A Man Named Simon: What we can learn from this man about the bad circumstances of life and how God can make them Good

On this Good Friday, I decided to read Mark’s account of what happened on that Friday when Jesus was sentenced, crucified, died, and buried. I’m not sure why, but today I was struck by one sentence, one verse, in this passage:

A man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, was coming in from the country just then, and they forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. (Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus.) -Mark 15:21, New Living Translation 

That’s it. The Bible tells us little more about this man, and any other Bible reference to his sons (see Romans 16:13) seems like speculation, although it’s kind of cool to wonder!

Yet I started thinking about this guy, just a common man from the country who came to Jerusalem, like many others, to celebrate Passover. This man got caught up in something he probably knew nothing about, and he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

I doubt that Simon realized at the time the significance of what was happening to him. I doubt he realized in the moment that he had actually come face to face with the ultimate Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God, who was in the process of taking away the sins of the world (including Simon’s; see John 1:29). Perhaps he knew that carrying a Roman cross declared one’s guilt, but I doubt that he understood that this man whose cross he was carrying was innocent of this or any crime. I’m guessing Simon didn’t consider this to be a very good Friday at the time.

I can relate to this Simon. Like him and like you, I have found myself in circumstances I do not understand. I have no idea how God is working in and though this situation. It just seems things are out of control and often life has felt like a huge burden to carry. It’s easy to miss God’s bigger picture, his bigger purpose. Ultimately, I relate to Simon because, like him, I know I am the one who is guilty and yet Jesus took the cross and died upon it. The Holy One took the death penalty for the guilty ones so the guilty ones could become holy in God’s eyes. Amazing.

I don’t know if Simon got this at the time. Many feel he did eventually, though, and that he is called out by name here because he and his family were known in the church years later. I don’t know about that. but I do know that the the same Jesus that Simon encountered by chance that Good Friday is the Jesus who I am trusting this Good Friday.

By the way, as I thought about this verse today, I was reminded of the old song by Ray Boltz, “Watch the Lamb.” Yeah, it’s a little cheesy and I have some doubts about the historical accuracy (it’s just a fictional story based on that one sentence in the gospels), but it does bring Good Friday into perspective. Here it is:

Love & Hate

To be holy is to hate what is unholy. To love a holy God is to hate what is evil.

You who love the Lord, hate evil! He protects the lives of his godly people and rescues them from the power of the wicked. (Psalm 97:10, New Living Translation)

To hate something (the Hebrew word here is ‏שָׂנֵא‎, sane, pronounced saw-nay) means to be set in your mind and heart against it. To truly love people (1 John 2:9; 3:11; 4:7, 19-21), I must hate that which destroys their souls. Satan is the author of evil and he uses it to crush people.

While that is true in a general sense, I must personalize this verse.  I must be careful about hating the evil that is affecting other people more than I hate the evil that is affecting me. I must learn to utterly despise the sin, the unholiness, in my own life. I must see it as something that is putrid, ugly, and to be avoided at all costs. God will protect me against this evil and rescue me from the power of the wicked if I give him control, Lordship, over my life. I do this not just once, but every minute, every time I have a decision between evil and holiness to make.

I choose to be holy and I can do this only in the presence, by the power, with the protection, and for the purposes of my holy, sovereign Lord!

Leader, how do you view unholiness in your own life? To be a vessel that God uses to overflow his love and power, you must remove the filth. Otherwise the filth will overflow from you. You can live a holy life only in his presence and power, under his protection, and ultimately for his, not your own, purposes.

How do you see the unholiness in others’ lives? Jesus saw the flaws in other people with a compassionate heart and he sought always to lovingly heal, not condemn.

Partnering with God

God specializes in reconciliation and restoration! It’s what he does best and it’s one of the things in which he takes great joy. Just read Luke 15 to see what I mean. God also loves to do more–surpassingly or abundantly more–than we can even ask or imagine. He loves it when we partner with him to carry out his mission and see lives change, one at a time, in small and big ways.

By the way, I’ve been away from my blog for a little more than a month. Life has been busy but very very good! God is working, answering prayers–not just mine, but those of many of our friends–and he has been very obvious lately in directing my steps.

Nick Lenzi and Mike at Dinner Group
Leader’s retreat in Mont Lawn, PA

The last two weekends, I had the privilege to lead a small groups retreat for +Hoboken Grace Church in Hoboken, New Jersey. +Nicholas Lenzi is the small groups guy there, and he invited me up to train his leaders in a weekend retreat January 12-13. Then, last weekend, I had the honor of leading a the Small Groups Conference at Johnston Evangelical Free Church, near Des Moines, Iowa.

