Publication: Pastoral Letter, April 2006
Dear Friend in Christ:
I heard a message a few years ago by my friend C.J. Mahaney: “Keep the main thing the main thing.” He spoke about staying focused on the Gospel. It is easy to get lost in the complexities of life and lose the very source of life. The daily cares of this world can choke out the seed. Christians, like most Americans, are busy with many concerns and pressures; things get complicated. My own greatest battle is to keep it simple.
The “Good Old Days” sometimes call us back to a time when there were less pressures and our culture seemed more cohesive. Now life comes at us with competing issues that test us economically, socially, politically, and even spiritually. Diversity has become adversity. We have too many choices to make.
A lot of us are anesthetizing ourselves in one way or another, in an effort to escape lives that are conflicted. And watching the evening news doesn’t help.
Let me tell you a true story: Several minister friends and I, along with our families, took a month-long journey together, in 1977. We toured Belgium, Rome, and Israel, along with Cardinal Suenans of Belgium, who was celebrating 50 years as a priest. We were treated very well and it was a great honor, especially to have an the audience with the Pope. We saw many churches, including St. Peters, the world’s largest church.
Toward the end of our journey, we went to Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Law. We stood on its peak looking over the valleys where Israel camped. It was an unforgettable moment. Leaving Sinai, we rode a rickety bus along the desert road. The hills were dry and barren, and then I saw, by the road, an altar made of rough stones. It stood about four feet high.
I thought of Exodus 20:24, “An altar of earth you shall make for me, and if you make an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stone. For if you use your tool on it, you have profaned it.”
I had seen the world’s most beautiful and ornate altars. Some of them were hand carved mahogany, others of brass or gold. They took lifetimes to build. I thought of Solomon’s Temple with its brass, gold, and fine tapestry. But no altar struck me with such force as this simple Bedouin altar, where the Israelites had walked on their journey to Canaan. No tool had touched it.
Why was it so striking? It reminded me that the worth of an altar is not in the value of its art, but in the sacrifice that is placed upon it. The cross was a simple altar, but the offering placed upon it was incalculable in its value. The worth is not its fine detail, but in the pure devotion that it represents. Our lives, like our altars, often become more complicated, but less devoted. What was once clear becomes more complex and confusing. The altars that we build are often more expensive than the love that we place upon them.
When we lose the simplicity of love and devotion, by distractions and conflicts, the simple truth that once moved us is lost. And what was once beautiful becomes a morass, a jungle, in which evil lurks. I think of James 3:16, which says, “Where there is strife, there is every evil work.” Before the enemy can do his work, he creates confusion and howling mobs that drown out the voice of God, order, and peace.
God gave Adam and Eve an unimaginable opportunity and resources. He gave them tremendous blessings with a simple life. He only gave one condition, “Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the day you do you will die.” They led an idyllic life, naked and unashamed. This was too much for Satan. He hates all God’s children!
In order to bring death, he questioned, subverted, and contradicted the Word of God, until they finally saw Satan’s point of view. They ate the forbidden fruit and life got complicated. Simplicity is good; simple-mindedness is not good (see Proverbs 1:32). In their confusion, destruction and death were lurking. Adam was separated from God and Eve was separated from Adam; then, when they had sons, Cain killed Abel. The earth itself rebelled. Bad things come out of confusion (see 1 Cor. 14:33).
Many, if not most people, are confused about life. They live without a clear word from God, a vision and a strategy; they are unfocused, going in circles, mistaking activity for progress. Without purpose, they are blown into storms of confusion where evil awaits.
SEEKING SIMPLICITY IN CHAOS
There were three kings who set out to do battle against one another; two were wicked kings, who solicited another who was righteous, to engage in their conflict. This righteous king, Jehoshaphat, consented to a bad and dangerous alliance. Soon they were in the dry desert heat going to war, but they ran out of water! Jehoshaphat, realizing his predicament, searched out Elisha the prophet. Elisha rebuked them for their poor decision, but then he called for a musician to play. As the musician played, the Word of God came to Elisha. He gave them an unusual, but successful strategy, because he regarded the righteous king.
At the close of his brief statement, Elisha made this striking statement, “And this is a simple matter in the sight of the Lord.” It is amazing how God’s voice simplifies what seemed so complicated. When we seek Him, His voice silences the cacophony of sounds that threaten our destruction. When we seek His Kingdom and His righteousness, everything else falls into place. His Word brings peace to the stormy seas that rage around us.
