Lay Down Your Relationships

Let’s pick up where we left off last week: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

Is Jesus always trying to separate us from friends and family? Is that what he really wants?

I don’t think you can make a rule out of this. I think the real point is: We’re always to choose Jesus first. Whatever their proximity, Jesus’ brother and sister and mother are those who choose to do God’s will (Matthew 12:50).

That said, Jesus is warning us of the division his presence, and our allegiance, may cause. We may indeed be forced to choose a side. But Jesus promises that no matter whatever, and whoever, we leave behind for his sake, we “will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

Since we’re already considering this, let’s look at it from a couple other angles:

  • Is the abundant life Jesus promises us simply a pleasant existence among a bunch of “Christian friends”? To be honest, I think that’s the way most American Christians live it out. Jesus addresses that too here. We may not have to leave our churches behind, but we’ll almost certainly need to step outside of the human comfort of them, in order to fully follow Jesus.
  • A perhaps lesser-acknowledged yet much larger fact is: We are never alone in our relationships. Jesus is always there, in our midst, whether we acknowledge him or not. To believe anything different is to cultivate the kind of relationship Jesus says we need to lay down. Conversely, the friendships where we know Jesus is ever-present, and where we put him first, are the richest friendships we will ever have. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know this to be true.

The Bible repeatedly tells us that this world is only temporary, that everything in it will pass. That doesn’t just go for the present world system and its evils, but even the people and things we love. This is a tough truth to accept. We’re being prepared for an eternity with Jesus. We must learn to love him first. Will we be reunited with those we love in heaven? One could make biblical arguments in both directions. But Jesus makes it clear that our ultimate priority must be him.

The good news behind this tough fact is that loving Jesus doesn’t obliterate our love for those here on earth—rather, it transforms it. Remember, “laying it down” is really about laying our selves down. Much of our love for others is about what we get out of the relationship. We love others, or are attracted to them, because they make us feel good, special, important, worth something. That’s not a bad thing. The problem occurs when we base our lives upon those feelings, and rely on those around us to constantly replenish those feelings. When those people or feelings fail us, we’re devastated in more ways than we’re even aware—because when that happens we also begin to feel, however vaguely, how far we’ve let ourselves drift from God.

No matter what our worth to others, we’re worth so much more to Jesus. Likewise, no matter what others are worth to us, Jesus should be worth so much more. As we learn to live out of that reality, we not only enter further into the presence of that infinitely greater love but can now truly share that love with those we love.

Yes, I’m talking very loftily here. It’s true, we seldom live in this place. But I fear that many of us have given up even trying to pursue Jesus’ love because of this—that we have found even his “easy yoke” of obedience too restraining. The fact that we have given up is the principal reason why we settle for something—or in today’s case, someone—less than Jesus.

As one of my favorite songwriters, Bill Mallonee, phrases it: “Love is just a plea / Deepest point of need / We take a reasonable facsimile, most of the time.” We desire to feel something, and Jesus just seems too far away, so we unwittingly (or bitterly) turn away from the One who’s right next to us—the One whom we’d see if we’d only truly desired him long enough to see past the troubles we’re facing right now.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him…. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:12, 16–18).

So let’s start living as “firstfruits.” Let’s begin cultivating the deepest and most satisfying relationship we can ever have—our relationship with Jesus—and allow him to transform our earthly relationships into what he desires. Let’s lay it all down, and move on to receiving his life and living it out day by day.

Lay It Down Today

Later on we’ll present an “interlude”—a retreat time you can either do on your own, or better yet, with your group. (You can find previous versions of it here, here, here, and here.) But let’s begin preparing for that today. Take a fifteen-minute mini-retreat, as soon as you’re able to do so.

For the first ten minutes: Quietly reflect on that time when you first drew close to Jesus. Whether you focus on one specific moment or that general season of your life, try to really reflect and recapture the sense of what that time was like. Who was with you (or who were you close to, at that time)? Where were you? What were some of the sights, sounds, and smells you associate with that time? What were you thinking and feeling? Replay all of it in your mind and heart.

Then: Take another five minutes to quietly reflect on where you are right now in your relationship with Jesus. Where you are in comparison to those first days, and why?

