Spiritual Markers in Your Life

Sometimes the circumstance is a decision-making situation, not so much between good and bad, but between good and best. I hope that we all will be able to pray this to God:

Lord, whatever I know to be your will, I will do it. Regardless of the cost and regardless of the adjustment, as best I know in my heart, I commit myself to follow your will ahead of time. Lord, no matter what that looks like, I will do it.

That is a tremendous prayer of submission. If you DON’T pray this way, you can never say, “Thy will be done” because you are really saying “Thy will be done as long as it doesn’t conflict with my will.” DO NOT proceed until you can honestly say, “Lord whatever you want, I will do it.”

Physical Markers and Spiritual Encounters:

Physical markers were often set up as a reminder of someone’s experience with God. At the crossing of the Jordan River, tribes set up a pile of stones as a reminder of what God had done for the people, and the fathers would pass these stories down to their children (Joshua 4:2-3, 6-7).

There are a number of people in the Old Testament worth studying when it comes to an encounter with God:

  1. Noah (Genesis 6-8)
  2. Abram (Genesis 12:1-8, 13:1-18)
  3. Isaac (Genesis 26:17-25)
  4. Jacob (Genesis 28:10-22, 35:1-7)
  5. Moses (Exodus 17:8-16, 24:1-11)
  6. Joshua (Joshua 3:5-4:9)
  7. Gideon (Judges 6:11-24)
  8. Samuel (1 Samuel 7:1-13)

I chose to look at Gideon since I attended a Gideon pastor appreciation lunch just this week. The Lord came to Gideon while he was working and called hm to a difficult task. He knew he was not up to the task of delivering God’s people from their enemies, but since he had this encounter with God, he set up a memorial and called it, “God is Peace” since he saw God and did not die.

Fathers passed on these stories of God’s activity to teach their children about God’s faithfulness and deeds. Every act builds upon the previous act, like a pile of stones. The stories are told and retold, then adding what God had done specifically for them. They rehearsed the stories to future generations would have a context of how God dealt with his people.  Each new step involved a person, and that person added his experiences to the story.

As we develop a spiritual inventory of stories, they are events that help us to recognize God’s movement in the past to help us prepare for God moving in the present and future. A spiritual marker identifies a time of transition, decision, or direction when I clearly know that God has guided me.

Personal Spiritual Markers:

God has been working in you since your birth, and we should recognize the events that have brought us to where we are now.

  1. G’Anne – In high school, I was interested in a girl who went to church and decided to go to church to be with her. I accepted Christ a year later.
  2. Scotty – I had decided to NOT go to college until my friend brought up the subject (after graduation) and said we could room together and get involved in the Baptist Student Union. I was accepted into college and met my wife at the BSU, and discovered my calling in life was into full-time Christian service.
  3. Bob – He was the campus minister who saw more in me than I saw in myself, and encouraged my to seek ways to grow spiritually, be obedient to God on campus, develop leadership skills and to consider seminary and Christian service.
  4. Kim – At college I met the love of my life and best friend. We have shared life and love for over 30 years. We embrace shared values, salvation in Christ, and commitment to him and each other. God has also called her into her own ministry, not just to be a pastor’s wife.
  5. Stephen – The birth of my son was the first time that God became a real person to me. It had been twelve years since I accepted the Lord; I finished college, then seminary, and then Kim and I were at our first church after seminary. Stephen came a month early and needed to be in the neonatal ICU, so with Kim in one hospital and Stephen in another, I was at a traffic light at about 9:00 one night, just leaving Kim, and on my way to see Stephen, on my way home when I cried out to God. I complained about the meaning of all this, what’s the point of the nine months, the anticipation, the preparation, the excitement, only to have my boy so near death. It was at that time that I heard the still small voice of God reassuring me that I was not alone. He said to me, “It’s going to be OK, I know what it’s like to lose a son.” I knew that no matter what happened to Stephen, Kim and I would still trust and follow God. We were not experiencing anything that God did not know about or experience himself. I named that place (like the Old Testament saints did) “God is my Peace” and “God is my Comfort” because it was that night I learned so much about the love that God has for me and my family. He loves Stephen more than I could ever love him!
  6. Allan – He was the pastor of our first church out of seminary, who was evangelistic and mission-minded. He left for the mission field and planted the seed of missions in our hearts.
  7. Don and Mickey – This couple challenged us to work in the area of home missions at the oceanfront, and to evaluate all that the world and the church had taught us and hold it up to the light of God’s Word. This was a very treasured time of ministry and relationships that laid a solid foundation for life-long ministry and walking with God.
  8. Zambia – It was in Zambia that I sensed the most satisfaction of being in God’s will, denying self and following God. The Great Commission was being realized in my life. The friends I made along the way are lasting and cherished relationships. I realized that I did not take the gospel to the Zambian people, but rather God was already at work there and I adjusted my life to join him in that work.
  9. Lemstone – As we left the mission field for a couple of reasons but our experience back home was difficult (I write about that a bit more in a previous post). God was silent. I could not find full-time employment in the ministry and felt abandoned by God and our denomination. The owners and employees of Lemstone Christian bookstore at the Galleria Mall (south of Birmingham) were praying for my family, and my employment, knowing that it meant I would leave the store. When I had the opportunity to interview in Richmond with the IMB’s Office of Mission Personnel, they called the employees off the floor and went to the stockroom and we prayed. They prayed earnestly for God to move in this situation. This was more than a workplace, it was the community of faith getting together to BE the church. To this day it was one of the most supportive work environments of which I have ever been a part.

