overwhelmed

There are days that are downright hard, ugly, and overwhelming.  Sometimes there are seasons of life when all I see is what overwhelms me most.

There are so many things that can overwhelm us that leave us feeling like we are sinking and can barely breath.  Many of things that overwhelm can begin as good things, but become hard and ugly like a struggling marriage, a wayward child, a strained relationship, or a load of expectations or responsibilities from work or home.

Do you ever have days or seasons like that?  Do you sometime have a difficulty seeing the good in grim situations?  Do you dread the idea that God sometimes places you in really hard places or situations to help you to realize just how desperate you are and how delightful He is?

Today I will look into the heart of a man who is overwhelmed.  He is overwhelmed in a unique way.  Yet he has the help of a good friend with new eyes to help him see the good in the overwhelming.

Paul is the friend who wrote two personal letters to Timothy; a young man.  Timothy was a leader in the church at Ephesus, which Paul planted a decade earlier.  He wasn’t passionate and radical like Paul, rather he was timid and tender.  Paul, as a spiritual father and mentor, writes Timothy a critical juncture to encourage him through heavy challenges he was facing because certain persons were taking cracks at his youthfulness and in the same breath undermining the doctrine of Christ.  Timothy was overwhelmed.

What Paul models for Timothy is that while ministry is difficult and problems with people are real and overwhelming, it is possible to be overwhelmed by the realities of God’s promises and see His purposes in all situations.  Paul helps us to see an alternative in a biblical pattern toward becoming overwhelmed by God, even when my day or season in life is hard or ugly or overwhelming.

1.  OVERWHELMED WITH THANKS (vs.12-14)

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.  But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Thankfulness is where becoming overwhelmed with God begins.  As we look under the lid of Paul’s heart we see a man overwhelmed with thanks.  He cannot help but thank God.  He saw the deep crimson stains of his sin, yet saw the grace of God being deeper still.

Before Jesus, Paul was a religious terrorist.  He was the Jewish equivalent to ISIS.  He was radically devoted to his religious system and aimed to stop anyone who differed or threaten it.  When God intersected with Paul on the Damascus Road (see Acts 9), God miraculously altered Paul’s faith and future.  Only God could have altered Paul’s route.

Do you remember who were you before Jesus?  Similar to Paul, you could say, “Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent—though formerly I was an enemy of God, doubter, skeptic, agnostic, cheater, liar, thief, addict, adulterer, womanizer, slanderer, sloth, fool—But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Aren’t you grateful for that “but”?  That little conjunction brings hope in the most hopeless situation.

Paul reflects on his unglamorous past and what the glorious gospel has made him to be.  The gospel takes him back, like when you’re driving in the car and “your song” comes on the radio taking you back to a certain time and place.  Thinking of the gospel had that affect on Paul.  He is so thankful.  Does it have that affect on you?

‘Thank you’ is one of the highest forms of praise.  When someone says, “I am thankful for you,” it can be one of the most precious and powerful things said.   When is the last time you said those words to God?

My first year of life in North Africa was the hardest.  I had created a list.  Not a written list, but a mental list of all the things I was unthankful for; all the things that overwhelmed me most.  This is the part of the message that you should not take home nor replicate, but I want you to see under the hood of my heart because maybe you can relate.

My Unthankful List:  It’s hot (again).  I have heat rash (again).  I am so tired and exhausted.  Someone is knocking at the gate and it’s 5:00am?  I feel so used.  Do people only come to visit to get ice, charge their cellphones, and ask for ride to the next town?  If another person comes to visit and I am expected to be hospitable, I think I will snap.  Are those boys throwing rocks at the tin roof again?  The man who I thought was really interested in hearing about my faith is now forcing his faith on me.  I cannot understand the language or be understood.  They are laughing at me (again).  I am trying so hard.  Today my chores took me all day and I’m still not finished.  Why am I here?  I am sick again.  This has to be my 43 day in a row with diarrhea.  Sophia has lost a quarter of her body weight is she going to be okay?  What I wouldn’t give to have a burrito right now.  I am so fellowship starved.  What I wouldn’t give to be in a church right now surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  I feel like my faith is mimicking this dry thirsty land.

Maybe you can relate.  Although we might live in different places, we are still so easily overwhelmed.