Finally, think about Jesus coming alongside you right now. What’s different from before? What’s better? What do you miss from that first time you drew close to Jesus?

Close by thanking Jesus for the brief time you’ve spent with him, and how your relationship with him has grown over the years. Ask him also to begin preparing you for the longer time you’ll be spending with him in a couple weeks. Also, if there are places where you feel you’ve “lost your first love,” ask Jesus to restore and rekindle your heart toward him.

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Devotions on F.I.R.E.

I’ve worked on several of Ken’s books of commentaries, and with this one he brings his inductive F.I.R.E. format to a year-long devotional form. Enjoy. . . .

front cover of Devotions on F.I.R.E. by Dr. Ken J. Burge Sr.Ken Burge. Devotions on F.I.R.E. 384p., $14.99, Deep River Books.

Readers of Devotions on F.I.R.E. will journey through the complete Bible in one year by reading assigned daily Scriptures from both the Old and New Testaments. Each day also includes a short devotion based on Dr. Ken Burge’s F.I.R.E. method of Bible study. F.I.R.E. stands for:

Familiarity. Learn to ask probing questions and become acquainted with each passage.

Interpretation. Determine the intended meaning of the text.

Relationship. Consider the passage within its context of the book and beyond, to the whole Scripture.

Employment. Consider how God can employ you to do His will through your new understanding of the text.

The F.I.R.E. method and the daily devotions will help readers remember and apply what they read as they fuel the fire in their hearts for God’s Word.

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Lay Down Your Possessions    

Now the rubber starts hitting the road even more violently. Not that it’s been easy at all to deal with all this internal stuff so far, but let’s face it: At some point, all that inner conviction has to begin manifesting itself as outward fruit. As Jesus’ half-brother James said, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17). Or, even more pointedly:

[B]ehold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16–22).

It’s easy to distance ourselves from this story. After all, we’re part of “the 99 percent,” right? We’re not really rich. Many of us have trouble meeting our bills on a day-to-day basis.

But consider this: The money you spend on a book (like this one) is more than the daily income of more than a third of the world’s population. Still feel like a 99-percenter?

Ultimately, it’s not about what we have or don’t have. We can be rich and hold our riches loosely. Likewise, one can be genuinely poor and still greedy. It’s all about our incessant need to have. Are we willing to put everything we have at Jesus’ disposal—or, if called upon like the rich young ruler, dispose of it altogether—in order to follow him the way he calls us to?

I think we know the answer, if we’re honest. In fact, I think the real “one-percenters” are those who can answer “yes” to that last question—and mean it.

And yet, Jesus calls every one of us to lay down our possessions—or more specifically, our possessing. As Americans, we are all too accustomed to spending beyond our means. As Christians, we are called to give beyond our means (2 Corinthians 8:3). What do we hang on to more than Jesus—and for that matter, what do we consider to be more important than the people he puts in front of us to serve? Whatever that is, it’s time to release our grips on those things.

Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:27–29).

We do not serve a God of either/or, but a God of both/and—if we’re willing to surrender all of our tiny little kingdoms and properties and belongings to him. God must rule over the things he’s given us, and be the one who determines how they’re used. As John Piper says in Desiring God, “It is better to love than to live in luxury!” Are we willing to put that to the test?

Lay It Down Today

I can’t tell you what to do here. But if you’re honest with yourself and willing to let God address this, you’re going to come up with things to lay down in a hurry. So that’s your assignment. Spend time together, just you and God. Ask him to point out those things that you’ve let possess you. Scream and cry about having to let them go, if you must, but resolve to follow Jesus, no matter what the temporary cost. Trust that he will provide what you truly need. And remember: He may not be providing it only for you.

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New Growth Press minibooks

I’ve worked on (and still am working on) too many of these to list out here, but trust me, there’s probably a minibook for any counseling situation you or someone you know is facing. And you’ll likely recognize some of the authors (Paul David Tripp, David Powlison, Ed Welch, etc.) and organizations involved (CCEF, Joni and Friends, etc.). So dig in and find out what works for you. . . .


Various authors. New Growth Press minibooks. Usually 24p., $4.99 or less apiece (5-packs, full displays, and subscriptions also available), New Growth Press.

