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Friday, March 20, 2020

Weird Faith

    I’ve noticed a certain weirdness about my faith lately. It seems like the more it grows, the less I expect from God. Is this what growth is really supposed to look like?

    On the one hand, the better I know God, the more I recognize that He owes me absolutely nothing. He is God. He is perfect in all His ways. By comparison, I’m a speck of dust. Yes, He proclaims and demonstrates His intense love for this speck of dust. But compared to Him in all His greatness and glory, I am not worth even noticing.

    My puny life expectancy is invisible next to His eternal existence. My meager attempts at loving are pitiful when seen beside His sacrificial giving for those who will never deserve it. My great intelligence is as an ameba’s compared to His infinite wisdom.

    I’ve spent my life immersed in a culture that tells me how very valuable I am. I’ve been successful in nearly everything I’ve tried. Self-esteem? No problem. Just the opposite. Pride has always been my greatest spiritual challenge. So it’s taken me many years to begin to grasp how insignificant I am compared to God. If I truly see Him as He is, how can I expect to make any demands on Him at all?

    On the other hand, all my forty-plus years as a Christian I’ve been told that great faith means trusting God to grant our requests for financial help, for physical healing, for any other real needs that we have in this life. Believers understandably enjoy telling stories about the big prayers they’ve prayed and how God went beyond their expectations and provided even more.

    That’s what a mature Christians does, isn’t it? As your faith grows, God will do more and more miraculous things in your life, right?

    Based on that understanding, many believers face a serious crisis when their child dies, or they experience financial ruin through no fault of their own, or a loved one lives with chronic pain year after year. Their faith crumbles. They want to scream at God and demand an answer to the Why that we all face.

    But as I grow, knowing the Why becomes less important than knowing the Who.

    As a result, I find myself lowering my expectations of God, as far as material blessings are concerned. I still bring all my cares to Him, trusting that He has the power to grant them. At the same time, I’m learning to accept that He knows best, even when I don’t understand His decisions. I’m trying to live, in my thoughts and my prayers and my emotions, as if this is really true.

    But I always thought greater faith meant higher expectations. Aren’t we supposed to pray in the belief that whatever we ask for will be given to us? If we don’t believe that strongly enough, isn’t that supposed to reduce the possibility that God will grant our requests (Matthew 9:22 and 29, 17:20, 21:21)? Am I sabotaging all my prayers if I lower my expectations?

    Of course God has no obligation to respond if I don’t really believe in Him, but there’s a problem with this kind of thinking. In the context of the Bible as a whole, we’re supposed to pray in the belief that whatever we ask for will be given to us IF it’s His will. If I expect God to answer my prayers based primarily on the amount of faith that I have, rather than on His wisdom and purpose, then I’m placing my trust in my own faith, not in His character.

    But what about Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength”? Doesn’t that mean that the more I grow and the more I depend on His strength, the more I’ll be able to accomplish? Shouldn’t I have greater expectations for material success based on this verse? That’s what I hear from many Christians around me.

    It’s true that, in His grace, God gives immeasurably more than all that we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). But I have to read this verse from Philippians in the context of the one before it: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

    Paul isn’t writing about successful achievements when he speaks of doing “everything;” he’s referring very specifically to coping with whatever circumstances come his way. And not just coping, as in putting up with it until something better comes along, but being genuinely content. Even when the bad things happen. Even when God says no to prayers for relief. It’s okay to generalize this statement to cover more than just contentment, but in its context, it’s referring to spiritual growth, not material accomplishments.

    So what should I expect from this God that I worship? More blessings, more answered prayers, more comfort in this life? I know that He will graciously provide those things as He wills. But is that what I want the most?
    Maybe the shift in my thinking isn’t so much lowering my expectations as it is gaining a different perspective. Valuing Him for who He is, rather than for what He will do for me. Trusting in the spiritual blessings more than the physical ones. Growing in that Pauline contentment that comes with knowing that He loves me more dearly than words can express, and that He will act consistently with His good character and His perfect purposes even if that means greater suffering for myself and for those I love.

    Suffering is temporary. His love and His purposes are eternal.

Friday, February 28, 2020

What Was Paul Thinking?

    What was Paul thinking when he wrote in Romans 15:29, “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ” (italics added)? He was in Greece,  preparing to return to Jerusalem with an offering for the poor among the believers there. After that, he expected to travel to Spain, stopping at Rome on the way (Romans 15:23-26).

    He never made it to Spain.

    He went to Rome as a prisoner.