Hoboken Grace is an urban church, in a one-square-mile city that I understand does not have one house, where everyone lives in apartment buildings, and which has the second-highest population in the world per capita. Johnston Free is in a more suburban/rural setting, a growing area that used to be mostly farmland. One church consisted of all young professionals, with young leaders, almost all of which were under 35. Most work in New York City, and they are very multicultural. The other was made up of a wide variety of ages, but tended toward the over-40 age group and was pretty much monocultural.

God uses a variety of different types of churches to accomplish his mission!

By the way, if you’re looking for training for your leaders, please let me know. See the training/equipping page at www.SmallGroupLeadership.com.

I’ll share a couple stories from these conferences over the next few days.

7 Ways to Respond When God Does Not Feel Like “Immanuel”

What do you do when you are struggling and God seems far away?

Especially during this season of the year, it seems many of us are hurting. We desperately want to know Immanuel—God with us—but he seems more like Exmanuel–God used to be with me, but now I feel like he’s left me … or I feel like he is so external to my current experience.

You are not alone.

Many others feel this way too. People in the Bible often felt this way. Jeremiah, King David, Martha and Mary, and even Jesus himself felt as if God was not near or had forsaken them in their times when they needed him most. So what’s up with this?

People in the Bible often felt as if God wasn't near when they needed him most. Click To Tweet

In Psalm 77, the author, Asaph, was struggling. He believed and trusted in God, but he was questioning where God was in the moment of his pain. This is difficult for us to understand. Sometimes when we are lonely or hurting or both, we cry out to God and hear nothing. We do not sense his presence even though we are seeking it. We are filled with questions: Why? Where are you, Lord? What is going on here? (Read Psalm 77 and look at Asaph’s questions in verses 7-9; we are not alone in our questions!) We just want to understand and know he is still there for us. And yet, inexplicably … nothing.

Later on—maybe days, weeks, months, perhaps even years later—we can look back and see how God was moving. Later on we understand God’s sovereignty and timing. But we often don’t see that in the moment of our despair.

Asaph came to a turning point in his perceptions in verse 11: “I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago” (Psalm 77:11, New Living Translation). This is one vital reason why it’s so important for us to read God’s Word. The powerful stories remind us of his faithfulness, strength, and love. They give us perspective. They lift us up out of our current circumstances to help us see God is, indeed, in control. We can also look back at our own lives as well and see the way he has worked in more personal ways.

Remembering God’s greatness and sovereignty naturally leads us to worship: an acknowledgement of who God is and how powerful he is. Worship is vital in the darkness of the valley.

For me, at least, all I can say in the midst of this is, I will continue to trust you, Lord, no matter how I feel. I’ve come to a place where I know I must worship God even though I don’t feel like it, and don’t even necessarily sense his presence with me as I call out to him in praise for who he is. It is an act of the will at this point.

I know I must worship God even though I don't necessarily sense his presence. It is an act of the will. Click To Tweet

That was Asaph’s approach:

“O God, your ways are holy. Is there any god as mighty as you?” (Psalm 77:13).


So, let’s get practical. When God does not feel very much like Immanuel, God with you …

  1. Remember all he has done.
  2. Read God’s Word and look for his faithfulness and power in the midst of the trials.
  3. Reflect on a time in your own life when God seemed far away, yet he came through.
  4. Trust him—this is an act of the will.
  5. Turn to worship him.
  6. Don’t go it alone. This is the time to be with a community of friends.
  7. Serve someone else. Turn your focus upward and outward.


Thankful Through the Valley

I am thankful today that I have the privilege of having a loving Father who is BIG and powerful! Bigger than any circumstance or situation, more powerful than anyone or anything that comes against me. I’m thankful that though he is so big, he also is concerned and involved in the minute details of my life. He is Jehovah Jireh, my provider. He knows me not only as one of millions of his creations, but individually, as his treasured child.

As some of my good friends and family know, this past year has been difficult in many ways as I’ve walked through a dark valley of the soul. But God’s promise in Psalm 23 is true. He has walked through this valley with me. I would not wish my circumstances over the past year on anyone, but I would wish that each of my friends and family could experience the Father’s closeness and power that I’ve felt during this time. I’m thankful that God is trustworthy and true. Draw close to him and he will never be far away from you. Delight yourself in him, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4).

