The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Discipleship (page 1 of 4)

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Jeroboam and the Lure of Political Power

The Story of Jeroboam

Jeroboam is one of the Bible’s incredibly tragic characters. He was a man who God granted an amazing opportunity, and he squandered it away. 

Jeroboam’s story begins with King Solomon, who himself was a tragic character: a man who was given wisdom, power, and great wealth by God, but who turned away from God and began to worship other gods (1 Kings 11.1-8). Because of this, God ultimately determines to divide the kingdom of Israel in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Rehoboam remains king over two tribes in the south (creating the Southern Kingdom of Judah), while Jeroboam is established as king over the remaining ten tribes (creating the Northern Kingdom of Israel).

The story is absolutely clear that God, in His grace, has offered a covenant agreement to Jeroboam: God will bless him, make him king over Israel, and give Him all that he desires if he will listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways like David did. And moreover, God promises to build Jeroboam a house or a dynasty like He did for David. 

Jeroboam’s rise to power was the work of God’s providential hand, and Jeroboam knew this. And yet, as soon as he sits down on the throne, Jeroboam’s thinking seems to shift from providential to pragmatic: the question Jeroboam asks himself is, “What do I need to do to stay in power?” 

Ironically, Jeroboam already had the answer—God had told him he simply needed to listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways as David did, but Jeroboam ignores that answer and pursues his own plans instead.

After some initial efforts to fortify some of his cities, Jeroboam makes his big mistake. He reasons that if the citizens of the Northern Kingdom return to the Jerusalem Temple (in the Southern Kingdom) to offer sacrifices as they are supposed to, it will draw their hearts back to Rehoboam king of Judah, and then they won’t want to follow Jeroboam anymore, and will overthrow him and return to Rehoboam and Judah. So Jeroboam gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and he makes two golden calves; he sets one up in Dan and another in Bethel, representing the northern and southern borders of the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

Scholars debate whether Jeroboam is trying to get the Israelites to worship another god by doing this, or, rather, if he is simply introducing an innovation in the way in which they worship Jehovah/Yahweh. I tend to think it is the latter, but calves are so closely related with Canaanite pagan religion that it is hard to be sure.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Jeroboam was not setting up worship of a new god (and thus not violating the first commandment),  he was still guilty of creating an image to serve as a symbol of God (which violates the second commandment). So at the very least, he perverted the worship of the true God. Jeroboam’s disregard for the religious statues that God had set up did not stop there, as he also created alternate worship sites on high places at Dan and Bethel, put in place non-Levitical priests, and instituted his own feast day. These actions broke God’s commandments, and also revealed Jeroboam’s feelings that civil matters were more important than religious conviction.

Jeroboam has not been on the throne for long, but already he has dramatically departed from God’s instruction to walk in all His ways as David did. Instead, Jeroboam seems to have forgotten Who placed him on the throne in the first place, and rather than obey the real Power behind the throne, takes matters into his own hands to secure his position by his own power.

In 1 Kings 13, a prophet comes from God and condemns what Jeroboam has done, also predicting that judgment will come upon him because of it:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

(1 Kings 13.2-3)

Not surprisingly, Jeroboam isn’t a big fan of this message and stretches out his hand: “Seize him!” But as soon as this happens, his hand “dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself” (1 Kings 13.4). Ironically, in this very act, Jeroboam actually gives credibility to the prophecy—clearly, there is some power behind it because Jeroboam’s hand shrivels up, and furthermore, the altar was torn down as the prophecy said. Jeroboam asks the prophet to entreat God for him that his hand might be restored, and the prophet does so, and Jeroboam is healed.

Jeroboam is probably grateful to the man of God for his healing, and invites him to dine with him, but the prophet refuses because God had commanded him to return directly after his mission was completed. It is possible that dining with the king would have made the prophet appear to approve of the religious apostasy that Jeroboam was promoting.