    What was Paul thinking as he envisioned himself heading for Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ? Did he have any idea that he’d be going there in chains? Or did he see himself sailing across the Mediterranean with a group of fellow believers, maybe stopping along the way to support the churches that he had planted on earlier trips?

    God granted Paul many visions, beginning with the confrontation on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. He had much more certainty about what lay ahead for him than the rest of us usually do. And yet he still had to walk by faith, just like us.

    His trip from Greece to Rome by way of Jerusalem is described in Acts 20 through 28. In Miletus, he told the elders from Ephesus that he didn’t know exactly what would happen to him in Jerusalem, but he’d been warned by the Holy Spirit that prison and hardships awaited him. He had written his letter to the Romans not too long before that. Was he still expecting to get to Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ? Or did the anticipation of hardships throw a bit of cold water on his expectations?

    Prior to saying a tearful farewell, Paul informed the elders that he would never see them again in this life. In Tyre, the disciples urged him through the Holy Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem. In Caesarea, the prophet Agabus warned him that he would be bound by the Jews and turned over to the Gentiles in Jerusalem. As a result, the Christians around him begged him not to continue on his way. He responded that he was willing not only to be arrested, but to die for Jesus in Jerusalem.

    Was he as confused as I am at this point? He was compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and yet the Spirit used the disciples to urge him not to do it. If he died in Jerusalem, he wouldn’t be going to Rome. But he was so sure of that happening. Was he trying to sort all this out in his own mind, or was he simply trusting God to bring order out of the apparent chaos?

    From my perspective, the chaos just keeps getting worse. About a week after setting foot in Jerusalem, Paul was seized by the Jews and imprisoned by the Romans, as Agabus had prophesied. When the commander found out that he was a Roman citizen, Paul was released and ordered to testify before the Sanhedrin. That led to another upheaval, so he was returned to the Roman barracks.

    A group of Jews made a vow to kill him. When Paul and his captors got wind of their plot, he was transferred to Caesarea for his own protection. Over the next few years, he appeared in court before Governor Felix, his successor Festus, and King Agrippa. Felix intentionally dragged out the process, hoping Paul would offer him a bribe. Was any of this what Paul had in mind when he said that he knew that he would travel to Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ?

    The chief priests and scribes pressured Festus to move Paul back to Jerusalem. They were preparing an ambush to murder him on the way. Festus wanted to do them a favor, so he was considering their suggestion. But first he sought Paul’s opinion on the idea. Paul said he should be tried by the Romans, not the Jews. He demanded to take his case directly to Caesar instead.

    What was he thinking as he made this spontaneous request? Was he annoyed by all the delays and changes in plans? Did he cry out in impatience and frustration, as some commentators suggest? Or did he have one of those aha! moments, prompted by the Holy Spirit, when it all suddenly came together in his mind?

    He knew he was going to Rome one way or another. A return to Jerusalem would have put his life at risk. He was willing to die for Jesus in Jerusalem, but he knew he was going to Rome.

    Maybe the path ahead suddenly became clear to Paul as Festus questioned him. Maybe he realized that God’s plan all along had been for a group of soldiers to escort him to Rome. I can imagine the lightbulb turning on in his head as he saw an apparent snag in his plans (his extended imprisonment) turn into an opportunity, and boldly appealed to Caesar. King Agrippa declared that if Paul hadn’t demanded an audience with Caesar, he could have been set free. Instead, he was finally on his way to his goal—Rome.

    But it didn’t get any easier. His ship was caught in a life-threatening storm. After two weeks of danger and uncertainty, the passengers and crew were shipwrecked on a sandbar near an island. The soldiers prepared to kill all of the prisoners so that they couldn’t escape, but a centurion prevented them from doing so. Everyone made it to the island safely, where Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake. Was he wondering what more could go wrong at this point, as I would have been?

    The situation finally began to turn around a bit, though. The snakebite didn’t do him any harm, and after a few months they found a ship to take them to Rome without further incident.

    What was Paul thinking when he arrived there in chains? Did he still believe that he was living in the full measure of the blessing of Christ as he sat under house arrest with a Roman guard posted 24/7?

    He answers this question beautifully and joyfully in his letter to the Ephesians, which was written at this time. One of the first things he says is, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (verse 1:3, italics added).

    Approximately four years had passed since he’d written his letter to the Romans. Was he thinking back to the words that he’d used at that time, remembering his confidence that he would come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ, and praising God as he saw his expectations fulfilled?

