Back to series


Good morning, church. We’re going to be returning to the same passage from which I preached last week, 1 Peter, chapter 4, focusing on a different aspect of the passage. If you don’t have a Bible, you can just raise your hand, and someone will bring one to you, and you’re actually welcome to keep it.

We’re going to move quickly; I’ve tried to fit a lot into this sermon—I’m sorry! We’re continuing a series this morning talking about spiritual gifts within the body of the church, and Giving gifts one of the major ways people love each other. My hope in this series, largely what I’m wanting you to take away, is an understanding of what it looks like to love each other, practically, in Christianity, because I think too often we forget and confuse love for things like agreement or comfort.

We started the series looking through the history of the people of God; the Spirit has been empowering us toward a single end: God coming to dwell richly with us, his church, his bride. So often when we talk about spiritual gifts, we’re so focused on what we are able to do in the power of the Spirit, we lose sight of what the Spirit is wanting to do in us. In our churches, in our cities, in our individual families and lives, God wants to dwell with us, filling us with life, just as in creation the Spirit of God filled the earth with abounding life.

Last week we talked about hospitality, about how “the gospel comes with a house key,” as one author writes, and about how part of the Christian life is opening your life to other people, letting them in, both practically and through honesty about the life you actually live.

This whole sermon, today, is basically answering a single question, and I’ll ask it like this: What does it mean to depend upon the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to depend upon the Spirit of God? What does it look like, practically, to be led by the spirit? Or we could ask the same question this way: where do you end and the Spirit begins? The answer involves a spiritual gift known as discernment, and a strength forged in dependence.

Let’s read the passage together. If you will stand for the reading of God’s word, we’re in 1 Peter chapter 4, starting in v.7. [1 Pet 4:7-9] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

I grew up in a Christian home, which means, among the many other things that might entail, as a child, during the summer, I attended Christian summer camps. I know many of you have never attended a Christian summer camp, so I will now endeavor to describe them to you, the good and the bad. The good is, camp was where your relationships in church would go from seeing each other across the room on Sunday to really knowing the ins and outs of the people you went to church with. The good of Christian camp is being still and knowing that he is God, and counselors who did everything they could to deepen our faith. The good was time away, bathed in scripture and biblical teaching, with daily services and Bible studies deep diving into the word of God. There’s a lot of good, and I still spend time in retreat each year.

The bad of Christian summer camp is…difficult to describe, but I will attempt it. Think of the kind of coerced interactions of corporate team-building retreats, with ice breakers, trust falls, high ropes courses, and planned activities, but then blend it in your mind with the collective angst and self-consciousness of band camp. Then imagine everyone in the corporation or the band is twelve years old, and then imagine somehow the planned activities always requiring bathing suits at some point, as if to pour gasoline on the already very confusing hormonal dumpster fire. If you can imagine all of that, it should put your imagination somewhat close to the right idea of the bad part of Christian summer camp.

All of this results in a phenomenon known as Christian camp relationships, which may sound nice, but again, camp relationships are decidedly part of the bad side of Christian summer camp. I at one point was involved in a camp relationship somehow completely apart from my own will. I was approached by a girl at camp who informed me God, himself, had determined we should be in a relationship. I will admit to you what I could not admit to her at the time, that I did not recognize her, and honestly I don’t really remember interacting with her before this conversation, but I do remember my not fully formed brain deciding, what God has joined together no man, especially not I who was not yet fully a man, should separate.

At one point, one of the camp counselors wrote a song about this Christian summer camp phenomenon. I don’t remember all the words, but I do remember the chorus repeating the phrase, “I prayed about it; you’re the one.” Anyway, we held hands during the worship service that night and ate lunches together. During the trust fall that day, she made sure I was one of the ones catching her. It was cute. I enjoyed it, so you can imagine my dismay later in the week as we were going home when she informed me of another oracle she had received from the Lord, himself. The relationship was over. God had told her we were done. It was either Katie or Emma? I was going to come up with a fake name, but I figured genuinely not remembering her name is kind of the same thing, right? Anyway, the Lord apparently giveth, and he taketh away.

But I remember that experience as really the first time I ever questioned a claim of spiritual discernment. I will admit to you, that upon reflection I was skeptical God really had ordained and then three days later dissolved that relationship. On the fifteen-passenger van ride home, as my brain was forming into one which would later preach sermons and counsel people through actual, real relationships and matters of discernment which really affect their lives, I was thinking about what it actually means to be led by the Spirit of God, and I was thinking about where a person ends and the Holy Spirit begins.