Here, the narrative takes leave of Jeroboam and follows the young prophet and his strange interaction with an old prophet from Bethel. Since our focus is on Jeroboam we won’t dwell on this, but it is a tragic story of the young prophet from Judah being deceived by the older prophet from Israel, disobeying God, and dying as a result. This may seem like strange information to include in an extended narrative on the reign of Jeroboam, but it reinforces the idea that God expects to be obeyed, and severe consequences fall upon those who refuse to do so.

Regardless of this cautionary tale, 1 Kings 13 ends by saying:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 13.33-34)

So this story also shows us that Jeroboam remains unrepentant—he is determined to continue his disobedience to God. 

The rest of Jeroboam’s reign isn’t very happy. His son grows sick, and when he enquires of a prophet of God to determine if his sone will recover, he learns that not only will his son die, but because Jeroboam had incited the wrath of heaven by leading the Northern Kingdom into idolatry instead of being faithful to the covenant God had offered him, judgment had been pronounced not just on Jeroboam, but on every male from his house—the line of Jeroboam will be wiped out.

We also know that he was a man of war, and that he warred constantly with Rehoboam, and also fought against Rehoboam’s son, Abijam/Abijah and was defeated by him (2 Chronicles 13) and never recovered the level of power he had previously had. 

And that is basically what we know about Jeroboam.

Sacrificing Principle for Political Gain

Jeroboam is one of the truly tragic characters of Scripture. His legacy is that he is the man who “made Israel to sin”—this lamentable epitaph is mentioned over 20 times in Scripture, and his sinfulness really summarizes the entire period of the Divided Kingdom. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the sad story of Jeroboam, but I want to focus on just one that I believe is particularly relevant for a lot of people today.

Jeroboam’s blessing, security, and power rested in his obedience to God. Instead of trusting in God, however, he chose to do the pragmatic thing. He made religious changes for political reasons, thinking that this would ensure his longevity as king. Instead, it led to the downfall of his kingdom. Jeroboam’s power and position rested on his faithfulness, not his politics. 

If there is a lesson that I think American Christians need to hear in 2019—a time of rampant political division and rabid political devotion—it might be this one: political power is not the means by which Christians are called to change the world. 

As most of my readers know, I am a part of Churches of Christ, which find historical roots in the American Restoration Movement. Our heritage has an interesting and diverse relationship with politics. Some Restorationist voices were highly involved in politics: Alexander Campbell, one of the key early leaders in the movement, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was a Restoration Movement preacher. 

Others had a much different view of politics. David Lipscomb, the longtime Gospel Advocate editor and a major leader in Churches of Christ in the decades following the Civil War, was avowedly apolitical. He was a pacifist who didn’t think Christians should serve in the military or even vote. J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, was strongly influenced by Lipscomb and had similar views.

I take this brief historical detour as a way of saying that I think that, in the spirit of Romans 14, the Christian’s relationship to politics is one of those areas where we are to do our best to follow the teachings and ethics of Jesus and be careful not to judge the scruples of others. 

Having said that, when it comes to politics, let us never sacrifice principle for political expediency.

In the crisis of the moment, it might seem like a good thing to do, but as Jeroboam learned, it never pays off. I think Jeroboam’s disobedience was largely motivated by fear—he was afraid of what would happen if he let the people go to Judah to worship, so out of his fear, he made a politically expedient decision. 

We live in an environment where political fervor always seems to be at a fever pitch. If we aren’t focused on a current or coming election, we are enamored with the latest political scandal or partisan feud.

In the last Presidential election, I heard a lot of fear from Christians (regardless of their political views) about what was going to happen. Speaking for myself (again, in the spirit of Romans 14, I am not placing judgment on those who disagree), I found myself unable to vote for either major party candidate. Both candidates had been in the public eye for a long time, and I knew plenty about the kind of people they were and the sort of character they had, and I didn’t feel like I could vote for either one. What really bothered me, though, was how often I was told or read from other Christians who supported one candidate or the other (because I got this from both sides of the aisle), that I basically needed to ignore my principles and vote for the “lesser of two evils” (whoever that may have been depending on the person I was talking to at the time), with the implication being that if I didn’t, our next President would likely bring about the end of the world.

