Spiritual Growth and Healing

God Can Heal Your Wounded Manhood

I’d never heard a sermon on Deuteronomy 23:1 until last month, when my Puerto Rican friend Luis Roig had the courage to read the text out loud to a group of men in Florida. When he did, one guy gasped and fell on the floor. Several others laughed nervously, and we all drew our knees together and groaned.

The Holman translation says it this way: “No man whose testicles have been crushed or whose penis has been cut off may enter the Lord’s assembly.”

Ouch! 

Please pardon the graphic language, but older translations just aren’t clear. The King James Version says, “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” That’s putting it mildly!

Most of us dismiss or ignore this odd passage, either because the subject matter is embarrassing or because the law seems unfair. After all, if a man’s private parts are damaged in an accident, why should he be considered an outcast?

But this verse is relevant to us today because we face a masculinity crisis. In our fatherless culture, many guys struggle with their identity as men, and as a result they feel alienated from God. Meanwhile the church offers little to help men find true healing. Our idea of men’s ministry is to provide food, sports or entertainment while we dance around men’s deepest problems without actually addressing them.

Yet everywhere I go today, I find men who suffer from crushed masculinity. They have been kicked in the groin, spiritually speaking. Their actual anatomy may be intact, but because of poor fathering, lack of affirmation, bullying, family rejection, inferiority or some form of abuse, their manhood did not develop properly. They are men on the outside, but inside they are wounded boys who are afraid to tell anyone how they feel.

Over the years I’ve identified several categories of crushed manhood:

1. Insecurity. Many guys become selfish, driven performers, out to prove their manhood through competition. Because they didn’t get healthy encouragement at home, they become self-absorbed and crave the spotlight. They can appear extremely successful, but inside they are afraid of failure. They find it hard to build healthy friendships, and their wives usually feel used and ignored. In the end, these guys end up in divorce, scandal, prison or worse.

2. Indecisiveness. Some men just don’t have the ability to make decisions. They may have never had a father to encourage them or a role model to learn from. As a result they flounder in their careers, struggle financially, fear the future and feel spineless. Many of these men find Christ, but they live in painful isolation and get trapped in addictions because they lack self-control.

3. Domination. Some men—especially if they were abused physically or even sexually as boys—believe the only way to prove their manhood is to wield power. Violent anger seethes below the surface. If they marry, their wives suffer the brunt of their dysfunction. These men are tormented by secrets, but they cannot take their armor off long enough to admit their problems to anyone.

4. Promiscuity. Sex is a selfish contest for many guys. They try to bed as many women as possible to prove they are “real men.” Ironically, it is their lack of manhood that drives them to hurt themselves and others. Some men who were abused sexually as boys seek to have sex with as many women as possible to prove they are not gay.

5. Homosexuality. It’s not popular today to suggest that homosexuality is sinful. So what if I rephrase the question and ask: “Is it healthy?” Many men today struggle with their core identity as men, and often it is not their fault. They may have never had a father to affirm them, or their father may have withheld affection. Others have gender confusion because of abuse. In many cases, guys experience same-sex attraction because they crave the healthy male attention they should have received from a dad. And they mistakenly think that sex with another man will restore the manhood they crave.

When my friend Luis read from Deuteronomy 23:1, he also shared his painful story: how he had been abused as a child, how he wrestled with his fears and lusts, and how his abuse pushed him to become violent in his marriage. Thankfully, Luis found more than a Band-Aid for his problems when he came to faith. Jesus delivered him from his anger, healed his emotional wounds and began restoring his manhood.

This healing is found in Jesus. Like the Good Samaritan, Jesus pours His oil and wine on our wounds. Like the father of the prodigal son, He throws His arms around us and tells us He’s glad we belong to Him. The unconditional love of Jesus, which is both gentle and powerfully strong, is the perfect remedy for the fragmented masculine soul.

This supernatural healing is available to men today, but we cannot offer what we have not experienced ourselves. We must be willing to trade in our superficial “God bless you, brother!” back-slapping and get real. Men have been painfully emasculated, and they need surgery. Let’s quit denying the problem. It is time for a wave of healing to touch the wounded men all around us.

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6 Lies the Devil Uses to Condemn You

I have a friend who is a gifted worship leader, a loving husband and an affectionate father. He’s funny, smart, passionate about his faith and wholeheartedly committed to his church. People who know him say he’s a model Christian.

But underneath this joyful exterior is a lot of pain. He struggles with depression, and then he condemns himself because Christians are supposed be happy. When emotional heaviness drags him to a low point, he knows how to put on his convincing “church face.” Nobody knows the dark thoughts that torment him.

My friend is not unique in this struggle. Countless Christians I know engage in a daily battle with the enemy of their souls. And Satan is relentless in his attacks. He is described in Scripture as “the father of lies” (John 8:44), and the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10). He wags his bony finger of condemnation and tries to deny us access to the Lord’s love and mercy.

