(Including thoughts from "The City of God" by Augustine of Hippo)
Holy Spirit, God of love radiating through us, shine! Let my life be a model of Your goodness and fullness and joy, and may it be known to all who live how fun and beautiful and exciting it is to be with You. Teach us a little bit of truth from my life, and set us free in our hearts to worship You. We need You to implant truth in us, most holy God--none of our efforts will do. In Jesus’ lovely name, Amen.
Grace and peace to all of the saints of God in Christ Jesus! Hello Church, and welcome to Cross of Joy. What we do here is to try and give all of you food to grow on by reading really, really old books and spitting out that information in modern sermons. Our goal in this is to get you head-over-heels, stand-on-your-head-for-joy in love with God.
Now, as our first teaching, I want to take time to do something a little weird, and that’s to narrate a bit of my personal history here. The authors of this website have agreed to remain anonymous, both for safety since we are targeting the Arab world, and to defer glory from ourselves to God, so I won’t be giving away too many details about my life, but I hope this story and the others I’ll share over the years here will stick with you and remind you how to apply the teachings of Cross of Joy in your life. You can tell I’m doing a personal story teaching because in the title of the sermon ‘God’s Stage’ will be written--all of these ‘God’s Stage’ teachings are personal stories from my life.
So let’s get down to it. Enjoy this with me, and let’s beg God together for the privilege of loving Him!
We’ll begin in my college days in 2013. Now, Church, when I was in college, I had only been a Christian for about seven months, but I was a leader among my peers, the Lord had used me to lead some to Christ and journeyed with them a ways along the road in discipleship. But at that time, and listen to this to see if it matches your life, my faith was built on Doing. Every day when I woke up, my thoughts ran like this: God has equipped me with the Gospel in order to change the world, and change the world I will, one man at a time, even if it kills me! In those days I really believed I could convince anyone to follow Christ, if only I was given enough time alone with them.
My error was so fleshly, my pride so glaring, it makes me smile now. I was the simplest form of man seeking to do God’s work in His place--and if you believe like that now, if that’s where you are right now, just hang tight a little bit and we’ll talk a little more about what’s happening in your heart behind those thoughts. It is totally okay, we’ll just talk a little bit about what’s going on. And yet, God, through His eternal, wonderful, never-failing love, chose to overlook my arrogant sin against Him, and bless others despite my efforts.
I believed, as a lot of people do, I think, that my faith in Christ would never wane and that He would always be with me and I would always be with Him, no matter what my circumstances were. I told Him so, multiple times, when I was in the crook of His arm and His fullness had filled me with so much pleasure I thought I would explode. These were mostly times when I was alone with him in a local house of prayer, where I went to pray each night at midnight.
But, like Peter, Church, I was a liar. We are just like the people in the Bible stories--and not just in the good ways.
God led me to enter a study abroad program in a foreign country, one whose language I had been studying. This didn’t seem intimidating to me—there was a sizable Christian minority there, and I assumed I would be able to practice my faith in a good community freely. I signed a contract saying that I would abide by all local customs and laws while I was in the nation.
But a large political uprising broke out while I was there, and I was evacuated from the country along with my peers. We landed in a much different country—one that had much stricter regulations on evangelism and the Church. My contract now forbid me from any form of spreading the Gospel, and there was no legal church in my city to attend. It may sound strange to you, but I felt a strong leading from God to honor that contract, so I did. But it cost me.
See, Church, you have to understand this about my heart at that time: Evangelism had been my Life’s Goal, capital L, capital G. I say that mockingly, because it was a Life’s Goal that I had designated for myself without asking God. I had ‘asked’ Him, sure; but I had assumed His answer would be yes, so without waiting for a clear call, I had pushed ahead with what I ‘knew’ His plan for my life to be. I thought this way because in the church where I was saved, the evangelists were glorified, lifted high above the other Christians—and I will be honest in saying that I saw myself as the best of them, or soon to be, at least! Therefore I was an Evangelist, and that was my Life’s Goal.
In addition, I was One Who Served The Church. This is another mocking title, and I use it to show that I drew great self-value from my ability to talk to others and impart some spiritual blessing to them—blessing which I quickly counted to myself, improving my spiritual worth in my own eyes. For example: The Church needed me, because I was committed to it! I made the coffee for folks after the service, I handed out bulletins, I attended all the meetings, I shared stories of God saving people to encourage the flock—it needed me! Therefore I was worthy of God. You see that? I entered into God’s Presence because I was righteous enough to be worth His Presence.
But when I stepped off the plane in that second foreign nation, I slowly realized that every pillar on which my righteousness had stood had been removed. The language I had studied for several years, and which I understood, was gone; I did not understand the local language, and it took me six months to even understand basic conversation of the people on the street because the new language was spoken so brutally quickly. There was no church to serve. Evangelism would break the contract that I signed, because it was against the nation’s laws, and I felt a strong feeling in my heart that it was not right to do so.
I felt thoroughly, totally, completely alone.