What are you thankful for?

Thanking God for Temporary
Thankful for God’s Jealousy, Vengeance, and Anger
Snow Day Devotional

When Life Isn’t Making Sense, Ask the Right Questions

When you are walking through a dark valley of the soul or when the circumstances in your life are not making sense, it’s vital to ask the right questions.

In Psalm 73, the people, in the midst of difficult and seemingly unfair life situations, are dismayed and confused. “Does God realize what is going on?” they ask. “Is the Most High even aware of what is happening?” (Psalm 73:11, New Living Translation). 

This is the question many people still ask today, especially those who follow God from arms length, the Sunday-morning church-goers who have never counted the cost of being a disciple of Jesus. People look at their circumstances and ask, “Where is God in all this?” But when we, even we who have counted the cost and are walking in a trusting relationship with God, ask such a question, it reveals our own hearts.

When I am walking closely with God–making my relationship with him my #1 priority; spending time with him each day to hear what he wants to say to me that day; loving him with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind; trusting him regardless of my circumstances; delighting in him and in his presence with me–I don’t ask that question. I know God knows what is going on, because I’ve talked to him about it, and I know he was listening. I know he is aware of what is happening because I know he is indeed the Sovereign Lord who knows everything. I know he cares about the situation because I know he is my loving Father; he is a compassionate shepherd who wants to give us peace and rest. I know he can change the circumstances if he chooses to, because he is all powerful. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still have questions. I do.

And so this raises the question that I do ask: God, I don’t understand. In my human understanding, I don’t know how this is all going to work out and I can’t see how you are working in this. What are you doing? How are you going to work all this out for the good of those who really love you and are called according to your purposes? Please, Lord, show me just a sliver of your plan and purpose. Regardless,, Lord, help me to hang on and to continue to trust in you, to continue to trust in your timing.

The interesting thing is that these questions actually draw me even closer to God, which, I believe, is part of God’s big-picture purpose when we walk through these dark valleys. “Yet I still belong to you; you are holding my right hand” (v. 23)!

What Do You Do When Life Sucks?
Bribing God
When God Puts You on Hold

You Have Been Elected!

The day after the election, I’m reflecting on bigger picture values. I turned off the news programs in which so-called experts are discussing all the nitty-gritty details of why this person won and that one lost and what all that means. Like many people I got caught up in a lot of the hype and drama of this electoral campaign. But now I’m trying to get a bigger view.

Someone on Twitter commented that elections show us what we value as a country. That’s an interesting observation, but I’m not going to go into the politics of that. I’m a Christ-follower with a socially conservative bent, meaning simply that I believe in living out God’s standards for how to best live life, as revealed through his Word, but I also believe in loving people liberally and unconditionally–regardless of how they believe or act. I believe that God knows better than me or you how we can best live this life he’s given us, and I trust him at his Word. 

For some reason as I was spending time with God this morning, I started thinking about the word elect. Fascinating word in the New Testament. Jesus used the word (ekloktos in the Greek) numerous times, three times in Matthew 24 where he spoke about what would happen at the end of the age. The word refers to those whom God has selected or chosen to be his own and implies that they are his “favorites.” The Practical Word Studies in the New Testament says, “It means to be one of God’s holy and beloved followers.”

If you are a Christ follower, just sit and let that sink in for a few moments.

You, as part of God’s church, are his elect, his chosen people, holy and loved by him. You are one of his favorites! Not because of good things you have done. You do not need to campaign with God. He has accepted you because of what his Son did for you and because you have believed.

God cares more about who you are than who the current POTUS is. And much more is at stake in this election. 

As Christ-followers, we are the elect. We have been chosen, not by proportional representation or majority. We have been called. We have been given a huge privilege and responsibility. Our first priority now is God’s kingdom and his righteousness. We have much more power and authority than we realize in this kingdom work. 

Let’s act like it.

Similar Posts that May Pique Your Interest:

Why You Should Stop Inviting Jesus to Your Small Group Meetings

“Lord we invite you into our presence.” 

I’ve been in lots of small groups–and worship services for that matter–in which leaders began with words like these. Their intentions and hearts were good, but their words revealed what I believe is one of the most overlooked and undervalued kingdom principles that Jesus gave us:

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). 

When we invite Jesus into our midst, I wonder if he quietly responds, “I’m already here!”