You will never find victory in the Christian life if you don’t expose, confront and renounce Satan’s groundless accusations. If the devil has been replaying his lies in your head, you must hit the “EJECT” button now! The spirit of condemnation always makes these outrageous statements listed below:

1. Jesus can’t use you if you have a weakness. The devil is always ready to remind you that you are fat, unattractive, prone to depression or addiction, sexually broken, traumatized or fearful. But guess what? The people God used in the Bible were far from perfect. Every Christian has flaws. God made us weak so we would find our strength in Him. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t need a Savior.

2. You should give up if you constantly struggle with sin. Many Christian men I know feel spiritually disqualified because they haven’t totally overcome their addiction to porn. They feel bad for being tempted, and then if they stumble, they feel defeated for weeks. This can lead to discouragement and despair—and then they lose all hope of overcoming the habit. The secret to victory is not sweating and straining to resist; instead we must meditate on the love of God and allow His Spirit to rise up inside of us to override sin’s power. If you are struggling, do not give up! The Spirit will help you!

3. God’s promises are for other people, not you. Do you feel God’s goodness always bypasses you? You may have an orphan spirit. Many Christians don’t believe the heavenly Father loves and accepts them. They may have been rejected by their parents, or lacked parental affirmation. Life’s pain can block our ability to see God as He is. But if you have given your life to Christ, the Father has adopted you, He delights in you, and He has given you full inheritance rights. His promises are yours to claim!

4. God is always mad at you. Many believers base their relationship with God on performance. If they read their Bibles and pray every day, they feel they are on God’s “good side”; if they miss their morning devotions they assume He is upset. The devil loves this legalistic mindset because it prevents us from experiencing God’s grace. You must come to understand that the Father does not love you for what you do; He loves you because you are His child. He is slow to anger and full of lovingkindness. When you allow this truth to soak your soul, you will enjoy true intimacy with Jesus.

5. Your past mistakes disqualified you. I met a Christian man recently who loves God with all His heart, yet he sits in the back of his church every week feeling inferior because he committed adultery 35 years ago. His wife forgave him, and he repented for his sin, but he assumes he wears a scarlet letter around his neck and that he has been banished to a spiritual wasteland. That’s a lie! If you have repented for your sin, God has forgiven and forgotten it! Nothing can separate you from God’s love—not abortion, divorce, sexual sin or any other unspeakable mistake you regret.

6. You have committed the unpardonable sin. I’ve counseled several troubled Christians who read Matthew 12:31-32 and decided that they had blasphemed the Holy Spirit and therefore could not be saved. This is a ridiculous notion, because a person who committed the unpardonable sin mentioned in this passage wouldn’t care if they had blasphemed. If you are worried that you did this, then you haven’t! Your heart is turned toward God and you want to please Him. That alone is evidence of His grace working in you.

Romans 8:1 is one of the most liberating verses in the Bible. It declares: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” This promise is for you! Jesus took your punishment and removed all guilt from your record. And His blood is more powerful than any lie Satan can throw at you.

You are now qualified. Your past is irrelevant. You don’t have to work to win God’s love. When the Father looks at you, He doesn’t see your past sins or present struggles; He sees a robe of righteousness. Renounce the devil’s lies and believe God’s promise. He loves you with an indescribable, unfathomable, unconditional love.

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How to Leave an Unhealthy Church

Recently I shared some practical guidelines on how to leave a church gracefully. I wrote this because I hear so many stories about people storming out of churches because their feelings got hurt. But an astute reader also pointed out that my guidelines really don’t apply when the church or its pastor have become abusive.

“Teresa” wrote that in her city, a popular leader of a megachurch was exposed for engaging in secret immoral behavior that affected countless members of his congregation for many years. “Thousands of people have been abused, broken, manipulated and controlled by [the pastor],” she wrote. “He has literally destroyed hundreds of families over the decades.”

So how do you leave a church that is spiritually abusive? What if the pastor or other leaders are guilty of sexual misconduct, unethical or illegal financial activities or controlling behavior? The rules for leaving are different.

1. Get outside advice. Before you plan your exit, make sure you are looking at the situation rationally. Talk to two or three people who are not members of this church or ministry. You might even want to set up a meeting with another pastor from your city. Explain your concerns. They will help you see if you are overreacting, or if you really have a case.

2. Gather the facts. Never base your concerns on rumors or unfounded allegations. Can this improper behavior be documented? Is there a paper trail? Paul said in 1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” If there has been wrongdoing, there will be evidence. (If you find concrete evidence that something illegal is going on, such as extortion or child abuse, you should contact the police.)

3. Confront the issue. This will not be easy if the leader in question uses threats, manipulation or anger to run over people. I normally advise that meetings be in person, but don’t meet alone if the leader in question is a manipulator. Take people with you so that you can’t be bullied. It’s also best to put your concerns in writing and take the letter with you.

