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Friday, January 22, 2021

Alone

 Pandemic-induced aloneness

    My friend Kyle died in September. An aggressive brain tumor took his life just three months after his first symptom. One day he was feeling fine, going about his business as usual. The next day he was thrashing about on the sidewalk, convulsing uncontrollably as a violent seizure swept through his head.

    The paramedics rushed him to the hospital. Alone. He had brain surgery. Alone. He spent three weeks in the hospital and rehab center recovering. Alone.

    At a time in his life when all he longed for was the presence of his wife of forty years and other loved ones, Kyle was more isolated than he’d ever been before. He was suffering with pain and seizures that the medications reduced but didn’t entirely control. With the shock of learning that he would not survive this cancer. With the helplessness of watching his family and friends struggle through the sorrow that he was causing them. Alone.

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic, he had no visitors, no comfort or touch from the people he valued most. When he was moved to the rehab center, his son-in-law delivered a cell phone to be placed by his bedside. Every morning Kyle’s wife dialed his number, then left the connection open for the remainder of the day. As friends and family members came and went from his home, he could hear their voices, join in their conversations and prayers, feel like a part of the group.

    But it wasn’t the same. He needed people. He needed people with him, beside him, looking into his eyes, touching his hand. Instead, he was alone.


Is God all we need?

    Kyle was one of the most mature Christians I’ve ever met. Even with working full-time for a local business, teaching college and Sunday school classes, reading a wide variety of books, and spending time with his family, he still made regular appointments with other Christian men to sit down with a cup of coffee and talk. He and his friend would share whatever was going on in their lives—the good and the bad, the mundane and the profound, the spiritual questions and insights.

    And then, suddenly, this man who intentionally gave so much time to others was alone. And lonely. He drew great comfort from knowing that the Lord was with him. But since he made it a practice to be honest with God and with people, Kyle occasionally voiced his frustration and his loneliness. Was that okay, or was he failing one of the final tests of his mortal life? Did he really need people, or should he be so content with God’s presence that he never knew the definition of the word lonely?

    “Jesus is all I need.” I hear that message in songs, in church, in Bible studies, in my own head when I’m feeling lonesome or rejected. In one sense, it’s true. Jesus is all we need for our salvation and our relationship with God. No one else can save me. No one else can provide a way into His presence day after day.

    But what about my psychological needs? Some believers openly declare that Jesus is all we need when it comes to loneliness or anxiety or depression or any other type of emotional suffering. They would proclaim that Kyle was falling short of God’s expectations when he expressed a need for human companionship. Jesus was right there with him. What more could he ask for?

    It sounds so spiritual to say that I should be happy, content, filled with the joy of the Spirit even if I’m separated from my loved ones. Even if I’m stranded on a desert island with no human interaction. But is that really God’s plan?


Adam’s need, our need

    I remember the first time a Bible teacher drew my attention to the implications of Genesis 2:18 so many years ago. I had recently found relief from my first depressive episode through an antidepressant. My view of emotions had changed drastically during that experience. I was trying to reconcile real life with the theology I’d heard so often—Jesus was all I needed, even in the emotional realm. I mustn’t be dependent on mere humans when God was there to supply all my needs through Himself alone.

    Then I heard this lesson from Genesis. The Lord God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the sky, all the plants and all the animals, and, finally, Adam. Each day, for six days, God worked on His creation. And each day He saw that it was good. But after creating Adam, the Lord declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” There was one thing, and one thing only that was not good in all of His perfect creation. That one thing was Adam’s aloneness.

    God could have created an Adam who would be perfectly well off with His presence alone. Happy. Content. Filled with the fruit of the Spirit. Without any need for other people. But God didn’t. He chose to create an Adam who needed an Eve. Even before the Fall, Adam had a need that couldn’t be fulfilled without human companionship. How much more do we truly need others?

    Kyle was only one of many, many people hit by the terrible loneliness brought on by the pandemic. Around the time of his passing, the national news spotlighted a group of seniors who had been denied in-person visitors at their care center for months. They were sitting outdoors in their wheelchairs holding signs saying, “I’d rather die of COVID than loneliness.” They were willing to risk their very lives in exchange for a few moments with a loved one.

    I don’t know the best way to handle this coronavirus crisis. It’s painful to see so many dying. It’s equally painful to see the suffering triggered by shutdowns and isolation. But this I do know: We need people. The need is real. Loneliness is not a lack of faith or a sign of spiritual immaturity. God designed us this way even before the Fall.