Fast forward to me at nineteen years old, walking about an hour back to where I was staying that summer on the shoulder of a road in Tennessee at 2am because my girlfriend left me at a coffee shop after an argument. I had been fighting for this relationship for years, to keep it together, to keep it healthy, fighting with everything I had, and that was the night that I knew I had failed and it was over. I remember praying and hearing from the Lord comfort, but also conviction that I had been striving on my own for the relationship without the Lord being in it for about a year and a half, and he told me I would never be strong enough, just me, to forge a marriage and a life with someone, no matter how badly I wanted it, and if I’m honest, no matter how afraid I was of loneliness. And again, I was baffled by where a person ends and where the Spirit begins. How had I missed, for so long, something the Spirit was saying to me?

Fast forward to me at twenty-five, I was helping to plant a church in uptown New Orleans, working probably thirty hours per week unpaid for the church plus seminary, plus my real job that actually paid me at a coffee shop, feeling burnt out and disillusioned with what I thought life in ministry would feel like. I remember hearing the advice then to not strive so hard, to rest in the Spirit, to depend upon God in my daily life, and to work out of joy in him and in what he allows us to do alongside him, and I remember thinking about where a person ends and the Spirit begins, and what it means to depend upon the Spirit of God.

“Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.” It’s good advice, but advice that’s hard to take. It’s really easy on one hand to put on a front of being spirit-led while really depending upon your own skill, savvy, and effort. On the other hand it’s easy to blame your own decisions, thoughts, and desires on the Holy Spirit.

Hopefully you’ve asked these same questions in your life about what it means to depend upon the Spirit of God, what it means to discern his will in your life and to hear his voice in the midst of the noise of falsehood in the world. As we try to answer some of these questions together, I want to begin my answer just with a plea. If you are here, and you are questioning whether or not you even know life pursuing Christ, whether or not you know what it means to depend upon the Spirit of God, I would tell you that finding life in Christ is finding real life for the first time and everything else is trash. Beginning to seek him in a community of believers like this church is like beginning your life again, except this time you have a destination, meaning and purpose. In Christ we find that our sins and flaws are deeper than we ever knew, but that we are more loved and welcomed than we could have ever dared to dream.

For those of us who are in Christ, longing to live our lives according to his leading, I want to start here: discernment is a heavy weight. Discernment, means allowing the Spirit of God to speak into your life and thought, telling the difference between the Spirit of God and other spirits. Perhaps most difficult is discerning the Spirit of God from your own thoughts and desires. Discernment is a heavy weight. Be careful. If you try to use that gift against someone else, you’ll hurt them.

Don’t tell someone God wants me to break up with you when really you just don’t want the relationship anymore. I meet a lot of people as a pastor who have been hurt by people claiming to be speaking and acting in the Spirit when really they were speaking from their own thought. You can’t use discernment against people like that; you have to use discernment lovingly for other people. And then even if you’re right, if you don’t communicate in love then you’ve failed. Beuchner writes, “to preach the gospel is not just to tell the truth, but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to.”

It’s hard. There are a host of Katies in the world, both in and out of Christian summer camps, who are far too willing to tell you they are speaking for God, but the things God is saying to them always promote their own goals and preserve what they have already thought to be true. Yet most people I speak to seem to believe discerning truth and direction is easy, which is another way to say they’re depending, not on God to know what is right, but on themselves.

Every time I’ve taught on spiritual gifts, I’ve had people approach me and tell me they have the gift of discernment. It is the gift everyone believes themselves to have. Now, some people really are discerning, but recognize, it’s almost universal in American culture for people to be completely assured of their own opinions and that they are able to know what’s right when they hear it. It’s a hallmark of our time, a spirit of the age, to be self-assured and consider the other side of a dividing line either idiots or completely deluded. But the Spirit of the age is not the Holy Spirit.

Keep an eye on what we talked about two weeks ago as the end purpose of spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are meant to build up the church and serve well the people in it. Look for the people carrying discernment instead of using it as a weapon. I’m always surprised by and grateful for humility in discernment when I see it, by people actually willing to consider both sides, and either change their minds, lead with love and humility, or lovingly teach over a lifetime what they hope will build others up.