4. Make a clean break. If you know that the pastor or other church leaders are guilty of behavior that disqualifies ministers, and there are no signs of repentance, you don’t have to stick around. God gave you two feet, and you can use them to walk out. Some people feel guilty for leaving an abusive church, but you must renounce feelings of false guilt or displaced loyalty. God will help you start a new life. Don’t let anyone (especially extended family members) manipulate you into staying.

5. Get counseling and prayer from a mature Christian. Spiritual manipulation messes with your mind. People I know who were part of an abusive ministry were made to feel guilty for simply asking questions. They were told that God required them to be blindly loyal, and that if they ever left the ministry something terrible would happen to them. If you were under this type of toxic control, you need someone to pray for you—so you can break free from psychological abuse.

6. Find a healthy church. Never let the devil convince you to give up on church just because the one you attended went off track. You need God’s people in your life. Some frustrated saints who have been wounded by unqualified leaders have asked me, “Are there any good churches left?” My answer is always yes! The Great Shepherd always leads us to green pastures where we can be healed and comforted. If you isolate yourself from church, you are wasting your spiritual gifts and ruining your chances of being restored.

7. Help others to heal. In my work with abused women, I’ve seen that those who suffered the most became powerfully effective in helping others after they experienced healing. This can be true for people who were wounded in an unhealthy church. God does not waste our pain! He can use your testimony to help those who are going through similar situations.

Once you leave, it is possible that other members of your church will contact you—and some of them will be honestly seeking the same freedom you have found. You owe it to them to share the story of your exit. If you stay healthy during the process of leaving, God can use you to pull others to safety.

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6 Things That Block the Holy Spirit’s Power

Last weekend while I was preaching at a church in central California, a young man came to the altar to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He was eager to go deeper spiritually. Someone prayed for him for a while, but nothing happened.

I walked over to the young man a few minutes later and told him I would pray for him some more after the meeting was dismissed. I’ve learned that sometimes there are blockages that can prevent people from receiving the fullness of the Spirit, so I always try to discern what must be moved out of the way.

In this guy’s case, his heart was in a great deal of pain because his father had abandoned his family. He wanted God to baptize him with the Spirit, but the pain of rejection was like a gaping wound that needed urgent attention. As soon as I began to address this problem, he began sobbing in my arms.

After we prayed about his father issues, and he got the healing he needed, he quickly received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. A fresh joy filled his heart. And a new heavenly language began pouring out of his mouth. I encouraged him to pray in tongues for a while as he received the Spirit’s anointing.

This next Sunday, May 24, is the official day of Pentecost—when Christians all over the world celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. But Pentecost should also be a very personal experience for you. Have you, or someone you know, struggled to receive this supernatural infilling?

Here are some reasons why there might be a blockage:

1. Doubt or intellectual pride. In the 1960s a journalist named John Sherrill decided to write a book discrediting the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. But after he interviewed countless people about this experience, his doubts were shattered and he was baptized in the Holy Spirit himself. His book, They Speak With Other Tongues, became a Christian classic. Spiritual experiences cannot be figured out with the mind. To receive the Spirit’s infilling you must let go of your intellectual arguments and display childlike faith (see Matt. 18:2-4).

2. Religious tradition. I knew an Episcopal priest who was filled with the Holy Spirit in the 1970s in New York City. He was excited about the new vitality he felt in his faith—and thrilled that his wife had experienced a physical healing. But when he shared his testimony with his bishop, he was told he was crazy! And the bishop referred him to a psychiatrist! Religious people who are locked into “the way we’ve always done it” find it hard to receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit. You must be willing to break free from tradition.

3. Fear of the supernatural. Some Christians grew up in denominations that taught against the infilling of the Holy Spirit. They were told that Pentecostals are all fanatics who go into trances, speak mindless gibberish and swing from chandeliers. Actually, the first disciples in the New Testament spoke in tongues and experienced miracles—yet their faith was not strange. It should be the norm! People who are afraid of God’s supernatural power will struggle to receive it.

4. Unconfessed sin. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit can be “quenched” as well as “grieved” (1 Thess. 5:19; Eph. 4:30). Because He is so holy, our sinful habits and attitudes can cause Him to withdraw. This is why it’s so important for us to walk in constant communion with God, and to be willing to repent quickly when we know we have sinned. Some people “stuff” their secret sins in the closets of their hearts. If you want to be filled with the Spirit, you must be willing to open those closets and invite the light of God’s holiness into every dark corner of your life.

5. Emotional wounds. Like the young man I prayed for last weekend, some people are just too burdened with emotional baggage to be filled with the Spirit. Some have been abused, others weighted down by anxiety, others grieved or depressed. They need healing first. Like Lazarus on the day he was raised from the dead, they are bound by the grave clothes of the past, and they need to be unwrapped before they can experience God’s full anointing (see John 11:44). Healing is often needed before a person can receive the blessing of Holy Spirit baptism.

