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Friday, November 30, 2018

Wounded by God

    Bad news. The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in a precious young loved one. It hits me hard. It takes my breath away. It throws me into a spiritual tailspin. The main impact is feeling like the God that I’ve trusted for years has wounded me deeply.

    I know I need Him now more than ever, so I follow all my usual practices—worshiping, studying His Word, spending time in fellowship with other believers, praying, walking in obedience to Him. But suddenly there’s this wall between us. I throw it up quickly and I build it out of solid materials. I don’t really want it there, but I can’t help feeling incapable of taking any steps to remove it.

    Over time God patiently tears it down. At first, brick by brick. Through new songs in church that express exactly what I need to say and hear. Through deeper insights into His nature and character. Then, suddenly, after three long years, as I’m struggling spiritually with yet another undeserved catastrophe in the same young person’s life, through supernatural, peaceful acceptance that far transcends all my understanding (Philippians 4:7).

    This peace comes out of nowhere and it envelops me on a level that I’ve never experienced before. It’s all God’s doing. It’s not denial or psyching myself up in an effort to ease the pain. The pain is still there, but so is the peace. And it lasts. Day after day after day.

    I’m marveling over this unexplainable, unexpected blessing a few weeks later. Praying, thanking God, praising Him for knocking the wall down flat. Then the words enter my mind uninvited, unintended, “Help me to forgive You.”

    Whoa.

    Wait.

    No.

    How could I ever think such a thing? (Is it too late to take it back, God? Can we just pretend You didn’t hear that?)

    Me forgive God? He who is without sin, without the capability of ever doing evil? He who is all good, all wise, all the time? He who is love (1 John 4:8 and 16)? He who sacrificed so much to save us from those filthy, stinking, rotten sins that make our lives so miserable? Me forgive Him? How backward is that?

    And yet that’s how it feels. Like the pain runs so deep that of course He must have done something terrible to me, something wrong, something evil, something that I have a right to either forgive or continue to hold against Him. The god I want to worship wouldn’t do this to me.

    It’s not like I’ve been shaking my fist at God these last three years. I know Him well enough to firmly believe that in all things He works for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). He has touched my heart in some incredible ways since my rebirth. But the sense of being hurt by Someone that I’ve dedicated my life to has permeated my relationship with Him. He’s now bringing me face to face with the fact that I’m still harboring resentment against Him. The bizarre idea that I need to forgive Him.

    A post on my favorite website, The Babylon Bee (featuring Christian satire), describes how, after reading some self-help psychology, God realizes that, for His own good, He should set more boundaries and cut ties with toxic influences, which of course means destroying the entire world.

    My response the first time I read it was the recognition that I need to love people with the love of God. I need to stop considering anyone toxic and unworthy of my love and friendship. I’m too quick to judge and too quick to walk away. That’s not what God desires from His people. He sets the standards and provides the example for me to follow.

    But in the midst of this gracious blessing of peace and contentment, glancing again at that headline reminds me of just how holy and perfect and pure God is. When I’d discovered the article, under the surface a little voice in my mind was arguing with the statement that human beings continually choose to rebel against Him. Surely that doesn’t include us Christians. Surely we’re not so bad that we could be considered toxic. Would He really have to destroy the whole world, or only those who refuse to believe in Him?

    Now, with this horrifying thought that I hold God in such low esteem that the restoration of our relationship actually requires my forgiving Him, I know that I am one of those toxic people. Ouch.

    The article reminds me that in my fallen, sinful condition, God’s love for me is pure grace, totally undeserved. That’s hard to believe in a culture that constantly bombards me with the message of my great worth. I’ve been a dedicated, growing Christian for all these years. Surely I’ve earned His respect and love.

