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Friday, December 6, 2019

Christmas Joy

    Jesus suffered. He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He went through intense pain on the cross. He was forsaken by God as He hung there, bearing the full weight of all the sins of the entire world. (Matthew 26:36-46, 27:46; Psalm 22:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:21) I get that.

    But I tend to minimize any other difficulties in His life up to that point. I know that He wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35). It hurt. Jesus felt it and He showed it. Was this the only time that He cried in front of others? My inclination is to think that it was a unique event. But why do I assume that? Maybe there were other examples of His expressing Himself in tears that aren’t recorded in the Bible.

    I imagine that the rejection Jesus experienced in His life on this earth also caused Him some anguish, although I tend to minimize that, too. He’s God. People have been rebelling against Him ever since Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Doesn’t He get used to it? Doesn’t He have a thick enough skin by now?

    On the rare occasions when I really think about it, I have to admit that that’s probably not the case. God describes His relationship with His people as a marriage, in both the Old and New Testaments. He offers and desires an intimate connection with His creatures. If He didn’t have some kind of emotional investment in us, if it didn’t hurt Him to be rejected, wouldn’t He use a different, less personal, analogy?

    So I’ve looked at Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 and appreciated His pain to some extent. But as Christmas approaches, I’ve been thinking about the daily distress He must have experienced simply by becoming human.

    There He was in heaven from eternity past. No unmet needs. Total freedom. Living in glory. Being worshipped by the angels. In perfect fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Joy beyond my imagination. Inexpressible peace.

    Then suddenly, in one irreversible moment, conceived as a human being in the womb of the virgin Mary. Susceptible to heat and cold, and restricted to a confined area. Unable (or unwilling) to exert control over His own environment.

    The first Christmas arrived, and Jesus entered this world as a baby boy. Born in a stable amid the stench of the animals, lying on a bed of scratchy hay. He experienced the sensations of hunger and thirst and dirty diapers. His actions were constrained by time and space and by a body that had to learn how to walk and talk and feed Himself. He most likely suffered from the usual forms of illness and injury.

    He was probably teased by the other children, since everyone in the neighborhood knew that His parents hadn’t been married yet when He was conceived. He was hampered by all the human limitations and hardships, but with a major difference—He knew what it was like to live without them in the perfection of heaven.

    Most of our religious Christmas displays glamorize His birth. Everything was calm and peaceful. Mary and Joseph were relaxed and smiling. The animals stood around quietly, gazing at the baby in wonder. I enjoy the idealized imagery that I’ve come to associate with Jesus’ first days as much as anyone. But doesn’t this miss the whole point?

    The point is that the Son “being in very nature God, . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7, italics added). This was a greater sacrifice than I will ever be able to understand. Simply being human involved ongoing suffering every minute of every day, compared to the glories of heaven.

    In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two young boys, one the heir to the throne, the other extremely poor, discover that they look a lot alike. Just for fun, they exchange clothes. But at that moment, the prince’s servant walks into the room and kicks the child dressed in rags out into the street. Much of the book is spent showing how difficult it would be for one living in royal luxury to adjust to sudden poverty and disgrace.

    Sort of a taste of what Jesus went through.

    Twain’s prince had a tough time adapting. He wanted to assert his control over everyone he met. He expected them to bow down to their future king. He grew angry when they didn’t believe his story. Unlike Jesus, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but “humbled himself and became obedient” (Philippians 2:6, 8).

    Descending from heaven voluntarily, Jesus’ life on this earth was one continual living sacrifice, thirty years of ceaseless suffering. Just because He did it with grace and peace and joy and compassion and contentment doesn’t mean it was easy or pain-free. But He did it to demonstrate the unfathomable depth of God’s love for His creatures. He did it as the necessary prelude to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

    That’s what makes the Christmas season one of joy. Not the sentimental glamorizing of the birth of an adorable little baby. Not the wonder Mary and Joseph felt in becoming new parents. Not the appearance of the angels and the wise men.

