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Friday, December 27, 2019

My Favorite Prophet

Elijah's victory

    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.

Elijah's depression

    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?

God's response

    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.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Christmas Joy

The shallowness of my thinking

    Jesus suffered. He was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He went through intense pain on the cross. He was forsaken by God as He hung there, bearing the full weight of all the sins of the entire world (Matthew 26:36-46, 27:46; Psalm 22:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:21). I get that.

    But I tend to minimize any other difficulties in His life up to that point. I know that He wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35). It hurt. Jesus felt it and He showed it. Was this the only time that He cried in front of others? My inclination is to think that it was a unique event. But why do I assume that? Maybe there were other examples of His expressing Himself in tears that aren’t recorded in the Bible.

    I imagine that the rejection Jesus experienced in His life on this earth also caused Him some anguish, although I tend to minimize that, too. He’s God. People have been rebelling against Him ever since Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit. Doesn’t He get used to it? Doesn’t He have a thick enough skin by now?

    On the rare occasions when I really think about it, I have to admit that that’s probably not the case. God describes His relationship with His people as a marriage, in both the Old and New Testaments. He offers and desires an intimate connection with His creatures. If He didn’t have some kind of emotional investment in us, if it didn’t hurt Him to be rejected, wouldn’t He use a different, less personal, analogy?

The depth of Jesus' suffering

    So I’ve looked at Jesus as the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 and appreciated His pain to some extent. But as Christmas approaches, I’ve been thinking about the daily distress He must have experienced simply by becoming human.

    There He was in heaven from eternity past. No unmet needs. Total freedom. Living in glory. Being worshipped by the angels. In perfect fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Joy beyond my imagination. Inexpressible peace.

    Then suddenly, in one irreversible moment, conceived as a human being in the womb of the virgin Mary. Susceptible to heat and cold, and restricted to a confined area. Unable (or unwilling) to exert control over His own environment.

    The first Christmas arrived, and Jesus entered this world as a baby boy. Born in a stable amid the stench of the animals, lying on a bed of scratchy hay. He experienced the sensations of hunger and thirst and dirty diapers. His actions were constrained by time and space and by a body that had to learn how to walk and talk and feed Himself. He most likely suffered from the usual forms of illness and injury.

    He was probably teased by the other children, since everyone in the neighborhood knew that His parents hadn’t been married yet when He was conceived. He was hampered by all the human limitations and hardships, but with a major difference—He knew what it was like to live without them in the perfection of heaven.

    Most of our religious Christmas displays glamorize His birth. Everything was calm and peaceful. Mary and Joseph were relaxed and smiling. The animals stood around quietly, gazing at the baby in wonder. I enjoy the idealized imagery that I’ve come to associate with Jesus’ first days as much as anyone. But doesn’t this miss the whole point?

    The point is that the Son “being in very nature God, . . . made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:6-7, italics added). This was a greater sacrifice than I will ever be able to understand. Simply being human involved ongoing suffering every minute of every day, compared to the glories of heaven.

    In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two young boys, one the heir to the throne, the other extremely poor, discover that they look a lot alike. Just for fun, they exchange clothes. But at that moment, the prince’s servant walks into the room and kicks the child dressed in rags out into the street. Much of the book is spent showing how difficult it would be for one living in royal luxury to adjust to sudden poverty and disgrace.

    Sort of a taste of what Jesus went through.

    Twain’s prince had a tough time adapting. He wanted to assert his control over everyone he met. He expected them to bow down to their future king. He grew angry when they didn’t believe his story. Unlike Jesus, who “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” but “humbled himself and became obedient” (Philippians 2:6, 8).

The source of our joy

    Descending from heaven voluntarily, Jesus’ life on this earth was one continual living sacrifice, thirty years of ceaseless suffering. Just because He did it with grace and peace and joy and compassion and contentment doesn’t mean it was easy or pain-free. But He did it to demonstrate the unfathomable depth of God’s love for His creatures. He did it as the necessary prelude to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross.

    That’s what makes the Christmas season one of joy. Not the sentimental glamorizing of the birth of an adorable little baby. Not the wonder Mary and Joseph felt in becoming new parents. Not the appearance of the angels and the wise men.

    What makes Christmas a time of joy is the incredible depth of God’s love for fallen mankind, as seen in the Son’s willingness to take on decades of suffering for our sake. The beautiful scenes of Christmas morning will pass. The baby will grow up. The shepherds will go back to their sheep. Jesus’ family will return to the daily grind in Nazareth. But the sacrificial love of God, as proclaimed and demonstrated on this one glorious night, will endure forever.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Responding

Suffering

    “I have nothing to be thankful for.” Those were the words in the letter to the editor of our local newspaper sometime in November, 2001, expressing the writer’s sense of loss following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

    My initial response was one of judgment. How could anyone claim to have absolutely nothing to be thankful for? Did she have even one friend? Probably. Did she have enough education and intelligence to read and write? Obviously. Was there any food at all in her kitchen? I imagined so, or she most likely would have been trying to make ends meet rather than reading the newspaper and writing to the editor. I mentally lifted my nose in the air, peered down on her condescendingly, and gave her a lecture on how blessed she is to live in a land of such abundance.

    Later (I don’t remember how much later, but definitely too long), my heart began to break for her. Here was a woman who was hurting so badly that she couldn’t even appreciate the little pleasures and joys that come to all of us. Maybe her letter was a cry for help. Did anyone answer that cry? Had her normal shock and grief turned into ongoing depression?

    Whatever her mental condition, the woman was obviously suffering. And she was responding to that suffering by feeling hopeless and bitter. She needed my understanding and prayers, not my judgment.

    Several years later, I read a story in a magazine about a first responder who had been at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was so traumatized by the destruction and death that had surrounded him on that day that he was abusing alcohol to ease the pain. His marriage was in trouble, he was unemployed, and he was seriously depressed.

    One day he was out in his front yard with his young daughter. A stranger walked by, said hello, and smiled at the toddler. In an instant, the first responder’s life started turning around as his perspective shifted. If a total stranger could show a little kindness to a child, then maybe there was some good in the world after all.

Facing the pain

    Here were two different people responding to the same situation—a frightening terrorist attack on American soil resulting in the deaths of approximately three thousand people. Who could blame the woman for retreating into anger and bitterness? But where did she go from there? I’ll never know.

    The man had witnessed the horror firsthand. He had risked his life to save others. He was a hero. And yet he, too, was overwhelmed by the cruelty behind it. Self-medicating his PTSD, he descended into alcoholism. It took time—not just days, but years—for him to reach the point where his heart could be touched and his life could be restored.

    Suffering hurts. It damages our minds and our emotions. It dampens our spirits. It leads to a desire for escape, a crying out for relief. It’s easy enough to advise people to count their blessings, to have an attitude of gratitude, but can we realistically expect that response when the pain cuts so deep?

    Maybe. I think there are a few rare people who can see the good in their lives, and be genuinely thankful for it, even in the midst of the blackest night. But we evangelicals have a tendency to claim that we’re giving it all to God, to believe that we’re being truly thankful, to speak of hope and peace and joy, when in reality we’re simply using a more acceptable form of escape than alcohol or drug abuse: denial of the misery inside.

    I’ve had my share of stresses in the last few decades. (Actually, it feels like more than my fair share. I have to occasionally remind myself that others have been through worse situations.) I’ve followed my own advice in taking all my feelings to God, being totally honest with Him, begging Him for relief. Venting has released the anger and fear and hopelessness. It’s brought me back to a place where I can genuinely thank God for all the good in my life.

Giving thanks anyway

    But occasionally I’ve found myself wallowing in the pain. Obsessing over my circumstances. Making no progress in working through the distress, especially in cases where I can’t take any action, where all I can do is wait and see what the outcome will be. Stuck. Like the woman who wrote the letter to the editor.