Another indication that we don’t get this principle occurs at the end of really good meetings. Have you ever been to a great small group, worship service, conference, or some other Christian gathering and heard people proclaim, “Wow! God really showed up!”?  Of course he showed up. He always does when we come together in his name (or because we are his, as the New Living Translation puts it).

I encourage you to try a more biblical approach:

  1. You be sure to show up. 
    • Remember the fact that you’re not just meeting with a few other Christian friends. You’re meeting with Jesus. What an incredible honor that is! 
    • Show up as the real you. You may think you can fool some of your fellow group members, but not Jesus … and, truthfully, probably not even your other group members. Open yourself up, trust others to accept you as you, and allow the Holy Spirit to work as you reveal your true heart. 
    • Be so real that other group members say at the end of the meeting, “Wow, ____ [your name] really showed up!”
    • Show up with an expectancy and anticipation for God to move. 
  2. Gather in Jesus’ name, for his sake, because you are his. Don’t just meet for the sake of doing a study or because you are a member of the church and the pastor expects it! Meet in Jesus’ presence, for his purposes, and in his power! 
  3. Welcome Jesus into your presence. We have a religious term for welcoming him; it’s called worship. This “worship” does not have to take the form of your Sunday-morning experience. It doesn’t have to be traditional. It can be (and perhaps should be) a simple outflow of welcoming Jesus into your meeting time, recognizing his leadership and power, honoring him as if royalty just walked into the room. He has. 
What else can you do to welcome Jesus into your small group and to remember he is present throughout your meeting time?

20 Questions to Ask at the End of Your Rope

If you’re at the end of your rope, there are some important questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What is the other end of this rope tied to? 
  2. Where is this rope supposed to be taking me? 
  3. Is it tied to the right things, the right values?
  4. Am I sure I’m at the end of my rope or do I just feel that way? 
  5. Is it possible there’s still more rope beneath me, but I’m too afraid to look down?
  6. Why do I feel I’m at the end of my rope?
  7. Am I losing my grip because I’ve been working so hard at climbing under my own power?
  8. Who told me I’m supposed to climb this rope anyway? 
  9. Is it possible this rope-climbing activity is a waste of my precious time?
  10. Do I really feel safer holding onto this rope? 
  11. Is there something better in life than rope-climbing?
  12. How many people die, still clutching their ropes?
  13. What would happen if I let go of the rope I’m clinging to? 
  14. Who would catch me if I let go? 
  15. Haven’t I heard an encouraging voice: “Let go. Come to me you who are tired of climbing. I will catch you and hold you and give you rest”? 
  16. Do I trust that I will be caught and never let go?
  17. What will life be like if I’m not holding onto this rope?
  18. Do I trust my death grip on this rope more than the one who will catch me if I let go?
  19. Who will help me let go and encourage me in my catcher? 
  20. What will it take to let go, to release this and throw my hands up in surrender? 

Is Your Small Group Dead or Alive?

Some small groups are, in essence, dead. Many groups died some time ago, but no one realized it. There was never a funeral. No mourning. No burial. The people involved just kept showing up at meetings as if the group was still alive, but all that existed, in reality, was a cold, stiff corpse. These groups meet weekly; they do studies from Bible study guides; they pray for one another’s physical health. But that’s it. Like the Dead Sea, there is no outflow of life from the group. There is no demonstration of Spirit’s power through outreach and evangelism. Many groups go for years in this kind of lack of awareness or denial.

To understand what a dead group looks like, you have to first know the vital signs of a living group.

  • A living group is growing. People are being transformed and the number of people in the group is expanding. 
  • A living group is moving. It doesn’t just meet or congregate; it is actively involved in something outside itself. 
  • A living group has a heartbeat. It has a purpose. It exists to do something other than just feed itself. 
  • A living group is maturing. It’s not just getting older, it’s developing into what it was created to become.
  • A living group is missional. It exists to carry out Christ’s commission.
Perhaps it’s time to check the vital signs of your small group, or the groups in the ministry you oversee. Take the FREE Small Group Health Assessment today — it only takes about 10-15 minutes but provides a wealth of helpful information. Then check out my book, Small Group Vital Signs, which I wrote to help groups become healthy so that they may carry out Christ’s commission. Let me know how I can help through a training seminar in your church or through coaching/consulting. Check out my newly revised Small Group Leadership web site for more information!

This post is adapted from Chapter 5 of my book, Leading from the Heart