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Friday, July 12, 2019

Controlling God

    Gotta be honest here. And honestly, I want a God that I can control. Not that I have to be able to tell Him exactly how to run everything. I just want one who will always answer my prayers for relief from suffering if I behave and believe the way He wants me to. (Within reasonable limits, of course—nobody’s perfect.)

    Sounds like a fair exchange to me. He can deny my request if I’m living in rebellion or seriously doubting Him. As God, He has the right to lay down some ground rules like that. Doesn’t the Bible promise me this kind of relationship with God? Doesn’t it say that if I behave properly (Old Testament) and believe properly (New Testament), He’ll remove all the suffering in my life when I ask Him to?

    Moses in the Old Testament: “All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock. . . Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. . . The enemies who rise up against you will be defeated. . . The Lord will send a blessing . . . on everything you put your hand to. . . The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity. . . You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. . . You will always be at the top, never at the bottom” (Deuteronomy 28:2-13). Sounds like a good and easy life to me. And it’s all based on obedience.

    Jesus in the New Testament: “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29). “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34). Believe. Be healed.

    How can this same God, who obviously grants prayers based on obedience and faith, say no to my requests for relief, not just for me, but for others who are suffering? What about all those promises?

    To be honest, it’s not the sense that He’s gone back on His word that bothers me the most. It’s my inability to get what I want, to exercise control.

    I know these passages don’t represent the entire story. Looking at the Bible as a whole, God has the final say in which petitions He grants and which ones He denies. He’s the only one with the wisdom and the compassion and the perspective to always make the right choice. If He was required to grant every request to everyone who was behaving and believing as He desired, that would put us in control, not Him. And some really bad things would happen, since we don’t know it all (as He does) and can’t foresee all the effects of a given action (as He can).

    But I still have this drive for control. Sometimes when I’m praying, I feel like I’m trying to force my will on God. I know it’s right and best for You to heal that suffering child, God. You have to do it. Nothing else makes sense. Can’t You see that? My mind is so filled with the pain and grief of the situation that I can mechanically repeat the words, “Your will be done,” but my heart longs for my will. For God to open His eyes and see the joy that would spill over into many lives if He would just do it my way.

    My favorite line from the movie Puzzle, describing the feeling after finishing a jigsaw puzzle: “In the end, you know you made all the right decisions.” I might have made an occasional mistake, but once the picture is completed, there’s this satisfaction of knowing that I controlled the process every step along the way and reached the desired outcome.

    When I do logic puzzles online, I frequently hit the “check” button. I want to know, right now, that I’m on the right track. No waiting until I’ve filled in all the blanks. Tell me where I stand immediately. Then I can fix the little mistakes before they mushroom into big mistakes. I can control or eliminate that mushrooming process.

    I want a check button for my life. Just before I make the next decision, no matter how trivial, I want to be able to confirm that I’ll be satisfied with the results. Will the wording in that email or text get the response that I’m hoping for? Check! Will that item that I’m about to order online live up to all my expectations? Check! Am I choosing the social event that I’ll enjoy the most when there’s a conflict between two or more of them? Check!

    Where’s my real-life check button? If I could just click on it every time I’m in doubt, it would give me the control to make my world exactly what I want it to be.

    But I don’t have that check button and I won’t make all the right decisions and God doesn’t do everything I want Him to do to relieve suffering. How do I live with this reality? Especially in a culture that gives us an illusion of control. Want to manage your finances, increase your physical fitness, keep tabs on your children 24/7, prevent criminals from breaking into your home or accessing your personal information? There’s an app for that. There’s an app for everything. I can control whatever I want to if I just find the right app.

    I need to step back from this cultural mindset. To remember that technology doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do I. Deep down inside, I believe in a good and loving God. What I really need isn’t more control, but more faith in God and less faith in my ability to run my own life.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Joy From Sorrow

    Rejoice! Celebrate! Those were God’s commands for His people in the Old Testament (for example, Leviticus 23:39-40). Yet I often hear that the Old Testament God is full of wrath and judgment, while Jesus is full of grace and love. I still remember my surprise and pleasure in discovering long ago that the seemingly mean God of the Old Testament told His people to celebrate and rejoice.