    At those times, praising God in spite of the difficulties, finding things to be grateful for even when I don’t feel like giving thanks, seeing the good in little everyday events (like the first responder) helps to lift my heart and my soul out of the pit. It’s not an artificial denial of what I’m really thinking and feeling. I’ve brought it to God, hoping and praying for the strength to endure. I haven’t found the relief that I’m seeking, but I know that I need to move on.

    The Holy Spirit has led me to a better understanding of spiritual warfare through all of this. There can be a fine line between an honest expression of the ache inside and a repetitious cycle of despair and self-absorption. When I cross that line, Satan is winning. He’s got me right where he wants me. He tells me that I’m simply pouring out my heart to God in a healthy way. That’s a good thing. Why not continue to vent?

    But when I deliberately turn from brooding to thanksgiving, I’m resisting that liar. I’m standing up in my own little way against the evil one. Breaking his power over my thoughts. Giving God the glory that He deserves and that Satan wants for himself. I’m depending on God to remind me of His blessings and to make me truly thankful even in the toughest times. It brings me closer to Him and out of the clutches of the enemy. Therefore, I give thanks.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Bad Boy!

The effects of sin

    “No, Charlie! No!” Swat. “No chewing on Kleenex!” Usher him outside. Close off the doggy door so he can’t get back in.

    Charlie is the best dog in the world. Rarely misbehaves. Loves me. Protects me. Has patience with me when I forget to feed him.

    But once in a while, maybe a couple of times a year, Charlie gets in trouble. His favorite sin is to pull a Kleenex out of the trash and tear it up. I try to keep every wastebasket above dog-nose height, but somehow, occasionally, a tissue will end up within his reach. He can’t seem to resist it. Then comes the punishment.

    But Charlie knows that it will quickly be followed by forgiveness. He waits happily by the back door, knowing that I’ll be there soon to let him in again and reassure him that I still love him. Is his faith in me greater than my faith in God?

    When I get in trouble with God, what do I expect? Displeasure, judgment, discipline. A greater distance between us that doesn’t just evaporate when I repent. Feeling like I have to work hard, to prove my sincerity, to demonstrate that I am really, really sorry.

    Don’t I know God better than that? Haven’t I read about and experienced His abundant grace over and over again? Yes and no. I’ve grown. I’m far more willing and able to accept His forgiveness and renewed relationship now than I was as a new believer. At that time it could take me weeks or months to understand that I didn’t have to continue in sorrow and contrition day after day. I was forgiven as soon as I admitted that I was wrong (1 John 1:9).

The effects of guilt

    But I’ll never be perfect in this area any more than I am in all those other areas involved in living the Christian life. That’s why I appreciate the illustration that Charlie provides.

    Charlie faces temptation. Does he struggle, as I do, with his conscience? Does his internal good dog remind him of the suffering that will follow if he gives in, as his internal bad dog urges him on? I’ll never know whether he makes any attempt to resist, because he only misbehaves when no one is looking. But at some point his desire outweighs his memory of past discipline for this same transgression, and he tears up the tissue. As my desires outweigh my memory of the consequences of my sin, and I give in to temptation.

    Fear strikes Charlie’s heart when I enter the room and find the evidence. If he’s right there, he’ll get that guilty expression on his face and refuse to look me in the eye. If he’s elsewhere and I call him cheerfully enough, he’ll come, but not too close, tucking his tail between his legs and hanging back as he realizes that he’s been caught.

    Kind of like me after the pleasure of sin wears off. Knowing I’ll have to face a just and righteous God. Guilty. Fearful. Hanging back. Like Adam and Eve hiding in the garden (Genesis 3:8) or David waiting months after sinning with Bathsheba before confessing and repenting (2 Samuel 11 and 12).

The effects of forgiveness

    But my mercy toward Charlie doesn’t trigger more bad behavior on his part. Knowing that I’ll forgive him and love him no matter what doesn’t lead to his seeking the best of both worlds—enjoying both the fleeting pleasure of sin and a loving relationship with one of his favorite humans. He rarely misbehaves.

    Unlike me. How often am I tempted to go ahead and break God’s laws because I know His forgiveness awaits me on the other side of repentance? Why not indulge? It won’t really cost all that much in the end.

    So how does this whole thing work? Why does Charlie trust me to forgive him every time? Why doesn’t he take advantage of my kindness?

The effects of love

    Because we have a relationship based on mutual love. A relationship that brings us both joy. I love Charlie. I show it by helping meet his needs for food and water and exercise, by smiling and talking to him, by petting him and playing with him. Not because I have to, but because I enjoy it.

    He loves me back. He demonstrates it by getting excited every time I come home, by wagging his tail when I look his way, by following me from room to room even when I’m ignoring him, by threatening to eat anyone who endangers me.

    But we’re not equals. I enforce the rules. Charlie is dependent on me. Because I love him, I don’t abuse my authority. I’m responsible for training him, for setting boundaries, but because I love him I want what’s best for him. Because I love him, I’m happy to feed him. I don’t do it grudgingly. I enjoy his pleasure as he scarfs down yet another bowl of the same old food that he’s been eating for years.

    Because he loves me, Charlie rarely challenges my authority. Because he loves me, he trusts me to feed him. When I occasionally forget, he doesn’t complain or tear up the house. He waits patiently, knowing that I’ll remember soon enough. Because he loves me, he doesn’t want anyone to harm me.

    This is a model of what my relationship with God should look like. Mutual love that leads to joy, even though it’s not a relationship of equals. Because He loves me, God takes pleasure in meeting my needs, in interacting with me, in protecting me. But unlike my relationship with Charlie, my Lord never forgets to take care of me. He never ignores me as He attends to the other necessities in life. He never leaves me to run a few errands.

    Because I love Him, I spend time with Him in prayer and worship and reading His Word. Because I love Him, I’m eager to obey Him. Yet I question God’s authority more often than Charlie questions mine. I don’t trust Him as completely as Charlie trusts me. When God “forgets” to answer my prayers, I rarely just wait patiently.

    But that’s okay. He loves me even when I fail Him. And because He loves me, He teaches me and leads me into greater growth, greater trust, greater obedience. Not in a legalistic or domineering manner, but in a relational way, a way based on joyful interaction, a loving and gracious way founded on knowing and wanting what’s best for me. A way that provides illustrations (like Charlie) that help me to understand Him better.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Scriptures That Soothe My Soul

Legalism

    Psalms. Job. Second Corinthians. These are the books of the Bible that I turn to when I’m hurting. During my first depressive episode I couldn’t focus, couldn’t think, couldn’t fight the fog in my head. Couldn’t read for more than a few seconds before losing my train of thought. Couldn’t read God’s Word for understanding or meaning.

    Normally, I’m a left-brained intellectual nerd. So after becoming a Christian, I considered it the most natural thing in the world to want to learn all I could about this new faith. (Giving myself the credit, not realizing how much the Holy Spirit was prompting me and encouraging me and guiding me.) I started reading the Bible from cover to cover even before finding a church to attend. Within a few years, I was frustrated by the lack of depth in most evangelical churches, but I found that depth in God’s Word. I pushed myself to gain knowledge, gain understanding, gain wisdom.

    Maybe even to the point of turning it into an idol.

    At least to the point of legalistically insisting that a good Christian must read, must learn, must grow. Must work hard at it, mustn’t miss a single day’s devotional time.

Compassion

    Then the depression hit my brain, and everything changed. Unable to focus, feeling guilty for the struggles, going for weeks without reading the Bible due to the physical and mental exhaustion. Until I rediscovered the Psalms. Suddenly I could read again, if only one Psalm at a time. I could feel the authors’ pain and confusion and God’s incomprehensible compassion.

    “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. . . . He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters” (18:6, 16). “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. . . . The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (34:6, 18).

    “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (72:12-14). “In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free” (118:5). “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (145:8-9). “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (147:3).