I suppose that is enough storytelling for now, but the point is we should constantly watch for how God is moving, and notice the spiritual markers that outline and define our journey. All along the way I sensed that these were never decisions between good and bad, but between good and best. I was called to serve God and follow his lead whether I was on the field or serving in a church. He has called me to faithfulness to his will, purposes and his ways.

God’s Plan vs. Our Plans

In  the Bible we must remember who accomplishes these great acts… who delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt? We tend to say Moses, but it was actually God who delivered them (Psalm 81:10-12) using Moses to do it. Moses tried to assert himself and be the deliverer (Exodus 2:11-15) and failed. It was 40 years later that God sent him back to bring God’s people out.

Understanding what God is about to do where I am is more important than telling God what I want to do for him.

God’s way is always the best way. When God reveals what he is up to, it is our responsibility to adjust our lives to what God is about to do.

The prophets had a two-fold message:

  1. The desire of God was to call the people back to himself.
  2. The people are closer to the time of judgment than ever before.
    1. Tell the people what I have been doing.
    2. Tell the people what I am doing.
    3. Tell the people what I am about to do.

So, how do we adjust our lives toward what God is doing in our personal life, family life, church life, work life, community and nation?

Martin Luther went against the established church when he came to understand that the just shall live by faith, and what it means to be saved… and brought about a great Reformation.

Charles and John Wesley prevented a bloody revolution (like in France) by initiating a sweeping revival in England.

When God wants to interrupt your life for something great, we often react with a self-centered way by declaring, “I’m not trained, so I can’t do it…” This focus is totally on SELF. We try to give God all the reason that he has chosen the wrong person for the job.

God-centered vs. Self-centered

The essence of sin is the shift from a God-centeredness to a self-centeredness. To know God’s will, we must turn away from self-centeredness. Look at it this way:

To be self-centered: life is focused on self, we are proud of self and your own accomplishments, we have confidence is in self, a dependence on self and our own abilities, seeking acceptance from the world and its ways, selfish and ordinary living.

To be God-centered: we have confidence in God, dependence on God and on his abilities and provision, life is focused on God and his activities, we have humility before God, denying self, seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and seeking God’s perspective in all circumstances, holy and godly living.

In the Bible we don’t see God asking people to dream up what they want to do for God. The pattern is to submit, wait, watch and then join him.

Our goals for experiencing God, basically to know and do the will of God…

  1. I must deny myself and return to a God-centered life.
  2. I must reorient my life to God.
  3. I must focus my life on God’s purposes and not my own plans.
  4. I must seek to see from God’s perspective rather than from my own distorted human perspective.
  5. I must wait until God shows me what he is about to do through me.
  6. I must watch to see what God is doing around me and join him.

Hard & Painful Decisions

This is session two of my study on Decisions: Seeking God’s Guidance. This section looks closely at Acts 20:17-21:14

The purpose today is to observe a case study of how God enabled a person to follow his will even when it was painful.

“We are not necessarily doubting,” said C. S. Lewis, “that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”

Describe a time when God’s best has been painful for you. How has this experience affected you?

Do you ever fear God’s will? When and why?