You know, I don’t care who you vote for, but it does bother me:

  • When Christians encourage others to choose the lesser evil…because we aren’t supposed to choose evil in greater or lesser varieties!
  • When Christians encourage others to ignore their principles…because we aren’t supposed to ignore our principles!
  • When Christians suggest that the future hinges upon some human ruler…because God is the one who is in charge! When Pharaoh ruled the world, God freed His people from Egypt! When Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world, God saved three Hebrew teenagers from a fiery death! When Nero ruled the world, God orchestrated the greatest growth in the history of the church!

It is up to you to choose what your relationship with politics will be, and in my personal opinion, our political voice is an opportunity that we have to glorify God. However, let us never make the mistake of thinking that political power is the means by which Christians are called to change the world, or that it is acceptable for us to sacrifice our principles for the sake of political expediency.

The lure of political power is strong, and it can easily deceive us into thinking that the ends justify the means. But as Jeroboam learned, they do not. 

The Best Lesson I’ve Taught on Integrity

One of the foundational lessons I’ve learned from my years of youth ministry is this: regardless of what I teach to my students in Bible class, the loudest message they hear from me is the one I proclaim by the way I live my life on a daily basis. In fact, I consider one’s example to be one of the essential elements of effective youth ministry.

That’s not really a ground-breaking observation—we have common sayings in our culture that illustrate that our actions matter more than our claims or words (“Do as I say, not as I do”, “Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk”)—but I can remember well an event from church camp a few years ago that hammered this home to me more so than ever before.

Every summer our youth group spends a week at Green Valley Bible Camp, and I work as a counselor. Green Valley is a great place with a lot of fun and meaningful activities, and one of the long-standing camp traditions is that on Friday afternoons, there is an All-Star softball game between the male counselors and the senior boy campers. The All-Star game is kind of a big deal, especially for the campers, for whom it serves as some sort of coming-of-age rite of passage and an opportunity to talk trash to yours truly all year.

Anyway, in a particular game a few years ago, the campers shot out to a significant early lead while the counselors struggled mightily. We hit very poorly for the first couple of innings, but finally, we got a bit of a rally going: down several runs, we managed to score a couple and then had runners on second and third with two outs.

On the senior softball field at Green Valley, there is a big tree in foul ground down the third base line, with a large branch that reaches out over fair territory. The ground rules that we played with this particular year (sometimes they change from year to year depending on who the umpires are) were that any ball that hit the branch was automatically foul.

Our next hitter got up and hit a towering shot down the third base line that just barely nicked a few leaves from the overhanging branch. It didn’t alter the flight of the ball in any way, and neither umpire was able to tell that it had hit the tree at all. It soared into the outfield past the left fielder; both runners would have easily scored, and we would have been right back in the game.

Except…

I was the third base coach at the time, and since I was standing right by the overhanging branch, I could easily see and hear that the ball had grazed a couple of leaves. I let the umpire know, and it was ruled a foul ball. On the next pitch, the batter popped out to the pitcher. The rally ended, and we never really challenged again in the game. We ended up losing 10-4, and I got to hear taunts from my students for the next year about how they beat us. So, it was kind of a bummer.

Except…

One of my students was playing shortstop for the campers’ team and witnessed all that had happened. He was keenly aware of how big of a hit that would have been for us and how it could have changed the game. Within a few days of the event, he brought it up about six times and repeatedly talked about how awesome it was that I spoke up and told the truth regardless of the fact that it hurt my team.

I have done some figuring, and I think I’ve taught the youth group about 1100-1200 times during my years at Farmington. And probably dozens of times, I have taught about the importance of honesty and integrity, either as the focus of a lesson, or mentioned it in passing. But it became clear to me that none of those lessons made as much of an impression on this particular student as a simple action that I did at camp without thinking. Regardless of what I teach my students in Bible class, the loudest message they hear from me is the one I proclaim by the way I live my life on a daily basis.

