When Is it Time to Move On?

Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7).

At some point our relentless commitment to a goal can become a stubborn refusal to be led by the Spirit. Sometimes faith shows itself in the readiness to adapt and course-correct. Sometimes faith shows itself in perseverance and tenacity.

Paul arrived in the city of Corinth with a plan. He would begin telling the Jesus story in the place he knew best – the synagogue. Acts 18 tells us that “every Sabbath” he reasoned in the synagogue “trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” John Stott observes that the tense of the verb suggests that Paul did this repeatedly and persistently.

But resistance was strong. Eventually the resistance devolved into outright opposition. The folks at the synagogue stopped arguing and reasoning with Paul and became abusive. At this point Paul said “enough.” He “shook out his clothes in protest” and told them “your blood be on your own heads. I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6).

In other words, as far as the synagogue crowd was concerned, Paul had done all he knew to do. He had patiently presented Jesus and challenged them with his arguments that Jesus was their Messiah. But they were having none of it and after a while Paul was having nothing to do with them. They’d had their chance. Now on to the Gentiles.

Pushing the Plan

At what point do you stop pushing the plan? In our culture it’s an admirable thing to be committed to a task and to not be easily discouraged. Remember the movie Rudy? Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger had a dream of playing for Notre Dame and nothing could knock it out of him. Have you heard how John Grisham’s first novel was rejected by more than 30 publishers?

Ruettiger and Grisham didn’t quit. They didn’t stop after two or three polite “no thank-yous.” But at some point it seems that you just have to come clean with yourself and with God and step back and say “this just isn’t happening.” To borrow the language of Acts 18, you “shake out your clothes.”

Sometimes we are right to push the plan in ways that are aggressive and driven. We act with courage and conviction. All the while we’re doing this prayerfully, looking to God for the strength we need to do what we know God has called us to do. The resistance we encounter is nothing more than God’s way of testing us and in so doing making us stronger.

Sometimes, however, we push the plan quietly. We take to heart the frequent biblical admonitions to “wait upon the Lord.” We preach to ourselves a familiar sugar-stick sermon, remembering that our timing is not God’s timing. We resolve to wait on God to act, taking as our model Abraham and other giants of the faith who persevered in hope. We wait and wait and wait.

No Magic Eight-Ball

This is not a theoretical question. It is real and painful for many today: for applicants seeking a job, for couples trying to conceive, for patients going for yet one more round of chemo, for single people who always planned to be married, for students whose career plans depend on acceptance to a school.

There’s no formula that answers this. There’s no magic eight-ball to shake that will tell you to “hang on a little longer” or “hang it up now.” When Jesus taught us to pray, he gave the words “thy will be done.” He did not teach us to pray “thy will be known.” Maybe the best answer is nothing more than prayer – prayers for what we want; prayers for guidance and wisdom; prayers for all the usual standard requests. But we also need to pray as Jesus taught us to pray. And then we trust God to do what God wills to do.

What plan are you pushing today? What would it mean to “shake out your clothes” and move on? What would it look like to faithfully lean in as God leads on?


Grant us wisdom, O God, to live in the center of your will rather than forcing our own plans and exerting our own will. Give us strength to persevere and courage to let go. We trust you today, praying as Jesus taught us for the doing of your will and the coming of your kingdom, asking all these things in his name. Amen.

In Case You’ve Forgotten . . .

Do not be afraid . . . for I am with you (Acts 18:9-10).

“People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.”

I have those words written in a small notebook, attributed to Samuel Johnson (1709-84). Whoever said it, our life experience bears it out. Sometimes we simply need to be told what we already know. We don’t need to discover a new truth. We just need to be deeply convinced of the truths we already cherish. So it was with Paul when he came to Corinth

By Way of Reminder

By the time Corinth came up on the itinerary, Paul’s resume was thick. He had an impressive testimony, complete with blinding light accompanied by the voice of Jesus and temporary blindness. That’s hard to beat.

As far as his ministry was concerned he was seasoned and tested. In Paphos Paul had cast out a demon. In Iconium he had worked miraculous signs and wonders. In Lystra Paul had healed a lame man and in that same city Paul had been beaten with rocks, dragged outside the city and left for dead.

His mind was sharp and his theological arguments tightly honed. In Jerusalem Paul had gone head to head with Jewish disciples and insisted on the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community. In Athens he had stood boldly in the Areopagus and presented Jesus to would-be philosophers, scoffers and skeptics and intellectual snobs. Many dismissed him, but some of them had come to faith in Christ.

Well-traveled, Paul arrived in Corinth with scars on his flesh and weariness in his bones. He came with tools in his pack and a burden on his heart. Reasoning in the synagogue was nothing new to him. Being rejected there was also nothing new. And making converts of Gentiles, again he had done that too.

