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Friday, October 2, 2020

Good Sports

 The background

    I’m excited. God answered a prayer that I wasn’t really even praying. I love it when He does that. He surprised me by providing a solution to a problem that I’d posed in an earlier article.

    As I wrote at that time, I’ve heard many stories of young people who are raised in prosperous Christian homes and who profess faith at an early age, but who are later blindsided by unexpected hardships and respond by turning away from God. My question was: How can parents in a land of plenty better prepare their children for the suffering that will inevitably occur? I didn’t have an answer. God did. I wasn’t even praying for an answer. But God led me to one anyway.

    Our world has been turned upside down since I published that post. It seems kind of irrelevant to ask that question now. With the coronavirus pandemic, no one is living in a bubble of protection anymore, where the pain and the fear can’t touch them. But shortly before COVID-19 invaded our lives, God used Cindy, a friend from church, to suggest a solution to the problem that I’d raised. I want to present it here as a follow-up to my earlier article, because I don’t like unanswered questions and I assume many of you feel the same way. In addition, Cindy’s idea can be applied to the challenge of helping kids to cope now.

An answer to my question

    Cindy went through a tough childhood. Divorced parents. A mother who didn’t want her. A father and stepmother who provided material necessities but no emotional support, no encouragement, no interest in Cindy as a real person.

    For Cindy, hearing the gospel was instantly and dramatically life-changing. She learned of God, the perfect Father, who loved her so intensely that He sacrificed His own Son to save her soul. She had never known a human being who would go one inch out of their way to show that they cared for her. But the God of the universe had spared no expense to demonstrate the depth of His compassion. She believed.

    Years later, Cindy is now a wife and mom. She and her husband both have college degrees and comfortable incomes. They live in a nice house in a nice suburb where their children are receiving a good education. They go to a nice suburban church with other people who live in similar circumstances.

    But to Cindy that’s a problem. How will her kids appreciate the enormity of God’s love if they’ve never known the pain and rejection that she grew up with from the day she was born? We had different questions, but one answer works for both. That answer: Sports. Cindy and her husband have a rule that their children will participate in sports.

The benefits

    Sports provide a safe, short-term exposure to suffering. Everyone loses at some point. Everyone fails sooner or later. With rare exceptions, everyone feels the pain of knowing that someone else is better than they are, that they will never be the fastest runner or the most accurate kicker or the highest jumper. To make it even worse, playing on a team involves struggling and hurting among people who don’t necessarily even care about you.

    When I was a child so many years ago, there was a push to make sports less competitive and more cooperative. It’s still going on. Why hasn’t it succeeded after all this time? I’d appreciate better cooperation in most areas of our lives (especially now), but Americans seem to know that competitive sports have an important role to play, too.

    Cooperation gives us a sense of control. If I’m involved in a cooperative enterprise, I get to help make the rules, choose the role I want to play, and determine what happens next. But suffering almost always demonstrates that I don’t have that kind of control.

    That’s why children need some areas, like sports, where they compete on someone else’s terms. Where unfair calls are made and sometimes luck beats out talent. Where the teams aren’t always equally matched but they have to play anyway. The most difficult moments in life hit us like that. We need to prepare our young ones to meet them.

    But we’re living in different times now. Now all of our kids are experiencing fear and loss in a way that this country hasn’t seen in many decades. They don’t need sports to teach them that life doesn’t always go the way they want it to. But they do need to find ways to process their emotions and responses. How can they do that?

    Through sports. Sports expose athletes to ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and sorrows. But at some point the game ends. Unlike the ongoing stresses in real life, sports provide an opportunity to learn how to deal with temporary pain. The players can then apply those lessons to the more difficult issues in their lives. Facing the minor trauma of striking out or missing a basket or dropping the football, and working through it, can give them the tools and the confidence to face the greater challenges that have come with the coronavirus.

    Sports can also be therapeutic. They can provide an acceptable outlet for aggression, releasing the unspoken fears and frustrations and anger inside. They can help young people to discover and develop their talents. They can allow kids to take pride in their contributions to the team.