6. An unyielded spirit. You cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit if you are full of yourself. Some people are too willful. They have not surrendered their plans, finances, relationships or time to God. They have their lives planned out and they don’t want God interrupting their agendas. Yet God is looking to fill hearts that have been emptied and surrendered. Only the fully yielded can experience the fullness of His power.

If you have not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or if the flow of the Spirit has been blocked in your life, empty your heart today and prepare for your own personal Pentecost.

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8 Signs of a Legalistic Spirit

Do you truly enjoy the grace of God? Many Christians know the Bible, attend church and even do ministry work while they struggle to understand the core of the gospel. They can quote Scriptures about what Christ did for them, but they still feel they must work to earn His love—and often they end up feeling unworthy and separated from God.

Even though Jesus died on the cross so we wouldn’t have to be judged according to the law, many Christians are still living in the Old Testament. They have never embraced the reality of New Testament faith. They are slaves to performance-based religion.

The apostle Paul wrote the epistle of Galatians to challenge us to make sure we remain in the grace of God. Do you struggle with legalism? Here are the most common signs of a legalistic spirit:

1. Lack of true joy. Jesus didn’t forgive us of our sins so we could be sour-faced and sad. Yet I’ve met hundreds of Christians who looked like they were attending a funeral when they came to a church service. Why? Legalism kills joy. When someone has an encounter with God’s mercy, their hearts always overflow with praise and gratitude. The apostle Paul wrote: “The kingdom of God is … righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). There’s no such thing as Christianity without joy.

2. No real victory over sin. All Christians struggle with temptations. But a person with a legalistic mindset finds it difficult to receive the grace of God to overcome sinful habits. Are you striving to break free from a particular sin in your own strength? You cannot do this on your own! We must admit our weakness and to invite the Holy Spirit to give us supernatural power to live a holy life. It is the indwelling Spirit of Christ who gives us victory—not your straining and sweating. Relax and let Him live His life in you!

3. Unhealthy performance orientation. God is a loving Father, and He wants us to lavish us with His affirmation and encouragement. Yet many Christians don’t have a revelation of God’s unconditional love. They feel they must earn His love by reading the Bible, praying and performing other religious tasks. Do you ever feel God is mad at you because you overslept and missed your morning devotions? He wants you to spend time with Him, but not to fulfill a duty. Chill out and just enjoy His love!

4. A critical, unloving attitude toward others. People who don’t understand God’s grace cannot extend grace to anyone else. This is why some Christians are hateful toward unbelievers. When you understand how much mercy God extended to forgive you, it’s easy to show mercy to other people who don’t deserve it! When you hear Christians using harsh language to condemn Muslims, atheists, liberals or gay people, you have just identified a legalistic spirit.

5. Obsessive focus on outward standards of dress or behavior. Some Christian denominations have taught that God demands strict conformity to dress codes. Some churches in the past have condemned makeup, jewelry, pants and short hair for women. Others taught it was wrong for Christians to play sports, play cards, dance, wear wedding rings, go to movies, wear jeans in church or even own a television! Yet God emphasizes inner holiness rather than outward conformity. When you walk in grace, the Spirit will lead you to dress and act in a way that honors Him, but this will not conform to a man-made religious code.

6. Bondage to religious tradition. The Pharisees rejected Jesus because they couldn’t leave Old Covenant religion behind. A legalistic spirit says, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Some people rejected a new move of the Holy Spirit because they didn’t like a new style of music. Some churches today are in danger of missing God because they want to live like it is still 1973. Legalistic people tend to fight any new move of God. Remember: God is unchangeable in His nature, but He does new things. We must stay in step with Him.

7. A sectarian attitude toward other Christians. People who don’t understand God’s grace believe they have a corner on truth, so they cannot accept the fact that the Holy Spirit might be moving in other denominations. Some churches even teach that they are the only people going to heaven. If your church believes they are the only true Christians, exit quickly. Legalism is toxic! Find a church that embraces the whole body of Christ.

8. Little or no assurance of salvation. People with a legalistic mindset often doubt their salvation because they trust their own obedience instead of Christ. When you receive the grace of God, the Bible says your heart will cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). One true encounter with Jesus will cause you to know that God has adopted you—and that He will never abandon you.

The apostle Paul wrote: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). If you haven’t experienced this freedom, ask the Holy Spirit to fill every area where legalism has distorted your understanding of God.

Don’t fall for a graceless Christianity. If you see any of these warning signs in your life, invite the Holy Spirit to set you free from legalism. Stop striving, repent of pride and ask God to open your eyes to the reality of His amazing grace.

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Breaking Free from the Spirit of Inferiority

I grew up in the South, where football is a religion. Every boy I knew dreamed of becoming a star quarterback. When my relatives gathered for meals, the conversation usually revolved around whether Auburn would beat Alabama this year.