There is always a danger to sharing a personal story where you are the hero (something I learned in preaching class), so I want to be clear here: I am not a hero; I make a lot of mistakes, and there are definitely times when I fail as an example. Rather, I share this story because it illustrates how important it is that we as parents, youth ministers, church leaders, etc. back up the things that we teach by the way that we live. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if I had kept my mouth shut and let the incorrect call stand—would this student have ever listened to me again when I talked about honesty and integrity, or would he have tuned me out since my actions wouldn’t have matched up with my teaching?

But by God’s grace, that’s not what happened. Instead, I was able to take advantage of an opportunity to teach a better lesson on integrity than all of those which I had spent hours and hours preparing.

Two Graduations: What My Special Needs Daughter Taught Me About Following Jesus

It’s June, which means that we have just completed another graduation season. As a youth minister, I go to a lot of graduations, but this year there were a couple of graduation ceremonies that were more significant to me.

First was my own graduation from Harding School of Theology. This one was a long time coming. It was an extensive program (a 78-hour degree, which is more coursework than many master’s and doctorate programs combined), and add to that the fact that I completed it while working full time, figuring out how to be a dad, and living hundreds of miles away, and I can say with only minimal chagrin that I started the program way back in 2010. Finishing a program that you have been engaged in for so long is certainly an accomplishment of sorts, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me how it feels to be done. I definitely feel grateful for all that I have learned and for all who made it possible (HST faculty and staff, my wife, my elders at church, etc.). I am also pleased to be done. But my overwhelming emotion is a little more difficult to explain, and that’s what this post is about.

About 10 days after my graduation, I went to another graduation ceremony—Kinsley’s Kindergarten graduation. I have written in different places about how the last 18 months or so have been very difficult for my little girl. Increased seizure activity has been hard to control and has led to several regressions (i.e., she has lost abilities that she once had). Nevertheless, during this past school year, she started Kindergarten in a self-contained class. Kinsley’s academic goals were made with her special needs in mind and were very modest by the standards of “typical” children, but still, due to the regressions, she didn’t hit those goals. In some sense, you could even say that her graduation from Kindergarten was something of a formality. But I can tell you this: I am far prouder of her graduation than my own.

•  •  •

I have always been a high achiever. I have always gotten good grades and done well in school. I was involved in a bunch of extracurricular activities to beef up my college résumé. I was a good (not great) athlete who worked hard and was, at times, pretty successful.

When I started grad school, I began to work even harder. I had become convinced that doing my best was a spiritual requirement (I still believe this, by the way), but “doing my best” easily became a justification for obsessive perfectionism. In school, I wanted every research paper to be perfect. In ministry, I wanted every teenager to be faithful and every sermon to be excellent. In my personal faith and theology, I wanted to be right on every issue and know the answer to every question. Some of this obsessive perfectionism I come by naturally (it runs in my family), but also, it was a core component of my faith. To be clear, I was never taught works righteousness growing up, or that God’s love for me was tied to my achievements and accomplishments, but somewhere along the way this became a big part of what following Jesus was for me.

When Kinsley came into my life (and more specifically, when she began to miss developmental milestones and we received her diagnosis), everything began to change for me. The reality is that I have a beautiful, wonderful daughter who, from a worldly perspective, will never achieve much of anything. And while I lament the ways in which her horrible disease has placed limitations upon her life, the reality is this: I don’t care about her achievements. I love her because she is my daughter, and I delight in her.

This realization and the implications of it have significantly affected my life. I don’t really care about achievement anymore. I don’t care about intelligence or talent. When parents talk about how clever their children are, or when friends speak of their accomplishments, I smile and try to be affirming, but it simply doesn’t matter much to me. And from that perspective, my own graduation doesn’t matter much to me either.

I still work hard, because I believe it is a spiritual imperative to do so—in all things I work as if I am working for Jesus because, really, I am. But I don’t work hard so God will love me more, or because my value is tied to my achievements. God loves me because I am His child, and that is enough.