    But how many sports are available right now? Many outlets have shut down. Some adults are hesitant about allowing their children to participate in activities where they could be exposed to COVID-19. Some young people are afraid of the potential risks involved. If sports aren’t an option, maybe similar benefits could be made available through a family or bubble-group game time.

    In addition, many of us are using this period of shut-down activities to do more reflecting. With a break from the pressure to be constantly on the go, we’re reconsidering our priorities and our use of time. Maybe some moms and dads will take this opportunity to rethink parenting styles. Maybe they’ll recognize the need to better prepare their children for the realities that the future holds through intentional exposure to short-term suffering. Maybe they’ll come up with a plan like Cindy’s and start looking for ways to get their kids involved in sports once the pandemic is under control.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Delight or Despair?

 God’s revelation

    Recently read through Psalm 119. All 176 verses. Normally, when I read it, I can relate to Sam Williamson’s initial thoughts in his blog post about this “dreaded psalm,” especially the “dull repetition.”

    But God has been changing my perspective on His Word and His commands in the last few months (as He changed Sam’s). Sometimes when I open my Bible in the morning, I have a sense of awe that this is the very Word of God! Not just another book. Not just a bunch of stories and sayings that I’ve heard a hundred times. Not just something fallible written by a variety of human authors expressing their own opinions.

    The actual Lord of the universe, He who created all that exists, is communicating with us in this book that I’m touching with my own hands and seeing with my own eyes. He’s revealing who He is and how we can have a relationship with Him. What kind of God would make such a privilege available to so many? He didn’t have to do it. But He gave us this amazing revelation because of the intensity of His love for us.

His answer to my prayer

    So when I came to Psalm 119, I was praying that this time I wouldn’t see it as a repetitive compilation of praises for a legalistic lifestyle or as a list of unrealistic expectations, like in the first few verses: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord. Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed” (italics added). Somehow, that just doesn’t describe me. But, in answer to my prayer, here’s what I realized: I can and should delight in His law. Not just His love and His grace, but His law.

    He gives us that law as both a guide to the best possible life in this world of suffering and a revelation of His character.

    Does God say “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) to cruelly forbid us the excitement of multiple partners? No! He issues that command so that we can have the deeper pleasure and fulfillment of a good and lasting marriage. Marriage at its best gives a man and woman a hint of the joyful intimacy that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit experience among themselves through all eternity.

    Does God say “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15) to deny us the pleasure of owning something without the pain of paying for it? No! Stealing destroys trust. Our personal relationships are far stronger and more satisfying when we can trust each other. If my friend can’t depend on me to respect his private property, will he share with me the things that really matter? We can better understand and rejoice in the trustworthiness of God when we experience a less perfect form of it in our human relationships.

    Does God say “Remember the Sabbath” (Exodus 20:8) so that once a week we have to sit back in boredom and worry about all the things that we’re not getting done? No! He’s removing the burden of laboring seven days a week, He’s reminding us that everything we have ultimately comes from Him, and He’s providing time for us to draw nearer to His kind and loving presence without the distraction of a to-do list.

    Every command that God has given us has an equally good and valid reason behind it. It leads to a happier, more fulfilling life. It helps us to better understand and appreciate His character.

    It’s incredibly hard to obey His law because I’m so self-centered. I want what I want and I want it now. But it’s well worth the sacrifice to aim for Jesus’ high goal of being perfect (Matthew 5:48), even though I know I won’t reach it in this life. As I grow in my relationship with Him, He will develop within me a greater ability to love my neighbor as myself, to step back from that little voice inside that insists on having my own way, to understand that the fruit of obedience today is greater joy and peace and contentment tomorrow.

    Modern research supports the idea that following God’s law is good for us. Recent studies have shown that “deaths from despair” (suicide and deaths related to drug and alcohol abuse) are significantly less common among those who attend religious services on a regular basis than among those who don’t. These religious people experience better overall physical health and better psychological well-being. Whether they’re Christians or not, they’re the ones most likely to be attempting to obey God’s commands.