    But no. Here I am, unable, even at my best, to offer Him anything but a toxic relationship. And here God is, not destroying me as in the Bee article, not cutting me off anytime I fail, but loving me, blessing me, walking with me, knocking down the wall between us. Forgiving me.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Matrix

    We’re preparing the family Thanksgiving dinner, four of us ranging in age from about thirty to sixty in the warm kitchen as the others mill around the house, when my niece brings up the subject of The Matrix. It’s a 1990s movie about Neo, an apparent twentieth-century man dissatisfied with life in general. He can’t put a finger on it, but something about the world doesn’t quite seem to fit. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s right.

    Neo’s entire environment, as he sees it, is actually an illusion. He’s living in a futuristic world where machines have taken over the planet. They’ve relegated humans to the status of batteries, providing power for the machines. To keep their captives’ brains occupied, they’ve created “the matrix,” a virtual reality so real that men and women, who are confined to small liquid-filled tubs, believe that they’re walking, talking, working, marrying, living, and dying in contemporary America.

    But a small band of renegades has somehow become free of the matrix and is on a mission to defeat the machines and liberate mankind. Anyone who shows an unusual perception of the incongruities of their lives is contacted by this group. After being presented with a brief explanation of the actual state of affairs, they’re given a choice of two pills. One will allow them to remain in the matrix with no memory of the encounter. The other will release them from their tub to join the fight against the machines. Neo takes the second pill.

    Here on Thanksgiving Day, my niece poses a question: Why would anyone choose to enter a world of suffering and fighting when they could simply continue to live in the unreal world of the matrix? The other two family members agree that they would also remain in their tubs. It seems so obvious to them.

    I’m stunned. I know the movie emphasizes the difficulty of making the transition from the matrix to the real world, but that’s because the victims have been living in virtual reality for so long. It’s a shock to them to discover that what they’ve always believed to be real isn’t.

    In contrast, we’re discussing the options from a distance. We can see both sides clearly: on the one hand living what appears to be a relatively comfortable life, but is actually an illusion to distract us from our slavery; on the other hand facing reality, as unpleasant as it may be, and fighting for the freedom of people everywhere. Isn’t that one of the things we’re so thankful for on this day—those who’ve fought so we could be free? Sitting in the theater watching the movie for the first time, I’d assumed that everyone in the audience was identifying with Neo and crowd, wanting to be just like them.

    I can be so naive.

    But this is America! Americans, of all people, thrive on freedom, on autonomy, on my right to make my choices about my life. We idolize, as few cultures do, those who free the oppressed. What’s happened to my country? Intelligent, successful Americans are standing here telling me that they would choose to live a meaningless life in slavery to the enemy, supporting an evil empire rather than fighting it, if that involved less suffering than the alternative. How many other Americans feel this way? And what does that mean for our future?

    In sharp contrast to my family, when a Christian friend and I first saw The Matrix, it triggered an ongoing conversation about the greatest realities in life. Which is the more real, the more permanent world—the physical one or the spiritual? As in the movie, we face a choice. We can deny the greater, spiritual reality and commit our lives to our own comfort and security (take the first pill), or we can serve God and others regardless of the cost (second pill). Which option does the Bible demand of us? Which will have the greatest impact, not just in this life, but for eternity?

    And yet here are three Christian relatives saying they would deny reality rather than face a life of suffering. No apologies, no regrets. To them, it seems like the most logical thing to do. If I’m a bit frightened about the future of our country based on this conversation, I’m even more frightened about the future of Christianity in America. By some standards, my relatives would be considered pretty good Christians. They serve in their evangelical churches, they give generously, they treat others with kindness and respect.

    Sure, they have their shortcomings, but don’t we all? The youngest haven’t followed biblical standards of sexual ethics. But how many Christians among their generation wait until marriage anymore? Does it really matter? And yes, they put a great deal of value and emphasis on money, youth, and appearance, but is that really so bad? How can they be witnesses to the world if they can’t relate to it?

    Is this living the Christian life? Serving self, serving desire, serving the need to belong. Avoiding suffering if at all possible. What did Jesus say? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). We are called to give up the comfort of the matrix, the illusion that this world can satisfy all our desires and needs. To willingly, gladly, joyfully stand for what’s right when we have the opportunity, even it involves suffering.