Paul had seen it all before. But there was a moment when he needed to be reminded. He needed to be told what he already knew. And so God granted a vision to Paul, and Jesus spoke this message:

 “Don’t be afraid. Keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you . . .” 

This Bears Repeating

Sometimes we need to be told what we already know. Maybe we’ve heard it a thousand times before. We need to hear it again. We need to be reminded.

There are times when our courage wanes. God shrinks as our fears and problems grow. Faith withers as our doubts put down deep roots. At such times we need to be told again. We need reminding. God is present. God can be trusted. God is actively involved in the place where you are and the life you’re living right now.

Even Paul, the mighty missionary apostle, needed such reminding. He needed to be told what he already knew. He needed fresh courage to keep on going. He needed a fresh awareness of the presence of Jesus. Perhaps you need the same thing today.

These words are offered to you as nothing more than a reminder. Bear with me while I tell you what you already know. You are not alone. Take heart and don’t be afraid. Jesus stands with you. Jesus left his followers with his presence and his power. Both are yours today.


By the work of your Spirit, O God, remind us today of what we know to be true: that you are with us; that you are at work in our lives and in the world around us. Give us courage to be your people, people sent into the world as a living reminder to others. Use us today to speak what others need to hear – the good news of your presence and love, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blame Less

He will also strengthen you to the end so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8 NRSV).

When something goes wrong it is often said that there’s plenty of blame to go around. True enough. And most of us are pretty good at knowing exactly where it should go, who gets it and how much.

Two questions might be worth pondering and praying over today.

First, what is it in your life that isn’t working according to plan?

Second, are you blaming someone for that?

Blame Masks Pride

Sometimes we take the high road by answering that we blame no one but ourselves. That sounds noble, but it’s not always healthy. Blame is still blame, even when you aim it at yourself. Blaming the self is no less violent than blaming another.

When aimed at others, blame is a form of self-defense, a way of distancing oneself from a problem. Blame avoids personal responsibility, shifting the focus to someone or something else. Blame often masks pride, reflecting an inflated regard for “me” and a disregard for “you.”

One of the most remarkable features of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is his refusal to place blame. He would have been entirely justified in doing so. He had invested a year and a half of his life in establishing a community of Jesus followers in that city, only to learn shortly thereafter that the church was falling apart. They were morally off the rails, doctrinally confused, and relationally fractured.

Placing blame on the Corinthians would have been so easy for Paul to do. They were in a mess and all of that had come about in Paul’s absence. Time for heads to roll. But Paul doesn’t do that. Instead, he begins his letter by doing the very opposite. The opening lines of his letter reflect a genuine affection for the Corinthian church. He’ll soon take up the pastoral work of correcting and rebuking, both of which have their place alongside care and compassion. But that’s not how he begins.

Don’t miss Paul’s language here. Paul calls the Corinthians “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” He insists that they “lack no spiritual gift.” He maintains that they have been “enriched in every way.” He sees a time when they will stand before God “blameless.” The ESV translation uses the word “guiltless.”

Refuse to Accuse

Why does Paul talk this way? Here’s why. Before getting all worked up over what the Corinthians have done, Paul rehearses what Jesus has done among the Corinthians.

In Jesus Christ the Corinthians (and all believers) are indeed relieved of guilt. In Jesus the Corinthians are blessed, not blamed – and Paul will not presume to do what Jesus has not done. Paul is not in denial. Paul knows all too well that there are problems in Corinth, and he’ll confront them head-on soon enough. But what matters most is what God has done in Jesus Christ. Because of this, and only because of this, Paul withholds accusation and blame.

The moment you begin to see others as blameless is the moment you become a person who blames less.

Seeing Others as Blameless

Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn (John 3:17). God didn’t send his son to assign blame for the wrecked condition of the world. Why are we so quick to do what Jesus never did and never meant for us to do, even if we do it in his name?

For today, make it your aim to blame less. Sure, there will be a judgment, but that’s not something you’ve been invited to help out with. God will handle that when it’s time. What we need to know is that the people who make you miserable, who did you wrong and might have done you in, are people who may one day stand with you before Jesus blameless. See them blameless, maybe you’ll blame less.

When was the last time you blamed or received blame for something? Is there someone in your life whom you need to stop blaming?


We give you thanks, Lord Jesus, that your work among us was not a mission of assigning blame. We give you thanks for the grace that exposes our sin and then cleanses us from it. We thank you for the way you make us a new creation. Knowing that we are blameless in you, we ask for the grace to blame less and to love more, just as you called and commanded us to do. Amen.

Finding Your Way Back

The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came . . . and anoint Elisha. . . ” (1 Kings 19:15).