    Contrary to the promise of the 1960s that freeing ourselves from the restraints of traditional moral values would bring greater happiness, that “freedom” has led to a decrease in life expectancy, largely due to an increase in deaths from despair. Happiness has declined. Despair has grown.

My new prayer

    I’m nowhere near the point of approaching my Bible reading with eager anticipation every day, especially the Old Testament. Seeing God’s law as something negative and dread-full is too prevalent in our evangelical culture with its emphasis on grace. We’ve forgotten that the law was given to draw people nearer to Him. We see it as a harsh relic of the past. All that matters now is that God loves me. As a result, we’ve lost the sense of the beauty and joy and delight in His law that the writer expresses in Psalm 119:

    “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. . . I delight in your decrees.”

    “My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times.”

    “Your statutes are my delight.”

    “Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.”

    My new prayer is the same as the psalmist’s in verse 18: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (italics added).

Friday, August 28, 2020


 Breaking Down

    Today I feel weak and fragile. Unable to discern where God is leading me. Overwhelmed by the stresses of the hour that we’re living in. Longing for normal times.

    Today I should be writing, working in my yard, reaching out to friends in need. But today all I want to do is relax, zone out, recharge my batteries.

    Yesterday was bad. I fell apart. A friend made a comment about a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago. I had no memory of the details that she mentioned. Too worn out from overdoing the day before, I couldn’t handle the shock of hearing her describe a recent mutual experience that didn’t sound even vaguely familiar to me.

    My reported statement had involved one of her habits that affects my life and mildly annoys me. I’d decided years ago that I wouldn’t jeopardize our friendship by asking her to change her ways. I could live with her idiosyncrasy, even though it was a bit of an inconvenience for me.

    So the problem wasn’t just that I couldn’t remember something specific that I’d said to her. The problem was that I couldn’t even imagine making that comment. When she brought it up, I covered my confusion by suggesting that maybe she’d misunderstood me or hadn’t heard me clearly. She accepted that. To her, it was no big deal. But it threw me into a dark and fearful place where I seriously questioned whether I was losing my mind.

    For many years, I’ve struggled with medical issues that affect my brain. It’s mainly related to menopause, but side effects from an over-the-counter medication may have done additional damage. I have to be really careful about overdoing. Set boundaries and stick to them. Or pay the price in stages.

    First stage: broken body. Increased physical fatigue. Second: broken brain. The mental fog rolls in. Third, and most terrifying: broken emotions. Irrational fear. Hopelessness about my future. Obsessing over the negatives. Completely convinced that what I’m thinking is reasonable, understandable, normal. In my own mind (never out loud) I've labelled it “my insanity.” It doesn’t reach this point very often, but when it does, it scares me.

    Yesterday I was well into stage two when our conversation started. My weary brain took my friend’s statement, red-flagged this alarming new kind of forgetfulness, and ran with it deep into stage three. Do I have periods when I actually black out any memory of what’s happening, never to recall it again? Are there holes in my mind where I thought there was wholeness? Is this a sign of dementia creeping in? If so, what will tomorrow bring?

Coming back

    After so many yesterdays when the same emotional symptoms had occurred, I eventually recognized what was happening and went into response mode, using self-talk in an attempt to short-circuit the panic and the negative thoughts. (One important factor: even though my friend’s cancer has been in remission for several months, her chemo brain continues. It’s entirely possible that she misheard, misunderstood, or misremembered.)

    But the anxiety still haunted me. I couldn’t let go, couldn’t stop my imagination from fearing the worst. Praying: Lord, please help me to recall the conversation or to reason through the circumstances. Help me to somehow get a handle on what most likely occurred.

    God said no. Hours later, I was just as mystified as I had been when my friend brought up the subject. Instead, He provided a different answer. The Holy Spirit called to my mind other yesterdays when the insanity had clutched my brain with its fierce claws and sent me into a similar downward spiral. On every occasion, the cure was simple: time. Time passed. The symptoms went away. My perspective shifted back to normal. With this thought came peace.

