Thursday, September 16, 2010

Needed: Holy Discontent and a Dirty Christian Word

Revival is a term that some, both inside and outside the Church, may see as sort of a Christian "dirty word."

But revival is a Biblical concept that refers to what happens to individuals, communities, churches, or nations when they turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life.

Revival, new life with God, is something that can happen to people who have long warmed church pews, but have lost sight of Jesus, once their "first love."

Revival also happens to those who have never known or trusted in Christ, who come to worship and trust Him as their only God and Savior.

The word revival literally means, of course, to be made alive again. Revival is what happened to the Prodigal Son in Jesus' famous parable. The younger son in Jesus' story, you'll remember, took the inheritance the father had always planned on giving to him and decided to misuse his freedom as license for sin. Things didn't go well. Mindful that life with his father--representative of God--had given him both the freedom and the power to be his best self, the son set out for home, his only goal to ask for his father's forgiveness and seek employment with him as a hired-hand. He felt worthy of nothing more than this.

But when the father sees his son, he welcomes him happily and throws a party for him. The father's other son--representative for us today of good religious pew-warmers whose relationship with God is lukewarm, at best--becomes angry with his father for forgiving the younger son. He even refuses to join the welcome home party for the younger son. The father begs him to join in, explaining, "...we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."

Jesus says that "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents," that is,  one person who turns from sin and to the God made known in Jesus. When that one person repents and trusts in Christ as their God and Savior, that one person is revived--made alive again.

Elsewhere, the New Testament says that "...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

General revival, such as was experienced in the United States during the Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries, begins with individuals and churches confessing their sins in more than pro forma ways to God--and in some cases, to each other. Confession of this kind authentically owns its need of the power for living free from the sin and the death we can't get free of on our own. Revived people relish the Biblical promise: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (Romans 8:1).

Humility and honesty before God, a willingness to trust God more than we trust the sins we love to commit, can ignite a contagious general revival in which hundreds and thousands of people turn in faith to Christ and find their lives, their churches' lives, and the lives of those they touch in the community and world with the Good News of new life that comes only through faith in Christ.

This is how revival has always come. In Old Testament times, God told Solomon, king of God's people, Israel, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Our land--where only 17% of those identifying themselves as Christians bother to worship on any given week--and our whole world, need the healing, the revival, that Christ can bring.

This can happen. Someone once said that if you want to know how revival begins, get down on your knees, draw a circle around where you're kneeling, then confess your sins and ask God to help you trust in Christ alone. God will then begin revival within that circle.

In a real sense, revival begins when we're dissatisfied with the way things are. I call this holy discontent.

When we have holy discontent, we're not pleased by our own lack of love for God and others and we long to live differently. We want to be more like that person we're always trying to prove we are to others. When we have holy discontent, we hunger for--we are desperate for--God. When we have holy discontent, we will be incapable of trusting God, but we want to. We're like the man who said to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief." And just as Jesus answered that man's prayers, in spite of his feeble, weak faith, Jesus will answer the prayers of all who are willing to trust in Him, even if their trust is weak or next-to-nonexistent.

God doesn't sit in heaven waiting for us to become good enough before He hears our prayers. "The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love," the Bible tells us repeatedly. God knows the intentions of our hearts and understands how hard it is for us to trust in Him. But His promise, again found in several Biblical passages, is that all who call on His Name will be saved. All of this is why David wrote back in Old Testament times: "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust." God will never turn a deaf ear to anyone who genuinely wants to want Him, who genuinely wants to trust, wants to turn from sin. Blessedly, if we give God an inch, God will take a mile. That's a great thought to my mind!

Listen: Holy discontent comes from God.

It's caused by the holes in our souls that can only be filled by Jesus Christ.

It's foisted on you by the Holy Spirit calling you to the daily habit of personal repentance and renewal.

When we experience holy discontent, a good thing to do is to go through the Ten Commandments and Martin Luther's explanation of them (or any other great Christian teacher's explanations of the Commandments), to hit our knees, to repent for our violations of each commandment, and to experience the forgiveness that can come to those who pray in Jesus' Name.

In other words, revival begins when we honestly and forthrightly heed Jesus' call to repent and believe in the good news that God so loved the world that all who entrust themselves--including their sins--to Him will not be separated from God for eternity, but have everlasting life.