I still have to convince myself of it sometimes, but that year did, eventually, pass. At the end of it, I was not walking with God. I didn’t understand Him. If God loved me, and wanted me to do great things for Him, then why was I put in a position where I could not succeed? Why had I wasted a valuable year of my life piddling around with no way to serve Him? God had made the wrong choice, had made a mistake, and He was culpable for His error. I wanted to make Him pay by ignoring Him. Anyone else felt that? Has this been real in your life?
Such rituals as reading my Bible each morning and any sort of concentrated prayer had totally disappeared. I felt nothing when I did those things, so I didn’t do them. Alcohol, however, was present, and in a slightly larger quantity than I would recommend. So were my fantasies of women. Before I was a Christian, I had struggled often with depression, and at this time thoughts and longings for suicide became more and more frequent, they were slowly taking me over.
But, you know, Church, you can exist for a while without God. It’s sort of easy, as long as you surround yourself with enough comforts and little activities that you never think much about what you are doing. But when you stop, and you start to think a little bit—I mean, no, you just have to stop yourself. Just don’t do that. As long as you don’t think, you can live without God in your life for a time. Our courteous Lord will let you.
So, let’s fast forward a year and a half. I am married now, and we are living again in the country I mentioned before, because I was introduced to my wife there. God has been moving in me, but not much. God’s leadings to me in that time were enough to make me realize how much I missed Him, but I still didn’t know how to reach Him. Reading the Bible was still as dry as death, but that was all I knew to do, so I did it each day, but I didn’t like it, honestly. It was boring. I was only doing it to meet God’s minimum acceptable standard in my mind.
At this time, I was mostly trying to walk a better path with God again because I was balancing my relationships with my wife and her kids along with building our family’s small business. It is a special sort of business, one that requires a good deal of construction and specialization in the building where it is located, so I was spending every day working hard with my hands, doing physical labor. I hated that work. I hated the pain in my muscles each night, hated the effort I had to exert every minute of every day, took very little pleasure in the building once it was done. I’m just not a construction guy, you know? So I was pretty miserable.
That came out in my relationships with my family. I was harder on my wife. I was less affectionate to my kids, who were trying to figure out if I was Dad or just Stepdad, if I was trustworthy or if I wasn’t worth their time. I saw myself failing daily, and I felt like there was nothing I could do to change it.
There were times when I felt my soul scream out inside me to God, begging Him to show me how to get Him back into my life, because I knew things weren’t right. But nothing changed for months.
One week, there were four separate instances where I exploded in anger at my wife, whacking furniture around the house and shouting cuss words at her. I was also having strong, strong urges to hit my kids and cuss at them when they did something that made me angry. I was frustrated all the time—and I mean that.
All. The. Time.
I went to my wife, and I asked her to make a change that I had read about in a Christian book about parenting: I asked her to let me take a spiritual retreat. I would rent a hotel room somewhere, and I would go and spend the night in that place, resting alone and trying to get in God’s Presence.
I will fill in the details of my experiences with God over the matter of resting later; there is a very great deal to tell, and it requires a great deal of time to make you understand it all. Suffice it to say that God met me in my rest, and restored me far past where I had been before I fell. Hear that again: During this time in my life when I saw no light, God came to me and He met me when I rested.
I mean that God gave me greater experiences of His closeness than I had ever had before. The Bible slowly became more and more real, and worship songs began breathing new life into me. I saw changes in my behavior and in how I wanted to spend my time with my family rather than isolated, and I glorified God for those.
But there was one thing He did not do: He did not give me a ministry. That was difficult for me. Even after all that time, I was still accustomed to finding joy in my standing with God—to being happy when I believed God was happy with me, because I had done something good.
God did not give me a job to do for Him for ten months, and I took a spiritual retreat every two weeks to get closer to Him during that time. Slowly, I saw some of my other hobbies slip away, one by one, and be replaced by Bible study and prayer. What was odd was this: I didn’t do Bible study because I thought I had to, or because it would make me a more loved Christian in God’s eyes anymore. Instead, I did it because I wanted to, and because it was fun and delightful and exciting to be in the Presence of God. My desires had changed.
Video games weren’t exciting anymore--just progressing through level after level after level, who cares? Football games were a fun little leather ball going through a hoop, but when my team won, I wasn’t really happy about it. Even music was just little sounds in a room. But spending time with the living God, the loving Word, the Holy Spirit--now that brought about real delight in my life. God was more fun than any game or TV show or hobby could ever be. See, God was showing me more and more and more of Himself.
When I would pray for a job to do during that time, for some mission or ministry from God, I felt a distinct feeling of spiritual dryness and emptiness, which led me into worship. I spent hours and hours and hours, both during my spiritual retreats and out of them, in worship. And then the pastor of my church recommended a book to me, “River Dwellers”, by Rob Reimer. I loved that book! Just opening the page sent waves of joy through me, as God’s Presence filled me to the very top! Once again, I thought I would explode.
In that book, Reimer says that a critical principle of spiritual growth is to keep offering your soul new things to grow with, as you are guided by the Lord. This means that it isn’t enough to just keep reading the Bible over and over and over—you need to also add the writings of other saints, their books, sermons, and worship albums, in order to stay in the fullness of God’s Spirit.