Facing today

    Today the insanity is over. I’m puzzled by our conversation, not overwhelmed. But today I’m feeling weary from yesterday’s meltdown. I don’t want to work. I don’t want to think. I don’t want to reach out to others. I fear a repeat of yesterday if I do too much today.

    So what does God expect from me today? According to Jesus, my life is supposed to be one of sacrificial giving. Do I sacrifice my energy, my mind, my sanity by pushing myself to do more, to put others’ needs before my own? Do I plunge ahead, reciting the promise, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13)? He has refused me that strength many times in the past. Sometimes His will includes my weakness.

    Or do I give in to the urge to spend even more time than usual relaxing? Can I justify my inactivity by arguing that I might not accomplish a lot, but I will do a few things well, with a clear head and calm emotions? Will God judge me for my negligence, or is He sitting up in heaven shaking His head and sighing with compassion over my tendency to push myself too hard? Discerning His will, hearing His voice, is so much more difficult today than it is on my better days.

    Where do I go from here? Take one step at a time. Think and pray over today’s list of to-dos. Quiet my own imaginary voice in my head so that I can hear His instead. Put aside “should,” focus on “could.”

    I should work on my profile for my blog. But I’m not thinking clearly enough to have any confidence in my own editing. I could pour out my feelings and frustrations in a new post. Maybe God can use this time of fatigue and uncertainty to minister to someone in need.

    I should do some yard work before it gets any hotter. If I skip it completely, I’ll get further behind. But I could just finish up the job I started a few days ago, without tackling a new one. Ten minutes later, I’m back in the house cooling off again. Thank You, Father, for understanding my needs and desires, for leading me to the things that I can do, for letting me experience a sense of accomplishment even when I feel so limited.

    I take my usual breaks for eating, napping, relaxing. In between I check my to-dos. I could write one email. Done. Not too tired yet. I could write another. Done. A little bit of energy remains. I could check out a new website. Done. Looking at my entire list is overwhelming. Focusing on one item at a time is doable.

    As today ends, I’m feeling whole again. God has restored my emotions, my brain, my body. At this point, I always hope and pray that the insanity will never return. But I know that if it does, I’ll have one more memory of one more time when God saw me through it and grew me just a little bit more. Because of yesterday and today, I will be stronger tomorrow.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Growing Stronger

 Stronger or more bitter?

    “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”*

    I hate that saying.

    Why? Don’t I know that God is working for our good in all things (Romans 8:28)? Our highest good is to become more like Him. Therefore, in all things, including those that hurt but don’t kill us, God will make us stronger, won’t He?

    But is it automatic? I suffer, therefore I grow? Not from what I’ve seen. God is always working for our good, but we often have to work with Him, in an attitude of humility and submission, in order to heal and produce fruit.

    A Christian man I used to know dreamed as a child of one day becoming a doctor. He did all he could to make that dream come true. He demonstrated innate curiosity about things both natural and mechanical. He maintained high grades throughout his years of schooling. He became involved in extracurricular activities, including volunteering in the local emergency room on Friday and Saturday nights. He developed interpersonal skills that would contribute to a good bedside manner. If he had been born ten years earlier, he probably would have been accepted into medical school and gone on to a successful career as a physician.

    But he completed his bachelor’s degree in the late 1970s. At that time, there was a growing attempt to get more women and minorities into medicine. Highly-qualified white males, including my friend, were being passed over in favor of less-qualified females and people of color. My friend’s applications to various med schools were denied. He switched tracks and became an engineer instead. It wasn’t his first choice, but he accepted it and served well in his back-up field. What didn’t kill him made him stronger.

    I met another Christian man about fifteen years ago. Same dream, same focus on the goal, same failure to be accepted into med school. Different result. This guy was angry and resentful over being passed up for a career that he knew he deserved. He found another path, but pursued it grudgingly, meeting only the minimal requirements and continuing to complain to those closest to him about his unfair treatment so many years before. What didn’t kill him made him bitter.