These minibook titles address a wide range of everyday issues like marriage, parenting, mental health, and much more. Each minibook is small enough for the average reader to finish in less than thirty minutes and filled with the practical Gospel-centered counsel that pastors, counselors, and believers around the world have come to trust. Minibook displays are frequently used by churches, counseling ministries, and ministry organizations to quickly provide counsel that meets people where they are.

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Lay Down Your Reputation

I was recently walking around a wildlife area of Colorado where informative plaques abounded. One plaque in particular caught my eye, highlighting the families who’d formerly owned ranches in this area in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. It got me thinking about all the different ways we come up with to “historically” immortalize ordinary people after they’re gone (and by “ordinary,” I mean people we wouldn’t give a second thought to if they were standing in front of us, because they’d be roughly as accomplished or smart or likable as us). But because they’re no longer with us, we’ve found ways to keep them alive—resurrect the memory of them, if you will.

I think, at least on some unconscious level, we do it because we inwardly recognize our own desire to keep ourselves alive a little longer, beyond our own time on earth. We believe, or at least hope, that people will remember us after we’re gone. We want our lives to have mattered to someone, to have been significant in some way. Far too many of us among the living don’t feel that. You might be feeling that right now.

This is also apparent in the reputations we try to keep—whether it’s a good name, or at least in a name bad enough that people will remember it. We want to be loved or respected or at least feared, even if it’s only really a persona with our name on it rather something that represents who we really are. Eventually, if we’re not careful, those reputations will own us, rather than the reverse.

I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that God calls us to lay down our reputations. Not because we need to grovel before God and make sure he’s higher than us, but because manufacturing a false reputation—or even an accurate one—is a way of securing and encasing ourselves in a human love that, even when genuine, is less than God’s love for us. Thomas Merton once described this as “winding experiences around myself . . . like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.”

As soon as we begin to rest in our own accomplishments and others’ perceptions of them, we drift away from the Spirit. Spend some time with almost any long-established church or denomination if you need further proof of this.

We try to play this game with God, too. We not only want to be remembered by God, but have the audacity to think we deserve to be rewarded for the good things we’ve done. Yes, Scripture says that God rewards the faithful. The problem comes when we put the focus on doing good—and making very sure others, including God, know it (as if he didn’t)—rather than seeking our joy in what is good. When we seek to be recognized for our good behavior, Jesus says, we already have our reward (see Matthew 6:1–16), and shouldn’t expect anything more than the massaged egos we already have. The apostle Paul got this, too:

In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:6–11)

Anything we’ve done apart from God is . . . apart from God. To lay down your reputation is to experience the life of Christ (turn one chapter earlier to Philippians 2 for a fuller illustration). So lay it down, and let Christ be the one to raise you back up.

Lay It Down Today

What are the “plaques” in your life, whether they’re physical or not? What do you point to as evidence of your own goodness or righteousness? Put another way, what do you find yourself defending other than God—perhaps even in the midst of “defending God”?

A. W. Tozer, in his “Five Vows for Spiritual Power,” said, “We’re all born with a desire to defend ourselves. And if you insist upon defending yourself, God will let you do it. But if you turn the defense of yourself over to God He will defend you. . . . For 30 years now it has been a source of untold blessing to my life. I don’t have to fight. The Lord does the fighting for me. And He’ll do the same for you. He will be an enemy to your enemy and an adversary to your adversary, and you’ll never need to defend yourself.”

Where do you need to lay down your reputation? Submit that to God in prayer right now. Resolve not to defend yourself, but to allow God to be your defender. Then, get up from your prayer and start walking it out.

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The Gospel of John in Modern Interpretation

Another one for all you commentary lovers out there. . . .

Stanley E. Porter & Ron C. Fay, eds. The Gospel of John in Modern Interpretation. 256p., $25.99, Kregel Academic.

The Gospel of John in Modern Interpretation provides a unique look at the lives and work of eight interpreters who have significantly influenced Johannine studies over the last two centuries. The chapters contain short biographical sketches of the scholars that illuminate their personal and academic lives, followed by summaries and evaluations of their major works, and concluding with an analysis of the ongoing relevance of their work in contemporary Johannine scholarship.