That was until a friend recommended that I go take a walk and pray.  So I did.  I began prayer walks a few times a week.  It took a few walks to stop thinking about all that overwhelmed me and to see what God was doing in me.  Out of these walks came a new list.  A list that I wrote down.  A list that I am proud to share and recommend that you would take home and replicate.

My Thankful List:  I am not alone.  God, you have surrounded me with a family, a team, and a cloud of witnesses.  I am seeing You answer prayers from the front lines.  God, you are providing for all my daily needs (again and again).  When I am tired You are my strength.  You are my protection.  You have helped me make new Chadian friends; many who are hearing the good news for the very first time.  Little by little You help me to communicate (and laugh at myself) and be hospitable.  People are knocking on my gate to visit me. You are giving me a love for those I’ve had a hard time loving.  God you are changing things.  You are changing me!  Thank you!!

A thankful heart is the remedy to one overwhelmed by a myriad of things towards becoming overwhelmed by God.  Thankfulness helps us to see hard and ugly situation through new eyes.  Ask God for a thankful spirit.

2.  OVERWHELMED BY SALVATION (v.15)

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

Paul is overwhelmed by his salvation.  He is overwhelmed that God would redeem a sinner like him.  He knew who he was and would be without Jesus. Paul had the right scale on which to measure himself.  Often I don’t.  More often I compared myself with another person thinking I look pretty good in comparison, but compared to Jesus there is no comparison.

This realization can change your life—I am the worst sinner I know.  Like Paul, I am Public Sinner Number One.  I am the worst sinner I know because only God and I know the depth of my sin.  But thanks be to God that he stepped into my shoes, lived sinlessly, died in my place to clear my debt, championed the grave, all so that God could save me from God’s wrath and my own destruction.

The next time you find yourself thinking, “I’m not that bad!  I teach Sunday School.  I listen to Christian radio.”  Remind yourself just how bad you are by looking at the cross.  Remember the price paid for your sin.  Remember the red blood shed for your sin.  Remember how ugly and horrible cross of Jesus was. That’s how ugly your sin is.  Doesn’t that overwhelm you in a good way?  You got to see your utter depravity before you can see Jesus’ glory.

John Newton was a captain of slave ships for the British Royal Navy and in his own words said he was a ruthless businessman and unfeeling observer.  Despite a regrettable past God intersected with him en route and saved him.  Like Paul, as he looked back on his past he said, “I am a great sinner but Christ is a great Savior.” Later he wrote a song which we sing still today, “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound), That sav’d a wretch like me!”  Many would say that is “my song.”

Verse 15 is a beautiful missions verse, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  That is the gospel in a nutshell.  That alone gives me the motivation to wake up everyday and share Jesus with others because if it weren’t for Jesus I would not love my neighbor or stay in Africa.  That alone is enough motivation for you to do the same wherever God has placed you, even if it is hard and ugly.  That is a verse to rehearse to yourself everyday.

Why evangelize those around you?  Why go to the ends of the earth?  If God can save Paul.  He can save anyone.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  He can save your boss, your father, your child, your crazy uncle, your annoying neighbor, the abuser, the prostitute, the terrorist, even you.  It happens when God gives faith to a person to believe that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

To be overwhelmed by God is to be overwhelmed that God would save a sinner like you.  Or that God would even use a sinner like you, which leads us to the next thing.

3.  OVERWHELMED BY MERCY (v.16)

But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.

Have you ever heard the words, “You’ve changed”?  Those can be words you either love or hate to hear.  But God changes people.  It’s his job and joy to change you.  He himself never changes.  But he loves to keep changing you more into his image.   People who do not want to change are either perfect or disobedient.  Which are you?

Paul is overwhelmed by mercy.  To him God’s mercy is a river wide that keeps flowing and never runs dry, it is flooding over its banks, and Paul’s is drowning in it.  And one who is given mercy, gives mercy to others. Mercy multiplies mercy.  God’s design in saving Paul is to make him the poster child parading God’s mercy.  God’s shows off Paul as if to say, “Here is what I can do.  See for yourself.”

God had you in mind when he saved Paul.  That is what the verse says.  That is an awesome thought.  God saved Paul for your sake.  So that you would see God’s “overflowing grace”, divine “mercy” and “perfect patience” and take courage and hope for your own salvation and the salvation of others.