Stronger or more vulnerable?

    A different friend went through a difficult time as an unwanted child. Finding Christ freed her of many false beliefs about her value and her ability to be loved. As a Christian, with God’s grace and power and wisdom, she worked through her damaged emotions and self-image. What didn’t kill her eventually made her stronger.

    A second woman that I knew many years ago had also had a traumatic childhood in an unstable home. She became a Christian and experienced the peace and joy and love of Christ. But she bought into the evangelically-correct idea that she wasn’t broken inside anymore. That was the past. It was over. God had instantaneously, completely healed her when she believed.

    She was the secretary to an assistant pastor at my church. That pastor left. A new one was hired. When he interviewed for the position, his previous employers failed to reveal his history of sexual misconduct. He immediately recognized the weakness of his new secretary. He preyed on her. He manipulated her. He destroyed her marriage by initiating an affair with her. What didn’t kill her made her vulnerable.

    I’ve seen too many broken Christians who never really heal. Like the second man who was denied access to med school and the secretary who had the affair with her boss. With inadequate treatment, the wounds fester. What doesn’t kill them continues to eat away at them, regardless of the facade of health and strength that they wear for others to see.

Our current opportunity

    What will the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic be for believers in America? Will we follow in the footsteps of the first people mentioned in each of my pairs of examples and be strengthened? Will we accept God’s detours in our lives and allow Him to grow us, or will we become bitter? Will we work through the pain in order to find healing, or will we put on a happy face through it all, then fall prey to those who know how to exploit us?

    And what about our attitude to Christians who are struggling with the fallout from COVID-19? Will we allow them, and even encourage them, to take whatever time they need to work through their pain and doubts? Will we be there for them, to walk alongside them in the process? Or will we shame them if we don’t see a quick fix occurring?

True strength

    Maybe we need to change this faulty assumption about growing stronger to some searching questions, asked with the compassion that desires healing for the sufferer. How might God use this non-fatal experience to make you stronger? Can you see anything that He’s trying to teach you through it? What small steps can you begin taking right now? What could you work on changing in your attitude or behavior in order to gain the strength that’s available to you? Who can help you as you try to move forward? A wise and trusted friend? A patient pastor? A professional counselor?

    Ultimately, our strength comes from God. Only He can heal our brokenness and bind up our wounds. But we have a responsibility, too—to be honest with Him and with others, to face our hurts and anger and shortcomings head-on, to be open to His guidance in pursuing healing, to learn to be thankful rather than resentful when He prunes our damaged branches. As we do our part, in His love and patience and grace He will bring growth. What doesn’t kill us will make us stronger. But it isn’t automatic, as that saying that I hate so much implies.

*Adapted from Friedrich Nietzsche. What he actually wrote was, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” (italics added). Was he speaking only for himself, or did he believe that this principle applied to everyone, as our current version suggests?

Friday, July 17, 2020

That's Not Fair!

The suffering of two faithful servants

    “After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah” (2 Chronicles 32:1, italics added). Wait a minute. Isn’t this the Old Testament? Isn’t this one of those books where God repeatedly says that Israel’s and Judah’s ups and downs are directly connected to their degree of faith and obedience?

    How could God do this to Hezekiah? How could He follow Hezekiah’s faithfulness with a vicious attack? Doesn’t that go against everything the chronicler has been illustrating? Isn’t God being totally inconsistent with His teaching throughout the Old Testament?

    Why would God allow this?

    It reminds me of poor David (1 Samuel 16-31). Anointed as king while Saul is still reigning. Serving under him as both a musician and a warrior. Arousing Saul’s jealousy as David slays his tens of thousands, while Saul only slays his thousands. Spending years fleeing from Saul’s vengeful attempts to kill him.