    Paul went through many difficult times and much opposition to develop a more mature faith and a more powerful witness to the world. But it’s clear that it was well worth it, as I hear the joy and peace in his words to the Ephesians. Joy and peace that transcended his suffering as he lived in the full measure of the blessing of Christ despite his circumstances.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Poor Little Rich People

    Came across yet another Christian pundit scratching his head and trying to explain what went wrong with America. How could a culture so grounded in biblical values do such a u-turn to become one of the most secular communities ever, promoting entertainment and sexual freedom above all else?

    What happened? Where did Christianity fail? As with other pundits, he tries to pinpoint the key decisions and events that took us down the wrong path. If only church leaders had said and done just the right thing at just the right time, all this could have been prevented. If we had only trained up our youth in just the right way, they would all have remained faithful to God.

    Got news for you, guys: This is normal. This is how human beings respond to prosperity. It happens every time. There is no prevention, no cure. Affluence leads to arrogance and the illusion of self-sufficiency and to more time and opportunity to indulge in our lusts. We then abandon God’s ways for what we think will be the much more pleasurable ways of man.

    Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, emphases added). This concept isn’t just true of individuals; it’s true of nations. Wealthy countries rarely follow God.

    In addition to Jesus’ teaching, we have the Old Testament record. The Israelites went through multiple cycles of being obedient to God, becoming affluent, rebelling against Him, losing their abundance as a result of His judgment, and returning to obedience. In ancient Greece and Rome, prosperity led to abandoning the values that gave them their strength in favor of pleasure and corruption, which triggered the collapse of their cultures. Money also tends to become concentrated in the hands of the few, who neglect or oppress the majority as their greed and pride blind their eyes to other people’s needs. In the end, great riches produce suffering, not utopia.

    Why don’t we as Westerners recognize this fact? Somewhere back in our history, we bought into the ideas that humans are smart enough to solve all the problems in the world and that material abundance is the highest goal, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We dove wholeheartedly into the project of creating paradise on earth.

    Science was our biggest hope. New discoveries and inventions would cure all our diseases and provide all the physical goods every human being could ever need. I think it was C. S. Lewis who observed that one of the obstacles to preaching the gospel in the early twentieth century was the belief that modern medicine would soon conquer death. Why worry about the next life if this one was going to last forever?

    Even today, most Americans think that more money means a happier, more fulfilling life. Never mind the endless stories of those who have it all and yet feel empty. The alcoholism, the drug addiction, the suicides among the wealthiest. The lack of long-term, meaningful relationships.

     In Proverbs 30:8, Agur prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” Americans recognize the obvious—poverty leads to suffering. But we’ve missed the boat in thinking that riches will solve all our problems. Both lead to worse conditions than we experience when we have just enough.

    Making things more complicated, following God faithfully often leads to greater affluence. Under the Old Covenant, this link was made explicit, as many of the promises in that agreement involved material blessings (for example, Deuteronomy 28:2-13). God clearly said, “Obey Me, and I will give you a good life on this earth.”

    He also set up the world so that those who submit to His values will be more likely to succeed. Lying and cheating and stealing might have their temporary advantages, but people who frequently resort to these tactics earn a reputation for not being trustworthy. When others don’t trust you, it’s harder to get ahead.

    Some young people would point out that many actors and musicians succeed because they flaunt God’s standards for sexual purity and sobriety in their lives and their roles and their lyrics. They think anyone can follow this same path and get the same results. But these celebrities are an extremely small percentage of the overall population, who happen to be incredibly talented. They’re the rare exceptions, not the rule.

    In addition, a biblical lifestyle contributes to better physical and emotional health, increasing earnings and reducing expenses. Those who are committed to loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) will avoid drunkenness, addictive drugs, smoking, overeating, sexual immorality, and taking foolish risks just for the thrill of it. They will build strong, loving relationships with each other and support each other through the tough times. They’ll learn to trust God more and more, instead of stressing out over the cares of this world.

    Western wealth is a direct result of our Christian heritage. But self-centered materialism is a result of that wealth. And meaningless lives are a result of that materialism. Just as Israel’s initial faithfulness to God ultimately led to their abandoning Him.

    The decline may be inevitable, but maybe we’re being too critical and too negative. Maybe the behavior of previous leaders and previous generations delayed the process in ways that we don’t recognize. One example: My generation assumed that marijuana would be legalized in this country by the end of the 1970s. Forty years later, it’s just beginning to happen, state by state. Was the unavoidable postponed by the behind-the-scenes prayers and actions of Christians? Can my prayers and actions today have a greater impact than those pessimistic pundits seem to expect?

Friday, January 17, 2020

What am I to Do?

    Sitting down to plan my lessons for the next week. Tuesday’s the big day, the day my supervisor will observe me during fourth hour. Better prepare a good presentation. She can be very difficult to please, and her evaluation could affect my entire career.