    Then came Job. The wonder and relief that a righteous man could voice his doubts and question God. The vivid example of how it feels to be surrounded by people who don’t understand some kinds of suffering.

    More recently, after losing any sense of God’s presence for months at a time, feeling a strong connection to Job’s words: “Why do you [God] hide your face and consider me your enemy? Will you torment a windblown leaf? Will you chase after dry chaff?” (13:24-25). “[God] has blocked my way so I cannot pass; he has shrouded my paths in darkness” (19:8). “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him” (23:8-9). “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me” (30:20). That’s how I felt.

Growth through suffering

    These two books helped me express my doubts and confusion and pain before God. Second Corinthians provided a necessary antidote to the self-focus, a view of the big picture, of how our sufferings fit into God’s greater purposes. A taste of the good and the hope and the strength that is there even in the worst of times. He “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (1:4, italics added). “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might rely not on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (1:8-9).

    “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (4:8-9). “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:16-18). “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (6:10). “‘My [Jesus’] grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ . . . For when I [Paul] am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10).

    No denial of the sorrows in this life. In fact, Paul reveals his own difficulties (physical and emotional) more in this book than in any other. And yet he also makes the strongest statements regarding both the benefits to others because of his pain and the triviality of that pain compared to the spiritual blessings of this life and the next. If his suffering is really as intense as he describes it as being, what does that say about the many times greater intensity of the joy and glory that can come through that suffering?

    Thank You, Father, for the richness and variety of Your Word. Thank You that different books and verses minister to me at different times in my life. Whatever my need might be, the Bible provides passages that meet it. During the times when I need to be taught, rebuked, corrected, or trained in righteousness, Your Word is there (2 Timothy 3:16). But it’s also “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) in my times of pain and sorrow, soothing my soul as only You can do.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Intimacy and Honesty

Honesty

   Exact words from my last post: “Lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.” I assumed that I was stating something that we all just know, even if we don’t practice it.

    Then I happened to hear an interesting podcast. Two Guys on Your Head talking about honesty and happiness. One of their first statements: “It turns out honesty is the best policy despite the fact that people don’t believe it.” So much for my assumption.

    According to the podcast, researchers divided some volunteers into three groups for a study on relationships. They gave each group a different angle to focus on during all of their social interactions over a given length of time. One group was told to be as honest as possible, another to be as kind as possible, and the third to pay more attention to what they were saying as they talked to other people. After practicing their assignments in their everyday lives for the specified number of days, the subjects were asked to rate the closeness and effectiveness of their interactions during that time.

    “Surprisingly,” (the podcaster’s word, not mine) “what they found was people felt like they had better interactions with people and felt closer to the people that they communicated with if they were honest.” Are these two psychologists really surprised to hear this? Or are they just reflecting the surprise most Americans would experience when the results were revealed?

    A fourth group involved in the study was asked to predict what would happen in the same three situations. The majority thought that being honest would be more likely to damage a relationship. They were wrong.

Kindness?

    In the experiment, the subjects reasoned that the kind thing to do is to avoid telling the truth if it might be hurtful or offensive. That makes sense in some situations, like the example the Two Guys gave: if a husband and wife are walking into a restaurant and the wife asks the husband how she looks, kindness wins out over honesty.

    But according to the podcast, most of the time our belief that we’re being kind is really just cowardice. We don’t have the guts to tell people “what you know they need to hear.” Their conclusion is that when we share ourselves with others more freely, especially if it’s done in a positive, rather than a combative or degrading, manner, we’re opening the relationship up to greater intimacy. Ephesians 4:15: Speak the truth in love. It works.

    Some of my best relationships have been with people who don’t agree with me on one or more important subjects. As we’ve discussed our opposing positions and listened to each other and tried to understand each other’s perspective, we’ve developed a deep friendship that I wouldn’t trade for all the “kindness” in the world. It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s always worth it. Am I the only one who’s experienced this?

    The Two Guys say that the main situation where we avoid telling the truth is when it reflects badly on the speaker or the listener. But as they point out, exposing our weaknesses expresses a willingness to trust the other person. Those great relationships from the previous paragraph also included admitting our uncertainties, our failures, our faults. It’s called vulnerability. It’s biblical. Our culture claims to consider it one of the greatest virtues. What’s happening here?

Trust

    An important factor that wasn’t discussed in the podcast is the nonverbal responses that we all pick up on, whether we realize it or not. There’s something about looking into a person’s face as we talk. Their whole expression seems to become warmer and more open when the speaker is being honest. It changes when he or she is holding back. Even if we can’t put a finger on it, I suspect that we instinctively sense when someone is being truthful and when they’re not. And if they’re not, they’ll lose our trust. We might think that we can fool someone by being kind instead of honest, but I’m not sure that it really works that way.

    Many years ago there was a man in my church whose wife had recently left him. They had been living a life of deceit for years, pretending to be happily married, putting on a false front for the rest of the congregation to admire. In reality, he was controlling and manipulating his family to the point of emotional abuse. Initially, the wife thought her husband was being a good Christian spiritual leader and she was being a good Christian submissive wife. But she eventually recognized his behavior as unChristian and unhealthy, and she ended the relationship.

    He remained in our church and Bible study while she moved on. One day, I was talking to him before class. I glanced into his eyes to gauge his response to our conversation. There was nothing there. No human expression. Just a brick wall. He was hiding the truth of who he really was, what he really thought, how he really felt.

    My gut reaction: I can’t trust anything this guy is saying. He might have been oozing kindness in his words, but his eyes betrayed his lack of honesty and destroyed any possibility of friendship or acceptance. This was an extreme case, but I suspect that most of us know when someone is being less than honest even if their words convey kindness. And it widens the distance between us.

Intimacy

    If honesty really is the best policy, if intimacy develops with truth rather than with attempts at deceitful kindness, what happens when a culture strives to protect its members from any words that might be deemed hurtful? Can we engage in honest conversation? Will we build intimacy or only a shallow pretense at friendship? Many colleges are trying to ban offensive speech from the entire campus. Is this really the best way to prevent suffering? Maybe in the short term. But what about the long-term ability to build strong, healthy, lasting relationships based on honesty—the best policy?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Speaking the Truth in Love

Let it all hang out

    Waking up as my alarm goes off. Hitting the snooze button, my mind drifting lazily around the idea of handling our emotions as Christians. An extension of my interrupted dream. (I know I’m weird, even in my dreaming.) A thought: Express the truth of what you feel, but face the truth of what is real.

    Our God is a God of truth (John 14:6). His desire is for us to become more like Him in this life, until we’re transformed into His likeness in the next (Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 3:2). That means being truthful in all we do, including honestly admitting and expressing our emotions. But it doesn’t stop there. We also need to face the truth, the reality, of how our emotional venting impacts others.

    Our American culture stresses the first half. Express the truth of what you feel. Let it all hang out. If I feel it, then I have a right, even a need, to reveal it. Don’t worry about how it might affect others.

    My dad bought into this proclamation of modern psychology. It would be disastrous to suppress any emotions. It would lead to ulcers, heart attacks, assaults on your mental health. So Dad blew up if he felt like blowing up. He criticized, he ridiculed, he scorned. It made him feel better, at least temporarily, so it must be the right thing to do. Express the truth of what you feel. Where’s the harm in that? (To give him full credit, he also freely demonstrated his tender heart toward our family and toward people everywhere who were hurting.)

    The harm is in the pain it causes others. Dad never faced the truth of what is real—the extreme selfishness of this approach. It cares only for the one doing the expressing. It denies the needs of those who are being wounded. It doesn’t lead to greater maturity for the one spouting off or to greater peace and deeper relationships with the world around him. Should we be surprised that, decades after this philosophy became the accepted approach to life in America, our country is being torn apart by division and violence?

Keep it all inside

    Evangelically-correct Christians go to the opposite extreme. They recognize the reality: my anger, envy, or criticism hurts those around me. By contrast, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). This is the transformation that God works inside us as we grow in Him. These are the characteristics that heal the hurts of the world, that lead to a lasting peace and healthy relationships with others.