    And yet David was a man after God’s own heart, while Saul defied God’s clear directions and lost His favor (1 Samuel 15). It’s not supposed to work this way. The good guy is supposed to be rewarded with an easy life, while the bad guy faces judgment.

    So why did God allow Saul to torment David, and Sennacherib to attack Hezekiah? It’s only a theory, but I have to wonder if there’s such a thing as preventive suffering. Even though David was more committed to God and followed Him more faithfully than any other Old Testament king, at one time he allowed his lust and his pride to drag him down into committing rape and murder (2 Samuel 11).

    He had his neighbor’s wife, Bathsheba, taken from her home and brought to him for sex. Could she have turned him down? Could she have resisted him? Could she have called out for help? Her life was in his hands, and they both knew it. As king, he had the power to do with her as he pleased, whether that meant sleeping with her or punishing her if she refused. He used her and he sent her home.

    And she got pregnant. Her husband, Uriah, was off at war, fighting Judah’s enemies, as David should have been. Uriah couldn’t possibly be the father of Bathsheba’s baby. David tried to cover his tracks by sending for her husband, but Uriah refused to enjoy the pleasures of home while the rest of the army was on the battlefield. Desperate to save his reputation for righteousness, David had Uriah killed and married his widow.

    I read these chapters in my Bible with pain and horror and anger. How could he do such a thing?

What if . . .

    And then I wonder, could it have been even worse? What if David had had an easier life? What if Saul had died and David had become king shortly after Samuel had anointed him? What if he’d never had to flee in terror from Saul’s jealousy and rage? What if he hadn’t spent years trusting God to fulfill His promise?

    Would his sin have been even worse?

    Would he have let his talents and his power and his popularity go to his head, raping women, murdering men, eventually turning completely away from the God that he’d worshipped in his youth? It’s possible. The Lord may have used David's suffering at the hands of Saul as preparation for the great temptations that he would face as his power multiplied.

    The same could be true of Hezekiah, whose reign prior to the attack by Sennacherib is described in 2 Chronicles 29 through 31. He purified the temple. He encouraged the people of Israel to return to the Lord and to celebrate the Passover in ways that hadn’t happened in years. He gave generously to the restoration of God’s design for worship. He did what was “good and right and faithful before the Lord his God. In everything that he undertook in the service of God’s temple and in obedience to the law and the commands, he sought his God and worked wholeheartedly. And so he prospered.”

    Then came the invasion by Assyria. Some time after that, “Hezekiah’s heart was proud and he did not respond to the kindness shown him [by God, in healing him of a deadly disease]; therefore the Lord’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem. Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart” (2 Chronicles 32:25 and 26).

    What if Hezekiah hadn’t been forced to depend on God during Sennacherib’s siege? What if he hadn’t been humbled by his helplessness? What if he hadn’t experienced the prayerful support of the prophet Isaiah as they awaited God’s action in defeating the enemy? What if he hadn’t grown in his faith as a result of his suffering?

    Would his downfall have been even worse? Would the Lord’s wrath on him and his people have been even more devastating? Would the suffering have been greater without the invasion by Assyria than it was with it?

Strengthening for hard times

    I don’t like the verse that I quoted at the beginning of this post. I want to read here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, that God rewarded Hezekiah’s faithfulness with peace and prosperity.

    But on the other hand, it can be reassuring to me when I’m going through hard times, as so many of us are today, to know that even His most faithful servants can face a vicious attack. To know that painful suffering can come even in the times of consistent obedience. Then I’m better able to resist the negative thoughts telling me that if I’d just prayed a little more, if I’d just had a little more faith, if I’d just spent more time reading His Word, these bad things wouldn’t be happening to me.

    “After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah.” Maybe some of the invasions in my life come, not as a result of sin and disobedience or a failure to discern and follow His will, but after all my faithfulness to God. Maybe they come to grow me and strengthen me, to prepare me to face temptations that would otherwise overpower me somewhere in the unknown future. Temptations that might lead to greater suffering for others as well as for myself. Maybe life is better with the painful, unwanted, undeserved attacks than it would be without them.