What to Do When the Brook Dries Up

 

brook dried up 2

One of the most baffling experiences in life is when you’ve sincerely endeavored to follow God’s will, only to find that His provision seems to be drying up. Yet this is something experienced by just about everyone at one point or another.

Even the prophet Elijah faced this. The Lord had given him explicit instructions to go to the Brook Cherith, “And it will be that you shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there” (1 Kings 17:2-7).

There’s an old maxim that says, “Where God guides, He provides,” and this was Elijah’s experience for many days as he sat by the brook. Plenty of clean, cool water to drink, and the ravens brought him bread and meat twice a day. It was a pretty nice life, carefree in every way.

But when God wants to bring us to an important transition point, He often allows our “brook” to dry up. This is bewildering, because we’re certain the Lord has used the brook to provide for us in the past. We’ve been following His will, and it’s hard to imagine our carefree life ever coming to an end.

However, through no fault of Elijah, his circumstances began to change: “It happened after a while that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land”  (v. 7).

Ironically, the brook dried up as the direct result of Elijah’s obedience  in telling King Ahab there would be no rain “except at my word”  (v. 1). Without rain, it was only a matter of time before the brook would run out of water—but all of this was part of God’s plan.

Perhaps you can relate to Elijah’s experience. Maybe the job that provided income for you and your family for many years is drying up. Or the thriving church that once nurtured your faith is now a lifeless pile of dry bones. Or perhaps you find yourself in a marriage that has grown cold and dry, with no solution in sight.

So, what can you do when your brook dries up?  How should you react when some life-giving stream of God’s blessing is no longer bringing you the provision and nourishment you need?

Here are some thoughts…

  1. Thank God for how He used the brook in past seasons of your life. Instead of cursing the dry creek bed, be grateful for the sustenance it once brought you.
  2. Be grateful that a new season—with fresh provision—is right around the corner. When your brook starts to dry up, you should get excited instead of depressed! Since the Lord has promised to be your provider in every season, you can look at the future with great anticipation.
  3. Let go of any false nostalgia about the “good old days” when the brook was full of water. Yes, God used the brook to bless you in the past, but now you can trust Him for even BETTER things in your future. Don’t let past blessings become an idol that hinders you from embracing the next season of your life.
  4. Listen for a new set of instructions. Elijah knew God had told him to go to the Brook Cherith—and Elijah had obeyed. But now it was time for some new instructions, which God was faithful to provide: “Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you’” (vs. 8-9). If you want a fresh start, you will need to listen for fresh directions from the Lord. The new instructions may cause you even greater bewilderment, and I’m sure Elijah wondered how some widow he’d never met was going to provide for him. Are you willing to trust God anyway?

Here’s a brief prophetic thought on this important message: The world is entering a season when many of the “brooks” we’ve been relying upon are going to dry up. It has never been more crucial to trust God and obey His instructions. If we do, the new season can be far better than the previous one. If we don’t, we could find ourselves sitting next to a dry creek bed, wondering what happened to the water and the ravens.

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What Is That in Your Hand?

Jim preaching JPG

If you had just 20 minutes to prepare a sermon, what would your topic be? That was my uncomfortable predicament while visiting friends in Auckland, New Zealand recently.

My friend Rob was scheduled to preach at a Filipino church that Sunday, and I was expecting just to sit in the front row and cheer him on. I knew he was dealing with some health issues, but I always thought he would rally in time to preach.

But in the 20 minutes it took for his wife to drive us to the church, it became clear that I better get serious about giving the message. Up until that time, nothing was on my heart, but I suddenly got inspired by God’s incredible question to Moses in Exodus 4:2:

“What is that in your hand?”

When the Lord asked this question, the only thing in Moses’ hand was a crude shepherd’s rod. It wasn’t much. Just a piece of wood. An inanimate object. A tool of Moses’ trade.

God was commissioning him for the daunting task of delivering over a million Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And all Moses had in his hand was the wooden staff he had used for 40 years to tend his flocks of sheep.

Do you see how powerful this message is for you and me? Like Moses, we’re being called to do great things…supernatural things…things much bigger than we could ever accomplish without divine assistance.

Too often we think our problem is that we lack some important ingredient or resource for success. But notice that God wasn’t asking Moses to give Him something he didn’t already have. Instead, He asked Moses, as He is asking us today…

 “What is that in your hand?”

Moses had been carrying around that ordinary piece of wood for many years, and nothing dramatic had happened as a result. But after Moses surrendered the wooden rod to the Lord, it became “the rod of God” instead of merely the rod of Moses (Exodus 4:20). No longer a mere piece of wood, this rod enabled Moses to part the Red Sea, bring water out of a rock, and defeat enemy armies.