I felt like sliding under my chair during those moments. I was not a football player—and there was no chance of me becoming one. I didn’t have big enough biceps to throw a 50-yard pass, and I didn’t have the frame to tackle a 200-pound guy. I felt like a total wimp. I assumed that when God handed out physical talents, I was stuck at the back of the line.

Thankfully my lack of athletic skills didn’t cripple me entirely. I had other abilities, like writing—and I ended up being the editor of my high school yearbook. But a cloud of inferiority followed me everywhere. No matter how successful I was in other areas, I branded myself a failure because I didn’t measure up as an athlete.

It was only though the power of the Holy Spirit that I eventually overcame this painful sense of disqualification. But now I meet people every day who are slaves of inferiority. Some feel intellectually challenged; some struggle with a physical disability; others are terrified of speaking publicly because they are insecure about their appearance or weight. Others were bullied or abused, and the cruel words they heard on a playground or at the dinner table were stamped into their brains with a hot iron.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to describe your positive qualities? Are you haunted by labels that were pinned on you by parents, siblings, teachers or classmates? Were you ever called “stupid,” “fatso,” “dunce,” “dork,” “lazy,” “slut,” “queer” or the N-word? Words are like knives, and they can leave permanent scars. If inferiority is hindering you in your relationship with God and others, consider taking this journey toward healing:

1. Let God change your self-image. The Bible is full of stories of insecure people who ended up doing heroic things. God loves to use “powerless” people “to shame those who are powerful” (1 Cor. 1:27, NLT). Sarah was barren, yet God called her a mother of nations. Moses was a stutterer, yet God called him to confront Pharaoh. David was an embarrassment to his father before he became a king. If you feel inferior, you are in good company!

2. Bury the lies you’ve believed. False beliefs will not collapse without a fight. You must identify the lies you believe about yourself, and then renounce them. This is not something you can do alone; you must be willing to talk about your inferiority with a counselor, a pastor or trusted friends.

When I was in my 20s, I asked two friends to pray with me because I felt so inferior. This deep insecurity made me shy and fearful, but I wanted to be confident so that I could grow spiritually and discover my calling. That prayer meeting put me on a path toward full-time ministry that has taken me to 30 nations! I would have stayed in my prison of insecurity if those men had not helped me see that God had something important for me to do with my life.

3. Confess your new identity. Gideon felt like a weakling when the angel of the Lord came to him and announced: “The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior!” (Judges 6:12). At that point, Gideon was looking around and wondering, Who is this guy talking to? He did not believe he was a warrior! Yet God redefined Gideon’s identity and eventually changed his name to Jerubbaal, which means (my paraphrase) “The devil is in trouble.”

But it is not enough to simply believe in your heart that you are God’s chosen instrument. You must boldly proclaim who you are now. Joel 3:10 declares: “Let the weak say, ‘I am a mighty man.'” You must say it! If you were told you are a failure, say: “I am more than a conqueror.” If you were told that you are fat and ugly, say: “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me” (Song 7:10). And keep saying it until you believe it!

4. Stop comparing yourself with others. At the core of sinful human nature is the desire to have what isn’t ours. That’s why one of the commandments God gave Moses was “Do not covet” (Ex. 20:17). We live in a culture that celebrates perfect beauty, athleticism, celebrity and wealth—and our media constantly reminds us of what we don’t have by bombarding us with images (actually they are idolsof “perfect” people. Don’t let those idols control you!

The media doesn’t set the standard for us—God does. Instead of focusing on what you aren’t, celebrate who God made you to be. If I had spent my life lamenting the fact that I couldn’t make the football team, I would have never discovered the other talents God gave me.

5. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. You can never overcome mental strongholds of worthlessness and inferiority in your own strength. It is the Holy Spirit who changes us. Just as He convicts us of sin and purifies our motives, He also strips away the lies we have believed about ourselves and heals us from the words and experiences that crippled us. Ask Him to fill you so full that those lies can’t hang around any longer.

If inferiority has gripped your soul, you can say this prayer now: “Lord, You are more powerful than any label that has ever been put on me. I renounce the lies that I have believed about myself. I am not weak; I am strong in You. I am not stupid; I have Your wisdom. I am not worthless; You died on the cross to redeem me. Thank You that because I am in Christ, I am a new creation. I am not bound by my old identity—I have a new identity in Jesus. Help me to see myself the way You see me—as Your beloved child and as a powerful, anointed, gifted disciple. Amen.

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8 Ways to Recharge Your Prayer Life

How would you grade your prayer life these days? Are your spiritual batteries drained? Do you need a recharge? It’s easy for prayer to become monotonous and predictable, but the Holy Spirit is always willing to offer a jumpstart. Even if you feel like a failure in this area, He can turn a spiritual wimp into a warrior.