    However, these believers tend to deny the first half of how to handle emotions. There can be no expressing the truth of what you feel. If it doesn’t conform to the fruit of the Spirit, the only way it should come out in our relationships should be in admitting that such feelings are wrong. Anger must be suppressed or confessed as sin, never honestly revealed to others. But lack of honesty, no matter how well-intentioned, keeps others at a distance. It can never bring about greater understanding between two people.

Speak the truth in love

    My little rhyming thought is another way of phrasing the biblical idea of speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Speak the truth—express the truth of what you feel. But do it in love—face the truth of what is real. Find the balance. My basic nature leads me to err on both sides. I don’t want to reveal my deepest thoughts and feelings unless I know someone very, very well. I could be rejected or misunderstood. Safer to keep it inside.

    And it’s a challenge to speak the truth about any emotional subject with loving words. If I’m angry, if someone has hurt me, I don’t want to have to stop and think about how to show that in a way that takes their needs into account. This two-sided process is an area where I could see God growing me even as a baby Christian, but it doesn’t come naturally.

    When I was in college and the suicidal depression hit, my emotions went to every extreme in the book. Anger, suspicion, jealousy, self-pity. How could I possibly express the truth of what I was feeling without wounding and alienating everyone around me? And without making a total fool of myself by overreacting to everything? My initial response was to keep it all inside as my evangelically-correct training kicked in. It nearly destroyed me.

    One of my big breakthroughs came when I openly communicated my feelings not to others, but to God. I learned to take it all to Him, pouring out my heart (Psalm 62:8), often through journaling. I could express the truth of how I felt, which was necessary and healthy, while facing the truth of what was real, of the ways I would hurt others if I just blew up every time I felt like I needed to. I also grew in my walk with God because, like the authors of the psalms of lament, facing God with my deepest feelings led to a greater understanding of who He really is.

    When medication relieved the depression, I began to take what I’d learned from expressing myself to God and apply it to the greater challenge of expressing myself to others. I found that I could be more honest with them in ways that didn’t trample on their souls. It still isn’t the most automatic thing for me to do. I’d like to be so mature in my faith that this whole process would unfold without any conscious thought on my part. I’d experience the fruit of the Spirit every waking moment. I’d communicate every emotion in loving and considerate words.

    Unfortunately, I’m not there yet. I’ve come a long way, but I’m still growing. And I thank God that He used a painful and difficult period in my life to teach me better ways to speak the truth in love.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Who is This God?

Blessing and obedience

   Doing a bit of research for my last post. Looking for specific Bible verses to support one of my premises: God, as He reveals Himself in the Old Testament, places a strong emphasis on obedience to His commands in determining when to bless someone.

    Starting with Genesis, looking for the words “God said.” There should be lots of times when God tells someone that He’s rewarding them for their good works. But not initially. At first the emphasis is on His sovereignty. God creates, He speaks, He chooses. It doesn’t say that He creates Adam and Eve because He knows they will love and obey Him. He just does it. And He blesses them right after He creates them, not after they’ve done anything to deserve it (Genesis 1:27-28).

    He gives them instructions, including the command not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, with the threat that they will die if they do (Genesis 2:17). No promises connected to doing His will. When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God punishes them and curses them (Genesis 3:16-19). No promises regarding future good behavior.

    In the first example of God confirming to someone that those who obey Him will be blessed, He’s not speaking to the upright, but to Cain, who has just murdered his brother Abel: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:7). There seems to be an understanding that obedience leads to blessing, but there’s no record yet of God explicitly stating this to His followers, as I’d expected to find.

    Noah is described as blameless and walking with God (Genesis 6:9). The Lord chooses him to build an ark to preserve a remnant of people and animals to repopulate the earth. But the Bible doesn’t record a single instance of God telling Noah that He’s blessing him for his obedience. He simply commands Noah, and Noah simply obeys.

    (I realize that God probably said a great deal to Noah that’s not recorded in the Bible, which might have included stating that He had chosen him to save mankind because of his upright life. My point here is not to second guess how much the people of the Bible knew, but to point out what God has revealed to those of us who read His Word.)

    Abraham appears in Genesis chapter 11. The Lord comes to him and makes a covenant with him, promising him great blessings. He instructs him to leave Haran and go to Canaan. Abraham goes. Many adventures follow, with Abraham responding to God in faith for the most part. But it’s not until he’s over one hundred years old, humbly preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord, that the Bible records, for the first time, God telling a human being that he will be blessed because of his obedience (Genesis 22:15-18).

God's character

    What does all this mean? Maybe it was really important for God to communicate first, beyond any doubt, the side of His character that speaks and it happens, that commands without any promise, that chooses to bless without trying to justify His actions. Maybe He also wanted to provide examples of people who follow Him for who He is, not solely because they expect Him to give them the good life.

    God demonstrates His love for humans as He walks with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as He preserves Noah and his family from the Flood, as He makes a covenant with Abraham. But we need to hear, we need to see, we need to understand just who this God is who generously and freely loves and gives.

    He is the one with the power to create and to destroy. He is the one with the perfect righteousness and justice to wisely choose when to bless and when to curse. He is the one with the sovereignty to decide who to use to fulfill His purposes in history. This is what I need to know right from the start.

    I need to know that this God has the power and sovereignty to fulfill every promise that He makes in His compassion, and the righteousness to see that justice is done in the end. Only then can I begin to appreciate the enormity of His grace in blessing and saving even one human being. And only then can I truly accept the suffering that life brings my way without anger or bitterness toward Him.

Suffering servants

    The next eye opener comes with scanning through the Psalms, many of which contrast God’s blessing for His followers with His judgment on those who pursue evil. But what strikes me this time is just how much His people suffer.

    If God is rewarding them for their obedience, why are they crying out so often in distress? Why are they being oppressed by those evil people that God is supposed to be judging in this life? Why are the wicked flourishing (3:1, 10:2, 11:2, etc.)?

    The answer given is that justice does prevail. But the example given is that suffering makes the authors much more aware of their dependence on God and of His loving faithfulness to them. Which is more important, to have a carefree life, or to be better able “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19)? For the psalmists, that knowledge grows during times of suffering.

    What if David had had an easy life based on his commitment to following God? What if he hadn’t been unjustly pursued and persecuted by Saul for all those years (1 Samuel 18-31)? What would the book of Psalms look like if David couldn’t relate to my pain, my suffering, my questioning? I’ll never have the faith and obedience of David. Yet even David could experience and express the spiritual anguish that all of us go through. The comfort I find in the Psalms comes because of the suffering of righteous David.

    Thank You, Father, for Your perfect Word, Your perfect revelation of Yourself over time and through history. Thank You for providing the firm foundation of a knowledge of Your power and Your sovereignty even before revealing Your blessings for those who obey You. Thank You for using David’s hardships to remind him (and us) of his dependence on You and to bless so many people (like me) down through the ages, as he poured out his heart in the Psalms.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Controlling God

My kind of God

    Gotta be honest here. And honestly, I want a God that I can control. Not that I have to be able to tell Him exactly how to run everything. I just want one who will always answer my prayers for relief from suffering if I behave and believe the way He wants me to. (Within reasonable limits, of course—nobody’s perfect.)

    Sounds like a fair exchange to me. He can deny my request if I’m living in rebellion or seriously doubting Him. As God, He has the right to lay down some ground rules like that. Doesn’t the Bible promise me this kind of relationship with God? Doesn’t it say that if I behave properly (Old Testament) and believe properly (New Testament), He’ll remove all the suffering in my life when I ask Him to?

    Moses in the Old Testament: “All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock. . . Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out. . . The enemies who rise up against you will be defeated. . . The Lord will send a blessing . . . on everything you put your hand to. . . The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity. . . You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. The Lord will make you the head, not the tail. . . You will always be at the top, never at the bottom” (Deuteronomy 28:2-13). Sounds like a good and easy life to me. And it’s all based on obedience.