Years ago when my daughter was (much) younger, she lost her jacket at church one Wednesday night. It just disappeared, grew legs and walked off. We searched for a while, but our efforts were futile. It had been a long day. We were both tired and it was time to go home.

“Maybe it’ll turn up, Anna.” That’s what I said out loud to her. Inside my head I was thinking, “We’ll never see that jacket again.” Even so, I knew I’d be back the next day and I’d look again.

On Thursday morning I did what you always do when you’ve lost something. I tried to retrace her steps. The story has a simple but happy ending. I walked up the room where she had hand-bells and there it was. It hadn’t been hard to find. It was simply a matter of going back to where she had been.

A Tale of Two Mountains

“Go back the way you came.” This was God’s word to Elijah (1 Kings 19:15). Sometimes God says the same thing to us.

To follow the story of Elijah is to travel a route between two mountains. Mount Carmel is the place where fire fell from heaven. In that place God’s power and presence were unmistakably real. Elijah prayed and God answered. Nothing puts steel in our faith like a clear and prompt answer to prayer. But the courage of Carmel was short lived. Jezebel’s defiant threats against Elijah sent God’s powerful spokesman into a tailspin. Soon we find Elijah hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb, the mountain to which he had fled in his fear and despair. A cave is a great hiding place, but it makes a lousy home. The good news is that the story of Elijah does not end on Mount Horeb.

There was still more for Elijah to do. God had not finished with him, but God’s purposes for Elijah couldn’t be fulfilled in a cave. Elijah would have to crawl out of the hole he had found in which to stoke his anxieties and self-pity. He would have to retrace his steps and find his calling once again.

“Go back the way you came.”

Never too Late to Start

That sounds simple, but for many nothing could be harder. For one thing the steps that led you to where you are today might have been very painful. Those were steps you never intended to take to begin with, and going back and revisiting those steps may be the last thing you want to do.

But as hard as it might be, the promise that gives strength for the journey is that you can find your way back. The cave is not the end of your story. You can find your way back to a place of usefulness and purpose. You can find your way back to a clear direction. Elijah made his way back through to the place where he found Elisha, the one who would carry on what Elijah had started.

What would it mean for you to “Go back the way you came?” Do you recall where you were or what you were doing when you lost sight of the person God created you to be? What steps do you need to retrace and what might you find once you do that?

You can find your way back. It’s never too late to start.


Gracious God, let every step we take today be taken with you. If there are steps that need to be retraced, make us bold to walk that way that we might once again discover who you’ve called us to be and what you’ve called us to do in this world. In all that we do, we pray that you would make our steps firm and keep faithful as we seek to walk as Jesus walked. We pray this in his name. Amen.

Rethinking that ‘Still Small Voice’

And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it he pulled his cloak over his face . . . (1 Kings 19:13).

A still small voice. That sounds nice doesn’t it?

Soothing. God’s voice caressing us, lulling us into a peaceful state of mind. Who wouldn’t want to hear such a voice? Who wouldn’t want to hear from God with such clarity? Let’s not be too quick to answer. Perhaps it’s time for a reality check. That voice that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb – maybe we’ve got it all wrong.

Our Bible translations don’t help us much here. We are told that on Mount Horeb Elijah heard a “still small voice.” That’s the King James Version, the familiar and time-tested phrase that captures the nature of the divine utterance. The “still” and the “small” stand in stark contrast to the bluster of wind and fire and earthquake, all of which were void of God’s voice and presence.

Translators seem to struggle for words that adequately describe what Elijah heard, the way holiness sounds when it speaks. One English version takes the “still small voice” and makes it a “gentle whisper” (NIV). Another translation says that it was “the sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). The New English Bible says that Elijah heard a “low murmuring sound” while the Jerusalem Bible calls it “the sound of a gentle breeze.”

Whatever this voice was – breeze, whisper, sheer silence – it caused Elijah to hide his face. That’s not the behavior of one soothed and lulled. That’s the action of one awed, convicted, fearful.

The Dreadfulness of God

I recall being outdoors on a construction site in the middle of an Oklahoma August. From time to time a gentle breeze would disturb the shade-less heat. Such a moment is a gift in southern Oklahoma, and the natural response is to lift your face, to catch as much of it as you can for as long as it lasts. That’s not what Elijah did. He covered his face when God spoke. The voice may have indeed been a whispering voice, breeze-like in tone and volume, but it evoked something deep in Elijah. It made him hide his face.

Mark Buchanan rightly states that

There is a dreadfulness about God. This is seldom said. We often cherish a pious delusion about ourselves: that we truly desire God and that all that’s lacking to pursue deepest intimacy with Him is adequate skill, sufficient knowledge, proper motivation. But is this so? Down in our bones, mingled with our blood, silent and potent as instinct, is a dread of God. This is primal fear. The voice of God, the presence of God, holds not comfort but terror. (Your God is Too Safe, 22-23).