What is in YOUR hand, my friend? Money. Time. Possessions. Influence. Some kind of special God-given aptitude.

If you’re honest, the thing in your hand probably seems totally inadequate to meet the needs around you. However, you’ll be amazed by what can happen when you surrender it to the Lord.

Remember…

  • Samson slayed hundreds of Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey.
  • David defeated Goliath with a slingshot and five smooth stones.
  • Jesus’ used a young boy’s lunch—five loaves and two fish—to feed thousands of hungry people.

So go ahead and give God what you’ve been holding on to. It’s not doing you much good in its present condition anyway, is it?

Don’t delay. Anytime you transfer what’s in YOUR hands into HIS hands, miracles happen. He will give you back the rod you’ve surrendered, but this time it will be infused with supernatural power to change the world.

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Gambling on God

Why Are So Few People ‘All In’?

I love the old maxim about risk-taking, “Behold the turtle. He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out.” Yet, when I look around, I’m concerned that fear is holding many people back from the necessary steps to make progress or have a significant impact.

My fellow baby boomers seem especially prone to this common trap. We took risks in our younger days, some of which paid off, while others were brought devastating losses. But now we find it all too easy to play it safe and hedge our bets.

If you’ve talked with any financial planners recently, they’ve probably advised you to limit your risks as you get older. Be safe. Be conservative. Hang on to what you have. Don’t be too adventurous in your investments.

But those same advisors will admit that you’re unlikely to receive a substantial return on those “safe” investments. Small risk, small rewards. No risk, no rewards.

The same is true about our spiritual lives. Remember Jesus’ story about the guy who decided to bury his assets instead of risk losing them? Sadly for him, he ended up losing them in the end anyway (Matthew 25:14-28).

No decision could be riskier or more shortsighted than to opt for a risk-free life. First of all, such a life is impossible to find, since there will always be risks along the way. And even if you somehow succeeded in eliminating all risks, your life would be incredibly boring and unproductive.

Several decades ago, God gave me a vivid mental picture while I was praying. I saw myself playing poker, and I had amassed a very large stack of chips. Suddenly, however, I pushed the entire stack to the middle of the table and shouted, “ALL IN!”

Hmmm… I can’t help wondering if I would still be willing to take such a risk today. Although I claim to be entrusting my entire life to the Lord, lately I’ve only been giving Him the chips I’m willing to lose. And while I’ve succeeded in minimizing my risks, my rewards clearly have diminished as well.

As a student of the Bible, I’ve concluded that we need to grasp a couple of important lessons about risk-taking:

  • If God truly has told us to do something, obeying Him doesn’t constitute a “risk.” Before walking on the water, Peter wisely sought and received a green light from Jesus. Things were going fantastic at first, as they always do when we trust and obey. Peter only ran into trouble when he took his eyes off the Lord (Matthew 14:25-32).
  • Often we must take a step of faith, even when we have no direct guidance from God or assurances about the outcome. I love the story of Jonathan’s plan to defeat the Philistines, despite his lack of resources and manpower. His message to his armor bearer shows a commitment to do “the right thing,” even though God hadn’t told him what to do nor promised him victory: “Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the Lord will work for us, for the Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). What a challenging statement for those of us who want ironclad assurance from God before we embark on any endeavor. He doesn’t always work that way! Sometimes we need to “take a chance” on a noble venture, hoping God will come through for us.

After they each took a bold step of faith, Peter and Jonathan both received supernatural assistance. Peter had gotten direct encouragement from the Lord in his quest to walk on water. Jonathan, in contrast, trusted God and hoped for victory solely by virtue of his worthwhile mission.

When was the last time YOU took a significant risk, relying on God’s help? Like Peter, has Jesus been beckoning you to take a seemingly risky step, leaving the safety of your “boat”? Or do you find yourself in a situation more like Jonathan, where your heart says to take action, despite an uncertain future?

One thing for sure: You don’t want to be like the turtle who allowed fear to keep him hiding in his shell. If you’re trusting God with your life, you’ll need to stick your neck out from time to time. Your life will surely be more exciting and fulfilling that way.

The Bible is pretty clear that God prefers risk-takers to those who insist on playing it safe. Yes, when you take risks there will be some losses as well as gains. But if you ever start to sink among the roaring waves, He will lift you up again—and I bet He will even applaud your effort.