I bought that idea wholesale and I ran with it, and the joy never stopped. I scaled mountains and mountains of literature, I began to read two or three hours every day, as if I were getting paid for it. Now generally, just so you guys know who my influences are, I like old stuff, guys like St. Francis and Brother Lawrence and St. John of the Cross. If I could choose any time period to live in, it would be the thirteenth or fourteenth century and I would be a monk. So that’s who I was reading mostly, but there were more modern guys too, guys like Andrew Murray, AW Tozer, Jonathon Edwards, about two hundred John Piper sermons.
Spiritually, I was in a place I had never been before: There was so much joy, and so much delight of God, that I had to take breaks and get away from His Presence because it physically hurt to be near Him. Have you ever had that, Church? Has that been real for you? Has God ever been so overwhelmingly present with you that it hurt? Would you pray for God to do that in your life?
Major personal theological revelations in those days occurred on a nearly monthly basis. I learned why God didn’t stop loving me when I sinned, why sanctification isn’t in my control, why good works don’t commend me to God, and about a thousand more things which totally changed the way I thought about Jesus.
I stopped praying for a ministry altogether, because I had found something so infinitely better it was beyond description: God’s Presence. I found I could read a single Bible verse and meditate on it for days, reveling in it, delighting in the aspect of God it showed, glorifying the Spirit for His role in illuminating my heart to God’s Word. There were days when I was completely and wonderfully and perfectly happy doing absolutely nothing but worshipping God—and may it be so for all God’s children!
And then it happened: When I no longer wanted it, when I no longer looked for it, when I no longer desired it, God gave me the ministry of this website, YouTube channel, Facebook page, and podcast. A brother in God asked me to start a website to share the truths I had learned with the broader Church. At first I refused, but he asked me several times over a period of some months, emphasizing to me again and again that I needed to provide for my brothers and sisters what I had been given.
You know, honestly, it didn’t seem like a good thing to me. It was as if an old ex-lover had come to my house dressed in lingerie, where I was happily married to a new woman. I was scared that I would fall back into my previous ways of living with God.
And yet, I felt great joy at the thought of going forward. There was a lace of the Holy Spirit around the whole ministry that I couldn’t ignore. I spent time in prayer about it, and I realized that I had new ways of thinking about God that I could apply to this situation. Specifically, I dwelled on this: It is not my job to sustain my faith to make sure I do everything correctly. It isn’t my job to live the perfect Christian life, and trust my own strength and ability to resist backsliding. That is God’s work in me. I can trust Him to reveal all truth to me. So a new ministry cannot nullify God’s Holy Spirit leading me into truth. It’s just not dangerous, if I trust God.
That way of thinking brought a new air around the thought of ministry. Before, ministry had been a weight I had carried in my shoulders as a prisoner carries chains, and I never allowed myself to rest because of ‘people going to Hell’ or somesuch bad excuse. But now, the work of the ministry felt like….God with me. Emmanuel. Rest wasn’t just a privilege that I could allow or deny myself--rather, rest was the ministry. It would all be completed in God’s strength, and I would just chill and do what brought me joy with God. I would worship Him, and He would do whatever He wanted, and it wouldn’t sap my energy, it wouldn’t sap my strength, because my primary focus would be worshipping Him and not working to please Him.
So I accepted. But there were a few problems, and most notably this: I had to work to break sinful thought patterns. Here is an example: Immediately after I accepted the ministry, I caught myself wondering about skipping my next spiritual retreat and going to a church meeting instead, ‘in order to learn more about the ministry’.
Church of God, we must apply our theology consistently in every circumstance. Is God not able to teach me and guide me in what I need to know? Is He so incapable that I need to despise the commandment to rest in order to do His work for Him? It’s just not true.
I have also found myself counting myself more righteous than I had been before because of my new role. As if I am a better Christian now, because I am a teacher! Perish the thought that there are better and worse Christians, and it is our job to find them! May such bad theology disappear from this Earth!
I have begged God to remove these thoughts from me and cause me to love Him more than myself and my glory, and He is completing this work in His time, and I’m happy to wait for Him. I do not have to be a perfect Christian for God to work through me; therefore my sin does not threaten God’s success in the ministry. Actually, no sin I could commit threatens God’s work, because God’s work does not depend on me. I worship Him and He works, that’s how it is. He is the roaring lion of Judah, and I am a little sheep of His flock. May it always be so!
I will end this by summarizing the point of this website in its initial phase, and the central message which I have received from God for this opening stretch of time, which is this: Love God, and beg God for the ability to love Him, not just by your works, but by your delight in Him. Such a prayer finds returns infinitely greater than anything else in this life.
May God bless you infinitely with His Presence, and may this ministry serve to enter you ever more and more into the joy of God. This is our first post, and it will give you a bit of the backstory into what God is doing here. For as long as it is His will that we continue, and for eternity afterwards, may you revel in the light of God.
God be with you and bless you forever.