    What makes Christmas a time of joy is the incredible depth of God’s love for fallen mankind, as seen in the Son’s willingness to take on decades of suffering for our sake. The beautiful scenes of Christmas morning will pass. The baby will grow up. The shepherds will go back to their sheep. Jesus’ family will return to the daily grind in Nazareth. But the sacrificial love of God, as proclaimed and demonstrated on this one glorious night, will endure forever.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Responding

    “I have nothing to be thankful for.” Those were the words in the letter to the editor of our local newspaper sometime in November, 2001, expressing the writer’s sense of loss following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

    My initial response was one of judgment. How could anyone claim to have absolutely nothing to be thankful for? Did she have even one friend? Probably. Did she have enough education and intelligence to read and write? Obviously. Was there any food at all in her kitchen? I imagined so, or she most likely would have been trying to make ends meet rather than reading the newspaper and writing to the editor. I mentally lifted my nose in the air, peered down on her condescendingly, and gave her a lecture on how blessed she is to live in a land of such abundance.

    Later (I don’t remember how much later, but definitely too long), my heart began to break for her. Here was a woman who was hurting so badly that she couldn’t even appreciate the little pleasures and joys that come to all of us. Maybe her letter was a cry for help. Did anyone answer that cry? Had her normal shock and grief turned into ongoing depression?

    Whatever her mental condition, the woman was obviously suffering. And she was responding to that suffering by feeling hopeless and bitter. She needed my understanding and prayers, not my judgment.

    Several years later, I read a story in a magazine about a first responder who had been at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was so traumatized by the destruction and death that had surrounded him on that day that he was abusing alcohol to ease the pain. His marriage was in trouble, he was unemployed, and he was seriously depressed.

    One day he was out in his front yard with his young daughter. A stranger walked by, said hello, and smiled at the toddler. In an instant, the first responder’s life started turning around as his perspective shifted. If a total stranger could show a little kindness to a child, then maybe there was some good in the world after all.

    Here were two different people responding to the same situation—a frightening terrorist attack on American soil resulting in the deaths of approximately three thousand people. Who could blame the woman for retreating into anger and bitterness? But where did she go from there? I’ll never know.

    The man had witnessed the horror firsthand. He had risked his life to save others. He was a hero. And yet he, too, was overwhelmed by the cruelty behind it. Self-medicating his PTSD, he descended into alcoholism. It took time—not just days, but years—for him to reach the point where his heart could be touched and his life could be restored.

    Suffering hurts. It damages our minds and our emotions. It dampens our spirits. It leads to a desire for escape, a crying out for relief. It’s easy enough to advise people to count their blessings, to have an attitude of gratitude, but can we realistically expect that response when the pain cuts so deep?

    Maybe. I think there are a few rare people who can see the good in their lives, and be genuinely thankful for it, even in the midst of the blackest night. But we evangelicals have a tendency to claim that we’re giving it all to God, to believe that we’re being truly thankful, to speak of hope and peace and joy, when in reality we’re simply using a more acceptable form of escape than alcohol or drug abuse: denial of the misery inside.

    I’ve had my share of stresses in the last few decades. (Actually, it feels like more than my fair share. I have to occasionally remind myself that others have been through worse situations.) I’ve followed my own advice in taking all my feelings to God, being totally honest with Him, begging Him for relief. Venting has released the anger and fear and hopelessness. It’s brought me back to a place where I can genuinely thank God for all the good in my life.

    But occasionally I’ve found myself wallowing in the pain. Obsessing over my circumstances. Making no progress in working through the distress, especially in cases where I can’t take any action, where all I can do is wait and see what the outcome will be. Stuck. Like the woman who wrote the letter to the editor.

    At those times, praising God in spite of the difficulties, finding things to be grateful for even when I don’t feel like giving thanks, seeing the good in little everyday events (like the first responder) helps to lift my heart and my soul out of the pit. It’s not an artificial denial of what I’m really thinking and feeling. I’ve brought it to God, hoping and praying for the strength to endure. I haven’t found the relief that I’m seeking, but I know that I need to move on.

    The Holy Spirit has led me to a better understanding of spiritual warfare through all of this. There can be a fine line between an honest expression of the ache inside and a repetitious cycle of despair and self-absorption. When I cross that line, Satan is winning. He’s got me right where he wants me. He tells me that I’m simply pouring out my heart to God in a healthy way. That’s a good thing. Why not continue to vent?

    But when I deliberately turn from brooding to thanksgiving, I’m resisting that liar. I’m standing up in my own little way against the evil one. Breaking his power over my thoughts. Giving God the glory that He deserves and that Satan wants for himself. I’m depending on God to remind me of His blessings and to make me truly thankful even in the toughest times. It brings me closer to Him and out of the clutches of the enemy. Therefore, I give thanks.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Bad Boy!