    Spending hours crafting the perfect lesson for that period. No energy left to think too deeply about the one that follows. Instead, scribbling a note in my Plan Book to do an informal activity that allows the children to make more independent choices. I rarely do that with this group because they don’t handle freedom very well.

    Tuesday rolls around, fourth period begins. I give a great performance. But my supervisor doesn’t show up.

    This isn’t the first time this has happened. I assume she’ll call me after school is out to reschedule, as she’s always done before. But no. I’m gathering the materials for fifth period when she walks in.

    I know the informal activity will challenge my kids’ self-control. And I know that the awareness that they’re being watched will make it even worse. I can’t do it. They would lose it, and I would pay the price.

    Unlike many of my fellow teachers, I’m not good at improvising. But I’ve had a lesson brewing in my mind for the last few weeks. A unique way to teach a basic concept that should work well with this particular group. Taking a deep breath and gritting my teeth, I plunge in, making it up off the top of my head. Tense, anxious, nervous, angry with my supervisor, it’s not one of my best presentations. But it’s okay. It’s got some real strong points.

    The children leave. My supervisor sits down with me to review my performance. And tears me to shreds. She picks up on my legitimate weaknesses, but that’s only the beginning. She warps my words. She takes them out of context. She reads them back to me in a sarcastic tone of voice.

    I’d once heard that in a situation like this it’s not a good idea to nod your head or murmur m-hm, as I would normally do just to show her that I’m listening. It’s better to say, “I hear you,” than to appear to be agreeing with her.

    For fifteen minutes, until my next group of students walks in, my supervisor lobs one inaccurate accusation after another. I try to keep the anger and rebellion from showing in my eyes. People who openly disagree with her have been known to either resign suddenly or be subjected to ongoing torment. As calmly as I can, I repeat, “I hear you.”

    The school day ends with my head on my desk, sobs shaking my body, tears cascading down my face. The following weeks are spent in overwhelming apathy. My assignment for next fall will leave me under the same supervisor while separating me from the most supportive teachers that I know. I don’t think I could handle it. I turn in my resignation as I walk out the door at the end of the year.

    This all happened decades ago, and I think I made the right decision in leaving that position. As far as I could tell, I was following God’s leading. But lately I’ve wondered: When I’m in a difficult situation like this job, should I take the opposition as a sign that it’s God’s will for me to leave, or as an indication that Satan is trying to lure me away from the place where God wants me to be?

    We Americans are so saturated with the prosperity gospel, it’s easy for even the most dedicated, most biblical Christians to assume that God wants us to be happy. When circumstances become too disagreeable, we often take that as His hint that we should be looking for a way out.

    Sometimes He’s used an irritating environment to wake me up as I’m cruising along on autopilot. Sometimes I’ve stayed in a job or a ministry or a church longer than He intended because it’s comfortable, because it’s familiar, because I don’t like change. The only way the Lord has gotten my attention and pointed me in a new direction is by disturbing my peace, by introducing problems that get me thinking about other options.

    But I have this tendency to think that suffering is always a sign that I’m not in God’s will. Do I detect a toxic atmosphere at work, at church, in any other organization that I’m involved with? Must be time to head out. Am I being asked to do something unpleasant, something beyond my obvious strengths? God must not want me here anymore.

    Is it really time to leave? Or is it time to minister to those who are causing the difficulties? Time to love those who hate me (Matthew 5:44). Time to return good for evil (Romans 12:17). Maybe even time to be used by God to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

    What kind of difference would it make in our divided nation if we as Christians turned from the assumption that God wants us to be happy to the possibility that He wants us to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)? How countercultural could I be if I endured the toxic environment, praying for, and extending grace to, those difficult people who desperately need it?

    It would take a certain spiritual maturity. I suspect that one reason why God led me out from under my supervisor’s thumb was because I didn’t have the spiritual strength to handle her personality wisely and well. Have I developed that strength in the intervening years?

    As I’ve grown in my walk with Christ, my sensitivity to His leading has improved. But this is one area where I can find myself floundering. My will, my inclination, my desire is to avoid suffering. If it hurts, God wants me to leave. Doesn’t He? But maybe, just maybe, that pain is the best indication that I’m right where God wants me to be, and Satan is the one who wants me to go.

Friday, December 27, 2019

My Favorite Prophet

    Everyone in the Bible messes up. Absolutely everyone (except Jesus, of course). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, Peter, John, Paul. That’s one reason I love this book so much. I can relate to these people. They lie. They cheat. They argue with God. And yet He loves them and He uses them to do mighty things.