Long before whispering to Elijah, God held another mountain top conversation with Moses. When Moses came down from the mountain the Israelites kept their distance from him. They told him, “speak to us yourself and we will listen, but do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Exodus 20:18-19). The voice of God would be too much.

Care and Courage

So back to the “still small voice.” Two things are required of us if we seriously want to hear it: Be careful and be courageous.

Be careful in your listening: This voice is not easily heard and it will not be found in the loud and obvious blustering of our culture or even of our churches. Loud and showy religion is one of Satan’s closest allies in keeping people deaf to God. Be careful in your listening.

And be courageous: When God speaks you may be undone. As the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). The voice of God could change your life. It could change your plans. If you’re trying to hear God speak be sure you’re ready for what that might mean for your life. God’s words are never given to us as a mere lullaby.

What is truly amazing is that God wills to speak to us. The real question, as always, is whether we are willing to listen.


We will not take your voice lightly, O God. Help us to listen carefully, discerning your words and your will in the middle of our busy and noisy lives. And make us bold as we listen for what the Spirit says, ready to be changed and ready to respond in obedience as we follow your Son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.


Lightweight Deity

Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done . . . Elijah was afraid and ran for his life (1 Kings 19:1-5).

I look up to my son.

By that I do not mean that I respect or admire him or think he’s a great kid (which I do). I mean he’s a good six inches taller than I am. I’m literally looking up to him, puzzled as to how our five-foot-something parentage produced his lanky frame.

Trust me, it hasn’t been this way for very long. Not many years ago we were waiting on a growth spurt. I often made use of biblical language in assuring my son that he’d shoot up any day – “like a thief I the night . . . you do not know the day or the hour.” Such reassurances were hollow. He started high school looking much the same as he had looked in middle school.

These years were also the wrestling years, a sport that didn’t necessarily equate size with skill. Weight concerns, however, were a big deal for all wrestlers. I recall being surprised when my son announced that he needed to skip a meal before a wrestling meet. He explained that he was only a half-pound shy of having to move up to the next weight class and he didn’t want to do that.

Weight classes make sense in wrestling. They keep things fair and they keep things safe. Whereas I would typically encourage John to eat whatever he wanted, I wasn’t sure I wanted him in the next weight class. It meant bigger opponents. In theory he’d be bigger too – but it didn’t look that way to me.

Strength and size are important in wrestling. And they also matter in our walk with God.

Fire from Heaven

On Mount Carmel it was clear that Elijah served a heavyweight God. The prophet had called for a contest between himself and the prophets of the fertility god Baal. Elijah had gone to the mat on this one, challenging the people. “How long will you waver between two opinions. If the Lord is God follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

Short version of the story: Baal was pinned in seconds by Elijah’s God. Baal had nothing to offer in response to the loud and frantic prayers of his prophets, more than four hundred of them pleading hour after hour for a show of strength. Their prayers met with Elijah’s taunts and silent skies.

Then Elijah prayed. A short request, simple and clear in its purpose: send fire so that all may know that you, O Lord, are God (1 Kings 18:37-38). And fire fell from heaven.

The shocking thing about this story is its aftermath. Having defeated Baal’s prophets, Elijah is a wanted man, hunted by Queen Jezebel. In the face of her threats, God suddenly became small, a lightweight deity. The pagan Queen became large, a heavyweight ruler. Fear gripped Elijah’s heart and he ran for his life.

Tailspin of Anxiety

How is it that God so easily and often becomes small in our eyes?

Elijah’s name means “The Lord is God.” We say we believe it. But the slightest opposition from some pretender to power in our lives can send us into a tailspin of anxiety. Our God is suddenly shrunken and weak – and something else stands large and powerful in our minds and claims lordship over our hearts.

The person making hiring decisions becomes strong and powerful against our lightweight deity. The stock market and drama of Wall Street looms large as God pales in the background, swallowed up in the noise of trading. A supervisor becomes the heavyweight, far too much for our scrawny God. God gets small, even when we know better, even when we’ve lived through something where we’ve seen fire fall from heaven.

In 1961 J. B. Phillips wrote a book titled “Your God is too Small.” If such a thing could be written in 1961, how much more so in 2016? Take a look at your life today: the challenges you’re up against, the questions that remain unanswered, the pressures that won’t let up. What weight class have you placed God in? And what would it take for God to once again become a heavyweight deity – Powerful, Sovereign, Creator God.


Forgive us for seeing you as small, O God, while other things stand large and formidable in our minds and in our hearts. We would recover our sense of your power today, living with the strength that comes from serving a great and mighty God who is at the same time faithful in caring for us. Grant us courage for all that we face, and give us an unshakable sense of your presence with us, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.