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Friday, October 25, 2019

Bad Boy!

    “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).

    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).

    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?

    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

    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.

    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.

    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.