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Friday, September 21, 2018

Power in Weakness

    Power. That word’s been jumping out at me every time I open my Bible lately. Paul wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection (Philippians 3:10). What does that mean? I realize it took God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead, but how does that translate into my average, everyday life?

    God’s power is often displayed against Israel’s physical enemies in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:16, 2 Chronicles 20:6 and 32:7, Psalm 20:6-8). Doesn’t really fit with my American lifestyle. Not too many physical enemies for me to fight today.

    The New Testament refers to the power of God and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8, Romans 1:16 and 20, 1 Corinthians 2:4 and 6:14), but it also emphasizes the importance of meekness and kindness and gentleness (Matthew 5:5 and 11:28-29, Galatians 5:22-23). What does meek, kind, gentle power look like?

    Paul advises the Thessalonians to “make it your ambition to lead a quite life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4:11). Doesn’t take much power to do that, does it? (And does it really require any ambition? To my American mind, it sounds more like something those lacking ambition would do.)

    The evangelically correct love William Carey’s slogan, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Aren’t we all supposed to be out there doing great things, as opposed to leading the quite life that Paul recommends? Isn’t that where the power comes in?

    As all this is simmering in my brain, I come across Colossians chapter one. Paul says that he and Timothy have been praying that his readers will be “strengthened with all power according to [God’s] glorious might so that . . .” (verse 11). I want Paul to say, “so that you can perform miracles, move mountains, and do awe-inspiring deeds in his name.” That’s the kind of power I want to experience. Power to travel around the world, burning the candle at both ends, healing the sick, adopting the homeless, preaching the good news, leading thousands to Christ.

    But instead Paul says he prays for this enormous power “so that you may have great endurance and patience.” What??? What does power have to do with patience? I recently heard a pastor interpret Proverbs 16:32, “Better a patient man than a warrior,” as meaning that patience is better than power. As if the two can’t go together. Patience is passive, while power is active, right?

    In contrast, Paul prays for God’s power to strengthen his readers by providing endurance and patience. Maybe God’s power is not just helpful but actually necessary for me to develop the endurance and patience that I so desperately need when life goes sour. At first glance, I don’t like this kind of power. I want the power that generates a sweet life, not just the ability to tolerate a bitter one.

    And yet there is deep comfort in knowing that God will use “all power according to his glorious might” (that’s a lot of power!) for something as simple but difficult as developing endurance and patience. The reality is that most of us are never likely to perform the signs and wonders that Jesus and the apostles did to confirm the source of their message. God calls some few to serve as evangelists to large crowds, to preach in megachurches, to write bestsellers on how to live the Christian life.

    But for every big-name, well-recognized follower of Christ in a powerful position there are thousands of ordinary, everyday Christians living quiet lives, minding their own business, working with their hands, doing the not-to-be-despised “small things” of Zechariah 4:10. They are just as important to God’s plan for the salvation of souls as those who are judged by human standards to be accomplishing great things. God can be working as mightily in them as in those who the world sees as exercising enormous power.

    Maybe this is a concrete example of how His power can be made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I’m bombarded daily by the media with the reminder that many Americans are lacking the patience and endurance that it takes to listen to an opposing point of view. What a witness it could be to our neighbors if we, as Christians, prayed with Paul for God’s power to be manifested in us through the internal resources of endurance and patience, rather than assuming that the only way they’ll see His power is in great external works.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Make Believe

    Recently watched I Can Only Imagine with a friend who’s very particular about the movies she sees. Must be high quality. No lame faith-based films with predictable dialog and two-dimensional characters. We both agreed that this one was as well made as any Hollywood movie. Authentic characters. Realistic storyline. Good acting. Definitely not preachy.

    My initial response was one of optimism. Hurray! Christian movie-makers are finally getting it. They’re growing up. They’re telling real stories about real people. Those shallow movies with the B actors and the cardboard characters are becoming a thing of the past. We’re moving on.

    A few hours later came the crash of realizing another painful possibility. Maybe our movies aren’t real because we’re not real. Maybe our movies portray make-believe lives because we’re living and promoting make-believe lives. Why do I hear so many Christians raving about the latest shallow faith-based film? Maybe these believers simply don’t know any better. Maybe they’re championing the same kind of life as they’re living. The kind of life they’ve been taught to live. The evangelically-correct life.