The apostle Paul made a momentous decision to return to Jerusalem. Even though many Christians urged Paul not to go and warned him that he would be arrested in Jerusalem, still Paul remained convinced that this was what he should do. As he traveled, he made several brief stops to visit friends, explain his decision and say farewell.

1. If you had been in Paul’s position, would you have gone to Jerusalem? Why or why not?

2. For Paul, what were the issues involved in his decision to go to Jerusalem?

“His overriding concern is not at all costs to survive, but rather that he may finish the race and complete his Christ-given task of bearing witness to the good news of God’s grace” (John R. W. Stott).

3. What do you find admirable about Paul’s convictions? The words of Thomas a Kempis may be helpful in answering this question. He wrote:

“Jesus hath now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He hath many desirous of comfort, but few of tribulation. He finds many companions of his table, but few of his abstinence. All desire to rejoice with him, few are willing to endure anything for him. Many follow Jesus unto the breaking of bread; but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. . . . Many love Jesus so long as adversities do not happen. Many praise and bless him, so long as they receive comforts from him.” (The Imitation of Christ).

4. How are your convictions similar to or different from Paul’s?

5. What price have you had to pay for your convictions?

6. If God wanted Paul to go to Jerusalem, why did the Holy Spirit give so many warnings not to go?

The warnings were given not to discourage Paul, but to warn him. John Stott draws a distinction between a prediction and a prohibition:

The better solution is to draw a distinction between a prediction and a prohibition. Certainly Agabus only predicted that Paul would be bound and handed over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11); the pleadings with Paul which followed are not attributed to the Spirit and may have been the fallible (indeed mistaken) human deduction from the Spirit’s prophecy. For if Paul had heeded his friends’ pleas, then Agabus’ prophecy would not have been fulfilled! It is more difficult to understand Acts 21:4 in this way, since the “urging” itself is said to be “through the Spirit.” But perhaps Luke’s statement is a condensed way of saying that the warning was divine while the urging was human. After all, the Spirit’s word to Paul combined the compulsion to go with a warning of the consequences (Acts 20:22-23).

7. How did Paul’s meetings with various communities of disciples encourage and prepare him to enter Jerusalem?

Even though Paul’s friends mistook the prophecy of hardship and imminent suffering for a sign that God did not want Paul in Jerusalem, they were still used as God’s agents of encouragement. They gave a message from the Holy Spirit that confirmed the one Paul had already received, they demonstrated that Paul was deeply loved by them and by God, and they prayed with him.

8. How has God encouraged and prepared you for difficult times in your life?

9. Many Christians expect God’s will to be the most pleasant and trouble-free alternative, but from Paul’s experience, that is apparently not so. What would be better criteria for interpreting God’s will?

  • First, to know God’s will we must first accept God’s salvation in Christ. It is God’s will that none should perish.
  • Second, to know God’s will we must be obedient to God’s word as recorded in the Scriptures. We find 90 percent of God’s will right there.
  • Third, to know God’s will we must pray and earnestly seek His direction.
  • Fourth, to know God’s will we must listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit. (George and Donald Sweeting)

10. In your decision-making process, have you usually been more concerned about personal comfort or following God? How has this been shown?

11. Acts 21:14 says that in the end, the disciples “gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.'” Why is it so often difficult to give in to the Lord’s will?

When the people said, “The Lord’s will be done,” they were making a positive affirmation, not a stoic resignation. To make such a statement is a cry of faith and trust that “God is good, all the time!”

12. What are you having difficulty giving up to God’s will?

Pray for each person in your group who is facing a difficult or painful decision.

Now or Later: A vivid description of someone facing a painful decision is found in the story of Jesus at Gethsemane. Read Mark 14:32-42.

  1. Compare and contrast Jesus’ decision to go to the cross with Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem.
  2. What encouragement do Jesus’ and Paul’s examples give you for facing your own painful choices?
  3. What do you learn from these stories about how to encourage a friend who is facing a painful decision?

Extras:

Acts 20:22-23 Having reviewed his past conduct among the Ephesians, the apostle now looks ahead to the sufferings that await him. He was constrained in his spirit to go to Jerusalem. It was an inner compulsion, which he was apparently unable to throw off. Although he did not know exactly what the turn of events would be in Jerusalem, he did know that chains and tribulations would be a regular part of his life. The Holy Spirit had been making this fact known to him in every city, perhaps through the ministry of prophets, or perhaps by the mysterious, inner communication of divine intelligence.