    But over time something happened to me. In more recent years, I’ve been reading the Old Testament with a heavier heart, seeing the sin and the suffering, missing the joy and the celebration. God’s been working on me in this area.

    About a year ago, in my daily Bible reading, I reached the book of Judges with a sense of dread. Ugh. Here comes that book that tells about all the failures of God’s people. They follow Him briefly, they prosper as a result, they turn away from Him in their prosperity, He sends judgment, they cry out to Him in their pain, He rescues them. And then the cycle begins all over again. I’ve been taught that the theme of the whole book is man’s suffering due to his failure to live up to God’s high demands. Pretty depressing.

    But last year, for the first time, I saw it a little differently. Yes, the Israelites vacillated between serving God and serving idols. But the stretches of peace, when they were being faithful, were much longer than the times of oppression in judgment for their sin. Looking at the book of Judges as a whole, Israel’s peace and prosperity lasted two to three times as long as their affliction under other nations.

    And they always turned back to God. God always rescued them. The relationship was always restored, regardless of how very many times they turned away. Joy always followed the sorrow of repentance. Not so depressing after all.

    In the last few months, it seems like everywhere I turn I run into comments on the beauty and joy of Old Testament worship. The richly colored and intricately decorated cloth of the tabernacle, the abundance of sparkling gold and silver and precious gems, the ever-present instruments and voices raised in song. I need to replace my image of the tabernacle and temple as serious places focused solely on bloody sacrifices, with the biblical descriptions of singing and feasting in the presence of the Lord.

    What is it that distinguishes this God from the other gods of the time? Neighboring people were sacrificing their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:21) or cutting themselves with swords and spears in hopes of getting Baal’s attention (1 Kings 18:28). They gave to satisfy their gods’ selfish desires. There was no love expressed by those gods. There was no personal relationship.

    By contrast, the Old Testament God offers and seeks a living relationship with His people. He understands them and loves them. The name “Israel” means “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:28). Would any other god tolerate such a group? And yet the Lord calls them His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). There’s something special about this God.

    Yes, He is a God of judgment. He sets high standards for His people. But the standards are given to guide them into the best possible lives for themselves and the world, not as harsh, random demands. “Keep my commands and you will live” (Proverbs 4:4) isn’t just referring to His willingness to allow them to continue inhabiting this planet if they obey Him. It’s the idea that they will have the most peaceful, satisfying, and fulfilling lives. Why have I been imagining their worship as painful and depressing, recognizing the enormity of their sin without finding any relief?

    The animal sacrifices symbolized the seriousness of sin in God’s eyes. Only the shedding of blood (death) could atone for breaking His commands. That was solemn business. God doesn’t take the shedding of blood, even animal blood, lightly. The animals to be sacrificed had to be the most perfect, the most precious livestock the Israelites owned (Leviticus 22:21-22). It had to cost them something. To give less than their best would be a failure to take their sin seriously enough. This is the part of the worship ceremonies that I’ve been focused on. The sorrow for sin, the death, the judgment.

    But the Israelites also had God’s promise that if they followed His prescribed rituals for confession and repentance, He would forgive them. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. Clean slate. Fresh start. This God is a God of grace. If His people expressed their faith in His character by confessing and repenting, they could experience a renewed relationship with Him, as if they had never turned away. What relief that would bring! What celebration and joy would naturally follow their sorrow!

    Thank You, Father, for correcting this image in my mind. Help me to continue to recall the joy of worshiping You, even in the Old Testament. The beauty of Your places of worship, the praise and celebration expressed through music, the feasting in the community of Your followers, the wonder and awe of knowing that the righteous God has made gracious provision for forgiving sin all through the ages. The joy of a renewed relationship that always follows the sorrow of repentance.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Jeopardy James

    Maybe I need to be more like “Jeopardy James.” Jeopardy James is the latest game show phenomenon. As I’m writing this, he’s won 31 games in a row, second only to Ken Jennings’ record of 74. Even though he’s won less than half as many games as Ken, he’s within two games of passing Jennings’ record of more than $2.5 million. James’ average for his daily winnings is close to the pre-James record for the highest one-day total.