•  •  •

I grew up in the church, have been a Christian for 20 years, a minister for 12, and I have a graduate degree in theology. But it was my daughter who taught me about grace simply by being her perfect, disabled self.

On second thought, that’s quite an achievement.

Serving God Without Hope of Reward: The Example of Josiah

A while back, I wrote a research paper on King Josiah, and ever since then he has been one of my favorite biblical characters.

Josiah came to power in the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 640 BC. This is a long time after the time of David and Solomon: the kingdom had been divided for almost 300 years, the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, and the Southern kingdom isn’t too far behind—a long series of mostly unfaithful kings (including Josiah’s father, Amon) have led Judah away from God, and before long, Babylon will begin to conquer them.

This is the situation when Josiah comes to power at the age of 8. Even though he’s young, and even though he had a wicked father, the Bible tells us in 2 Kings 2.22 that Josiah was a good and faithful king:

“He did right in the sight of the LORD and walked in all the way of his father David, nor did he turn aside to the right or to the left.”

According to 2 Kings 22, in the 18th year of his reign, Josiah begins a project to repair and restore the Temple, and during the construction project, the book of the law is found. Scholars and commentators disagree on exactly what this means, but basically, the Law of Moses has been found—either the entire Torah (the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy), or at the very least, the Book of Deuteronomy on its own. Either way, what this means is that the Law of Moses—the record of the covenant that God made with His people and the laws He gave them to follow—has been found and is read to King Josiah for the first time. It shows just how bad things had gotten under Josiah’s wicked father that Josiah apparently hadn’t been exposed to the Torah before now!

A covenant is an agreement or a promise made between two parties. To put it simply, in God’s covenant with the Israelites, God promised to be their God and protect them, and in return, the people were to be faithful and obedient to His commands. When Josiah hears the words of the Law, he tears his clothes because he realizes just how unfaithful Judah has been—they haven’t followed the commands of the Law of Moses, and they’ve worshipped gods other than Yahweh. In short, they haven’t kept up their part of the bargain.

So Josiah sends to Huldah the prophetess to inquire of the LORD—what does God say about the situation? Huldah responds in 2 Kings 22.15-20, but it isn’t good news:

“‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, Thus says the LORD, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.

But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD.

Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’’

And they brought back word to the king.”

So basically, God says that for all their wickedness, the people of Judah will be punished, but because Josiah humbled himself before God, he won’t have to witness the destruction of his country and will die before it happens.

Put yourself in the place of Josiah: what do you do next? No matter what you do, it’s too late for Judah and they’re going to be punished for their past sins after you die. It seems like whatever you do doesn’t matter, because the same negative consequence will happen either way. This is Josiah’s situation; what will he do next?

And this is why Josiah is one of my favorite Bible characters, and why he is such a good example for us: even when he knows that there’s no reward coming his way, he still does the right thing because of his devotion to God.

In 2 Kings 23, Josiah goes out and reads the Book of the Law in front of all the people and along with them, reestablishes the covenant with God. Then, he sets about in a systematic way to make things right. He goes throughout Judah and even into the northern territory of Israel and does away with unauthorized worship practices, destroying idols and pagan altars and getting rid of idolatrous priests. He removes the mediums and spiritists from the land as well, and also re-institutes the Passover feast:

“For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem.”

Josiah does all of this despite the knowledge that Judah is going to be punished no matter what, and sure enough, after Josiah is killed in a battle against Egypt, Judah is quickly overthrown.

•    •    •

Josiah’s life underscores how important it is to serve God because we love Him, not because we’re hoping to get something for doing so. I think a lot of times people get the idea that as Christians, we spend our lives doing good things for God and that He then pays us back by granting us eternal life.

To be clear, the Bible does speak of eternal life as a reward and the hope of living eternally in God’s presence should help to motivate us to keep going, especially when times get rough. But if the only reason you’re serving God is so He’ll pay you back with eternal life, then you really have the wrong perspective on things. Serving God will seem like a chore and, before long, you’ll fool yourself into thinking that God owes you something, when nothing could be further from the truth.

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