The joy that comes to people who are reconciled with God through Christ causes them to want to share that revival that comes from God with others. They're like Peter and John, early followers of Jesus who were ordered by religious authorities to stop telling others about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and the good news of new life given by all who turn to Christ. In the face of the threats, they said, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

Having personally experienced the forgiveness and new life they knew that the crucified and risen Jesus wanted to give to all people, Peter and John felt an overpowering need to share Christ with others. "This Jesus," they told the religious leaders who threatened them, "is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.' There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:11-12).

Once revival starts to happen inside of you, it's bound to show up outside of you, and nothing and no one can stop it...not even you yourself. "If you're happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it..." as the Sunday School song puts it.

But it's this precise insight that ought to rouse our holy discontent...and our concern. As Tom Phillips writes in his 1995 book, Revival Signs: Join the Spiritual Awakening:
People today want to know about Christ more than Christians want to tell them about Him.
This sad state of affairs is even worse today than it was when Phillips wrote those words fifteen years ago.

A Florida pastor gains national prominence not because he and his flock are sharing the good news of Jesus, or because they are repenting and experiencing the revival the Holy Spirit sends to people who humble themselves and repent in Jesus' Name. Their prominence comes from touting a plan to burn the Koran, an act irrelevant to their mission as a church and hardly expressive of the gentleness and reverence with which we Christians are told to share our faith. Meanwhile, the world is desperate for the revival only Jesus can bring!

A denomination, which has shrunk by over a million members and 1000 congregations in the past twenty years, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), becomes more involved with lobbying the government in Washington and the acceptance of heresies designed to court the favor of the world while ignoring the will of God, than it is with sharing Jesus. (Of course, it can't credibly share Jesus anyway, so long as it remains rebellious against Jesus and against God's revealed will in God's Word.) Meanwhile, the world remains desperate for the revival only Jesus can bring!
But we shouldn't give in to hopelessness! There's no good reason to do so. After all, in Christ, we know that God is bigger than all that daunts us or threatens to rob us of the joy Christ came to give to us. We need to pay attention to our discontent and bring it to God.

Discontent among Christians can lead us to repentance and to renewal, which in turn can lead us to share our faith in Christ with others. Jesus' plan all along has been to use people desperate for Him and so desperate in their love for others that they will obey His great commission--to make disciples of all nations, to lovingly woo others into a relationship with Christ.

The person who lets God into their lives through worship and fellowship with Christ's Church, personal confession, regular Bible reading, grateful reception of Holy Communion--Christ's body and blood--each time it's offered, and intercessory prayer for others, can experience revival.

It will happen first in themselves.

And then, through the Holy Spirit, they'll follow Scripture's direction to "always be prepared to make [a defense of their faith in Christ] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." And they will be able to do it "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

In his phenomenal little book, The Church God Blesses, Pastor Jim Cymbala writes:
Every revival in church history has been started by pastors and believers who became deeply dissatisfied with the moral and spiritual climate around them. They knew from Scripture that God has something better for his people. All the great missionary movements have been spawned by men and women who became desperate to see God's kingdom extended to new regions and to those who had not yet heard about Jesus. In fact, every time people really pray, they are believing that God by his divine power can change what is into something better.
Do you feel discontent with yourself, your family, your church, your community, our world?

Turn to God. Trust in the God Who makes this promise to those who want Him:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:6-10)
  • Confess. 
  •  Trust. 
  •  Pray. 
  •  Get to know God better through God's Word, the Bible. 
  •  Share the good news of new life through Jesus. 
 Revival can happen. Every Christian should want it to happen.

Are you content with the way things are or do you long for the better--and everlasting life--God wants to bring to all people? God can answer the prayer that many of us sing on Pentecost Sunday, when we ask the life-giving breath of God to make life new, to revive us, through Jesus Christ:
Spirit, Spirit of gentleness
Blow thro' the wilderness
calling and free.
Spirit, Spirit of restlessness
stir me from placidness
Wind, wind on the sea
We dare not be placid! There's a dying world that needs new life. God is looking for people who will daily surrender to Christ and ask God for nothing more than the privilege of sharing the new life that comes from Christ with others.

Revival can start within us and take in all the world. May our prayerful surrender to Jesus Christ be the start of a new great awakening!

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