    So what’s his secret? James is a mathematician and a professional gambler. He uses probability and statistics to determine his strategy. He doesn’t play hunches or take foolish risks. (Yes, he takes high risks, but they’re all carefully calculated and therefore reasonable.) That’s one side of his success.

    The other side is what I’d like to emulate. James is completely comfortable with both winning and losing. I’m not. On May 23, he came close to ending his streak. When I tuned in partway through the show, another contestant was ahead of him, which is rare. The contestant then got a Daily Double, boosting his earnings to nearly twice as much as James’. That was a first. But James coolly continued to play, risking everything he had on the next Daily Double and taking the lead. Still calm, still relaxed.

    Unlike me. I was tied up in knots. Screaming in my head, “No! This can’t be happening! He has to win again! He has to break the current all-time record! He can’t lose!” Focusing intently on the game instead of loading the dishwasher, as I usually do during Jeopardy! time.

    Why was I so wrapped up in this game? In the grand scheme of things, an eternity from now, will anyone really care how much money James makes on Jeopardy! or how many records he sets? I don’t think so. During the commercials, I reflected on my reaction and on how James would respond if he lost. That’s when I realized that I need to be more like him.

    As a professional gambler, James knows that the house always determines both the rules and the odds, because it exists to earn a profit. No profit, no house. In the same way, game shows are intended to make money, not to give away unlimited riches. James knows that he will lose at some point. He accepts that as the way the system works. And because he’s comfortable with the system, he wins more. Stress doesn’t mess with his mind or emotions, leading to costly mistakes.

    How comfortable am I with the way God’s system works? Not as comfortable as I’d like to be. I only check my blog stats once a week because I can’t handle the roller coaster of encouragement and disappointment. If the number of page views isn’t as high as I’d hoped, I feel like I’ve failed. Question whether I’m following God’s leading. Search the internet for new ideas on how to be a successful blogger. Get all tensed up inside. And suffer the consequences as the stress messes with my mind and emotions.

    Deep down inside, I know I’m doing my best to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In a Bible study last summer, I had one of those wonder-full experiences of seeing a familiar verse in a new light. “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27, RSV). I always thought this referred only to our initial calling to follow Him. But it also applies to our daily walk with Him.

    Jesus doesn’t hide His will and direction from us. He doesn’t challenge us to search high and low for it with uncertainty and anxiety, as for a hidden treasure that few will ever find. He speaks to us through His Word, through wise counselors, through life’s circumstances. We hear His voice. It’s that simple. And yet I still worry that I’m missing something.

    A few months ago, I was selling off books and games that I no longer wanted. Boxes of treasures went to the second-hand store. The payoff: $38. I’d hoped for so much more. Had I done the right thing in dealing with this particular store? Should I have shopped around or had a garage sale or used eBay? Did I fail to do what was best in the situation? Disappointed and discouraged, I struggled with it all the way home.

    A day or two later, a thought occurred to me: maybe that $38 was exactly what God wanted me to have. Not a penny more. Not a penny less. Just right.

    Don’t I have an even better foundation for facing my gains and losses than James does? He plays within an impersonal system that’s stacked against him. I live and breathe and move and work in the presence of a living God who loves me and wants the best for me. Every hair on my head is numbered (Luke 12:7). He works in all things in my life for His glory and for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). I can hear the voice of my shepherd without straining to make it out.

    So I checked my blog stats this morning from a new perspective. Not as many page views as I would have liked? Maybe that number is just exactly where God wants it to be. Maybe I’m not failing to follow Him faithfully when I have fewer readers. Maybe I need to trust Him to bring just the right people to my blog at just the right time, instead of stressing out over whether I’m doing everything that I should be doing, whether I’m missing some signal from on high that I should be seeing, whether I’m really good enough at this to continue with it.