    So it’s okay to feel it. It’s okay to admit it. And it’s okay to seek relief from it—to seek out and enjoy the fellowship of other human beings (as safely as we can), rather than insisting that God is all I need.

Friday, January 1, 2021

New Creation

 What is this new creation?

    “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Sounds good. I like it. But what exactly does it mean?

    For my first ten years or so in an evangelical church, the implication seemed to be that when we accept Christ everything changes so dramatically that we don’t need to deal with the past. It’s been erased. We’ve been made new. We need to forget what’s behind us and strain toward what’s ahead (Philippians 3:13). This idea wasn’t usually explicitly stated, but the assumption was always there. And it always bothered me.

    Then I met a man named Cory who was a dedicated believer, but who constantly questioned evangelical correctness. God used him to open my eyes to the flaws in evangelical thinking and the shallowness that it encourages.

    Cory helped me to see that we come to Christ with many false beliefs that aren’t just wiped away at the moment of conversion. We come with a heavy load of painful experiences, grudges against those who’ve hurt us, anger, bitterness, and misunderstanding about who God is. Being a new creation doesn’t mean that He just magically makes all our baggage disappear, as so much evangelical teaching implies.

    Then what does it mean? What is the old that’s gone and the new that’s come? Who am I now?

    After struggling with this question for decades, the best explanation I’ve heard goes something like this: what’s gone is the old inability to understand the truth revealed in God’s Word, the inability to develop the fruit of the Spirit, the inability to see and believe and obey.

    And what’s new is our capacity to grow, to overcome the pain of the past, to become more like Christ. We have this capacity because we’ve been given a new spiritual life. We also have the Holy Spirit within to enable us to see where we need to change, to prompt us to want to change, and to strengthen us to persevere so that those changes can happen. We never do this perfectly. We still have a tendency to rebel against our Lord’s attempts to grow us into something better. But this is a truly amazing newness well worth celebrating.


Two models

    Another aspect of the evangelically-correct view of becoming a new creation is the implication that at the moment of salvation I had perfect faith, which led to God’s forgiveness for all my sins. This is what I think of as the “new car” model of the new creation: the new me is like a shiny new car that runs smoothly, looks pretty, and even has its own special smell. It’s perfect.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but at the moment of my conversion, even my faith was warped by my sinful nature. If I’d had to depend on it alone, I wouldn’t have been saved and I wouldn’t be writing these words. It was God’s grace that saved me. He worked through my faith (Ephesians 2:8), but He didn’t sit around waiting until it was perfect, or it never would have happened.

    I’ve heard some people teach that while we’re still sinners, God miraculously creates in us a perfect faith so that we’re able to turn to Him and believe. But that sounds kind of cruel to me. Would a kind and loving God give me such a precious gift, then snatch it away again after I’ve entered His kingdom? It obviously doesn’t last. And yet, if I believe in that perfect faith, I expect myself to live as if it should.

    Life becomes a constant struggle and disappointment. I’m a new creation. I shouldn’t be subject to the old thought patterns and behavioral habits. They’re supposed to be gone. But they’re not. I watch helplessly as my new car ages and rusts and falls apart. Life can never be as good as it was in that moment of my salvation. Is this the resurrection life that Jesus promised me?

    What happens if we change our thinking from a shiny new car to a new baby model? The new creation is like a baby who has a lot to learn and who will make a lot of mistakes as she stumbles along trying to figure out this thing called life.

    A baby isn’t expected to be perfect. She’s expected to mess up, to need direction and correction. Parents don’t give up on their child the first time she falls down as she’s learning to walk. They don’t kick her out of the house the first time she says no to their instructions. Some parents even continue to demonstrate their love to their child when she flaunts God’s standards for sexual purity, when she becomes addicted to drugs, or when she’s arrested for some terrible crime.

    This is how God loves us. He doesn’t expect us to remain a shiny new car day after day. He doesn’t reject us or disown us the first time we stumble. He knows that we started the Christian life as a tiny baby with certain in-born capacities that we didn’t have before, but also with the one-hundred-percent likelihood that we would still sin, still cause Him grief, still hurt ourselves and all of those around us.

    But in His unconditional love, He promises that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). We have the capacity to resist the draw of worldly comforts and pleasures. But when we give in to them, like a perfect parent He will always be there for us, forgiving us and helping us to overcome those temptations.

Freedom and joy

    How does this impact our everyday lives? Instead of constantly feeling defeated and disappointed in ourselves, we can rejoice in His love and in our small steps of progress. Instead of focusing on the dent in the door or the chip in the paint or the funny sound under the hood of our once-new car, we can marvel in our first words, our first steps, our developing understanding.