Key thinkers surveyed include C. H. Dodd, Rudolph Bultmann, Raymond Brown, Leon Morris, and R. Alan Culpepper. An introduction and conclusion by general editors Stanley Porter and Ron Fay trace the development of Johannine scholarship from F. C. Baur to the present, and examine how these eight scholars’ contributions to Johannine studies have shaped the field. Anyone interested in the recent history of the study of John will find this volume indispensable.

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Lay Down Your Strength

Our strength—or rather, our reliance upon it—is still pride. Therefore, it must be broken. Watchman Nee, in his book Changed into His Likeness, put it this way, “The characteristic of those who truly know God is that they have no faith in their own competence, no reliance upon themselves.” It’s when we reach this point that we’re finally and truly useful to God.

Even much of the strength we think we have comes from our need to compare ourselves to others. We may be correct in thinking we’re much more gifted than others in a certain area or areas. But what’s that in comparison to God? Before him, even our strength is weakness. Until we’re willing to acknowledge this, even what little strength we have is useless to him.

Studying the life of Abraham may be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in terms of understanding God’s work in our lives. Over and over, you see this cycle:

a) God calls Abraham.
b) Abraham tries to do things his own way, and fails miserably.
c) Abraham finally “gets it,” relents, and allows God to accomplish his will in his way, and with his timing.
d) Abraham himself begins to truly reflect God’s will.
e) God brings Abraham to a new level—and a new test. Repeat steps b.–e.

In the end, Abraham gets where God wants him, but in God’s way and God’s way only. Abraham was an ordinary man with an extraordinary God. Let’s break down this cycle even further, using the best-known example from Abraham’s life:

a) God promises Abraham a son (Genesis 15).
b) God doesn’t appear to be doing anything, so Sarah pushes Abraham to take matters into his own hands. “Here, sleep with my servant Hagar; we’ll have a son that way.” The result: A ton of family contentiousness (Genesis 16)—as well as millennia of religious contentiousness, via the birth of Ishmael, the forefather of Islam.
c) God waits thirteen years—until Ishmael’s reached adulthood and neither Abraham nor Sarah have the human ability to bear any more children—and repeats his promise to Abraham (Genesis 17–18).
d) Oh, and first Abraham also has to pray for an entire kingdom’s worth of barren women, because he hadn’t managed to break that nasty habit of calling Sarah his sister whenever another king was around—yet another trust issue for Abraham. Imagine how it must have felt to pray for the barrenness of those women, in light of the years of waiting Abraham’s already had. But he does. And then, God delivers on his promise (Genesis 20:17–21:1).
e) Years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—the very same son God had promised, and given. But now, Abraham doesn’t flinch. God spares Isaac, and makes a great nation of him and his offspring (Genesis 22).

We often want to do God’s work, but nearly as often we don’t want to do it God’s way. We rationalize why we shouldn’t wait, or why some other way would be so much more “sensible” or “efficient.” But unless what we do starts with God, it’s worth nothing. We must not will to do, but will to receive—and then share what God gives us.

When we lay down our strength, we give God permission to exercise his strength. We give birth to Isaacs instead of Ishmaels. We grow fruit that lasts, not dead branches to be burned. God does something so much greater than we ever could have imagined that we have no choice but to praise him—and rejoice in our weakness that gave him the opportunity to work.

When you look at the results instead of the circumstances, what’s really the easier and more rewarding route—to give birth to an Ishmael or to an Isaac? Think about it.

Lay It Down Today

If you’re a reader—and since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are—spend some time in Genesis 15–22 (or at least Genesis 15:1–6, 16:1–6, 20:1–7, and 20:14–21:3). Don’t try to analyze it; just read about this part of Abraham’s life, and let God do the talking. Even if you don’t read through the Genesis passages, think and pray through these questions:

  • What right now has you wondering, “Why hasn’t this happened yet?” If your impatience were to get the better of you, what would you try to do on your own strength? What would your Ishmael look like?
  • What small successes and evidences of God’s presence in your life can you focus on instead, as you wait for “this” to happen?
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