    Maybe I could have the peace and calm of Jeopardy James, accepting the bad with the good, the trials with the triumphs, because I know that God is leading me and that He loves me, even when I don’t fully understand His system.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Chaplains at Work

    Recently heard about a company called Marketplace Chaplains. Trained Christian chaplains available 24/7 to provide employee care to businesses. Workers going through a crisis or stressful life event can choose to contact them, choose where to meet with them, choose how much to reveal to them, even choose the best match from a team of chaplains serving their particular company. It’s all confidential and free to the employee.

    What a great idea! But after a few minutes of marveling over the brilliance of the plan, another thought: Why do we need these people?

    Yes, they’re providing a valuable service. Yes, there’s a lot of pain and suffering among the workers in any given company at any given time, leading to reduced efficiency for the business. (Let’s be real here. The only reason most businesses would hire this company is to improve productivity.) Yes, Christianity has the best solutions for coping with and overcoming the challenges that we all face.

    My question isn’t, “Why bother?” It’s, “Why isn’t this already happening on a more informal basis?” Aren’t there enough Christians in the secular marketplace that, if each one did a fraction of what Jesus commanded in instructing us to love our neighbors as ourselves, there would be no need for this ministry?

    I can understand how beneficial it would be for some individuals to have specialized training to be able to reach out to people from widely different backgrounds and with widely different kinds of struggles. But shouldn’t every Christian be learning how to fulfill what Jesus referred to as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)? Shouldn’t we be building loving, kind, generous relationships with those around us, including in the secular workplace? Then when someone needs a listening ear, we’ll naturally be there for them.

    We might not be able to steer them to other needed resources, as a Marketplace Chaplain will be able to do. But from what I’ve heard and seen and read, the majority of people who are struggling with everyday issues in their lives benefit most from simply talking about it with someone who’s willing to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” as James says “everyone” should be (James 1:19). “Everyone” meaning every Christian, not just specially trained experts. Where have we gone wrong?

    I know many loving, caring believers. I marvel at how many Christians are serving God full-time in low-wage ministries to the homeless, to drug addicts, in the inner city, with overseas missions, anywhere there is great need. These people are truly living out their faith.

    But for the rest of us, who are not called into those ministries, the teaching we hear in our evangelical organizations week after week focuses primarily (sometimes exclusively) on how to convert people, not on how to love them. Learn the right Bible verses. Memorize the latest apologetics. Lip service is sometimes given to building relationships, but it takes a back seat to the sense of urgency that if I don’t say something about Jesus to that unbeliever right now, he or she could be lost forever. Little time is spent teaching us members of a me-centered culture how to build genuine caring relationships with those who don’t know Christ.

    Most of the Christians I’ve known who are employed by large secular corporations follow one of two paths in the workplace. Some remain totally silent about their faith. They simply don’t know how to bring Jesus into a conversation. Maybe they’ve tried it a few times and met with nothing but hostility. Maybe they’re introverts who don’t talk about anything personal on the job. I can understand this approach.

    The second group sees the workplace as their mission field and themselves as missionaries. They steer every personal conversation to Jesus and the salvation that He offers. They do more talking than listening. They press each coworker to make a decision. Their hearts are in the right place, but I have to question their methods. And yet those methods are coming from their churches and Bible study classes.

    The problem is that they come across all wrong. They might care deeply about the person that they’re confronting, but their conversations feel more like high-pressure sales pitches than loving concern. If a particular coworker doesn’t respond well, they let the relationship drop and move on to the next victim.

    But every great once in a while I meet someone who models a more biblical approach to workplace evangelism. They build relationships with their coworkers. They love them just the way they are, as God loves us. They demonstrate genuine concern for those around them. They listen. They mourn with those who mourn. They don’t offer quick answers to every dilemma. They don’t judge those who have failed as parents, those who have failed as spouses, those who have failed to resist the attractions of drug and alcohol abuse. At some point, they share their faith, but not in a high-pressure fashion. And they touch lives in deeper, more meaningful, more long-lasting ways than those who follow the evangelically-correct methods.

    Why do we need Marketplace Chaplains? Because we’re falling so far short of God’s demands and desires for us as we interact with those who are hurting. Instead, we pay someone else to do it. I pray for the day when this ministry shuts its doors due to lack of demand, when Christians begin doing what we should’ve been doing all along.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

He is Risen!