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Living Life on Standby

Recently I faced a number of situations where I was put on standby, and none of them were much fun.

At work everything was put on hold two days in a row because of the “possibility” of a very important meeting that never ended up happening. During that same week, a pastor asked me to be on standby to preach for him in case bad weather prevented him from getting back from a ministry trip on time—but he returned successfully.

Meanwhile, I was looking forward to a new initiative in my personal life, only to find out about a six-month waiting period before I could even begin. More waiting. More standby.

I don’t like being on standby. There’s all the stress of preparation and all the frustration of waiting, but the payoff seems so uncertain. I hate to waste time, and that’s usually what it feels like when I’m on hold.

And I bet you’ve faced some “standby” situations too. Perhaps you’re waiting for some kind of medical diagnosis or procedure…a new job or promotion on your present job…the launch of a new ministry…or resolution of some relationship issue.

Lots of people in the Bible were put on standby, with mixed results. Noah’s life couldn’t progress until he completed construction of a gigantic ark—and that project took over 100 years.

Abraham and Sarah were on standby for decades to receive their promised son from the Lord. While waiting, they cooked up a scheme to have a child by other means. The result was the birth of Ishmael—and thousands of years of conflict in the Middle East.

King Saul was told to be on standby until Samuel could return in seven days and present a burnt offering to God. But Saul grew impatient when Samuel didn’t return in the designated time, so he offered the burnt offering himself. As minor as this infraction may seem to you and me, it marked the first step in the unraveling of Saul’s reign.

The disciples were put on standby as Jesus prayed and sweated drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion. He found them fast asleep, unable to pray and stay awake during even one hour of standby mode.

As these stories illustrate, it’s a hazardous thing to be on standby. We tend to get impatient…take matters into our own hands…and often do something crazy.

However, I’ve found that God often has a reward in store when we learn how to handle the standby mode correctly. Perhaps an illustration from the world of pets may help…

If you throw some object into the backyard, your dog is likely to retrieve it and bring it back to you. Most dogs do this instinctively, without any training. You can give him a treat to reward him for his efforts, if you would like. But the dog hasn’t really accomplished much, has he? Rather than displaying any feat of obedience, he was simply doing what came naturally.

However, what if you want your dog to get the object and then sit quietly in place until you ask him to come to you? That’s a skill likely to take some training from you and some self-control by the dog. You must teach him what the command “Stay” means, and he must fight all of his natural instincts in order to comply.

It’s pretty impressive when a dog has learned to obey his master in doing something contrary to animal instincts. You really should treat him with a reward when he can do that.

Well, I would like to say I’m a voice-trained dog, but too often I’m not. Too often, I still do what comes naturally instead of what the Master is commanding.

The key to dog training is repetition, I guess. And that seems to be the same pattern God uses in training us to be voice-trained believers. Hopefully, we will learn the lessons in time.

I encourage you to take a hard look at the standby situations in your life today. Are you patiently waiting, listening for your Master’s instructions rather than doing whatever is right in your own eyes?

And perhaps you need to be challenged about the opposite side of the coin: Do you think you are waiting on a green light from God on some issue, when He’s actually waiting on YOU to take action and get started?

Let’s listen to our Master’s voice today, my friend. If we do, I’m convinced our standby periods will be rewarded.

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The Perils of a Fat Faith

A few months ago I had a horrifying epiphany that will impact me the rest of my days. In a moment of time, I caught a glimpse of all the teachings and insights God had poured into my life—most of which have never been shared with anyone.

I saw my large filing cabinet of sermons that have never been delivered…my books never completed or never published…my discipleship materials and leadership tools that few people have ever seen.

It was a sickening sight. What a tragic waste, I have murmured to myself ever since.

This caused me to reflect on the great model presented in Ezra 7:10, where we see God’s desire for us to Learn, Do, and Teach.

By God’s grace, I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’ve also endeavored to put His Word into practice. But what about the final leg of the stool, teaching others the things He has taught me? Of course, I have done that to some degree, but it’s distressing to see how much of this content has never been fully utilized and shared.

My epiphany came into even clearer focus recently when my pastor gave a sermon about the frequent comment in Leviticus that God wants us to give Him “the fat” of our offerings. For example, Leviticus 3:16 says, “All the fat is the Lord’s.” Over 50 times, God refers to “the fat” in the book of Leviticus!

While listening to this message, I suddenly saw what fat really is: unutilized fuel. Our body puts on fat when we ingest more fuel (calories) than we burn. It’s a hoarding mechanism, our body’s method of storing fuel for another day. And anyone who’s tried to lose weight knows that once the body stores unutilized fuel as fat, it’s extremely difficult to get rid of it.