    How many other good American Christians are choosing the comfort of the matrix over truth and sacrifice, even as they offer thanks for those who make the better choice? Is this the norm or is it the exception? Is it getting better or is it getting worse? What does that mean for our future?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Changing Churches

    Things I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard:

    ● Committed Christian baby boomers, the backbone of evangelical churches for decades, joining the ranks of the unchurched and the church-shoppers. Or switching to more liturgical churches, with their greater sense of reverence.

    ● A local evangelical church demanding that every activity must be intergenerational. Never mind that the older folks have long periods of lonely availability during the daytime and hesitate to drive after dark, while the younger ones work all day and can only participate on evenings and weekends. Seniors have been forbidden to gather without younger generations being present. Result: Older members have felt unwelcome and unheard, and have left.

    ● Men and women in their eighties and nineties sensing that their lives are no longer valued by the very churches that they’ve supported for years. That which was most precious and meaningful to them within those churches has been discarded, leaving them feeling like they’ve been discarded, too.

    I don’t think our worship leaders realize how much real suffering they’ve brought on our seniors with the radical changes that have occurred in the last twenty years or so. Based on the biblical model, they expect mature Christians to graciously accept the authority of the pastors and elders when decisions are made. Those who complain or criticize are seen as selfish, disobedient, and unwilling to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    I think these leaders are honestly seeking to please God and are trying to do what they believe is best overall. But the pain is there and it’s often unrecognized. It’s not just a matter of stubborn resistance springing from rebellious hearts, although I’m sure that happens in some cases. For many, though, important theological issues are at stake.

    One assumption made by those who support more modern worship styles is that God doesn’t care how we worship Him. Style is irrelevant in His eyes. But if that’s true, why was He so specific about how the Israelites were to worship Him when He brought them out of bondage to Egypt? Part or all of the following chapters provide His specific instructions on worship: Exodus 25-30 and 39-40; Leviticus 1-8, 16, and 22-23; Numbers 15, 18, and 28-29; and Deuteronomy 12 and 16-17.

    Was the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? No. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Psalm 102:27, James 1:17). How we worship matters. It matters to God. It should matter to us. One weakness in today’s evangelical churches is the lack of a theology of worship that is based on examples of worship in the Bible.

    What is it about modern worship styles that mature Christians object to? One big issue is the focus on self, which naturally leads to less emphasis on God—who He is and the deeper reasons for worshiping Him. If I worship Him solely for what He does for me, as much Contemporary Christian Music seems to imply, what happens when He doesn’t live up to my expectations? I have nothing solid to stand on during the tough times. In contrast, many hymns of the past praised God’s unchanging character and nature, His working throughout the world and throughout history, His thoughts and ways that reach far higher than satisfying the needs in my little life.

    It’s been ten years or more since I heard a derogatory comment on National Public Radio about those “narcissistic evangelicals.” First I was startled and offended, then I was embarrassed and humbled by what I knew to be a somewhat accurate assessment. Roughly ten years before that, Christianity Today ran an article in which they stated that there were more songs starting with the letter “I” in the contemporary files used in evangelical worship services than with all the other letters of the alphabet put together. What happened to Jesus’ teaching that “if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)?

    Many seniors struggle with this stress on self and lack of emphasis on God. At a time when they’re suffering multiple losses—family members and friends, mobility and independence, physical health—they have an increased need for a transcendent God who rules the universe and whose love and justice extend far beyond simply pleasing individual human beings.

    I don’t expect our churches to turn back the clock as far as worship styles are concerned. Every era, every generation, has its flaws and shortcomings, including those found in the ways Americans worshiped in the past. While I pray that we’ll find a better balance in communicating both the intimacy and the transcendence of God, this is primarily a plea for mercy and compassion and healing after the pain inflicted on our seniors for the last two or three decades. A plea for a greater understanding of that pain and its origins, and for attempts to be made to treat our seniors with greater love and respect.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Pour Out Your Hearts

    “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). Many years ago, during my first depressive episode, the middle part of this verse (pour out your hearts to him) became very special to me. I’d lived with tremendous inner turmoil for several months, feeling guilty, considering myself a bad Christian because of the anxiety, despair, anger, lack of energy, hopelessness, and other symptoms that make up clinical depression.