After a recent string of answered prayers, I’ve discovered a fresh excitement about my own prayer journey. I’ve also realized that if I want to mature spiritually, my prayer life must go to a higher level. Here are eight ways you can turn up the heat:

1. Develop your spiritual confidence. Many Christians live on the far edges of God’s blessings because they don’t believe they have been made righteous by Christ’s sacrifice. You will never expect answers from God if you think He is mad at you. Don’t act like a slave who begs for things. You are His heir, and He has given you His royal robe, His signet ring and His estate. He wants to give you the kingdom. God tells us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). You can ask Him for anything.

2. Be more specific. Zig Ziglar used to say: “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” That’s why vague prayers are inferior to specific ones. I have recently begun the habit of making a “Top Seven List” of prayer requests. When I did this during my recent out-of-state move, the Lord answered six of my seven requests within two months. One of my prayers was that when I bought my new house, my new house payment would not be more than my old one. It turned out to be one dollar less! I was reminded that James 4:2 says: “You do not have because you do not ask.”

3. Ask big. We can limit what God wants to do in the Earth by praying in a puny way. Why would we settle for less when God can do the impossible? Elisha boldly asked his mentor, Elijah, for a double portion of the Holy Spirit—and God gave him that mantle. God may want to double what you are requesting of Him. The Lord said: “Ask of Me, and I will give the nations for Your inheritance… ” (Ps. 2:8). His vision for your life is far greater than what you supposed.

4. Become more aggressive. Status quo prayers won’t be enough in seasons of spiritual battle. There is a time to go to war in the spirit, and this will require a militant attitude toward the enemy. When Elisha told King Joash to take arrows and strike the ground, in preparation for a battle, the king halfheartedly hit the ground only three times. Elisha said: “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it” (2 Kings 13:18-19). Too often we are satisfied with small victories because we didn’t pray with enough intensity. Your zeal will often determine your outcome.

5. Groan when necessary. People who have allowed God to use them in intercession know that certain situations require travail. This is not easy prayer—it is the spiritual equivalent of childbirth! When Elijah prayed for rain to end a seven-year drought, the Bible says he “crouched down upon the earth and put his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42). If you really want a crime wave to end in your city, or a nation to find Jesus, or your own children to be saved, let the Spirit pray through you in a deeper, messier and noisier way.

6. Combine fasting with prayer. Fasting is not a way to bribe God. You do not need to forfeit food to get His attention. But fasting helps you focus on the Lord—and it can intensify prayer power. There are certain spiritual obstacles that need an extra push. When speaking of a demon that needed to be cast out, Jesus told His disciples: “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). If you are hitting a spiritual brick wall, it may be time to fast.

7. Do a night watch. I am not the kind of guy who typically gets up at 3 a.m. to pray. I like my sleep! But there are moments in our lives when the Lord may woo you to spend time with Him in the night hours. In Song of Solomon, the bride hears her Beloved calling her to get out of bed (5:2-6) and she doesn’t respond quickly enough. Many of us are too distracted by the busyness of life to hear God call us to a season of prayer. Yet the Lord is looking for people who will carry His burdens. Will you let Him pray through you?

8. Expect God to fill in the gaps. I used to fight discouragement about my prayer life because I didn’t feel my prayers were powerful enough. But then I read Ephesians 3:20 in a new light. It says God is able “to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). That means after I pray, God adds His own miraculous ingredient. My prayers may seem feeble and flawed, but He is able to amplify them.

Like the tiny lunch of five loaves and two fish, Jesus can take something insignificant and feed a multitude. When you pray, expect Him to increase the impact. What you whisper in your closet can shake the world.

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How to Guard Your Heart from Bitterness

Recently a friend of mine hurt me deeply. I felt betrayed and disrespected. I tried to pretend the insult was no big deal, but inside I was seething. I can always tell when resentment has invaded my life because I start obsessing about the pain. When I went to bed that evening, I literally felt sore. All I could think about was retaliation.

But just before falling asleep I mouthed a prayer. I meant what I said, even though my feelings begged me to retract the words. I prayed: “Lord, help me to forgive _____.” Then, during the night I dreamed that I was enjoying a friendly conversation with this person. When I woke up, it felt as if we had really been talking!

It was a miracle. I realized the dream was God’s way of softening my heart and taking out the offense. The Lord gave me the grace to forgive.

Perhaps you’ve been insulted, overlooked, stabbed in the back or mistreated—and now bitterness is poisoning your soul. Don’t let it spread any further. You can nip your offense in the bud by following these guidelines:

1. Don’t nurse your grudge. It feels good to our flesh when we replay an offense in our minds and then fantasize about hurting the other person. But if you star in and direct this dramatic movie in your head, you are going to be making sequels for months and years until bitterness makes you sick. Pull the plug on the whole production now.

2. Let go of all revenge. C.S. Lewis said: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” No matter how a person offends you, be humble enough to recognize that you’ve probably done the same thing to someone else before. Quit sharpening your knives. You will be tempted to think about hurting the person, but remember that those knives are hurting you worse than anyone else.