God wants you to see the most unlikely people can believe and do believe.  God can change people and is changing people.  God’s mercy and power are not limited to people who have been set up for Christianity by a good family or live near a church or have a clean moral track record.  The chief of sinners was saved.  And that means hope in evangelism and in your own underwhelming walk with the Lord.

Don’t belittle the mercy of God by saying, “I can’t be changed” or “I’m just the way I am!”  The message of God’s mercy is that what is evil and undesirable in your life can be changed.  A critical spirit can be changed.  Alcoholism can be changed.  Irritability can be changed.  Ingratitude can be changed.  Laziness and overeating and lust can be changed.  The habits of not tithing and excessive TV watching and gambling can be changed.  Lack of hospitality can be changed.  Self-righteousness can be changed.  Fear of telling others about Jesus can be changed.  It’s God’s joy and job to change you.

In what ways are you parading the mercy of God to those around you?  Everyday you are displaying God’s perfect patience and as an example to who are to believe in Jesus for eternal life.  This is a reason to run to God not from God unashamed because of his mercy.

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In Africa, sometimes it’s too hot inside that we sleep outside.  Our night light are the bright stars in the sky.  Why are the stars so bright and beautiful?  It is because the sky is so dark.  In the same way, you live in a dark world tainted by sin, but God in his mercy uses you as his lights to shine for all to see what God can do in a person or a community overwhelmed by him.

4.  OVERWHELMED WITH PRAISE (v.17)

Paul ends his personal thoughts with a bang.  He does this from time to time.  Its as if he gets caught up in the thought and his pen explodes into doxology on the page.  God’s goodness becomes his anthem. He is overwhelmed with praise.

To the King of the ages (past, present, and future), immortal (who never naps, takes a break, or dies), invisible, the only God (who doesn’t have a living comparison), be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (For more see Revelation 5)

Enough said.

When comprehending God saving power over your past, when you see yourself against the cross, when you acknowledge the mercy of God saving a sinner like you, it is natural to be overwhelmed, overcome, overjoyed, and overflowing with gratitude and worship to God.  A person overwhelmed by God sees his troubles or trials through news eyes.  He sees people problems through new eyes.  He sees whatever is hard and ugly and overwhelming through new eyes. For all that you lack is supplied for you in Christ.  All that ruined you was renewed in Christ.

May God give you new eyes to see the beauty of what he is doing in you and those around you, even when it is hard and ugly.

May we be around the worst sinners looking for gospel opportunities.

May your complaint turn to thanks and praise.  May you be refreshed by the joy of your salvation and that God would use a sinner like you.  May God overwhelm you and your church.

 

Application

What areas of your life do you struggle with thankfulness? How does thankfulness change the way you see your circumstances, even difficult ones?  Spend some time in prayer thanking God.

What do you remember about your salvation story?  What does it look like to rehearse the gospel to yourself everyday?  Why is it important to be reminded of the gospel so often?

What is the mercy of God? How have you experienced the mercy of God? In what ways are you parading the mercy of God as an example for others to see?

Read Revelation 5.  How is Revelation 5 a bigger picture of 1 Timothy 1:17?  How is John’s vision of Jesus overwhelming with praise?  Why is it helpful to have this future picture of Jesus? 

When was a time when you were overwhelmed by God?  What about God’s working in your past, present, or future marvel you?

from fanatic to follower

Fanatics aren’t hard to find. Each weekend around the country fanatics pack stadiums proudly displaying the colors and logos of their favorite team and passionately cheer and shout for hits, sacks and complete annihilations. Football fanatics have been known to wear pirate eye patches, pig snouts, and large wedges of cheese. Honestly, I do not see anything wrong with the cheesehead!

Political systems have also produced more than one fanatic. Have you heard of Usama Bin Laden, Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Mugabe, and Kim Jong Il? These are household names. Historically you have certainly learned about Adolf Hilter, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Leopold II, and Nero who burned Christians as lighting for his courtyards.

Religious fanatics aren’t hard to find either. Thousands of Muslims pilgrimage yearly to Mecca, Hindu’s worship a pantheon of more than 300 million deities, Buddhist bow to an icon of bald man with a big belly, some religious radicals commit suicide in car bombings to gain merit in the afterlife, and on TV you seen “Christian” evangelists sporting big hair and big bank accounts.