    From what I’d gathered in the five years since receiving Christ, a good Christian, a real Christian, didn’t experience this kind of emotional pain. It went completely against the fruit of the Spirit. If I wasn’t bearing such fruit, something was terribly wrong with me as a believer. The only reasonable response would be guilt and shame. God would be extremely unhappy with me if I didn’t overcome this weakness through confession and prayer (and maybe just trying harder and harder).*

    Then I read the Psalms with new eyes, and God ministered to my needy soul, comforting me through the words of David. “Pour out your hearts to him.” Was I really allowed to do that? Was it really okay to tell Him how much I was hurting, not as a confession of sin, but simply as an expression of my deep pain? He drew me so much nearer to Himself as He reassured me, over and over again, that it was not only okay, but encouraged by many Bible passages.

    In the years since then, I still feel like I run into a wall of denial most of the time when another Christian is going through a difficult experience. I rarely hear an admission of how much it hurts to lose a loved one. I rarely see tears of anguish and grief and sorrow. No. We must be stronger than that. We cannot admit to the “weakness” of actually feeling torn apart by genuine mourning.

    C. S. Lewis initially had his book, A Grief Observed, published under a pseudonym. Would it have been acceptable for one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the twentieth century to reveal the depth of his wounds and doubts? Apparently he and his publisher didn’t think so. I’m not sure much has changed in the decades since then.

    Reading this verse again recently, the first few words jumped out at me: “Trust in him at all times.” I was struck by the idea that we’re supposed to both trust in Him and pour out our hearts to Him. One does not negate the other. Pouring out our hearts in anguish, despair, fear, anger—and honesty—as we wrestle with the sorrows of everyday life is not contradictory to trusting in Him at all times. We’re told to do both. Even in the same verse.

    Meditating on it further the next day, the Lord opened my eyes a little wider. We’re told to both trust in Him and pour out our hearts to Him. Maybe they’re not just compatible with each other, as I’d gathered yesterday; maybe they must go together.

    In human relationships, we don’t open up in complete honesty with someone unless there is great trust. But we don’t know whether we can trust someone until we see how they respond to our honesty. Pouring out our hearts increases with trust and trust increases with pouring out our hearts. They always go together. And in this process, intimacy grows. There can be no intimacy unless there is both trusting and pouring out our hearts. Then the friendship becomes a refuge, a place of safety, as in the last part of the verse.

    The same principle holds in our relationship with God. We will not open up in complete honesty with Him unless there is great trust (faith) in Him. On the other hand, our trust in Him grows as we express our emotions more honestly and openly. As with people, there can be no intimacy with God unless there is both trusting and pouring out our hearts. And when we do both, we experience the truth of the last part of the verse—God is our refuge. We see more clearly how He protects and nourishes us.

    Maybe evangelically-correct Christianity has it backwards. Maybe our hesitation about pouring out all our deepest feelings to God springs from a lack of faith, rather than an abundance of faith. Maybe those who never pour out their hearts to Him, with the mistaken idea that this demonstrates the strength of their faith, are actually unwilling to trust Him with the honest expression of their deepest needs due to the weakness of their faith.

*For a great article combating this point of view, see mentalhealthgracealliance.org/christian-mental-health-and-mental-illness/2018/8/2/6-reasons-why-depression-and-anxiety-is-not-weak-faith-or-sin

Friday, October 5, 2018

Forbidden Fruit

    “Because he himself [Jesus] suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18). Temptation is a form of suffering. Even Jesus, even God the Son, experienced temptation as suffering. He didn’t just breeze through it like a piece of cake and walk away unscathed. He suffered when He was tempted.