    Good Friday. The crucifixion. The most intense suffering the world has ever seen. Jesus, God the Son, rejected, humiliated, tortured, executed in the most excruciating way possible. The greatest agony of all—separation from God the Father. Completely cut off. Abandoned, forsaken (Matthew 27:46). Two who had been in perfect, intimate, inseparable fellowship for all eternity are now torn apart.

    This is beyond my comprehension, but I get a vague glimpse of it in this world. The sorrow that I feel when I lose a friendship to a foolish argument, or when one of us moves too far away, or when a loved one dies. Experts say the most stressful event a human being can go through is the death of his or her child. It brings intense, intolerable pain. But that’s only a shadow of the grief of God the Father and His Child on that Good Friday.

    And then came Easter Sunday. Just as the first Good Friday witnessed the greatest suffering ever, so the first Easter announced God’s greatest triumph over all suffering.

    He is risen!

    How can I ever say this without experiencing the deepest reverence, the ultimate joy, the humble awe that God would demonstrate His complete mastery over all of our trials and afflictions by raising Jesus from the dead?

    He is risen!

    I’ve heard it so many times that I seldom appreciate the power behind those words. We evangelicals don’t wait until Easter to remember Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. We bring it to mind all year long. It becomes almost commonplace, everyday, ordinary. I forget the wonder of knowing that death, the ultimate in suffering, is defeated. And so I forget the consequence—God has the power to defeat the suffering in my life.

    Not that I’ll never hurt again. Not that my heart will never break again. Not that I’ll go through life with a smile plastered on my face as I deny the reality of the misery in this world.

    One particular aspect of God’s triumph over suffering is often stressed in the New Testament. Jesus’ resurrection has ended the pain of the separation between God and us. The curtain in the temple has been torn in two (Matthew 27:51).

    From what I understand of salvation in the Old Testament, it was based on faith, as in the New (Romans chapter 4). But the Holy Spirit wasn’t given to an individual permanently, like He is now. He was with a person, on the outside, not within the person. Even after being saved, someone could be alienated from God in the sense that His Spirit could leave them.

    That changed with the resurrection. Since that momentous event, when we become Christians by grace through faith, the Holy Spirit comes to reside within us as a guarantee of our future life with God in heaven (Ephesians 1:13-14). He will never leave us. We will never again be estranged from Him.

    “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

    We can never experience the rupture in our relationship with God that Jesus Himself went through. The result is that even in “all these things,” in trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and the threat of death, we can be more than conquerors. With His continual presence, with His constant power, we can know something of God’s victory over pain and suffering as He confirmed it in the resurrection.

    Occasionally, this comes in the form of relief from the source of the ordeal—an illness or injury healed, a financial need met, or a relationship restored. But even when the physical affliction continues, we have His spiritual resources to strengthen us: His love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, His enabling us to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

    “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). This is a picture of the complete, total, absolute lack of all food whatsoever. Guaranteed starvation. And an expression of extreme faith by one who started out questioning and complaining: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

    Skeptics ask how we can believe in a good God in the midst of the trials and sorrows of this life. As I grow in my faith, as my relationship with Him deepens, as I get a little closer to understanding the enormity of what He’s done through Christ’s death and resurrection, I marvel over a different question: Why should this most perfect, most powerful, absolutely free God even care about me, much less make the greatest sacrifice possible so that I can have a relationship with Him?

    In comparison to that and to the consequences that it brings, the worst trouble imaginable is hardly worth mentioning. Not that the suffering is so trivial, but that this relationship with God is so very great.

    Until I can better grasp that, I will wallow in misery and self-pity. I will view my life from the world’s perspective and feel disappointed, cheated, bitter, angry. I will be unable to honestly say with Habakkuk, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, “I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

    Even as I write this, there’s that voice in my head that magnifies the physical and emotional pain and minimizes His presence. But Jesus is drawing me nearer to the faith of Habakkuk as I journey through this life in inseparable, unbreakable, eternal fellowship with the good, kind, gracious, generous, loving God of the universe because . . .

    He is risen!