    Jesus in the New Testament: “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29). “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20-21). “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mark 5:34). Believe. Be healed.

A better God

    How can this same God, who obviously grants prayers based on obedience and faith, say no to my requests for relief, not just for me, but for others who are suffering? What about all those promises?

    To be honest, it’s not the sense that He’s gone back on His word that bothers me the most. It’s my inability to get what I want, to exercise control.

    I know these passages don’t represent the entire story. Looking at the Bible as a whole, God has the final say in which petitions He grants and which ones He denies. He’s the only one with the wisdom and the compassion and the perspective to always make the right choice. If He was required to grant every request to everyone who was behaving and believing as He desired, that would put us in control, not Him. And some really bad things would happen, since we don’t know it all (as He does) and can’t foresee all the effects of a given action (as He can).

Giving up my desire for control

    But I still have this drive for control. Sometimes when I’m praying, I feel like I’m trying to force my will on God. I know it’s right and best for You to heal that suffering child, God. You have to do it. Nothing else makes sense. Can’t You see that? My mind is so filled with the pain and grief of the situation that I can mechanically repeat the words, “Your will be done,” but my heart longs for my will. For God to open His eyes and see the joy that would spill over into many lives if He would just do it my way.

    My favorite line from the movie Puzzle, describing the feeling after finishing a jigsaw puzzle: “In the end, you know you made all the right decisions.” I might have made an occasional mistake, but once the picture is completed, there’s this satisfaction of knowing that I controlled the process every step along the way and reached the desired outcome.

    When I do logic puzzles online, I frequently hit the “check” button. I want to know, right now, that I’m on the right track. No waiting until I’ve filled in all the blanks. Tell me where I stand immediately. Then I can fix the little mistakes before they mushroom into big mistakes. I can control or eliminate that mushrooming process.

    I want a check button for my life. Just before I make the next decision, no matter how trivial, I want to be able to confirm that I’ll be satisfied with the results. Will the wording in that email or text get the response that I’m hoping for? Check! Will that item that I’m about to order online live up to all my expectations? Check! Am I choosing the social event that I’ll enjoy the most when there’s a conflict between two or more of them? Check!

    Where’s my real-life check button? If I could just click on it every time I’m in doubt, it would give me the control to make my world exactly what I want it to be.

    But I don’t have that check button and I won’t make all the right decisions and God doesn’t do everything I want Him to do to relieve suffering. How do I live with this reality? Especially in a culture that gives us an illusion of control. Want to manage your finances, increase your physical fitness, keep tabs on your children 24/7, prevent criminals from breaking into your home or accessing your personal information? There’s an app for that. There’s an app for everything. I can control whatever I want to if I just find the right app.

    I need to step back from this cultural mindset. To remember that technology doesn’t have all the answers, and neither do I. Deep down inside, I believe in a good and loving God. What I really need isn’t more control, but more faith in God and less faith in my ability to run my own life.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Joy From Sorrow

Rethinking the Old Testament

    Rejoice! Celebrate! Those were God’s commands for His people in the Old Testament (for example, Leviticus 23:39-40). Yet I often hear that the Old Testament God is full of wrath and judgment, while Jesus is full of grace and love. I still remember my surprise and pleasure in discovering long ago that the seemingly mean God of the Old Testament told His people to celebrate and rejoice.

    But over time something happened to me. In more recent years, I’ve been reading the Old Testament with a heavier heart, seeing the sin and the suffering, missing the joy and the celebration. God’s been working on me in this area.

    About a year ago, in my daily Bible reading, I reached the book of Judges with a sense of dread. Ugh. Here comes that book that tells about all the failures of God’s people. They follow Him briefly, they prosper as a result, they turn away from Him in their prosperity, He sends judgment, they cry out to Him in their pain, He rescues them. And then the cycle begins all over again. I’ve been taught that the theme of the whole book is man’s suffering due to his failure to live up to God’s high demands. Pretty depressing.

    But last year, for the first time, I saw it a little differently. Yes, the Israelites vacillated between serving God and serving idols. But the stretches of peace, when they were being faithful, were much longer than the times of oppression in judgment for their sin. Looking at the book of Judges as a whole, Israel’s peace and prosperity lasted two to three times as long as their affliction under other nations.

    And they always turned back to God. God always rescued them. The relationship was always restored, regardless of how very many times they turned away. Joy always followed the sorrow of repentance. Not so depressing after all.

OT worship

    In the last few months, it seems like everywhere I turn I run into comments on the beauty and joy of Old Testament worship. The richly colored and intricately decorated cloth of the tabernacle, the abundance of sparkling gold and silver and precious gems, the ever-present instruments and voices raised in song. I need to replace my image of the tabernacle and temple as serious places focused solely on bloody sacrifices, with the biblical descriptions of singing and feasting in the presence of the Lord.

    What is it that distinguishes this God from the other gods of the time? Neighboring people were sacrificing their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:21) or cutting themselves with swords and spears in hopes of getting Baal’s attention (1 Kings 18:28). They gave to satisfy their gods’ selfish desires. There was no love expressed by those gods. There was no personal relationship.

    By contrast, the Old Testament God offers and seeks a living relationship with His people. He understands them and loves them. The name “Israel” means “wrestles with God” (Genesis 32:28). Would any other god tolerate such a group? And yet the Lord calls them His “treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5). There’s something special about this God.

    Yes, He is a God of judgment. He sets high standards for His people. But the standards are given to guide them into the best possible lives for themselves and the world, not as harsh, random demands. “Keep my commands and you will live” (Proverbs 4:4) isn’t just referring to His willingness to allow them to continue inhabiting this planet if they obey Him. It’s the idea that they will have the most peaceful, satisfying, and fulfilling lives. Why have I been imagining their worship as painful and depressing, recognizing the enormity of their sin without finding any relief?

    The animal sacrifices symbolized the seriousness of sin in God’s eyes. Only the shedding of blood (death) could atone for breaking His commands. That was solemn business. God doesn’t take the shedding of blood, even animal blood, lightly. The animals to be sacrificed had to be the most perfect, the most precious livestock the Israelites owned (Leviticus 22:21-22). It had to cost them something. To give less than their best would be a failure to take their sin seriously enough. This is the part of the worship ceremonies that I’ve been focused on. The sorrow for sin, the death, the judgment.

OT grace

    But the Israelites also had God’s promise that if they followed His prescribed rituals for confession and repentance, He would forgive them. Completely. Totally. Absolutely. Clean slate. Fresh start. This God is a God of grace. If His people expressed their faith in His character by confessing and repenting, they could experience a renewed relationship with Him, as if they had never turned away. What relief that would bring! What celebration and joy would naturally follow their sorrow!

    Thank You, Father, for correcting this image in my mind. Help me to continue to recall the joy of worshiping You, even in the Old Testament. The beauty of Your places of worship, the praise and celebration expressed through music, the feasting in the community of Your followers, the wonder and awe of knowing that the righteous God has made gracious provision for forgiving sin all through the ages. The joy of a renewed relationship that always follows the sorrow of repentance.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Jeopardy James

Winning and losing

    Maybe I need to be more like “Jeopardy James.” Jeopardy James is the latest game show phenomenon. As I’m writing this, he’s won 31 games in a row, second only to Ken Jennings’ record of 74. Even though he’s won less than half as many games as Ken, he’s within two games of passing Jennings’ record of more than $2.5 million. James’ average for his daily winnings is close to the pre-James record for the highest one-day total.

    So what’s his secret? James is a mathematician and a professional gambler. He uses probability and statistics to determine his strategy. He doesn’t play hunches or take foolish risks. (Yes, he takes high risks, but they’re all carefully calculated and therefore reasonable.) That’s one side of his success.