    Temptation is perhaps the only form of suffering that we’re guaranteed to face almost constantly in this life. There are likely to be times when I’m free from any medical conditions. There are likely to be times when my loved ones are healthy and happy. There are likely to be times when I’m financially secure. Those of us in more prosperous countries tend to have reprieves from many forms of suffering for much of our lives. But not temptation. It hangs in there. Day in and day out.

    This is my typical thought process when temptation is gnawing at me:

    That sounds like fun. Maybe I’ll do it again. It won’t hurt anyone.

    No, no, no. It’s wrong. It does cause harm. It’s not God’s best for me or for others. God has a good reason for everything that He forbids.

    But it feels so good. I enjoy it so much. It’s so hard to resist.

    No. God’s gotten me through this before. I can fight it with His strength. Help me, Lord.

    Maybe just a baby step in that direction. I don’t have to go all the way to where I’m actually sinning. Just enjoy the pleasure of getting closer and closer. Then back out.

    This is too hard, God! I want it too much! Why aren’t You helping me more? Why do You make it so attractive and then say no, don’t do that?

    Maybe just another little baby step. . . .

    Generally, if it gets this far, I end up giving in. I’ve suffered through the struggle of wanting to resist and trying to resist, but also wanting the pleasure. The internal wrestling is tearing me apart. Better to give in and end the suffering than to continue to fight.

    One day I recognize a harmful tendency—to reach the point in my mental skirmish where I resent God. He makes the rules. He created me to find pleasure in something that He forbids me from doing. Then He sets that pleasure right in front of my face and dares me to turn away from it.

    Like Eve in the Garden of Eden. The forbidden fruit was “good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3:6). Why did God have to go and make it that way? Couldn’t He have created something bad for us, ugly, and with no power beyond ordinary food—and then forbidden it? This is all His fault. He could have prevented Eve’s suffering, and mine, if He would have designed a slightly different world.

    But recently the truth hit me: God is not my enemy. Why has it taken me so many years to realize this? Can I really be that stupid about such a basic thing after decades of following Him? I guess so.

    God wants only what’s best for me. He gives me His commandments so that I can have the most fulfilling life (Deuteronomy 30:15-16). He sends His Holy Spirit to live in me, to guide and strengthen me (Romans 8:13-14). He never tempts me (James 1:13). Every time I’m tempted He provides a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13). He has made available everything I need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). How can I get so angry with Him when I’m suffering from temptation? He wants to see me succeed in resisting it.

    So how do I do that? If I knew how to do it every time without fail, I could make millions selling the secret. Unfortunately, I don’t. But I’ve learned a couple of things about prayer that have been helpful.

    Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13, RSV). Years ago, in a study of Kay Arthur’s book Lord, Teach Me to Pray in 28 Days, I was given a pattern to follow based on this verse. First, “Lead us not into temptation.” The suggestion was to name a particular sin and pray for God’s protection from temptation in that area. Then, “Deliver us from evil.” Pray that if I am tempted by this sin, He will provide the strength to resist it.

    This strategy was an eye-opener for me. The idea was to present these requests during my regular prayer time each day, rather than waiting until the temptation was overwhelming me. I hadn’t ever thought of that. I never prayed until I was deep into the struggle with temptation, and then it was usually too late.

    God is good. He answered my prayers in a more powerful way than I had thought was possible. Unfortunately, over time, I drifted away from this habit. I’m trying to get back into it again.

    The other prayer that’s helped me is to remember His promise to provide a way out. Sometimes, early in the temptation process I can turn my mind to this promise and ask that I would find that way out. Maybe all I need to do is get up and move to another room in the house. Or call a friend. Or change activities. There will always be a way out.

    I don’t know how to resist temptation every single time, every single day. But this I know: God is on my side. His power to protect me is greater than I can imagine. He’s given me resources for taking advantage of that power. The fruit that I crave is forbidden for a reason. And He can use even my temptations and failures for His good purposes (Romans 8:28).