When I look for the gift of discernment in people, I look for that weight I was talking about, a heaviness. I don’t look for the person who’s on twitter battling it out, or the one in church insisting on their own way—love doesn’t do that. I look for people who step into teaching positions more confident in Christ and his goodness to provide what we need for the roles he draws us into than they are confident in their own understanding, people who understand the teaching role is one of service to the congregation in order to give them truth to set them free. I look for people who are intimidated by the task of discernment, who feel the gravity of it, because that weight is the weight of glory, of actually experiencing God. To believe, on the other hand, you have wrapped your mind around God is to believe in a smaller God than the God of the Bible.

It’s hard. It’s hard to know as a Christian where you end and the Spirit begins. My prayer every time I preach is real: I know I’m going to say some things that aren’t true when I preach. What I’m hoping in the midst of all of my mistakes is that God will take what’s good and use his truth to change your lives, and the lives of the people in your circles as you bring the gospel and the work of the church out into every aspect of your lives.

Probably the best advice I can give you about spiritual gifts is to ask other people to help you find your gifting and right role within a local congregation. Don’t try to decide for yourself what your role should be; make it a conversation with someone you trust to be wise. And the best advice I can give you about discernment comes in two parts: one, question yourself; not in a wishy-washy sort of way where you never come to a conclusion, but in a way where your faith seeks understanding. Two, as you’re trying to hear from the Lord about something specific, like a relationship or a job, know that there is more than one godly way forward oftentimes. We tend to ask God to tell us where to go and what to do, and oftentimes the Lord is speaking more to how we go and do whatever it is we go and do.

“Whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies.” To speak the oracles of God is to carry a weight, and To serve in the strength God supplies is to be led into dependence upon him and upon your community. To serve in the strength God supplies is to be led into dependence upon him and upon your community.

Strength as dependence probably seems a bit contradictory, but everything I’ve known and experienced about life in the Spirit tells me it’s true. In the world, strength is independence, making it on your own, being able to accomplish whatever in your view needs to be done. In the upside down kingdom of God, strength is utter and complete dependence upon the Spirit of God to move and work, and since the Spirit gives varied grace, so that each member of the church makes up only a part of the body, dependence on the Spirit is dependence upon each other.

Prayer is what first taught me this lesson. In the midst of church planting at the last church I served, really struggling just to make ends meet while trying to reach our neighborhood and build community within the church, we were having a planning meeting on how to do all of that, practical ins and outs of small groups, outreach strategies, special events planning, and even as we were kind of running out of time in the meeting, one of the pastors asked if we could stop and pray.

As I reflected on it later, from one perspective it made no sense to stop what we were doing and pray. There was more to do. If you’re going to have strong small groups, you need to spend time writing or finding solid curriculum, and if you’re going to have powerful preaching, you need to spend time reading and planning series passages, and if you’re going run a solid outreach, you need to spend time in shops and parks, on streets and in conversation. But here’s the thing. What the one pastor remembered that the rest of us in our eagerness and anxiety were willing to forget: if you’re going to have life in any of it, you’re going to need the Spirit of God, which means prayer was the absolute most productive thing we could have done towards the ends we actually wanted to achieve.

And when you think about it, a lot of Christianity is like that. You want to overthrow a powerful city? March around it and blow trumpets. You want to build a church that will change the world? Invest years in twelve nobodies from nowhere. It doesn’t make sense until the Spirit moves. In the kind of upside down way you often encounter in God’s kingdom, the strength that God supplies makes you a bit weaker.

Serving by the strength God supplies doesn’t usually look like you going beyond your capacity and doing way more than really any human should be able to do. That makes you look impressive, but does very little to build up the church. Serving by the strength God supplies looks like prayer, like delegation and lifting others up. It looks like feasting, fasting, and rest. It looks like the joy of finding the place your gifts and abilities really align with the needs of the church, and serving in a lane that benefits and complements the group. The strength that God supplies doesn’t make you superman; instead it makes less of you and gives God glory. “To him be the glory and dominion.”

The invitation this morning is into life lived in dependence on the Spirit and those around us. Into strength found in weakness. Into a discernment which convinces you of how little you know before it convinces you of anything else, and through these things, into a life lived in joy and rest in him.

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