Christians also have to deal with this complex world. And sometimes the very place we go to hear a word that would simplify life becomes complex and complicated. Corinth was like that, and the Apostle Paul wrote letters to them to clear up moral and theological confusion. There were too many voices vying for their attention. But his correction seemed harsh to them, so he wrote a second letter emphasizing his sincere love for them. In 2 Corinthians 1:12, he states that he conducted himself in simplicity and godly sincerity. He said in essence, “You can take my words at face value. I was not saying something else.”
Jesus said, in Matthew 5:37, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” If we are clear and confident we can communicate clearly. We can speak out of our hearts. If not, we send mixed messages. Confused thinking results in confused communication. The Church’s challenge is to speak a clear word to a confused world. But if we are confused, and diffused in our efforts, we sound an uncertain sound to a world drowning in chaos.
We may use many methods, but we must offer a simple, single message: “Be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.” We must be clear about the cross of Christ as the place of reconciliation, and our own cross in the place of service. A cafeteria of theologies and self-serving psychologies offer no clear message to a world torn apart in its diversity. The Word of God, and a word from God, are our relevance— our answer to chaos.
Our lack of focus is revealed in petty disputes. One lady quit a church because no one ate her cake at the church social. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Paul spoke of his fear for Corinth. It is strange to speak of fear when thinking of the Apostle Paul, who feared neither persecution nor death. But he said, “I fear lest somehow, as a serpent beguiled Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
Corinth was divided and in confusion, hearing “another Jesus,” receiving “a different spirit” and a different gospel. Paul reminded them of their simple devotion to Jesus, but the modern church also faces these issues. We have our own “Angels of Light” who thrive on self exaltation, legalisms, and self-serving. The cure is a refocus on the Gospel, and devotion to Jesus and dying ourselves. Such a refocus will bring major issues into priority and minor issues in their place.
We are too impressionable, running after the latest wave to surf on it for a brief moment and wait for the next one. Our culture is like a rudderless sailboat driven by the shifting winds into spiritual confusion. Simplicity and clarity would be a beautiful thing!
Heresy is not always a lie; it can be a truth taken to the exclusion of other truths. It is a “one tool toolbox,” or a “one-note piano.” It is dividing one part from the whole, thereby dividing those who focus on one truth from others. The word heresy simply means “division.” Satan is a heretic because he promotes division, though he knows the truth.
Every great leader and every successful life is the result of focus on priorities. Focused people do not waste time on petty issues. They do not take long detours. They do not allow minors to become majors. They do not chase fads. They know what they are called to do and they stick to it.
Focused people do not harbor grudges and unforgiveness. They do not get bitter, only better. They do not get preoccupied with questions, they find answers. They do not fret over issues over which they have no control, they give them to God. Focused people do not spend time on the blame-game; they resolve issues and get on with the job at hand. Jesus and the Apostles were focused.
One of my favorite chapters is Philippians 3: “One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s life may seem to be very complicated—to an outsider. He traveled often, held many meetings, suffered much, and was imprisoned on numerous occasions. But he survived because of the simplicity of his focus: The will of God. If we hope to make an impact on our generation, distracted and confused as it is, we too must focus on the simpler devotion to Christ.
Remember the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, and their responses to the Lord? Martha had a problem; she was worried about too many things. But Mary saw what was necessary, and sat at the feet of Jesus. Her simple devotion was a beautiful thing.
The finest art and the greatest wisdom are expressed in simplicity. The focus is clear and the beauty of it is not diminished by superfluity.
I read an article on investments many years ago. The author stated that many people of great financial means lose a lot of money by investing in areas where they have no expertise. I had been invited to invest a small sum of money in a hotel. After reading the article, I decided not to. I knew nothing about hotels. The hotel went bankrupt.
God called me to teach and preach the Bible and to be a pastor. Sometimes other fields look inviting, but God has never blessed that for me. He seems to say, “Take care of my business and I’ll take care of you.” And He always has.
We all have many different callings—thank God. But we need to know and stay in the calling of God. Whatever our calling is, we can keep it simple—and deliver the message, “Seek His Kingdom first and all else will be added.” That is simple.
When we are focused, we can handle immense pressure with peace. When we lose our focus, pressure comes from every direction and we do not handle it very well. I pray that you know God’s will and rejoice in the simplicity of obedience.
P.S. Please continue to remember CSM in your prayers and in your budget this month. Come visit us on our website at www.csmpublishing.org for more information!
Scripture Reference: Exodus 20:24, James 3:16, Proverbs 1:32, 1 Cor. 14:33, 2 Corinthians 1:12, Matthew 5:37, 2 Corinthians 11:3, Philippians 3