    “No, Charlie! No!” Swat. “No chewing on Kleenex!” Usher him outside. Close off the doggy door so he can’t get back in.

    Charlie is the best dog in the world. Rarely misbehaves. Loves me. Protects me. Has patience with me when I forget to feed him.

    But once in a while, maybe a couple of times a year, Charlie gets in trouble. His favorite sin is to pull a Kleenex out of the trash and tear it up. I try to keep every wastebasket above dog-nose height, but somehow, occasionally, a tissue will end up within his reach. He can’t seem to resist it. Then comes the punishment.

    But Charlie knows that it will quickly be followed by forgiveness. He waits happily by the back door, knowing that I’ll be there soon to let him in again and reassure him that I still love him. Is his faith in me greater than my faith in God?

    When I get in trouble with God, what do I expect? Displeasure, judgment, discipline. A greater distance between us that doesn’t just evaporate when I repent. Feeling like I have to work hard, to prove my sincerity, to demonstrate that I am really, really sorry.

    Don’t I know God better than that? Haven’t I read about and experienced His abundant grace over and over again? Yes and no. I’ve grown. I’m far more willing and able to accept His forgiveness and renewed relationship now than I was as a new believer. At that time it could take me weeks or months to understand that I didn’t have to continue in sorrow and contrition day after day. I was forgiven as soon as I admitted that I was wrong (1 John 1:9).

    But I’ll never be perfect in this area any more than I am in all those other areas involved in living the Christian life. That’s why I appreciate the illustration that Charlie provides.

    Charlie faces temptation. Does he struggle, as I do, with his conscience? Does his internal good dog remind him of the suffering that will follow if he gives in, as his internal bad dog urges him on? I’ll never know whether he makes any attempt to resist, because he only misbehaves when no one is looking. But at some point his desire outweighs his memory of past discipline for this same transgression, and he tears up the tissue. As my desires outweigh my memory of the consequences of my sin, and I give in to temptation.

    Fear strikes Charlie’s heart when I enter the room and find the evidence. If he’s right there, he’ll get that guilty expression on his face and refuse to look me in the eye. If he’s elsewhere and I call him cheerfully enough, he’ll come, but not too close, tucking his tail between his legs and hanging back as he realizes that he’s been caught.

    Kind of like me after the pleasure of sin wears off. Knowing I’ll have to face a just and righteous God. Guilty. Fearful. Hanging back. Like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden (Genesis 3:8) or David waiting months after sinning with Bathsheba before confessing and repenting (2 Samuel 11 and 12).

    But my mercy toward Charlie doesn’t trigger more bad behavior on his part. Knowing that I’ll forgive him and love him no matter what doesn’t lead to his seeking the best of both worlds—enjoying both the fleeting pleasure of sin and a loving relationship with one of his favorite humans. He rarely misbehaves.

    Unlike me. How often am I tempted to go ahead and break God’s laws because I know His forgiveness awaits me on the other side of repentance? Why not indulge? It won’t really cost all that much in the end.

    So how does this whole thing work? Why does Charlie trust me to forgive him every time? Why doesn’t he take advantage of my kindness?

    Because we have a relationship based on mutual love. A relationship that brings us both joy. I love Charlie. I show it by helping meet his needs for food and water and exercise, by smiling and talking to him, by petting him and playing with him. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it.

    He loves me back. He demonstrates it by getting excited every time I come home, by wagging his tail when I look his way, by following me from room to room even when I’m ignoring him, by threatening to eat anyone who endangers me.

    But we’re not equals. I enforce the rules. Charlie is dependent on me. Because I love him, I don’t abuse my authority. I’m responsible for training him, for setting boundaries, but because I love him I want what’s best for him. Because I love him, I’m happy to feed him. I don’t do it grudgingly. I enjoy his pleasure as he scarfs down yet another bowl of the same old food that he’s been eating for years.

    Because he loves me, Charlie rarely challenges my authority. Because he loves me, he trusts me to feed him. When I occasionally forget, he doesn’t complain or tear up the house. He waits patiently, knowing that I’ll remember soon enough. Because he loves me, he doesn’t want anyone to harm me.