    One of those mighty things happened when Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings chapter 18. Israel was following the lead of Ahab and Jezebel, the king and his wife, in worshipping an idol called Baal. Jezebel had killed many of God’s prophets. Ahab considered Elijah his enemy because Elijah confronted him with the truth.

    In hopes of turning Israel back to the Lord, Elijah proposed a contest. All the people were invited to watch. Each side (Elijah versus the 450 prophets of Baal) would prepare a sacrifice, then ask their god to prove his existence and his power by sending down fire from heaven to consume it.

    Baal’s prophets went first. They begged and pleaded, they shouted and danced and slashed themselves with swords and spears. Hours passed. “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”

    Elijah’s turn came. He prepared his sacrifice, then drenched it with water. After a simple prayer, “The fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.” Quite the victory. The people believed. But Ahab and his wife remained as firmly opposed to God and Elijah as ever.

    In chapter 19, when Jezebel threatened to kill him within 24 hours, Elijah was understandably frightened. She’d murdered many other prophets. Besides, this wasn’t what he’d expected. He’d just demonstrated the reality of the God of Israel and the helplessness of Baal. How could the most powerful people in the country continue to defy the Lord?

    Maybe it was the realization of the depth of the evil residing in Ahab and Jezebel that scared Elijah so much. He ran for his life. And he showed many of the symptoms of depression: anxiety, isolating himself, giving up, longing to die, self-pity.

    I can relate to this. I’ve never experienced the same kind of spectacular public victory as Elijah witnessed at the top of Mount Carmel. But I’ve been with him in the pits of depression. Anxious. Alone. Apathetic. Suicidal. Feeling sorry for myself. Wallowing in guilt and shame. Unable to face a righteous and perfect God.

    How could He ever want me, love me, welcome me into His arms? Surely He must be so disappointed and disgusted with me that He’d walk away and leave me to face my demons alone.

    But how did God respond to Elijah’s depression? With judgment? With condemnation? Did He give up on him and choose someone more worthy to take his place?

    No. He sent an angel to feed him, satisfying his hunger and giving him strength. Twice.

    After Elijah had traveled for an additional 40 days, God asked him what he was doing. Elijah expressed his self-pity, his loneliness, his fear. Pretty bad. God’s followers aren’t supposed to act this way. Where was his faith? The Lord had done wonders in defeating Baal. Had Elijah already forgotten that? Shouldn’t God be good and mad at this point?

    Maybe He should have been, but He wasn’t. Instead of abandoning a struggling servant, He provided a personal encounter. First there was a wind so powerful it shattered rocks. Second, an earthquake. Third, a fire. These are all symbols associated with judgment in the Bible. But God wasn’t in any of them. He wasn’t judging Elijah.

    Last came a "gentle whisper.” Elijah knew that this whisper was from the Lord. He was emotionally exhausted, questioning God, and doubting himself. The Lord knew that what he needed more than anything else was compassionate understanding and encouragement. A gentle whisper, not a roaring flame.

    This was how He responded to Elijah in his depressed state. This was how He responded to me when I was suffering from depression. No literal gentle whisper, but a vivid reassurance of His presence and His love.

    God again asked Elijah what he was doing. Did he say, “I get it now. I’ve had this incredible encounter with You. Thanks for setting me straight”? No. Astonishingly, he repeated the exact same words that he’d used earlier to express his self-pity, loneliness, and fear. Just as I often turned back from a moment of experiencing His joy and peace to the relentless darkness of depression. Surely God would give up on him at this point.

    But He didn’t. Instead, He entrusted Elijah with three tasks: anointing Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his own successor. Sometimes, when someone is depressed, having something constructive to do can help. But the timing has to be right. God had just given Elijah a taste of His compassion. That had to come first. Now His prophet had the spiritual strength to get back into the world of people and be more active again.

    His words also reassured Elijah in several ways. The Lord made it clear that He is in control of all that exists, even the rulers of other nations. He reminded Elijah that evil King Ahab was mortal and would not always reign over Israel. He indicated that He would soon fulfill Elijah’s desire to be free of the burden of his role as a prophet. And He informed him that he was not alone—the Lord had thousands of faithful followers. With this encounter, Elijah was ready to go back to work.

    Maybe it’s not so much that Elijah is my favorite prophet, but that God’s interaction with Elijah is my favorite biblical illustration of His response to depression. God did for Elijah all the things that helped me so much when I was depressed. No judgment. No rebuke. Instead, great tenderness and understanding and patience and encouragement.

    That’s why I’m alive. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I didn’t become just another statistic. Just another young suicide.