    In a women’s group twenty-some years ago, one of the moms asked us to pray for her daughter, Violet, an extremely shy kindergartener at a local Christian school. Violet was occasionally wetting her pants in class, and nothing the adults had recommended had resolved the issue. Thus the request for prayer.

    I could immediately identify with this young girl. When I was the same age, in the same situation, my shyness was so inhibiting that I couldn’t work up the courage to draw attention to myself by standing up and walking the few steps to the bathroom. I thought I could “hold it” until school got out, but I didn’t always succeed.

    I was trying to decide how to share my experience with the women’s group when the mom continued, “She knows her position in Christ,” as if that should resolve the entire problem. I was too stunned to speak, but all the other women nodded their heads wisely, indicating their agreement that a five-year-old who knew her position in Christ should be able to conquer every challenge in her life.

    What more could the adults around her offer her? Psychologically-based solutions? Understanding of her inner turmoil? As in many Christian movies, in this real-life situation God was the only answer. If we have enough faith, God will fix the problem without our having to think or to do any hard work. I was overwhelmed by the absurdity of the women’s responses, but I had no hope that I could convince my friends to look at the problem from Violet’s point of view. I was obviously the anomaly in the group.

    Near the end of the Imagine movie, the Christian main character angrily says to his father, who abused him the entire time he was growing up and is now repenting, “Am I supposed to just forgive you?” Real. Authentic. Honest. Expressing his heart, not just tossing off the expected Christian response.

    From a few rows behind me, I heard another audience member give an emphatic, “Yes.” No grasp of how we humans actually work.

    Yes, God wants us to forgive as He forgave us (Colossians 3:13). But the truth is that such consistent, ongoing abuse can take years to heal and to forgive. We are not God. We are broken and fallen. Our minds and souls are warped by the wounds inflicted on us in childhood. God doesn’t often heal those wounds instantaneously.

    What happens if I buy into the evangelically-correct assumption that simply saying the words, “I forgive you,” fixes everything? How does this affect me when I’m hurting? Such denial leads to continuing stress and stumbling, blocking growth, blocking intimacy with God and others, and potentially ending in blaming and rejecting Him when it doesn’t work.

    How does it affect my ability to minister to those who are struggling to forgive someone who has deeply wounded them? I see them as failures who just need to get with the program and everything will be okay, instead of recognizing them as hurting people who need time to process their emotions and responses.

    Many years ago, when I was leading a group in my church for overcoming anxiety and depression, we watched a video featuring a reputable Christian psychologist. (If I could remember his name or the title of the video, I would cite them here, but that info is long gone from my brain.) He told the story of a couple that he had recently counseled. I might not have all the details right, but the gist of the situation was something like this:

    The parents were traveling with their six children when they were involved in an accident caused by a grossly negligent driver. Two of their children were killed. The couple immediately “forgave” the driver. Local media picked up on the story and marveled at the strength of their faith. Within a few years, though, two of the surviving children committed suicide as teenagers. In their now undeniable sorrow, the parents went to the Christian psychologist for help.

    It turned out that they were still mourning the deaths of their first two children. They thought all they had to do was say, “I forgive you,” and trust God to make it all okay. They were painfully, tragically wrong. They had never faced their anger, doubts, and grief. They were living in the make-believe world of most faith-based movies, thinking they were being good biblical Christians. The parents appeared to be coping, but the life of denial was too much for the two teens who committed suicide. It was only after the remaining family members dealt with their trauma and turmoil that they found true peace and the ability to truly forgive.

    It took work. It took time. It took courage. But God eventually brought healing when they stopped denying the pain.

    Maybe Christian movie-making won’t change substantially until Christian thinking changes substantially. Maybe we get the movies we want—those that reflect the way we live our shallow lives. Or maybe I Can Only Imagine is an indication that attitudes are changing, that we’re becoming more real, that even evangelically-correct Christians are recognizing the need to be more authentic. I can only pray.