    This is a model of what my relationship with God should look like. Mutual love that leads to joy, even though it’s not a relationship of equals. Because He loves me, God takes pleasure in meeting my needs, in interacting with me, in protecting me. But unlike my relationship with Charlie, my Lord never forgets to take care of me. He never ignores me as He attends to the other necessities in life. He never leaves me to run a few errands.

    Because I love Him, I spend time with Him in prayer and worship and reading His Word. Because I love Him, I’m eager to obey Him. Yet I question God’s authority more often than Charlie questions mine. I don’t trust Him as completely as Charlie trusts me. When God “forgets” to answer my prayers, I rarely just wait patiently.

    But that’s okay. He loves me even when I fail Him. And because He loves me, He teaches me and leads me into greater growth, greater trust, greater obedience. Not in a legalistic or domineering manner, but in a relational way, a way based on joyful interaction, a loving and gracious way founded on knowing and wanting what’s best for me. A way that provides illustrations (like Charlie) that help me to understand Him better.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Scriptures That Soothe My Soul

    Psalms. Job. Second Corinthians. These are the books of the Bible that I turn to when I’m hurting. During my first depressive episode I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t fight the fog in my head. Couldn’t read for more than a few seconds before losing my train of thought. Couldn’t read God’s Word for understanding or meaning.

    Normally, I’m a left-brained intellectual nerd. So after becoming a Christian, I considered it the most natural thing in the world to want to learn all I could about this new faith. (Giving myself the credit, not realizing how much the Holy Spirit was prompting me and encouraging me and guiding me.) I started reading the Bible from cover to cover even before finding a church to attend. Within a few years, I was frustrated by the lack of depth in most evangelical churches, but I found that depth in God’s Word. I pushed myself to gain knowledge, gain understanding, gain wisdom.

    Maybe even to the point of turning it into an idol.

    At least to the point of legalistically insisting that a good Christian must read, must learn, must grow. Must work hard at it, mustn’t miss a single day’s devotional time.

    Then the depression hit my brain, and everything changed. Unable to focus, feeling guilty for the struggles, going for weeks without reading the Bible due to the physical and mental exhaustion. Until I rediscovered the Psalms. Suddenly I could read again, if only one Psalm at a time. I could feel the authors’ pain and confusion and God’s incomprehensible compassion.

    “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. . . . He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters” (18:6, 16). “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. . . . The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (34:6, 18).

    “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (72:12-14). “In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free” (118:5). “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (145:8-9). “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3).

    Then came Job. The wonder and relief that a righteous man could voice his doubts and question God. The vivid example of how it feels to be surrounded by people who don’t understand some kinds of suffering.

    More recently, after losing any sense of God’s presence for months at a time, feeling a strong connection to Job’s words: “Why do you [God] hide your face and consider me your enemy? Will you torment a windblown leaf? Will you chase after dry chaff?” (13:24-25). “[God] has blocked my way so I cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness” (19:8). “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him” (23:8-9). “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (30:20). That’s how I felt.

    These two books helped me express my doubts and confusion and pain before God. Second Corinthians provided a necessary antidote to the self-focus, a view of the big picture, of how our sufferings fit into God’s greater purposes. A taste of the good and the hope and the strength that is there even in the worst of times. He “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4, italics added). “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:8-9).

    “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9). “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:16-18). “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:10). “‘My [Jesus’] grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ . . . For when I [Paul] am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).

    No denial of the sorrows in this life. In fact, Paul reveals his own difficulties (physical and emotional) more in this book than in any other. And yet he also makes the strongest statements regarding both the benefits to others because of his pain and the triviality of that pain compared to the spiritual blessings of this life and the next. If his suffering is really as intense as he describes it as being, what does that say about the many times greater intensity of the joy and glory that can come through that suffering?

    Thank You, Father, for the richness and variety of Your Word. Thank You that different books and verses minister to me at different times in my life. Whatever my need might be, the Bible provides passages that meet it. During the times when I need to be taught, rebuked, corrected, or trained in righteousness, Your Word is there (2 Timothy 3:16). But it’s also “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) in my times of pain and sorrow, soothing my soul as only You can do.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Intimacy and Honesty

    Exact words from my last post: “Lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.” I assumed that I was stating something that we all just know, even if we don’t practice it.

