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Friday, July 27, 2018

Realistic But Hopeful

Realism and hope

    Be realistic but hopeful. That was the oncologist’s advice when my friend was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. On the realistic side, it didn’t look good. The tumors were spreading and growing rapidly. On the hopeful side, forty percent of patients responded well to chemotherapy. My friend was under fifty years old and in good health apart from the cancer. And he had the hope that comes with being a Christian.

    I wondered: could I, should I, apply this philosophy to everyday life? I have this tendency to go to extremes. Being realistic to the point of seeing no hope. Or being hopeful to the point of forgetting that in real life bad things can happen. Being realistic but hopeful might help ground me in the center.

    Realistic—life can hurt. People die. Disasters strike. If I’m not realistic, I get blind-sided by the unexpected. I need some realism to be emotionally and financially prepared for the future and to reach out to the hurting people God has placed in my life. If I deny that pain exists, I won’t be much help to them.

    Hopeful—life can be good. Love comes. Healing occurs. Above all, God is in control. He promises to bring good even out of the most evil circumstances (Romans 8:28).

The test

    But the ultimate test of any philosophical perspective is whether it’s biblical. How does “realistic but hopeful” stand up to God’s Truth? The words were spoken by a secular doctor in a secular setting. Should I live my life in light of his teaching? Or does it in any way contradict the Bible?

    I think of Matthew 6:25-33, one of the favorite passages of prosperity preachers and of the evangelically correct who deny that Christians will ever hurt. Beginning in chapter 5, Jesus has been teaching His followers a radical new view concerning how to live everyday life. It’s not about legalistically following rules; it’s about the heart. If the heart is right, the obedience will follow. In 6:25, He starts assuring His listeners that God cares deeply for them, as demonstrated by His provision for their basic necessities.

    The prosperity preachers summarize this passage as: “God will always meet all your physical needs.” Jesus says in verse 33, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you as well.”

    I once heard a pastor in a reputable evangelical church state from the pulpit, “This is God’s promise that no Christian will ever go hungry or naked.” My first thought was to question whether this guy had ever read Second Corinthians where Paul, who wrote several of the books in the New Testament, shares his experiences with hunger and nakedness (2 Corinthians 11:27). If I accepted the pastor’s interpretation, then either Paul wasn’t a Christian or God broke His promise. This statement had to be wrong.

    So how am I supposed to interpret verse 33? If I isolate it from its context and take it completely literally, I’d have to agree with the pastor. But Jesus isn’t teaching here about fulfilling every one of our physical requirements under all circumstances. The overall message of the passage is something like this: “Don’t be hung up on yourself and your own needs to the point of anxious worry. Keep your focus on God. He loves you so much that He’s taking care of you moment by moment and day by day. Trust Him.”

    Verse 33 is the hope-filled climax. But the passage also has its realistic elements. Verses 28 through 30 describe both the beauty of the lilies of the field and their pitifully brief lifespan. Death happens. Jesus is even more blunt in verse 34: “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Hopeful in 33; realistic in 34.

    In John 16:33, He conveys a similar message: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Realistic—we cannot escape the troubles of this world. They’re guaranteed. You will have trouble. Hopeful—Jesus has overcome the world. Nothing can beat that.

The reality of sin and the hope of the gospel

    When I became a Christian as a teenager, I had very little background in the Bible. I began reading through the Old Testament not knowing how each story would end. David was one of my favorite people. He stood up to Goliath when the armies of Israel were quaking in fear (1 Samuel 17). He never retaliated against the murderous rage of King Saul even though he had opportunities to do so (1 Samuel 24 and 26). This is the stuff idols are made of. I was heartbroken when King David defied God first by having sex with another man’s wife, then by having that man murdered to cover up his sin (2 Samuel 11). This isn’t how idols behave.

    As I grew in my walk with Christ, I began to see God’s wisdom in freely admitting in His Word that even His most steadfast followers are fallen human beings. “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4). No idols. Not even His chosen instruments.