    The other side is what I’d like to emulate. James is completely comfortable with both winning and losing. I’m not. On May 23, he came close to ending his streak. When I tuned in partway through the show, another contestant was ahead of him, which is rare. The contestant then got a Daily Double, boosting his earnings to nearly twice as much as James’. That was a first. But James coolly continued to play, risking everything he had on the next Daily Double and taking the lead. Still calm, still relaxed.

Stressing out

    Unlike me. I was tied up in knots. Screaming in my head, “No! This can’t be happening! He has to win again! He has to break the current all-time record! He can’t lose!” Focusing intently on the game instead of loading the dishwasher, as I usually do during Jeopardy! time.

    Why was I so wrapped up in this game? In the grand scheme of things, an eternity from now, will anyone really care how much money James makes on Jeopardy! or how many records he sets? I don’t think so. During the commercials, I reflected on my reaction and on how James would respond if he lost. That’s when I realized that I need to be more like him.

    As a professional gambler, James knows that the house always determines both the rules and the odds, because it exists to earn a profit. No profit, no house. In the same way, game shows are intended to make money, not to give away unlimited riches. James knows that he will lose at some point. He accepts that as the way the system works. And because he’s comfortable with the system, he wins more. Stress doesn’t mess with his mind or emotions, leading to costly mistakes.

    How comfortable am I with the way God’s system works? Not as comfortable as I’d like to be. I only check my blog stats once a week because I can’t handle the roller coaster of encouragement and disappointment. If the number of page views isn’t as high as I’d hoped, I feel like I’ve failed. Question whether I’m following God’s leading. Search the internet for new ideas on how to be a successful blogger. Get all tensed up inside. And suffer the consequences as the stress messes with my mind and emotions.

    Deep down inside, I know I’m doing my best to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. In a Bible study last summer, I had one of those wonder-full experiences of seeing a familiar verse in a new light. “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27, RSV). I always thought this referred only to our initial calling to follow Him. But it also applies to our daily walk with Him.

    Jesus doesn’t hide His will and direction from us. He doesn’t challenge us to search high and low for it with uncertainty and anxiety, as for a hidden treasure that few will ever find. He speaks to us through His Word, through wise counselors, through life’s circumstances. We hear His voice. It’s that simple. And yet I still worry that I’m missing something.

    A few months ago, I was selling off books and games that I no longer wanted. Boxes of treasures went to the second-hand store. The payoff: $38. I’d hoped for so much more. Had I done the right thing in dealing with this particular store? Should I have shopped around or had a garage sale or used eBay? Did I fail to do what was best in the situation? Disappointed and discouraged, I struggled with it all the way home.

    A day or two later, a thought occurred to me: maybe that $38 was exactly what God wanted me to have. Not a penny more. Not a penny less. Just right.

Living in God's system

    Don’t I have an even better foundation for facing my gains and losses than James does? He plays within an impersonal system that’s stacked against him. I live and breathe and move and work in the presence of a living God who loves me and wants the best for me. Every hair on my head is numbered (Luke 12:7). He works in all things in my life for His glory and for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). I can hear the voice of my shepherd without straining to make it out.

    So I checked my blog stats this morning from a new perspective. Not as many page views as I would have liked? Maybe that number is just exactly where God wants it to be. Maybe I’m not failing to follow Him faithfully when I have fewer readers. Maybe I need to trust Him to bring just the right people to my blog at just the right time, instead of stressing out over whether I’m doing everything that I should be doing, whether I’m missing some signal from on high that I should be seeing, whether I’m really good enough at this to continue with it.

    Maybe I could have the peace and calm of Jeopardy James, accepting the bad with the good, the trials with the triumphs, because I know that God is leading me and that He loves me, even when I don’t fully understand His system.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Chaplains at Work

Failing

    Recently heard about a company called Marketplace Chaplains. Trained Christian chaplains available 24/7 to provide employee care to businesses. Workers going through a crisis or stressful life event can choose to contact them, choose where to meet with them, choose how much to reveal to them, even choose the best match from a team of chaplains serving their particular company. It’s all confidential and free to the employee.

    What a great idea! But after a few minutes of marveling over the brilliance of the plan, another thought: Why do we need these people?

    Yes, they’re providing a valuable service. Yes, there’s a lot of pain and suffering among the workers in any given company at any given time, leading to reduced efficiency for the business. (Let’s be real here. The only reason most businesses would hire this company is to improve productivity.) Yes, Christianity has the best solutions for coping with and overcoming the challenges that we all face.

    My question isn’t, “Why bother?” It’s, “Why isn’t this already happening on a more informal basis?” Aren’t there enough Christians in the secular marketplace that, if each one did a fraction of what Jesus commanded in instructing us to love our neighbors as ourselves, there would be no need for this ministry?

Loving our neighbors

    I can understand how beneficial it would be for some individuals to have specialized training to be able to reach out to people from widely different backgrounds and with widely different kinds of struggles. But shouldn’t every Christian be learning how to fulfill what Jesus referred to as the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)? Shouldn’t we be building loving, kind, generous relationships with those around us, including in the secular workplace? Then when someone needs a listening ear, we’ll naturally be there for them.

    We might not be able to steer them to other needed resources, as a Marketplace Chaplain will be able to do. But from what I’ve heard and seen and read, the majority of people who are struggling with everyday issues in their lives benefit most from simply talking about it with someone who’s willing to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” as James says “everyone” should be (James 1:19). “Everyone” meaning every Christian, not just specially trained experts. Where have we gone wrong?

    I know many loving, caring believers. I marvel at how many Christians are serving God full-time in low-wage ministries to the homeless, to drug addicts, in the inner city, with overseas missions, anywhere there is great need. These people are truly living out their faith.

    But for the rest of us, who are not called into those ministries, the teaching we hear in our evangelical organizations week after week focuses primarily (sometimes exclusively) on how to convert people, not on how to love them. Learn the right Bible verses. Memorize the latest apologetics. Lip service is sometimes given to building relationships, but it takes a back seat to the sense of urgency that if I don’t say something about Jesus to that unbeliever right now, he or she could be lost forever. Little time is spent teaching us members of a me-centered culture how to build genuine caring relationships with those who don’t know Christ.

Changing tactics

    Most of the Christians I’ve known who are employed by large secular corporations follow one of two paths in the workplace. Some remain totally silent about their faith. They simply don’t know how to bring Jesus into a conversation. Maybe they’ve tried it a few times and met with nothing but hostility. Maybe they’re introverts who don’t talk about anything personal on the job. I can understand this approach.

    The second group sees the workplace as their mission field and themselves as missionaries. They steer every personal conversation to Jesus and the salvation that He offers. They do more talking than listening. They press each coworker to make a decision. Their hearts are in the right place, but I have to question their methods. And yet those methods are coming from their churches and Bible study classes.

    The problem is that they come across all wrong. They might care deeply about the person that they’re confronting, but their conversations feel more like high-pressure sales pitches than loving concern. If a particular coworker doesn’t respond well, they let the relationship drop and move on to the next victim.

    But every great once in a while I meet someone who models a more biblical approach to workplace evangelism. They build relationships with their coworkers. They love them just the way they are, as God loves us. They demonstrate genuine concern for those around them. They listen. They mourn with those who mourn. They don’t offer quick answers to every dilemma. They don’t judge those who have failed as parents, those who have failed as spouses, those who have failed to resist the attractions of drug and alcohol abuse. At some point, they share their faith, but not in a high-pressure fashion. And they touch lives in deeper, more meaningful, more long-lasting ways than those who follow the evangelically-correct methods.

    Why do we need Marketplace Chaplains? Because we’re falling so far short of God’s demands and desires for us as we interact with those who are hurting. Instead, we pay someone else to do it. I pray for the day when this ministry shuts its doors due to lack of demand, when Christians begin doing what we should’ve been doing all along.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

He is Risen!