    Then I happened to hear an interesting podcast. Two Guys on Your Head talking about honesty and happiness. One of their first statements: “It turns out honesty is the best policy despite the fact that people don’t believe it.” So much for my assumption.

    According to the podcast, researchers divided some volunteers into three groups for a study on relationships. They gave each group a different angle to focus on during all of their social interactions over a given length of time. One group was told to be as honest as possible, another to be as kind as possible, and the third to pay more attention to what they were saying as they talked to other people. After practicing their assignments in their everyday lives for the specified number of days, the subjects were asked to rate the closeness and effectiveness of their interactions during that time.

    “Surprisingly,” (the podcaster’s word, not mine) “what they found was people felt like they had better interactions with people and felt closer to the people that they communicated with if they were honest.” Are these two psychologists really surprised to hear this? Or are they just reflecting the surprise most Americans would experience when the results were revealed?

    A fourth group involved in the study was asked to predict what would happen in the same three situations. The majority thought that being honest would be more likely to damage a relationship. They were wrong.

    In the experiment, the subjects reasoned that the kind thing to do is to avoid telling the truth if it might be hurtful or offensive. That makes sense in some situations, like the example the Two Guys gave: if a husband and wife are walking into a restaurant and the wife asks the husband how she looks, kindness wins out over honesty.

    But according to the podcast, most of the time our belief that we’re being kind is really just cowardice. We don’t have the guts to tell people “what you know they need to hear.” Their conclusion is that when we share ourselves with others more freely, especially if it’s done in a positive, rather than a combative or degrading, manner, we’re opening the relationship up to greater intimacy. Ephesians 4:15: Speak the truth in love. It works.

    Some of my best relationships have been with people who don’t agree with me on one or more important subjects. As we’ve discussed our opposing positions and listened to each other and tried to understand each other’s perspective, we’ve developed a deep friendship that I wouldn’t trade for all the “kindness” in the world. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always worth it. Am I the only one who’s experienced this?

    The Two Guys say that the main situation where we avoid telling the truth is when it reflects badly on the speaker or the listener. But as they point out, exposing our weaknesses expresses a willingness to trust the other person. Those great relationships from the previous paragraph also included admitting our uncertainties, our failures, our faults. It’s called vulnerability. It’s biblical. Our culture claims to consider it one of the greatest virtues. What’s happening here?

    An important factor that wasn’t discussed in the podcast is the nonverbal responses that we all pick up on, whether we realize it or not. There’s something about looking into a person’s face as we talk. Their whole expression seems to become warmer and more open when the speaker is being honest. It changes when he or she is holding back. Even if we can’t put a finger on it, I suspect that we instinctively sense when someone is being truthful and when they’re not. And if they’re not, they’ll lose our trust. We might think that we can fool someone by being kind instead of honest, but I’m not sure that it really works that way.

    Many years ago there was a man in my church whose wife had recently left him. They had been living a life of deceit for years, pretending to be happily married, putting on a false front for the rest of the congregation to admire. In reality, he was controlling and manipulating his family to the point of emotional abuse. Initially, the wife thought her husband was being a good Christian spiritual leader and she was being a good Christian submissive wife. But she eventually recognized his behavior as unChristian and unhealthy, and she ended the relationship.

    He remained in our church and Bible study while she moved on. One day, I was talking to him before class. I glanced into his eyes to gauge his response to our conversation. There was nothing there. No human expression. Just a brick wall. He was hiding the truth of who he really was, what he really thought, how he really felt.

    My gut reaction: I can’t trust anything this guy is saying. He might have been oozing kindness in his words, but his eyes betrayed his lack of honesty and destroyed any possibility of friendship or acceptance. This was an extreme case, but I suspect that most of us know when someone is being less than honest even if their words convey kindness. And it widens the distance between us.

    If honesty really is the best policy, if intimacy develops with truth rather than with attempts at deceitful kindness, what happens when a culture strives to protect its members from any words that might be deemed hurtful? Can we engage in honest conversation? Will we build intimacy or only a shallow pretense at friendship? Many colleges are trying to ban offensive speech from the entire campus. Is this really the best way to prevent suffering? Maybe in the short term. But what about the long-term ability to build strong, healthy, lasting relationships based on honesty—the best policy?