Another religious fanatic that you may be aware of lived shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was a member of an elite religious group that wielded considerable political power in his region. His name was Saul of Tarsus.[1] His studied in Jerusalem under the Jewish scholar Gamaliel. He slavishly devoted himself to the Old Testament laws along with hundreds of other laws the Pharisees concocted [Galatians 1:13-14]. He assumed he was pleasing God as a religious fanatic.

STORY OF AN ENEMY OF CHRIST [Acts 9:1-2]

The one thing that Saul saw as a threat to his rigorous religious system of Judaism was this newfound faith called followers of the Way. Jews were converting in droves becoming followers of the Way of Christ. These followers realized “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which men must be saved” [Acts 4:12], but the name of Jesus. In zealous response Saul attacked Jesus-followers seeking to be a one-man roadblock to the Way.

After he just stood by and watch the stoning of Stephen[2] it is said that Saul “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” [Acts 8:3] Then in Acts 9:1–2, Paul was not just bullying Christians, he was “breathing threats.” It is as though persecution was the air he breathed. Paul was breathing threats and murder against Christians, and took his persecution 150 miles north of Jerusalem to Damascus and planned to bring Christians back for punishment.

While Saul travel down the road to Damascus, God is taking Saul down the road towards transformation. The conversion of Saul is the conversion of a stanch opponent of Christianity. Today I will look at the story of Paul’s conversion to Christ. I want you to see God’s purpose in converting Paul was to give you hope for yourself and for the people you want to see converted.

SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED CONVERSION [Acts 9:3-9]

Saul is the last person on earth you would expect to convert to Christ. He was not open to considerations or interested in learning about the Way. He was closed and convinced Christ’s claims were blasphemous. His heart was hard and dead in his trespasses and sins. He is the kind of guy you wish would go away or that God would somehow smite. Do you know some Saul’s? How often do you pray for their salvation rather than their destruction?

“Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.” [Acts 9:3] The whole event came out of the blue, like a surprise party or hidden camera show. Paul’s first encounter with Christ was unexpected. Paul never links his conversion to any long process of God convicting him of sin or of frustrating him or of stories scaring him with death and hell. All those things may have happened in an instant as he fell to the ground. But there was no long process preparing the soil of his heart. The conversion was sudden and utterly unexpected.

When I consider Saul’s conversion it gives me courage that my prayers and efforts to see my friends and family saved might not happen immediately, but it might happen suddenly. It reminds me of my gramps conversion. I had been sharing my faith openly with him since I came to Christ as a teenager. I had many talks with him about my faith in Christ. He would listen, but normally respond by saying, “No thanks Justin, that is good for you, but I am happy being Catholic.”

I never gave up praying or sharing. Sometimes I would be frustrated when I would not see any progress or signs God was preparing his soul. Until about 3-years ago, just after he found out that he had a malignant form of cancer. I received a call at the church and he said, “Justin. Counselor. I have two questions for you: First, what do you think about my girlfriend and I living together? Second, how do I know Christ is Savior?” His questions caught me by surprise. I answer his first question, letting him know I would rather see them marry but encouraged him of my love. Then we spent the majority of time talking about his second question. He did not make a decision that day.

A week later I received another call at the church from gramps. He started off by say, “Justin. Pastor. I have two things to share with you. First, I have asked my girlfriend to marry me. Second, I have given my life to Jesus Christ.” A few months later on his deathbed he looked me in the eyes—with tears in his—and said confidently, “I look forward to seeing my Savior.” Gramps conversion was sudden and unexpected, like Saul’s. Keep praying and sharing the love of Christ because He is Truth and the Truth will set free.

SOVEREIGN GRACE ON DISPLAY [Acts 9:10-20]

Saul’s conversion was a miraculous display of God’s sovereign grace. Jesus as commander-in-chief of the universe took over that day on the Damascus road. There is no doubt that only Christ could change a soul like Saul’s. How is grace of God on display in Saul’s salvation?