Finally, I had a framework to explain my epiphany. Put simply, I’ve ingested a lot more spiritual calories over the years than I’ve burned. And while it’s a blessing to be so well fed, the downside of this situation is spelled F-A-T.

It would be one thing to store fuel for your future if you knew you had to make it last for many decades to come. But it doesn’t work that way. You must “use it or lose it.” The fat does you absolutely no good—and instead does you harm—if you store it instead of burn it.

I can’t think of a more repulsive word picture than a morbidly obese person lying motionless in their coffin. What a tragedy. All that unutilized fuel going to waste.

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The Myth of Full-Time Ministry

I’ll never forget the day I knelt in prayer beside the bed in my college dorm room and popped the important question: “Lord, do you want me to serve You full-time?”

Almost immediately, the clear answer came, “Why, of course, Jim!”

I was thrilled. The following Sunday I went to church and proudly told my friend Bob Hahn about my call to ministry.

“Bob, while I was praying yesterday, I asked God if He wanted me to serve Him in full-time ministry. He said He did!”

My older and wiser friend paused, then looked me right in the eyes when he responded. “That’s good, Jim, but I’ve been seeing lately that full-time ministry doesn’t necessarily mean what I once thought.”

Quickly concluding that Bob was just jealous that he wasn’t called to full-time ministry, I didn’t hear much of the rest of his explanation. Looking back, though, I wish I had listened closer that day.

Now having the advantage of more than 35 years of hindsight, I think I have a better understanding of what Bob Hahn was trying to tell me about full-time ministry. At times I’ve indeed been a “full-time minister” as a senior pastor or staff pastor. But at other times I’ve been an attorney or done other “secular” jobs. Often this is described as “tent-making” or being a bi-vocational minister.

It often surprises people when I tell them my ministry while I was an attorney was just as fruitful as when I was a full-time pastor. Perhaps even more fruitful.

When I supported my ministry by means of a secular job, I was much freer from people’s expectations about what my “ministry” should be. In contrast, when my paycheck came from the church, I sometimes ended up serving church activities more than I was serving God!

When I was supported by my work as an attorney, it was far easier to tell people “No” when they wanted me to do something outside the sphere of ministry God had given me (see 2 Corinthians 10:13-16). When I was a full-time pastor, however, there was a great temptation to do whatever people expected, regardless of my calling or the Lord’s will.

I found that another pitfall in full-time pastoral ministry was that it tended to separate me from the “real world” where most people were living. It was especially difficult to have meaningful contact with those who didn’t yet follow Christ.

Too often, pastors who go directly from college, to seminary, to full-time ministry end up secluded in an ivory-tower world, with experiences quite different from those faced by the people we are endeavoring to disciple and lead. While we try to encourage those in our flock to reach out to their unsaved friends and co-workers, our friends and co-workers are all church folks!

By glamorizing the importance of full-time ministry, we perpetuate a myth that has seriously weakened the church for many centuries now. Bob Hahn was trying to tell me that, in a sense, every Christian is supposed to be serving the Lord “full-time.” Even if we gain our livelihood through work at a secular job, we are to see it as a ministry—for we are working as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:22-24).

Paul told the Corinthians that everything he did was “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23). But sometimes that included working with his hands to make tents in order to support himself. Think of it: The mighty apostle was willing to be a manual laborer and small businessman at times, rather than beg for offerings!

I also love how Paul said the fragrance of Christ was supposed to be manifested through us “in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14). He didn’t say believers should emit Christ’s fragrance just “in every church meeting,” or “every time we preach,” or “every time we lead worship.” No, his vision of “ministry” was much bigger than any of that.

Because of their detachment from everyday living, many “full-time” Christian leaders struggle to give their flock clear, practical instruction on how the gospel can be lived out in the marketplace. As a result, we give the faulty impression that ministry is something done mainly in church buildings.

It’s time to regain the perspective that every Christian is called to be a minister. Our ministry began the day were saved, because that’s when Jesus ordained us to serve Him and bear fruit for His kingdom (John 15:16).

If you are being obedient the Lord full-time, you ARE in full-time ministry—no matter whether a church gives you a paycheck or not. You have the great privilege and opportunity to minister to people every day and in every place—whether in office buildings, banks, construction sites, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants, neighborhoods, athletic fields, schools, and in every other place where people are found.

So what are you waiting for? If you are committed to full-time availability to God, your full-time ministry has already begun!

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