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Friday, August 23, 2019

Speaking the Truth in Love

    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?

    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.

    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?

    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).

    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.

    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.