    We can witness the changes He’s bringing about in us and live lives of gratitude and praise. We can be certain of His compassion and forgiveness no matter how many times we give in to that same pet temptation. We can be free of the shackles of our own weaknesses even when those weaknesses have not yet been overcome.

    This is the joy of the resurrection life. This is the freedom Jesus promises. He never intended for His followers to live lives of weariness and discouragement, as in the new car model. Instead, He offers us an easy yoke and a light burden (Matthew 11:28-29), as in the new baby model.

Friday, December 11, 2020

An Abundance of Grace

 Judgment

    In Luke chapter 1 (the introduction to the story of Jesus’ birth) Zechariah the priest enters the temple to burn incense to the Lord. A few minutes later the angel Gabriel suddenly appears to him. He tells Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son, then reveals some details about the child: the name to give him (John, later known as the Baptist), the joy he’ll bring, and the effects of his ministry.

    Zechariah responds with doubt. “How can I be sure of this?” Like many of the people in the Old Testament who were confronted with an unexpected prophecy or command, he wants a sign to confirm the words. Unlike those Old Testament examples, Gabriel has no sympathy for his request. “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

    I’ve always thought this was a bit harsh.

    Look how Moses argued with God at the burning bush. They had an extended conversation before the Lord’s anger finally burned (Exodus 3:1-4:14). Look how Gideon asked for a sign to confirm God’s leading. Not once, but twice. God patiently granted both signs (Judges 6:36-40). Why does Zechariah deserve such severe judgment? I’ve always kind of felt sorry for him, as if God was being unfair.

Justice

    But then I started looking at the context of Gabriel’s words. Zechariah is in the temple for the purpose of burning incense to the Lord. The sweet smoke rising to God symbolizes prayer. Outside, the people are praying, along with the other priests. Inside, Zechariah is praying. What is he praying for?

    One of the first things Gabriel tells him is, “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” Has Zechariah been praying for a child at this very moment? Standing in the temple. Burning the holy incense. Making a personal, heartfelt request to God. Then questioning the angel sent by the Lord to bring him the news that that prayer has been answered. Maybe he should have had a little more faith.

    Moses and Gideon were both approached in an unexpected time and place. Zechariah is actively seeking God’s intervention in his childless life. Not quite the same circumstances. Maybe God’s judgment is just after all.


Grace

    But maybe there’s also some grace in His response. Zechariah doesn’t specifically say, “Give me a sign.” However, his words, “How can I be sure of this?” are a typical biblical way of expressing that request. Is God, in His grace, giving Zechariah a sign, as He did for Moses and Gideon? Maybe. Maybe Zechariah’s forced silence is not just a judgment, but also the sign that he longs for in order to bolster his feeble faith.

    What if Gabriel had simply announced his news to Zechariah and then disappeared? Would Zechariah have believed? Would he have burst out of the temple, run to the people, sought out Elizabeth, and joyfully shared his vision with anyone who would listen? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Maybe he would have wandered slowly outdoors with a skeptical look on his face, taken his wife aside, hesitantly described what had happened, voiced his doubts, and waited anxiously to see if Gabriel’s words would be fulfilled. And maybe, even if Elizabeth did get pregnant, Zechariah would have toyed with the idea that it was just a coincidence.

    But with his inability to speak, all of his doubts vanish. It’s a powerful, tangible sign that something very real has happened. He hasn’t just imagined his encounter. It wasn’t wishful thinking. His paralyzed vocal cords testify to the solid certainty of the events.

    How often do I read God’s Word and half-consciously question His truth, His goodness, His grace? As with this story of Zechariah, I have a very human tendency to judge the Judge, to lean on my own understanding of what justice looks like. To deem God’s judgment unjust, harsh, inferior to my own sense of fair play.

    But when I do that, I’m not only elevating myself above His perfection, I’m also missing an opportunity to see His grace. Zechariah didn’t deserve to receive a reassuring sign that Gabriel’s words would be fulfilled. He’d just failed a major test of his faith. He’d stood before the holy God, in a part of the temple that only the sanctified and purified priests could enter, asking Him for a child. When the Lord clearly declared that his request would be fulfilled, what did Zechariah do? He refused to believe it.

    Priests could be struck dead for approaching the Lord in an unworthy manner. What could be more unworthy than the hypocrisy of voicing a prayer while hardening his heart against the possibility that God might actually provide what Zechariah so desperately wanted? He hadn’t earned the right to receive a sign confirming the prophecy.