    Here, as in the gospel message itself, I find support for a realistic but hopeful attitude. Realistic—every person who’s ever walked this earth, with the exception of the Man who was God, has been a sinner, incapable of living a perfect life. Hopeful—God reaches out to those sinners throughout the Bible to save them and to begin the process of growing them into His likeness.

    Thank You, Father, for using even the words from a secular source to teach and strengthen and grow me. Thank You for the wisdom, spoken by this doctor and confirmed by Your Word, that helps keep me centered when I’m struggling with the extremes of unrealistic hope or hopeless realism. And thank You that, in Christ, the hope always far outweighs the painful realities of life.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Challenge Me

Winning against all odds

     I do a short exercise routine in the morning. When I’ve finished, to cool down and catch my breath, I play a game of double-decker solitaire. It starts with twenty-one cards laid out on the table face up, with some of them overlapping. All the rest, all eighty-three, are in the deck, which I turn over one at a time. In a good game I play lots of cards on the layout, and the stack that I’ve turned over from the deck remains small. But in a difficult game that stack builds up. I can get a pretty good idea of my odds of winning based on its depth.

    At first I think that the best games are the ones where I win easily. Everything falls into place. Turn over a card, play it on the layout, turn over the next one. If the stack builds up to more than five or six cards, that’s bad. But lately I’ve noticed something unexpected. I’ve had several games where I was sure I would lose. Twenty or thirty or more cards are in that stack, and there’s just no way that I’ll ever be able to use them all and win the game.

    And then it happens. I turn over just the right card. Six, seven, eight more cards can be played. Turn over another. Put that one in place, too. The layout’s changed enough to allow me to use the next eight, ten, twelve cards in the stack. Turn over a few more, play a dozen more. Suddenly, the game is winnable. Against all hope, it reaches the point where I know I will succeed.

Finding pleasure in the struggle

    Two observations. First, it feels so good to win when I think the situation is hopeless. Better than when I pull it off with no trouble. I don’t particularly like this lesson. I’d rather have a life where everything is easy, I always come out on top, and it’s deeply satisfying. Isn’t that the ideal?

    Instead, I find that the easy wins are less fulfilling and less memorable. I guess that’s the way it works in real life, too. When something takes little effort, I value it less and forget it sooner. Maybe that’s one reason why God allows so much suffering. If I didn’t suffer, if all of life was a snap, I’d actually get less enjoyment out of it. It sounds so backwards.

    This analogy brings me one step closer to being able to understand James’s advice to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). I’ve always wrestled with this verse. Joy in trials? But I’ve just found a little happiness in the small struggle to win a game of solitaire against all odds. There is delight, there is satisfaction, there is pleasure in overcoming. Without the trial of a difficult setup in the game, I wouldn’t experience the joy.

Dealing with doubts

    Second observation: As I’m turning the cards over, I’m automatically weighing my chances of winning. Sometimes I get to a point where I’m absolutely certain I can’t possibly succeed. A few key cards are buried deep in the stack. I’ll never be able to work my way back down to them. It would take a miracle. And then the miracle occurs. I manage to play enough cards to get to those most important ones. The impossible is gradually transformed into the maybe and then into the yes!

    How often does this reflect my attitude toward God’s hand in my life? How often, in the midst of suffering, do I look at all the obstacles in the way and assume that the solution that I’m longing for is impossible? That the prayer that I’m praying will never be answered the way I want it to be? That God can’t turn around an obviously losing hand and bring me out with a win? Too often.

    When things have gone badly for so long, when suffering has been piled on suffering, when I can’t imagine even one more thing going wrong but then it does, what happens to my faith and hope? I weigh the potential outcomes in the balance and I know that God can’t, or won’t, make it any better. It’s impossible.

    I need this analogy of the cards. I need this reminder that when everything looks hopeless from my perspective, with God there is still hope. If it can happen in a simple, meaningless, unimportant game of cards, it can happen with the God of creation, the God of salvation, the God who is love (1 John 4:8 and 16). Every time I win an “impossible” game, I thank Him for the pleasure of overcoming in a seemingly hopeless situation. For the taste of the even greater joys ahead as I anticipate His surprising me with an unexpected solution to my insurmountable problems. And for challenging me.