3. Don’t spread your bitterness. Sometimes you may need to vent to a close friend about what happened, but this isn’t so you can ruin the reputation of the person who hurt you. If you share your pain with someone because you need advice, don’t seek sympathy or go to those who have animosity toward the person who hurt you. That’s like mixing toxic chemicals! Instead, go to mentors or friends who are mature enough to tell you the truth. You may feel mistreated, but the speck in your brother’s eye may actually be a log in yours. A true friend will tell you that you are overreacting or being unreasonable.

4. Pray for good things to happen to the person who hurt you. Jesus urged His disciples to love and pray for their persecutors (Matt. 5:44). That’s a foreign concept in this age when we unfriend people on Facebook just because they forgot to invite us to a party. Calm down, let go of your petty outrage and ask God to bless the person who offended you. Forgiving prayer will feel like a warm salve applied to your wound.

5. Reach out and expect to repair the relationship. Jesus places a high priority on reconciliation. He wants us to get along. If you are praying and you remember that someone has something against you, Jesus said, “First be reconciled to your brother” (Matt. 5:24). On the flip side, He said if someone has sinned against you, “go and reprove him” (Matt. 18:15).

In both cases Jesus commanded us to confront. And confrontation is never easy. We’d rather just avoid each other. We’d rather “bury our hatchets,” pretending that our nasty attitude is gone just because it’s well-hidden under our Sunday morning smiles. But true forgiveness is not burying a hatchet while we still hate a person inwardly; forgiveness requires us to surrender the hatchet to Jesus.

6. Ask for God’s forgiving love to fill your heart. One of my favorite preachers, Corrie ten Boom, struggled to forgive the Nazis who beat her in the Ravensbrück prison camp. After the Germans surrendered, she met a former Nazi guard in the street, and he told her he had become a Christian. He reached out his hand and asked her for forgiveness. She couldn’t look at him.

But then Corrie remembered Romans 5:5, which says, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” She realized that when we don’t have the capacity to forgive, God gives us the love. Jesus changed Corrie’s heart.

Corrie added: “God’s love is stronger than my hatred and unforgiveness. That same moment I was free. I could say, ‘Brother, give me your hand,’ and I shook hands with him, and it was as if I could feel God’s love streaming through my arms.”

Jesus didn’t promise a life without offenses. Hurt happens. But He provided the way to keep resentment from ruining our lives. As we enter this new year, make a conscious decision that you will embrace a life of miraculous forgiveness.

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6 Wrong Ways to Leave a Church

My friend “Stewart” (not his real name) is one of the friendliest pastors I know—and his wife is also an exemplary leader. But a few years ago, they began getting emails from an anonymous church member. The messages were severely critical and laced with threats. Then a small package arrived at the church. It was filled with a white powder.

Stewart called the police to be on the safe side—and the powder turned out to be yeast. The pastor and his wife learned firsthand that the ominous messages and the package came from a former member who was upset. The person’s odd behavior proved that some Christians don’t act like Christians when they decide to leave a church.

Many of my pastor friends have similar stories of people who leave churches in dramatic and inappropriate ways. They all recognize that this is one of the most serious occupational hazards of ministry. Pastors are going to feel rejected when people leave, even when God is leading those people to make an exit. But if you are directed by the Holy Spirit to leave a church, please do it the right way.

1. Don’t leave mad. If you are leaving because you are angry at the pastor or another member, you are proving your immaturity. Offense is never a reason to leave a church. Jesus told us to go to the person who offends us (Matt. 18:15). And Proverbs 19:11 says: “The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” If you break a relationship every time you are offended, you will never grow up. Even if you are called to leave a church, you should never hold a grudge. Have the courage to face your offense and disarm it.

2. Don’t leave and make threats. Some people get so angry, they want to hurt the church when they leave. They want the pastor to suffer. One man told a pastor I know that he hoped the church would go bankrupt after he stopped tithing to it. (Instead, God sent other people whose donations more than covered the lost income!) Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves.” Even if the pastor or church members are doing inappropriate things, it is not your job to punish them.

3. Don’t leave secretly. When I was a boy, my mother taught me to say: “I enjoyed my meal. May I be excused?” when I finished eating. I was not allowed to leave the table without this announcement. A similar rule applies to leaving a church. It’s rude to walk out with no explanation. Your pastor deserves to know why. You can write a letter, but it’s better to say it in person—and to include some words of thanks for the way the church has helped you in the past.

4. Don’t leave and talk about it on social media. Proverbs 6:19 says God hates the one who “sows discord among brethren.” Those are strong words! Some people actually think they are doing God’s work by badmouthing a pastor, but they are digging a ditch that they will soon fall into. Keep your judgments to yourself. Posting the details of your rant on Facebook only shows how petty and self-centered you are.

5. Don’t leave and try to take others with you. If God is calling you to switch churches, that’s fine. God will bless your transition if you do it in a healthy way. But if you try to stage a massive walkout, you are undermining God’s authority. Don’t allow the enemy to use you as an agent of division.