    Yet there it was. In his own body. With him every moment of every day, reminding him of the certainty of God’s promise. A promise Zechariah had openly questioned.

    This is grace. This is the grace I need to see in every passage of the Bible. When I approach God’s Word with my own preconceived ideas of who He should be, how He should act, what He should say, all I see is harsh, undeserved judgment. But when instead I allow the Holy Spirit to open my eyes to His truth, I see an abundance of grace flowing from a compassionate and understanding God.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Blessing of Beauty

 Beauty as therapy

    Sitting at my computer building an online jigsaw puzzle. Glancing out the window at the front yard. A sense of peace and contentment settles in my soul. I say a quick prayer of thanks to God for the beauty, both man-made and natural, in this world. When I’m struggling with stress and surrounded by suffering, beauty has a calming and uplifting effect.

    Music soothes the savage beast. A familiar saying based on William Congreve’s words, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” Vivid images testifying to the power of this form of beauty. King Saul experienced this truth firsthand when David played his harp for him (1 Samuel 16:14-23).

    A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Another familiar saying, from the poem Endymion by John Keats. My favorite line: “In spite of all, some shape of beauty moves away the pall from our dark spirits.”

    I choose individual online jigsaw puzzles based on the beauty that strikes me as I scroll through the many options. When I started doing yard work several years ago, I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed it. Part of that pleasure comes from watching beauty spring from my fingertips as I pull ugly weeds or rake up dead leaves or trim a ragged bush.

    During my first depressive episode, creating beauty was life-saving. When the suicidal thoughts raged through my brain, drawing me ever closer to the edge of the cliff, I discovered that playing my flute, writing, or doing needlework infused my soul with a sense of calm and peace, pulling me gently back. Moving away the pall.

    Several years ago, researchers reported that people who make their beds when they get up in the morning are happier than those who don’t. I wonder if the act of making the room a little more beautiful lifts up their spirits.

    When the Sudoku craze started, psychologists questioned why so many Americans who weren’t typically attracted to recreational mathematics and logical thinking were suddenly taking up a hobby that involved analytical reasoning. And enjoying it. Studies soon revealed that successfully solving a puzzle activates the pleasure centers in the brain, triggering a sense of well-being. Puzzle-solving creates a kind of beauty where there was once disorder or imbalance or emptiness. We’re physically wired to find enjoyment and peace in creating that beauty.

Art and beauty

    So what happens to a nation that considers it a virtue to tarnish those things that were once used to beautify? When novels are written to expose the gritty side of life. When happy endings are seen as unrealistic and therefore unartistic. When discord is considered a more sophisticated form of music than harmony. When the most critically-acclaimed visual arts employ harsh lines and depressing colors.

    How will a person living in such a culture respond? Maybe by turning to more damaging forms of stimulation, such as drugs and pornography, in an effort to feed those pleasure-center brain cells that are starving from a lack of beauty. Maybe by obsessing about human beauty.

    Many years ago, I decided to stop reading most twentieth-century literature. Up to that time, I’d reasoned that if the critics praised it, I should check it out. But on the whole it’s depressing. I can get enough of that in real life. And I can find other sources of high-quality art without turning to those that I know will bring me down.

    Barry Manilow’s upbeat tunes were panned by the critics as less artistic than the edgy music of his time. But forty years later, I heard a reviewer on the radio comment that Manilow was a much more talented singer and songwriter than he had ever been given credit for in the past.

    It took the passage of time to appreciate the beauty that Manilow had created. It took stepping away from his contemporaries’ idea that good art would challenge our beliefs, wake us up to the problems around us, open our eyes to the difficulties in life. Is that the best use of art? Don’t we come face-to-face with the ugliest realities often enough without deliberately using our sources of man-made beauty for such a purpose?


Real beauty

    At the same time, the greatest examples of beauty don’t deny the fallen side of life. The beauty of nature includes lions who hunt helpless zebras and tear them to shreds when they catch them. The loveliest paintings need shadows to complement the light. A beautiful novel requires painful conflict.

    A crucial part of the most beautiful story of all, God’s provision for the salvation of His creation, was the brutal death of His Son. Real beauty doesn’t gloss over the pain and suffering. To be truly beautiful, art must be based on the realities found in a broken world. But to be uplifting, to stimulate the pleasure centers in our brains and soothe our souls, it must also provide harmony and hope. In Philippians 4:8, Paul advises us to think about the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Our Lord knows the benefits of reflecting on that which is beautiful.