Victory over suffering

    Good Friday. The crucifixion. The most intense suffering the world has ever seen. Jesus, God the Son, rejected, humiliated, tortured, executed in the most excruciating way possible. The greatest agony of all—separation from God the Father. Completely cut off. Abandoned, forsaken (Matthew 27:46). Two who had been in perfect, intimate, inseparable fellowship for all eternity are now torn apart.

    This is beyond my comprehension, but I get a vague glimpse of it in this world. The sorrow that I feel when I lose a friendship to a foolish argument, or when one of us moves too far away, or when a loved one dies. Experts say the most stressful event a human being can go through is the death of his or her child. It brings intense, intolerable pain. But that’s only a shadow of the grief of God the Father and His Child on that Good Friday.

    And then came Easter Sunday. Just as the first Good Friday witnessed the greatest suffering ever, so the first Easter announced God’s greatest triumph over all suffering.

    He is risen!

    How can I ever say this without experiencing the deepest reverence, the ultimate joy, the humble awe that God would demonstrate His complete mastery over all of our trials and afflictions by raising Jesus from the dead?

    He is risen!

    I’ve heard it so many times that I seldom appreciate the power behind those words. We evangelicals don’t wait until Easter to remember Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. We bring it to mind all year long. It becomes almost commonplace, everyday, ordinary. I forget the wonder of knowing that death, the ultimate in suffering, is defeated. And so I forget the consequence—God has the power to defeat the suffering in my life.

    Not that I’ll never hurt again. Not that my heart will never break again. Not that I’ll go through life with a smile plastered on my face as I deny the reality of the misery in this world.

No more separation

    One particular aspect of God’s triumph over suffering is often stressed in the New Testament. Jesus’ resurrection has ended the pain of the separation between God and us. The curtain in the temple has been torn in two (Matthew 27:51).

    From what I understand of salvation in the Old Testament, it was based on faith, as in the New (Romans chapter 4). But the Holy Spirit wasn’t given to an individual permanently, like He is now. He was with a person, on the outside, not within the person. Even after being saved, someone could be alienated from God in the sense that His Spirit could leave them.

    That changed with the resurrection. Since that momentous event, when we become Christians by grace through faith, the Holy Spirit comes to reside within us as a guarantee of our future life with God in heaven (Ephesians 1:13-14). He will never leave us. We will never again be estranged from Him.

    “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

    We can never experience the rupture in our relationship with God that Jesus Himself went through. The result is that even in “all these things,” in trouble and hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and the threat of death, we can be more than conquerors. With His continual presence, with His constant power, we can know something of God’s victory over pain and suffering as He confirmed it in the resurrection.

    Occasionally, this comes in the form of relief from the source of the ordeal—an illness or injury healed, a financial need met, or a relationship restored. But even when the physical affliction continues, we have His spiritual resources to strengthen us: His love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, His enabling us to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

    “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). This is a picture of the complete, total, absolute lack of all food whatsoever. Guaranteed starvation. And an expression of extreme faith by one who started out questioning and complaining: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Habakkuk 1:2).

A greater good

    Skeptics ask how we can believe in a good God in the midst of the trials and sorrows of this life. As I grow in my faith, as my relationship with Him deepens, as I get a little closer to understanding the enormity of what He’s done through Christ’s death and resurrection, I marvel over a different question: Why should this most perfect, most powerful, absolutely free God even care about me, much less make the greatest sacrifice possible so that I can have a relationship with Him?

    In comparison to that and to the consequences that it brings, the worst trouble imaginable is hardly worth mentioning. Not that the suffering is so trivial, but that this relationship with God is so very great.

    Until I can better grasp that, I will wallow in misery and self-pity. I will view my life from the world’s perspective and feel disappointed, cheated, bitter, angry. I will be unable to honestly say with Habakkuk, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, “I will be joyful in God my Savior.”

    Even as I write this, there’s that voice in my head that magnifies the physical and emotional pain and minimizes His presence. But Jesus is drawing me nearer to the faith of Habakkuk as I journey through this life in inseparable, unbreakable, eternal fellowship with the good, kind, gracious, generous, loving God of the universe because . . .

    He is risen!

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Crucifixion

Hearing the gospel

    Hearing the gospel for the first time as a teenager. No one’s good enough to please God, to deserve His favor, to earn a place in heaven on their own. It’s a radio program that I’ve stumbled across unintentionally. I certainly wouldn’t be seeking it out. The DJ plays current hits, applying certain themes to Jesus. His tender heart. His willingness to carry our burdens. His peace in our turmoil. That’s the part that gets me.

    Then comes the catch. He loves, He cares about every one of us, but there’s this separation between us. It’s called sin. No matter how hard I try, no matter how good I am, I will always fall so far short of the holiness of God that I cannot reach Him on my own. Without some kind of outside intervention, I’m headed for hell.

    I’m skeptical and offended. I’m not such a bad person. I am so much better than so many other people. Who does this preacher think he is, telling me I’m not good enough to go to heaven?

    But I listen. I tune in each week to hear the message again. And again. I like this Jesus who loves so deeply, so selflessly, so far beyond what any human being is capable of. For the next several months I weigh the arguments, consider the options. My thinking starts with “If God is who I think He is, then . . .”

    Then how perfect would He be? Absolutely perfect. Then how good would I have to be to satisfy Him? That’s a tougher question. Better than Hitler? That’s not too hard. Better than my best friend? Got that one beat. She misbehaves more than I do. But the evangelist insists that no matter how good I am compared to others, I can never be good enough for God.

    I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want to be humiliated like that. I’m good at lots of things. School, athletics, puzzles and games. If I set my mind on something, I can do it well. Better than just about anyone else that I know. Surely if I tried hard enough, I could earn God’s favor.

    But the preacher makes so much sense. If God is who I think He is, then He couldn’t simply accept me unless I’m morally perfect. I may be good, but I’m not that good. If God is who the DJ says He is, then He’s so loving and kind and compassionate that He would take the initiative to reach down to me since I’m unable to reach up to Him. If sin separates me from Him so completely and yet He loves me so dearly, then He would pay any price to make it possible for me to come to Him.

    And the only price that would be high enough would be the life of a perfect, completely innocent human being. That would be the most valuable thing in the universe. But the only way any human being could be perfect and completely innocent would be if He was also God. God the Son. Jesus. As I ponder it, I realize that it all makes sense. Eventually letting go of my pride as the conviction hits—yes, I believe. I start reading my Bible and going to church.

Satan's attack

    A few months later, a terrifying thought strikes out of nowhere. My faith depends entirely on that little “if.” If God is who I think He is. I’ve never doubted that. I’ve never questioned His existence, His character. Why not? What reason do I have to believe that He is, and that He is who He says He is? None.

    I stumble around in this agony of doubt, seeing no way out, trying to push it from my mind, trying to work up enough faith to overcome it, unwilling to express any of it to my new Christian friends for fear of rejection. I keep reading my Bible and going to church in an attempt to stifle it, to avoid it, to find my way through it.

God's response

    Then I come to Psalm 22 in my daily Bible reading. Verse 1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isn’t that what Jesus said on the cross (Matthew 27:46)?

    Verses 6 though 8: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’” That’s exactly what happened to Jesus in Matthew 27:39-44.

    Verses 14 and 15 could be a description of the effects of crucifixion: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.”

    Then the most amazing prophecy: “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (verse 18). John 19:23-24: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. ‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it.’”

    How can this be? How can David, writing many centuries before Jesus was born, describe in one Psalm so many aspects of the day we call Good Friday? It’s not possible. It’s not humanly possible.

    My faith is restored. Only God, the God I’ve grown up believing in, the God who reveals Himself in the Bible, could orchestrate such precise fulfillment of prophecy.

    All this happened to me years ago. Since that time, I’ve learned about many other prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the New. Faith doesn’t mean irrational belief in something that I know can’t be true. It doesn’t mean psyching myself up to believe when the doubts creep in. God didn’t give me a brain so I could turn it off when it comes to trusting in Him.