6. Don’t leave and stay away from church altogether. I have often heard people say they feel God is leading them to leave a church to go elsewhere. But then I find out, after three years, that “elsewhere” really meant “nowhere.” They quit church altogether! This is usually a sign of either deep disappointment or an unresolved conflict. You should never, ever give up on church. It is God’s family. No Christian should live in isolation.

Obviously there are times when we must leave a church. It happens because of job transfers, family issues, ministry preferences, driving distance and many other reasons. And some churches have unresolved problems that make them unhealthy—and God does not necessarily require us to stay there. The Holy Spirit is the one who directs us to the right congregation.

Good pastors know they cannot hold onto people in a possessive way. Healthy churches remind people that the exit door is unlocked, and that members are free to go as the Holy Spirit leads. Deuteronomy 28:6 says: “You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.” Pastors should bless people who leave—but members should leave in a respectful way that invites that blessing.

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4 Ways to Hear God’s Voice Clearly

When I was in my 20s I was praying about whether I should enroll in graduate school. Then one morning in my devotional time I came to Psalm 32:8 and it seemed to be flashing like a neon sign. It said: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go.”

The Holy Spirit was emphasizing to me that God would teach me and that I didn’t need additional schooling. That’s not to say graduate school is wrong for everyone else; it was just not God’s plan for me at that time. And God used a Scripture to clearly show me what path I should take.

The Bible promises that God will guide us. But many Christians find it difficult to hear God’s voice. And in some charismatic churches we complicate things when we try to make guidance mystical or weird—as if you have to hear an audible voice from heaven about what color shirt to wear.

Years ago I learned from author Henry Blackaby that there are four distinct ways we receive divine guidance:

1. You can hear God’s voice by reading the Bible. Friends have sometimes complained to me: “I just never hear God speaking.” Yet when I ask if they read the Bible regularly, they say they’re too busy.

God supernaturally inspired 40 authors over a period of 1,600 years to compile His love letter to us. After the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, many people were martyred because they translated it in a modern language. God went to a lot of trouble to compile the Bible. Yet today Bibles are collecting dust in the homes of people who are too busy to read God’s most direct message to Planet Earth!

When you read Scripture with a prayerful heart, God can cause a verse to jump off the page as a direct message to you. British preacher Charles Spurgeon recognized this years ago when he wrote: “When I have been in trouble, I have read the Bible until a text has seemed to stand out of the Book, and salute me, saying, ‘I was written specially for you.'” Expect God to speak directly to you from Scripture.

2. You can hear God’s voice through the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not an eerie presence that just hangs around. He lives in every born-again Christian, and He comforts us and actively speaks to us. He can do this in many ways: through dreams, visions, warnings, a sense of conviction, or—most often—through what we know as the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of the Spirit.

I have had prophetic dreams and visions over the years, but the most common way the Spirit speaks to me is through a deep sense of inward knowing. I will never forget a time in 1985 when God spoke to me while I was driving my car in Florida. A message came to me, not audibly but in my spirit: “You will move to Washington, D.C.” It seemed to come out of the blue, and I knew it did not originate with me. Four years later I was offered a job in the Washington, D.C., area and I worked there for three years.

The ability to hear the Spirit’s voice is developed over years as we grow in Christ. If you really want to hear Him, you should ask God to fill you with His Spirit. As you allow more of the Spirit’s presence and power in your life, you will set aside your selfish agendas and sinful habits so God can communicate without any hindrance.

3. You can hear God’s voice through people. God never intended for us to live in isolation. We are members of His body, the church, and you will hear God better when you are in fellowship with His people. God can speak to you through a pastor’s sermon, a friend’s wise counsel, a mother’s rebuke, a mentor’s phone call or a prophetic word given to you by one of God’s Spirit-filled servants.

God uses the gift of prophecy, but you should never chase after prophecies. I know Christians who will travel across the country to attend a prophetic conference to get a word from God, yet they have not read the Bible in months or sat still long enough to hear from God on their own. Never treat the holy gift of prophecy like fortune telling. When God needs to speak to you in an unusual way, He has faithful messengers who will deliver it to you at the exact time you need it.

4. You can hear God’s voice through circumstances. Not everything that happens to you is God’s will. But God is sovereign, and He has power over nature, over government leaders and over all the details of your life. He opens doors that no man can shut. If you have been praying about getting a job at one company, and suddenly you get an offer at a different company, this may be God’s sign that He has a better place for you to work.

My oldest daughter wanted to attend a college in Tennessee, and we were praying about her decision. Right after we prayed I got a call from the president of a college in Georgia. He was inviting me to speak at the school, but in our conversation I learned that this school was willing to offer my daughter a scholarship. She ended up enrolling in that school, meeting her future husband there and graduating four years later. God was totally involved in that phone call from Georgia!

As you begin this New Year, ask God to tune your ears to His voice in a fresh way. Guidance is not complicated when you sincerely want to hear Him speak.

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