our ancestors, the author states, we expect our daily work to be pleasurable.  Yet inside the temple of pleasure, gifts are turned into gods.  All too easily God’s gifts end up being His greatest competition- and the more intensely we chase pleasure, the less likely we are to catch it.  Until God is our greatest pleasure, all life’s pleasures will lead to emptiness.

The gods of power also create significant distractions for us.  The gods of power work from one shared premise: that we can take care of ourselves and handle all our needs.  We may grow to be so wrapped up with the desire to achieve that we miss divine moments when God wants our attention.  Achievement comes to equal our identity.  All of these gods are a prelude to the god we’ll confront multiple times every single day- the god of me.  As broken cisterns, the living water of Jesus is the only cure for our thirst.