    Every year on Good Friday I celebrate the good God who reached down to me because I was incapable of reaching up to Him, who paid the highest possible price in order to bridge the great gulf between us, who saved me from an eternity of torment in hell. The One who led me to that radio program and to Psalm 22, who provided a solid foundation for my faith just when I needed it.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Lemmings

Idolizing overdoing

    Going through my collection of books. Reading some that I haven’t read before. (Or don’t remember reading before.) Getting rid of the ones I’ll never read. Signs of a growing awareness of my own aging.

    For some reason, being drawn to biographies. Notable Christians and famous Americans accomplishing great things. No one would write or read about ordinary people living within their ordinary limitations. But I sense a theme and it hurts. Every one of these people is on the go for fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Forget sleep. Forget relaxation. Forget vacations.

    How do their biographers deal with this? They generally start out with a sense of concern. She’s overdoing. He’s overstressing. She can’t go on like this. He’ll bring on a heart attack. They’re succumbing to the pressures from those around them to go, go, go, without regard for their own well-being. Following the rest of the lemmings and heading for a cliff.

    But the initial concern invariably turns to respect, admiration, adoration. Look what this person is accomplishing! For humanity, for God. What a great guy he is. What an amazing woman she’s become. The unspoken message: We should all follow the example of these fantastic role models.

My reaction

    Why does it hurt so much to read these stories? Because of my own limitations. My need for rest. My inability to keep up with this fast-paced world that I inhabit. If I can’t live up to these expectations no one will understand me, no one will like me, no one will approve of me.

    Why can’t I just be happy for those who’ve done so much? If I was really a good Christian, wouldn’t I rejoice in the accomplishments of others?

    I like to think that I’m mainly concerned about the harmful example that they’re setting. About the welfare of those who hear these stories, internalize the message, and miss God’s best because they’ve succumbed to the idea that what’s most important is to follow the American way and fill their hours with busyness.

    But I know I’m being envious and covetous and self-pitying. Envying their energy, coveting their accomplishments. Lord, help me to overcome these sins, to minister to others by building them up. Not tearing down, even in my thoughts, those You’ve blessed with great achievements.

    At the same time, Christian authors have been warning us for decades that being too busy is often a sign of being out of God’s will, not in it. Books in my home library: Little House on the Freeway: Help for the Hurried Home, Tim Kimmel, 1987; The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits, Richard A. Swenson, 1998. I feel better reading these, nodding my head and saying, “Yes! Yes! It’s bad to do too much. It’s okay that I take so much time to relax each day. God is on my side.”

God's design

    And yet we (I) get such satisfaction and fulfillment from doing something worthwhile, especially if it ministers to someone else. God made us this way. We’re designed to be doing and going and exploring and building. Adam was put to work in the Garden of Eden even before the Fall (Genesis 2:15). There can be good in this busyness that we all engage in.

    But I don’t think anyone would deny that we Americans take it too far. Reporters reveal how much unused vacation time we amass each year. One of the saddest reports that I’ve read (thought I’d saved the article, but can’t find it to give the reference here), says that many millennial Christians feel like worthless failures if they haven’t changed the world by the time they’re 21.

    What are we doing to our young people, that their self-expectations are so impossibly high? What kind of message are we sending them? And what kind of suffering are we causing them?

    The message: You’re not good enough if you’re not triumphing, succeeding, moving mountains. People won’t notice you, love you, appreciate you if you’re not on the go 24/7, achieving the impossible, sacrificing your all. The most dangerous message: God won’t either. The common thread behind all the biographies seems to be a fear that no one can earn other people’s love, or God’s love, unless they drive themselves relentlessly. No room for grace. They’re not just doing all this for the fun of it. But works-based Christianity is not Christianity at all.

    The suffering: Physical and emotional symptoms of stress, burnout, exhaustion. Guilt, self-criticism, even self-hatred if they’re not measuring up to the high level of activity admired and applauded by the traditional media and aggravated even more by social media. Depression. Anxiety. Turning to drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol in order to cope with the pressure.

    How much is too much? I don’t know. This week’s lesson in my Bible study group stresses the fact that, other than moral laws and general principles that cover everyone, God’s will for me isn’t God’s will for each person. I need to remember this. I am not your Holy Spirit, responsible for telling you how to spend your time.

    Maybe it’s right and best for people like Mother Teresa to sacrifice for long hours every day. Maybe it’s right and best for others (like me) to be content to live within our limitations. It’s definitely right and best for each of us to seek God’s will, to sacrifice as He calls us to, to slow down when that is His clear leading.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be reading these biographies.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Good Soil

My view of good soil

    Thought I understood the parable Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13 about a farmer planting his crops. Maybe not. Or at least not as well as I’d imagined.

    Verse 3: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Jesus describes the various types of dirt that it falls on, along with the results, culminating with, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (verse 8). The seed fails to produce any fruit in the other locations.

    What does this good soil look like? I’ve always pictured it as being something like me when I became a Christian: eager to learn, ready to commit my life to God, promising to follow wherever He might lead. Putting my talents at His disposal. A pretty good person who nevertheless recognizes that she’s not quite good enough to earn her salvation. She accepts her need for the sacrificial atonement that Jesus provides, but somewhere deep inside she kinda feels like God’s getting a special deal having her on His side. She’s good soil. Isn’t that what He’s looking for?

    Maybe not.

Jesus' view of good soil

    I can’t believe it’s taken me more than forty years to realize this. How many times have I read Jesus’ words as He says things like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28)? Would good soil feel weary and burdened? Or “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Is He really saying that the sick and the sinners are the good soil that He’s looking for? How do you grow fruit in that kind of dirt?
    I’ve known for many years that God has a heart for the broken, the lost, the suffering (Psalm 51:17, Deuteronomy 10:18, Matthew 25:31-46, to give just a few examples). That’s one of the characteristics that drew me to Him in the first place. But I never really applied that to this parable about the farmer. Doesn’t Jesus also say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)? Aren’t we supposed to delay that decision to follow Him until we know we can do it well? Until we’ve at least partially earned a place in heaven by being good soil?

    Maybe the question is: Which comes first, sowing the seed on that which is already good soil, or denying ourselves and taking up our crosses? I guess I’ve always assumed that the good soil was that which was ready and eager to take up its cross even before the seed was sown. The soil that deserved to be saved. But maybe I’ve got it backward. Maybe the richest dirt is broken, hurting, damaged sinners. Maybe it’s not until after we receive new life from God through Jesus that we’re able to deny ourselves. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit, who has now come to live within us, that makes it possible for us to support the crosses that we carry.

    Was I really so eager and willing to give my all for Him at the moment of my conviction that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)? No. I came to Him solely for what He would do for me. I just wanted to go to heaven. No altruism, no passionate commitment, no denouncing the stuff of the world to follow Him alone. Those kinds of things came later. After the Holy Spirit entered my heart. My “good soil” wasn’t good as I would define goodness.

    Maybe the unfruitful soils are actually those who don’t realize just how broken and unworthy they are. The encounter Jesus had with Simon, a Pharisee who invited Him into his home, helps me understand it better. Jesus started the conversation:

    “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

    Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

    “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said (Luke 7:41-43).

Reaching the lost

    Maybe the best soil is the one with the greatest debt canceled at the cross. The dirtiest, meanest sinners. The ones I hesitate to even approach.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how believers could do a better job of reaching the lost. I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if we focused more on the good soil, rather than scattering the seed somewhat randomly. Wouldn’t we get better results? Wouldn’t we be more likely to develop dedicated disciples, rather than just winning lukewarm converts?

    But I don’t think I would be very good at identifying that dirt. I’d want to go to the people who seem to have their act together and are just waiting for someone to invite them into the club. I’d walk right by the ones who owe the biggest debt. The ones who would love their forgiver the most. The good soil that would produce an abundant crop.