    At this time of uncertainty and suffering and pain and grief, I give thanks to God for the beauty around me. His incredible Word. Sunsets and stars. Flowers and kittens. The internal beauty of people who reflect the image of God. A well-written novel. A pretty painting. A hymn that’s stood the test of time. And I give thanks for the opportunity to create a little bit of beauty of my own.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Maybe It's Not a Command

 God’s commands

    “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). How often have I been told by the evangelically correct that this is a command, just like “do not worship other gods,” “do not commit adultery,” “do not steal”? Many, many times.

    But it doesn’t sound like one to me. Commands are given in a stern voice with dire consequences for defying them. They’re surrounded by statements about the holiness of God, His perfection, and His complete goodness which is incapable of fellowship with sin and evil. They’re proclaimed from a mountain covered in fire and smoke. A mountain that mustn’t be touched by any animal or any person other than Moses, Aaron, and Joshua on penalty of death. Once a command has been broken, fellowship with God can only be restored through painful and humiliating repentance and sacrifice.

God’s compassion

    But as I read Philippians chapter 4, I’m immersed in God’s kindness and love and understanding. Right before He tells me not to be anxious, He comforts me with His presence in verse 5: “The Lord is near.”

    He follows His encouragement to refrain from worry with instructions on how to overcome my anxiety when it hits: “But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” He’s offering me help and hope. Does He ever do that when He’s confronting me with my sin? No. In that case, He says to cut off my hand or gouge out my eye (Matthew 5:29-30). Take extreme measures. Nothing like that is suggested here.

    Verse 7 describes the blessing that will result from my increasing ability to trust Him: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When a command is broken, such peace is only promised after confession and repentance. But there’s no call to repentance here.

    In the well-known passage advising me not to worry found in Matthew chapter 6, Jesus’ words aren’t in the form of a rebuke for sin; they’re more like water and sunshine and fertilizer for my growing faith. He tells me that I’m more valuable than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He reminds me that my heavenly Father is gladly providing for my daily needs. His words are spoken with love and compassion. The Bible never treats immoral behavior this way. Sin is far too serious in God’s eyes.

    Peter encourages me to cast all my anxiety on God. He doesn’t advise me to do it because God will punish me if I don’t; he invites me to give my worries to Him because He cares so very much for me (1 Peter 5:7).

    Jesus comforts me in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” He addresses my fear, not with judgment, but as a Shepherd tenderly caring for His sheep. He tells me that my loving Father is pleased to graciously grant me riches beyond my wildest imagining.

The greatest God


    Sometimes I wonder if people reject the God of the Gospel because He sounds too good to be true. How could such a God exist? How could He love me so deeply when I defy Him and disappoint Him on a regular basis? I know I don’t deserve this. Could His grace really be so great, so rich, so free?

    But this is the only kind of god that I could ever worship without reservation, without disappointment, without that little voice inside telling me that He should be better than He is. He must be beyond all my expectations of the best possible god, or He isn’t God at all.


The greatest good

    I also question the idea of seeing Philippians 4:6 as a command because it just doesn’t make sense from a psychological point of view, and I have a feeling that God knows human psychology way better than all the wisest mortal counselors who have ever lived.

    When I was a child, I was a crier. Any little pain, physical or emotional, could bring me to tears. Following the philosophy of their generation, my parents often responded to my weeping by commanding me to quit doing it. The result? I sobbed even more loudly because I was hurt by their lack of understanding and empathy. In a similar way, my anxiety is never, ever reduced or resolved when someone tells me to just stop it.

    I suspect God understands this aspect of human psychology and knows how to deal with it in a way that will lead to the best results. When the evangelically correct command believers to simply cease being anxious, many respond with repression and denial. Hide the anxiety. Pretend it’s not there. Don’t let anyone see it (especially fellow Christians), or you’ll feel guilty and rejected. Others give up on their faith in this God who appears to have no compassion for their struggles.

    God’s way is always the better way. Commanding and expecting me to stop indulging in a particular sin is reasonable and right. Even though I’ll never be perfect in this life, the only way to make any progress in overcoming my evil choices is to recognize that they’re wrong and intentionally turn in the opposite direction. I can find the motivation and the strength to do this because I’ve experienced His forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s the best way to deal with the sin that separates me from the blessing of fellowship with Him.

    But anxiety is a different matter. Soothing my fears, offering realistic ways to work through them, reassuring me of His presence and His care, are far more effective than chastising me. In His love and grace, He provides the better way. The way that meets my deepest needs. The way that increases my faith and my love for Him. The way that draws me nearer to Him. That’s where He wants me to be.