Acts 20:24 As the apostle weighed this outlook in his mind, he did not think that his own life was the great consideration. His ambition was to obey God and to please Him. If in doing this, he would be called upon to offer up his life, he was willing to do so. No sacrifice he could make would be too great for the One who died for him. All that mattered was that he finish his race and complete the ministry which he received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. No title could better express the good news which Paul preached—the gospel of the grace of God.

Acts 21:4b It was during this time that these disciples told Paul through the Spirit that he should not set foot in Jerusalem. This raises the age-old question as to whether Paul was deliberately disobedient in going to Jerusalem, whether he unwittingly failed to discern the mind of the Lord, or whether he was actually in the will of God in going. A casual reading of verse 4b might seem to indicate that the apostle was willful and headstrong, acting in deliberate defiance of the Spirit. However, a more careful reading might indicate that Paul did not actually know that these warnings were given through the Spirit. Luke, the historian, tells his readers that the advice of the Tyrian disciples was Spirit-inspired, but he does not say that the apostle knew this as a definite fact. It seems far more probable that Paul interpreted the advice of his friends as calculated to save him from physical suffering or even death. In his love for his Jewish countrymen, he did not feel that his physical well-being was the important consideration.

Acts 21:10-11 During Paul’s stay in Caesarea, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. It was the same prophet who came to Antioch from Jerusalem and predicted the famine which took place during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28). Now he took Paul’s belt and bound his own hands and feet with it. By this dramatic action, like many of the prophets before him, he was acting out his message. Then he gave the meaning of the object lesson. Just as he had bound himself, hands and feet, so would the Jews of Jerusalem bind the hands and feet of Paul and deliver him over to the Gentile authorities. Paul’s service for the Jews (symbolized by the belt) would result in his being captured by them.

Acts 21:12-14 When the apostle’s companions and the Christians in Caesarea heard this, they pleaded with him not to go up to Jerusalem. But he could not sympathize with their concern. Their tears only served to break his heart. Should the fear of chains and imprisonment restrain him from doing what he considered to be God’s will? He would have them know that he was ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. All their arguments proved of no value. He was determined to go, and so they simply said, “The will of the Lord be done.”

It is difficult to believe that Paul’s parting words were spoken by a man who was knowingly disobeying the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We know that the disciples in Tyre told him through the Spirit that he should not go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). But did Paul know they spoke through the Spirit? And did not the Lord later seem to approve his trip to Jerusalem when He said, “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome” (Acts 23:11)?

Two things are clear:

  1. First, Paul did not think his personal safety was the main consideration in serving the Lord.
  2. Second, the Lord overruled all these events for His glory.

Testing our Decisions

How does one know if they are making the right decision, it may be more practical than you think. From God’s perspective, decisions are not to be determined by random selection, supernatural events, people’s opinions, delay tactics, analytical thinking, or good feelings. God wants you to measure your decisions by his standards. Rather than testing God, test yourself using these Scriptures:

Scriptural Test: Has God already spoken about it in His Word? All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Maybe marrying a nonbeliever in hopes of drawing the spouse to Christ even though 2 Corinthians 6:14 says not to be yoked together with unbelievers.

Secrecy Test: Would it bother me if everyone knew this was my choice? The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity (Proverbs 11:3). Perhaps like, thinking no one is hurt by keeping an overpayment of returned cash or credit.

Survey Test: What if everyone followed my example? Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity (1 Timothy 4:12). Perhaps like assuming a little trash tossed out the car window will never be noticed on a busy highway.

Spiritual Test: Am I being people-pressured or Spirit-led? Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10). An example might be volunteering for an assignment but doing it for the show of others, not as a confirmation that God wants you to do this.

Stumbling Test: Could this cause another person to stumble? It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall (Romans 14:21). Maybe having an alcoholic drink in a public place could cause this stumbling of others.

Serenity Test: Have I prayed and received peace about this decision? Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6–7). Maybe we decide to make any major change without praying and waiting on God’s peace for confirmation.

Sanctification Test: Will this keep me from growing in the character of Christ? We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). Perhaps you are failing to obey God when He prompts you to do something that is difficult or burdensome.

Supreme Test: Does this glorify God? Live as children of light…and find out what pleases the Lord (Ephesians 5:8, 10). Perhaps you are conforming to the world’s standards by living a lifestyle of indebtedness.

A final reminder can be this: Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).