First, God causes a light to flash from heaven with blinding brightness. Saul is left blind for three days—until Ananias prayed and laid hands on him [v.17]. God blinded him and God gave him sight again. This was a powerful sign to Saul of his actual spiritual darkness. Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world. Whoever followers Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12] The Pharisees doubted and questioned His bold statement of authority, but just a few moments later He gave them a divine object lesson healing a man born blind [cf. John 9:1-41].

Second, Jesus is seen as totally authoritative when He speaks to Saul and gives him an unquestionable command. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” [vs.5b–6] Jesus does not bargain, debate or give Saul a choice in the matter. Jesus means to have Saul in His service and there is no question that He will succeed.

Third, Jesus chose Paul long before Paul chose Jesus. “Before I was born God set me apart and called me by His grace to preach the gospel to the Gentiles” [cf. Galatians 1:15]. Jesus speaks to Ananias as if He knows Saul will go along with what he says. Naturally Ananias is afraid to go pray for Paul, but Jesus says to him in a vision, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;[3] I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” [vs.15-16] Ironically, Saul the persecutor will face persecution in his future ministry. Christ is calling Saul to salvation and a ministry filled with suffering.

Fourth, He uses reluctant Ananias as His ambassador. God gives him a vision to share the gospel with someone he really is not comfortable. He’s heard of Saul’s bad reputation, and knows he could be walking into a prison sentence. I can hear Ananias asking, “What about that sweat old lady across the street who always makes my favorite cookies? Or the kid next-door who is really lost but faithfully comes to our weekly AWANA outreach?” Jesus used Ananias, but the glory for his salvation goes to Jesus.

I can relate to Ananias. I can be timid at times, I’ve been known to ignore God’s tug to tell others about Him. One of the simplest, but effective ways I’ve been able to remedy this in my life to pray for/with the often ignored people around me [i.e. sales clerk, bank teller, mailman, waiter]. Surprisingly they all respond favorably and God’s grace is on display.

SAUL’S CONVERSION IS FOR YOUR SAKE [1 Timothy 1:12-17]

God had you in view when He chose Saul and saved him by His sovereign grace. Later Paul reflects with his young pastoral student Timothy, “I thank Him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because He judged me faithful, appointing me to His service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost [chief, first place]. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” [1 Timothy 1:12-17]

If you believed on Jesus for eternal life—or if you may yet believe on Him for eternal life—Paul’s conversion is for your sake. How does his conversion attest to this?

First, even a religious fanatic can be an enemy of God. Before Christ you were an enemy of God [Romans 5:10]. Paul’s life as a fanatical Pharisee was a long, long trial to Jesus. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?” In other words, “Your life of unbelief and rebellion is a persecution of Me!” Paul had been set apart for God since before he was born. Therefore all his life was one long abuse of God, and one long rejection and mockery of Jesus who loved him. That is why Paul says his conversion is a grand demonstration of Jesus’ longsuffering.

Second, no one is too severe a sinner to be withheld forgiveness of his or her sin. You might have lied, cheated, murdered someone with your words, or blasphemed God to His face. You can be forgiven! Saul’s salvation was for your sake to show you the patience of Christ. Lest you lose heart and think He could not really save you. Lest you think He is quick to anger. Lest you think you have gone too far away. Lest you think your dearest one cannot be converted—suddenly, unexpectedly, by the sovereign grace of Jesus.

Third, God uses the blood of his believers to build his church. The stoning of Stephen was no mistake. It led Saul down the Damascus road, down the road towards transformation, paved the way through severe suffering so the seed of the church and the saving message of Christ could reach you and me. A few months ago, I met a gathering of MBB believers in North Africa who suffered immense persecution, public humiliation, loss of jobs, and separation from family all for the sake of coming to Christ. Their perseverance has led to the birth of a vibrant church among an unreached people group.

It is okay to be a fanatic as long as you are a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. By definition a fanatic is a person filled with obsessive enthusiasm and single-minded zeal. This kind of passion is necessary as a follower of Christ since the Way is not easy. Jesus does promise forgiveness, but He also promises a rocky road filled with temptation and suffering. Are you ready to walk down the road of Golgotha bearing your cross, dying to self and living for Christ?


[1] Saul is the Hebrew name for Paul.

[2] Stephen was the first recorded martyr of Christianity [Acts 7:54-8:3].

[3] Paul did get to carry Christ’s name to King Aggripa [Acts 25:13ff] and Caesar [25:1-12]